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.)
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.
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’.)
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.
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.
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