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Hello Trees - Daily Tous les Jours
Hello Trees, Houston, TX, USA. 2017. Credit: Daily Tous les Jours

PHI Perspectives: Storytelling and Technology

  • Interview
  • PHI Centre
By  Matthieu Carlier

As technology and storytelling are increasingly linked within emerging forms of expression, it becomes difficult to distinguish between them. Which one acts in the service of the other? And for what purpose? As part of PHI Perspectives, a series of commented videos on how we imagine the future and its challenges, we try to answer these questions in order to see together the horizon of modern storytelling.

Mouna Andraos and Melissa Mongiat are the founders and directors of Daily Tous les Jours, a Montreal-based art and design studio that develops collective experiences in the public space. Situated at the crossroads of technology and poetic momentum, they seemed to us ideal interlocutors to discuss contemporary forms of narrative.

PHI: Can you explain to us the principles of Daily Tous les jours and what led you to favour the collective aspect in your experiences?

Melissa Mongiat: We come from an environment that combines technology, design and narration. By working with interactive technology, very quickly we were led to work in the public space, because that's where people are. This allowed for more interaction and storytelling. It is the best and the worst audience: at the beginning, people do not want to participate, but when a change takes place in them, it is the most rewarding feeling of all because it is born out of a certain difficulty. We create magical contexts to encourage human-to-human and human-to-environment connections.

Mouna Andraos: The studio’s passion is to create opportunities for conversation between people and potentially between people who would not necessarily exchange. Each project is an invitation to meet and interact with each other. Then why the collective? We are guided by the joy of seeing people coming together. The opportunity for humans to share these experiences makes them more connected and empathetic to one another.

MM: We often quote the American philosopher Michael Sandel, who says that the essential thing for a democracy is not equality, but to ensure that people of all walks of life can meet in everyday life. That's kind of what motivates us.

"We are guided by the joy of seeing people coming together. The opportunity for humans to share these experiences makes them more connected and empathetic to one another."

P: Since 2010 and the creation of Daily tous les jours, have you noticed an evolution in the level of interactions that people can have, particularly because of technological advances?

MM: Of course, in the beginning it was something new for people, to be able to set off chain reactions with a simple movement. Today we're more used to it. There's so much to do in the public space.

MA: We continue to think about invitations that are clear to the public, so that they can engage in the work in some way. In this sense, inspiration is always sought outside the world of technology, to create a world familiar to all, where technology and screens are part of the universe and are as invisible as possible.

Which came first: technology or storytelling? | PHI Perspectives

"Inspiration is always sought outside the world of technology, to create a world familiar to all."

P: Do you manage, within these collaborative experiences, to bring the participants to have sociological and ethical questions?

MM: Depends on the projects . Some bring participants to express themselves, to take part in a dialogue . I am thinking in particular of the Rewrite the Year project, in 2011, which asked the participants to rewrite newspaper headlines.

MA: For us, collaboration has transformative and social potential because of the bonds it creates. We like to tell the story of the Musical Swings, with which we have travelled from city to city, especially in North America where cities have a lot of social inequalities. This project, because of its universality, is very unifying. We spent a month and a half in West Palm Beach, one of the richest centres in the United States but also with a very poor population. There we were struck by a conversation in which a young man of barely 20 years of age said to us: "You who come from outside do not have the keys to recognize the codes in the same way as we do, but we know who is who and where he comes from, and we know that we never see each other. We're never in the same places. With the swings, you have managed to create a place where we are all together." For him it was something very special and important.

MM: It's the power of the public space. One has no choice but to be confronted with other people, rather than confine oneself to one's close network.

P: In that sense, in what ways do you think technology has been, can and will be able to help in the development of new narratives?

MM: I like to use the term magical realism, in which everything is possible. You can just as easily make a paving stone talk as you can turn your voice into music or make a person act in an unexpected way. It's one of the forms we push.

MA: Even though we like to rely on narration and stories told in the old-fashioned way, we depart considerably from classical narratives. With technology and new forms of interaction, we arrive at a completely different definition of history.

MM: I studied at the Central Saint Martins Narrative Environment (in London), where the notion that every space tells a story is instilled. You can create courses with a contextual setting, heroes, monsters in a park, for example. Depending on how the space is divided or designed, it is brought to life in one way or another according to the narrative. In this sense, we are disruptive elements within a space that already tells a story. It's a story within a story.

Musical Swings - Daily Tous les Jours
Musical Swings, Montreal, Quebec. 2011. Credit: Daily Tous les Jours

P: Can we say in this case that the environment itself becomes history?

MM: Yes. I'm thinking in particular of Hello Trees, which is a device for communicating with trees. In this case the tree is a protagonist, which responds very slowly (Laughter). And in the case of swings, the air becomes a protagonist.

P: The futurist Ted Schilowitz, who intervenes in the video below, puts forward the idea that technology and storytelling can advance together towards a constructive human experience on one condition: that technology acts as a support, and not as a main element. What do you think? Do you always put history before technology?

MA: It's difficult to argue otherwise. The ability to tell stories is what distinguishes us from other species, as Harari (in his book Sapiens) writes. In practice, for us, it's a dialogue: we're creators first and foremost, and then there's this incredible modelling clay that we play with and that mobilizes another part of the brain.

MM: In terms of technology, we're a little agnostic. It is rare that we use the same technology in all our projects. And each time, technology only illustrates how far we can go in our imagination: we can make everything talk, we can synchronize...

MA: We have a project in which a building tells its story in real time, with information captured on site. There's a lot of prototyping as well, and that's where this dialogue with technology comes in: we develop the stories, then we go out and get the technology we need, and then we adjust our vision.

"The ability to tell stories is what distinguishes us from other species."

P: Precisely, about this adaptive and evolutionary side, can it happen that a project goes out of your control, according to the interactions, to become something completely independent?

MM: Yes, it's also part of the process, and that's the most rewarding part of it: seeing people interact in ways that we wouldn't have imagined ourselves.

MA: Narrative is also what people tell themselves when they experience a work. And there too, often they will tell their experience in a completely different way than we had planned. With Musical Swings, from the very first year, we wanted to set up a collaborative exercise and the swing was a simple interface so that people could understand what they had to do and participate with their bodies. Then, of course, people started telling stories about their childhoods. There was a whole romantic side to this reunion with the swing. It has become like a parallel narrative, the reason why this work touches people. And that wasn't our intention at all in the beginning.

MM: The therapeutic side too, with the pendulum movement.

MA: Yes, that's right ...

MM: I'm also thinking of a project in San Francisco, with musical traffic lights. The original idea was to connect the two sides of Market Street, to create an invisible bridge for both sides of the street. People were asked what they saw in this project while it was still being installed, and it's crazy, the vocabulary they used to define the project was the same as ours. Some already saw it as a bridge connecting both sides of the street.

P: Returning to the human aspect, in a time of forced social distancing, how can technology help us to create together human experiences of empathy, art and exchange?

MM: In the beginning, it was a really anxiety-provoking time. Suddenly, gathering together became dangerous. We had to give up the public space. But in the end, technology can help us to better come together, and in some ways become even more human by amplifying our ability to come together, to do things together. So maybe we're going to get to something that will be better than before, with sustainable, pleasant cities, where you can do everything while walking.

MA: Technology will help us find ourselves in physical space and amplify our voices, gestures, messages, our ability to do things together. Technology will be a major player to help us find ourselves elsewhere than through our screens.

MM: At the moment we are very much in demand for projects such as Giant Sing Along, which consists of a musical installation that allows people to sing together. In this case, it's as if technology is bridging the distance between humans.

MA: Two movements are emerging: closing in on oneself or collaborating, and this is at all levels: governments, borders, science, community, etc. But our DNA leads us to believe that what will remain is collaboration.

Giant Sing Along - Daily Tous les Jours
Giant Sing Along, Gold Coast, Australia. 2018. Credit: Daily Tous les Jours

P: In the 1930s, the German biologist Jakob Johann Von Uexküll modified photographic plates in an attempt to understand the vision of flies and, more broadly, that of parallel worlds. How do you use the systems at your disposal to make difficult worlds understandable?

MM: It still reminds me of Hello Trees, which allows you to connect with a completely foreign world. With a splendid canopy of hundred-year-old oak trees in the middle of a city centre, people are led to pay attention to a world they would not normally have stopped at. They are invited to send messages to the trees, which gradually turn into musical notes and the whole thing becomes an improvised concerto.

MA: Our vision of technology is that there are always humans behind it, with their ideas and ways of looking at the world.

P: Following the example of the Bandersnatch episode of the TV series Black Mirror, which allows the viewer to decide the fate of the protagonist, do you think that technology will lead to more participatory and interactive forms of storytelling? Or do you think it will remain important to be guided?

MA: Why should we choose? For twenty years now, people have been telling us that cinema, books and linear art are dead, and in the end, cohabitation is still possible. Video games are closer to cinema, cinema is closer to video games. We have a wealth of experiences at our disposal. I think there's something wonderful about being passive, about being told stories.

MM: Maybe the interactive side is a way to push engagement and immersion. But that's not all. There was an idea of democracy that came with the interactive format; it's still there, it's still beautiful, but it may be a little false.

MA: I think it's also important to have the choice, if you want to, to sit in the back seat and observe. Then return to the front seat at any time.

PHI Perspectives

PHI Perspectives consists of a series of conferences with influential figures organized by the PHI Centre, every iteration sharing a common ambition—to re-evaluate our age-old systems, and to propose a shift in established models. Each event will act as material for videos on contemporary issues, commented by Cheryl Sim, Managing Director and Curator at the PHI Foundation. A journey through evolving thoughts, between theory and change, balancing technology and narration, and producing knowledge for future generations.

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