The Infinity Story 1997

Interactive illustrated story produced with input from over three hundred East London junior school children.  Crossing the IT, Literacy and Art areas of the curriculum, the project developed an online creative resource for schools.  Collaboration with artist Camille Dorney. 

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The Infinity Story took a similar approach to Awakenings but using the web. Although previous projects had made some creative use of the web, I was concerned that the limited understanding of Internet technologies on behalf of the commissioning institutions was restricting the scope of what could be achieved. Emerging web technology seemed to hold the potential to expand process and product in collective work and I was also interested in the opportunity to involve much larger numbers of participants, and to explore whether personal contributions could still be allied to coherent collective expression when those numbers increased. There was a great deal of talk at that time about use of the Internet for exchange of information. However could it also be a site of creative production? Would it perhaps provide that ‘safe space’ where the differences of many collaborating partners could come together and create something new?

I also had concerns at this time about how education was failing to tap into the potential of the new information and communication technologies (ICT). As a school governor with two young children I observed how the National Grid for Learning introduced computers into schools with little initial training for teachers, and even less support or encouragement for exploration of its learning potential, while standardisation and target setting were undermining creativity in education. Since only Maths, English and Science were originally tested, primary schools began to put less emphasis on other subjects, with Art often relegated to the period after exams. Ken Robinson’s report All our Futures warned that creativity was being drained from the curriculum and threatened to undermine the country’s future economic development. It was in this climate where cross-curricular project work was again being encouraged and the importance of creativity at the centre of education just beginning to be recognised, that I developed the idea for The Infinity Story.

Infinity-tripletsIts aim was to offer a glimpse of the excitement and potential of digital interactivity while also engaging the children and teachers in purposeful endeavour towards a collective outcome. Artist Camille Dorney had begun an interactive story on her web site and the two of us set about adapting the process for a story that could be written by a whole school community.

Infinity-RosieThe result was an imaginative, non-linear illustrated story developed from a theme collectively chosen by participants. Its structure followed the shape of a three-dimensional tree. A ‘trunk’ contained the beginning of the story and characterisations, and from here the narrative branched off in all directions as the children added and developed different aspects of the story. Camille led workshops in which the children participated in small groups, starting with the youngest class, the project working its way through the school with three days of production per group. As the project reached each new class, children would decide whether to continue an existing strand of narrative, or begin a new one. The final product comprised forty thousand words written by over three hundred pupils, incorporateing many different branches, a number of which sub-divide again and again. In addition there are histories or ‘roots’ for the original characters. The story can be accessed as a whole or in part, the reader creating their own version by the way they choose to move through it. The narrative therefore changes according to the audience, more in keeping with an oral tradition of story telling than the printed word.

Infinity-Mrs.DoubtheadA number of unexpected and unplanned outcomes emerged out of the process of transforming multiple personal experiences into a collective entity. Children honed in on those aspects of the story that they found most intriguing, and built on certain themes again and again. In this sense the characters and themes that emerged are more ‘archetypes’ than stereotypes. The narrative reflected and illuminated, sometimes surprisingly, preoccupations of the age group of its creators. The plot centres on an East End family seen through the eyes of six children when their parents depart for a round the world holiday leaving them in the hands of their mad babysitter. The parents’ role seems to be characterised by their absence, and they are quickly despatched again whenever they make an appearance. Their function appears to be of a benevolent background presence, and fulfilment of the children’s fantasies on their endless journeyings. By contrast, the babysitter is a continuing (and ‘disgusting’) presence in the children’s lives. Whenever she is sent away, it is only to be promptly returned. By turns witch, sorceress, clearly sexual, she is also the inept childminder and carer of the family. She lives in a locked room at the top of the house, the starting point of many mysterious adventures. The eating of the inedible, smells, the dual forces of dirtiness and cleanliness return again and again. The story seems to create a vessel for the children’s hopes, desires, anxieties and experiences, conscious and unconscious. Collective identities also come through – even the family at the centre of the story is an uncanny representation of the school community.

Infinity ChoicesWhether through its online location, bizarre humour or collective nature, the story seemed to provide the ‘safe space’ for joint creative endeavour that I had been seeking. Difficult issues from either actual or perceived life experiences were expressed and explored, initiated by individuals and then taken up by their peers. For example following a description of the childminder’s tragic childhood, we hear how she managed to obtain a flat through a homeless people’s organisation, ‘tidied herself up and got a job as a childminder’. Bunny the mother, trapped in Dominica looking after someone else’s children, is suddenly put on a plane and brought home – yet only to be sent off again by another of the story’s young authors. It seemed that one child could solve what another could not, and in this way participants were able to indirectly support each other, examine options and ultimately problem-solve together. This project thus paved the way for VOLCO, which sought to involve even greater numbers of children in online dialogue across cultural and geographic divides. The new ideas created through the sharing of their different experience, were to inform the making of a new world.

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