The i-doc as a relational object

Highrise – multiple bridges into the layers of reality

What are i-docs, and why are they more than just documentaries done with digital technologies? You will find all sort of new terminologies that can fit into the i-docs family: webdos, docu-games, collab docs, transmedia docs, cross-media docs… or just interactive documentaries. This can seem all very confusing, but really what it shows is that i-docs are already splitting into genres. I have personally done my own taxonomy of i-docs  (and in my thesis I devise them into logics of interactivities) but really this is just my own way of putting some order in a field that is becoming quite vast. For me it is the intent of interaction that makes all the difference, as it creates different types of projects. To summarize my taxonomy very quickly: I call Hypertext i-docs the projects that are based on the exploration of a closed video archive and where the user just explores by clicking on pre-existing options (see any Korsakov project for this genre). If the piece is more fluid – not just a “click here and go there”- for example a 3D environment where one can dialogue into a reconstructed documentary world (as for example in Gone Gitmo by Nonny de la Pena) I call them Conversational i-docs (as they simulate a seamless conversation with the computer). On the other hand when the logic of interaction is based on people’s participation (sending videos, writing comments, uploading audio files etc…) I call then Participative i-docs. And finally, when the interaction happens outside of the screen, and physical space becomes part of the interface, I call them Experiential i-docs (see Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke as an example). Obviously this taxonomy is just indicative as lots of i-docs are now hybrids -mixing several logics of interaction, and several platforms,  in one single project… but this is just a starting point… that I am happy to expand or reframe at any moment.

What actually really matters to me is to see an i-doc as a relational object. What I mean by that is that it is an artefact that demands agency and active participation of some sort from more than one actant and therefore it does not exist as an independent entity – as it is always putting several entities in relation with each other. One of the onsequences is that we cannot analyse i-docs using normal film and documentary theory. Speaking of framing, shots,  rhythm, editing and intentionality of the author is not enough for this form… as it is “something else”. My thesis is dedicated to propose a methodology that could be more adequate than film theory to the  analysis and understanding of  i-docs, but in this article I just want to take an example hoping that a case study is a simpler route to explain what I mean by the relational role of i-docs.

I shall choose Highrise from Kat Cizek (NFB, 2009-today)

Highrise is Katerina Cizek’s umbrella i-doc project at the Canadian National Film Board (NFB). It “explores vertical living in the global suburbs. It is a “multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment at the National Film Board of Canada” (from the “about” section of Highrise’s website). Being “multi-year” means that those guys have a good amount of time to explore the topic of suburbia and tower living around the world, and being “many-media” really means that they can explore and being  experimental with the use of digital and analogue media. Bottom line: this is a project that emerges from its doing, it evolves like ripples in water… one leading into the other… and that is its beauty. Very frankly: there is no other project at the moment that has such freedom of exploration and uses it as well as Highrise does.

Highrise is complicated to grasp because it keeps launching new off-springs under its umbrella. What is the interest of such vast experiment, and what does it consist on? I suspect its own growing is the very reason for which the NFB has recently re-launched its website: it was starting to get confusing. Highrise contains several projects: the 1000th tower (a web-doc) and Out My Window (which takes both the forms of a  360 degrees web-doc and of a physical installation). But Out my Windows now has a new “feature” called Participate.  (which to me looks as an  independent participative web photo essay)…  if one tries to understand the project as a constructed whole, one misses the point. It is exactly because Highrise has an evolving journey that it can only be described through the timeline that allowed those ideas to emerge. You will be pleased to know that Highrise’s home page now acts as a mini-portal that re-directs you towards the section that might interest you, and that a very handy section called “The story so far” explains you the ramifications of the project to date (the journey is so well explained that I invite you to check it directly on their website, as it feels superfluous for me to cut and paste it).

Now… what do all those sections have in common? Of course they all speak about suburbia and highrise living. The very prologue of the project explains that global urbanization is the defining trend of the 21st century and that, since cities tend to grow faster in their edges, it is suburbia that seems to be at the forefront of the expansions of our cities. This brings us to our understanding of what suburbia is… and here is where we enter the sociological and political aspect of the project: can we re-shape suburbia? Should we? And first of all: do we understand suburbia? What is it like to live in a tower block? Which lives, mysteries, dreams, wishes or projects are inhabiting the thousand windows of a block that from the outside looks pretty much the same?

Highrise is not about suburbia, it is about our preconceptions of suburbia. Its political value is to use documentary as a way to bridge several worlds: the one of people living in tower blocks with the one of people living outside of them. But there is more: there is the relation suburbia-city, but also suburbia-other suburbia, and also the difference of suburbia within one city, and within other cities of the world… So the way I see Highrise is as a relational piece: it puts in relation people, worlds and realities… and this is why it is a damn good documentary .

One more thing: why are so many different projects essential to speak about one same thing? Well… to me this is where it gets really interesting: if one wants to create a relational object one has to create situations where those relations might emerge and create something new. When Katerina Cisek wants to understand what it might be like to live in a tower in Toronto she does not conduct a series of interviews and cut them into a clean edited video that illustrates her point of view; she goes in situ, meets people and asks them to tell their stories through The Thousandth Tower. Although the final result might not appear as a collaborative project, The Tousandth Tower explores a view of collaboration as personal engagement within a mediated piece. Katerina here acts as a facilitator, rather than as a narrator. This journey leads into a natural expansion: understanding tower living in other places in the world. So Katerina goes out again and crafts news bridges into other cultures using a new interface: a  playful virtual tower block that can be explored through Out My Window. Here again, technology is not just a gimmick: it is a way to explore new modes of relations. Katerina plays with 360 video technology as an explorer would use light in a cavern: it reveals stuff, it creates tension, it infuses curiosity… Finally this project, that has the merit of being international (the people portayed in the virtual tower block come from all around the world) reaches its own limits: it maybe lacks of spontaneity – as every person featured in it has been carefully selected by an editorial team. So, here again, another bridge starts its linking work: it is now Participate that is being launched. By allowing people around the world to spontaneously send pictures and stories of their life in tower blocks, this project tries to add another dimension to the project: spontaneous collaboration and crowd sourcing. Here collaboration has a different meaning than in the other projects: it is not a personal and long lasting bond that is created, but a spontaneous wish to be part of something.

When I write, and think, about  interactive documentaries I often try to see what they are good at: what is it that this interactive  media  adds to the whole process of documenting reality? For me Highrise encapsulate a lot of the potential of interactive documentary: it shows how an emergent and evolving process can be more effective than a linear one to describe a complex reality such as suburbia. It creates relations between people, between social backgrounds, between technology and place, between author and participants … not to forget the open relation with the potential community of web user/viewers/participants. By zooming into Highrise one starts unpacking the complex reality that suburbia is. As a microscope that can both zoom into the specificity of the DNA – but that can also stop at intermediate levels of skin, or blood, or cell – Highrise makes visible levels of complexity. But as a piece of interactive participative media Highrise brakes the traditional chain author-viewers showing, once again, that the strength of social media is to describe from within – starting from a multitude of building blocks that together, and because of their particular relations, form what suburbia can be.

For me the exciting part of interactive documentaries is that they use an interactive media that allows and pushes toward multiplicity, points of views, participation and layering. When this media is used creatively to dive into a topic that demands such relational approach we can start to grasp what the i-doc of the future could be like. But if we believe that the media is the message, we can also start to see our own world differently. A world where everything is dynamically connected and where relations are the bone structure of life. A world where there is no “observer” and “observed”, no “in “ and “out”, and no “mind” and “body”. A world of relations where the interactive documentary is just one possible tool to visualize some of the complexity we are made of.