The New Art of Documentary Summit at MIT

I had the privilege last week to be among a small group gathered for the New Arts of Documentary summit, a project of the Open Doc Lab at MIT. The summit brought together a group of mediamakers, technologists, scholars, curators and funders who are all experimenting with, thinking about, and forging new ground in the practice of nonfiction storytelling. Throughout the day, we shared rich discussion and saw some amazing projects playing with the boundaries of what documentary is and, significantly, what it can be. We also wrestled with the obstacles and ethical issues at play in the field, leaving with more questions than answers and a promise of more conversation to come.

Non-linear, collaborative and multi-platform storytelling held the spotlight at the summit. I think I even remember Ithaca College prof and media theorist Patricia Zimmerman say that she’s working toward the death of the feature-length narrative! The concept of the feature-length film with a website and some educational materials supporting its distribution has been replaced by a story where no one format – web, print, film, installation, mobile, more – is primary. In the “new” (it’s really not so new, though the technologies supporting it make it much easier for both artist and user alike!) story-verse, all platforms work together or can stand alone and feed different audiences. I was happy to see some interactive doc projects that I know and love featured and to learn about some new ones. Here are some that peaked my fancy:

  • Artist Catherine D’Ignazio’s work in experimental geography was a stand out. I was particularly intrigued by a multi-platform, interactive project that included an installation of life-scale photographs of a length of the fence separating Mexico and the US, located in MA by the Charles River. She noted how, though not dramatically marked by an actual fence, Massachusetts too is a battleground over immigrant rights. Her installation, website, and video worked to tease that out and bring people into dialogue with the project. Catherine mentioned that a key value to her process is making what is often unseen, tangible and felt. You can see more of her work here.
  • The Question Bridge: Black Males project is a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine Black male identity in America. Through video mediated question and answer exchange, diverse members of this “demographic” bridge economic, political, geographic, and generational divisions. The videos are striking in how the filmmakers were able to elicit such direct and deeply emotional responses from the participants. By putting these different men, at different times in their lives, in “conversation” with each other, a truly diverse understanding of what it means to be a black man in America emerges. The project exists as installation, online, as a feature film, and has a robust educational program in the works.

There were a number of both collaborative and crowd-sourced projects discussed as well. These projects highlight how new media technology can empower audiences to become storytellers. The craft of the artist(s) behind these projects is in setting the frame, developing (or harnessing) the technology, and, in some cases, curating the materials. But the meat comes from the audience. Here are two projects that capture the spirit of this kind of work:

  • 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, co-directed by Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites, is a feature-length documentary film (in progress) being made by 99 independent filmmakers across the country using a production process that mirrors the open and collaborative nature of the Occupy movement itself. The filmmakers spoke openly of the challenges and frustrations of this type of endeavor, particularly trying to maintain a non-hierarchical platform by which this number of artists can work together. But as the process has progressed, different artists have taken on leadership of different parts of the project and a unique collaboration is emerging.
  • 18 Days in Egypt is an interactive documentary that collects the tweets, photos, videos, and reflections captured by the people of Egypt during the 2011 uprising and beyond. The project uses Groupstream which is a collaborative storytelling platform where users can upload and share their media & stories to document any event using Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. The streams are curated by theme. They are subtitled. And there are cards inserted by the project artists, helping viewers navigate the information. While some crowdsourced projects give that feeling of chaos or information overload, 18 Days in Egypt is very thoughtfully produced.

The room was full of innovators, not all of them presenting. Two exciting projects I heard about came through conversations with folks in the audience.

Brett Gaylor (RIP: A REMIX MANIFESTO) was there through his work at Mozilla. Mozilla have partnered with ITVS and the Tribeca Film Institute to produce The Living Docs project. The partnership will produce events, projects and code aimed at revolutionizing Web-based documentaries, using the power of new open Web tools like Mozilla Popcorn to create new ways of telling stories online.

And though I couldn’t catch his name, one summit member described The Korsakow System to the group. Korsakow is an easy-to-use computer program for the creation of database films. In a “K-film,” the viewer decides on the rules by which the scenes relate to each other, but s/he does not create fixed paths. K-Films are generative – the order of the scenes is calculated while viewing. There are a number of examples on the site. I found myself trying to break my own very Western patterns of reading left to right and top to bottom to create a different kind of story flow. Some of them work. Some don’t. But the experiment is worth looking at.

At the end of the day, William Uricchio, Director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT shared a number of the crucial questions that MIT will be looking at in the coming year, like issues of legacy and archive (How do we save this work? How do we select what to save?), and issues of ethics (How do rights issues work with crowdsourced content?), and a promise to keep the conversation going.

Thank you to William, Sarah Wolozin and the whole team at MIT’s Open Doc Lab. Looking forward to seeing what you cook up next!

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