Breaking through the Noise

Last week we launched the Living Machine, our most recent art project – a mobile art environment. Rebecca and the Wise Fools Choir had prepared several performances for the occasion. The first was a slow version of the old Child ballad the House Carpenter (click here for Rebecca’s post on this song).

Because the song is quite quiet and was to be performed in the busy drop-in, I suggested we have someone with a loud booming voice introduce them in the hopes of grabbing people’s attention as long as we could. Rebecca had a different idea: “I was thinking we would walk in together, sit in our chairs and begin to sing” she told me. When it was time, the choir emerged from the basement wearing white robes, entered the drop-in and found their seats around the stage area. Then they began to sing beautifully, listening carefully to one another and their confidence increased with every line.

Staff in the offices upstairs emerged along the stairwell, groups of people moved closer to hear them better and a gentled quiet took over the room – unusual for the drop-in – except as one member said to me – when people were eating.

The experience reminded me of something Ira Glass said in a talk given at the 2007 Gel Conference. Despite the fact that “This American Life” is about to broadcast its 500th episode and is into its 17th year, Leah and I only discovered it about a year ago. Since then we have managed to make through much of the episode archives and have become huge fans. Although the program began as an experiment in micro-journalism, exploring stories and moments ignored by almost anyone, since 9/11 Glass and his team have increased their scope to include the political and systemic, they have learned to moved effortlessly – and technically awe-inspiringly – between the micro and the macro, while finding the truly human behind every twist and turn.

In his speech, Glass begins describing his approach to storytelling, something he has done elsewhere. He also applies a moving retelling of Scheherazade and 1001 Nights in order to share the importance of storytelling. But it is his conclusion that I think of most often. He tells us that not only are we surrounded by stories, we are also drowning in them with various media bodies veying for our attention. But as he says, there is something about the heart felt story that can cut through the noise – whether it is in the drop-in or in the contemporary media-verse – and have people listen to one another.

It is something Ira Glass and his team does delightfully at “This American Life” and it is what we strive to do at Making Room with the Living Machine, the Wise Fools and other such projects.

I’ve included a transcript of his beautiful conclusion here:

“I think what it’s about, among other things, this story, is that it is about the power of narrative. How narrative itself is a back door into a very deep place inside of us. And a place where reason doesn’t necessarily hold sway. When a story gets inside of us, it makes us less crazy… There have been stories in the news about, I don’t know, about Al Qaeda, but until you meet someone who actually joined al Qaeda, until that moment, you don’t even know what you are talking about. There has to be a person’s story that you get in your head – this is what it would be like to be that person. Or this is what is going on in Baghadad right now. This is what it would be like to be that soldier in Baghdad. This is the situation right now.  This is why, if I was a Suni, why I would hate the Shia and vice versa. Until that moment you know nothing, and everything about you as a person, deals with the information you are given in a flawed way. All of us in this room live in a very particular cultural moment, where we are bambarded by more narrative than anyone who has ever lived. I can’t remember the playwright who said this, but the last few decades, we are the first people to see actors perform on a stage on a daily basis. You know? And for us, it is even more so.  Every story on the web is a narrative, every ad is narrative, everything on television of course is a narrative, every song is a narrative. And it is narrative, narrative, narrative all day long.

“Speaking for myself, I have to say, the thing that characterizes most of those stories, is that they are yelling at us a little bit. That they are yelling at us and trying to get our attention. And trying to pierce through all the noise of the narrative. And because they are yelling, it gives them, not only a shrillness, but a falseness. Like they have to sell us the story.”

“We just started doing our show as a show on television, and one of the things about stories of  real people on television is that the people are never really at human scale. They are either like specimens, little bugs on the side to illustrate big social principles, or something that is happening in the news. Or they are props in a fake drama on a reality show. And no knock on those shows, I love those shows, but there has to be an entire apparatus set up.”

“And one of the rarest things, is to actually encounter somebody in a story around us, in the bombardment of stories – to encounter someone where you actually feel, oh my god, that is how I feel, that is actually what it feels like to be that person. Actually to imagine yourself as that person. It’s just incredibly rare. And when it happens, you totally notice. And it can happen in the oddest places.”

“There is a television show that my wife has me watching now, that has exactly the same plot, every single week, beat for beat, and when you go to the first commercial break, it is the same, when you go the next commercial break it is the same, when you go to the third commercial break it is the same. It is this television show called “House”, have you seen this? And I don’t understand why she watches it, except, but I do understand, because there is something in the actor who plays that actor, that seems so real to both of us. That, simply, to watch someone inhabit, that attitude which seems real, is enough for us to sit through the biggest crap of storytelling that ever there was. Do you know what I mean? It is simply contrived as a show. But there is something actually human and alive in it because of him, in a way that you almost never see. When it happens, it is rare and you notice. I think that is important, I think it is rare and important to do and that is why we try to do it on our show.”

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