American Futures – Hollow & Question Bridge

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June 20th saw the launch of Hollow – Elaine McMillion’s ambitious interactive documentary about post-industrial life and hope in McDowell County, West Virginia. Dealing with one community but telling a common story of rural America, Hollow has already received much well-deserved attention. The site has attracted over 20,000 viewers from around the world, and a screening locally drew in over 150 residents. McMillion has come up with a treatment that is both immersive and participatory – providing a vivid, moving portrait of this rural American community and an ongoing platform for local communication. Late last year I interviewed McMillion over Skype while she made the long drive to West Virginia from her home in Boston. She talked me through how the project had evolved and described her plans for the website. The interview gave a deep insight into her thinking in the midst of producing this innovative work. [You can read it in full here.]

In terms of the genesis of the project McMillion explained that as a West Virginia native she had left the state at graduation like most of her contemporaries. Coming across Patrick Carr’s book, Hollowing Out the Middle, a study of outmigration from rural America communities, she started to think about the implications of what Harmon calls “rural brain drain” on her own state. Discovering that all ten incorporated towns in McDowell County, West Virginia (the county neighbouring her own) were defined as dying (population loss exceeding births) she began to ask, “what are we, as a society, accepting when we allow places like this to die?…What is being lost and why should we care? Maybe if we don’t care, why don’t we care?”

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After experience in multimedia journalism, making a number of linear documentaries, and while studying for a Masters in Film McMillion decided to return to West Virginia to make a project looking at these issues. At first she thought she would make a linear documentary with an observational approach reflecting local perspectives. But once she got there she came across, “really phenomenal stories of pride and hope” and realised that she wasn’t “comfortable editing [those] into a 75 minute form and putting a title slide saying “The End””. She began to think about how she might make, “a project that wouldn’t just document, but maybe inspire people to get involved” and one that could reflect a developing story. Over time Hollow evolved into a “hybrid community participatory project and interactive documentary” in a form that seeks to work both for a wide audience – perhaps a one-off site visitor – and, in an ongoing way, with the local community.

The Hollow Interactive Documentary just launched consists of a number of layers which have very different roles within the project. The story layer takes advantage of HTML5 to provide an immersive, fluid environment. A rich timeline offers context – telling the story of 20th century McDowell County using photos, statistics and graphics which describe the arc from the boom times of fifty years ago (population 100,000) to today (22,000). At the heart of the HTML5 site are thirty or so stories and portraits of McDowell people – a mix of participatory and producer-made content - arranged within five thematic sub-sections – such as When Coal was King – about the industry, These Roots – about place and culture, Around the Bend – initiatives towards an alternative future. Within these sections the user navigates using the scroll-down tool through a thematic environment which unfolds by a succession of wipes between stills, video clips, text quotes, data, soundtrack. The stories are encountered within this landscape so that the people featured emerge from a context of place and community. This radical approach to navigation arose from a desire, “to create a non-linear experience that wasn’t fragmented…What we’re really avoiding is database storytelling, where you simply sort the videos and you watch what you’re interested in. For example, if you’re interested in the economy, you watch those. Instead, we piece together environments in which people’s stories will be embedded, so it’s a constant flow of environments, story, voice and soundscapes. There’s never a point where the videos stop and you’re just looking at the screen not knowing what to do next. You’re always thrown into a new environment…”. There is some loss of control for the user in this navigational paradigm shift, but other things – inter-connection between stories, immersion – are gained.

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Another novel feature of the environment is the use of data for storytelling. As McMillion explained, McDowell County is in a negative sense rich in statistics – ranking high on various indices related to deprivation such as drug abuse and obesity rates. The use of these statistics has been part of a picture in which McDowell gets represented only as a symptom of social ills, a representation which constructs the community as a lost cause – collateral damage of post-industrialisation. McMillion has tried to reclaim the stats, “if you take that data and turn it on its head a little bit, put the qualitative with the quantitative, then maybe that will provide a richer storytelling experience and people will understand the challenges a little bit. The story is much more nuanced than much of the media likes you to believe. Statistics are black and white, and the stories add another multi-dimensional layer to that.” So an interviewee talking about the changing face of drug misuse in the community is backed up with a bar chart showing a sharp rise in prescription overdose deaths – which is drawn on the wall of an abandoned police station. There’s a dynamic with the user/ audience, too, and you are invited to contribute data at times – US users can enter their zip code to allow comparison between where they are from and McDowell County, for example.

The themes and content – beautifully executed – have emerged from a continuing participatory process. Last Summer Mcmillion and her team held community workshops at the high school – talking about media portrayals of the area, screening rushes, thinking about storytelling. It was a hybrid approach –  the McDowell participants were informing content, learning about media by making, the professional media makers were getting a deeper sense of perspectives and aspirations in McDowell County. Media reflecting this process – sketches of a planned community centre, local kids taking part in a balloon mapping workshop – are reflected in the HTML5 site.  So this layer offers the outsider some history, context and stories of McDowell County, but McMillion sees it also as an important offering for the McDowell community, countering negative portrayal, “Most importantly, the HTML5 documentary site serves to represent the residents in McDowell as they see fit. It’s something they can be proud of and own. It’s their story.”

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The participatory dimension of Hollow is most evident if you access the Update section of the site. From there you enter a WordPress website. A skeuomorph of a local paper, this section includes stories about developments in the area – “Half Pint Café Open”, “North Fork Fire Department Cleans Old Building” – a calendar of events, individual profiles. There is news about community members and an invitation to others to join. Designed to answer local communication needs, the platform is a tool for reflecting and building community initiatives.

Comments in the “What the Community is Saying” section of the development website suggest that the project has already had a significant impact on some of those who have got involved, that it has provoked something important within individual and collective self-perception. Comments include, “I feel like I have contributed to something important and it has changed the way I see the world.” and “I’m not sure I can explain the hope and sense of community that Hollow has inspired.” It’s clear that people feel an initiative like this would not have happened without someone like McMillion coming into the community. That brings home the ongoing nature of what Henry Jenkins calls the “participation gap” – the lack of engagement with participatory culture by those who feel they don’t have the skills to get involved. We are still a long way from universal participation and a project like this is a strategy to address that gap.

It’s interesting to think about Hollow alongside a very different American participatory project, Question Bridge: Black Males, which has been live for some time. The project, which, like Hollow, was supported last year by a grant from TFI New Media Fund, launched in 2012 and is now the subject of a Kickstarter campaign fundraising towards next stage development. I mentioned Question Bridge in my roundup of 2012. It’s an extraordinary work about black American life and identity which knocked me out when I came across it last year. “Through video mediated question and answer exchange, diverse members of this “demographic” bridge economic, political, geographic, and generational divisions.” Like Hollow, Question Bridge emerges from a collaboration with those taking part. The participants don’t make content, but in a profound way they make the piece – by contributing their questions and answers. Here are some:

Where Hollow draws on documentary and journalism, Question Bridge comes out of the art world. It has its roots in a 1996 installation by Chris Johnson and draws on his earlier public and collaborative work including “The Roof is on Fire” – one of the Oakland Projects (with Suzanne Lacey). The other artists behind the work  - Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair and Bayete Ross Smith bring experience of new media art, photojournalism and performance. The project is also informed by social science. As their Artist Statement explains, negative stereotypes have very real implications for black American men. Their dramatic over-representation in the prison system, for example, is associated with disenfranchisement and poverty but also with the psycho-social impact of American history and racism conceptualised over a century ago by the African American educator and sociologist W E B Dubois in the idea of “double-consciousness”.

“The good news”, as the Artist Statement explains is,” that there are effective means of overcoming our negative bias about Black males. One of which, is being exposed to more complex, multi-faceted, and whole images and narratives of black males. This is what the Question Bridge project hopes to accomplish.” Participants are invited to offer a question that they would like to address to another black American man. Those questions – about racism, class, individual and collective responsibility and more – are filmed and then shown to a selected participant to answer. Over 1600 questions and answers have been gathered by the artists so far from 160 men. The dialogue between participants produced through editing then makes up the work. Those taking part come together as a virtual community to interrogate their situations and challenge an oppressive, monolithic construction of their shared identity.

The filming strategy is designed to maximize the viewer’s involvement. Close-up talking heads pose and answer questions directly to camera so that you are positioned as the one being asked and being answered. Addressed as if a member of the community, you are called on as a peer to imagine and hear from many varied perspectives how the world looks through African-American men’s eyes. As an online experience, this has the intimacy of a one-to-one exchange. As an installation, this effect is created in another way too – the monitors are arranged so that you are situated as part of the group at eye level with the life-sized talking heads of the participants. In both cases, the effect works to make you feel that you are inside the dialogue, encouraging identification and disrupting a sense of otherness. Though a very different undertaking, Question Bridge has in common with Hollow that it’s designed to work on two levels. It’s about a community – reflecting lived experience and complexity – and challenging preconceptions. It’s also for the community – a platform through which the participants focus on and ask viewers to think about their common concerns.

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As well as its presence online, the project has played out as an installation in galleries and museums across the US and beyond, and has been the catalyst for community dialogues and education initiatives which have reached over 100,000 people. The Kickstarter video provides a good introduction to the project and reflects the impressive scale and engagement of the work to date – from events with school kids to a screening with San Francisco jail inmates to a panel at the Brooklyn Museum. Now the artists behind Question Bridge want to take their “video mediated megalogue” to the next stage, creating an interactive and mobile version of the project that will allow the user to explore and find out more, using, “smart technology to stimulate human interaction…using online to connect people face-to-face”.  The ambition now is to “impact millions”.

Question Bridge and Hollow relate to an important turn within digital documentary that’s in evidence in projects including Highrise and Mapping Main Street (Interviews - August ’11 & June ’10 .) In these examples the makers are harnessing emerging media to address pressing social issues – not by assembling an argument but by staging a conversation. These projects are different from 20th century linear documentary in that the media artefact isn’t the end point but an element in a continuum of activity, a process of dialogue. They relate to 20th century community media approaches but develop those by taking that dialogue beyond the directly involved community to a wider public. In these projects documentary becomes a kind of public space, an arena for deliberation and reflection. By taking part the participants become a public, who together call attention to common concerns (in the sense suggested by Daniel Dayan – “A public not only offers attention, it calls for attention.”)

Helen de Michiel and Patricia Zimmermann have come up with the rich concept of Open Space Documentary to capture the iterative, dialogic, collaborative aspects of these works, “Media are not objects or arguments, but instead they are places for people to wander around in, a landscape of ideas, actions, networks, histories.” de Michiel and Zimmermann situate this emerging body of work not in relation to documentary traditions but as heir to 20th century relational art practices where the work comes into being through participation – traditions that explicitly lie behind Question Bridge. (Do read De Michiel and Zimmermann’s article which will be published this Summer in an expanded version in Brian Winston’s forthcoming Documentary Film Book.)

It’s a paradox of digital culture that the very technologies notorious for distancing people from real-world interaction also have the potential to foster face-to-face contact and deepen rootedness in location. It’s this offline dimension of Hollow that motivates McMillion, “ the story of Hollow, yes it’s an interactive documentary. Yes, it’s technically a website; it’s online. But really, what I am most passionate about is the stuff that is happening behind the scenes.”

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To fully grasp and evaluate these projects we will need to move beyond commentaries by their producers to understand them from the perspectives of participants and involved communities. We need to think about access and inclusion, finding out who gets involved and why. We need to think about mediation and consider the tension between facilitation and constraint within a call-to-action. McMillion has a background in research on questions of media in community change. Partners will be involved in assessing Hollow and I look forward to their findings. The Question Bridge team are tracking their process, and gathering data from the workshops and museum events. It’s good to see that the Tribeca New Media Fund who supported both Question Bridge and Hollow are developing research with MIT OpenDoc Lab on the under-explored links between participatory media production and social change – a programme of work outlined on the TFI Sandbox.  Impact and engagement are also themes within a research network proposal that we’ve been developing at the DCRC ( home of i-Docs  and CollabDocs).  There’s a great deal of interest among producers in using media for social change. We now need shareable research and insight from projects engaging in this kind of work.

Hollow is still at an early stage, “the project doesn’t even really begin until launch, because that is when we actually can see if these new media tools and community participatory frameworks – if they can actually be used to create meaningful change and awareness.” And a significant part of the Hollow offering – a partnership with the Sunlight Foundation to provide transparency about government spending in the locality – isn’t yet fully in place. Question Bridge is further down the line and the team are now focused on building on the momentum they’ve generated. Executive Producer Jesse Williams was inspired to get involved after getting interested in Question Bridge as an art work and then and realising its transformative political potential, “Question Bridge: Black Males started out as an art project and is quickly becoming a movement.” Question Bridge is a highly focused intervention within the realm of portrayal, image, self-image. Can it be a catalyst for change in the lives of black American men? “Can a question change the world?” Hank Willis Thomas asks at the end of the Kickstarter fundraising video. Let’s support the Question Bridge campaign and find out.

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