A Pop Culture Collaborative Winter 2018 Grantee, 13Exp is a new experiential social impact entertainment studio, one of the first in a growing field focused on interlocking scalable, digital, and physical content with social impact as a driving force. Experiential narratives tell stories that reflect the reality of what it is to be human in the modern world: that many of us now experience and engage with the world indiscriminately on media platforms, content sources, social channels, and live moments. As the founder of 13Exp, Experiential Architect Mikhael Tara Garver is building a hub network for immersive artists, social impact designers, social justice activists, fan-builders, technologists, and story creators. She spoke with Pop Culture Collaborative Strategy Director Tracy Van Slyke about 13Exp’s origins and what the grant makes possible.

Tracy Van Slyke: How has your role as an experiential artist led to the creation of 13Exp and its connection to pop culture?

Mikhael Tara Garver: For the last 20 years, I’ve been an artist creating immersive sensory experiences; brand pop-ups; ground-breaking live and digital activations;  and epic story worlds. Previously I have been commissioned by the Goodman Theater and the Kennedy Center to make new immersive work; have worked with creative brands to make their immersive experiences; created a live, immersive band premiere tour at SXSW; was a director of the groundbreaking experiential Sleep No More; and brought my creative process to support social change projects like the Women’s March and the Museum of International Drug Policy.

But too often these projects are in the service of one brand, one product, or one issue and are not funded to connect to a larger, or shared, narrative. My unique approach is to work with artists, activists, scientists, fan-organizers, and technologists to bring all their points of view together to create a shared narrative that can be seen in multiple, interconnected stories on television, film, and digital, and then allow audiences to interact with that narrative through in-person community experiences—whether it be designing a festival or activations on a subway train, at a museum or a shopping mall. For those new to the field of experiential storytelling, imagine if you binged your favorite show, but the story didn’t end with the last episode. You could continue on and go deeper into the narrative experience through an online game, watch short videos online featuring characters, join fellow fans in online forums and in person, read connected books, and be inspired to take social action because of the narrative experienced in the storyworld.

The entertainment industry, brands, the tech industry, nd the social justice sector, and most important, audiences and fans are hungry for experiential stories—when live and digital are connected to create one larger experience. They are especially looking for stories driven by immigrants, people of color, women, LGBTQ communities, and more. Knowing this, 13 EXP was created as a fully experiential, original content studio with social change in its DNA. It will work with partner stakeholders to create narratives stemming from a variety of social change–focused issues and communities, and through collaboration among immersive artists, social impact designers, social justice activists, fan-builders, technologists, and writers. We will create 13 experiential pilots, each containing multi-platform storytelling, in-person experiences, and digital activations.

TVS: In these pilots, you and your collaborators aim to position audiences and pop culture fans differently in the storytelling process. What’s going to look different?

MTG: People want to feel part of something. They want to know what to do and have emotional resonance with content and community experiences. With the opportunities for interactivity created by digital and social media, audiences can transition from being consumers to actually being a part of the story from the beginning as participants and co-creators. When audiences are part of the creation of a story, whether it be watching, listening, or a social action when the creative process is done, we have built in their desires, interests, and emotions. And because of that, we have converted them early from audiences into engaged fans. I have been thinking a lot about aspirational fans. We can create narrative experiences that contain core beliefs and values they are attuned to, and will support more natural participation in a variety of social activations that help them live out those values and beliefs.

TVS: What will the Pop Culture Collaborative grant enable 13Exp to do?

MTG: We will be creating a blueprint for an experiential story world pilot focused on an immigration narrative. For this pilot, my collaborators are Ivan Askwith, a pop culture fan organizer; Carri Twigg, former creative liaison at Obama White House and youth audience strategist to major media brands; and Muna Mulak, a prominent artist and photographer documenting immigrant communities. Together, we will work in deep partnership with with leading immigrant rights and social justice leaders.

For example, one project we are exploring was originally developed with a team of first generation, college-age immigrant students. Together we built a whole storyworld of the divide between their homelife and their life out in the world. They have similar experiences of the pull between their parents wanting them to be successful and safe in the U.S., and their own desire to make change in the world. What this presents are stories from multiple immigration backgrounds—Mexican, African, Cuban, and Russian— not trying to make them the same, but allowing for different narratives with shared issues. And the content is fun, entertaining, dream-filled, but also honest with the harsh realities. Each of these writers grew in their personal shared desire to improve intersectional immigrant rights (and other social change issues) and how their own personal stories and experiences fit into that desire for change. We are looking at how we can create a shared narrative that could then be realized through interconnected content and experiences—a television series, video games, activations in shopping malls, podcasts, and other story platforms for new technology.

In addition to the actual blueprint for the experiential pilot that will be shared and then moved into development with entertainment, social justice, and technologist partners, our intention is to also document learnings and recommendations through this process to advance shared knowledge and the direction of this emerging social impact experiential field.

Read more about 13Exp and their supported project here.