Wawa, Ont.

A few Super 8mm stills from my MFA thesis film, which screened at Ryerson’s first annual Doc/Now Festival. They depict the town of Wawa in Northern Ontario.

Supplementary plates: The V.I. Fonds distribution project

Artist Statement

Supplementary plates: the V.I Fonds distribution project developed in response to the challenge of creating a system of categorization for an existing archive of one hundred digital images. On the surface, the photographic archive in question presented a baffling incoherence, despite a few obvious thematic strands linking small sets of images. Among the obvious categories were: aerial photographs of highway intersections, passport photos, images of Asian photographers in various comically distended poses, press photos of Stephen Harper, and action shots of figure skaters. There were other, seemingly related images, but it was often impossible to define a satisfying and convincing category that could contain them. For instance, while there appeared to be a number of architectural images depicting the interior spaces of museums and art galleries, there were disconnections between photographs of artwork in which the space itself was incidental; photos emphasizing the patterns of spectatorship in these spaces (and which, accordingly, feature crowds); and photographs of largely empty rooms (populated only by solitary security guards) that take as their subject the neglected corners and portals that help to define and organize the spaces. The archival images also varied widely in quality: there were fine-art photographs evidently shot on large-format film; various species of black-and-white historical images from the nineteenth century; low-resolution journalistic images apparently pulled from the Internet; and poorly-shot digital snapshots of uninteresting social situations. Taken as is, this archive was unsatisfying — it was thin, imbalanced and finite, riddled with non-sequiturs and incomplete series (surely the handful of highway intersections taken from Google Earth could not constitute an exhaustive typology). It was somehow soulless.

Steeped in the polemics of Jacques Derrida¹ and Pierre Nora², I perceived the destructive aspects of modern archivization at work, those aspects which deprive an archive’s contents of their original context; transform material photographs into degraded, insubstantial digital approximations; privilege multiplicity over individual specificity, and history over memory. Without knowledge of the images’ provenances and the archival motivations behind their co-mingling, I realized that by merely organizing them into batches, I could not hope to restore their meaning or significance. Thus, I set about trying to accomplish three things in an attempt to find some purpose for this sad, little archive: the restoration of materiality, context, and function to its constituent parts, at the expense of the whole.

To accomplish these, I had to liberate the materials from their archival raison d’être, which was their assembly by our professor, Vid Ingelevics. Against standard archival practice, I had to reject the integrity of his personal fonds, that unit of archival organization that classifies stored objects according to the person who originally brought them together. While the fonds can, in some circumstances, offer a biographical insight into the meaning of an archive, I found that this particular fonds, composed of such disparate and ephemeral images, advanced little claim to organic unity or to an indispensible psychological profile of a person. To give it meaning, I had to disperse this fonds, to scatter it to the winds.

In the initial stages of struggling with the categorization of images, I realized that while assigning numerous keywords to an image was easy, determining which keywords were most relevant to an image was difficult. In a digital database, an image can be assigned to any number of categories, each with equal weighting. However, it occurred to me that in a physical archive in which only one copy of an item exists, the item resides in only one place, and while it can be inscribed with any amount of data about its form, content, provenance, etc., its singular placement demands that an important decision about its primary subject must be made. If I restored materiality to the image, by printing it on lustrous photo paper, I would be forced (or, allowed) to assign it a definitive primary subject where its only physical incarnation could be located.

Having transformed the ephemeral pixels into matter, I could then adopt a well-known system of primary classification, such as the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress System, and assign each image a single place within it. This adoption of such a well-worn, nineteenth-century mode of classification should be perceived as a rather nostalgic gesture, one that yearns for a time before post-modernity, for the analogue, for the certitude that an object is what it appears to be — and can be found where it belongs.

Beyond allowing me to simplify my organizational endeavour, the use of a pre-existing system of classification creates the opportunity to restore a modicum of context and function to these images. This is because an active repository of systematically classified materials already exists, in which the images could find a useful home: the school library. I decided that it would be most appropriate to house the images in the institution of the library, which, unlike a traditional archive, actually strives for maximum accessibility — there is no conflicting imperative of physical preservation which attempts to limit access. (The archive, when silent, is still fulfilling its mandate of preservation, whereas a library without researchers is somehow a failure.) And the library is full of books on every subject, including the subjects I have identified in the photos of the Vid Ingelevics (V.I.) Fonds; thus, it stands to reason that, with a measure of playfulness, I might include these paper images as visual supplements to the contents of circulating books. As “supplementary image plates” inserted into library books, the images gain a new context and may serve either an illustrative or a critical function. Armed with a brief, dryly didactic (and truthful, if obvious) caption, and separated from their recipient book by a sealed coin envelope stating that they are on “temporary loan from the V.I. Fonds,” they are unlikely either to enlighten or to misinform; what some may accomplish is to problematize the relationship between an author’s text and its accompanying illustrations, causing the reader to think critically not just about the meaning of this quaint inclusion, but also about the published images that might already be in the book. When inserted into photo books, the V.I. Fonds images may also challenge the notion of authorship in (documentary) photography; more precisely, with their informative captions based only upon their primary subject classification, the images create a tension between subjective authorship and objective documentation in the photos in the recipient book.

Perhaps the most satisfying example of this is the insertion of a photograph of a service station into a book listed under the subject “service stations.” The book is entitled Twenty-six gasoline stations, and the V.I. Fonds contributed to it an image of a twenty-seventh gasoline station. By determining the photo’s primary subject to be “service stations,” and by placing it in a like-classified tome, the supplementary plate added to the library’s documentary imagery of gas stations; this placement occurred without concern for the fact that Twenty-six gasoline stations is also a deadpan artistic work by the photographer Edward Ruscha, or that it might be considered sacrilege to add an extra station as photographed by another celebrated artist, Stephen Shore. In all the image-book pairings, the images can absorb meaning and context from their recipient books, and in turn can produce varied, unpredictable effects through their juxtaposition with similarly categorized books. Thus, the V.I. Fonds images, dispersed into the active world of the library, are made capable of both giving and receiving, and are liberated from the cold dormancy of a strictly archival existence.

Summary of process

Supplementary plates is essentially a process-driven work, one that combines a highly iterative process of categorization with an element of ongoing performance: the intervention in a library to give a digital archive materiality, context, and function. For this reason, in the foregoing artist statement, it has been necessary to include some description of the ways in which process served to motivate me and shape my artistic goals. Here I summarize some specific issues that arose during the execution of the work, and examine the how their (attempted) resolutions affected the finished result.

One key trajectory in this project was my adoption, and then rejection, of the concept of the fonds as an archival organizing principle. Initially, I was attracted to the biographical intimacy of the fonds, with its way of foregrounding the individual responsible for a section of the archive, with the implication that it is a window into a life. In my blog, I noted: “The researcher, originally intrigued by an academic theme or subject, finds that he cannot help but ask of the fonds: whose life does this represent? Therein lies some of the mystery of an archive.” Thus, my initial attempts at resolving this project centered on answering this fundamental question — or, more accurately, on inventing its answer. At the time, I was prepared to “set aside … the possibility (likelihood?) that the ‘100 Images’ archive was compiled strictly for the purposes of this assignment.” I contemplated producing a narrative film or slide-slow in which a speaker would recount a fictional catastrophe that led to the existence of this odd archive, and then posit an unorthodox, possibly humorous, system of categorization in an attempt to re-construct the identity of the person who left this mysterious fonds behind. I also applied my filmmaking sensibilities to the project, wanting to invent an authoritative interpretation of this archive’s existence and to make alternative interpretations difficult or impossible. Admittedly, this approach was rather tongue-in-cheek. For instance, I noted that the film would invite “outside researchers to visit the archive and examine [its] materials, with the caveat that they must submit to all the kafka-esque access obstacles set forth by the institutional bureaucracy.” In stipulating this, it was my intention to give the V.I. Fonds a seemingly prisonlike air of impenetrability and authority, in keeping with Eric Ketelaar’s description of some archives.³ However, I grew unhappy with this approach — the whimsical fictionalization of genuine documentary material — and, aware that the truth behind this fonds’ existence was either unknowable or trivial, I decided to switch my emphasis away from the fonds towards producing the materialized, functional (but dispersed) archive described above. To be sure, the fonds concept did survive as a vestigial trace, in that each envelope noted that the image contained within was on temporary loan from the “V.I. Fonds.” Furthermore, in acknowledgement of the magnetic attraction that may indeed exist between materials from a single fonds, I also printed a loan due date and an email address for the “Fonds Administrator” on the envelopes, allowing for the remote possibility that the V.I. materials might one day return home.

As I decided on a library intervention strategy, various new issues emerged. I grappled with the correct method of assigning subjects to photos and then, photos to books. Generally speaking, my methodology came to involve deciding on a photo’s subject by a strictly visual examination (thus eliminating the influence of a photo’s digital filename, which sometimes provided information about the photo’s authorship), and then searching for this subject in the library catalogue and finding an appropriate book for placement. In practice, it was sometimes not possible to determine the correct, Library-recognized keyword in one attempt (for instance, the Library classifies the images of woodpiles as “fuelwood,” whereas I had initially searched for “firewood”), so I would try searching several keywords and then choosing the book that most closely suited the subject. During my project presentation, several colleagues questioned whether my system of classification by “primary subject” was biased, arbitrary or unsystematic. Indeed, in hindsight, it is clear that while some subjects are the most obvious ones for a given image (for instance, it is non-controversial to assert that “figure skating” is the primary subject for a photo of figure skaters), other assigned subjects are little more than Barthian puncta that I identified in the photos based on my own idiosyncratic tendencies and curiosities. To partially address this issue, I would sometimes split up series of related images between two subjects when it was unclear which subject was most appropriate: hence, the aerial photos of highways are divided into the library subjects “express highways” and “aerial photography.”

Alongside these archival-type concerns arose a number of problems dealing with the ethics of a whimsical intervention into a public space that is used by serious researchers who depend on the peer-reviewed authority of the materials contained therein. I was also concerned with the privacy and personality rights of the individuals depicted in the photographs, and at one point considered censoring them. Lastly, I was afraid that some images might be perceived as threatening if found, loosely inserted in a book, by an unsuspecting patron — for instance, the two photos depicting the horrible events of 9/11. Would these be wrongly construed as a threat or premonition? Overall, my fears about unpredictable reactions and institutional consequences led me to stipulate that the captions accompanying the photos be clear, truthful and politically/emotionally benign as a reassurance to all who would find them. Fear also led me to proceed surreptitiously, taking pains to remain anonymous; for this reason, I refrained from checking the recipient books out of the library, even though I had originally intended to scan their covers in colour to produce a visual counter-archive depicting the new contexts into which the scattered archival images were inserted.

Though it evolved considerably from an abstract concept to a material realization, the Supplementary plates project engaged with a number of issues central to archiving and, in my view, offers one of many valid strategies in resolving the problem of how to categorize and make meaningful a small, but diverse and mysterious photographic archive.


¹ Derrida’s work, Archive Fever (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), is interpreted at length by Dragan Kujundzic in “Archigraphia: On the Future of Testimony and the Archive to Come”, Discourse 24 (Winter-Spring 2003) 166-188.

² Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Representations 26 (Spring, 1989) 7-25.

³ Eric Ketelaar, “The Panoptical Archive”, Archives, Documentation and Institutions of Social Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 207) 144-50.

Thesis-related digression

This is a digression from the topic of archives, but I have a restless need to broadcast a change of heart I have experienced in the last few days concerning my thesis. For a long time, I have felt that my documentary thesis project represented a concession, in that I couldn’t think of an unusual, obscure corner of life to document, so I adopted a thoroughly familiar subject. Now, I am passionate about my subject, but again, acknowledge little likelihood of shedding any “new light” on it, at least in terms of facts and arguments. Because of this, I told myself that I should produce a unique formal response to the subject, one that was personal and idiosyncratic and that visually addressed ideas about nostalgia, landscape, emotional geography and local identity.

My project was to consist of two parallel elements: audio interviews and a sequence of video images (note, I am implying a certain detachment or disconnect between these two elements, which is why I don’t simply call it a film). Having begun production, I have found that while my audio interviews have been generally successful (and thus encouraging), my videography has been uniformly substandard and plagued by technical difficulties. Discouraging, especially when visual (not sonic) issues are what I want to emphasize in the dreaded written component: I would really prefer to write about some roles of landscape in Canadian film and photography. Although I have seen wondrous video work from some colleagues, in my own amateurish work I find that HD video is characterized by a kind of banal indexicality, with little or none of the magic I associate with cinema. Now, if I had a living human or animal subject whose vitality could be depicted on screen (as in my short film Horse Patrol), any problems with the particular aesthetics of video would seem trivial. But in my work I am emphasizing absence, solitude, empty spaces, and applying a somewhat photographic approach to the depiction of loss; the problem is that while, in my mind, I have vivid, contemplative 4×5 film images, on my video viewfinder I have nothing but trite “b-roll.”  

For my project, the desired cine-photographic “magic” I am seeking is a sense of history/pastness. While it may be possible to produce this using expensive lenses, filters and post-production gimmickry, this misses the point, and I can neither afford the time or money to investigate such things. In this context, my recent epiphany has been to shoot the lion’s share of the project on Super-8. I do not feel this will go over well with my advisors, for a variety of reasons (technical, economic, etc.). But it perhaps would confer on the work the feelings of pastness and longing which elevate a lot of Canadian landscape film, but which are lacking from a lot of contemporary video art. Some of the sites I plan to shoot are non-descript modern apartments and anonymous middle-class houses, but maybe in Super-8 I can transport them somewhere, make them a bit mysterious, sad, innocent.

Or perhaps I am being too messianic about a mere medium (and a humble, low-res, audience-limiting one at that). I am not implying that expertise would come without hard work, or that “lyricism” or “poetry” would gush forth from an otherwise dry well. And I am certainly not looking for an easy way out (quite the contrary; I would like the extra discipline of having to shoot economically with little more than a 2:1 ratio). Furthermore, I do find something intimidating and possibly foolhardy about taking pains to procure access to sites only to shoot 3 minutes of footage with a 1970s home-movie camera. But when one of my profs admonished me in the winter to learn how to “play,” I realized that play is sadly lacking in me, with the result that I tend to produce work laden with conservative cliches and a stifling seriousness. Is this enough justification to think about a shift in medium? Could it assist an emancipation of repressed creativity? Of course, I wouldn’t consider such a route without a good deal of research, familiarization, and experimentation. But I think it might be right for me.

DM8305 – Databases and Archives

I am re-purposing my New Media class blog for the course “Databases, Archives and the Virtual Experience of Art,” taught by Vid Ingelevics. I think I will keep the old content up on the main page because it contains some rudimentary explorations of databases and their uses, and is therefore somewhat relevant to the present course. Going forward, this site will feature, among other things, an ongoing discussion of the “100 Images” archival project. Stay tuned for more.

21 Tags: a reflection on the group project

In this entry, I will reflect on our group production project, “21 tags:the Documentary New Media Tag Hunt,” summarizing what the project achieved, how it could be improved, and how its approach (and new media more generally) might inform my own documentary practice going forward. As a web-based work, it can be viewed at mfataghunt.blogspot.com (best viewed with Firefox), and the previous two entries on this blog serve to provide some sense of the project’s evolution from conception through to completion.

Initially, we intended to make a distributed photo-documentary in real time on Toronto Island, focusing on a specific event – the 2008 Cycle Messenger World Championships. As the project evolved, we discovered that there was a considerable logistical problem facing our original plan; namely, that wireless internet access is only available within a relatively small radius of the Island marina, and that this connection is frustratingly slow. We thus opted to abandon the real-time-uploading aspect of the project, and, accordingly, to put less emphasis on the time-sensitive sporting event at the project’s core. In its place, we decided to shift our focus towards producing a more general, poly-thematic documentary about our collective understanding of a shared geographical space. At the same time, we also developed an interest in interrogating the value of tags as semantic/thematic categories, and decided that it would be interesting to collectively create a list of 21 tags in advance of the photo shoot, constituting the parameters for the documentary while allowing the participants the freedom to interpret and discover these tags according to their own personal tendencies and curiosities as documentarians. We hoped that the result would be a number of interlinked web-pages displaying separate photographic slideshows for each of the tags, with each slideshow creating a kind of collaboratively-authored typology reflecting, on the one hand, our interpretive differences as artists, and, on the other, our collective knowledge of a place.

Alex raised the important point that the photos taken during this tag-based “scavenger hunt” could descend rather easily into total incoherence; photographs, pregnant with so many potential readings, naturally have an interpretive openness, and we did not want the finished product to become a meaningless jumble. We decided to address this by requiring each photographer to write a short caption about each of their tagged photographs, and then severing this text from the photos and randomly juxtaposing the captions with any like-tagged images in the slideshow. Our goal was to ascertain whether images and text by different authors can display correspondences reflecting their shared senses of dwelling within a certain space. We had hoped that certain captions would have coherent (and yet variable) relationships with multiple images, and that said relationships would occupy a continuum ranging from the purely literal/expository, to the more ironic, metaphorical, or poetic. Thankfully, our experiment was largely successful, in that many of the tagged slideshows do work as convincing typologies, and the image-text relationships are often rich testaments to the coherence and even power of collaborative, distributed documentation. That said, some of the captions are too specific to their author’s own vision, and become incoherent when juxtaposed with any other images; perhaps we should have set clearer parameters for the captioning component to avoid this.

Before we set out on our photo shoot, it was difficult to know whether the project stood any chance of achieving a coherent sense of dwelling in the space of the Island. However, immediately upon returning from the Island with our photos and captions, we were much more confident about the project’s soundness; while each individual photo presented in some ways the visual hallmarks of its author, the combined result (especially when mapped in Flickr or Google Maps) was a kaleidoscopic or cubistic view of place, a kind of psychogeography of Toronto Island (though I confess I have little formal knowledge about Debord’s concept and, for fear of misunderstanding it, will not elaborate on it more fully here).

One thing I learned from this project is the value, modularity, and flexibility of freely-available, open-source web tools and interfaces. Lacking much programming ability, our group was entirely dependent on such platforms to display and organize our content. We stored, organized, keyworded, and geo-tagged our content in Flickr’s database, and displayed it in slideshows using a Flickr add-on called Pictobrowser, whose code we embedded into 21 separate Blogger blogs. We were afraid the result would look too jerry-built and/or pre-fabricated (and indeed, compared to a custom-made web interface, it certainly did!), but with a little inquisitiveness, we were able to tweak our embeddable code to make the finished product fit our desired form and style.

If we could do the project again, I would make several changes. First, I would have a stronger idea of the finished interface in advance of the media collection, to allow me to design the collection parameters more carefully. For instance, had I developed the interface in advance, I would have realized that the presence of vertical photographs requires one to increase the dimensions of the Pictobroswer slideshow, causing the captions to be hidden from view; in turn, I would have known to insist that all photographs must conform to a horizontal aspect ratio. I would have also kept the captions in text form (rather than converting them into stylized JPGs in photoshop), so that, according to Alex, we preserved their value as searchable, feed-able “data” that could be manipulated, filtered, and reorganized with powerful programs like Yahoo’s “Pipes” (we did experiment with Pipes as a means of randomizing the orders of images, but found some of its inner workings confusing). Lastly, I think this project’s strength lies in its ability to present a documentary portrait of a place from many vantage points, in the tradition of projects like [mumur] (discussed in a previous blog entry). In my opinion, the project’s effectiveness would thus be greatly magnified if it were a larger collective enterprise, one which presented the perspectives of dozens or even hundreds of participants as opposed to merely seven. But the possibilities for expansion remain…

During the New Media course, I was introduced to several ways of using the virtual and physical facets of computing to create new kinds of experiences, many of which appear to have a great relevance to documentary. I was surprised to find that working on a distributed documentary with a group was remarkably liberating; as predicted in the article on urban sensing, I found myself taking pride in the collaborative nature of the initiative, not just the limited products of my own lens. Authorship, carrying with it connotations of ownership, competition, and heroic “auteur” mythology, was minimized, and in its place, emerged a work whose strength lay in its multiplicity of voices. Also, lacking a single “director”, distributed documentary entails a whole different approach to methodology than is found in established doc media such as film and photography. Another thing I learned in new media was the importance of thoroughly considering and testing out presentation space (whether virtual or physical) before displaying art work, both documentary and otherwise. Although I am still very new to the traditional image arts and have much to learn about them before I can fully understand and harness the potential of new media approaches, this course has opened my eyes to new ways of producing, presenting, and promoting documentary content. Going forward, I know I will find both a challenge and an opportunity in exploring the greater palette of possibilities that lie beyond the boundaries of traditional media.

Above: A bit of documentation from our photo shoot on the Island. The air-mail envelopes (sealed with wax!) each contain a list of the tags to be photographed, and a map of the Island to facilitate geo-tagging (though portable GPS units would have been preferable). The notebooks are for writing the accompanying captions.

Above: a rejected title bar for the website. Notice the ghostly nude figure, seemingly unafraid of an approaching storm.

Revised project summary and updates

We are still compiling a list of tags that we will each find and photograph on Toronto Island: everyone is to submit three tags on the blog by today, so that we will have a total of 21 tags for Sunday. I think that the ideal tag is open to various interpretations, but likely also to refer to something concrete on or near the Island. For instance, “Lighthouse” or “CN Tower” are too narrow and specific, but “Tower,” though not vague, could refer to any tall structure visible from the Island and would thus be a good tag.

The new aspect to the process is that we must all write a short caption to accompany each photograph we take; this text can be personal and emotional, or dryly historical-expository, or can incorporate any other style you like – treat the text as your own personal interpretation of the site you are choosing to photograph, according to your sincere estimation of that site’s significance to you, or to the broader public. The result will be that each person has 21 tagged photos and 21 similarly tagged captions. Thus, if “water” was a tag, then the group would produce seven photographs of “water” and seven captions about “water” in the context of Toronto Island.

We are going to build a web platform that uses a database to randomly pair like-tagged photographs and captions. Thus, the interface will display a series of photographs and accompanying captions, in which it is not entirely clear to the viewer whether the text and image are the work of the same author. In some instances, we expect participants to document the tags similarly, reflecting a shared, collective view of one aspect of the Island (in these instances, it would be most difficult to viewers to discern the authorship of images and accompanying texts, and, one might argue that in such situations, individual authorship is not as relevant as shared knowledge and documentary strategies). However, for other tags, participants will be wildly divergent in their documentary concerns/approaches, and this will be evident when like-tagged photos and captions seem to bear little or no relationship to each other. In each case, the viewer will be challenged to assess relationships between image and text.

It seems that, given our technical limitations in the domain of programming and web design, we should use a freely available interface such as a wordpress blog. Graham has raised a number of design issues, and has asserted that a blog-type of interface may not be the best platform for the project. I believe that a radically simple interface, that foregrounds the core concept of a photographic narrative captioned with texts that float mysteriously between various degrees of relevance, is the best solution. We plan to meet with Alex in the next day to work out a final form for the interface.

We hope to produce a documentary portrait of a geographical space reflecting the different perspectives of our seven participants, and one that posits that a certain collective understanding of a space can be demonstrated through a work with a distributed, collaborative authorship. In the process, we also plan to interrogate the perceived correspondences between image and text.

Update #1:

For several hours, Graham and I experimented with some Flickr add-on widgets that allow you to embed and visualize Flickr content in various ways. In my explorations I found a nice, customizable slideshow tool called Pictobroswer; you can fiddle with the html code a bit to get a fairly clean looking effect. The top Pictobrowser window could be fed with the tagged images from a Flickr set, and then we could turn the captions into JPGs in photoshop (say, in white text against a black background), and then feed them into a second embedded Pictobrowser below. Thus, we can cycle through the like-tagged image-text combos for an effect similar to the one agreed upon. One issue that arises is that WordPress will not allow this kind of embedded code; thankfully, Blogger will.


We’re still struggling with developing a suitable interface for our new media project. Alex Bal recommended a service called Yahoo Pipes that allows you to manipulate/filter/visualize streams of data such as RSS feeds from Flickr. It is possible to embed the pipes’ output into blogs such as wordpress and blogger. But as of yet, I don’t think Pipes allow you to randomize the data; if this is indeed the case, I still think Pictobrowser is more aesthetically flexible and elegant.

I have experimented with both platforms here (this is just a sandbox for developing forms – the content is just dummy text and images): mfataghunt.blogspot.com

New Media Group Project

For our new media group project, we have decided to undertake a distributed, photo-based, online documentary on Toronto Island. We will collect and upload our media (via WI-FI) on Sunday, June 15th, coinciding with the final race in the Cycle Messenger World Championships, to be held on the Island.

Our documentary process will resemble in some ways a “scavenger hunt,” in which each of the project’s seven participants will be assigned a list of “tags” to find and photograph. Each team member will submit a shortlist of tags, and from that list, the final list will be chosen randomly upon arrival at the island, to avoid premeditated photographic strategies and encourage discovery (and interpretation) of the tags within the Island space. Once at the site, each team member will be able to interpret and photograph the tag-words as she or he sees fit, and the photographs will be uploaded in real-time to a social-media site (such as Flickr), such that each “tag” will be displayed as a series/grid of images. Thus, we are taking an unconventional approach to tagging, in that the tags precede the images, and the result should be a kind of typology assembled by several authors, possibly interspersed with seeming non-sequiturs/double-entendres/etc, reflecting the group members’ varying semantic interpretations of the tag words. We would also like to map the images geographically (perhaps using Google Maps – let’s ask Alex) to chart the various trajectories of the group members throughout the site and build an idiosyncratic picture of the site according to the tagging parameters.

We are going to scout the Island and test its WI-FI access tomorrow. (Mark Tollefson is helping us with this). The ferry to Hanlan’s Point leaves at 1 pm; thus, it would be best if group members arrive at the Ferry Docks by about 12:45. Please note: I have a dentist’s appointment in Scarborough tomorrow and may be late in arriving at the Island, but I will call another member to let you know when I will be arriving.

We still have several things to work out in advance. First and foremost is the web interface and uploading procedures – will we use a blog/Google Maps/Flickr/etc, and will we permit photoshopping and/or some kind of assemblage of the like-tagged photos into single, grid-patterned images? – let’s determine this with Alex’s help. Speaking of which, let’s try to meet Alex ASAP, to get her advice and approval. We will decide on a time tomorrow, and then assign someone to write to her.

That is all for now, but please: keep in mind that this is my understanding of the group project as discussed earlier after today’s class, and if I have not articulated something correctly, or if you disagree or have something to add (practical or theoretical), please feel free to post your thoughts on the group blog.

(Posted also on docnewmedia.wordpress.com).           

The web and temporality

As I’m beginning to recover from the unpleasant virus that has waylaid me these past few days, and am starting to feel partly responsible for my diminished blog traffic (as displayed in the “Blog Stats” graph), I think it would be good time to re-visit the thorny article by Hellsten, Leydesdorff, and Wouters, “Multiple presents: how search engines rewrite the past” (2006). Unfortunately, I cannot say I understood every aspect of their methodology and findings, and for this I admit that my own technical shortcomings are entirely to blame (though the authors’ bone-dry, Dutch-inflected English didn’t exactly help). But I do find that the authors provoke a fascinating discussion of how the internet changes (or disturbs) our sense of time, positing in particular that search engines are broadening “the concept of the present from a fleeting point in time to a [fragmented] spectrum of actualities.” So, “the present” (at least as it’s experienced on the web) is no longer the “photographic” instant in time but a dimension created by the interactions of various cyclical frequencies: page updates, search-engine crawler visits, the evolution of the web (and thus, presumably, the replacement of certain search platforms by others… anyone remember when the name “Google” still sounded slightly funny, and when Excite was considered a normal place to search?).

The internet’s sense of time has always been a very mysterious thing to me, and until now, I have not considered it in any systematic way; websites seem to get old at varying rates, evolve or not evolve, be forgotten, disappear, and (occasionally) re-surface. We are often told, by way of warning, that information uploaded to the web is permanent: that it can never be removed. But at which time does “permanent” information makes the transition from “present” to “past”? Surely it wouldn’t be correct to say that information is “forever young” on the web, available for retrieval in its original state and context; web data has a way of morphing, of being de-contextualized and re-contextualized. One dusty web relic that could inspire angst-filled debates about the web’s temporality is the classic, not to say primitive “Hello my Future Girlfriend” (requires sound for full effect): is some fragment of its author preserved eternally as a lovesick 11-year-old from New Mexico, even if his original URL has long since disappeared and the site now only exists as a dozen mirrors, even if he is actually 25 and no longer living in the Southwest, even if his future girlfriend is now his ex? Too bad Roland Barthes isn’t around to have a go at this one. 

Because I don’t have any answers. 

Anyhow, 90s-meme digressions aside, the article deals primarily with the frequency with which search-engine algorithms re-visit old content, and this is clearly a complicated matter. But to better understand another, primary web process – the generation of news content – Google Trends seems to be a promising tool. At Google Trends, you can easily visualize both the search volume and the news-reference volume of various keywords, thus getting a sense of exactly when an issue or idea entered the public consciousness, how it was manipulated by the media, and when it disappeared from view (only back to 2004, but eventually that will seem like a long time ago). It appears as though Google does this by storing static pages rather than recording the changing headlines on dynamic websites, though I’m not sure. I actually tested the article’s chosen search term, “Frankenfoods” to determine whether, indeed, the term is a forgotten buzzword that has disappeared from regular usage: Google Trends confirms that it is.

I think this idea of temporality has an important relevance to our group project, since we’re considering ways of making a web-based documentary in real time, one whose significance will doubtlessly evolve as it changes from newly-generated content to archival material.

Work cited: 

Hellsten, I., Leydesdorff, L.,  Wouters, P. “Multiple presents: how search engines rewrite the past.” New Media & Society 8.6 (2006): 901-924.

Pervasive urban sensing / art vs. data

In a previous entry, I discussed my experience uploading content to Flickr, reflecting in particular on the implications of making EXIF metadata publicly available alongside the photographic image. In the article “Urban Sensing: Out of the Woods” by Dana Cuff, Mark Hansen, and Jerry Kang (2008), the concerns I voiced (in a somewhat impressionistic manner) about the building of a web-based data commons are systematically discussed under the headings of “property” and “privacy”.

As regards property, the authors note that “Copyright law only protects creative expressions; it does not protect the underlying data” (p.30). In the case of Flickr, this raises an interesting problem: is a digital photograph uploaded to the web a “creative expression” or an informational record? Or, more fundamentally, is it “art” or “data”? I had mentioned that, in the context of my printed photobook, the photographs decidedly fell under the “art” rubric, in that they were geographically non-specific images aimed at connoting a personal state of mind — lacking captions (and thus, context), they were not “data” in the traditional sense (or, to use the article’s term, they are scientifically worthless “junk data”). But when uploaded to Flickr, with metadata specifying time and photographic settings, and geographic data supplied voluntarily by me when I mapped the photos, the photos, freely available and submerged in the sea of information, lose some of their “artistic” value as standalone works (for instance, the monetary value the work might have in a high-quality, limited-edition print); simultaneously, they acquire an informational value as “data,” that can be aggregated with other citizen-collected information for any number of uses. (And, if my camera possessed a GPS sensing component, the geographic data could be as precise as the temporal data). The article asserts that what one loses in individual property rights one might gain through “attribution,” which I interpret as the ability to advertise one’s talent as a citizen data-gatherer and feel rewarded by contributing to a larger project. And I agree that being part of a distributed data-gathering project (such as distributed documentary) can be very rewarding.  

However, I think there is a curious paradox in today’s world, in that the need for academic credentials to “get ahead in life” has never been higher (look at the proliferation of MFA and MBA programs for proof), yet articles such as this one evangelize on behalf of the idea that “research” (scientific/artistic/political) is leaving the rigid central control of the Academy and becoming dependent on mass participation by all citizens, whether expert or not. Credentialization as a means to power vs. citizen participation as a means to knowledge: I have no clue what the implications of this are, except it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable tension. Thoughts?

The loss of privacy seems to be a simpler matter — constant self-surveillance, in which people voluntarily record and share information about their location and activities, is becoming the depressing norm. While the article argues that people will not contribute data to the commons if they perceive that “computer security is weak”, quite frankly I do not know if most people have any sense of how good or how bad “computer security” actually is. I, for one, do not. I did not even know that all my metadata was being gathered along with the coloured pixels in my photographs, and for all I know, maybe there IS a GPS sensor in my Nikon D80. But the web has enough conspiracy theories out there, and I have to get to class in the Rogers Communication Centre by 1 pm (there’s some self-surveillance for you!). Let’s just say that, as the article notes, privacy preferences ARE adaptive, what seems radically invasive today may seem commonplace tomorrow, and the cultural creep towards 1984 will go unnoticed by most.   

One question I’d like to throw out there: the article discusses the importance of data visualization (and who doesn’t love a good multicoloured map or cartogram?). But do we run the risk of a “culture of visualization”, where data integrity is secondary? 

Work Cited:

Dana Cuff, Mark Hansen, and Jerry Kang. “Urban Sensing: Out of the Woods.” Communications of the ACM 51:3 (March 2008): 24-33.    

Second Life: First Thoughts

(Edited: Scroll down to see pictures!)

I had meant to address Alex’s comments concerning the urban sensing article, but as last night was my first experience in Second Life, I think I should reflect on that first, since it is still fresh in my mind.

My initial impression was very much in keeping with Mark Tollefson’s view that, from a strictly graphical standpoint,the SL world can seem rather underwhelming, even outdated, in a world where first-person gaming has achieved a much higher standard of visual realism. Some might say this misses the point, but I think that if a sense of embodiment in the virtual space is important (and it is), the space should be equipped with a more nuanced and responsive sense of gravity, light, texture — even several years ago, when I last played a first-person shooter, I had come to expect the sound of different surfaces crunching under your feet, the veritable sense of strain/fatigue when climbing up a steep hillside, etc.

However, despite this first impression, after a few moments in the Second Life world, I found myself increasingly mesmerized. First, by the simple recognition that all the other figures taking their awkward first steps around Orientation Island, were, like me, real people being born at that exact moment into their virtual lives: a Second Birth, complete with feelings of awe, trepidation, and a restless desire to grow. OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but it was pretty neat.

Then came the task of desgining my avatar’s appearance; this is decidedly unlike being born into the real world, in that you can choose how you look. But while my initial instincts were either to 1) fashion my avatar into an idealized version of myself, as in a Dürer self-portrait, or 2) create a freakish monster, emphasizing for comic effect everything I hate about my appearance, I chose a third possibility, which was to become a woman. I mean, why not? I also thought people would be nicer to me in-world if I were female, which turned out to be only partially true.

The appearance-designing engine in SL is quite extraordinary: I was able to make my avatar into a near-identical twin of my girlfriend from First Life — I did this partially to avoid feeling like a eugenicist toiling in some fascist dystopia to create an Übermensch (actually, in this case, an Überfrau, but let’s not split hairs).

Then it was off to explore the world. And a what an immense, diverse world it is. I journeyed to a detailed reconstruction of the Alhambra in Granada, where it was politely requested that I don a veil; I visited the in-world headquarters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (where I got to ride a shark!), not to mention the creepy, wood-panneled inner sanctum of the Republican Party; but mostly, I found a lot of places that looked like Club Med filled with Jimmy Buffett look-alikes. Oh well.

The one thing that I found discouraging was that everybody is trying to make money, and some (if not all) in-world ventures carry the whiff of scams. People are constantly trying to sell you junk, and you make the same laboured small-talk in SL boutiques that you make in real life when meeting with high-pressure time-share sales agents. (I mean, L$250 for Van Gogh’s Night Café might seem like a bargain, but it’s the size of a postage stamp and heavily pixilated. Oh, and it’s not real. It’s not as though there’s an in-world version of Antiques Roadshow that can somehow verify its virtual provenance). Others, like in the real world, are reduced to begging. So basically, if you are poor in real life, and cannot (or have the good sense not to) convert real dollars into Linden Dollars (a currency with an Orwellian ring to it), you get to be poor in Second Life, standing in the cold looking through windows at the sumptuously appointed tables of the rich, like a virtual Tiny Tim. Except that you’ll never starve. Maybe that’s how SL works as a new kind of documentary experiment, revealing for all the workings of the real world’s economic disparities by inscribing them into a virtual one. 

Or maybe I am completely wrong: I am new to this online world, and excited to learn and explore how it works.


Notes on Allan King

I just thought I’d post a report on yesterday’s master class with legendary Canadian filmmaker Allan King, held at Innis Town Hall and organized by the Documentary Organization of Canada. We saw several film clips spanning about 25 years, from the early, gritty CBC works like Skidrow (1956) to the controversial “actuality dramas” like Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969) for which he is most famous. The screening of Warrendale, with its troubling images of emotionally disturbed children lashing out against an unorthodox touch-based therapy, and A Married Couple, with its frank depiction of domestic conflict, prompted a vigorous discussion of documentary ethics: issues of consent, voyeurism, and editorial control were debated, as was the perennially-relevant question of whether the camera can observe unobtrusively, or whether it inherently elicits “performance” from subjects. As happens in many Q&As, I felt that a few questioners grilled him with undue intensity on ethical concerns without acknowledging the different social/cultural/artistic climate in which he worked, not to mention the simple fact that without the example of pioneers like King, few of us would be attempting to make documentary work.    

As moderator (and generally ubiquitous Canfilm guy) Marc Glassman noted, King stands rather apart from the other Canadian documentary pioneers of his generation, in that, from an early date, he maintained his own production company and strove to make films independently of the institutional filmmaking apparatus, embodied by the NFB. As his work is more unflinchingly bold than most contemporary NFB work, I had always assumed that King was more closely aligned with American cinema-vérité and particularly Frederick Wiseman. Wiseman’s first film, Titicut Follies (1967), a close contemporary of Warrendale, likewise examines a mental institution with striking similarities of approach and style (closely observational camerawork, lack of narration or interviews). Like Warrendale, that film was suppressed by authorities (more severely, actually). Furthermore, King’s longtime cinematographer Richard Leiterman manned the camera for Wiseman’s second film, High School (1968). It surprised me, then, to hear that King only met Wiseman relatively recently.

It was also interesting to get a sense of King’s process. He was unlike Wiseman (or a consummate cinematographer-director like Michel Brault) in that he felt his own presence would necessarily detract from the authenticity of a documentary scene, and spent most of the production of his great “actuality dramas” off-set, loading magazines or looking at rushes. 

In a slightly sad way, I feel that whereas the “golden age” of Canadian film embodied by King’s work has been well documented and celebrated, the current epoch in which non-fiction filmmakers are so numerous and stylistic/thematic lineages too tangled or diffuse to discern, will defy all such efforts at historical memorialization. The digital documentary scene is very different from the film-based one that preceded it, which essentially consisted of two large institutions for the incubation of talent and technology (the NFB and CBC) and a few lone wolves alongside them (King); assessing (and mythologizing) the current cinema’s significance in thirty years will be a very difficult and thankless task, I think. I don’t know, maybe this is just the kind of nostalgic, “après le deluge” thinking I am prone to.  

Apparently, TV Ontario is screening a retrospective of his work; I would recommend everybody check it out. A final thanks to Sadia for letting us in on this great event.

Virtual space as context of presentation

Now that the blog has been up for a little while, I have had some time to contemplate Alex’s question as to the effect of space (in this case, virtual space) on the context of presentation for visual works. Recently, I uploaded some landscape photographs to Flickr (see sidebar), taken on Toronto Island and in some midtown ravines in the dead of winter; these were originally presented in a printed book, produced for Blake’s Doc Studies class. For that project, I had juxtaposed these images with a personal archive of old letters and postcards, attempting to suggest emotional correspondences between text and images. In the original context of the book, the photographs were not captioned, and thus, deprived of their geographical specificity; their primary purpose was to present desolate, empty spaces and suggest the condition of solitude (admittedly in a rather Romantic way, along the lines of Caspar David Friedrich).

Flickr radically changed the context of presentation, and thus altered the meaning of the work. Using Flickr’s map function, I was able to pinpoint, with near-exactitude, the geographical locations recorded in the photographs, and was able to see all the photographs taken by the Flickr community in the immediate vicinity of those locations. For one thing, the sense of individual solitude was decidedly diminished; though the photographs depicted lonely snowscapes, in Flickr Maps, it is possible to get a sense of the sheer volume of photographers documenting the same (or nearby) terrain. “Documenting” is a key word; once a landscape photograph is pinpointed in Flickr (or Google Maps, or Wikipedia, for that matter), it becomes less a Romantic or expressionist reflection of the image-maker’s consciousness, and much more a specific document of a place at a given point in time. And the availability of EXIF metadata means that users can tell exactly which given point in time the photo depicts, not to mention how the photographer has enhanced the image in Photoshop. The photo becomes less singular, less mysterious, and more a piece of a bigger documentary puzzle. In effect, social media platforms such as Flickr make your photos part of an ongoing, collaborative documentary/encyclopedic mission, to record every place, person, thing in existence, from every possible temporal-spatial vantage point. (Obviously, the goal of said mission is unattainable; although with the proliferation of webcams, the paranoid and otherwise Orwellian-minded might reasonably disagree).

The paradigm changes, as individual images, immersed in a sea of other images, lose some of their individual value, but gain a different significance as part of a collaborative project, and the ego is forced to adapt (or possibly turn inward to painting or making daguerrotypes). That being said, sometimes I peruse the billion or so debates raging fiercely between thirteen-year-old wikipedians from their parents’ basements, and I am reassured that collaborative, financially non-lucrative online ventures do not by any means entail the death of the ego.   

An aside: personally, I opted to hide my EXIF data, for several reasons. For one thing, I think photographs, even those posted on social media sites, should leave viewers with some mystery (“was that Photoshopped?”, “what time of day was that?”, “was that taken recently?”). For another, as a novice photographer, I feel self-conscious, and don’t want the broader world to know that I took a picture in broad daylight with ISO 1000 (can’t I claim that my specific technical deficiencies are private?). I imagine that professional photographers would consider some of their metadata to reveal trade secrets; my metadata only reveals my flaws. (But then again, would professional photographers with a mind to asserting the monetary value of their work actually post work on Flickr?) Lastly, a minor point: I didn’t like being included in a graph depicting how many thousands of people used the same camera model – does Flickr exist only to provide market research information for Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Apple, Adobe? Anyway, my anxiety over metadata is, for now, mostly academic. I have received about ten picture views during brief my tenure as a Flickerite, and a sum total of zero comments.

By the way, I am still reflecting on the way physical (as opposed to virtual) space changes the context/meaning of visual work. We didn’t really get far during the exercise in which we were to project work on non-traditional surfaces (for the record, I brought a special holographic edition of National Geographic and some silk scarves, but time elapsed before I got to experiment with them). Will return to this question next time.   

User-triggered narratives and the [murmur] project

Developing a non-linear, user-triggered narrative presents many more complexities than were originally apparent to me. While the task, as introduced in class — to design and shoot a video sequence whose shots are coherent in any order — seemed challenging unto itself, the additional discipline of having said sequence work as a “user-triggered” piece, presents a whole new set of design issues. To examine some of these design issues, for now let’s set aside the fact that, from a purely technical standpoint, the Max/MSP patch we are currently working with only allows for video clips to be displayed in either linear or random order; exactly how to make the video-playing mechanism respond to user input is clearly beyond what we have learned thus far.

First off, many video sequences could be said to make sense in any order, but this does not necessarily imply that they would be coherent in a non-linear, user-triggered situation. Take, for instance, a simple montage sequence in film; often, the various images edited together to reinforce an idea could be re-ordered without any loss of intelligibility (and indeed, this creative re-ordering of actuality footage in post-production is at the core of traditional documentary practice: see Janis Cole’s Documentary Manifesto, whose eighth point asserts, non-controversially, that “Documentaries are written in the cutting room.”). But do the constituent shots in a montage make good raw material for user-triggered works? Likely not, I would think.

So, what type of shots work best in user-driven narratives? Taking a look at Ms. Dewey, Microsoft’s clever but somewhat demeaning “search assistant,” it is clear that there is something mesmerizing about her use of direct address (something documentarians from Dorothea Lange to Errol Morris have understood), and that, following the filmic injunction against jump cuts, the constituent clips tend to achieve a fairly seamless continuity by beginning and ending with Ms. Dewey in a fairly neutral, standardized pose. It seems that user-driven narratives should also require a large amount of content to be effective; if repetition or sparseness of content allows the user to perceive the limited extent of the database, his/her sense of personal discovery (and experiential uniqueness) is diminished and they will probably lose interest.

(A similar user-triggered narrative on the web is Burger King’s low-res, webcam-based Subservient Chicken, in which visitors have total control over a man in a chicken suit, and can command him to do anything — within reason, of course. The subservient chicken, unlike the green-screen-backed Ms. Dewey, is situated within a space [a gloomily furnished apartment] adding a measure of context and limiting the user’s reasonable command choices. As such, the user’s expectations are lower, and thus, the chicken is less likely to disappoint.) 

Putting aside these web novelties, which inevitably become tiresome, it dawned on me that an excellent, documentary example of a user-triggered narrative — and one situated in physical space, no less! — is Toronto’s own [murmur] project. I had always known about the initiative, but last year in Doc Studies 1, Rob Lendrum made a strong case for its value as an innovative form of documentary. In [murmur], users wandering the city discover green, ear-shaped signs affixed to lamp- and sign-posts, and can dial a telephone number to hear a story about that location. These stories can either take the form of a historical narrative about the place’s “official” significance or of a more personal and idiosyncratic tale as recounted by a local inhabitant; some guide the listener on a little walking tour through the space. [murmur] is non-linear in that users do not experience a single, unchanging narrative, nor do they absorb it from a fixed vantage point; they build a narrative based on their own trajectory of movement through the urban environment (it somewhat reminds me of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels from childhood.) And they can even contribute their own urban stories to the project’s database, a big plus.

Of course, [murmur] is not without its own issues — for one thing, the storytellers on its website do not seem to reflect the cultural diversity of their respective neighbourhoods; for another, the density of green ears in some places suggests a rather competitive, territorial view of urban memory (I’m looking at you, Kensington Ave.), in which contributors lay claim to the privilege of assigning significance to a particular house, signpost or streetcorner. That said, [murmur] is a wonderful, local, and relatively low-tech example of a user-triggered narrative deployed creatively in public space to give a sense of the multi-layered, non-linear histories existing in the pavement beneath our feet.

Murmur signage


Preliminary reflections on new media

First, a disclaimer, or, more accurately, an excuse: lacking a production background in any of the three documentary media (my university degree is in history), all media are technically “new” media to me. Prior to the beginning of the MFA program, I had never made serious use of either a still or motion-picture camera and was convinced that the intimidating world of even newer media was thoroughly beyond me. (In fairness, I did have one short documentary to my credit, an exceptionally naive five-minute nature film shot one afternoon on Toronto Island using the video function of a Sony point-and-shoot. It was called The Canada Goose: Friend of Man – link to follow). Furthermore, my brother, a software engineer at Microsoft in Seattle, was adept at belitting my modest computing skills.

With this aside, over the past two weeks I have already begun to open my eyes to the potential of new media, in both its physical and virtual manifestations, to complement (and challenge) traditional documentary conventions of process, form, authorship, etc. Truthfully, this sense of new possibilities emerged somewhat more gradually over the last several months, through exposure to works like Robert Arnold‘s then-unfinished Rotunda Project, an installation work that combines time-lapse imagery of the University of Virginia rotunda taken by a remotely-controlled camera with electronic musique concrète composed out of environmental sounds. Arnold’s Morphology of Desire, a “continuous loop” video created from Harlequin Romance covers and displayed in the Ryerson New Media Gallery, was also inspiring. Another eye-opening exposure to a new-media-type process was seeing Tori Foster‘s response to the photographic typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, produced using some sort of algorithmic process beyond my understanding, and presented on the web (anyone know if the link is still active?). And this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg (these examples demonstrate new ways of integrating computing into documentary production and presentation, though neither would appear to address the interactivity that is key to much new media work). It’s still an intimidating iceberg, but definitely worth trying to scale.

Today, an interesting issue emerged in class: the question of whether a documentary must necessarily be situated in the past, or whether a documentary can exist in the present, evolving organically through ongoing interactions with a group of people. The idea of an evolving, present-moment documentary seems, to me, to challenge the traditional notion of documentary authorship, so bound up in a heroic and hierarchical auteur theory. In the traditional view, documentary artists gather material in production, and then use an editing process to transform select “decisive moments” (to use Cartier-Bresson’s term) from actuality into finished, (ideally) perfect products that cannot evolve once they have attained the hallowed goal of “picture lock.” (These products can, however, be supplemented by trailers, subtitles, and something called a “featurette”). New media seems to offer a democratizing, collaborative alternative, in which audiences/participants (just what is the right word for those who share in a new-media experience?) shape the work through interaction with it. New media, with its emphasis on continuing bi-directional or multi-directional communication, seems to fundamentally blur the lines between maker, subject and audience. True, the old media came to emphasize collaborative approaches (the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change program, started in 1967, is an important example), but, at the end of the day, technocrats possessing the means of production still held a good deal of the creative control, and the finished films were, due to the constraints of the medium, still just that: finished, linear, inflexible. The virtual species of new media, in particular, appear to present immense opportunities for work that is ongoing, nonlinear and truly collaborative. Clearly, new media entails a necessary diminishing of the ego (no small feat for someone whose documentary idol was for many years that Wagnerian cowboy/conquistador, Werner Herzog).

Come to think of it, I have had the opportunity to assist on a documentary new media project. It is called Testaments of Honour, and its aim was to produce an evolving, online archive of primary source materials about the Canadian contribution in World War II. Testaments travelled the country conducting interviews with Canadian veterans and scanning their photographs. Rather than organize the material into a single, definitive documentary, the video and photos were minimally edited, meticulously tagged with keywords (using digital asset management software like iView Media – a kind of database, isn’t it?) and made available online through the government’s Heroes Remember website. Not high-concept new-media art, but an attempt to make a large, evolving database widely accessible and somehow responsive to public feedback.

Okay, so I am rambling. I also have some thoughts on how Flickr’s map function changes the experience of sharing/viewing photographic work (and not necessarily for the better), but they are not yet well formed.

Documentary Manifesto

Note: My manifesto was originally entitled “Manifesto: Ten Principles for New Documentary Film,” though most (if not all) points also apply to the production of documentary works in photography and new media.

I. Primum non nocere.

Documentarists cannot know the full impact their works will have on their subjects, but they must take special pains to predict the effects of the filmmaking process and avoid any action that could reasonably be expected to cause mental or physical harm to any living being. In particular, when a subject’s ability to consent to participation is compromised, the filmmaker’s restraint – privileging a subject’s personal well-being over any filmic/dramatic concerns – is essential. For example, filmmakers exploring the memory of traumatic events through re-enactment need to consider whether their attempts to uncover repressed memories will cause their subjects serious distress. In films that reduce the human subject to guinea pig or martyr, the principle of respect between filmmaker and subject is violated. Pious claims of their value to a vague “posterity” are no justification.

II. True activist documentary names its subjects, and understands that human experience is, at its core, individual.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag notes the tendency in documentary photography to genericize the sufferings of individuals and subsume the powerless under vast categories of injustice (in the tradition of Steichen’s Family of Man) – rendering the actual subjects anonymous, “representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights”. [1] This, she says, has the effect of engendering in the viewer a feeling that world problems are too immense to be solved. Thus, a deadening feeling of resignation ensues and any positive action is completely inhibited. Only by according victims the dignity of their individual names and circumstances – privileging concreteness over abstraction – have we any hope of achieving a genuinely activist mode of documentary.

III. In documentary film, the archive has the power to illuminate or corroborate a narrative of the past; it must not be deployed to mislead and manipulate.

Allan Sekula, in his essay “Photography Between Labour and Capital,” notes that the use of images from archives necessarily entails a certain loss of original meaning. Being “an abstraction from the complexity and richness of use, a loss of context,” the archive serves as a mere “clearing house” of meaning. [2] Writing about the use of archival footage in film, Stella Bruzzi calls attention to abuses of archival material. In contemporary historical documentaries, for example, specific recollections in voiceover are frequently accompanied by “generic” images to convey a specific mood or feeling – and the helpless audience is lulled into the assumption that the two are factually related (and that the image can be known to reflect the meaning of the scripted narrative). [3] To facilitate the viewer’s unquestioning absorption of such a problematic juxtaposition, music – that cinematic “opium”– is used liberally. (Ken Burns’ work exemplifies this technique, and, as one of the very few household-name documentarists, demonstrates its commercial potency). Without full disclosure of an image’s provenance and context, audiences are unable to perceive the gulf between original and imposed meanings. Aware of these and other ethical issues, Claude Lanzmann’s principled rejection of the archive for his work is commendable.

IV. “The problem of speaking for others” must burden, but not paralyze, the documentarist.

All too often, Western documentarists, possessing means of production accessible only to an elite few, employ a rhetoric of emancipation and inter-cultural collaboration, but they stand alone before festival or film-school audiences, garnering praise and career-advancement not extended to their ostensible “collaborators.” Linda Alcoff addresses the unforeseen consequences of speaking, from a privileged position, on behalf of groups who have been traditionally disempowered and prevented from having an independent voice. [4] However, while a sincere interrogation of one’s social location and context, as prescribed by Alcoff, is indeed necessary for privileged documentarists to understand the impact they have on groups for whom they speak, she gives few examples in which such speaking-for could, in her view, be justified. (Sontag, ideologically likeminded but more pragmatic, alludes to situations where journalistic or artistic responses to sufferings in distant communities might be worthwhile efforts in bringing needed attention to them.) Documentarists have a responsibility to listen attentively to their interlocutors, and to seek new ways to empower their subjects’ attempts at self-expression. But the result should be more equal collaboration in the production of documentary works, rather than the wholesale relinquishment of representative privileges.

V. Documentary depends as much on instinct as on intellect.

The filmmakers of the National Film Board of Canada understood this when they adopted as a model the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose book, The Decisive Moment, emphasized the discovery of subjects in spontaneous, everyday events while incorporating a keen concern for the time-sensitive moments of heightened pictorial composition existing within them. Such moments are the raw material of documentary; they are captured by the firing of a synapse, by a shot of adrenaline, as a cat seizes a bird. Hesitation, self-questioning, rationale: the bird escapes.

VI. Know your tools.

If instinct is an engine of documentary filmmaking, the director must engage physically and knowledgeably with the filmmaking apparatus. The camera and microphone must be connected by flesh to his eyes and ears. Michel Brault, the consummate cinematographer, implores the documentarist: “You must scrub the soul of your camera!” So you must; the still-photographer has always known this. It follows that the ideal work unit is the two-person crew consisting of cameraman and sound-man, conjoined twins working in intimate, fluid coordination: able to penetrate any situation as if a single being, without the drag of vestigial egos.

VII. The documentary camera must make its presence known and engage its subject; the “fly on the wall” is a mere insect, a parasite, waiting to feed! Better that the camera be a friend, coming to dinner.

The histories of documentary film note that the appearance of the hand-held camera (and synchronous sound) circa 1960 caused a forking of paths in the development of the form. On the one hand were the Americans who aspired to capture the drama of “real life” by feigning invisibility and observing their subjects without intervention. In the illustrious tradition of paparazzi, their favourite subjects were glamorous celebrities. At the other pole was Jean Rouch (and certain fellow travelers), who captured the everyday experiences of “ordinary” people with a degree of richness and intimacy not equaled by the Americans because he looked them in the eye, spoke with them, laughed with them. The registrations of the mechanical eye and ear are given life only by the human heart.

VIII. Documentary is a potent means to communicate, build awareness, incite action. It must move beyond the “niche”, appreciated by a small group of initiates. It must strive for universality.

To accomplish this, documentarists must work to overturn the assumption that their art is necessarily a “discourse of sobriety” (to use Bill Nichols’ oft-quoted characterization [5]). Chris Marker has rightly and famously accused the genre of leaving “a trail of sanctimonious boredom” in its wake. Herzog, with his ecstatic images of dreams, nightmares and wild men, has accomplished much in the cause of inebriation. Humour, subtle or overt, is a characteristic of almost all worthwhile documentary – through its ample use, Michael Moore (perhaps documentary’s most unfairly maligned practitioner) has brought an unparalleled degree of attention to issues of critical global importance.

IX. Beware the distinction between documentary and “documentary style.”

In a 1971 interview, the photographer Walker Evans characterized his art as being in a “documentary style,” and asserted that “a document has use, whereas art is really useless.” [6] As an example of a useful document, he cited a police photograph of a crime scene. Without assessing the validity of Evans’ personal rejection of the term “documentary” as applied to his work, or attempting to make an insupportable claim that art and documentary are mutually exclusive, it must be acknowledged that Evans’ comment raises an important issue for the documentarist. “Documentary style” describes a set of aesthetic conventions – in film, this may mean the shaky, grainy quality of hand-held, low-quality footage, or the alternation of talking heads with archival stills – not the function or value of the work itself. Makers must ask themselves what purpose their film serves: is it to record testimony, to advance a political position, to work through a problem? In an age where “documentary style” is deployed to enhance the illusion of reality in fictional works and advertising, filmmakers and viewers alike need to be careful not to confuse its product with genuine documentary.

X. Your work will outlive you, its meaning and value transformed anew in every pair of eyes! Even the most intellectually controlled, authorial works will furnish the future with all manner of unintended subjective experiences.

And thankfully so. For some, Duchamp’s urinal has outlived its statement – it is a nostalgic bathroom fixture, a fine specimen of old porcelain, a window into any imagined past. In the mind it may conjure the Cabaret Voltaire, or the trenches at Verdun. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes of the punctum – the detail in a photograph that punctures the heart of a viewer (and which is so subjective as to vary from viewer to viewer); it is often a minor detail (or an interpretation of a detail) to which the image-maker himself was likely oblivious. The punctum is rarely, if ever, a deliberate addition of the image-maker. “I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own,” Barthes declares. [7] The punctum’s key paradox is that “ it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there”: the viewer locates it in an image based on his own, intensely personal and indefinable tendencies and curiosities. [8] While Barthes does not readily find puncta in cinema, I see them there: watching Chronicle of a Summer, beyond appreciating its self-reflexivity and spirit of sociological inquiry (part of its studium), I cannot help but remember (and find strange pleasure in) the innumerable tiny details passing in and out of the frame: the vague but somehow appetizing lunch of a factory worker at her machine, the full lips of an Italian immigrant. As the bliss of images resides in the personal discovery of such little things, I say to all makers and viewers: the punctum is never a misinterpretation! Happily surrender to it!


[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 79.

[2] Allan Sekula, “Photography Between Labour and Capital,” in Mining Photographs and Other Pictures, 1948-1968 (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, 1983), 194.

[3] Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary (Milton Park, U.K.: Routledge, 2006), 38.

[4] Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique (Winter, 1991-92), 5-32.

[5] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 1991), 3.

[6] Leslie Katz, “An Interview with Walker Evans,” in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), 364-365.

[7] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 51.

[8] Barthes, 55.