Brian Winston on i-Docs 2012

Thanks Brian for sharing with our community your first impressions and reflections on i-Docs 2012! Here is what what you sent us:


Technicism’s essentially flaw is an apparent need to be revolutionary when, in fact, technology is evolutionary. The illusion of revolution is created basically by exhibiting profound historical amnesia augmented by hyperbolic claims of effect. Technicism also insists on confusing tools with products – as if the chisel was as important as the sculpture. (OK… the chisel is important, but its not THAT important) Technicism’s failures would not matter except that they obscure the value of new developments. Instead of grounded assessments of what interventions in the world might be accomplished with these, we are given illusory shibboleths as to their transformative effects (eg the supposed remaking of such fundamentals as the nature of the sensorium; the human propensity to narrative; the realities of power). This is, of course, as Marx noted a little time ago, a characteristic of capitalism – constant uproar to disguise immovable constraints and he realities of oppression; the easy simulacrum of meaningful activism rather than the desperate soul-destroying slog of real political struggle.

But what I have learned from the second edition of i-Docs is that to debate this is somewhat sterile. The i-Docs folks have been telling me this for some time. This is and remains in essence my view so I am therefore more than usually grateful to them for giving me a voice. However, I can now see that technicism’s obfuscations can be penetrated to reveal a more varied landscape than it itself proposes. It is one which is not without old features – the problems of definition, ethics, effects – but it also reveals new typographic elements. These do not have all have to presage world historical events and the emergence of homo (yup – it’s boys toys were are mainly talking about here) sapiens digitalus.

For example, it is quite clear that printed works of reference are a thing of the past. I do not here mean, of course, the polders of misinformation contained in the poorly triangulated written texts of Wikipedia: rather I have in mind the breathtaking and illuminating elegance of Touch Publications and Charlotte Croft’s ‘Geo-spatial, Geo-temporal’ app to guide a tourist around a physical site. Why slap a guide-book around when your phone will tell you everything you could possibly want to know about what you are looking at. This will not destroy the publishing, on whatever platform, of unenhanced alphanumeric texts but it surely must transform the presentation of printed information. (And, ok, it’s the first major change in that since the codex started to replace the scroll in the 4th Christian century – this technicism stuff is easy to fall in with.) And Charlotte’s application isn’t going to make the tourist a citizen of the world but it will immeasurably improve their experience of travel.

None of this depends on formalist worries about the nature of narrative, btw. The distinction between story and plot, the nature of narrative hermeneutics, the possibilities of associative rather than causal narratives etc etc are, of course, all of importance for a maker to consider; but they are not specifically different with interactive technologies. It’s a good idea, though, not to confuse branching narratives with non-linear non-narratives. Branching narratives – including narratives which branch as a consequence of feeder-loops from receivers – cannot be avoided if engaged communication is an objective.

And engagement is another problem. Jejune technicism’s often makes an unacceptable set of assumptions about ‘users’ which are every bit as dismissive of them as, say, are any paternalistic, elitist mainstream broadcaster’s view of ‘audience’. So, far example, to be told, as I was, that the Gaventa miners’ tapes were too old-fashioned because they let people talk at length is pretty outrageous. It implies that a) ordinary people cannot be compelling b) that direct appeals to others in the same situation cannot be made because those others will not pay attention and c) most people have the attention spans of distracted butterflies.

Never-mind the technology: the real distinction here is the possibility of reaching out to carefully targeted groups of people. Think not of the tv executives’ ‘couch-potato’ but rather the attendee at the rally.

The technology does, though, have something important to say to the ‘couch-potato’ situation. In the formalist discussion of the nature of narrative is found the concept of остранение (ostranenie), defamiliarisation. The couch-potato is disengaged because the communication is saying nothing new. Most of the world’s intractable problems fall into this category. Ecology – forget it! The Middle-East – do me favour! The surveillance society – live with it!  We saw projects all of which used the defamiliarisation potential of interactivity to produce works which would engage. Turning the disastrous exploitation of big oil into a game (as Brenda Longfellow is doing) exactly produces the ostanenie necessary to overcome general topor. (Of course, at the moment, animation of a conventional kind can have the same effect – as with the exhausted images of the Holocaust or the unimaginable visual effects of mental states such as schizophrenia).

There is an educational overtone here as in Gail Vanstone and Carolyn Steele’s project to reuse in an interactive setting the NFBC’s archive of feminist films to bring to the fore the persistence of gender issues into the present. Defamiliarisation is needed exactly because the issue is deemed to be exhausted.

Which brings me back to activism. I was wrong to be assuming that activism cannot be achieved except with targeted audiences in specific limited situations. Firstly, glacial increments in understanding (I don’t know who said this at the conference – Kerric Harvey, I think) are, of course, worth having and should not be dismissed. I would add, though, this is OK as long as this understanding is not bought at the expense of other more overt action by the audience – eg to be avoided is the following syndrome: clip the petition and believe you have overthrown the dictator!! That is to say – as long as this Elullian ‘passive propaganda’ doesn’t prevent a greater level of interventionism which could arise from ‘active (exhortationary) propaganda’ it is to be welcomed. Paulina Tervo’s work. Awra Amba, transforms the usual dangers of intrusive Western interventionism – however well meaning – by using interactivity with the audience directly to raise money for the Ethopian subjects of the project. The audience/users’ responses will condition a product which will be sold. Thus, it seems to me that she is an ethically secure place because it is not being bought at the expense of the subject – that is with the usual ethical deficit which relies on the ‘giving a voice’ shibboleth etc etc.

Targeted work further avoids this ethical problem as soon as the ‘director’ becomes a ‘facilitator’. But I had forgotten to stress that the facilitator also needs to create a feedback loop for the targeted audience. Gaventa wandering down the Alleghenies with his Portapak 40 years ago recording the experience of one family, taking it to the next family and screening it unedited and inviting them to add their story; and so on…. is the model for activism. It provides the old transmitter-medium-receiver figure with a crucially distinct feedback loop. It is not, though, to the exclusion of all else.

In sum what i-Docs revealed to me is that this is not the only model.  I suspect that all talk of defining i-Docs more closely will not help me gain such further insights in the future and should therefore be resisted.