Winners of the 2019 Digital Dozens: Breakthrough Storytelling Awards
BY Zoe Contros Kearl, May 8, 2019
On April 3, 2019 at 6pm, the Digital Storytelling Lab (DSL) hosted its fourth-annual Breakthroughs in Storytelling awards at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in Lincoln Center. The awards Program recognizes the DSL’s Digital Dozen of 2019, which is “a curated list of the most innovative examples of digitally enabled storytelling in 2018,” spanning across disciplines such as “cinema, video, journalism, advertising, marketing, games, art, fiction and theater.” Projects selected for the Digital Dozen are ones that “best exemplify the spirit of inventiveness at work today” and use digital technologies to tell powerful, timely, and immersive stories.
The Digital Dozen winners of the Breakthrough in Storytelling Awards for 2019 include 1 The Road, Au-delà des limites, The Collider, Gris, Healing Spaces, The Horrifically Real Virtuality, JFK Unsilenced, The Lockdown, Queerskins: A Love Story, The Structure Of Stand-Up Comedy, WDCH Dreams, and Where The Water Tastes Like Wine.
Receiving the lab’s top honor, the Breakthrough Award, was WDCH Dreams, an AI-enabled data visualization that for 10 consecutive nights last fall was projected onto the exterior of the LA Philharmonic’s spectacular, Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
Two other AI-driven projects were named to the Digital Dozen as well, suggesting that for the first time, computer intelligence is beginning to make a significant contribution to human storytelling.
The presence of three AI-enabled projects in a single year is a new turn for the awards program. WDCH Dreams, commissioned by the LA Phil to celebrate the start of its 100th season, used machine learning techniques to transmute the orchestra’s archives—nearly 45 terabytes of data—into a highly kinetic work of art that draws from the organization’s past to project into the future. 1 the Road, which like WDCH Dreams was supported by Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program, is a road novel generated by an artificial neural network as it traveled by car from New York to New Orleans. JFK Unsilenced, created by the Dublin agency Rothco for The Times of London, used a neural network to analyze audio recordings of President Kennedy and then generate the speech he was about to give at the Dallas Trade Mart when he was assassinated. In the awards’ three previous years, only one AI-related project has been named to the Digital Dozen.
WDCH Dreams was created by Refik Anadol, a Turkish-American artist based in Los Angeles, in collaboration with Google AMI, independent researcher Parag Mital, and sound designers Robert Thomas and Kerim Karaoglu. Working with nearly 588,000 images, 40,000 hours of audio recordings, and 1,880 videos from the LA Phil’s archives, Anadol and his team collected millions of data points that were sorted and analyzed by neural networks which created new connections between them. In this way, the LA Phil’s “memories” became the basis for stunning data sculptures that were projected onto the concert hall’s soaring, stainless-steel superstructure.
1 the Road was a similarly ambitious project, an attempt by Ross Goodwin, a self-described “gonzo data scientist” and former Obama-administration speechwriter, to build and train an AI that could write about its travels. He then mounted an omni-directional surveillance camera on a Google-provided Cadillac, hooked it up to a GPS receiver, and installed a microphone to record the conversations between him and his companions. The AI took this data and churned out sentence after sentence—much of it nonsense, some of it hallucinatory, more than a little of it seemingly profound. “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy,” the resulting book begins.
“I fully understand that writing machines like these could be used for more nefarious purposes, such as deception or propaganda,” says Goodwin. “And I want people now to look at these patterns, and to learn how to recognize them. Because if you see anything that reminds you of ‘1 the Road’ in a magazine or book or on a website sometime in the near or distant future, it may not have been written by a human, and we should all be aware of that.”
The 2019 Digital Dozen’s third AI-driven project, JFK Unsilenced, is entirely different. Commissioned by The Times of London as part of its “Find Your Voice” marketing campaign, it was created by Rothco, a Dublin-based Accenture Interactive agency, with the help of Edinburgh text-to-speech company CereProc. Scientists and technicians from the two companies spent eight weeks dissecting 831 speeches and interviews given by President Kennedy in order to piece together the startlingly realistic address. The result was well received at last year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the ad industry event, though for all its technical accomplishment it did cause some discomfort. “Just because technology can do something, should it? That was something that was a debate at times,” Marc Maleh, jury president and global director of Havas, said at the time.
The Digital Storytelling Lab’s Special Jury Prize, awarded at the discretion of the nominating committee, went to Queerskins: A Love Story, a physical installation and virtual reality film that puts you in the back seat of a car driven by the deeply religious parents of a young man who has just died of AIDS. Created by Illya Szilak, an interactive storyteller who is also a physician specializing in HIV, and Cyril Tsiboulski, co-founder and creative director of the interactive design studio Cloudred, the project gains much of its emotional impact from this interplay of the digital and the physical.
“There is an incredibly potent alchemy that happens when you mix the real and the virtual,” says Szilak. “Your relationship to the objects, for example a Christian cross or a Tom of Finland pictorial, determines how you will reconstruct the man who has died. Was he a ‘good’ man as his mother says or a ‘disgrace’ like his father thinks—or maybe just human like the rest of us?”
Founded and directed by Lance Weiler, the Digital Storytelling Lab’s mission is “ to explore new forms and functions of storytelling while encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration, focused specifically on the ways in which story can be harnessed as a tool to innovate, educate, mobilize, communicate, and entertain.” Frank Rose, a Senior Fellow at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and Faculty Director of the executive education seminar in Strategic Storytelling, is also a member of the Digital Storytelling Lab. Rose was a part of the committee that selected the Digital Dozen and the Special Jury Prize. We spoke with Rose to learn more about the upcoming award.
What criteria did the Digital Storytelling Lab have in mind for selecting the Digital Dozen?
The key criterion is innovation. Each project should represent some sort of move forward. It's not enough to tell a story really, really well in a familiar format. You have to break new ground somehow. And it has to be digitally enabled. That doesn't mean it has to be viewed through a smartphone or in a headset. It means that somewhere along the way it relies on digital technology.
Then there are other questions that have to be addressed. Is the story entertaining or informative or emotionally moving? Is it effective at what it set out to do? If it’s a marketing campaign, does it increase brand awareness? Does the story invite participation? Does it engage the audience in a way that makes them more than just an audience? And most importantly, does it encourage us to immerse ourselves?
How is the Special Jury Prize different from the Breakthrough Award?
The Special Jury Prize is awarded by a—you guessed it—special jury made up of a subset of the Digital Dozen jury. Right now that jury consists of Lance and me and another lab member. The prize is a free, daylong workshop at the lab, so we try to pick the one project from the Digital Dozen that we think would most benefit from that.
A more light-hearted question: Have you watched the BBC show, Black Mirrors? If so, what are your thoughts?
I love Black Mirror. Did you see the Cambridge Analytica episode? Just kidding. But seriously, I think it’s a brilliant satire of digital society as it exists next week. My favorite episode is “Be Right Back,” the one where Domhnall Gleeson runs out for an errand and is killed in a car crash, and his grieving lover ends up bringing him back as a bot. She didn’t want to, and yet she did want to, desperately. Spoiler alert: Not everything goes as she might have hoped.