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On the Potential of Interactive Web Documentary for Artistic Research

In All posts, Guest posts, Research Articles by Anna Wiehl

by Daniel Fetzner and Martin Dornberg – with an introduction by Anna Wiehl

In their guest post, media scholar and artist Daniel Fetzner and Martin Dornberg, physician and philosopher, share insights into their project BUZZ, a participatory two-fold project or “mediography”, as they call it, about their experiences in the field of artistic research, its documentation and its ‘medial life’ as a multi-platform interactive documentary.

Daniel Fetzner and Martin Dornberg characterise both their research practices at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore/India and their media-interventions as “parasitic metamorphosis”. In this process, knowledge production takes place and new insight emerges, not at least due to using the i-doc as ‘a tool for thought’.

The concept of “parasiting” might at first sight be astonishing in this context. However, it is important to underline that it is neither to be taken literally or derogative. Instead, it serves as both a metaphor in the approach and as a key principle in the process of artistic research, project development and artistic intervention.

In this sense, the parasitic is considered as “a living concept” that fathoms dimensions of existence, life, science, thinking, media and art… Though their complex interrelations and the constant exchange between them – be it called mutual, symbiotic or parasitic – might not always follow the same strategy, but maybe they are more intertwined than one might think, as Daniel and Martin explain in their i-doc project BUZZ.


Interactive Documentary, Documentation and Artistic Research

In current media studies discussions, the human is increasingly seen as a social being in the context of complex ecological micro and macro structural formations. In ‘radical environmental approaches’ the term ‘dividuations’ is use to describe the increasing biotechnological and socio-technological mingling of body, society and technology in particular to define technical artefacts and machine actants of Web 2.0. The individual is woven into medial inter-actions and can hardly be understood any longer without taking into account these enactive relations. In an increasingly transcultural environment of global communications, including the area of art, many creative processes of knowledge generation follow collective and simultaneously transmedial logics.

In an increasingly transcultural environment of global communications, including the area of art, many creative processes of knowledge generation follow collective and simultaneously transmedial logics.

The interactive documentary component of BUZZ is a two-folded interactive project: on the one hand, it is a documentary and a documentation of a specific research project; on the other hand, it is also a prototype for artistic research about and via the project.

In the context of artistic research, hypermedial interactive formats in general and interactive documentary in specific promise opportunities which have not been discussed so far. In this post, we will focus particularly on the knowledge-generating potential of i-docs in research and artistic practices. As a show-case, we’d like to present and discussed our interactive documentary project »Buzz – Parasitic Ecologies« which is an intersection of biology, anthropology, sociology and media ecology.

Project BUZZ

BUZZ consists of two parts: an artistic intervention in a South Indian insect laboratory (2014) and a folding as installation in Freiburg (2015). In the centre of both subprojects are forms and concepts of “the parasitic” as primarily developed by Michel Serres.

Experimental system I – INFECTION/INTERVENTION (2014)

The BUZZ-Lab at Indian Institut of Science IISc Bangalore

The BUZZ-Lab at Indian Institut of Science IISc Bangalore

In the summer of 2014, we contributed to set up an artistic / media ecological laboratory at the Indian Institute of Science IISc in Bangalore. The laboratory investigated forms of embodiment, observational practices of social insect and participative microcosm formation of human and animal societies. The insect of choice was the South Indian Wasp Ropalidia marginata. During our residency, the old wasp laboratory of the Center for Ecological Sciences was transformed into temporary accommodation for BUZZ.

Observing the observer: a scientist at IISc in front of a ›black box‹

Observing the observer: a scientist at IISc in front of a ‘black box’

Different formats such as Skype performances, installations, screenings, scientific experiments and discussions created interfaces between knowledge/theory, research practices and art. The assignment understood itself as parasitic (and was perceived as such on site): as a transdisciplinary metamorphosis in which on the one hand processes of production of knowledge are made observable, and on the other hand they are ‘parasited’ on and created anew.

Experimental system II – DISSEMINATION (2015)
Our findings in Bangalore did not only result in valuable data material – they also resulted in displaying our findings in an art gallery in the framework of a two-week assemblage cooperation with the Freiburg Ethnographic Film Festival, Germany.

 Implementing wasps in the tensegrity sculpture at the IISc

Implementing wasps in the tensegrity sculpture at the IISc

The rooms of Gallery T66 were temporarily turned into an insect laboratory. A “parasitic installation” – as we called it – with an ant queen and three workers as well as visual connections and electroacoustic sounds produced interferences, and a radio shortwave connection connected the visitor in the gallery directly to Bangalore, India. And last but not least, video screenings, readings and performances with scientists and artists invitation for public discussion and transdisciplinary debates.

Humans, animals, things, theories and media acted to fertilise each other and to parasites on each other.

Thus Experimental System II stimulated participative processes with ethno-ethnographic encounters; human and non-human forms of communication and production of sense were orchestrated and investigated with respect to their medial and ecological embeddings, and processes of life, reference, formation of environment and embodiment became a sensory experience through superimpositions of artistic, scientific and philosophical approaches, in which humans, animals, things, theories and media were involved in various ways.

Media as Parasites

Parasitic relations can be found not only in biology, but in science in general. Empirical investigations, for example, can be understood as parasitic practices on the basis of varying, planned observations and systematic experiments. And also media can be regarded as parasites.

Parasite (media) ecologies

Parasite (media) ecologies

In contrast to the information theory of Claude Shannon, for Michel Serres confusion is dominant in every relation. The focus is not on the transmitter/receiver relationship, but the relationship between communication and noise. The connections of body and community form a network in which phenomena and knowledge are intertwined. These webs are not really conceivable without ‘noise’ – without overlaps, interferences and parasitic entities.

Medial connections can also be understood as a form of organic medial-parasitic connections. Pull technology is a hungry creature which devours its host.

Medial connections can also be understood as a form of organic medial-parasitic connections, and especially ‘post-Snowden’ media are co-evolutionary and parasitic: pull technology, for instance, is a hungry creature which devours its host – with the Apps, which live as ectoparasites on and under our skin. They are only occasionally troublesome for their host.

The borders between symbiotic and parasitic media are fluid. In any case, they are of an animal-like quality. BUZZ is situated at the border between biology, anthropology/sociology and media ecology – just like the parasite in the work of Michel Serres himself – and aims to research their neighbourly relations and symbioses. Our i-doc also uses parasitic methods and tries to exhibit these and make them visible and researchable. The borders between symbiotic and parasitic media are fluid. In any case, they are of an animal-like quality.

Artistic research as media ecological research

For BUZZ, our research group uses the not undisputed paradigm of artistic research which subverts classic research premises. Artistic research firstly questions whether knowledge is the same thing as science, and it secondly asks whether art really is inaccessible to discourse. Here the rationality of art is discussed and brought into movement, for although art does not exclusively proceed in a discursive manner and therefore is not compatible with a narrow definition of rationality. Art is both rational and cognitive. The embodied knowledge in art and through art has strong implicit and practical elements, as has been shown by phenomenology, hermeneutics and cognitive psychology, among other disciplines.

The project Buzz – like our earlier projects – also represents a contribution towards research into the relationship between activity and passivity. The hitherto undeniable preference for activity today is coming into increasing disrepute. Things happen, occur, and fall into place. However, our purpose is not to weigh up or balance activity and passivity against each other but to deconstruct both concepts, in order to – to put it simply – highlight the active in the passive and the passive in the active. This is one of the main issues we would like to draw the focus of attention on.

A central aspect of our projects is their character of improvisation, of uniqueness, of the performative.

It is precisely the interactivity of the project documentation and the documentary which points towards the tensions of activity and passivity, of predictability and chance/cancellation and of documentation and art/essay.

In the framework of multiple medial ecologies, the relationship between activity and passivity becomes particularly clear and particularly precarious. In our projects, doing and the suspension of doing, independent activity and being determined by the other, with quite specific forms of gains and loss, are a central component of planning, performance, theoretical and practical penetration as well as artistic research documentation and processing. It is precisely the interactivity of the documentation which points towards the tensions of activity and passivity, of predictability and chance/cancellation and of documentation and art/essay. These tensions can and should be examined and made accessible to research precisely there – in the interactive format itself.

The interactive documentary as a means of artistic research

The web-based documentary we created is intended on the one hand to serve the purpose of interactive project documentation, and on the other hand as a prototype for artistic research about and via the project.

Dissemination and creation of knowledge by means of the interactive documentary project BUZZ

Dissemination and creation of knowledge by means of the interactive documentary project BUZZ

The experiencing or generation of evidence is seen by us as a multifactorial and trans-categorical event which always implies transmedial elements. And we decided to fathom the potential of the ‘format’ of the i-doc for this purpose. Therefore we followed Sandra Gaudenzi’s categorization of interactive documentaries: the conversational mode, the hypertext mode, the experiential mode and the participatory mode – which we, respectively modifies into quantitative and qualitative, immersive-conversational, explorative-consumptive, embodying-enactive-experimental and participative-interactional levels or elements.

Interactive documentary works closer to processes of thinking and our consciousness than linear documentary. Thus, the interactive-enactive-experimental-participative nature of i-docs has the potential to extend the ‘documenting’ into an artistic-essayistic form.

Via the creation of complex crossings-over and reciprocal relationships, the actions of the navigating user create specific combinations of parts/impulses which become part of the “whole”. In the process, more or less dense crossing-points “responsiveness” are created. These crossings-overs, cancellations and reciprocal relationships are not only central for the generation of specific cognitive-symbolic and affective-presymbolic evidence or consistency. Rather, they also have aesthetic and sensual dimensions. For this reason, i-docs are not only suitable for the documentation of these impulses/events. Beyond this, they also enable their own generation on the one hand and for the research into and documentation of their generation on the other hand. This process occurs precisely through the interactive-enactive-experimental-participative nature of i-docs. In this way the format of the documentary is extended by its artistic-essayistic form.

Screenshot of the i-doc Buzz as part of the multi-platform artistic research project

Screenshot of the i-doc Buzz as part of the multi-platform artistic research project

Our experience is that interactive web documentation is not only ‘interactive’ on the level of programming and the usage. Due its possibilities to incorporate as well animations and visualisations, it is “more diagrammatic” than simple linear document formats, for example, through the involvement of the “interaction tree” in the form of a mind map with the programme klynt. This is particularly the case when interactive documentaries integrate elements of Sandra Gaudenzi’s “hypertext mode”. In this way such a format also works proportionately closer to the operationality of thought and consciousness itself: it is therefore more stimulated to processes of implicit or explicit self-observation. A clearer examination or marking of the observer’s point of view or the actions of the user tends to become possible – an impulse which – in our eyes – is indispensable for research processes in general and particularly for artistic research processes.

I-docs can “bring unforeseeable elements to light”. They have the potential to initiate research in a genuine artistic sense.

When interactive documentation becomes a potential methodical component of artistic research, questions of the aesthetics of production and reception arise anew. More strongly than with linear media formats, the users of the interactive documentaries cooperate in the creation of knowledge by actively participating in the aesthetic process and in the process of researching alike.

Examination of interactive documentaries in the context of processes of artistic research can therefore be seen as a creation of new events rather than purely as work reception. They make references to events which are open and not ascertainable – just as processes in artistic research are continuously changed, commented on and modified. In this sense, i-docs can “bring unforeseeable elements to light”, as Mersch put it. Thus, they have the potential to initiate research in a genuine artistic sense. The continuously changing morphology is a media ecologically artistic means to an end: a medium which becomes its message, and hence is realised as a continuous “document” of an artistic exploration.


AUTHORS

Daniel Fetzner is Professor for Design and Artistic Research at Offenburg University. In 2002-2014 he was Professor for Media Design at Hochschule Furtwangen, including guest professorships in San Francisco (2007), Cairo (2009-11) and Bangalore (2012). Moreover, he was artist in residence at the ZKM Karlsruhe. Momentarily, he is Head of the Media Ecology Lab at Offenburg University. His main research interest are media and phenomenology, artistic interventions and interactive documentary. http://www.metaspace.de

Martin Dornberg (*1959), MD, PhD, Physician and Philosopher, is working as Lecturer for philosophy at Freiburg University since 1998. Her is also Head of the Centre for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at St. Josefs Hospital Freiburg. Moreover, he is member of the Center for Anthropology and Gender Studies as well as the Institute of Media Cultural Studies at Freiburg University and founder of the artistic research group mbody.