Place and Voice in Bear 71

Curator's Note

 The interactive documentary Bear 71 (Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison, National Film Board of Canada, 2012) invites users to toggle between a data visualization of Banff National Forest, masterfully rendered as a kinetic, color-coded map, and low-resolution CCCT footage of Bear 71, a bear tagged and tracked most of her life by Parks Canada’s extensive system of trail cams. Users scroll over the map’s sleek contours, clicking into oddly-angled vignettes that capture not only Bear 71 and other park residents and visitors, but also fellow users’ enabled webcams.

The doc thus deftly locates users in a matrix engineered to emphasize extremely dislocating relationships of voyeuristic looking. Yet it eases any potential estrangement by outfitting Bear 71 with first-person narration. Voiced by actress Mia Kirshner, Bear 71’s story charts the resolutely individual fallout of living in a habitat increasingly constrained by humans’ technologized interventions.    

Loc Dao describes i-docs as founded on the tension between facts and feelings: “Even though it’s a new medium and it’s very data driven, which can make it seem cold, the biggest thing for us is emotion.” Bear 71’s data-driven interface is easily offset by its empathy-driven voiceover, which not only anthropomorphizes the bear, but also humanizes the mass of visual data that represents her entrapment. 

In the echo chamber of wildlife documentaries, the human voice of Bear 71 resonates with the voices from that other grizzly film, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). A documentary traditional in terms of medium but deeply reflexive in terms of form, Grizzly Man stages a loud, existential argument between two filmmakers, Herzog and Timothy Treadwell, in the silent surrounds of wild nature; it concludes by disavowing humans’ capacity to communicate with the mute countenances of animals like Bear 141, the grizzly charged with killing Treadwell. Bear 71, in contrast, gives voice to its titular hero, yet in doing so it ensnares users in an all too familiar process of identification. Although it initially asks users to submit to the profoundly disorienting effects of watching bodies become data, the voiceover narration soon takes over, insisting that users relate to Bear 71, to recall one succinct critique of Treadwell’s method, as they would to humans in bear suits. 


In my experience of Bear 71 there was another significant factor. Having agreed to the request from the project to access my webcam I found my own image, live on screen, among the fellow users you mention. It was chilling. I didn’t know if those others were there now watching me in real time or if they had been recorded earlier. It was a visceral experience of the project’s surveillance theme which I think cut across the tendency for identification with the bear that you discuss. I was watcher and watched, in a sense both bear and human. The difference between your experience of Bear 71 and mine, Sarah, points up one of the aspects of these projects which is tricky from a critical point of view – their instability. If we approach these projects through textual analysis then which text are we discussing - yours or mine? Beyond the issue of versions, we need a criticality that can take in both text and experience. So we are back with what Craig and Kate have been raising on Monday and Tuesday – the challenge that interactive documentaries raise around criticality. Textual analysis fails to encompass experience. Reception Studies doesn’t deal with participation etc There is something else to mention about what was going on in the use of my webcam in Bear 71. This was an early excursion into personalisation on the part of the producers - an affordance of software which documentary makers are only just beginning to explore. (Try the music video Wilderness Downtown for another example of what’s possible. ) As the French Interactive documentary producer Alexandre Brachet said recently; “We can speak to everybody and to you.” This is an ethical minefield but also an extremely interesting emerging dimension for storytelling. There are a number of projects in development right now which will show us much more about what this might mean.

Your experience of emotion Sarah is not uncommon but Mandy is also right to point out that people's experience of Bear 71 varies considerably. I tested Bear 71 with a group of around 20 diverse users and the only thing you can really say is that people structure their engagement with it in really different ways. For some the voiceover was so engaging that they didn't interact at all, others used it as a reference for their interaction - they went off looking for the things mentioned in the voiceover - and were sometimes disappointed not to find them. I guess this comes closest to what you describe as the voiceover bridging the gap into the data-interface. The biggest take home is that we can't say much based on our own experiences - we just aren't the average user.

Really interesting points, Kate and Mandy. I wonder if there is potential for textual analysis and audience studies to work in tandem here? I'm thinking especially of your references Mandy to The Wilderness Downtown and Brachet's line about "speaking to everyone and to you." If one of the most striking effects of these projects is this affordance of personalization, how then do we capture user experiences that are designed precisely to maximize a sense of individuality? Certainly one user's experience can't be made to speak for everyone's, but it seems essential to hone in on users' experience of being addressed simultaneously as one and everyone. It seems that this address shakes up the category of the "average user" in ways that might necessitate new or recombined approaches of study.

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