Finding the Human in the Database

Curator's Note

The interactive documentary, Out My Window is part of a larger experimental project entitled “Highrise”. Director Kat Cizek collected videos, photos, music, and text, from high-rise dwellers around the world, out of which she plans to generate multiple projects including mixed media, mobile productions, live installations and films. This collection of media must be stored in a database to which the high-rise is a direct visual analogy as it contains lives “rich with stories, spirit and humanity”, that cannot be seen from outside. It takes an approachable interface to allow one to see, hear, and touch (in this case click and drag) the space built from a database filled with people’s digital representation, just as it takes physically going inside a building to discover it’s contents.

In a linear documentary, editing is the art that transforms the digital content database (aka footage in a bin) into a meaningful story experience for the viewer. The art of Out My Window is the creative re-imagining of this database of footage to present a new way for the user/viewer/participant to engage it. Cizek, acting more as facilitator than director, experiments with the way content is embodied and lived through by the audience in an attempt to make storytelling more spatialized. In return, the user is asked to make their own relations, associations and conclusions about contemporary urban life.

Whereas the traditional editor has access to easy-to-use, yet nuanced software to manipulate footage; easy-to-use, creative tools for making interactive interfaces are in their burgeoning infancy (ie YellowBird, Derivative, Kosavow, Hoppala etc...). The “Highrise” team is experimenting with many of these new tools and, by necessity, programming their own to produce unique, experiential spaces. They are building knowlege about their media by engaging it themsevles.

The 49 stories in Out My Window were documented and submitted by the subjects themselves with Cizek conducting their work remotely via email, Facebook and Skype. Continuing in this user-generated and participationy vein, the “Highrise” transmedia franchise recently produced, Particpate, which invites users to upload their own text and photos from their windows. As this information populates Participate's associative, searchable database it causes the documentary to live and evolve.

With interactive media, the teller/listener relationship is removed, requiring the the editor/director/facilitator to engage the participant by conjuring ever more spatial and enticing interfaces to and from the database of media and asking the user to step in.


It not only transforms the documentary process from a one-way model, but it also makes user-generated content into a rich and rewarding viewer experience. I get frustrated by more mainstream media sources that ineffectively offer content in the form of viewer emails or Tweets, which often end up being either inane or self-congragulatory. 

However, I do wonder how much curatorial activity is going on by the High Rise crew. And, by extension, how much of the project is grounded in the traditional process of finding a good talker, or storyteller and sharing their story with the world. I don't think that those curatorial activities minimize the creative and intellectual work going on in High Rise. Rather, it reminds us that the role of the documentarian is still a valid one to provide links and context for the non-participant.

This project emphasizes one of my favorite trends in the arts -- that new art requires new tools, tools that quickly are made available for general use.  I also like how you drew out the parallel between the physical structures in which people live, and the information structures the documentarians mobilize to narrate the stories of those places.

Thank you for this post, Elizabeth.  I like your observation that the high-rise itself offers a "direct visual analogy" for the work.  Analogical comparisions are, I think, a useful way for getting a sense of what these new digital works.  If we took, for example, that fundamental analogy for art in the West, the mirror (of mimesis), we immediately see its limitations for the interactive nature of projects such as Highrise.  So what analogies—what Abrams called "constitutive metaphors"—best illuminate and enable the understanding and creation of interactive documentaries?  Are they usefully comparable to high-rises, or a (very familiar) web, a labyrinth or a game?  Or is there perhaps some other illuminating image that better reveals how they work and how we work them?

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