Scrolling through the notes on his smart phone, Gregg Deal, a visual artist and self-professed vandal, asked his digital media cohorts an important question last night.
“How would you react if” — while grocery shopping — “you came around the corner to see this?” He pointed at a slide photo of himself sporting a decorative blue tunic, face paint and white feathered headdress — walking through the cereal aisle — “trying,” as Deal put it, “to pick between Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs.”
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe member’s humor resonated with the poets, playwrights, journalists and filmmakers who packed The Dunes in Columbia Heights for StoryCode DC’s launch event Tuesday evening.
The narrative of StoryCode, a global community for emerging and established storytellers using transmedia to engage audiences, comes out of the New York-based meet-ups, according to Felicia Pride (@feliciapride), CEO of The Pride Collaborative and the event’s co-organizer with Kelli Anderson (@Sojournals).
A new form of immersive storytelling emerged with global audiences using tablets, cell phones and multimedia. What was eventually dubbed Transmedia quickly outgrew that umbrella term and became Story Hackathon, then StoryCode this year. “The first chapter was started in Paris…in April,” Pride said.
StoryCode DC (@StoryCodeDC), the second global affiliate, is the first U.S.-based offshoot of the StoryCode franchise. “There are lots of chapters forthcoming,” Pride said. “Boston might be next, so we’re very excited to start this here.”
The D.C. chapter’s goal is to use the monthly meet-ups, which features two 10 -12 minute presentations followed by networking sessions, to connect storytellers with web developers and interactive media artist to advance the possibilities of narrative.
“We don’t want it to be an exclusive situation…where it’s just the filmmaker or the visual content creator,” Anderson said. “We also want to make sure we have a place where you can experiment. You may not have the idea completely figured out.”
Or, she continued, “Maybe you just need a place in the community where you can voice your ideations and find collaborators.”
Last night’s event also kicked-off the nearly week-long Media Rise Festival (@MediaRiseNow) (Sept. 23 – 29), a series of D.C.-based events celebrating how storytelling, design, art and media contribute to a peaceful and sustainable world.
StoryCode DC attendees, like Saaret Yoseph (@SaaretSays), live-tweeted the inaugural meet-up. “It’s never been a better time to be a storyteller in DC,” Yoseph posted. “The environment is ripe for innovation.”
Filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt and visual artist Gregg Deal made that case for this ripe environment in their presentations. During his talk, Levitt showed clips of his current project Follow the Leader, a film that confronts the assumption that all millennial youth are liberal.
It’s Levitt’s first film made in the U.S., after a decade of working as a London-based filmmaker. Follow the Leader started as a personal investigation into the contradictory political views Levitt saw while teaching in the U.S. Post-9/11.
“Rather than trying to define millennial opinion generally, my approach was to follow teens” — Ben, D.J. And Nick — “who had signed on wholeheartedly to the ‘War on Terror’ as they became adults,” according to Levitt’s Director’s Statement. “Beyond giving voice to ‘conservative’ ideas, their distinctly different choices on the cusp of adulthood show how kids like them are already redefining what these terms mean as their generation shapes American politics’ future.”
The film hit home — literally — with Victor Akosile (@CaptVHugo). “I’m eager to see Follow the Leader,” he tweeted, “especially since it was shot in my backyard in Virginia. #storycodedc”
Erica Lee Schlaikjer (@MediaRiseNow), of Benevolent Media and a founder of the Media Rise Festival, shared Akosile’s enthusiasm, championing Levitt’s company Changeworx USA LLC. “What’s the call to action from @changeworxfilms?,” Sclaikjer tweeted. “Discuss, educate, think, change attitudes. #storycodedc”
Gregg Deal (@the_lame_sauce), the self-proclaimed vandal and a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, was also about changing attitudes. Though his humor paid off in his connection with the crowd, the photo of him in the cereal aisle was an attempt to also humanize Native Americans, too often exploited in popular culture.
He’s exploiting those stereotypes in The Last American Indian On Earth (@thelastamericanindianonearth), a performance art piece he started in May that involves him, dressed in his ornamental outfit, bringing the misconceptions of Native Americans to public spaces. “It raises questions,” Deal said. “What is this? Why is this here?”
This project sprang from his 2004 experience as a docent (“a guide” or “educator”) for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. During that inaugural year, the museum reportedly drew 20,000 Native Americans who marched on the National Mall to celebrate the opening.
It also opened the door for non-First Nation folks to voice their misconceptions. Deal fielded tourists’ questions like “Why aren’t there teepees in the museum?” and “If you lived in a teepee, where would keep your squaw?”
A patron tried to convince Deal of what she saw as her Native American ancestry. “My great, great, great-grandfather was Indian,” she said, “because I saw a picture of him and he really looked Indian.” To which the museum docent responded: “That’s crazy! My great, great, great-grandmother was white. I’m sure because I saw a picture of her and she looked really white.”
One of the public places Deal’s usually-silent character frequents is the Lincoln Memorial. He parks at the Department of the Interior and makes the seven-minute walk from C Street to 17th Street — right on Independence Avenue — over the Kutz Bridge, back to Independence, then posts up with his signs on the marble steps at Lincoln Memorial Circle.
During one of his walks, an SUV cruised by Deal slow — its windows down, the family inside hooting and hollering, smacking their mouths before peeling off. “Part of the performance,” he said, “is I don’t react.”
He doesn’t react when people pose beside him for pictures without his permission. “I am, essentially, a subhuman nonentity,” Deal said, “not a person that they can talk to and say, ‘Hey, you mind if i take a picture with you?’” Some folks ask, but most don’t.
Then there was his encounter with an “unapologetically rude” husband. Here’s how it played out, according to the artist:
Rude Guy: Why are you wearing that?
Deal: Why am I wearing what?
RG: That get-up?
D: How do you know I don’t wear this everyday?
RG: Whatever, man. Whatever floats your boat.
The irony is that Deal’s outfit was why the guy’s excited wife wanted to pose with him in the first place. “It floated somebody’s boat,” Deal said, which drew awws from the crowd. He continued, “The important aspect of being indigenous, and of my work, is my humor and my family.”
But he didn’t see the humor in a Starbucks customer’s remark some time ago. That day, the alter ego was enjoying a coffee with his spouse. A couple near them asked Deal’s wife, whose Caucasian: “Where did you meet your husband? At a bar on a reservation?”
It’s days like those that make Deal’s project taxing. “People of color, when somebody says something that’s inappropriate, racist, or horrible, it hits you to your core,” he said. “To me, it doesn’t just hit me, it hits my ancestors.”
The slide images were Just as hitting — some photos showed sports fanatics wearing Mohawks and face paint, yelling for the cameras; one showed the Washington football team’s logo; another showed Tonto from The Lone Ranger TV series — all of which pointed out another irony. Those images are not “Indian,” according to Deal. “They’re images of colonialism, of the idea of defeating a specific people, they’re images of genocide.”
That’s what makes The Last American Indian On Earth significant. “It’s about my kids. I do this for them because…they’re going to have to come to terms with this idea of identity,” Deal said. “They’re going to have to work out how to maintain their identity…their Indianness while someone tells them what it is they’re suppose to be.”
He continued, “It’s my hope that shedding light on this…will make things a little bit brighter for my kids and other people.”
He brightened last night’s event for Caitlin Carroll (@carrollcaitlin), who tweeted: “Leaving #storycodedc, feeling so impressed with the projects presented, smarter than I was before, & inspired to work!”