Four categories of collaborative documentary

I’ve just been in Barcelona, at the ECREA (European Communication Research & Education Association) Digital Culture Workshop which looked at innovative practices and critical theories.  It was a terrific gathering – small enough to get to know people, focussed enough to be productive – a great mix of conviviality and critical dialogue. (Thanks to the convenors, Caroline Basset and Elisenda Ardevol.)

I presented in the Creative Practices strand which was concerned with, “concepts of participation, co-creativity, co-design or co-innovation in creative processes involving audiences and independent creators in a wide spectrum of activities including art, photography, video, and videogames.”  My paper offered a draft categorisation of the projects I write about here, according to the type of contribution made by the participants. I’ll give a brief summary of the four categories.

In “The Creative Crowd” model which covers work including Mad V’s The Message, and perry bard’s Man with a Movie Camera; the Global Remix, multiple participants contribute fragments to a highly templated whole, analogous to the separate panels within a quilt. The units of content may not make much sense on their own but value and meaning accrue as they come together producing a distinctive aesthetic that’s about energy and repetition. (Though not a documentary, The Johnny Cash Project is a prime example of this mode.)

In the second model, “The Participant Observers” are distributed filmmakers who each contribute to a work that’s concerned with contrasting experiences of place. The participants decide when and what they shoot and what story they want to tell, but their role in the final contextualisation of that content can vary dramatically. Participants may contribute rushes towards a linear whole that someone else edits, as in Life in a Day, or produce a stand-alone film, a considered narrative, for an interactive framework as in Mapping Main Street. Though filmed observation is as old as documentary I see the prevalence of these situated observers now as significant. What they bring is the potential for documentary “knowledge” that is grounded in experience – situated, embodied, affective. This mode is all about multiplicity, and when content is organised in a database the output can also be open-ended, produced through the interactive experience of the viewer / user.

The third mode I call “The Community of Purpose”. Here, a group of participants take part in a production with a shared objective around social change. They may be involved in making content but may have another role in the process, as the resident experts do in the Highrise project. These projects tend to be iterative rather than having a fixed trajectory. Global Lives and One Day on Earth are examples here. What’s fascinating in this category is that collaborative process – the dialogue and experiences involved in production – begin to be as important as product. There is a definite turn in this direction right now, though this way of working is not new in itself. Kat Cizek’s work at the National Film Board, in particular, is a deliberate re-working of Challenge for Change – the 1960s project which initiated Community Media. ( See earlier post on Cizek as Filmmaker in Residence.) For more on this group do take a look at my interviews with David Evan Harris (Global Lives) and Kat Cizek (Highrise). An open rights framework such as Global Lives has can then add another dimension of emergence as uses for the content can grow in a unrestricted way, driven by collaborators.

After I submitted the abstract for Barcelona I added a fourth category, which I call, The Traces of the Multitude. (Thanks to Jon Dovey for introducing me to Negri’s concept, here used somewhat ambiguously.) This category relates to “Semantic Documentary” –  work that’s just emerging like the Highrise spin-off, One Millionth Tower, and 18DaysinEgypt. These projects introduce a new aspect to collaboration by drawing on social media content – linking to a multitude of, potentially anonymous, contributors. Here we can start to see documentary that is continually live and updating, with static video linked to live web data. (I’ve been working on an article with Jon Dovey about this work and the wider implications of the “Sea of Data” for documentary, in which I ponder my own experiments on the The Are you Happy? Project. I’ll write more about that here soon.)

It was lovely at ECREA to meet and hear from a number of scholars doing theoretical work on areas close to mine. I presented alongside Isis Hjorth, from the Oxford Internet Institute, whose PhD examines peer-production in the Wreckamovie community. Isis is asking whether accounts of peer-production have been over optimistic, and if these modes aren’t in fact closer to the managerial and bureaucratic modes of conventional production than has been suggested. The other panelist, Antoni Roig, is, with co-researchers Talia Leibovitz and Jordi Sanchez Navarro of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, examining the concepts and practices of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Again, their interest is in getting behind assumptions about democratisation to understand the complexities of these practices.

The discussion after the panel circled around what is going on in the dynamics of participation. As Trish Morgan asked in a Tweet, “Who has final editorial say in a collaborative, crowdsourced, peer-produced work?” The answer varies, and the discussion made me realise that I need to tease this out and make some of my working assumptions more explicit. When I speak about collaboration I assume that the types of contributions people make, and the control they have, will be uneven; that not everyone will have the same stake or involvement, though the terms certainly need to be clear at the start. I think of collaboration as a relationship that can be productive even if it’s asymmetrical. This perspective comes from experiences in production going back to Video Nation, where the BBC provided production expertise, cameras, training, editing, and the BBC platform, and the participants brought their everyday life experiences, community contexts, their time, thought and their recordings. The co-creative relationship that existed in the first stage of the VN project (94-2000) – which was founded on participants right of veto over what was broadcast – produced documentary insights that were valuable to the audience – based on reviews and audience feedback – and, by various accounts, to the participants – see Nancy Thumim‘s research at the time. Though it is worth saying that Nancy produced a more critical commentary on institutional mediation in her later research which looked at Digital Storytelling including the Capture Wales project I was part of at that time, which will be reflected in her forthcoming book, Self-Representation and Digital Culture. (I do apologise for referring to the VN example so often, but it’s so relevant here. For another take on VN, and a substantial overview of this field, see Nico Carpentier’s Media & Participation, published earlier this year.)

Video Nation, and many of the projects I describe on this blog, are initiated and structured by professional producers. This is not to say that participants don’t make substantial contributions to meaning. But that’s another discussion… The producers are “context providers” but only sometimes “content providers”. They can be seen as “benevolent dictators” as Eric Raymond has described it, referring to the dominant mode of organisation in Open-Source Software development. Even the exceptional Global Lives, which as David Evan Harris describes in his recent interview is now run as a collective, is still substantially influenced by Harris’ orginal vision.

Isis Hjorth mentioned the idea that there is often a charismatic individual behind crowd-sourced projects. It’s an interesting suggestion and isn’t at odds with the producer model I’m describing. You need to be motivated to take part as a volunteer in a collaborative project, and Cizek and Harris, for example, are certainly inspirational figures. The idea makes sense in a particular way in the projects described in the Creative Crowd model above. Those examples come close to Fandom. They are not necessarily led by, but they each involve an iconic figure  – Mad V, Johnny Cash – or an iconic work – Man with a Movie Camera. [If anyone isn’t sure of the iconic status of Mad V- pictured above – I can assure you that the interview with him on this blog has consistently been the most viewed page – years after he bowed out of You Tube.] These are works of homage. Thinking of them in this way underlines how the dynamics of participation inter-relate with structures of feeling that are not new, and not necessarily egalitarian. (For a nice catalogue of organisational models see the slide below – from a session I recently attended at the Mozilla Festival – where structures for open working were under discussion.)

So the Barcelona workshop raised some important and engaging questions for me. Being there made me realise that I need to unpack some of my starting points, and consider my assumptions. Those four categories may prove productive in that thinking, and they may not. I suspect now that they try and capture too much, conflating production, participation and aspects of form which need disentangling. Another outcome from the workshop for me was that I want to think more about how value is distributed in these projects – about money and surplus value, yes, but also reputational value, the value of taking part, audience value, public value. Some ethnographic work on particular projects is really needed right now.  So the ECREA workshop was productive, as well as fun. And there was lots of interesting work under discussion that I haven’t mentioned here. Do take a look at the abstracts, which are all available on the website.