Why interactive?

Curator's Note

A familiar trait of discourses associated with emerging media is a bias toward the 'new', an almost inevitable rhetoric claiming that newer media forms are 'more realistic', or 'more democratic' or offer a 'more engaged' media experience. With digital media (broadly defined) there have been regular pronouncements from industry (serving their own interests) and academic circles (who should know better) that interactive, collaborative, networked platforms involve an inherently more 'active' engagement for users, compared to older media such as film, radio and television which apparently just encouraged 'passivity' from mass audiences. Rather than 'leanback' media which simply flows over you as you watch a screen, the quest is to use digital platforms to generate something with more 'stickiness', or 'impact'.

An implicit, but rarely stated, assumption made by designers of interactive / collaborative documentary is that they are providing forms of engagement for users which are more likely to lead to social and political action. That browsing content, clicking through pathways or multimedia content on a site, commenting on and uploading content, or otherwise 'collaborating' on the construction of meaning involves a deeper and more committed form of engagement. These are assumptions which drive the pursuit of interactive strategies (as compared to editing strategies) to encourage the user to encounter material at their own pace, trace connections between resources, give a sense of 'immersion' into representations of reality, or meaningfully engage with others within a community with a shared purpose.

I have two points to suggest here. The first is that we actually know very little about the nature of audiences engagement with audio-visual nonfiction, and the complexities of how individual viewers might be making sense of, and acting upon,  what they are encountering on a screen. The second is that to insist that a deeper more effective 'call to action' is being generated through interactive means might be compounding our misunderstanding of what does and does not make documentary 'work'. Are designers pursuing the experimentation of interactive design strategies for their own sake, or do they have a clear sense of the kinds of interactive strategies which are appropriate for their content, their agenda and their target users?



Craig, I think we have to focus in on particular projects to tease out the diverse kinds of work that documentary is doing within this busy, fast-developing field. What I’m observing as a key trend, and will discuss in my post on Wednesday, is a hybrid between old and new - the reframing of 20th Community Media practices in the context of networked and interactive media. The foundational moment within this generation was 2006, when the NFB invited Kat Cizek to join them as Filmmaker-in-Residence, with an invitation to reinvent the 1960s project, Challenge for Change, for the digital age. Projects by Cizek and others involve interactivity, but what lies behind the on-screen content is often face-to-face engagement within communities. Media isn’t an end in itself, but a convening mechanism – an idea that Patricia Zimmerman has explored within the concept of Open Space Documentary. Hollow takes a similar approach. It’s challenging, but not impossible to understand the impact of these 'convenings'. Tribeca Film Institute / MIT Open Doc Lab are running a substantial piece of work looking at that. In the case of the POV Interactive Shorts that you link to – I don’t see that these make claims about their role in social change. The use of the word ‘revolutionary’ in the header is hyperbole, but I read that as a reference not to political but to formal innovation (and the navigation in the Empire Short is pretty exciting.) An account of gentrification, an exploration of what it means to be white, stories of American immigration, the legacy of Dutch colonialism, Japan after Fukushima; these are a thoughtful group of documentary projects, taking advantage of today’s media tools to examine the world we live in.

That's a great point about the Challenge for Change template, and the use of new media as a convening mechanism. That sounds promising for quite specific communities, who might be particularly motivated to work through an entire site (for example), although it still leaves unanswered the broader question of how different kinds of users might be engaging with this kind of work. What kinds of assumptions do designers make about users who encounter their site? Users have varying kinds of access to a site, digital platforms are not necessarily easily navigated by everyone, and users have different literacies to draw upon in engaging with online media. So what are the implications of choosing particular kinds of interaction? Are there forms which 'everyone' can engage with? Do some kinds of constructions frustrate or confuse users (and which groups)?

One of my core interests in interactive documentary is and always has been in the potential of data-base narrative for the non-linear presentation of polyvocality. Multiple voices, multiple points of view and community engagement, interactive documentary definitely offers us something here, not to replace but to complement other forms and possibilities. As member of the i-docs academic circles to which you allude, Craig, I would never claim that interactive, collaborative, networked platforms offer an inherently more active engagement for users when compared to ‘older’ media forms such as film, radio and television. In fact, I am inclined to agree with theatre maker, Felix Barrett, that if anything the internet is making us more as opposed to less passive. I also like his sense of vision, which is something that we are in danger of losing if we overplay the value of user centred design when designing interactive work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ktpes0qMZ0. For me, each project must be treated on its own terms with intent and purpose always being placed at the centre of the equation. Interactive documentary is an umbrella term, which I still find useful when considering how interaction design can be applied to the production of documentary work but I by no means see it as being a fixed entity. It would be wrong to make any claims of inherent superiority for these evolving forms over any other set of possibilities. That would be a form of technological determinism, to which I am fundamentally opposed.

There seems to be little doubt that interactive documentary makers are pursuing an expanding civic agenda for documentary that includes various forms of mediated and extra-textual collaboration with subjects and audiences. The real challenge that interactive documentary throws up again and again is how can we engage with it critically. When it comes to film and television documentary we have a fairly established set of methods for rhetorical/representational analysis. But what do we do when a documentary making starts to expand to include community gatherings? We can't just assume that such activities are examples of civic participation or polyvocality - after all these are events organised to meet specific media/communications/organisational agendas. If we look at online communication we have to somehow get behind the scenes to understand what kind of 'talk' was intended but also what was done to shape that talk. Who is to say that documentary discussions are inherently different to other kinds of mediated online talk - documentary makers still need to build audiences and 'extract value' from audience activity.

I love what you said about how the discourse on interactive documentary brings to the fore our assumptions about what makes a documentary successful in the first place. The demand for a documentary to have measurable social effect seems like a dubious measuring stick for success. Given the difficulty of linking any particular text to concrete social change, grounding our justification of interactivity in the hopes of more effectively triggering social response seems like a shaky strategy. It seems to me that it would be better to ground interactive documentary practice in the modes of representation that procedurally generated interactive material excels at. I imagine that there might be kinds of ideas, dynamics, or political situations that an interactive text is simply better suited for than static screen media. Instead of asking if interactive documentaries are better than traditional films at inciting public response, wouldn't it make more sense to ask what subjects would be better served by interactive documentation?

It would be a shame if the discussion here about social change gave anyone first encountering interactive documentaries an impression that the field has a single focus. That could not be less true. Interactive documentaries are really varied - technologically and thematically. I’d recommend a trip over to MIT Open Doc Lab’s _docubase to get a feel for that. http://docubase.mit.edu/ _docubase is a collection of around 200 key works, and it gives a flavour of the richness of a field with a long history already which is growing now by the day. A good entry point into the _docubase is through the ten curated Playlists of recommended work. I’m pretty sure that the creator whose name is mentioned most often in those lists is Jonathan Harris. http://www.number27.org/ An interactive artist whose work explores “the relationship between humans and technology, ranging from the planetary to the personal”, Harris's projects cover diverse topics - happiness, self-expression in online dating websites, whale hunting, the lives of lesbian porn workers. His extraordinarily inventive work is I think, Jason, a continuing exploration of how theme and interactivity fit together.

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