Alisa Lebow on interface design, curational databases beyond archives and dynamic relationality
Before coming to i-Docs 2016 to share her ambitious project Filming Revolution with us, we had the opportunity to talk to filmmaker and media scholar Alisa Lebow and get some inspiring ‘food for thought’ as an appetizer.
In my opinion it’s important for people to have an experience that has a concept behind it. In the case of Filming Revolution, the concept is essentially to enable different constellations of relations – this is based on the idea that these relations are not linear and are not reducible to a simple causal link or chain, but that they can reconfigure, almost in a crystalline structure, depending on what it is you are looking for.
Alisa Lebow talked with us about Filming Revolution as a research tool, the importance of interface design and her struggle when balancing usability and searchability of the archive, and about her central motivating concept behind Filming Revolution – that of dynamic relationality.
i-Docs: Conceiving interactive documentary as a research tool as well as a tool for relational thinking – for whom did you design Filming Revolution? For academics and archivists? For filmmakers, journalists and other media practioners? For those involved in the event – i.e. for activists? Or did it even become a tool for thought for you yourself as filmmaker and media scholar?
Alisa Lebow: That’s a great question. It became and still is a tool for thinking for myself to be sure. I’ve yet to really fully understand all of the material that the website is slowly revealing to me. It’s something that I’m still learning from and hope to continue learning from, but more than for myself, I hope that it’s a tool for others I believe there are multiple audiences for this project and each will engage with it differently.
The filmmaker in Cairo, who knows many of the players and shares a history with them will engage with the material differently than, say, a journalist in NY, who is interested in making connections between films from the Occupy movement and Egypt. Yet another type of engagement would be the researcher, say a PhD student, who is analysing filmmaking strategies across the region. Ideally this is an inspiring resource for any of these positionalities, in different ways, and many more as well.
i-Docs: Were there any projects that inspired your thinking of interactive documentaries as research tools?
Alisa Lebow: Yes, there were several, but most often their interfaces were dismal. I mean, you might as well just be going to a library and pulling books off the shelf. These projects might be very useful, but they do not have any design concept for the interface other than to make it easy and clear.
Others were very dynamic, beautiful, exquisite, you know, however, they lacked the ability to retrieve information. So for Filming Revolution I had to figure out how to find the right balance between dynamic graphic presentation and searchablity.
i-Docs: How would you describe Filming Revolution? Is it an interactive archive? Is it a participatory platform or is it a meta-documentary? Is it a documentary after all?
Alisa Lebow: As I’m not sure whether we can call it a documentary per se, I invented the phase ‘meta documentary’, because really, in some sense it is documenting documentary projects. Even though it’s a project about film-making, it’s not attempting to be a straight up documentary, even in an interactive sense.
We can call it an interactive documentary database. We can call it any number of things. I guess I could leave that to others to define, but what was important for me was that it is both an interactive experience that has a conceptual basis and that it is also a useful research tool.
i-Docs: What were your main intentions when designing the interface?
Alisa Lebow: There are always several layers of an interface. Some people might approach an interface in a way to utterly simplify it, to reduce those layers. I was interested in having these layers visible – I tried to avoid oversimplifying. Thus I decided that these layers should be part of the experience. I do not want the user to be able to easily come to the material and digest it. There is something much more complicated about the scene that I entered into in Egypt that deserved its own complexity.
i-Docs: So you had to balance usability on the one hand and your documentary argument – this idea of complexity – expressed in the design on the other hand?
Alisa Lebow: Exactly. I do not want to overwhelm anybody, but I want the users to experience the breadth of possibilities. And apart from that, I want to give them some tools to be able to then negotiate that breadth.
The material you enter into, this ‘global archive’, is quite vast. All of the possible themes and categories and people and projects are encountered and open to everybody, but then there are ways to filter the archive to get to smaller clusters, to follow different pathways. And there should be things that can be figured out from it and other things that remain open ended. That was one of my aims for the platform.
For further insights into the many layers and dimensions of Filming Revolution, Alisa Lebow’s new media project – come hear her in person at i-Docs 2016.