Over on the new documentary email list we are trying to begin arguing, pulling about, speculating with, and wondering about the essays in a recent special issue of Studies in Documentary Film. The essay we’ve begun with (and the rate we’re going we’ll have the issue discussed by about 2016) is:
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.
Here’s part of the conversation.
gmail, as a good example of how material practices affect immaterial ones, has pretty much killed list culture by the way it hides quoted email by default. For the young people here, there was one a very very strong etiquette on academic email lists that you quoted only those parts of the email you were replying to, and you put your response after those parts you responded to. Weaving your writing as paragraphs between someone else’s paragraphs. Helped with clarification, keeping on topic, and getting insanely long email threads. Insanely long threads is what we get every now now courtesy of gmail, but gmail auto-hides it from us so we don’t have to bother with the etiquette and we just reply and add our bit to the top of the thread.
Which is an introduction to say that I’m weaving my comments below Jeni’s, and I’ve included Jeni’s so you know what I’m talking about.
On 24 September 2013 at 4:49:17 am, Jeni Thornley (email redacted) wrote:
2. There are some assumptions-statements in the article (and the preamble) that I ‘react’ to – that I think may need teasing out; perhaps because I am also a documentary filmmaker who tends to work in the analytical, discursive essay mode; but also I think it’s because ‘reader-participant’ ‘interactivity’ does also reside in previous pre-digital documentary modes, especially in the reflexive, poetic and performative modes
The rest of this passage from Jeni is something I’d also like to tackle, but another time, I think Jeni’s picked out a couple elf really good key points in the essay that really can be prised apart some more. But I’m starting from this bit.
I like that here they are insisting on this difference. A lot of the work that I read, and a common misunderstanding that it has (and with students) is the idea that because we all interpret differently, or that there are always multiple interpretations of a given work available, that that is the same thing as what new media theory is talking about when they say that works are different each time you view them.
Two important things. The claim in new media theory is not that we interpret differently. But that each time we view the work the work itself is different. The second is that new media theory is gilding the lilly if and when it thinks only digital media does this (which is also Jeni’s point).
The first one. We can all read a particular edition of a novel, or that version of this film, and every time we read it, for each and all of us, on page 42 it will always contain those words and sentences, and at 32 minutes 46 seconds that particular 4 minute sequence will always be there. What we take these to mean, that varies. It varies when we see it a second, third, fourth time. It varies depending on who we are, and what frames of reference we bring to the work. But what is not negotiable is the facticity of the thing we are interpreting and discussing. In my reading and your reading what happens on page 42 is the same, as is what happens at 32 minutes and 46 seconds. Interpretation is negotiated, not the facticity of the thing. When we use a media form that changes with and through each viewing then what I find on page 42, and what you find on page 42, are no longer the same thing. What happens for me at 32 minutes and 46 seconds (for instance) in this particular Korsakow film will be quite different to what happens for you at 32 minutes and 46 seconds in this particular Korsakow film. Different words, different shots, different sequences.
In this case we are longer just interpreting differently, we are looking at different parts of different things. And this is a difference that makes a difference, if only because I don’t have to do anything to let my work be interpreted differently beyond sharing it. But to make a work that changes, in itself, each time it is viewed and even during the course of its viewing/reading, that requires some different ways to think about how to compose such works. Not necessarily radical ways (anyone who has improvised a conversation – i.e. all of us) as we all are quite adept at building communicative patterns that involve different sorts of feedback loops, but radical enough to change the transactions that now happen between an artefact its parts, and its audience.
A question that arises out of this, for digital documentary, is to list all the sorts of feedback loops (as this is about cybernetic systems), social, technical, narratological, and so on, that could be used or might matter (that’d be an interesting list).
It is though a category mistake to think this is only a digital form. Espen Aarseth makes this pretty clear in his Cybertext book, as there’s a long history of procedural constrained art (OULIPO, Fluxus for instance) which produces texts that change each time you read them, and even the quixotic project Phil Hoffman’s showed at the DNA symposium in Montréal in 2011 achieves such change. (Lay out I think it was 6 film cans, with paintings on them, crowd arranges them in preferred visual order, he then cuts the contents of each can end to end and projects the resulting work.)
A consequence of this, and one that seems trivial, or at least risks getting trampled over (because in literate culture we tend to privilege thinking about something to doing something) is that the sort interactivity being described that matters is where we have to do some thing in relation to the work for this to happen. This thing is a mechanical action, which is why it is often pushed to one side and made merely mechanical in relation to ‘real’ interactivity which is somehow what this action does. Nah, the action is what matters. It is a material event that really has to happen, somewhere in the feedback system, that materially affects the work. This is why it isn’t about interpretation but action. (And why Aarseth makes such a strong distinction between trivial and nontrivial acts, these acts are defined by how physical they are but by the degree of effect they have on the work, so nontrivial acts are so because they have serious consequences for the work itself.)
That’s me teasing this out, thanks for what you’ve written Jeni, I think it really helps to go to some of the key understandings in this are and can help make where we start from firmer (or softer?).