Chapter 7 – The participative documentary through the lenses of the Live documentary

Strategies of participation: the who, what and when

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Strategies of participation: the who, what and when

Participation in an interactive documentary can happen in infinite ways and at different stages of the production process (of both content and digital interface). My approach has been to highlight the logics of participation that seem prominent in the participative documentaries created so far. I have argued that assuming that collaboration is synonymous to user-generated content is simplistic and confusing. User-generated content, is a term that comes from the blog sphere that emerged with Web 2.0 participatory culture and it assumes that users are pro-sumers. What the term does not say is who are the users, which type of content do they generate and to whom is this content directed to. Looking for a more nuanced definition of what collaboration might mean in the context of interactive documentary production I have researched the origins of terms such as crowd-sourcing, open source and peer-sourcing. I have concluded that those terms are also misleading when applied to participative documentaries because they imply strategies of participation that worked for specific digital products (software, blogs, encyclopaedia etc…) but that are often not applicable in documentary praxis. The use of video segments in most interactive documentaries creates constraints that are different from code production. Code needs to run, video needs to make a narrative, code can be added to, video could be added to but the motivation for doing so is less evident than in software.

For all those reasons I propose to step out of participative media jargon and to think of collaboration, in interactive documentaries, by questioning its consequences on the production of the artefact: who is invited to collaborate, what can be done and when is this collaboration happening?

  • Who is invited to participate?

When a group of experts is invited to participate in a project, like the re-mixer community invited by Brett Gaylor in RiP: a Remix Manifesto, then those collaborators effectively become peer-producers of the final film, even if the author retains editorial and authorial control. They are peer-producers because they affect at least one stage of the production of the film (in the case of RiP it’s research and its editing).

When the participant is a crowd of non-experts, like the mass invited to send video material to YouTube channel’s Life in a Day, or the viewers that want to add their voice to 6 Billion Others, then those collaborators are crowd-producers of a potentially evolving database. Not only every user can collaborate but, as long as collaborations are sent, the piece keeps growing in scale.

When the participants are people that are portrayed in the documentary, the subjects of the stories, like in the Thousandth Tower and Out my Window, then those effectively become subject-producers. Subject-producers are a limited number, often selected by the author, but they are given a freedom that a documentary subject normally does not have: participate in the documentation of herself.

Deciding who is to participate is one of the political decisions of the author. Documentary activist Kat Cizek involves her subjects hoping that this will create a dynamic of change. Open source activist, Brett Gaylor, makes the choice of using peers to give credibility to his work and to de-bug it from potential mistakes. While filmmaker Macdonald opts for the involvement of the crowds because he needs their multiple voices to speak about a world that he wants to represent as multiple and polyphonic.

  • When is the collaboration happening?

If the choice of the participant has political consequences, the production phase touched by her collaboration often has aesthetical consequences.

Documentaries that open the pre-production and production of their content (rather than of their interactive interface) to subjects, or peers, tend to accept external input during a temporary phase, but do normally end up being highly authored as a hypertext documentary (Out My Window, The Thousandth Tower), a linear films (RiP: a Remix Manifesto, Life in a Day film, The Waiting Room) or a performance (Overheated Symphony). When the collaboration is not only about content, but also about sharing the governance of the project (Global Lives) then the form of the documentary keeps changing, as it follows the views of a dynamic collective.

When the participation accepts content after the launch of the interactive interface (so to populate an existing interface that is already available to the user) then the documentary is normally opened to a multitude of contributions and tends to acquire a mosaic aesthetic (6 Billion Others, Participate, Life in a Day Interactive Gallery). A mosaic interface faces the challenge of visualizing multiple contributions and offering entry points to the user for each of them. It must also offer space for potential growth, as the project could be opened to contributions at infinitum. Although the interactive form of those documentaries is fix, their databases are constantly growing.

  • What is the participant supposed/allowed to do?

Doing a list of the participant’s possible actions would be pointless. Sharing the project scope, user-testing ideas, helping in financing the project, fixing interviews, shooting and producing content, commenting on an existing website… those are all possibilities within a billion others. Effectively what matters is the degree of freedom given to the participant, as this has ontological consequences. Is the participant only able to speak about herself (Out my Window) or can she contest the edits of the author (RiP: A Remix Manifesto)? Is the act of participation only reactive (commenting in Prison Valley) or can it be constitutive (Mapping Main Street, the Jonny Cash Project, 6 Billion Others)? And even when the participant adds to the documentary by adding content, changing the database size and form, to which point is such collaboration also touching its internal organization, the interface itself? Degrees of power, and the consequent positioning of the individual in society is what can be read behind the agency given to the participant.

The strategies of participation seen so far give different levels of freedom to different actants at different times. If a multitude of project have risen in the last five years what still seems to be extremely rare is the case where the contributor is allowed to affect the interactive interface, hence the mode of interactivity, of the documentary. This would lead to levels of co-authoring of the interactive artefact that are currently difficult to imagine. One thing is to visualize the multiple within an interface, the other is to allow the multiple to build such interface.

Over all, most participatory interactive documentaries have experimented with degrees of collaboration that have challenged modes of production and the meaning of what authorship might be. What Dovey and Rose have called distributed authorship (n.d: 10) is for me better described as distributed-production. If the “who is the author of the content” has been challenged, the “who is the author of the concept” has not. In the young field of digital collaborative production models of leadership do not seem to have evolved that much since the days of open source software collaboration. Eric Raymond notices in The Cathedral and the Bazaar the existence of three open source models of ownership: 1. the benevolent dictator with his co-mainteners, 2. the voting committee (with no single leader), and 3. the rotating leadership. Raymond states that the benevolent dictator is historically the preferred model within the hacker community (1998:110). The same seems to have happened in participative documentary making: the author is still very much present, she might not be in control of the content of the piece but, ruling as a benevolent dictator she orchestrates a mixture of peer-producers, crowd-producers or subject-producers.

To my knowledge a part form Echo Chamber Project71, which was never completed, only the interactive documentary that is trying to challenge the benevolent dictator model of authorship is Global Lives. David Evan Harris has been experimenting with a voting committee model, opening certain decisions to a group of collaborators. It is because of its challenging approach to authorship, and its possible political, ontological and aesthetic implications that I have chosen Global Lives as my main case study of participative documentaries. The following sub-chapters will use the relational methodology described in Chapter 4 to analyse Global Lives. What can we understand about such project by seeing it as a Live Documentary?

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