DRUGSTORE CULTURE goes to London Fashion Week with Anya Hindmarch

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes talks about storytelling in the digital age, in front of the world's largest bean bag

16 September 2018 22:58

Today, when we talk about ‘the cloud’ we’re referring to the specific virtual repository of society’s digital content, but there’s long been an association between clouds and philosophies of thought. Aristophanes’ play The Clouds – widely considered to be the very first comedy of ideas – premiered in 432BC in Ancient Greece. And most of us can quote the famous opening line – ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ – of William Wordsworth’s 1807 poem about daffodils. With this history is mind, on Friday afternoon, DRUGSTORE CULTURE’s Editor-in-Chief Matthew d’Ancona, Deputy Editor Pete Hoskin and I took to the stage in Whitehall’s Banqueting House to discuss the place of story, narrative and the imagination in our transformed digital culture. So far, so straightforward; though why, you might ask, all this talk of clouds? Well, contrary to the usual set-up for an event like this, our audience – each of whom was wearing gauzy white overalls – was spread out in front of us, kicking back in varying stances of relaxation – nestled between hillocks, or flat on their backs or fronts, arms and legs splayed – on the designer Anya Hindmarch’s Chubby Cloud. AKA, the world’s largest bean bag.

Inspired by the cloud motif in her Chubby Collection, Hindmarch’s brilliantly bonkers experiential installation encouraged the public’s participation in London Fashion Week. The vast, plumped-up, gleaming white pillow all but filled the great hall. And what a venue for it! Created in 1622 as an opulent arena for Royal Masques, the most extravagant of Jacobean entertainments, an intoxicating blend of poetry, propaganda, music, dance and outlandish, elaborate costumes, Hindmarch couldn’t have picked a better location for her own updated, twenty-first-century version of the same. She and her team put together a three-day event that incorporated a series of talks, meditations, music and bedtime stories. The Chubby Cloud also offered the perfect vista from which to admire the hall’s magnificent, gilt-adorned Rubens ceiling.

Peter Hoskin, Lucy Scholes and Matthew d'Ancona (Photo: Teddy d'Ancona)

We couldn’t have found a more appropriate set-up for one of DRUGSTORE CULTURE’s inaugural public appearances, or a more fitting topic for discussion. We all agreed that we’re living in an era in which the long since established gatekeepers of narrative no longer wield the power they used to. Indeed, DRUGSTORE CULTURE has been founded as a response to the realisation that the old categories of analysis are no longer able to explain how the world works. Historic institutions are having to adapt if they’re to continue to play a role in the modern world. Our politicians are more showmen than statesmen. Print journalism is struggling to keep up. And the concept of cinema no longer refers to the old movie theatre model, but has since expanded to include streaming on-demand and the bingeable boxset, not to mention the ever-expanding world of video gaming.

This is where our discussion began, with Pete’s brilliant evaluation of how we need to acknowledge just how instrumental video games have been in challenging conventional notions of narrative. No other form of storytelling utilises second person narration so effectively, he argued; each adventure undertaken is unique, its story just as much the creation of the player as the game’s designer. This befits the world in which we now live, one where anyone with a social media account is engaged in perpetual, ongoing self-narration. Our reminder that what we see on someone’s feed is never the full story won’t have surprised anyone listening I’m sure, but we also considered what role followers had to play in these narratives. In contrast to more time-honoured forms of storytelling that didn’t accommodate the participation of viewers, readers or listeners, interaction is increasingly encouraged. Friendly comments on an Instagram post is one thing, but, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the hijacking of other people’s narratives can have grave consequences, as demonstrated so cleverly in Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Sabrina, which was recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize; a first for stories in this particular medium, itself evidence of how the establishment is adapting to consume non-traditional narrative content.

A recumbent audience member (Photo: Teddy d'Ancona)

Stories are powerful. They always have been. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion famously wrote in her essay collection The White Album. From the profound to the mundane, the imposition of narrative is the means by which we give shape to our lives. Say what you want about Freud, but he revealed a keen understanding of this. As the literary critic Peter Brooks summed it up: ‘mental health is a coherent life story, neurosis is a faulty narrative.’ It’s of little consequence if the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are true, Freud claimed, it only matters that they make sense. Increasingly, though, we can no longer afford this luxury. One of the biggest issues we’re struggling with today is the erosion of the old boundaries between fact and fiction. On the one hand, this has encouraged exciting new literary forms. The recent rise in auto-fiction, for example, a genre best described as fictionalised autobiography. But on the other, the ease with which the term ‘fake news’ has entered the vocabulary of the world of politics is extremely disconcerting, the dangers of which we all need to be wary of.

As our time in front of the cloud drew to a close, we ended on a nostalgic note. People rarely gather round the campfire as in days gone by, said d’Ancona, lamenting the decline of our oral storytelling culture. This lingered in my mind as I left the stage, so instead of heading back to work, I decided to stay for the next event on the schedule. I donned overalls of my own and clambered up on to the cloud, which was just as strange an experience as it sounds. Snuggling down into a comfortable dip between the gently aerated swells, I gazed up at the intricately painted ceiling above and let myself relax along with the rest of the room while Claudia Winkleman read us all a soothing bedtime story.

Follow DRUGSTORE CULTURE (Instagram, Twitter) and Lucy Scholes (InstagramTwitter).