3 How we transplanted Japanese folk horror to Portsmouth – The Snow Witch

So, what next?!?

With Roy Hanney’s approach to me to use The Snow Witch as the basis of a brand new transmedia story, we had to work out what to do next. We had the general idea we wanted to produce something. Now we began to fill out a new story. So, what was Roy’s idea at this stage?

!!!Please note: this and following blogs will include spoilers for the story in The Snow Witch!!!

The fascinating Mr Hanney

Roy had the idea that a key character who had died in the story had not found rest. Bear in mind that the story is mainly set in Portsmouth and the Balkans – but Roy wanted to draw in much wider influences. It was amazing to hear.

Roy is a fascinating guy with a whole host of interests, and one his main focuses is what would have been called in Victorian times “Orientalism” – that is, he absolutely loves and is intrigued by Chinese and Japanese culture. He’s an amazing adopter of ideas with a restless mind that’s never-endingly interested in new things.

An Onryo story in Portsmouth

So he explained his idea: the new story would be inspired by the Japanese idea of the Onryho. This, he told me, is a Japanese folk tale in which a traveller comes to a new place. He or she is usually a monk or spiritually enlightened person, and the place they arrive at is blighted by the malevolent spirit of a person who died and is not able to rest. The Onryho story invariably ends with the ghost being laid to rest in some way. One of my key characters in the book would thus be required to return and threaten the city of Portsmouth.

It sounded like a really interesting idea.

Scope and scale

I thought at first that Roy was asking me to work on it with him in a small group, but Roy’s ideas were far bigger than that.

The scope was amazing. We would need a big team, and we would need to co-ordinate them to learn how to create transmedia storytelling. As the jealous creator of the original story, I had my own doubts. What if the story didn’t work? What if the things they did with my characters interfered with my own perception of the characters? Would I be able to write a sequel if it was all changed in this way. Roy explained to me:

“This is a sandbox idea. We’re going to use The Snow Witch to learn how to do transmedia storytelling. Transmedia will be the next big thing, and I want to understand it, so the only real way to learn about it is to do it for ourselves. It’s going to require Arts Council funding and it’s going to require quite a lot of work. Are you up for it?”

My ‘yes’ that evening was the starting point of a year-long journey of discovery that would test me to the limits, but which would be surprisingly easy if I just focussed on my job. And that was thanks largely to Roy’s larger vision in which I could operate.

So, we began the whole process of getting funding and amassing a team. We were going to learn so much from this!

Find out how we got £15k Arts Council England funding here >>

2 How The Snow Witch Art Exhibition Began

A little bit of magic?

Something was definitely going on with The Snow Witch.

At the novel’s launch in 2017, a friend of mine, Eilis Philips sang a song inspired by an earlier draft of the book. A song of snow, witchcraft and the wicked things people do, it touched on the many points in the story with a gentle quiet inwardness. People at the launch who had read the ARCs actually gushed about it in a way I had never experienced before. It seemed to get in people’s heads.

A few months later, long before Roy Hanney came to me, I was approached by Lucille Scott, with a proposal: could she run an arts exhibition based on the novel?

It was kind of mind-blowing, to be honest. (I’m sure there will come a point where I’m over the delight, pleasure and surprise at this, but I’m not quite yet, so please allow me to enjoy this!)

Forging ideas

Lucille is a well-respected blacksmith, with whom I’d collaborated previously on a World War One project. For that project, she had asked me to come up with some words for an idea to commemorate the work of the women munitions workers during those dark days. Some of these women were known as the “canary girls”, because their skin turned yellow from the chemicals they were in contact with. Many of those women were taken seriously ill due to chemical poisoning. Some were killed in explosions at the factories.

I was interested by the idea of the shell connected with warfare and death, and the shell as the delicate enabler of new life that was laid by birds – perhaps by canaries… It spoke to me of the dual role of women in the war, both as mothers and creators of death.

Lucille pointed out that these women were also doing what were traditionally seen as “men’s jobs” – welding and creating the shell casings, as well as packing them – and once again this opened further ambiguity to do with their societal roles at the time.

We worked together on the idea of trench art – a common use for the hundreds of millions of spent shells that were decorated and sold as souvenirs during the war, and together hit upon a mother nestling inside an original World War One shell casing, nursing a baby shaped like a bullet. Lucille is a great craftswoman, and her final conception included repoussé work showing a woman welding and Morse code on the on the shell case, with the shape echoed by the woman inside. Lucille used traditional trench art skills to make it.

Collaboration

The final piece was displayed at the Ypres Peace Monument https://www.yprespeacemonument.com/lucille-scott/ in 2016, and later at Hereford Cathedral. It is excellent work.

With this history between us, of course, I agreed to her idea of the Snow Witch Art Exhibition. Her reasoning behind it was simple: “I’m a blacksmith,” she told me. “I would love to do an art exhibition on my own, but it would mean making at least a dozen works. I don’t think I’ll have the time to do it. If we get more people in, we could really make something of it.”

So it was that we had a few drinks and we brainstormed ideas. And then, at Hallowe’en 2018, I gave a presentation to 40 Portsmouth artists, highlighting themes from the book.

Once again the response was great. People loved the book. And once again I wondered what was in my book that got into people’s heads in this way? I’d never had anything like this happen to me before – and desperately wanted to bottle it and use it again!

At this stage, I wondered if the art exhibition and the transmedia story of Roy’s would somehow clash… it was all due to take place in 2019 over Hallowe’en for Dark Fest – the celebration of the dark, strange and macabre that occurs in Portsmouth at this time of the year.

I had no idea that the two events would become a part of something much larger. But that is for another blog post!

Find out how we worked out what the Snow Witch Project would even be!! >>

1 The Snow Witch Project: First Steps In Transmedia Storytelling

Some time in the autumn of 2018, Roy Hanney, course leader in Media Production at Southampton Solent University told me over a glass of wine: “I’ve been thinking about your book, The Snow Witch, and I’d like to ask you if we can extend it and use it as the basis of a transmedia storytelling experience…”

It sounded great. But when I asked him what he meant, Roy’s explanation was incomplete and highly conceptual. The truth is, we were going to have to find out how to do it while we were doing it… And that is where the journey for myself and, in the end, about 50 artists writers and artists began. They would all in some way or other wrap their heads round the idea and become part of a much larger project.

So, what did I work out about transmedia storytelling from his description? It was certainly not something that came into focus straight away. Roy admitted that at that moment he didn’t know really what it was either.

“It’s a way of telling stories across many different platforms – instagram, facebook, twitter, radio, podcasts, video, street art, live events – to give people an experience, a narrative that they put together themselves. I’d like to develop a new story using The Snow Witch’s world as the starting point, and develop one up from there. It’s the future of storytelling, and it uses different media to unwind the story.”

What I didn’t guess at the time was that those two completely separate projects would combine together at a later point. And it would be some time before I began to see exactly how it could work, by directing the scriptwriting team myself. But all that was a long way off.

Next: Find out How The Snow Witch Art Exhibition Began >> 

Becoming the street artist Lissitch: how I opened my eyes and saw the magic!

Becoming Lissitch
Becoming #lissitch2019

Having spent some years living in China before adopting the mantle of street artist, I returned to the UK in the summer of 2014 with a bit of a fresh perspective. At least that is how feels looking back on it now. I remember quite clearly starting to notice artists paste-ups around the city, mostly on those green PO boxes you see around any urban area. I was really taken by them, I hadn’t really seen anything like this before and though I was familiar with street art, graffiti, spray art, stencils, tagging and so on, this was something a bit more to my taste. I loved the work of a couple of artists in particular (see images below by #mister.samo #thisismidge) and thought the idea of pre-making art that you could then paste-up later really appealed. I think this was the first step along the way for me towards embracing street art as a practice.

I started reading more about it, watching little videos, I even did a mini-project with a group of students for a module I was teaching at the time. I don’t think they really embraced it wholeheartedly but for me, clearly, I was soaking up the culture and trying to figure it out. At the time, a new gallery, Play Dead had just opened in Portsmouth and I started going to their openings. There I discovered that Portsmouth already had a thriving street art scene and I started to meet a few of the key players around town. Having soaked up of this interest in paste-up art I guess it was just a matter of time before it emerged as some form of creative activity.

Playdead Gallery, Portsmouth.

The genesis for this creative urge occurred when I found myself trying to problem solve a story idea for a project I had started to develop in Spring 2018. I had wanted for a long time to do something about urban magic and had an idea about people in the 1970/80’s leaving cassette tape around cities with incantations recorded on them.  I needed to set the story in a contemporary time frame and obviously cassette tape wouldn’t work. The eureka moment came when I made the leap to street art and paste ups as a potential vehicle for urban magic (there is a longer post about this aspect of the story here ).

For the project, which was an adaptation of The Snow Witch novel by Portsmouth writer Matt Wingett, I had borrowed one of the characters from the novel with the aim of bringing him to life for an immersive story experience. The conceit was that Lisstich as a shapeshifting trickster had assumed the role of a street artist and had been pasting-up coded occult messages around the city. Early 2019 I created an Instagram account for the character (what self-regarding street artists doesn’t have an Insta account) and started to populate it with content. At this stage, I was playing the role of “catcher” (there is an extremely interesting relationship between artists and catchers which is explored in great detail in the book Instafame by Lachlan MacDowall ). I started hanging out in areas of cities where there was a lot of street art, going on street art tours, getting inspiration. The plan was that we would commission a ‘real’ artist to do the actual paste-up design for the project.

That never happened and, in the end, I became the artists who created all of the street art for the Cursed City – Dark Tide project which saw me out and about with a bucket of paste slapping up A4 prints around the city.  I even took a rubber Fox mask with me so I could get videos and photos to share on the Instagram account, to try and set up an air of mystery about this strange character roaming the city at night. It was great fun and I think I started to realise that part of the enjoyment is being out in the city, liberating walls and disused spaces to create street art. One thing I have noticed myself is that when after people come out with you, they talk about seeing the city differently. That they start to notice the street art on the walls around them in a way they didn’t before. This chimes with the strapline I have used for Lissitch “open your eyes and see the magic” and I think, if you do open your eyes you will be surprised at quite how much creativity there is on the walls around you.

Having created, or borrowed and adapted is closer to the truth, the character of Lisstich the street artist. Come to the end of the Cursed City – Dark Tide project, I didn’t want to let him go. I liked the persona and enjoyed going out at night paste bucket in one hand, Fox mask in the other. So, I started to create some new work just before the 2020 lockdown in the UK. Then I got a little sidetracked after I put up a call to other paste-up artists to send me their work and thus was born the concept of #pasteuppomepy (there is a video on this blog post here). It seems this is one of the ways that people get their work up on walls around the globe. In fact, I had already had my own work post in Melbourne, London and a few other cities. I had also been putting up work by a London artist #daddystreetfox around Portsmouth. Some 26 artists sent me their work and I had a few months of fun putting it up on empty shop fronts, disused billboards and other sites around the city.

#pasteuppompey Elm Grove, Portsmouth.
#pasteuppompey Elm Grove, Portsmouth.

Nowadays, when I go abroad on holiday or visit another city, I always take some of my paste ups and take the opportunity to add some content to the walls around wherever I am visiting. I have a new piece ready to go, it’s all printed up and will be going out on the night of the 31st Jan 2020. Timed to be seen on the day the UK leaves the EU it’s a little more political than other material I have created. I have also stolen parts of the image, purposefully trying to create a sense of that the image is a call to rise up (in an ironic way of course). It has been in interesting journey, from someone who started out just appreciating the work of a few local artists, to someone who is actively creating work that has been slapped up across the globe. I am just small fry in the global pond of paste-up artists, but I do feel like I am at least swimming in the pond and enjoying the experience.

#lisstich2019 on Instagram

“Open your eyes and see the magic”!

The Evolution of Story: how story shapes our world

THE EVOLUTION OF STORY was a one-day symposium at Solent University on Wednesday, February 19th 2020. The symposium exploreed how from its origins to its contemporary forms – story shapes our world.

The symposium was organised by the team behind Cursed City Dark Tide, includes a panel with Matt Wingett, author of Thye Snow Witch. It asked questions about the nature of storytelling in the current age and offered a case study that examines the Cursed City project.

The Evolution of Story Panel 3: Cursed City – Dark Tide Case Study

From its origins in oral storytelling, cave drawings, dance and ritual, through the earliest forms of writing, then printing and now the various ubiquitous forms of modern communication, storytelling has always been a primary form of communicating ideas, expressing our intrinsic nature and for shaping our world.

Technology empowers storytellers to explore new mediums, methods and approaches. To step into the void and explore new ways of narrating stories. Increasingly storytelling is becoming more immersive and experiential.

Theatre, dance and other performative arts have embraced the immersive experience as a means of engaging with audiences. Technology offers possibilities for fully immersive and mixed reality experiences that push at the boundaries of conventional narrative forms. Transmedia ties together story experiences across multiple platforms and channels. While interactive media, games and television drama place audience choice at their heart.

This one-day symposium aimed to explore the ways in which story has evolved beyond the linear, the stage and the boundaries of the screen. It aimed to take the lid off new forms of storytelling and offer a snapshot of current practices.

The symposium asked:

  • Is story still king/queen?
  • Do we need new paradigms for thinking about story?
  • When does storytelling cross over to co-creation/story listening?
  • Is the traditional 3-act structure still relevant?
  • Does the Hero’s Journey still work if we no longer depend on one ‘hero’ and focus on a collective?

You can all the info you need here!