i-Docs: The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary

Released earlier this year, i-Docs: The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary looks at the creative practices, purposes and ethics that lie behind these emergent forms.

The book is structured around three themes, with its editor introducing each section: ‘Co-Creation’, by Mandy Rose; ‘Methods’, by Sandra Gaudenzi; and ‘Horizons’, by Judith Aston. Some of the contributions were originally papers at i-Docs 2014 and 2016.

To get a taste of what the book holds, we’re republishing an edited version of the introduction, co-written by Mandy, Sandra and Judith. Enjoy!

A brief history of i-Docs

The book represents the latest iteration of an ongoing research project into the creative practices and social meanings of interactive documentary (i-docs) that has been underway within the framework of i-Docs since 2011.

This collection draws on what we have learned through all of the endeavours undertaken within the i-Docs project to date. It seeks to amplify aspects of the discussions that we have fostered with a growing community of i-docs makers and researchers, it being fitting that these discussions take a variety of forms and have a life on a variety of platforms. They have taken a live, physical form in the symposium; an interactive form on the website; they are reflected in a lively daily conversation on social media in the Facebook community; and, after their articulation within the Journal of Documentary Studies (2012) and they are now emerging in print form again as this book.

From 89 Steps – part of the Living Los Sures project, included in Christopher Allen’s chapter.

Defining interactive documentary

Our definition of i-docs is deliberately open ended. We embrace any project that starts with the intention to engage with the real, and that uses digital interactive technology to realise this intention. For us the notion of the ‘real’ embraces the breadth of lived experience; as Clifford Geertz would have it, ‘rocks and dreams are both of this world’. We therefore use the term ‘real’ in full acknowledgement that our understanding of reality is a shifting concept, which lends so many twists and possibilities to Grierson’s ‘creative treatment of actuality’.

“In a fast-moving field, we want i-docs to be an expansive concept that can provide a platform for interrogating diverse forms and embracing a variety of emerging trends”

In a fast-moving field, we want i-docs to be an expansive concept that can provide a platform for interrogating diverse forms and embracing a variety of emerging trends. We continue to use the term ‘i-docs’ to include projects that may be found elsewhere described as web-docs, transmedia documentaries, serious games, locative docs, interactive community media, docu-games and now, also, forms including virtual reality non-fiction, ambient literature and live performance documentary. We do not focus only on visual screen practices as i-docs can include work where audio leads, or where immersive and mixed reality projects use actuality and reportage, aural history and poetry, all opening up new terrains for documenting away from the lineage of documentary film.

Interrogating interactive documentary

As we consider the repercussions of i-docs, we find these interactive and experiential works prompting us to ask not what documentary means but what documentary does. What has changed in the last five years is that we have moved from a preoccupation with questions about what i-docs are, to interrogate how we make them, what forms they take in different cultural contexts, and where they might be going.

We see interactive documentary making as being as much about process as about product, and also believe very strongly that it is first and foremost about people as opposed to machines.

At its heart, the i-Docs project is an arena for a series of conversations, which bring together a broad spectrum of makers and theorists from across the globe to consider how documentarians and other producers of non-fiction are taking advantage of the developing affordances of computerisation.

Out My Window – Part of Kat Cizek’s Highrise project.

If, as Bill Nichols has suggested, documentary is engaged with telling stories about our shared world, our interest is in what happens as the former audience become agents in that process. At the very least the work unfolds through their interaction with it, with the potential also existing in some projects for them to be involved in the co-creation of content. This is a proposition that highlights a humanistic approach to agency. We are, however, fully aware that agency takes on another twist now that artificial intelligence is being applied to storytelling, this being an issue of developing importance that is also addressed in the book.

Looking across disciplines

i-Docs provides a space where we can look across disciplines at what interactivity brings to these engagements. Meanwhile, the collection picks up certain longer-term themes, which have received little attention. The book reflects our belief that the multi-disciplinary nature of i-docs calls for a multi-disciplinary debate, and a dialogue between thinking and making. This is not to set up a binary between academia and creative industry, or between theory and practice, as some of the foremost i-docs practitioners are academics and some of the most astute critical thinking comes from outside the academy.

To express this dialogue across disciplines and between making and thinking, this collection explicitly brings together theoretical papers, case studies and interviews with influencers. As such, we have designed the volume to be useful for academic researchers, digital makers, media decision-makers and students, and we invite all interested to continue the discussion by contributing to the i-Docs website and Facebook group.

We hope that the collection reflects something of the spirit that Patty Zimmermann generously describes having felt at i-Docs 2016: ‘i-Docs were a marvel of assembling different communities and constituencies to probe and unpack new developments in interactive documentary. The swift dialectical shifts between theory and practice, local and global, ideas and tech, established and emerging, left me unsettled and engaging new unexpected ideas. I left intellectually nourished and fortified for the rapids needing navigation.’

To purchase a copy of i-Docs: The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary, click here.