Archive for the ‘softvideo’ Category

Documentary Ontography: aka Nonfiction and Lists

This semester in our media undergraduate program I’m running a 12 week studio entitled Documentary Ontography: aka Nonfiction and Lists. (I’m riffing off Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology a lot at the moment.) I’m intending the studio to be problem based, come action learning, which will freak me and the students out till we get the learning culture embedded. I’m looking forward to it, and really don’t have a strong idea of where they’ll end up taking it.

It is situated somewhere amongst materialist media studies, lists, interactive documentary, posthumanism, and generative or procedural methods of making. I do know that I want to begin from (quite literally) this quote:

Let’s adopt ontography as a name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity…. Like a medieval bestiary, ontography can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. (Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing p.38.)

I might use this quote as the basis of a textual exploded diagram (in much the way that Bogost discusses the exploded diagram as a type of ontograph) that the class builds over a couple of weeks, and let that model what we do, as well as find what directions the thinking and making might go. I want to teach them, beginning with this quote, how to read and think as if they were scientists. What sort of thing is this quote? What does it do? What can it do? What tests, experiments, questions, tasks, do we ask or use it for to try to find out what it is. And to understand that what it is, is what it does (like Bryant talks about his blue coffee but doing colourness, rather than being blue). It isn’t about right, or intent, a correct reading or even just meaning. It is making machines (including of them) to revel in and show the density of a world where they need to learn the humility of not being a radiant ego.

This, incidentally, is also why it is situated in documentary. Not that documentary doesn’t suffer from didacticism or auteurism, but nonfiction does provide an avenue that explicitly addresses the world, for fiction as best I can tell has absolutely no use outside of the explicitly and only human. (Which I guess means fiction can be thought of as either Bataillean excess, a glorious general luxury who’s point is precisely it’s uselessness, or as the epitome of our species’ vanity.)

Softvideo, Preliminaries

Softvideo relies upon the specificities of the computer to inform its architecture, its structure. In this softvideo is a term that is offered partly as a speculative proposition, as a descriptor that wants to describe a possible future form as well as a practice for a properly digital video object. However, it is also a more concrete term that I want to use to describe the existing properties of one legacy digital video file format as a way to think about this as an architecture in ways that hopefully are able to articulate what is peculiar about it. A way to wonder with it, that recognises the substantial differences to our historical, everyday, technical (what we can now describe as legacy media’s understanding of film and video) understanding of video that it offers. A making strange of video, as it were.

A ‘properly digital video object’ is a term that is hoped to have some force associated with it. I am not wanting to suggest the ‘proper’ that deconstruction so strongly dealt with, but there is the intention that softvideo must be more than just digitised video. That digitisation, after our 1980s and 1990s enthralment with having a machine that indifferently ingested nearly any media that we directed it toward (see for example Negroponte’s landmark Being Digital or any issue of Wired from its first five years), is merely a variety of technical translation that, of and in itself, does not disrupt, problematise, or even ask questions of these media in themselves. This, today, does need remembering (again in that way where we as academics so routinely seem to forget what the world was and is like, as we build our elaborate, often tautological — even solipsist — accounts of what are so often quite minor matters of concern) because there is a complicated, I suppose nonlinear (in de Landa’s sense) history of different fields and practices, and media, each being touched, in turn, by the digital and each similarly reprising a history of almost revolutionary fervour and enthusiasm for the implications and significance of the digital. This history, which is not only well documented but now almost banal to observe because it is now so ordinarily everyday — where the $4.99 video editor on my mobile phone is more sophisticated and powerful than the two desk $30,000 U–Matic edit suite I first used in the 1980s — has to date consisted of three distinct waves. The first involved text, and included word processing, hypertext, and early desktop publishing. The second wave involved audio and video and was first evidenced in the rise of expensive, industrial scale digital nonlinear video and sound editing platforms, and then like word processing before it also saw new devices for the recording of sound and image digitally. The third wave (and it ought to be obvious that each of these overlap in numerous ways and each continues, through their own particular deflections, today), affected distribution with the rise of the Internet, and most specifically the World Wide Web, where now access to audiences and ways to share and display media was radically and deeply changed. If this third wave, which we are very much in the midst of, is now moving or developing a fourth wave where digitisation and the Internet are combining to not only affect production, distribution, and consumption, but also to invent network specific new media forms.

Hence a ‘properly’ digital object, here, sits somewhere toward this fourth wave of the digital. Here what is of concern is not only that the tools of production, distribution and consumption have changed, but that what our media is, in some sort of structural, formal manner, are also being changed. This change, which is not just a consequence of digitisation, is also an understanding of the computer as a procedural sort of computational machine and the network as something more, or different, than a connected series of content containers that is a more or less friction free way to distribute existing media objects. Softvideo is then a term that I am using as a placeholder to describe a video media object that alludes to this fourth wave.

Melbourne Korsakow Workshop

There will be a free full day Korsakow workshop at RMIT on February 18. Places are limited, and participants will be eligible for a 50% discount on the cost of Korsakow. If you’ve dabbled with Korsakow, are interested in interactive documentary, curious, a nonfiction multilinear narrator, or some combination of these, then this is for you.

Details on the nonfictionLab site

Interactive Documentary Symposium

We are running a symposium on interactive documentary on Monday February 16. Several presenters. The aim is to hear some recent research and open up the floor for a lot of debate, discussion, and something else alliterative that doesn’t come to mind immediately (deliberation? disagreement?). Details on the nonfictionLab site.

Waves of Misjudged Wonder

Interestingly, in hypertext theory (and what I am noting here has been reprised also in theoretical writing on interactive cinema and more recently interactive documentary) there is little research that investigates how to write hypertextually. It is common for writing and making to be pushed to manuals, how-tos or collaborations with hopefully sympathetic developers and interaction designers.

Historically this is simple to understand for many of those writing about forms of new media come from theoretical histories that pay little to no attention to the materiality of making, or media, in any but rudimentary ways. This scholarship adopts (largely unknowingly to the extent that it is unnoticed, and where raised regularly dismissed as of minor or no concern) a Cartesian separation between material thing and idea where what is studied and theorised about is valorised and hypostatised into thought and argument but the materiality of page, paper, and type are regarded as secondary, a material supernumerary to what matters.

This is one of the divisions and differences that marks the historical divide in new media studies between theory inflected from post structural literary traditions versus those from cinema studies. Cinema, as an explicitly industrial and technical practice, where the machinery simply cannot be avoided (apart from all the equipment and technical staff used to make a film the influence of craft unions has also ensured that every film that is watched lists the roles and names of everyone who has contributed, in any way, to its realisation) has always cared about its material substrates. Arguments about lighting technologies, developments in film processing, the way film responds to colour temperature, and then more recently intense debate about the ‘loss’ of the aura of film in itself (grain, exposure contrast, and noise) that accompanied the move toward digital recording technologies, all attest to the very near presence of materiality in cinema. That this seems to have been expressed largely as a fetish (in the same way that writers fetishise the form of the book as a serially ordered thing on paper between hardback covers) though might be one way to recognise that cinema studies has actually paid little real attention to materiality as we are trying to understand it here.

When we turn to new media studies, in spite of the theoretical heritages employed, the materiality that cinema studies has at least fetishised appears diminished. New media studies then seems closer to literary theory in this diminution (though some of the anxieties about ebooks do cross into a trite discussion about the book as material thing) of materiality as it has, certainly to begin with, emphasised the way in which the digital erases distinctions between media types (text, sound, image and video all appearing as the same to the computer) and so begins from the premise that materiality no longer really matters in a world of computers and new media. Even recent work reflects in areas that are ‘discovering’ the digital (for example interactive documentary) you can witness a critically naive wonder at how plastic and malleable everything becomes digitally, with this malleability then easily sliding into a reading of the digital as a friction free virtuality where anything becomes possible. This view has been recycled historically, as each area comes to digital and new media in turn (it is evident in the excited rhetoric that accompanied early hypertext theory, the same terms where reprised by different scholars in the first wave of multimedia, then interactive cinema, and more recently interactive documentary), and seems to be sustained by the humanities scholarly community’s significant ignorance and misunderstanding of what is involved to make anything in digital media.

The exception to this generalisation is where the most interesting contemporary work is being undertaken, for instance in the areas of software studies, platform studies, media archeology, and some corners of the broader digital humanities. This is work being undertaken by Bogost, Montfort, Parikka, Chun, and Kirschenbaum, for example, and what is striking about all of this work is how important their material experience of making digital media has been. Whether this experience is a reasonable competency in writing code, having an understanding of assembly languages, or even playing with electronics, each of these writers are deep digital makers, and so are well aware of the deep material resistances of digital media.

Recent work in interactive documentary appears to repeat the simple distinctions of earlier first wave hypertext, multimedia, and interactive cinema theory. Similarly much of the scholarly work focusses on what things mean, with little understanding of what they actually do.

Changes Afoot to Korsakow

Korsakow, still open source, formally more or less free, is now USD50 (details on the Korsakow site). This is a good move to hopefully allow more robust development of what remains the best application for authoring generative, thick, multilinear video works for non-programmers (the other options available create link hierarchies, not poetic clouds).

I expect some will be disappointed or upset at the introduction of a cost. However, it is still open source, and in its time as open source developers have not, as far as I know, come on board to contribute. This is the case for the vast majority of open source projects, so if free labour won’t come to your project then to continue development, you need to find a way to bring money to it to then fund that necessary labour.

(And keep in mind that even highly successful open source projects such as WordPress have major commercial ‘arms’ (see automattic), as well as a service economy of commercial plugins, templates, hosting, and installations to make them viable. Similarly many successful open source projects, while receiving donated labour, often manage this via de facto or explicit institutional support. For example Korsakow has undergone major development courtesy of public Canadian research funding, while many others seem to rely on labour by academics who have the good fortune to be employed in positions that allow this sort of flexibility in how they apply their labour. This is merely a form of indirect public funding, which is great, but it is not ‘free’ in the way that much commentary about free software and open source defines free.)

So, at USD50 a licence it will now run under Yosemite. Hopefully on the roadmap is a makeover of the UI and, I’d hope, HTML5 export in some manner that would allow for K films to operate on iOS tablets by dropping the Flash runtime engine. What is slated is the removal of in application transcoding of video, which is a big plus as encoding outside means you know what your video will look like. It also removes what is often the cause of the most problems with novices as all variety of odd video formats, or weirdly compressed video, has been imported into projects only to have Korsakow fall over when a work is transcoded as FFMPEG bumps up against some unexpected data rate, codec, and so on.

The risk, and it is a legitimate one, is that if the UI stays as is people will misread this the wrong way to think the program is not worth the USD50. It is, but these days with the OS X app store it has to look and behave as a cocoa app.

Emerging Documentary Practices

Emerging Documentary Practices is an intriguing looking confernce in April (the email says 2014, I’m assuming they’re just confused) at Temple. Proposals due Jan 12, 2015. It’s only a one day thing, so small scale, but nice theme and topic. From the mail out (note, no URLs provided in the email…):

> Proposals for participation, short papers (5 minute “proposition/question/provocation”) and the digital exhibition of works on the dedicated kiosks should consist of a proposal statement  (max 500 words), a URL if available/relevant, and brief biographic statement (max 150 words).




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Endings (part one)

Softcopy is a material change to writing, perhaps the most significant material change to writing since the rise of popular literacy and the printing press in western Europe. The specificity of this change matters, for what I’m particularly interested in is the implications of this for writing largely because for humanities academic research it is surely the possible changes for how we write that has the most significant implications for us as scholars.

Writing, to repeat a refrain that appears to run my work much like the hook in a pop song, is the site of my research as a practice. It is where the complexity, density, and messiness of ideas and thought and the world happen and are negotiated. As a non-fiction writer (for this is what academic writing is) and a critical theorist I recognise that the traditional academic essay, the sorts of things we normally write and publish (and for that matter read) are as formulaic as those science papers we sometimes mock, and apart from the odd pun and sometimes playful alliteration, a lot of effort is expended (well perhaps not) to tame our writing and thinking so that thought becomes singular and well composed, which in many instances simply means it deports itself in ways that lets it, as writing, stay polite, and calm, and, well, utterly domesticated. We tame or let thought become subdued in our writing as the clamour of ideas–in–themselves get politely sent to, on a good day, a footnote, even in writing that argues for and advocates some sort of multiplicity or other acentred view of some content area.

Humanities academic writing in our traditional but oh so very usual way is then, as in the sciences, a reporting upon what has been found, of what we already know, and in this domestication, which is a mix of the self policing of an academic milieu and the hegemonic reification of the a particular notion of the rational that print (Ong, Stafford) instantiates, we reduce the complex to the simple (even where we use long words and innumerable clauses).

Such a writing, and its form, is intrinsically teleological. To this extent what I’m almost parodying as the canonical humanities academic essay shares this quality with classical realist fiction, in both literature and cinema, for here, too a ‘good’ story is one that simultaneously presents the illusion that it could really have been, and also that how it ends and its means of arrival are inevitable, ‘natural’, and rationally understandable. Stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, do not have to do this. That they do this is a consequence of the linear finitude of their material substrates, to wit because there is a last page, because there is a last frame, they have to end. Because they have to end the ending becomes a problem (much like beginnings).

Now Dr Seth Keen

Congratulations to now Dr. Seth Keen on his PhD which I co supervised. It is available at and describes the idea of the ‘documentary designer’ for interactive doco practice.