Doing Things with Stories: Editorial

Click here to read the Introduction to Doing Things with Stories

In his extraordinary re-telling of an old Indian myth in his play Nagamandala, Girish Karnad introduces the setting of an old village temple, where after the hour of sleep, as lamps have been extinguished, the flames come together to gossip about what has happened in the houses. The flames exchange news and stories, turning the everydayness of love, longing, jealousy and pain into narratives of significance, bearing testimonies to the small things that punctuate our human lives that are quickly forgotten in the tedium and toil of living.

As the flames joyfully recreate the stories, interrupted by questions, blended with intent, and changing them when scrutinised, a shiny sparkly entity, in black and silver sequins, walks into the temple. The flames are curious about this stranger and ask her who she is.

The entity reveals herself to be a story—a story that has been trapped inside the throat of a person who swallowed it and refused to let it out. It is a story that is finally freed by gruesomely killing the person who had locked it in as a secret. It is a story that has leaped out of that embodied prison and is now roaming wild, waiting to be told, because that is what a story is for—for the telling.

Karnad’s play is about stories and the need to tell them. It is about secrets, and malice, and the pain of a story untold, the tragedy of a story half-buried, the silence of a story that is known but not revealed. Nagamandala deals with fantasies and fiction of a snake that turns himself into a man for the love of a woman, and the humans who turn into poisonous judges for the hatred of a woman’s independence and desires. It is an extraordinary thesis on how stories shape worlds, alter realities, and create space for truths which are more than and less than the mere human, who is often installed as the owner of stories but mostly is just another trope in a narrative that exceeds singular ownership and verified versions.

What do we do with stories? We tell them. As Donna Haraway points out so poignantly and poetically in Staying with the Trouble:

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories. 1

But in their telling, we recognise that stories stay hidden unless somebody tells them. For every story told, there are many that go untold, unheard, unspoken. For every story that finds its way to talk to the flames, there are stories that remain hidden, silenced, imprisoned. It is important for stories to be told, because the world creates itself in stories. And because the creation of the world is a political act—one of power, control, and freedom—who gets to tell stories has been up for continuous negotiation and contestation.

The author—that mythical thing of creativity and genius—has been carefully crafted and craftily created to naturalise only certain modes of telling stories, to validate only certain bodies at worthy of being storified, to accept only those stories that retell the world as we know it, from people like us. While everybody might have a story hidden in them, it is a few who get to claim authorship, and when new kinds of authors arrive, they are questioned about their rights to bear authorship—or the question of their authority.

This is particularly clear when we focus on a particular kind of a story—the story as an intervention in a state of crisis. We do not define this intervention. The story can be a witness, a revelation, a provocation, an invitation, a reflection, a pause, a shield, a defence. The story does not have to carry the function of engaging with the crisis overtly or explicitly. Stories might need crises, but crises definitely need stories. It is important to realise that every known crisis is both produced by the stories that sustain and support it, and is understood by the stories that critique and resist it.

In the current times that we live in—in this beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in times of crises. Be it the planetary crisis of global warming and mass-extinction, a global pandemic, uncontrollable misinformation threatening the social and intimate fabrics of connections, or the ongoing threat of radical populist and anti-democratic political forces that have been gaining strength all over the Western hemisphere.2

The narration of our contemporary life is based on making continued choices—pinch, scroll, zoom, flick, like, share, upvote, send—in this manner we collectively gather and decide how to retell an ongoing proliferation of stories that hold notions of crises and threat at their heart. However, as we pursue such collective modes of story-curation we seem to return, again and again, to our modes of doom-scrolling, which, offering neither a resolution nor a catharsis, leave us with a sense of dread.

As Geert Lovink argues, ‘On paper our global challenges look enormous; on screen they fail to be translated into our everyday life. Instead of facing the titanic forces right in the eye, we’re numbed, bittersweet, absent-minded, quirky, and sometimes straight-out depressed.’3 Stories, that were meant to liberate, emancipate, entertain, cajole, soothe and engage us in building words of hope and action, have ushered in an age where ‘“we,” the human heirs of Western post-modernity, are increasingly burnt out and fatigued, while “they”—the technological artefacts we brought into being—are smarter and more alive than ever.’4

Doing Things with Stories is an activist-artist residency and research initiative hosted by ArtEZ University of the Arts, Radboud University, and Oxfam-Novib to think about the relationship between stories, crises, and building future worlds. Conceptualised through dialogues between the exhaustive work on Narrative Change and Power by Isabelle Crabtree-Condor, the emerging research on digital story-telling and communities of practice by Nishant Shah, and the educational and pedagogic theories of Edwin van Meerkerk, the project admits to the boundaries and limits of story-telling that has been offered as a way of addressing and resolving contemporary crises. It instead proposes that we think more about the direction, intention, and intensity of how we tell stories that break the circuits of doom, gloom and despair in our everyday practices.

Working with ten global residents, through the distanced worlds of Covid-19 lockdowns and immobility, connected through geographies and time-zones by technologies of trapped expressions, and drawing from the experience and knowledge of communities disaffected and detached in the suspicion of touch and proximity, this project was at once an endorsement of the digital networks of connection and a lament on the limitations of living on the screens. And yet, despite the disembodied conversations and the more than fragile bodily circumstances that we were all working through, we recognised that we need to stop asking and focusing on how we tell stories, and instead examine and invest in what we do with the stories, once they have been told.

We recognise this shift as a ‘narrative change’ that disrupts the social media blackhole of constantly telling new stories and creating content, and instead asks for slowness, deliberation, and collective entanglements of story-telling; to think about how we can position stories as revelation, provocations, and manifestos for building futures that are hopeful, collective, and oriented towards owning, sharing, and proliferating stories that harness the affordances of our digital networks without succumbing to the techno fetishism or fatalism that have framed the limits of our engagement and imagination with how we tell the stories that matter, about things that are important, towards possibility horizons of collective action.

The contributions from narrative change practitioners around the globe and the incisive and reflective notes that accompany them from the resident experts who formed the core of this project, help give materiality and shape to these ideas that we are proposing. As you traverse through this collection, each contribution will provoke and question how we see things, revealing our own complicity in perpetuating lazy narratives, and destabilising our aesthetic functions in framing and understanding narratives. The contributions move in multiple directions at the same time, refusing to create a definitive or singular view-point and offering a continuous oscillation of possibilities that refuse to be resolved into a coherent form. This is by design.

It is a design that not only emphasises stories as layered but also as densely packed ideation relays where prompts lead to productions which become prompts in themselves. In our call for applications for global residencies, we asked for narrative change practitioners to come and co-create narrative shifts that are critically, affectively, and politically urgent in their own communities of practice.

Click here to see the poster for DTWS Residency Call 

Over a year, we worked with the residents, facilitating, curating, crafting, and conjuring different formats, interventions, conversations and critiques, in order to produce resources that can serve as invitations for narrative change makers to rethink and develop their practice. The learnings from these mentored resources led to an immersive participation that saw 25 young artists, researchers, and activists, work together to consolidate these ideas and give them local and material significance.

Click here to see the poster for DTWS Local Participation Intensive

At the same time, these mentored resources also became the springboard for the global participation that led to the contributions that populate this book, again co-created as a response to the learnings but also mentored by the residents whose work was the inspiration point.

This dense and intricate layering and entanglement means that each contribution is both a reflection on what we have learned together and also a deviation of our original learning into new directions and different communities of lived experience. The stories are bound together through particular genesis points but they queer, challenge, and pervert these originary stories, creating fractured kaleidoscopes of different and unexpected visions. Each story is a window into a different universe, and in their points of departure and local rootedness they eschew all editorial attempts at creating a ‘central narrative’ that strings them together.

To let them exist, in their disjointedness, without the pretention of a grand narrative or a common motif was a choice that reflects and endorses the varied and variegated nature of this entire process. It is a challenge for us, as editors, to lose control, and accept that the contributions far exceed the sum total of our editorial interpretations and prompts. Our prompts produced these contributions, but these contributions are now prompts into worlds that we cannot pretend to theorise, understand, or reconcile.

Hence, we do not attempt to accessorise, annotate, or contextualise these contributions. We let the voices of the artists, researchers, practitioners and experts do that in their own unique ways. And instead, we do highlight three trends that help us understand what we can do with these 17 stories and what they do with the worlds that they constitute and constituted by.

Design: Kseniia Anokhina and Magda Castriá

Worlding Stories

While these contributions are not necessarily addressing digital media and ubiquitous story-telling on social networks directly, they are all being attentive to specific forms of interactive sociality and communication, which are seen as the central mediators of story-telling in our times. Thus, they are aware of how our narratives are produced through a ‘dialectical circulation of meaning’5 and that these dialectics are no longer purely between the medium’s message and its human recipient.6 They write in the age where our media, mediations, and meditations are all designed by algorithmic interventions that shape, in conjunction with our devices and interfaces, new world orders within which these narratives make sense.

In many different ways, because of this artifice of meaning making and narrative circulation, almost all the contributions are reminding us that stories are a way of worlding. Herman’s influential idea of narratives as a practice of world-building or world-building in which the recipient of a story tends to form their own mental representations of the narrative in their mind,7takes a new iteration in this idea of ‘worlding.’

Instead of thinking about the story as capturing a message that gets interpreted by the recipient, creating a common set of signifiers that hold the message together, these contributions remind us that narratives have to be rescued from significance and be moved back to enchantment. Instead of focusing on scale, virality, spread, and share, they are proposing conditions of intensity and wonder as new ways of worlding. No longer relying on interpretation and its emergent and consequent conditions of polarising, we are instead confronted with the idea that the story is way more than the convergence and consolidation of the world. Worlding stories is an attempt to stop the imperative of revelation—stories as literal renditions of an experience—and offer them as repair,8 care,9 and intra-action,10 so that narrative practice takes responsibility for healing rather than breaking.

While algorithms perform the function of world building, and virality promises to make the world, in all its brokenness, anew, worlding offers a different entry point: one which takes the form of reparative, regenerative,11 and re-reading practices, where our voices converge in order to create a future world rather than just cacophonously reveal the one of our discontents. Orienting the narratives towards hope and inviting others to join in, to hold and share the narrative beyond the perpetuation of the present, offers a new possibility of worlding stories that we find powerful in these contributions.

Find all 17 stories below:

Narrative Change Practice Story, by Eliud Akanga

Shadow Reverie, by Rini Alphonsa Joseph

DTwS, by Arjun Bali

The Blind Oracle, by Sofia Batalha

The Other Side of the River, by Can Bora

Alchemic Transmutations, by Neha Chaturvedi

The Mask That Saved My Career, by Michael Chijioke Ukwuma

Imagining a Ministry for the Future, by Bethany Copsey

A Day in the Sun, by Lekhetho David Sefate

65. Curtains, by Astrid Feringa and Lindsay Stegenga

Taking Charge of their Own Narratives, by Doel Jaikishen

The Missing Diary of the Portrait of Lisa and Ella, by Wegh James Jiryila

, by Deborah Johnson

The Genesis, Cynthia Nwajiobi

Heal the Word, Amit Palgi

Carriers of Dil, by Anita Zehra and Shabbir Mohammed

Gauteng Maboneng, Jozi, My Home, by Nokuzola Zingithwa 

Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is a feminist, humanist, technologist whose work examines infrastructures, collectivity, and subjectivity in the digital turn. He is the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, India. He is also the Director of Research and Outreach and Professor of Aesthetics and Culture of Technologies at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands, as well as a Knowledge Partner for the global art-technology think-tank Digital Earth Fellowship, and a mentor on the Feminist Internet Research Network. His book Really Fake will is published by Minnesota University Press in 2021. 

Lukas Beckenbauer

Lukas Beckenbauer is a producer and VP and co-founder of Reel Motion Impact – a non-profit organization to facilitate feature films, documentaries, and shorts that promote sustainable and social change. Lukas studied Media Studies, Data Analysis, Social Science, and Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam and the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. He is a Junior Research Fellow at ArtEZ, where he works to understand what exactly drives social change narratives.

↑ 1

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016).

↑ 4

Braidotti 2019.

↑ 8

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

↑ 9

Sarah Ahmed, ‘Happy Objects,’ in The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, pp. 29–51 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

↑ 10

Karen Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.3 (2003): pp. 801–31.

↑ 11

Ahmed 2010.