The Risk of Beginning From Poor Examples


Prison Valley was a common example at Visible Evidence for those discussing new directions in documentary. I’m going to criticise it here, but I want to be very clear about why.

First of all, it is a substantial work (I met David Dufresne at DNA last year) and is a significant contribution to getting documentary practice discussed and taken seriously online. It is also an intriguing project in relation to how and what it says about place, and while the locals might not like it, for those of us outside the USA it accurately plays out that strange dichotomy of ‘small government’ versus the extraordinary pervasiveness of ‘big government’ everywhere through agencies of policing and the military. However, in what will become the history of online documentary, and what I think will more accurately need to become online nonfiction (more about that another time), these sorts of works will matter for drawing a line in the sand much more than for what they specifically do. Prison Valley could well be online documentary’s Nanook of the North, (which is no small claim) with all that that entails, the positive and the negative.

Now, my very strong position is that networked nonfiction as a practice, certainly at the moment, seems to work best, and is strongly aligned to, affect, and particularly the sort of affect we can understand from Deleuze’s Cinema One. This is something that enlarges upon, suspends, and doesn’t really concern itself with narrative cause and effect. For documentary, certainly in terms of its observational traditions (observational, ethnography, anthropology, autoethnography and so on) this seems a simple fit. But more generally this supports the sorts of works that are associative, essayistic (clearly in the oeuvre of Marker, and as Corrigan has so admirably described) and poetic. These are documentary works that, if you like, recognise that we are (currently) no longer in a position to make claims with certainty, that knowledge is intertwingled, mixed, modal, embodied, enacted, plural and poly. That it involves affective experience, experiential knowing, a sort of ‘know it in your bones’. (Keep Marker in mind here, this is not an apologia for opinion and bad argument dressed up as poetry, it is much closer to, say, the Bachelard of The Poetics of Reverie and is similarly grounded in a depth of learning and thought). In other words a form that can make knowledge claims in a world where we know that certainty has fissures, and as David McDougall so wonderfully described in his plenary session at Visible Evidence, where the film is like field work as it remains messy and, unlike writing, once recorded remains always unalterable, a bearing witness to the complexity and thingness of the world and its intractability in relation to what we think we want and can say about and to it. (Pause for breath, phew.)

So I think we need to head towards, let’s call it a Markeresque mode of online nonfiction. That’s my flag in the sand. So, given that (and I think the recurring trope of affect during the two days I was in Canberra supports this) Prison Valley begins from outside of this.

How? Well it is an informational documentary, hence it becomes a menu driven project, even where it might use the contemporary version of image maps to be otherwise. There is the long opening video sequence, and later an ironic narrator that relies on the irony to slip by us with its implicit authority of just how to frame this place. Like the early web, with its fear of being ‘lost’ and not understanding the link (so icons of houses labelled ‘home’ to return us to the index page) the image is replete with popups as the only means to tell us that things are touchable, that there are clues, or a notebook. I click through ‘rear window’ where I view someone cross some asphalt and open a door, and my choices are to return, do some promo via Twitter, or visit the forums. Where are the loops, the repetitions, the musicality that, well, affective works will need? This is simple branching, a yes no universe of backwards and forwards which, is navigating a space which is, at the end of the day, ersatz narrative.

In addition, you set up an account to use it (twitter of Facebook, come one?), and it remembers state information so when you return it takes you to where you were, so good luck if you want to return to the before (to return to the opening video sequence requires network acrobatics). This is largely a multimedia CDROM from the early 90s ported to the web, with the same aesthetics and colonising assumptions about my bandwidth, time, and screen. It reduces documentary and narrative to a menu disguised as interactivity and is about information and its architecture. It is encyclopedic in its form and ambition and like other ‘documentaries’ in this vein it can use all the pictures it likes but deep down it is a menu based architecture masquerading as something else. This is not multilinear, granular or curatorial storytelling.

Again, I think this is somewhere to start from, and my comments will perhaps sound harsh, but I have returned to Melbourne a little frustrated at the lack of critical questioning that seemed to pervade the conference. I don’t’ have an alternative model or suggestion, but apart from Jeni Thornley (and Martyn Jolly’s impassioned and very articulate argument about 2.5D in documentary) there seemed little willingness to ask or take up the positions and claims being presented.

Oh, the title. Poor examples. If we spend a lot of critical energy explaining what these things are, and using these as the basis to theorise what nonfiction doco online is, then I think we are missing the way that documentary is future orientated (this it shares with design) and intended towards change. Documentary, by virtue of being nonfiction, engages with the world with the intent to change, the world, us, our understanding. This is qualitatively different to our engagement with fiction. Documentary is instrumental, and this instrumentality needs to be turned to the form itself, which historically has happened which is one of the reasons why documentary has been such a rich field of practice. I guess I’m worried that if these sorts of informational works are taken as a place to begin from then we end up with informational works, which in an age of ready to hand information is perhaps a null game?