Interactive Documentary at IDFA, Amsterdam

There was an upbeat mood at last Sunday’s Interactive Documentary Conference, organised by Caspar Sonnen for the fifth anniversary of the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) new media programme, Doclab. The one-day event was one element in the Expanding Documentary programme which also included a number of exhibitions and live cinema events. “How does the documentary genre connect to visual art, music or the digital revolution? To robots, poetry and interactive installations?” What’s “…the link between documentary and innovation, experiment and adventure.” This was the territory of Expanding Documentary.

The positive atmosphere of Sunday’s event had a lot to do with the calibre of the interactive work emerging now. Arriving at De Brakke Grond we were met by an exhibition space where fifteen distinctive, diverse interactive projects were on display. Here was ambitious, confident work for web, tablet and mobile platforms including Bear 71 & A Journal of Insomnia from the National Film Board of Canada, Alma from Upian, France , MAFI.tv – a “filmic map of a nation” from Chile, The Block – the story of an Aboriginal neighbourhood in Sydney. The exhibit’s centrepiece was Moments of Innovation, MIT Open Documentary Lab and IDFA’s DocLab’s joint project, developed by Alexandre Brachet, launched just a few days earlier. This investigation of “the pas de deux between representation and technology” was commissioned to “to put the long story of documentary innovation into perspective, and to speculate about its future.” Displayed horizontally – with screens each showing one of the project’s thematic sections – Participation, Data Visualisation, Immersive etc  – the piece made a splash; its bold colours demanding attention. Both an interactive experience and a document that situates interactive documentary in a historical context, it set up the day’s themes and agenda.

We’re now into the second wave of interactive storytelling, the European Documentary Network’s Ove Rishoj Jensen suggested in his opening remarks. The conference was about setting the stage for this wave by looking back, hearing from some pioneers, and thinking about the influence of technology. The event was asking; where is this taking us? & how do we build a sector for the industry here?

It was a stellar line-up including people and institutions (Arte, NFB) who have played a key role in the development of the field. The presentations drew on a wealth of experience and expertise. I won’t attempt to summarise the whole day. Here instead are some headlines, some themes, some questions the speakers posed, and some highlights.

Moments of Innovation – 1960 and now

Hugues Sweeney from the NFB explained how he sees the invention of sync sound just over half a century ago as the moment in documentary history that is most relevant for our own transformative era. He showed a historic clip from the 1958 NFB film, Les Ragatteurs, in which Michel Brault the sound recordist put his tape recorder down within the shot, in sight of the camera. This was the breakthrough moment that made the film makers realise that they could sync up film and sound using a visual reference. (This led to the use of the clapperboard.) Sweeney’s contemporary experiments explore how today’s emerging technologies can again expand the terrain of documentary. Sweeney’s guiding question: What does technology teach us about reality when we listen closely? His new project, A Journal of Insomnia, is a participatory piece now being populated by drawing in user contributions via the screen and through twitter, cloaked in a dreamy, late night feel. Looking forward, Sweeney wondered; what would a documentary about migration look like that used GPS, a documentary about friendship that used SMS, about depression that used brain sensors?

Historian of media technology, William Uricchio, also pointed to that moment around 1960 when the mobile sync camera was born as the key reference point for today. The technological afffordance of sync sound redefined documentary, he explained, and opened up a new market – TV. Uricchio is Principal Investigator at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab which launched last year. (I attended their inaugural meeting in Cambridge, Mass back in March.) Uricchio situated the Lab’s interest in emerging forms of non-fiction media in relation to the Institute’s overall remit to bring a critical perspective to how we are inventing the future through technology. Their research interest: how to make good use of emerging, accessible tools and platforms for storytelling?

Written by Uricchio, Moments of Innovation  (MoI) charts the evolution of documentary in relation to technology, bringing a welcome historical perspective to contemporary innovation. Uricchio chose one example from MoI to encapsulate the work of the project. Minard’s map – a data visualisation from 1812 – reveals the devastating story of the affect of Napoleon’s march on Russia on his troops. For Uricchio, the archeology provided by Moments of Innovation is about revealing previously unseen patterns, and showing how today’s work relates to long-term desires in storytelling.

Welcome to the Age of the Interface

The Interface was a major theme of the day, with presenters considering the relationship between technology, affordance and story. Daniel Burwen started the discussion with his presentation – “Welcome to the age of the interface”. Burwen suggested that interactive documentary could learn much from game designers who know how to tell a compelling story through a dialogue. Joel Ronez, former Arte commissioner, now at Radio France, amused and provoked by talking about his own cross-platform failures, which had usually involved mistaking technological affordance for content. His injunctions: No to interactive maps, meaningless UGC, purposeless interactivity. Characters belong to the story, they are not the story. All this revolved around his keypoint – “Interface is not the story”.

This theme echoed through the keynote by Upian’s CEO, Alexandre Brachet. When he first came to IDFA Brachet told us, he’d felt out of place. Now, he feels he’s coming home – vindicated in his long-term belief in “the internet and documentary – a great couple”. Walking us through Thanatorama.com, one of his first ventures into the territory – which invites the user to discover what happens to a body after death – he showed how fluent Upian already were in interactive non-fiction back in 2007.

Brachet confesses to being “obsessed with how to tell stories through the interface”. His preoccupations – how to engage using interactive tools, with a cinematographic quality, and a fit between design and content. His company’s success has been guided by one simple principle, “At Upian we always start with the Story.” That approach seems to be paying off in audience reaction and Brachet showed stats that have been rising dramatically over the years. Gaza / Sderot – made in 2007 & accessed every day; best daily traffic – 7K a day. Prison Valley’s strongest traffic – 21K a day.  Alma has already had 60K views in a single day. Taking content to a wider audience through partner sites was also key to that success, Brachet explained, in this case syndicating via a newspaper.

Tate Media – Co-creation at the Museum

Though I’d seen particular projects I hadn’t realised what an impressive body of interactive work Tate Modern have been developing. The objective at Tate Modern is simple – encourage engagement with art – and Jane Burton, Creative Director, Tate Media – talked through the work she’s commissioned in the last few years to try and do just that.  Standout projects include The Gallery of Lost Art – one of the pieces on display at IDFA – a moody evocation of disappeared art works reminiscent of a crime scene investigation. Take a look soon because this, like the artworks, is going to disappear (in this case, deliberately.) Burton also commissioned Aaron Koblin and Chris Milk to create This Exquisite Forest – a collaborative animation project inspired by the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpses.  Burton is interested in the quality as well as the quantity of contributions to that project, and noted how the artists original offer sets the standard for what follows. When Ai Wei Wei asked for video questions from visitors to his Sunflower Seeds exhibit he got 11,000. The video of One to One, based on the virtual exchanges that resulted, was moving, and revealing of the artist. In these Tate projects you can see a very purposeful use of interactivity and participation to explore the “Museum as a place of co-creation”.


      Screenshot from the Gallery of Lost Art which will disappear in less than 8 months

In a great line-up, two presentations stood out – one witty, one cautionary.

More or Less
Jonathan Puckey CEO of Moniker showed examples of his studio’s playful, prolific output. Their work includes More or Less, a participatory music video that updates hourly, and PointerPointer a project which has turned viral by engaging geeky fans with a mystery – how did they write an algorithm that could recognise a finger pointing? Elsewhere, Moniker have been mining participatory photos to create alt. collections eg the failed self-timer moment. They’ve made comic use of the clichés of interactive design eg delaying loading for dramatic effect. Puckey and associates are clearly in their creative element, and having a lot of fun. We can look forward to lots more to enjoy from Moniker.

“How Submarine learned to love and hate the App store”
Bruno Felix from Submarine Channel (creators of immersive web doc ‘Collapsus’ and interactive comic ‘The Art of Pho’) offered the sobering story of the trouble they ran into trying to make an iPad app for the documentary Keep on Steppin‘ with film maker Marjoleine Boonstra. Their aim was to create a documentary native to that platform, but the app was repeatedly rejected by the App Store. Comments like, “We found the features of your app were not entertaining enough” revealed a yawning chasm between the agenda that drives a creative documentary and that of the Store. Felix described how they re-categorised the project. They added functionality. They kept tweaking. They struggled to get a human being on the phone. He talked against a backdrop of the hilarious, scary comments they got back from the store.

Submarine find that their new doc is not “useful enough”

Tablets seem to offer great promise for documentary – a mainstream platform, a new audience accessibility. But as Felix said, “There’s a new gatekeeper. It’s the App Store.” The fact that the gatekeeper turns out to be, not a commissioner, but a micro-serf processing applications in India, adds a contemporary twist to the story. Felix will be resubmitting the app…

As I grabbed my things to head for the airport I noticed William Uricchio with Cubie, the robot documentarist who was in residence at the exhibition. When the media historian turned Cubie’s gaze and questions in my direction I was taken aback by my reaction: I wanted to talk to her. (A camera in a cardboard box had been given design attributes – ‘cute’, vulnerable – that were unnervingly effective in drawing you in. In terms of getting the interviewees to open up this one could give Molly Dineen a run for her money.) Technology rolls on, and what comes next will have its own allure and challenges for documentary. Time to start thinking about the ethics of the non-human film maker.

For more do check out the tweets #idfainteractive and the whole expanding documentary programme

There’s a video about the development of Cubie and her friends here.

A longer version of this post appears on i-Docs.org

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