Framing the Virtual Reality Documentary. Genre Definitions, Politics of Canonization, and the Challenging of the Documentary Tradition

Documentary-making has always adapted dynamically to the affordances of new technologies. This thesis focuses on a new corpus of virtual reality (VR) documentaries, whose appearance calls for contemplation of the aesthetic and political implications of VR technology in the context of their impact on the ‘documentary tradition’. It suggests steps in the conceptualization of the VR documentary practice, understood as a new medium that draws from – and builds upon – traditional documentary conventions.
First, through a comparative case study of the cinematic (2014) and VR (2016) versions of the documentary “Notes on Blindness”, the author claims that VR documentaries appropriate many of the documentary genre’s rhetorical and aesthetic tropes for ‘authentic’ representation of lived experience – yet they also carry separate meanings and call for different representational structures. Next, it is argued that in order to strive for a more in-depth understanding of the VR doc, it is necessary to form typologies and canonizations (as for any earlier genre). Hence, drawing from the theoretical analysis of processes of ‘canonization’ and ‘typologization’ in earlier media contexts, the thesis explores questions of power structure and dynamics between the agents responsible for canon-creation with regard to VR documentaries. The author proposes a more procedural understanding of canon as something that is practiced rather than ‘set in stone’.
The final part of the thesis addresses a widely accepted typology of seven documentary ‘modes of representation’ proposed by Bill Nichols. The author revisits this influential taxonomy in order to suggest how it could be adapted and extended to acknowledge the specificities of VR documentary practices. While Nichols summarizes all interactive forms – which also apply to VR documentaries – in a new mode labeled ‘interactive’, the author argues that a more nuanced rethinking of all the categories is necessary to make them productively applicable to VR content. This more thorough adaptation of Nichols’ framework concludes that while VR documentaries can be said to adopt four of Nichols’ seven modes – albeit in a revised manner – the medium calls for an in-depth reconceptualization of three of his modes: “expository”, “observatory” and “interactive” modes are updated into “interactive exhibiting”, “interactive immersive witnessing” of VR docs and “responsive” and “social” modes of interaction.

Turska, M.M. (2019) “Framing the Virtual Reality Documentary. Genre Definitions, Politics of Canonization, and the Challenging of the Documentary Tradition”. In: Masters thesis

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