What happens to our understanding of documentary, and documentary’s history, if we think of it as a history of capacities to store energy? Cameras have motors, the history, crudely, is human powered (hand cranked), clockwork, electric – large batteries, then smaller. For some sorts of documentary this also applies to the refrigeration necessary to protect film stock in tropical locations, or keep it insulated in cold.
Does this foolishness (I’m holding back there) know no bounds? “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Nice title for a pitch come launch come effort at SXSW but really, how stupid are we going to make ourselves? Yes, it’s only a title, but what story, I’d like to know, does the sun tell our planet? Do gravitational waves tell the Milky Way (hey, they’re the ones introducing physics, not me), the quark the hadron? What is the story that dopamine tells me as I write this? What is the story that I am telling dopamine as I write this (or is story and biology assymetrical), what particular story am I and testosterone sharing or participating in right now, and what story are the kangaroos a few kilometres away by the river having with the grass and their parasites? If any of this list is a story then story has become so diluted as a term that it can a) refer to nearly anything, and therefore b) becomes rather useless as a term. This is story become religion where if we incant the term often enough it can be used, like spirit, to account for all the gaps in our account. It is like as the human becomes more and more marginal (to this planet, to our importance to the universe – their terms, not mine – to nature) we invent a new heliocentric universe which puts story (and therefore the human) at its centre. As everyone uses their apps and GPS and 4G and wifi on their tantalum containing smartphones at SXSW, what stories are the code of their apps, their GPS signals, 4G and wifi packets, and tantalum telling each other amongst themselves? And if you decide these things can’t tell each other stories, then how the fuck is the universe made of stories?
Alisa Lebow just gave a wonderful keynote that kicked off i-docs. Largely about her online work Filming Revolution. Key things are how her respondents did not want a story for a revolution that was not yet (is not) yet done. That her work in the project with a coder and interaction designer became an issue of how to structure her material without story. She outlined this well, wondering and stating that there are many other ways of understanding that are not just narrative. (Some of the same evidence that I use in my work even appeared.) What was intriguing, surprising and intellectually frustrating was how many people in the audience wanted to insist that the work was both story, that story was essential, and simply unavoidable. Now, let’s pause here. Rather than introduce an argument about all the ways we can have texts that aren’t narrative (song, lots of poetry, lists, and so on) just think about the odd academic universe I have described. Alisa is, it is reasonable to say, an expert on film, documentary, and as a result of her Egyptian project, what local filmmakers there think and feel. This, after all, is why she was invited to speak. Yet apparently what she has learnt from doing this, what she, as an expert respondent said (repeatedly it must be stressed/noted), and documented and argued about this, is apparently wrong. That half of this audience know better (there’s no other word to use than this). This is not an academic argument it is about power disguised as expertise. It is an expert group thinking that their expertise trump their witnesses (including a significant researcher). This includes the ethnographers and anthropologists in the room. I find this bizarre. Rather than insist Alisa is wrong (she is certain she is right) why not just engage with what she says. We can, after all, cope with several views, and we should certainly be able to think that there are ways of documenting the world, even the social world, that are not first of all stories.
I’m currently attending UWE’s two yearly i-docs conference at the beginning of March. The conference is run by the i-doc research group in Bristol. I will be presenting recent research that interrogates (criticises, questions, even possibly politely attacks) the hegemony of story in interactive documentary. The world isn’t a story, why should nonfiction works about the world be obliged (feel obliged) to always be a story?
After scrambling and cobbling together dollars from a variety of sources it looks like I can get to this year’s i-docs symposium, hosted by the i-Docs mob from UWE. My first. I’m excited to see Bristol, to catch up with some friends, and to see what is going on.
I, in that way that is easy to do when you don’t know the people involved, think that a lot of the work being done in interactive documentary (and a lot of things that are called interactive documentary) is not doing very much. This is partly because many moving into this area come from heritage industrial practices that mean that when we meet the novel, different, and strange, the first step is to translate this into current terms to understand it. It can be a similar story theoretically, where this is often a tacit reappropriation or incorporation of the differences of interactive documentary back into existing paradigms of film and documentary theory. Hence, as a simple example, the hegemony of story to nearly every single theorist and practitioner in this field.
So, following up on my recent post on multi and non linearity, and to , well, I was going to say ‘be intellectual provocateur’ but that sounds way too strategic for me. (I get a little autistic around ideas. What that means is all I ‘see’ are the ideas, not the people attached to them. A bad idea I treat as a thing that is unpleasant and unwelcome, and I can be blunt and direct. I once thought it was because I didn’t grow up middle class and so never learnt what I think of as the protocols of sobriety – where I grew up if something was silly, wrong, stupid, ignorant, or dumb, it was called that, we didn’t really have euphemisms and conversation veered towards agon. But I’ve realised it’s more that I just see ideas as things, objects in their own right sitting there, in an intellectual ecosystem (like the red box eucalypt outside my window) and I discuss its qualities as this thing quite forgetting that they have people attached.) So, as someone who sometimes just has to call a spade a spade, this illustration (I’ve borrowed the URL from the i-docs site where it is captioned as “Interactive Documentary Structure from i-Docs 2012”) below needs something said about it.
In my conception of multilinearity and interactivity this drawing is neither, and I think it is illustrative of the poor understanding about interactivity and multilinearity that bedevils thinking in this domain. What are its problems?
If I were a user in this work then my its structure would appear to me as a branching tree (aka choose your own adventure) where my choices have no consequence or implications for the shape of the work (it is fixed). Hence the only way I could learn that it is indeed multilinear would be to get to the end, start again, go to the same two first places, and then (if I can remember) choose something different to go somewhere else. Hopefully the interface provides enough information so that on this second (and third, fourth, etc) reading/viewing I am able to make a decision to not end up in the same place on the fourth ‘level’ of the work.
What else? The illustration is in thrall of an inevitable, determined, definite/definitive beginning and ending. How we ‘do’ things in this domain, temporally (as it is a temporal, not a spatial problem here as we’re talking about hypertextual montage) is all about offering some choices to the user (in an act of generosity as makers we surrender absolute control) but only as long as you begin at the beginning and end at the ending. These remain singular and simple.
This model is indebted, ideologically and intellectually, to the epistemology of print literacy and culture as all those arrows, resolutely moving us to the right, live in fear of recursiveness, repetition, and rhythm. It is only print that insists on linear seriality with no repetition. Painting, dance, song, oral cultures, poetry all rely upon and celebrate repetition. For example who doesn’t revel in those moments in song where a chorus returns the second, third, fourth time, the same but of course oh so different now. Or the repetition of some signature short phrase in a song that, through this very repetition and redundancy shifts the duty of the song and its art from narrative and description and telling into incantation and doing as the words become musical, material, concrete, affective, carnal, embodied, ephemeral, solid.
Recursiveness is not redundancy and lets a work have rhythm. Recursiveness is not redundancy and lets users see that, as they return to where they have been, that they can do and go otherwise and that their actions come to matter for the very shape of the work. If, as happens in this drawing, I choose and arrive, choose and arrive, choose, and it ends, how, apart from beginning all over again, like Sisyphus, would I ever have the opportunity to know I have agency? Which of course is much the same as saying such structures think they confer agency, but do not.
PhDs in the non/fictionLab are holding their Docuverse: A Symposium for Expanded Documentary Practices on February 12. 1 to 5pm, Building 9, Level 2, Room 10. Featuring John Hughes and Jess Linington.
Franzsi interviewed me last week and had some provocative questions, observations, and concerns. It was good to be called to account and to stretch ideas. One of these proddings was around non versus multi linearity. I prefer multilinearity as a way to describe the sorts of interconnected nodal things I make and advocate. Others use ‘nonlinear’. Franzsi wanted to know, more or less, why multilinear rather than nonlinear and what’s the difference?
Answers, as far as I can tell, are a multiplicity, not the one nor the many.
An answer is that hypertext (unlike interactive documentary) has already rehearsed these terms. Nonlinear and multilinear were both appearing at the beginning of hypertext theory, almost as synonyms. Each was used to make apparent how hypertext and its pathways between small, distinct parts was paradigmatically different to print text. Let’s call this the first wave of hypertext theory which spent a lot of its intellectual energy arguing for how hypertext was not print. Second wave hypertext was the inevitable Oepidal response to more finely tune (as Pickering might say) by arguing that the changes wrought by hypertext might not be as dramatic as the first advocates claimed. Second wave hypertext argued that while there might be different pathways through a work these, though variable, still formed linear syntagmatic chains, and that syntagmatic chains, where this and then this happened, could not be avoided. So the argument was that this was not really nonlinear, was it? Third wave hypertext theory moved this along by accommodating this and recognising that yes, in hypertext, sequences form, and what matters is not the presence or absence of sequences but how they come to be formed, and how they vary in themselves.
An answer is that in chemistry and many other fields nonlinear has quite a specific, and interesting, definition. (Now I’m a humanities academic who, at best, is going to provide a bastardised account of this, so think of this as a loose meta view and cut some slack.) Here, or there, I understand a nonlinear system to be a system where incremental addition/change creates a linear (regular) change in the system, until a threshold is crossed and the system ‘flips’ from linear change to nonlinear disorder. So there is no simple proportional relationship between the variables in the system. Order might happen after, but it is a very different order to what was before.
Another answer might be that nonlinear has connotations of randomness, yet in the domain of interactive media our practice is to choreograph a dance between generative procedures, structures (patterns), and the stochastic. How this dance is choreographed is what matters, and even varies in individual works, but is hardly only ever random.
An example of a nonlinear system is pollution entering a lake. Imagine the same amount of whatever this polluting substance might be entering each day. This is a linear amount. One litre each day, so after 2 days there has been 2 litres added, 7 days 7 litres, and so on. The effect on the lake, to begin with, will also be linear. n litres will mean, let’s say, this sort of impact on the ecosystem, n x 2 litres will double the impact. However, at some point (and the trouble with nonlinear systems is we don’t really know where this threshold actually is, which is the real issue with global warming), adding that same amount for one more day sees the ecosystem collapse. The whole system flips and, for example, might have moved from being aerobic to anaerobic, so nearly everything dies.
Another example of a nonlinear system is common in medicine. A drug we might take does very little if the dose is too small, and a lot if the dose is right. If this were simply linear then taking more of the drug would improve its efficacy. Yet with many, if not all, drugs, there is a threshold where they no longer benefit but in fact cause harm, in some cases, catastrophic harm.
This is what nonlinear is.
In relation to interactive media (for example a Korsakow film) that understand these affordances this thicker notion of nonlinearity is, I suspect, an interesting and provocative way to theorise what happens with readers. I click, click, click, wondering what is happening and why, and then, ah, I begin to understand. That ‘ah’ is the phase transition, a threshold, where I move from random clicking to the discovery of what I take to be a significant pattern. This emergence of a pattern, performed by the reader, is a different question or problem to that asked by the general structure of interactive work. For this general structure is not usually nonlinear in this sense, and I don’t see that very much is achieved when we use complex terms poorly in our own field.
The notion of the affect image as slow interval, as the indeterminate that falls between noticing and action, offers a radical critique of interactive documentary poetics, and a compelling alternative methodology. It lets us see that interactive documentary may be less about ‘access’ (social engagement and reach, sociocultural critique), or even novel technocultural forms (it is about all of these things, but this has always been documentary’s charter) but about interrupting, suspending, and slowing the ideas, events, and problems they address. This is largely not the case in contemporary interactive documentary where much of the work being discussed and identified as interactive documentary is caught in a first wave of a digital delirium where the ability to combine, link, and then present media in multilinear and nonsequential ways becomes a parade and celebration of technical spectacle. (It is a reprise of Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions’ applied to new media.)
In the current context of work that is available and being discussed theoretically, interactivity is diluted and under theorised to the extent where recent academic work can provide a definition of interactive documentary that, at base, says little more than that interactive documentary is documentary that is interactive – leaving the key term mute.
In a nutshell much interactive work confuses a literal and direct action with interactivity, or becomes explicitly or implicitly concerned with the technical language of coding as special effect (for instance witness the excitement and rapid adoption of the curtain.js library as a sort of cinematic web special effect for long form web nonfiction).
Dumped from a current chapter:
As a centre or zone of indetermination the affect image is then where things may happen, but this interval is extended, in some cases interminably in the cinema, where in its extreme form that which does happen is never sufficient to the situation. This is the real regime of the affect image for affect is not merely this realm of possible decision but is much more specifically for Deleuze (following Bergson) the remainder that is not expended, spent, disseminated via action. (Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest offers a beautiful example of its famous final shot where the death of the priest is off camera, narrated to us, where narrative action is absolutely evacuated from the visible image.) This is because the sensory motor schema that underwrites this model is premised upon an economy of forces or flows where something is perceived, a decision is made, and an action occurs. In the regular course of events this action is understood to be adequate to the perception where the action responds adequately to the perception. There is no remainder, the stimulus is spent by the stimulation. In affect, however, the action does not meet the demand of the perception, and this remainder then creates and produces what we take to be affect. I desire that person, I court, seduce, wonder, dream, touch, make love, build a family with them.
Affect is a qualitative, not a quantitative, field, which is why the list can continue, will never be done, and each act can never be enough.
Documentary research students in the non/fictionLab are putting together an interactive documentary symposium for February 2016. Hannah Brasier, Kim Munro (I’m supervising both), Nicholas Hansen, and visiting research Franziska Weidle are running Docuverse: A symposium for expanded documentary practices has a current call for papers and description.