Tag Archives: documentary

A Poetic Approach to Documentary

Freshly minted PhD Bettina Franham’s thesis is now available from the University of Technology, Sydney’s library. This is a major contribution, read it, and an enormous congratulations to Bettina for some exemplary scholarship.

A Poetic Approach to Documentary: Discomfort of Form, Rhetorical Strategies and Aesthetic Experience

Working in the borderlands between art and document, a poetic approach to documentary disrupts commonsense understandings of what documentary can be. However, it is frequently viewed as marginal to the main body of documentary practice for its foregrounding of aesthetic choices around form and materiality.

Pushing to the extremes of what is recognisable as documentary, a poetic approach to documentary highlights the rhetorical impact of aesthetic choices within the broader field of practice. Experiential ways of knowing are emphasised so that the work is conceived of as an experience in itself rather than a replication of reality.

Moving beyond realist representations of evidence, a poetic approach can make use of techniques of defamiliarisation as a strategy to renew perception and enable a reimagining of preconceived connections. In diverging from established pathways unexpected combinations can occur, allowing complex and changeful conceptions to emerge.

Utilising a methodology of practice based research to produce a 28 minute single channel documentary and the close examination of pertinent creative works, this thesis argues that a critically engaged poetic approach to documentary can work to encourage thoughtful contemplation as part of an ongoing conversation in the process of knowing.

(UTS ePress)

Korsakow and Hypertext

Found this from a static site from 2010 or 2011. This is about Korsakow as hypertext, not the linear singular link node notion of hypertext that everyone who writes about interactive documentary thinks hypertext is, but the sort of hypertext that hypertext theorists and writers use everyday (for example with tools such as Storyspace or Tinderbox).

Korsakow is software. It lets you make and publish multilinear video (and sound) works online. That is pretty much all you use it for and all it does.

Some questions: why do we use it? What might be learnt from using it? What can we make or do with it?

How to Think Korsakow

The Korsakow System is software that lets you make hypertexts. Unlike traditional hypertext the content nodes here are now video or audio, but all the principles, rules of making and reading are pretty much the same as for hypertext (or I guess more accurately hypermedia).

The simplest way I think of understanding the Korsakow System is that it is a system for making what I think of as hypertext movies. It lets you make links between nodes like you do in HTML, except the links are not written out as HREFs but use keywords. Each clip in your project These keywords can also be attached to time.

This means that you should think of a keyword as being the same as a link, so a video clip while you are making a movie can have links out to other video clips in your k-film. This means any clip can have as many links to other clips as you like (there is even a random option where it will insert any clip for you, think of this as a random link to all the other nodes/clips in your project). Similarly there are links in to each clip from other clips, and you define these as well.

Figure One: Standard Links Using HTTP and HTML (HREF attribute).

For example, as Figure One illustrates, the sorts of links commonly understood to constitute hypertext are those written in HTML, and so are anchored on a source page (for instance in text or an image) and when selected have a single destination which is to a legitimate URL. Hypertext however, has always had much more sophisticated notions of linking than this, including the assumption that you could link from the entire object (in the case of Figure One, this would be the entire page), and that any link may have a single anchor, or source, but multiple destinations.

In such a system (see Figure Two) a link may come from an entire node, or from any part within that node (and a node may contain text, image, video, and so on) and may have multiple destinations. In many traditional hypertext systems this is realised through a link with some sort of dialog or directory window opening when a multiheaded links is selected to let the reader choose which of the destinations they would like to arrive at. Alternatively, such systems may also institute rules so that the system, rather than the user, determines the destination from those available (Storyspace is an example of such a system). Such rules usually rely on state information (that is the system records what you have been doing, and so knows what nodes you have in your history, which word you just selected to follow a link, and the like) and so make links available on the basis of reading history (what you have, or have not visited) and text strings (what bit of text you have selected.

However, technicalities aside, what is of importance here is the difference this sort of hypertext has to plain vanilla HTML with HREFs. In the latter links are singluar with a nominated and visible source (the link anchor) and a single destination (a URL). This means links can be thought of (and mapped) as complex, recursive tree structures, but the connections are all fixed and visible, whether they are followed or not – this web page has n links with n1 destinations. In Figure Two though we don’t have such tree like structures (I should stress that ‘tree’ really is a misleading analogy, since a web link can link to any other URL and there is no necessary hierarchy required, which the tree analogy suggests, but I do want to provide a strong sense of the way in which these sorts of links are ‘flat’ compared to more complex hypertext structures, are easily discoverable (ie you can just see them) and so describe and create a fixed topography whether they are followed by a reader or not. This is, after all, how a spider like Google can index webpages as it follows links, it is premised on them being explicitly declared, described and able to be followed). I like to think of them as clouds, or as fuzzy links.

Figure Two: Multiheaded Links in a Hypertext.

Clouds and Fuzzy Links

These are quite informal terms, but that’s OK. They are fuzzy because in Figure Two the link that has four possible destinations does not need to be made up of four different links (as would be the case in HTML) but can be a single link which has a condition or rule attached to it where that rule is satisfied (in this example) by four destinations. This lack of specificity, where a link does not absolutely go from here to there, is what makes it fuzzy. It might go to N1, but it might also go to any of N2, N3, and N4. As a consequence of this the structure is not fixed as in HTML but is cloudy, there is a soft constellation of potential destinations, and they are potential not because it is a web page with ten links and the reader may decide on any of the ten (or none) but because the destination is actuated by the system in response to the user as a feedback system.

Now, let’s return this to Korsakow. Korsakow uses the model described in Figure Two. The link is not a link in the technical hypertext sense (though it is, after all a hypertext system such as Storyspace is, like Korsakow, a database application with a particular sort of presentation layer for authoring and reading) but a keyword which enables a search. This search will, in the simplest scenario, match all other nodes that contain this keyword and so make them available for selection – in the first instance by the system and in the second by the user. In a k-film the set of possible destinations to a key word is constrained by a) the number of nodes containing that key word, b) the number of lives each node has (which limits the number of times it can be played, which in turn limits how often it can appear as a result of a search), and c) how many thumbnails have been allocated to present the outcome of the search.

For example, in Figure Two we have four nodes that have links, so as a k-film that would be four nodes that contain the same key word that we are searching for (keeping in mind that this could include the same node that is the source of the search). However, in defining the parameters for the first node in this series it is possible to limit how many results to return for this search, so while there may be four that meet the condition only two (for example) may be displayed. Similarly the designer of the k-film is able to determine how many thumbnail panes to present in the project, and this can also affect how many nodes within this ‘cloud’ may actually appear to the user. For instance, a k-film may only have three thumbnail panes, so if there are four nodes that match the search criteria, one will not be displayed. Finally, it should be obvious that as more material is added to a k-film project the set of nodes that matches a search may change as more nodes with the same key word are included.

So, we have links that are fuzzy because they are rule defined, and what meets the conditions of these rules varies due to a variety of author defined constraints. A problem remains though, as an artefact of our visualisation, which suggests a linear passage through the material (from left to right, and implicitly from beginning to an end). This is, in fact, not the case.

Figure Three: A Sketch of the Structure of A Completed K-Film

Figure Three provides a concpetual link structure for a simple k-film. The coloured lines are different key word links between each of the nodes. The point of this third figure is to begin to suggest the complexity that can be built through only a few nodes (SNUs, lexias) and keywords, and that the structures (the sequences) are recursive, circular, and ‘ill formed’ in that they are not explicit like in HTML but lie there, as a virtual set of possibilities.

Practical Philosophy, Practical Documentary

The materialist philosophies that I am looking at with honours students to describe themselves as ‘practical philosophy’. Happy to admit I always wondered what that meant, partly because I couldn’t quite get what a practical philosophy would be (after all it all seemed to be about ideas), and also it seemed if it was ‘practical’ in the sense of ‘doing something’ then was it no longer philosophy.

Our three weeks and my current third reading of Alien Phenomenology combined with other things (see the list below) has helped me clarify this a lot. Practical philosophy in this context is a philosophy that is about doing things, not just thinking about them. Sort of obvious. It might involve primarily ideas, but they are ideas as instruments or tools that are valued for how they can be applied in ways outside of just thinking within or about themselves to other things. So, without this sounding fey or naive, a lot of critical theory expends a lot of energy demonstrating what it is, and then proving that it works. Along they way they sometimes provide a (constrained and often overwhelmingly narrow) account for the way of the world. This account arises from, returns to, revolves around the ideational. The world here risks (and often becomes), little more than abstract proof of the legitimacy of the theory, and so the world is returned to the theory, unchanged, and of course there is then little ability, or recourse, to affect the world. Such work may change my understanding, which is of profound importance (after all what else is education?) but everything remains situated within my use of a theory to account for my understanding of the world, now differently. Here world is subject to thought, thought is primary and it is thought that confers all sorts of things upon the world (sense, meaning, structure).

Much like the way some people consider children, and certainly how we once thought of indigenous Australians, animals, ‘nature’, and in ancient Greece those non citizens called slaves. In these cases we are a centre that grants ourselves the autonomy and authority to confer whatever significance we deem matters to these other things. It is regal, solar, and, as we now see, anthropomorphic. The world = what we as humans make of it, and that is what the world is. That’s just an idealised form of cognitive, perceptual and intellectual colonialism.

This is also a way to think about how the ‘new materialism’ and the ‘post humanities’ approach the linguistic turn. The linguistic turn is based on the rise of semiotics, and then structuralism and subsequently post structuralism, as a dominant theoretical model (narratology, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and so a lot of feminist theory, post colonial studies, queer theory, and so on). Meaning trumps materiality, and meaning is treated as a) human, so b) constructed by us, and c) since constructed subjected to external other ‘meanings’ (forces, powers, which have been given various titles such as hegemony, ideology, patriarchy, colonialism and so on). The new materialism is not wishing to discount these, though it does seem to suggest that most have reached an impasse as they can’t account for the material (and today the material has come to matter, if for no other reason than our physical environment is now understood to matter in fundamentally different ways than before), but it does very forcefully want to return to the things that language and meaning can’t do, as well as recognise and explore the nature of things as things quite a part from the point of view provided by linguistic meaning.

Hence, in Bogost, this interest in theories and ideas that do, and the fascination with things as actants (to use Latour’s term), where things are any thing (ideas, objects, forces, of whatever scale and order) and they do stuff, quite independently of what we think they’re for, and what we think they might mean.

Now, the nub of this for our research is quite simple. Most humanities research looks at what things mean, and leaves it at that. This means it struggles to look at anything that falls outside of this quite small sense of ‘meaning’, and more significantly it means we tend to produce work that reports on what things mean, but we are not well versed or skilled in making things that do. If I want people to rethink what video is and could be, I can write about it theoretically (as I do), and I can make things that do things in and with video (as I have done). If I start from theory and then make I run the risk of domesticating what things do within the umbrella of already given meanings. So the task, and it seems rather large, is to make things that do in a way that embraces their ability to do. And to then see what happens. Or what it is.

Perhaps, and this remains a very open question, if I want to make work that changes how people think about something then the way to do this is not to show what things mean, and suggest they should mean something else, or if we change the thing then it might mean something different, but to begin from what things do rather than what they mean. If I’m a cinematographer and I decide that what a camera does is draw with light (Astruc perhaps) then that offers a very different set of practises and possibilities than if I decide that what a camera does is re-present what I can see, or if I decide it is a machine looking (Vertov) which is special because it sees what I cannot, then that too offers and creates quite a different practice.

Here lies one of the things I’m finally working through in relation to digital practice and theory, particularly in the context of interactive documentary. When we make digitally we are engaged with what things can do, in this post humanities sense (anyone who makes stuff gets the very real and deep materiality of what we work with, even digital code, and it’s a significant critique of the academy that a sentence like that even needs to be written). When the academy comes along we try to see what it means. So we corral, define, shove and poke, fitting it largely into already existing linguistically policed boundary objects. But the first step, the properly critical moment, is to first learn what it can do, and from there, whatever it might be, worry about meaning. And to be clear, ‘interactivity’ (a term wheeled out with all appropriate reverence and tautological completeness, though rarely if ever, in itself engaged with – just what sort of thing is interactivity in itself?) is not what these things can do.

Being Specific

In a lecture the conversation turned to taxonomies of classification. I railed against the value of such things, largely influenced by my recent readings of Bogost, Barad, and Morton.

One of the examples that was shown in class to think about some stuff was The Johnny Cash Project and MIT’s Moments of Innovation. Put the two together and what taxonomies occlude becomes manifest, for The Johnny Cash project is at least participatory, interactive, remix, and relies on data visualisation. And at least two of these terms are not about “representation and technology“, at least in terms of documentary representation and digital technology.

Specifities matter much more than generalisations. I think we need to get busy with specificities.

Today We Had a Lecture

Gum tree on my car.
Today’s discussion about taxonomy and classification and analysis of interactive documentaries, and my weird botany example. In botany we have species. Species are different types of plants, so for example we have over 700 species of gum tree in Australia. What defines a gum tree as belonging to one species or another generally consists of differences amongst bark, leaves, and most importantly flowers and gum nuts – the reproductive parts. Historically someone comes along, reckons that plant there is new, grabs a specimen, writes a very detailed description of it, and that becomes the benchmark for that species. Once another one is sufficiently different, it is a new species. What counts as ‘sufficiently different’ is, though, a point of debate. What the debate is doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is debated because there is not this simple ‘flick’ or ‘difference’ between species, but that there will always be examples where an individual will have some of the qualities of one, and some of the qualities of others. It is a graduated scale, analogue, not discrete and digital. Now, what matters is not whether this is a new species or not, what matters is to recognise that gum trees all vary and so what matters for speciation is the extent of the variation, not the fact of variation.

All classification schemes have to do this and have this problem. They have to invent a boundary via a rule that says ‘these qualities or attributes mean you are a part of this group’, and so by definition if you don’t have these then you’re either out, or in another group. (In modernism you were out, excluded, the lesser of the validated half,in post-structuralism you were not excluded, but different, and the world was thought to be about the politics and understanding and policing and epistemology of these boundaries.) Where that boundary sits is always an argument informed by varieties of power (whether this be politics, authority, evidence), so it isn’t neutral and also must mean that classification is never just about what we are classifying. A plus though is that such a system creates for us an understanding of the world where things exist in particular categories, whether gum trees, dogs, gender, bodies, or interactive documentaries.

The risk and danger then with a taxonomy is that when you build your system what you take to be the ‘specimen’ becomes a centre, and distance from this centre comes to define difference, but why is that specimen (that particular documentary) the centre rather than another one? Similarly, what comes to matter is how that documentary is like what the taxonomy identifies, which risks not seeing, or noticing all the ways in which that particular documentary has other qualities, attributes and abilities too. It creates a world of boxes, when the world itself (let alone the much smaller universe of interactive documentaries) does not actually consist of discrete boxes. (Of course everyone who uses these classifications will tell you that the world is complicated and messy, but, well, this is useful as a method and what else can we do?) It might be useful as a method, but a method, not the method. As I said today a more interesting approach, certainly right now, is to look at works and systems and software platforms and services individually and specifically in relation to what they are. Where ‘what they are’ is code for what they can do and what they do do. Not what they mean, that comes after, but what they do.

Why? Well as I outlined in the symposium, if I look at a person I can use large scale things (taxonomies) to make some crude assumptions, but that’s not a good way to understand who that person is. To understand the person I need to pay attention to them, to what they do, and then I can worry about or try and work out what that might mean (for you me). If I don’t then I fall into large categories that at best become stereotypes. The difference is significant and lets me build things (arguments, ideas, even taxonomies) from the bottom up. What things do is right now more interesting than what things mean, if only because when we go straight to what they mean we risk missing, not being able to see, what the things are – which surely is the point of classifying them in the first place. This happens largely because what they mean is not the same thing as what something does, mainly because meaning is such an anthropomorphic (and language centric) conceit. The method I’m proposing is to begin from the understanding that everything varies, and to make that a first principle, rather than identifying what things have in common and making that a beginning. It’s about recognising a world of difference, change, movement, and variation and that taxonomies are (false) moments of imagined stillness. In a media world currently defined by change, surely we need to develop methods that address this, rather than methods that seek the solace of stasis?

By the way, that picture at the top of this post? It’s a gum tree branch that fell on my car while out bushwalking one day in the Grampians. This is one of the things that gum trees can do, which is quite a different thing to what a gum tree, even that gum tree by that car park, means.

Rezine 01

This is a small iBook project that came out of the nonfictionLab symposium held in December. Been working on it over Christmas, amongst cleaning the pool, presents, family and visitors.

Rezine 01: Research Notes Toward Critical Nonfiction Practice (iBook, 157MB).

From the introduction:

The first nonfictionLab symposium kicked off at RMIT University in December 2013 bringing together a sampler of the scholarly work being undertaken by the lab. Or, as we pimped ourselves:

From the essay, film-making, poetry, documentary, vernacular media, digital archives, memoir and design, nonfiction is increasingly a site of creative, theoretical and analytical interest. With keynote speakers, Ross Gibson and Jeff Sparrow, this inaugural nonfictionLab Symposium 2013 seeks to place some markers, critical and adventuresome, across the interdisciplinary domain of nonfiction studies.

Panels sessions include: Guessing games: Interpreting surfaces, subverting perceptions, Experiments with experience: Negotiating memory, observation and imagination, (Dis)placements: Locating perspectives: spectral sites and designs, Patternings: Generating rhythms, rituals and the accidental.

This rezine is the first transitory, possibly ephemeral, quick and dirty research sketch, or field notes, of our work. The intent is to show things in progress, a snap shot collage list of small bibs and bobs that are all on their way to becoming something else. A chap book come digital pamphlet that is an opportunity to begin to describe and argue for the sorts of theoretical and critically engaged creative nonfiction we do. Let’s open the black box of research and scholarship and rethink scale, practice, documentation, the rational and poetic.




This is the Bunnings of research, welcome to rezine 01.

Rezine 01: Research Notes Toward Critical Nonfiction Practice (iBook, 157MB).