I-docs as Research Method – Recap from the Bremen interactive documentary workshop

A full day packed with insightful presentations and a highly inspiring round table discussion – that’s probably the shortest way to describe a long one-day workshop organised by Stefano Odorico and hosted at the University of Bremen on May 3. The workshop is one of the outputs of Stefano’s 3 year’s DFG project (fully funded by the German Research Council) on the aesthetics of interactive documentary form, which will shortly have two more outputs: a book and a website.

So for all those who were not able to join us – here is a short re-cap of this stimulating get-together. For further insights, as well as the streaming of the presentations, check the Bremen Film Symposium Facebook page and the upcoming site of the workshop output.

The morning sessions were dedicated to short presentations which investigated critical methodological approaches to interactive factual media-making, exploring the potential and impact of interactive documentary as a method to do research and at the same time to communicate research results in a number of different ways.

The ‘i-docs mind-set’ – a plead for ‘performative engagement’, transdisciplinary and transprofessional collaboration

Ersan Ocak (Bilken University, Ankara) kicked-off the event by raising the question what kind of mind-set we need in a world that calls for transdisciplinary and transprofessional collaboration – and how far can what he calls ‘an i-docs approach’ be a catalyst for exchange. Drawing from Umberto Eco’s, The Open Work, he made an argument for embracing multi-linear tracks in doing research and to engage in participatory, co-creative, scientific collaborations. Comparable to the idea that the single author should lose his monolithic authoritarian position, he suggested that also the single scientist should give up his or her disciplinary authority. This, however, calls for bridging borders in research methodologies and ways of approaching processes of doing research.

In this regard, the co-creational, interactive potential – the shift from the representational paradigm to an experiential paradigm – turns out to be an asset. This shift enables the user-interactor to enter into a dialogue with material: all interactants are pushed to more ‘performative engagement’ – a process in which all become co-writers, co-authors, co-creators, co-makers, co-editors and – in the end – co-researchers. Though this perspective certainly calls for a critical re-assessment of professionalism, Ersan’s impulse certainly gave food for thought for the following contributions.

Interactive documentary as a research method – not a tool – or: Dancing with Korsakow

I myself (Anna Wiehl, University of Bayreuth) was the next to share my thoughts on i-docs as a research method – not only as tools for creating informational audiovisual artefacts and enabling epistemological insight – but for establishing complex relational networks of interactants.

Racing Home - a Korsakow documentary about race, identity and belonging

Racing Home – a Korsakow documentary about race, identity and belonging

For this purpose, I suggested looking at current tendencies in interactive documentary practices through three different lenses: the lens of cinema, respectively the tradition of documentary film, the lens of new media and software studies, and most importantly the lens of (new) media ecologies.

Taking Phil Hoffmann’s Korsakow documentary Racing Home (2015) as a test-stone and summarising Adrian Miles’ and Matt Soar’s approaches to Korsakow documentary as “surprisingly messy suite of protocols” (Miles 2017), this presentation was an invitation to ponder about different forms of editing and their epistemological as well as ontological implications: from linear editing in Korsakow-SNUs (smallest narrative units) to algorithmic editing – i.e. attributing keywords to SNUs, and performative (“readerly”) editing, which in fact means realising one of many virtually possible versions of a Korsakow documentary.

Whereas the usage of editing software certainly falls into the category of interactive ‘tools’, in the second and third form of editing we experience the subtle shift to i-docs as a method – a method to creatively deal with often heterogeneous material and to open up an open space where unexpected experiences can take place.

Thick description and emplaced interaction

 Judith Aston (University of the West of England, Bristol) invited us to think through interactivity documentary in terms of thick description and emplaced interaction. Building upon her background in anthropology and thoughts most recently published in i-docs – The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary, she took the concept of ’emplaced interaction’ and emplacement which entails not only recognising our own body, but how we are framed with our sensory materiality in our environment.

Referring to Clifford Geertz’s dictum of text and context, as well as the concept of thin and thick description, she delineated in how far i-docs have the potential to give thick description – a track of thought inspired by Ted Nelson’s idea that ‘everything is intertwingled’ and Donald Norman’s idea that we should embrace Living With Complexity (also the title of his insightful book) without making things unnecessarily complicated or confusing. In a detailed case study of Arte prize-awarded Gaza/Sderot, she pointed out how interactive documentaries can enable the user-interactant to explore multiple points of view through juxtaposition, spatial montage and non-linearity.

‘What they really want and do’ – Tracing user interaction in i-docs

 Florian Mundhenke (University of Hamburg) addressed another issue which certainly concerns most of us doing research on interactive documentary: how can we analyse i-docs from a methodological sound basis? Florian described four fields in which i-docs significantly differ from linear documentary and which need to be considered in qualitative research: i-docs’ open structure instead of narrative closure, their multimodal aesthetics and variety, their spatiality and the positioning of those formerly known as the ‘audience’, who are now active users.

Prison Valley

Prison Valley

Tracing user interaction in the case of Prison Valley (2010), he conducted an empirical research on various itineraries through the application – focusing on the level of engagement (mid, low, high) and the kinds of interaction (from clicking through material, watching videos to engaging in chat-room discussions) – with partly surprising results: While the videos available were almost all watched, the test-groups rated their engagement as ‘low’ or ‘middle’ and accessed at best 50% additional material. This, of course, calls for further pondering on how we as producers of interactive documentaries can raise user-interaction – and where users are actually longing for more interaction. One way which Florian’s valuable research sketched is certainly to draw upon emotional engagement within the audio-visual material and thus encourage more user-interaction.

Taking us on a tour through different possibilities how we as researchers can spread our research, Arnaud Giffreu-Castels (Girona ERAM) demonstrated how interactive documentary itself can be medium and message, to take up McLuhan’s famous dictum. Presenting inspiring meta-documentaries such as The journey of documentary – a webseries about the evolution of documentary (2013) and Biology of Story (2016) an interactive documentary about how we work with story and how story works with us – he also gave us insight in his experiences when realising meta-documentaries himself – MetamentalDoc and COME/IN/DOC – a transformation of the results of his doctoral thesis on web documentary and a collaborative project.

“Experiments in Interactivity – From Mass Participation to Individual Immersion”

The afternoon was dedicated to rather practice-orientated presentations – starting with Nick Higgins (University of the West of Scotland) who invited us to consider “Experiments in Interactivity – From Mass Participation to Individual Immersion”. He focused on different forms of collaboration and of engaging users to actively contribute content – always keeping in mind the strong power for community building of interactive documentary configurations. Presenting Northern Lights (2012) – the first mass-crowd produced documentary about Scottish identity – Nick demonstrated how a high value of identification with a project can be achieved through exploiting the assets of web-based infrastructure. Northern Lights – “a film about Scotland made by you” is a fine example of how interactive documentary was used to collect impressions and thoughts about what it means living in Scotland. The output – a linear feature film – managed to transcend stereotypes of identity representation: it allows us to approach identity as assemblages and to move from merely analytical ways to think through these issues to more experiential modes – which in turn bear the potential to be much more affective in inciting a collective sense of ownership and community.

In the second half of his presentation, Nick took us on a short tour d’horizon through three further interactive projects he realised with his students: 2.4 km, a documentary about what it means living within the ‘critical’ radius of a nuclear power plant, river, a sonic journey and exploration of a local river and finally The circuit, a 360° documentary about a day at the race from the perspective of a jockey. (All three projects are certainly more than worthwhile visiting!)

i-docs and the delicate balance between the flow of narration and the fathoming of additional material

 Julian Konczak (Southampton Solent) invited us on a journey giving us insight into the production workflows and crucial design decisions when working on his project A Polish Journey – Road trip into History. This web based documentary produced using Klynt, is a highly poetical interactive experience exploring borders, the theme of migration and the legacy it holds for future generations – and it is a fine example of how we can realise a satisfying narrative experience and at the same time let people fathom the depth of the material. (For a detailed analysis of A Polish Jouneythere is an insightful contribution by Julian himself on this site.)

A Polish Journey - Road trip into History

A Polish Journey – Road trip into History

Experiences from filming for archives – from drama and conflict to openness and the willingness to listen

The following presentation dealt with the problem of how interactive documentary configurations can be seen as research methods starting off from a concrete case study: Cahal McLaughlin (Queens Belfast) introduced us to his interactive Prison Memory Archive – “a collection of 175 filmed walk-and-talk recordings with those who had a connection with Armagh Gaol and the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during the conflict in and about Northern Ireland”. Considering his methodological approach, Cahal underlined that he and his collaborators had three “protocols of production”: co-ownership, inclusivity and co-authorship.

Most insightful were Cahal’s reflections upon the conception and production of the material. As he wasn’t working for a linear documentary with a clearly delineated arc, he was not looking for conflict or for “drama”. Rather than aiming to set up oppositions between. for example, former inmates and prison officers, he and his team were looking for similarities. Most important, however, due to the sensitivity of this area, Cahal and his co-researchers were maintaining an open mind: rather than coming with a refined script and pre-established arguments into the situations or arriving with a set of questions and expecting certain answers, Cahal addressed his co-creators/participants with an openness and willingness to listen – which certainly contributed to the intimacy of statements and the frankness of the participants.

The Prison Memory Archive

The Prison Memory Archive

The Thinness of New Images – and an antidote to separation

 Paolo Favero (University of Antwerp) closed the day with an ethnographic perspective on images – both film and what he characterized as ‘new images’. Like Judith Aston, Favero took up Clifford Geertz’s concept of thick description and addressed the reproach often made that images are thin as they do not provide any context as for example text does. Still, does this mean that they are automatically ‘superficial’?

Pleading to approach i-docs with the ‘i’ standing for ‘I’ (personal), ‘eye’, ‘intelligent’, ‘immersive’ – he delineated what makes new images ‘new’ – and in how far their (reputable) ‘thinness’ can also be seen as an asset – the occasion to see through things. Speaking of an i-doc continuum delineated by three vectors – (inter)activity, participation and immersion, Paolo invited us to reconsider interactive documentary’s potential not only for deeper epistemological insight but also for new experiences and perspectives on the world surrounding us – a deeply interrelated world.

Things to do – things to come

 All these contributions set up a fertile ground for the closing round table – chaired and moderated by Stefano Odorico (University of Bremen / Leeds Trinity), Graham Roberts (Leeds Trinity) and Winfried Pauleit (University of Bremen). In this discussion, we touched upon the main points. What was certainly most valuable was finding several fields for future research:

  • probing more deeply into the role of audio in interactive documentary
  • fathoming the potential of 360° and VR for convening documentary experiences and presenting research output
  • differentiating further between various forms and modes of user interaction and engagement, openness of the work and the need for curational instances
  • developing a ‘new pedagogy’ to enhance new forms of ‘new’ literacy
  • transcending disciplinary and professional boundaries
  • exploiting the creative momentum when the sciences and the arts are coming together
  • embracing complexity without becoming over-complicated
  • and continuously reflecting on our own doing as researchers, as practitioners – and as researcher-practitioners.

So there are still many questions to be asked and there are lots of issues to be tackled. However, as the discussions have proved – we are also standing at a thrilling point in media history and may be looking forward to further explorations of the epistemological and ontological dimensions of interactive documentary.

Anna Wiehl – May 2017