Happy New Year

Happy New Year. I’m kicking off the year with some thoughts and questions prompted by looking back on 2010.

I’ve noted a flurry of global projects this past year as producers have taken advantage of participatory video and the online network to reflect daily life. The most interesting to me is the ongoing Global Lives project which attempts to counter a lack of global coverage in North America with a detailed reflection of 24 hours in some typical daily lives around the world (posts in July and November). I’ll be interviewing David Evan Harris, founder of Global Lives, for this blog later this week. Two other projects underway are attempting to synthesise crowd-sourced content shot around the world in a single day into linear documentaries. The blockbuster You Tube based feature documentary Life in a Day, being made by Oscar winners Kevin MacDonald and Ridley Scott, (posts in July and October ) chose July for filming, while the NGO sponsored One Day on Earth on Vimeo (post in October) opted for 10:10:10. The jury’s out on these as neither is yet complete though Life in a Day is nearly there and will be released in January.

In the most recent in a series of videos promoting Life in a Day, director Kevin Macdonald and editor Joe Walker talk about the process of making sense of the more than 5,000 hours of user generated video that their call to action generated. Despite the challenge presented by the sheer quantity of material MacDonald says that working with You Tube content has been great, giving them unusual artistic freedom to shape the work as they choose, a “purity of motivation” as he calls it, without a financier pushing for a product that will recoup his investment. It’s an enviable position for a documentary maker to be in. But as the participatory mode starts to get established in the industry we are going to have to think about the economics of these projects and ask at what point volunteer effort becomes unpaid labour, collaboration becomes exploitation. As Trebor Scholz puts it, in his trenchant criticism of what he calls “Playbour” (Play + Labour) in the digital economy, “free comes at a price”.

Scholz’s thought resonates for me in thinking about another of the year’s creative themes – the use of Data Mining to personalise the user experience in music videos. Arcade Fire’s video for “We Used to Wait”, The Wilderness Downtown (September post) made well-judged use of this affordance incorporating footage of the viewer’s own family home – courtesy of Google Maps and Street View –  to create a moving exploration of growing up, memory and identity. In December, the Japanese band Sour followed up their 2009 hit Hibi No Nieiro, with its virtuoso use of crowd-sourced webcams, with Mirror, which features data-mined content. The interactive video was produced by Masashi Kawamura, who was also behind the 2009 video, in less than a month, with $5,000 raised on the mass funding platform for creative projects Kickstarter (the success of which is itself a noteworthy story of 2010).

Mirror combines band footage with content drawn in (with permission) from the users social networks, along with other material that’s freely available. Try it here. It’s a cleverly realised piece that’s been much admired (“absolutely wild“,”very cool“) but it backfired for me. Seeing my photos, content about me found through search, and even routes I’d walked when visiting friends and family on holiday (revealed by my phone location) woven into the video gave me a distinctly queasy feeling, as it graphically illustrated just how accessible all that personal information is. Here’s one person’s version:

There’s a gathering disquiet about the implications of all the data we’ve been giving away more and less unwittingly in our dealings online, data which is being monetised and potentially scrutinised. Data Mining and Dataveillance are emerging as major political issues for the next decade. Yet all this material is also a rich creative resource. I’m sure we’ll see an immediate explosion of projects imitating Mirror and The Wilderness Downtown, but I can imagine a backlash too, with personal content becoming a no-go area.

Both the Arcade Fire and Sour videos are made possible by HTML5, the latest version of the hypertext coding language, which integrates video into web pages rather than show it from a separate media player. These two experiments suggest how HTML5 is going to have a profound effect on video online – transforming it in the context of the emerging Semantic Web from a media which has been isolated from other web elements into an integrated part of the web – “semantic video” or  ”hypervideo” as it’s been called.

Brett Gaylor and his associates in the open source Web Made Movies project at Mozilla have been busy experimenting with semantic video in 2010. (Posts in September and October ) They’ve created the popcorn.js library and a number of rapid fire demos exploring popcorn’s potential for web documentary. In early 2011 they’ll be adding Butter to Popcorn as Gaylor explains on Tumblr. Butter is a graphical interface that allows filmmakers to create popcorn pages linking their video to other web content. Meanwhile further work on popcorn.js is underway to make it more open and useable. You can keep track of developments at Web Made Movies.

Two of my favourite pieces of the year – The Johnny Cash Project (August and November) and Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake (October) – show us what a crowd-sourced aesthetic can be. In an interview when she was nominated for the You Tube Play awards, artist Perry Bard explains how she 
abandoned her original idea to remake Vertov’s seminal 1929 documentary herself shot by shot as “truly boring”. Man with a Movie Camera is such an inventive, energetic, ecstatic piece – a celebration of the city, modernity and the potential of cinema itself – that it is hard to imagine how one individual could dream up a remake that wouldn’t look dull in comparison. So Bard, an experienced producer of collaborative public art, threw that thought out in favour of the unpredictable strategy of crowd-sourcing. She didn’t know what would come of it, but she committed herself to an open approach, with rules never to upload anything herself, and never to get rid of anything. Her leap of faith was richly rewarded with the submission of hundreds of Vertov-inspired contributions, ”a collision course of one-night stands, people from all over the world, Bangkok next to Beirut” as she says, which turn out to be the perfect match for the heady rush of the original.

In a similar way, the aggregated frames of The Johnny Cash Project (August and November posts), each drawn by a devoted fan, collectively make a big enough statement to memorialise the epic talent of “The Man in Black”. Again, one person’s homage might have been nice, but there’s a pitch of energy that the crowd brings, when each participant has committed themselves creatively to their own contribution. These projects work artistically as a quilt does, where an accumulation of contrast becomes a pattern with an aesthetic coherence of its own.

Quilting’s been on my mind this year as a metaphor and precursor of digital collaborative work and the excellent Quilts exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum  was one of my cultural highlights (July). Henry Jenkins drew my attention to another contemporary characteristic of quilting in November, when he memorably kicked off his opening remarks at the DIY Citizenship Conference in Toronto; “My grandmother was a Remix artist…”

Finally, I think online documentary came of age this year, with Katerina Cizek’s “Out My Window” (November) which brought us first person insights into the lives of suburban highrise dwellers – with form and content working together just right.

There’s no reason to think developments in 2011 will be any less interesting. I’m looking forward to it.