The People Formerly Known As The Subject – Katrina Cizek & Gerry Flahive at The MIT Open Doc Lab

We are so fortunate, here in Boston, to have the resources of the MIT Open Doc Lab in our backyard. Last night I attended “The People Formerly Known As the Subject,” a presentation by the amazing Katrina Cizek and Gerry Flahive – the minds and motivation behind HIGHRISE.

For those who have been following this game, HIGHRISE is not news. It’s the grandmommy of collaborative, participatory, interactive, digital storytelling, and still among the very best. Katrina generously shared the entire development of the project and, significantly, her process in getting it done. She shared her inspirations – places where she borrowed seeds and grew new fruit – and described what she saw as the new approach to the form that HIGHRISE and projects like it take.

In quick summary, the “new” documentary form is:

(1)   (1)  Non-linear

(2)   (2)  Networked

(3)    (3) Driven by user-experience

(4)   (4)  Interactive

(5)   (5) Iterative

(6)   (6)  Self-contained units of every day experiences and small transformations

(7)    (7) Navigation as content

(8)   (8)  Expanded canvas of 360 degree or 3D space

All of the above make for a very different experience of story space and bring an entirely new shape to nonfiction than the single channel experience. Though, despite all of the discussion of the “new,” I found it edifying to hear that in this world of technological possibility it was still human connection, meticulous research, inspired artists and the power of a good story that got this project done and done well. Don’t get me wrong, the bells and whistles are loud, clear, and absolutely extraordinary. But the heart of this project is not in its magnificent display; it’s in the connections that were made, the untold stories and unforeseen outcomes that surfaced in the process of making it. What I see in the HIGHRISE project is a continuing history of artists innovating and inventing new methods of doing a very old thing: understanding the human condition.

One question that did continue to circle in my mind was about the nonlinear nature of the work. My understanding of the architecture of the website and the organic nature of the user experience is that both are nonlinear. However, when drilling down to the stories themselves I found each of them to be very traditional in their expression. I wonder if there is a balance between the linear and the non-linear, the activation of audience as user and then back to audience, that makes projects like these work? I’m personally less interested in shedding one form for another, than seeing how the old and new can be at play together. It is part of what I find so successful about HIGHRISE.

Katrina opened by quoting her Webby Award speech: “The internet is a documentary” (radical thinking for the time), and closed by observing “The documentary form is becoming like the web.” The more highly engaged and connected world we live in is, indeed, reflected in the art we make and the stories we tell. Katrina and Gerry are true trailblazers and innovators in this field. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to hear them discuss the project in depth. I definitely encourage you to check it if you haven’t yet (what are you doing with your time?!), and to stay tuned and watch what’s next up their sleeves!

Many thanks to William Uricchio and Sarah Wolozin for putting together this great program.

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