Reflections on the i-Docs Symposium 2016 & the short history/long future of interactive documentary

If a proof was needed that the founders of i-Docs were right to argue from the outset for an “expansive notion” of interactive documentary practice five years ago, that evidence was finally given at the i-Docs Symposium 2016.

Within this broad framework,  ‘zooming in’ and ‘zooming out’ are keys to engage transdisciplinary discourse among makers and researchers on phenomena in our shared field of interest. And although we maybe look at emerging practices at “the intersection between digital interactive technology and documentary practice” from different perspectives, it is probably this poly-perceptiveness which makes discussions even the more fruitful.

For us any project that starts with an intention to document the ‘real’ and that does so by using digital interactive technology can be considered an i-doc. What unites all these projects is this intersection between digital interactive technology and documentary practice.i-Docs statement

The fact that i-Docs 2016, which was called a ‘large family meeting’ by many of the delegates and speakers, turned out to be a reunion of a family with many siblings whom we had maybe never met in person or even had on the radar when thinking strictly through the lens of the documentary tradition. This was, for me, further confirmation of the need for an opening up rather than a restriction of approaches.

Although I resisted the notion of a clearly shaped corpus of ‘interactive documentary’ when I started exploring this ‘New Documentary Nexus’, and though I generally think that focusing on taxonomy for taxonomy’s sake is a vain project, I was really happy to see how many ‘distantly related cousins’ had come to Bristol – and that it turned out that they are much closer than I had thought. This was additional evidence of how large the only seemingly tiny ‘scientific community’ of interactive documentary is – which is probably just because we sometimes do not recognize our siblings! And: the family obviously keeps growing.

Where are i-docs going now?

Exploring i-docs as Tools for Thought, thinking through the Uses of Immersion and fathoming Evolving Practices.

As one of the main themes of this year’s symposium was titled “The Uses of Immersion – from personalisation to VR and experiential storytelling”, i-Docs 2016 was of course an occasion to meet family-members of the VR-branch of the family.

Thus, questions arose about what potential VR brings to non-fictional (or semi-fictional) docu-games. One impressive example was Oscar Raby’s Assent which was enthusiastically explored at i-Docs 2016’s VR-Bazaar. And being able to chat with Oscar, his partner in VRTOV Katy Morrison and their recent collaborator Jess Linington and to discuss the creative process behind Assent in a skype breakfast with Melbourne, i-Docs 2016 not only got hyperlocal but also started an insightful conversation which will certainly entail further discussion.

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Oscar Raby’s VR documentary Assent

However, despite the enthusiasm around virtual reality in various domains, critical approaches were also proposed, for example by Mandy Rose, who provocatively asked in one of the VR-focussed panels “VR – Hype or Hope?”, or by Lucilla Calogero who addressed the history of the concept of VR long before Oculus Rift and Gear VR. As we unanimously agreed, these issues will have to be followed in future family get-togethers: seeing that the technological practicality and accessibility keeps refining also the ‘language’ of VR storytelling, discussions about where VR’s potential lies, and which challenges will need to be overcome will certainly stay on our agenda.

Another related phenomenon that a restricted notion of i-docs would certainly have omitted to cover but which is worth consideration are non-fiction 360° videos such as for example productions such as Zillah Watson‘s and Peter Boyd Maclean’s The Resistance of Honey (work in progress) or Darren Emmerson’s Witness 360: 7/7 which were on show at the symposium in the VR-Bazaar. It would have been a pity not to have these actually very close i-doc-cousins on board in this open-heartedly curated program.

Witness 360° Virtual reality journalism as engine for empathy going beyond the re-telling of events

Darren Emmersion’s Witness 360° 7/7

Interactive Documentary and Legacy Media – what they can learn from each other

i-Docs 2016 also reflected many hybrid projects – or to keep the family metaphor ‘brain-children’ coming from the marriage of journalism and interactive documentary.

If we think for example of co-creative news networks such as that Norwegian NRK P3 Dokumentar is presently working on, or hyper-local journalistic projects such as Anna Jackson is developing with Newsable, that turn data into stories. What about pieces commissioned for example by the BBC’s Chris Sizemore, Executive Editor of BBC iWonder, who appeared on a panel looking at the intersection between Legacy Media and emerging documentary practices? What about the inspiring findings of the MIT Open Documentary Lab report which William Uricchio summarized in this panel? And what about the options of ‘multiply patch-work-interactive families’ where investigative journalism, interactive documentary and serious games merge – such as Juliana Rufhus from Al Jazeera illustrated in a Show&Tell presenting her latest project Pirate Fishing?


Juliana Ruhfus’ documentary game Pirate Fishing

Meta-documentary, living archives and i-docs for transcultural exchange

The same hybrid nature as in documentary gaming, investigative journalistic documentaries and data-storytelling is at work in the case of ‘interactive documentary’ as living archives. Let’s just think of Alisa Lebow‘s inspiring keynote lecture in which she took us on a tour through her interactive meta-documentary Filming Revolution.

The same goes for our siblings from the education family branch, and especially the potential of interactive documentary in teaching, enabling students and teachers to tackle issues from a different direction shall not be underestimated.

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Alisa Lebow’s meta-documentary Filming Revolution

Another important input for the general discussion of what ‘the i-doc’ is and what it might become focussed on its potential for intercultural exchange. Going beyond a narrow notion of what interactive documentary is, can encourage thinking through complexities, as Paolo Favero pointed out in his reflections on the use of i-docs as a tool for (ethnographic) scientific research – a train of thought that was taken up by Judith Aston who invited us to conceive interactive documentary as a tool for thought enabling transcultural understanding.

So wouldn’t it have been a shame in this context, if we had missed the chance to meet cousins who think of interactive documentary in the context of political and social change – a perspective often related to thinking of i-docs in terms of activist media, social critique and “agents of change” daring to tackle topical questions such as “Whose screens?” – who controls the representation of political events, as Amir Husak does? Or Ersan Ocak, who asks “How will the documentaries of the Gezi Resistance be made?” proposing to opt for the essential potential of interactive documentary as has tried to promote since its beginnings – the possibility of enabling audiences “to become active agents within documentary making processes”.

Thus, Ramona Pringle‘s approach to documentary and users’ love for selfies from the perspective of design thinking was a really courageous step to welcome very new family members – and daring to state that our job as designers is to help audiences to make their lives better, to give them what they need and to acknowledge that “if the audience like selfies, let them.”

Personalisation and playfulness – they too belong to the family circle!

i-Docs 2016 was also an occasion to once again meet siblings who address issues from a playful perspective – even if it were ‘serious playfulness’. Of course, various concepts of gamification are now entering the formerly ‘sober’ field of life, but since not too long ago, in fact, documentary discourses have been counted among those ‘serious matters’, too.

Though the field has been opened at least a little during the last years with the rise of semi-fictional docu-games, i-docs’ large family meeting proved that following this train of thought offers much potential, especially if we try to engage new audiences and participants or if we try to address complex, sometimes even delicate issues from multiple perspectives. One – if not the key – question in this context certainly is: How for example can game-play and documentary practices enter a fruitful marriage?

In this context, discussions often arise whether we can ethically dare to ‘gamify’ delicate issues, for example topics such as political conflicts. Are there taboos? Maybe, a new ‘formula’ such as Vasilliki Khonsari presented in her keynote with regard to her “verite game” 1979 Revolution enables us to achieve a balance between immersive game-play and reflective documentary discourse. Transcending traditional documentary language and its impact by merging documentary storytelling with interactive video game play and participatory elements might be a promising way. Once more, as so often at this i-Docs Symposium, this contribution offered evidence that expanding our horizons while also attending to ethical questions will probably remain essential for a vital future of i-docs.


Vasilliki Khonsari’s “variety game” Revolution 1979

The same goes for relatives who come from the background of the qualified self-movement and personalization-based data-storytelling. Let’s for example think of “life-logging” or data-mining for documentary purposes – the creation of personalized documentary experiences. And in fact, Scott Fisher and Jennifer Stein follow this line with their prototypes of ALICE, an “extended in-car alternate reality experience” or PROLOG, which uses audio, kinetics, lighting, and ambient interfaces to feed back lifelog data collected in workspaces and to augment a creative team’s process and progress. Their formula? “Ambient Storytelling + Lifelogging = Emergent Documentary”?

And do not forget Sandra Gaudenzi‘s latest project, Digital Me, which uses personalization “as immersion into the self” and fathoms its potential as an alternative to immersion in VR – “an opportunity to immerse themselves into their own internal worlds rather than into unknown external realities”.

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Sandra Gaudenzi’s personalization-based data-storytelling in Digital Me

Un-framing the world, opening up our mind and thinking outside the box

Trying to un-frame the world’, to ‘think outside the box’, to move away from multi-linear story-telling, maybe even to move away from storytelling at all! – this line of though was also one of the major bonds between the different siblings of the large i-docs family.

Not only media artist Florian Thalhofer encourages this approach with regard to Korsakow System and non-linear, non-causual thinking and storytelling, a train of thought which Adrian Miles from RMIT took up in his argument when conceiving of i-docs in terms that they are “NOT a story”. And isn’t this very close related to opening up spaces of thought and exchange, co-creation and collaborative remix zones instead of representing and ‘framing’ reality, as Patricia Zimmerman pleaded for in her keynote?

“Feeling the i-doc” – An ‘Invitation’ to sensual storytelling beyond the screen

As to opening up our minds(?), one occasion of a very, very large family reunion certainly was the return-invitation for a sensual experiential evening taking documentary practices beyond the screen by i-doc’s relatives coming from the family line of artistic practices and interventions. Anagram (respectively Amy Rose and May Abdalla) for example, experiment with their emotional and sensual projects regarding the body as a storytelling interface – also for documentary purposes.

Similarly, Duncan Speakman of Circumstance explores the creative process behind pedestrian symphonies and subtle mobs, and real-world game designer Rosie Poebright‘s projects, which are quite frequently set in the context of cultural heritage sites of museums, encourage us to take into account all different forms of situated story-telling (as well as non-storytelling).

Such insightful exchange with at first sight non-documentary practices in fact has the potential to inspire new forms of engaging ‘documentary’ but non-representational and non-filmic practices which are based on embodiment and sensual, tactile experiences – a thread that we hopefully follow further.

The i-doc’s growing family tree – “Cheers to the i-docs short history – and long future”

Certainly, this is only a tiny excerpt of the extensive i-doc family register, and hopefully the following i-docs symposia will allow us to meet many more ‘new’, so-far unknown or maybe only un-recognized family members. Thus, probably, Jon Dovey‘s ‘closing keynote’ tracing back “the short history of the i-docs” in order to start a conversion on the its “long future” only marked the end of this year’s conference. Let’s stay in contact, large, large i-docs family, and let’s keep exchanging ideas and experiences.