My previous post on interactive documentary really should have mentioned Roderick Coover’s work. His webpage is here. He describes his own visual practice as interactive cinemascape, and discusses it in his chapter in the new-ish book Switching Code: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Arts and Humanities, which he edited with Thomas Bartscherer for Chicago University Press. As the name probably suggests, interactive cinemascape, as Coover describes it, is less participatory than several of the interactive documentarists mentioned in my previous post. Which again suggests that the same visual genre can be generated by very different social practices.
‘interactive documentary’ – at last, I found a label for the visual genre that the web was made for!
So the topic of this post probably isn’t new to you, but term ‘interactive documentary’ might be – well, it was to me, anyway! But thanks to my colleague Joe Smith putting me onto the term ‘interactive documentary’, I now know how to label the sort of visual genre that seems to me to be invited, even demanded, by web technologies.
That genre is kind of light on text – or at least, its text is easily approachable, not dense but leavened – and appears alongside rich visual and audio content: photos, animations, slide-shows, videos, graphics, soundfiles.
One example Joe mentioned is the story Snow Fall, on the New York Times website and authored by John Branch. It tells the story of an avalanche; there’s a lot of straight journalistic text but also lots of images, from video interviews to satellite weather images, from digital visualisations to portrait photographs. In this example, the web allows the writing to be supplemented by other media. As a viewer/reader, you can choose to watch a lot or a little of this other material; the written text acts as a clear structure to which other material is attached. Interaction here is about the reader/viewer choosing from a menu of proffered options.
Two other examples use the notion of ‘interactive’ to refer not only how a the viewer/read is enabled to interact variously with online material, but also to indicate that the documentary was made via a participatory process, with those whose story it recounts. The first of these is Kat Cizek’s Highrise project, which now has several strands exploring vertical living globally, variously co-produced between highrise residents and Kat and her team; and the second is Hollow, which describes itself on its project website as “a hybrid community participatory project and interactive documentary where content is created ‘for the community, by the community’.”
Paolo Favera had a paper in the Journal of Material Culture last year discussing interactive documentaries. Another commentator on interactive documentary is Mandy Rose, currently Director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of West of England. The DCRC website has links to various other sites stuffed full of cool interactive documentaries. You can also hear Mandy here and here, interviewed at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, discussing interactive media and its different forms of interactivity. She advocates the participatory form – though that isn’t inherent in this emergent visual genre, it seems to me.
One of the many interesting points Mandy makes, though, is how much skill – and money – is needed to make this sort of interactive documentary: Snow Fall, Highrise and Hollow are all highly sophisticated visually, and the latter two have complex and long-term relations with various social groups and organisations. So not easy to emulate, perhaps. But thought-provoking nonetheless: how long before an ‘online social sciences journal’ means less ‘uploaded pdfs’ and more ‘interactive documentary’?
I got my copy of a great new collection edited by Jonas Larsen and Mette Sandbye last week, called Digital Snaps. Lots of the chapters in the book explore all sorts of uses of digital snaps, and I have a chapter in it arguing that much of what family photography achieves happens regardless of whether the camera used is analogue or digital.
This might be rather a conservative argument in the face of Martin Lister‘s very interesting opening chapter on the way so many digital images now are overlooked, rarely looked at or never looked at, and how that offers a profound challenge to how we understand photography as a medium (an argument I completely agree with!). However, in my defence, I do think that family photography is a very particular form of photographic practice, which remains somewhat distinct from the use of photos on social networking sites that provides the main grist for Martin’s argument.
The Open University has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson, then Labour Prime Minister, first mooting the idea of a ‘university of the air’ in 1963. The OU teaches its students at a distance, so ‘air’ was one of the first media the university used, broadcasting on radio and television, as well as posting books, LPs and other bits of kit to its students.
The University has commissioned four pieces of public art to mark the anniversary, and the one in Cardiff is focussed on social sciences teaching and research. Called ‘Trajectory’ and designed by artist Steve Geliot with choreographers Jo Fong and Tanja Raman, it features a bunch of social scientists and dancers and cellists. Here it is.
Steve also made a video of all the interviews he staged for ‘Trajectory’:
He very kindly titled this video ‘Glorious Conversations’. I’ve filed this in my ‘evidence of impact for the next REF’ folder – thanks Steve (and apologies to those lucky souls to whom the ‘REF’ means nothing).
A call for papers has just gone out for a conference called ‘Beyond the Frame: The Future of the Visual in an Age of Digital Diversity’, to be held in Stockhom in April 2014 and organised by the Nordic Network for Digital Visuality. There are more details here.
The next annual conference of the International Visual Sociology Association will be held in Pittsburgh in June 2014, on the theme ‘visual dialogues in post-industrial societies: transforming the gaze’. The call for panels has just been issued. Details are on the IVSA website here.
Looks like an interesting exhibition opening next week at Milton Keynes Gallery, called Future City, which looks “at the utopian origins of Milton Keynes in order to consider aspects of its future”.
The newspapers here in the UK carried a story last weekend about a new bridge across the Thames in London. It’s been designed by Thomas Heatherwick Studios, and the news stories all carried various images of what the bridge would look like when it was built. The most commonly used was this one:
Apart from the fact that it looks uncannily like the planet inhabited by the rich and privileged in Neill Blomkamp’s recent film Elysium, this image was both taken entirely for granted in the press coverage and caused some small difficulty. None of the newspapers I read raised any questions about what it shows or how it shows it, despite it being bathed in a un-London light – oddly blue, cold and artificial, which is why it reminded me of Elysium - and it also having a very odd London skyline behind it (surely St Paul’s wouldn’t look that big – and where are all the very tall buildings now scattered throughout the City and beyond?).
At the same time, none of the newspapers seemed to agree on what kind of image this picture actually was. It was called variously a “photograph”, which is patently isn’t, although some photographs were probably involved in its making; an “artist’s impression”, which is probably more like it; and an “image”, which is definitely playing it definitionally safe. This uncertainty about what this – well, image, is, is interesting. It suggests that for all their increasing visibility, digital visualisations of things that don’t exist – whether that’s orbiting space stations or bridges – are still puzzling objects. We don’t yet know how to label them. Which might be to the good; because if we don’t know quite what they are yet, we might be able to question the glossy smoothness with which so many of them present urban futures to us.
I’ve just been browsing through the book Visible Mending: Everyday Repairs in the South West by Steven Bond, Caitlin DeSilvey and James Ryan. It was published by Uniformbooks earlier this year and is the result of a research project exploring workplaces in the south west of England where people repair things.
The book is beautifully designed and produced and full of Steven Bond’s fantastic photographs, which linger on the objects and spaces and light of the workplaces the research team visited. As Caitlin and James say in their essay that concludes the book, the photographs really do focus attention on the richly textured materialities of these places, and suggest the intimate relations between them and the people who work there, even though very few of the photographs picture people.
That concluding essay is also ponders nicely on the use of photographs in the research project: how they were taken and what was done with them. I particularly like the reflection on the materiality of the photographs in the exhibitions that Steven, Caitlin and James curated. They note that the photos seemed to sort themselves into thematic groups, and the researchers went with that clustering, and also decided to print the photos on small metal sheets that could be picked up from the tiny shelves on which they rested in the gallery and held and explored (how does a photo get printed on to aluminium?); the essay also explores the different forms of text that accompany the photographs, in the book, in the guide to the exhibitions and on the project’s blog. There’s a strong sense of the academic craft in all this, of methods as labour and work. Lovely.