Tag Archives: nonfiction

Interactive Documentary and Digital Poetics version 0.4

In Australia the peak research funding body is the Australian Research Council (the ARC). Getting ARC money is a big deal. Highly competitive and as they always tell you, the money runs out well before the good projects. For most academics this is the royal road in Australia to fame and fortune.

A simple indication of how competitive they are is that for the dedicated early career researcher funds (DECRA) my university wants preliminary drafts of key parts of the application this week, though they do not get submitted until April of 2014. This is so we can spend four months workshopping them, with numerous internal and external experts being used to examine, critique, pick at, prod, and so on all the applications.

So, I’m having a go. Below is the preliminary draft of the project proposal. I foolishly thought that if were interested in funding beginning in 2015 then I could spend my summer thinking about what I’d like to work on, then write it up. It was quite a shock to find I had about 10 days to get this draft, a relevant CV, and my Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE) document together.

My immediate anxieties about this are that rather than describe what I will do it often begins to try to do what it should describe. I’ve found it a challenge to write a proposal, rather than ‘begin’ the research. The second is that it sounds like two projects, one using what I’m characterising as materialist media studies, the other Deleuze’s cinema philosophy. I want to bring them together, I think this is useful, but, well, part of me isn’t really convinced that it matters.

The bits in italic are thinking out loud bits. They’re not in what has gone through. As ever, let me know what works and what doesn’t. We’ve been told to be clear, but parts of this are, as is my style, too fucking dense. (I’ve probably breached some employee contractual IP agreement sharing this, no idea, but it’s ARC, public money, public gets to see it.)

The Problem

This proposal describes research that desires to bring together materialist media studies with Deleuze’s cinema theory to provide a new framework to consider interactivity, narrative, and the computational within interactive documentary. This will allow for a consideration of interactive documentary that looks less to documentary and narrative traditions than toward recent scholarship that recognises the material agency of digital technologies in communicative systems. (At the moment interactive documentary, from the point of view of an ontology and epistemology of digital media, risks being a coloniser of the digital as it coerces the unruly severity of procedural digital logic into the cultural protocols and history of documentary film.)

There has been a recent dramatic rise in the production and subsequent theorisation of online, interactive documentary. These productions have been aided by new internet services and protocols in combination with developments in digital hardware and software. The combination of new internet services, hardware, and software has seen the diminution of production and distribution costs for documentary, with an increase in the capabilities and affordances of video online through new developments in protocols and infrastructure such as bandwidth.

In this environment a range of experimental online documentary practices and forms are emerging, each of which casts a different light upon makers, audiences, and the sorts of artefacts that constitute ‘documentary’. In the wake of this ‘new documentary’ a range of scholarly approaches are emerging. The most significant recent theoretical work is situated within documentary studies and builds upon existing documentary traditions to contextualise these new forms and practices.

Documentary has always had a close affinity to new technologies of production and distribution. However, the dramatic change in documentary making and form that networked media affords is a paradigm shift and new theoretical approaches are needed. These new approaches will help us understand these changes and can inform further research and the development of new documentary forms and systems.

One alternative theoretical approach to digital documentary proposed in this project is available through interactive literature and hypertext, and into more recent materialist media studies. This research has addressed key concerns that networked practices and technologies introduce to makers, audiences, narrative, and artefacts in themselves. This provides a ready vocabulary from which to investigate interactive documentary, building upon the definitional work already begun by Nash and others (Nash 2012, O’Flynn 2012, Aston and Gaudenzi 2012, Hight 2008), to engage with the questions that arise specifically from the point of view of a digital and network poetics, rather than documentary cinema. (Indeed, as my own earlier research argues, hypertext is easily considered a post–cinematic, rather than a literary, form with an isomorphic relation between the cinematic edit and the hypertextual link (Miles 1999).)

Digital documentary is well aware of changes to practice and form. It is less sure of the ways in which the materiality of the digital and the network disrupts what documentary is, and its possible future form and terms.

Why hypertext?

Hypertext research is deeply immersed in the materiality of the digital, and the procedural and programmatic qualities of the computer. It emerged within an interdisciplinary mix of computer scientists and literary humanists at a time when there were enormous constraints on computational processing and storage and when digital media and the internet were not ubiquitous. This research recognised that the computer was not a device to do what was already done more efficiently (faster, cheaper, with cut and paste nonlinear editing, universal distribution, and so on), but was the means to imagine a practice and form of media (in the case of hypertext literary and scribal media) differently.

Thinking about media forms differently allowed hypertext to be a liberatory and disruptive technology in relation to print. The strongest evidence of the liberation of print by hypertext is in the rise of the World Wide Web (which is indebted to early hypertext research and development) and the inversion of print’s authority predicated on an economy of scarcity. Similarly it has been disruptive in how it has changed the roles and authority of writer and reader, textual form and structure, and the erosion of the privilege of ‘fixed’ and ‘finished’ works.

Interactive documentary is at the cusp of its own moment of liberation and disruption as the rise of software, systems, and the internet offers unprecedented access to the tools of documentary making and distribution, while a new ecology of ‘apps’ and platforms offers a rethinking of documentary’s auteurist history of authored, ‘closed’ and finished artefacts.

(Much recent work and commentary can be seen as primarily a reactive engagement with the imperiousness of the network, and aside from a small number of significant experimental systems and projects, has done largely nothing in relation to rethinking digital documentary in terms of the particular materiality of the digital, networks, and the computer’s procedural and programmatic operations remains untheorised and poorly understood – this is not the same thing as ‘database narrative’ or ‘database aesthetics’.)

Deleuze

A second theoretical approach in this project is to theorise digital documentary through Deleuze’s cinema philosophy. This is an innovative appropriation of Deleuze as the basic terms of Deleuze’s movement and time images will be shown to be synonymous with interactive documentary. The movement image’s large form of the perception, affect, and action image becomes interactive documentary’s model of notice, decide, do (Miles, 2013). An interactive documentary presents some smaller part of itself via an interface, this needs to be noticed by a user who then enacts a decision, usually through the motor action of clicking a mouse or swiping a screen. Notice, decide, do; perception, affect, action. This is the sensory motor schema described by Deleuze that is now distributed between a procedural system, a screen, and people.

This is a bold theoretical connection that offers a radically different understanding of interactivity than that which generally informs new media theory. It produces a framework for defining interactivity that has affiliations to cinema studies, arising as it does from Deleuze’s materialist cinema philosophy, and more importantly it arises from the materiality of digital media rather than the anthropomorphic filiation to documentary cinema that we risk relying upon. If, as Deleuze suggests, cinema thinks itself, then in concert with materialist media studies we have a way to investigate the specificity of interactive documentary from ‘within’, rather than assuming that digital documentary is already something engaged with representation and argument and that the digital offers only the substrate to enable or support this.

What I’m going to do.

By introducing theoretical concepts from hypertext, materialist media studies and Deleuze I will develop a robust theoretical base to build insights and arguments about digital documentary. This theoretical approach will emphasise the primacy of the digital as a qualitatively different mode of material and creative engagement when creating work than the avatars of more traditional documentary that we often rely upon in digital environments. This theoretical engagement will argue for a poetics of digital documentary that situates itself in the specificity of small screens, networks, and malleable and relational media. It will do so via materialist media studies and Deleuze’s materialist cinema philosophy.

Such a poetics helps us to understand the necessary shift in the authority and autonomy of makers in digital regimes — the move from an auteur centred culture of I/we make, you watch/consume — towards ‘writerly’ making, co–creation, participatory forms, and novel emerging distributed nonfiction platforms. This poetics begins from recognising that the screen is personal, ‘owned’ by its user (not the content creator), attention is scarce and distributed, and that network media is made up of structural (thematic, encyclopaedic, poetic) coalitions of small parts loosely and variably joined. Networked media is highly granular, and porous to the network, other media, and people.

This porous granularity makes digital documentary a ‘relational media’ (Dovey and Rose), and this relationality provides a way to investigate and define new social platforms (for instance the nonfiction story aggregation service that is Cowbird) as documentary. This has theoretical implications for documentary study as it significantly broadens what documentary becomes, while also providing avenues for the development of new platforms and services that let digital documentary spread from its auterist and ‘mastery’ based traditions.

Documentary studies largely follows cinema theory’s tripartite interest in audiences, texts, and institutions. While the nomenclature may vary, these approaches, as Parrika argues, reply upon varieties of interpretation to understand what media is.

Material Media Studies

The material specificity of media, evident in Parikka’s media archeology (with it’s influences from Kittler and Ernst), Bogost and Montfort’s platform studies, Fuller’s media ecologies, and Manovich’s software studies, provide a media framework by which to refashion earlier hypertext theory, in the light of video’s technicity.

It is significant that this current research, like hypertext thirty years before, is undertaken by people who understand code. Those who code recognise and experience its materiality and the network as a fundamental constraint to the possible. Media is no longer understood as a ‘surface’ to be recorded upon or interpreted, or a technology directed towards narrative, but involves continuous mutation because the computer is a machine that allows for the continuous transformation of content and form, even after ‘publication’. Code is fundamental to this.

Code is a highly constrained creative practice where the ambiguity of what is sought must be rendered into the absolute clarity of machine logic, a logic where ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘like’, and even ’similar’ cannot occur. For these researchers the constrained, material and procedural nature of hardware, software, code, system, and platform is a given and produces an understanding of media practice and form that is unlike that of other media.

Conclusion

This project intends to bring a hypertextual materialist media studies perspective to digital documentary via Deleuze’s cinematic sensory motor schema. This is to address the specificity of digital documentary as hardware, software, electronics, infrastructure and code. It intends to create critical work that offers an alternative approach to conceptualising digital documentary that places it outside of the reductionism of database, interactivity and narrative and to develop a digital poetics that offers novel understandings of digital documentary and new ways in which to conceive of how we might make digital documentary in the future.

References

Aston, Judith, and sandra Gaudenzi. “Interactive Documentary: Setting the Field.” Studies in Documentary Film 6, no. 2 (June 1, 2012): 125–139. doi:10.1386/sdf.6.2.125_1.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University Press of Minnesota, 2012.

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. First Edition. The MIT Press, 2006.

Fuller, Matthew. Media Ecologies: Materialist Engeries in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.

Gaver, William W., Andrew Boucher, Sarah Pennington, and Brendan Walker. “Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty.” Interactions 11, no. 5 (September 2004): 53–56. doi:10.1145/1015530.1015555.

Hight, Craig. “The Field of Digital Documentary: A Challenge to Documentary Theorists.” Studies in Documentary Film 2, no. 1 (January 2008): 3–7. doi:10.1386/sdf.2.1.3_2.

Kittler, Friedrich A, and Anthony Enns. Optical media: Berlin lectures 1999. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.

Kittler, Friedrich A, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz. Grammophon, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford university press, 1999.

Miles, Adrian. “Cinematic Paradigms for Hypertext.” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 13, no. 2 July (1999): 217–226.

Miles, Adrian. “Click, Think, Link: Interval and Affective Narrative.” In Database | Narrative | Archive: Seven Interactive Essays on Digital Nonlinear Storytelling, edited by Matt Soar and Monika Gagnon, 2013. http://dnaanthology.com/anvc/dna/Click-Think-Link-Interval-and-Affective-Narrative.

Montfort, Nick, Bogost, Ian. Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (Platform Studies Series) by Montfort, Nick, Bogost, Ian (2009). MIT Press, n.d.

Nash, K. “Modes of Interactivity: Analysing the Webdoc.” Media, Culture & Society 34, no. 2 (April 19, 2012): 195–210. doi:10.1177/0163443711430758.

O’Flynn, Siobhan. “Documentary’s Metamorphic Form: Webdoc, Interactive, Transmedia, Participatory and beyond.” Studies in Documentary Film 6, no. 2 (June 1, 2012): 141–157. doi:10.1386/sdf.6.2.141_1.

Parikka, Jussi. “New Materialism as Media Theory: Medianatures and Dirty Matter.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 9, no. 1 (2012): 95–100. doi:10.1080/14791420.2011.626252.

Parikka, Jussi. “Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics.” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 5 (September 1, 2011): 52–74. doi:10.1177/0263276411411496.

Affective Slowness and Robert Croma

Been writing an essay about Robert Croma’s work, preprint version now available – Affective Slowness, the Web Films of Robert Croma. With a thank you to Robert for letting me write about his stuff.

The abstract:

This paper will undertake a reading of Croma’s online videos using a variety of theoretical frames. It uses Deleuze’s movement image (Cinema One, passim) as a concept relevant to a specifically online and digital practice, with attention paid to the role of affect as an ‘interruption’ within the cinema of the movement image to produce varying economies of the ‘slow’. The implications and possibilities of this will be expanded upon, including a preliminary outline of how this work provides a template for an object orientated digital practice.

Disruption

I made an informal presentation to the NonFiction Research Group here at RMIT. To get some of the ideas that have been floating around into a bit of shape I did a few brief writing sessions in Tinderbox, being reminded as I did how much I enjoy writing in a small footprint hypertext environment. The presentation was rambling and associative, but a couple of people wanted the ‘slides’ so I’ve dumped the nodes into this post, with some additional notes at the end about the questions that were raised that really helped clarify some of the ideas.

Opening
This presentation offer several speculative prompts about nonfiction as a placeholder for particular ways of engaging with the world. This includes the ways in which ‘nonfiction’ can be used to challenge and disrupt academic writing, the role and place of nonfiction in narrative and research questions that nonfiction raises. The intent is ludic.

Intent
I am increasingly interested in what others characterise as ‘object orientated ontology’ and ‘post humanities’ practice and theory.

I have got here from a very applied theoretical practice located within (what is now being called) the digital humanities where thought, ideas, and media are all material things with their own demands, voices, requirements and forces.

I always struggle intellectually with the way in which I experience and perceive ideas as being always deeply and densely interconnected (what Ted Nelson described as ‘intertwingled’) and the constraints of our major media forms, methods, and practices – the canonical academic essay and the linear form.

My desire in this presentation is to speculate, in situ, around non fiction and the idea of ‘disruption’ just to see where it might get me.

Disruption
Disruptive technologies are those that cause qualitative change within a practice. For example the internet, broadly, is a highly disruptive technology in relation to industrial media industries. (And technology here includes the constellation of hard and soft protocols that all technologies require, produce and enact.)

I am interested in the ways in which new technologies of writing disrupt writing as a practice and as form. This includes the local and small scale of an individual ‘doing’ writing and extends to the possibilities that digital networked systems provide for rethinking writing and publishing.

This is not for the sake of technological fetish or the digital cool but is because different ways of writing writing, and of presenting the work, allow for other forms of knowledge to be expressed, created, shared, and enacted. It provides a method and various theories by which to disrupt and critique the scribal monoculturalism of the academy, which, at the end of the day, remains a blindspot apparently immune to the solar flare of critique and criticality.

In the broad terms of ‘nonfiction’ I think all academic writing is, by definition, nonfiction and so experiencing disruption as a consequence of new technologies.

Object Orientated Ontology
An excellent and very readable introduction to this is Ian Bogost’s “Alien Phenomenology“. The key terms are ‘tiny ontology’, ‘unit relations’, ‘ontography’, and ‘Latour litanisers’.

Tiny ontology refers to Bogost’s argument that being is simple and “ought not demand a treatise or a tome.” (loc. 495.)

Unit relations simply means that things enter into relations with other things and these become, in their own turn, new things. Bogost simply calls objects units because they are always, no matter what scale (an amoeba, a city) a unit.

Ontography is a bit like cataloguing. Bogost compares it to an exploded view diagram where the innards of something is revealed where the things that make up the thing are itemised and their relations (usually) shown. He is interested in ontography as a system to allow for the inscription of the fullness of things in themselves (without us) and their inter objectivity. Objects always relate to other objects, and certainly do so without needing us.

Latour litaniser is a method of practicing ontography. Bogost, as in much of this book, takes this quite literally as a method of accounting for units and their relations. It is like a listing of things if only to recognise the density of the world as objects and their relations. It is a generative machine that Bogost made that builds lists using extant material online. While Bogost uses this as a way to think about and play with objects, this is very similar to what I think of as an affect engine or assemblage. (Indeed I think this might provide a useful theoretical frame for thinking about these affect engines.)

Some quotes:

as Bryant puts it, a post humanist ontology is one in which “humans are no longer monarchs of being, but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings.” [41]. (loc 387.)

In relation to what the humanities and sciences have in common in regards to their human centredness:

In short, all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. (loc 275).

And

To wit: both perspectives embody the correlationist conceit. The scientist believes in reality apart from human life, but it is a reality excavated for human exploitation. The scientific process cares less for reality itself than it does for the discoverability of reality through human ingenuity. Likewise, the humanist doesn’t believe in the world except as a structure erected in the interest of human culture. (loc 314.)

The Post Humanities
See for example the forthcoming symposium organised by Latrobe’s new Centre for Creative Arts on post humanities writing (textobjectext). This is a relatively recent trope that I trace to something like Kate Hayle’s “How We Became Posthuman”, and is grounded in other recent theoretical ‘flavours’ such as object orientated ontology and the emerging interest in materialism.

The post humanities is conceived of as the humanities that faces at least partially towards the implications of the digital, technology, and the sciences. It might include the use of ‘big data’ within writing and the humanities, an application of algorithmic procedures, and interdisciplinary projects and exchanges.

Personally I conceive of the ‘post humanities’ as an evolution of humanism (as odd as that may sound) as it continues to privilege reason, though with what can be thought of as an ecological turn where we are not understood as stewards or the origin for or of the things in the world. (A very common sense view.)

The Essay Film
The essay film has a long history in documentary. This is the case in terms of practice and theory, with canonical work in both areas. As an outsider listening in to the ‘creative nonfiction’ conversation this appears to be much less the case in writing.

Corrigan usefully describes the essay and the essay film as:

the essayistic indicates a kind of encounter between the self and the public domain, an encounter that measures the limits and possibilities of each as a conceptual activity. Appearing within many different artistic and material forms besides the essay film, the essayistic acts out a performative presentation of self as a kind of self-negation in which narrative or experimental structures are subsumed within the process of thinking through a public experience. In this larger sense, the essay film becomes most important in pinpointing a practice that renegotiates assumptions about documentary objectivity, narrative epistemology, and authorial expressivity within the determining context of the unstable heterogeneity of time and place. (loc. 96.)

I am very interested in bringing the methods and episteme of the essay film to academic writing.
This difference, if it exists, could perhaps be attributed to the ontological differences between cinema and writing in relation to the fragment.

Academic Writing as an Essay Film
What does it mean to think about academic writing as participating in the milieu of the essay film?

It could mean that the role of the subjective and the personal, is legitimated. (This is not the same thing as opinion, as views are still informed by knowledge, reflection and analysis.) It could also mean that a greater diversity of media are used not merely as sources of research but in the course of making and publishing and reading academic work. It also foregrounds the risk of other forms for the expression of knowledge.

To develop these sorts of knowledge objects probably also means we need new and different ‘tools’ for writing these sorts of works.

Affect Engines
One of the things that got mentioned recently was about non narrative non fiction. An archive is such a thing. In theory the less ‘story’ and the more vacant each thing in an archive is then the richer the possibilities of the object.

This is because an archive is always about the possible relations that can form with its objects and this is one of the key distinguishing differences between an archive and a museum.

Some forms of generative practice are also non narrative. Dictionary games, exercises in excising every n word or letter, they are recipes and protocols for generating works but they are not about producing stories, even if stories might sometimes be a result.

This is part of my interest in some Web 2 services as they can be thought of as affect engines. Systems that allow for the collection of things that others place into new relations, often for no explicit or instrumental point, but they let others find emotional points of intersection with them. For example a sad slide show on Flickr, or following system generated trails of stories about Melbourne in Cowbird. Or the new services that are in the pipeline like Qwiki for mobile, Far From Homepage, each of which have a lot of possibilities for academic ‘writing’ and nonfiction. And then we might think about something as speculative and poetic as “we feel fine“.

These affect engines could also be thought of as an affect assemblages.

Assemblage

The term is often used to emphasise emergence, multiplicity and indeterminacy , and connects to a wider redefinition of the socio-spatial in terms of the composition of diverse elements into some form of provisional socio-spatial formation. To be more precise, assemblages are composed of heterogeneous elements that may be human and non–human, organic and inorganic, technical and natural. (Anderson and McFarlane, p. 124.)

References
Anderson, Ben, and Colin McFarlane. “Assemblage and Geography.” Area 43.2 (2011): 124–127.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University Press of Minnesota, 2012. Print.

Corrigan, Timothy. The Essay Film:From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford University Press, USA, 2011. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Affect Images, Interactivity and Documentary Relations

This is the first abstract I submitted for consideration for this particular panel at Visible Evidence (Canberra, December), the panel has been proposed by Kate Nash and is themed around “Exploring Documentary Interactivity“.

Deleuze’s movement image is premised on Bergson’s sensory motor schema, an economy of images of action and reaction. This sensory motor schema, when translated into the movement image’s tripartite series of perception, action, and affect images, offers a valuable and potentially new way to theorise interactivity.

Perception images are those that receive and recognise other images from ‘outside’ that are directed inwards. Action images are those that are directed outwards in reply or response to what is perceived, while affect images are those that expand, and to some extent slow, the sensory motor connection of perception to action. Affect, then, relies upon a ‘zone of indetermination’ between perceiving and acting. In relation to interactive works we can see that they require the perception of the work (the interface, the content) then insist upon an action to proceed (generally literally realised as a motor action such as a click, a press, or swipe), and that the distance between these moments of perception and action becomes a zone of indetermination. Taking Deleuze’s three varieties of the movement image can propose a typology of interactive works between those that emphasise information (perception), those that emphasise choice and movement through (action) and those that emphasise exploration and a genuine or legitimate multilinearity (affect). The first category appear to be primarily ‘informational’ works such as electronic encyclopedias, reference works and the like, though might be extended to include traditional ‘voice of God’ documentary content that provides little in the way of interaction beyond informational navigational devices. The second category appear, at first blush, to be highly applicable to a lot of computer games, where ‘twitch’ games and genres such as First Person Shooters (FPS) and strategy games emphasise actions within a game world. The third category, affect, is the most relevant to interactive narrative, including documentary, as these works tend to emphasise engagement through the possibilities of multilinear exploration and discovery of more or less complex shots, sequences and episodes.

This has significant implications for interactive documentary as it helps us to identify the specific and peculiar affordances that lie at the intersection of interactivity, narrative and nonfiction. It strongly suggests that the work that is best ‘suited’ to this environment relies upon the associative, poetic and interstitial that the affect image is a product of and produces, slowing down narrative speed, trajectory, resolution and teleology and offering in its place an open, porous, and, in a literal sense of the term, unrealisable work. This is work that shies away from didacticism and traditional forms of argument, offering a shift from ‘telling’ towards ‘showing’ and so affective interactive documentaries tend towards the fragmentary, partial, and granular. The craft of documentary in these contexts shifts from determining a particular and fixed passage through the material (the traditional linear film realised via editing) to providing for the possibility for users to ‘co-edit’ their own pathways where such paths need to reflect and express those patterns that lie as possibilities through the original material. This is a shift from a directorial and editorial mode of making, which only affords choice at the production end of documentary, to one where this decision making is also afforded to viewers. The art of interactive documentary becomes then the craft of sculpting systems that allow for the discovery of nascent and novel sets of relations that are always plural, open, and so to some extent eschew closure.

This paper intends to make a series of propositions examining, interrogating and extending the implications of this.