Tag Archives: Mapping

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.

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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