New Media Art and documentary cinema
Clouds (2012) is an experimental, interactive, tech-art documentary made by James George and Jonathan Minard. The documentary is about thirty new media artists, curators, designers and critics. The characters are presented in the film as three dimensional silhouettes in color. They appear out of the cloud of digital data clapping their hands; they melt away and then appear again as new subjects. To create this effect the filmmakers have used a software library called RGBD Toolkit. Kinetic depth sensor–a new addition to the Microsoft game station Xbox has been used along with high definition cameras.
The makers have crossed the traditional technical paradigm of filmmaking and have created a fully new visual experience. This film is a software application in every sense. This negates the passive role of film viewers. The viewer can choose any part of the film from the database; can move from one part to another and can move deeper into some part of interest. The makers of the film claim that there will be 'reasonable experience of randomness' in the proactivity of the viewer. The makers of Clouds believe that digital reality is not linear; like the way the world is not simply round. One cannot grasp this reality through traditional narrative. In their experience the digital reality is 'a sprouting web of interfaces, overlapping and interrupting ideas.' The process of this filmmaking as undertaken by George and Minard is custom made and unique. Is this the new media art and new documentary Cinema?
2. new media art – a brief background
new media art, perhaps, needs a bit of a background. At the beginning the word 'new' was missing; some tech-based expressions were simply tagged as media art. These expressions were natural tributaries of traditional performance arts, visual arts and text based arts. But media art was not fortunate enough to go through the disciplined classification process which is a trade mark of western modernism. Perhaps, the spirit of anarchy and the tendency of breaking through the boundaries of modernity inherent within media art are responsible for this exception. We can think of this playfully and as we progress with this article we shall see that playfulness is very important in media art. Let's go back to the issue of classification; one finds that there have been efforts to classify media art from many different perspectives. Sometimes importance was given to the technology used; the purpose and presentation of the works got importance in some cases while the idea of 'expression' and its aesthetic characters also got attention from time to time. It is not difficult to feel lost in this array of attempts to define media art! But within this anarchy one cannot fail to notice a singular trait in media art – i.e. its relationship with moving image. Even before the advent of cinema, the experiments done by Eadweard Muybridge with series photography in the nineteenth century had been dubbed as the starting point of media art. Later, during the twentieth century, the experimental cinema that came into being as opposed to the main stream narrative cinema got the label of media art.
The introduction of sound in film, various editing techniques and optical effects created opportunities for experiments within the paradigm of filmmaking and filmmakers outside the studio system and other visual artists grabbed these opportunities. Visual artists like Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Salvador Dali used the moving image in many different ways for the execution of their expression. On the other hand, Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Fritz Lang, Luis Bunuel created a marginal sub-sphere of artistic experiments within the realm of filmmaking itself. In this way, all sorts of off-beat uses of moving images have become associated with media art. This may well have happened later in the process of re-visiting history as technology around moving images evolved radically even as the moving image became central to all new technologies, rendering it a reservoir of all new art efforts.
Those who try to study the history of media art opine that, all independent filmmaking efforts until the 1960s that included some form of experiment in the use of technology or in the originality of the subject might be classified as media art. One recalls the films of Andy Warhol. However, the advent of video technology has given the media art the defining character through which we can recognize it today. The process started in the 1960s. Media artists grabbed video as a tool to create an alternative world of visuals as opposed to mainstream television. They worked in many different directions. One of those was to make alternative documentary films on political and social issues. In 1972, just before the American elections, such a documentary was made on the Republican and Democrat conventions by a video cooperative of two organizations – Top Value Television (TVTV) and The Video Freex. This effort of creating an alternative visual environment was not limited to making documentary films only; works were done with narrative video, music video etc.
Along with these more conventional approaches, a new attempt was made to use the technical character of this medium to create new types of images. The term 'Video Art' was introduced at that time. At the same time, people who were not interested in conventional cinema, but wanted to use the moving images with other input to create their expressions began to use video technology. They created multimedia installations which were exhibited in galleries, museums and in open spaces. Here, again, we confront two different streams. Some artists, in their installation works, used the moving images within its existing paradigm. Others started to experiment with the moving images to create new types of conceptual artworks. They thought that sensations, reactions and participations of the viewers should form important components in their usages of video. At this time the concept of community video was introduced. Through this, people in an area; perhaps, a county or a neighborhood could communicate among themselves, create awareness or launch some propaganda using video. Thus an avenue for the democratization of video and its new possibilities opened up.
This was followed by the revolution of digital technology and internet. From the late 1980s, digital video, computer and internet brought in wholesale changes in video art and the term 'new media art' was introduced. Now this is used with equal importance in documentary films, experimental art works and scientific researches. It is said, 'One person's new media art is another person's social intervention and third person's scientific research.'
The vastness of the formal possibilities of new media art is almost anarchical! Within such a piece of work we may find a story in visual form; part of the story may come from computer generated image (CGI); it may be the result of a scientific research in the form of an image or graph or pure representation of data; we may encounter a work done with the output of a global positioning system (GPS) or geographical information system (GIS); there could be conventional documentation or interactive documentation; and its source could be specific or dynamic links in the internet. The artist may arrange many clever presentations of the visuals and audio, with which one may also add paintings, drawings, prints, live performance and so on!
In deed, new media theoretician Lev Manovich has called for a post media aesthetics for the media art of the present time.
Before moving in that direction, it would be convenient to ruminate briefly on the other types of usage of moving images in new media art. In these form of practices, nowadays, we see the visualization of a concept and in many cases the active interactions of the viewers with the concept. As iterated above, the visualization may happen through the use of various elements; we may encounter video, audio, live performance, simulations of real or probable experiences, drawn pictures, prints, photographs, music, and written text in a new media art work. In every sense, all these elements become the container of the concept; we may argue that these elements are used as 'meta-art' in these ventures. We may also argue, on the contrary, that this is the case for all art works, i.e. in all art works the form is the container or a meta-art. Art is only the experience of the presentation that is made. If we are prepared to think in this line then we reach a sort of reduction which may sound logically correct but not so convincing in our experience. Moreover, we may ask if we take up the thread of the above logic, what is new in conceptual art. Can we conceive an art work which does not have a concept behind it? But we know from our experience that conceptual art is a special category of expression.
When we enjoy such work we do not enjoy the acting, moving image, painting or music separately; rather we enjoy a new art work that is being created through the synthesis of all these elements. Perhaps, a conditioning of our senses takes place which does not allow us to enjoy the art-elements separately. We read the concept paper/statement and then reach for a subjective engagement with the presentation in totality. We are well aware that conceptual art has no faith in judging the craft value of the work presented. The concept reigns supreme here! We are actually trying to look at the matter from an angle of phenomenological study. The phenomena of new media art include moving image along with other elements. Here we cannot experience moving image separately or the experience of moving image may go through a qualitative change. For example, we may consider a work where the characters within the moving image may answer questions from the viewers or the work may invite the viewers to walk or ride a bicycle through the space in which the work is presented. The viewer gets engaged intellectually in the question-answer session or becomes a part of the performance by walking or riding the bicycle keeping pace with the moving image. Thus the paradigm of enjoying a moving image reaches a different dimension or becomes negated within the life cycle of the concept of the presented art work. Moving image, perhaps the film itself, may have a different journey, a different future through new media art.
3. New Documentary Cinema
Web documentary, interactive documentary, database-filmmaking, non-linear documentary – these are all possibilities of new documentary cinema in the post digital revolution regime.
Here we are confronting a challenge of synthesis of the technological possibilities of new media with the conventional paradigm of filmmaking. It may be argued that a documentary film, or for that matter any film, can be made interactive to a certain level by using some software during digital mastering. Viewers may choose scenes in her order of liking and may become an active viewer to an extent. But technology allows us to go beyond that. Database is a computing related term which has been defined as, 'organized collection of data.' Data that is stored in the database is organized in such a way that using a computer this data can be searched and retrieved very quickly. The main function of a search engine is to retrieve data from databases. We all know that search engines are application softwares and these are the most widely used applications around the world. The advocates of new documentary cinema now are saying that very powerful non-linear and interactive documentary films can be made by using database and search engines. Beyond non-linearity, there are the additional possibilities of manipulating playful narratives and uncertainty. They are not talking about computer games only; these theoreticians believe that, 'Play is older than culture.' Therefore, they want to give back playfulness its right place in the newest presentation of culture.
But I fear that the topic is becoming a bit abstract. It would be prudent to come up with some examples, at least some sort of film concept; albeit in imagination only. I must admit that I am venturing into an unknown terrain. I am not a filmmaker and not even a creative person by any stretch of imagination. Still I am trying to conceive the structure of a film. Let's say, we shall come up with an interactive, non-linear, database-dependent web documentary. The subject is The Making of Stop Genocide. I am considering a central database of this film. This database will contain Stop Genocide—the film itself, other footage shot during the liberation war which may seem relevant. The database will include interviews of people who had directly been related to the making of the film Stop Genocide. There will also be interviews of people who have done researches on this film. Other films made by Zahir Raihan, the maker of Stop Genocide, will be stored in this database. We have come to know from Alamgir Kabir that before making Stop Genocide Zahir Raihan had seen Ashes and Diamonds of Andrzej Wajda and some revolutionary documentary films from Latin America. So we shall gather some footage of these films and store these in the database. This database will include a selection of literary writings of Zahir Raihan in some format.
The viewer, more correctly the user, will get an interface of this software which will include, among other things, a search option about related issues. For example, the user may search for the word 'Genocide' and '1960s' to see all the related video material in the net. She may seek to find cultural works related to '1971' and 'Bangladesh War'. Now, we may leave the film fully to the user so that she can traverse and play around it the way she wants to or we may decide to have some control over the navigation process. It can be safely assumed that any filmmaker would like to involve the viewer/user with the main purpose of her film to a certain extent. In this case, we would want the viewer/user to get a feel of the journey that Stop Genocide had gone through during its birth phase. The logic I am basing it on leads to some random considerations: 1. The viewer/user must see a part of the film. Otherwise, she will not be able to progress further (just the way it happens with computer games). This part is the one in which a critic is talking on the making of Stop Genocide and this interview is cross cut with some important footages from the film itself. 2. The user must see all the interviews of the participants who had directly been associated with the making of the film. 3. At least one interview of some secondary experience must be seen. 4.
The user may or may not decide to see any other film by Zahir Raihan. If she decides to see at least one other film then she must see a special sequence of Jibon Theke Neya. 5. If the user wants to watch other documentaries on the liberation war then she will have to answer some simple questions on this topic. Finally, the user will be shown how much time she has spent with this film and she will give her opinion on this film and on Stop Genocide. This data, in turn, will be stored in the database and will be available in a certain form to the subsequent users. In fact, there is hardly anything new in this example which has not been said before. Documentary films are now being made using these technologies. Recently independent filmmaker and organizer Lois Vossen has said, 'I do think filmmakers are beginning to imagine new ways of telling stories across multiple platforms including online, through games, etc., and so transmedia and more immersive formats will continue to pull documentaries in new directions. Much more relevant to independent filmmakers is the question of how viewing habits have changed and what audience will “sit through” in terms of television running times. I ask filmmakers how many 90-minute social issue documentaries they watched on television last week. And maybe we need to consider making multiple versions of some films: a festival version, theatrical version and television version. We shall want a great story, well-told, and some of us will sit in a movie theater to watch that, and more of us will sit in our living room or with our laptops to watch it, but the way we watch is definitely changing.' The film in our imaginary example may also have such multiple versions. One version for the conventional cinema theater which will not be an interactive one, this same version may be cut to a lesser length for the television and a fully interactive, non-linear version for the web.
Clouds over Cuba (2012) is a web-documentary which is interactive and non-linear and its scope is dependent on the actions of the viewer. The user/viewer can move among fifteen interactive options to know about the 1962 Cuba crisis. The user can go into the details of the prelude, the crisis itself and its negation by using these interactive options. For gathering extended knowledge, one may access two hundred still photographs, video footage, documentations, audio recordings which are linked with this film. The film uses HTML 5 and Java script with web circuit technology which gives it cross platform compatibility. This means, you can view and use this product in laptops, tablets or smartphones of any operating system. Even the film gives the user the opportunity to participate virtually in that 13-day long crisis. The point to emphasize here is that more and more users will view and use the documentary films on their smartphones, tabs or such devices in future. These devices will have new operating systems and other new software and hardware technologies. So, it will be important to have this 'cross platform compatibility' for the new documentaries to reach maximum audience.
Clouds over Cuba is perhaps an extremely apt example given the extent of preparation of the filmmakers today as far as new media and quickly changing technology go. However, the filmmakers are taking up projects which are slowly but surely embracing new possibilities. Sandra Gaudenzi is the professor of London College of Media. She has categorized documentary films into three segments from the perspective of interactivity. According to this classification some film are semi-closed. In this type of films the user may navigate through a fixed content freely but cannot change the content itself. She has named the second type of film as semi-open. In this type of film the user may participate in the film's process of unfolding the narrative to an extent, but cannot really change the structure of it. The third type of film is fully open. Here, the user can interact with the film to the fullest extent and with each viewing, structurally and in content the film becomes a new creation.
Here is an example of a semi-closed documentary. The name of the film is Welcome to Pine Point (2011). It is made by the media group The Googles from Canada. Pine Point is a mine city of Canada which lost its existence in the 1980s. A book was written on the subject and this text has been used in the film in the same manner. In fact this text is the main content of the film. Recollection of memories and collages of many objects have been used along with the text. Another good example of a semi-closed interactive documentary is Breves de Trottoir (2010). This film includes moving images and photographs which in combination tell us the life stories of the 'Daily Celebrities' of Paris. French filmmaker Olivier Lambert and photographer Thomas Salva have made this film jointly.
On the other hand, Journey to the End of Coal (2008) is a semi-open interactive documentary. Samuel Bolendroff and Abel Segretin have created the structure of this film for the French production company Honkytonk. The structure contains almost three hundred photographs, video of three hours running time and ten hour long audio collection. Their materials invite the user / viewer to enter deep inside the mine of China along with the migrant mine-workers. The user / viewer can control the navigation of the film, can talk to the workers and they can add new information in the form of text. French journalist David Dufresne and photo-journalist Philippe Brault have done a work called Prison Valley (2009).
This is at the same time a television documentary, a web documentary, a published book, an iPhone app and an exhibition in Paris. The work is set in the Freemont County of the state of Colorado in the USA. There are thirteen jails in this county and these jails (are the main stimulant) form the motor of its economy. The viewer must enter the film by using her Facebook or Twitter ID or log-on to the web site of the work by creating a new account. The film takes the viewer along in the form of a road drive through the county. It encourages the viewer to take detours and helps her to learn much complementary information.
With little research we have come to know that there is a web documentary called 80+1 A Journey Around the World (2009). This is a virtual tour of several cities of the world through the web (inspired by the famous novel by Jules Verne). Dhaka has about eighty four contributions in it. Siraj Shahjahan is the contributor from Dhaka. The idea was to send live video and audio streams from different markets and shopping malls of Dhaka city in 80 plus 1 days. Each day info-streams of one market were sent and thus the viewers were given a live experience of the markets of Dhaka. Later, all the audio and video data were stored in the 'cloud' and the viewers could choose and undertake a journey of any of the markets of Dhaka.
Not a lot of fully interactive documentary films have been made yet. But a lot of experiments are underway. Clouds over Cuba is quite a formidable film in terms of technology and interactivity. But still it cannot be termed a fully open, interactive work as the user / viewer cannot become originally proactive, cannot change the film with her creative instincts.
But we may ask ourselves, why we need to take the process of filmmaking into such a high-tech terrain. The question sounds a bit like the ones the cynics had raised during the invention of film as a media. Questions had been asked as to why we should leave theater and enter into such a complex and formal medium, why we should accept the fashion of moving image leaving behind written text and the narrative literature. In parallel, we may face the debate regarding technology and its appropriate use or requirement; we may enter into the discourse on the creative possibilities of technology versus its capability of creating false demand for commodities. These exciting topics will, however, take this article beyond any reasonable length. So we shall refrain ourselves from such a venture and only make some vanilla observations on these issues. Filmmaker Lois Vossen has talked about the changes in the viewing habit of film-watchers. We are talking about proactive film viewers for quite some time now. On the other hand, computer related technology has given people a new type of proactivity. We can now define the scope of our work afresh in this world of digital proactivity. This can happen in computer gaming, in communication, in forming opinions, in watching and in making people watch. Film may become interactive and contain this proactivity. A film viewer may become a user and then transform herself into an activist, a volunteer, a creative person. I believe that we want this revolutionary change to happen to film viewers. Secondly, if we can create a database of how a film is being used in interactive mode then that would become extremely interesting for the maker of the film. One film may give birth to the form and content of many films. Thirdly, interactivity creates an ambiance of playfulness. This will attract such viewers/users who would not have watched the film in its conventional format. Because, so called independent navigation or quiz-based navigation is the format of computer games. This format will make young digitally smart people interested albeit casually, in documentaries on serious issues. With experience of watching these films on their personal devices, their views about these issues will form, change and some of them may become activists, volunteers, and makers of new films on the topic.
Manovich has talked about two stages of new media. The first one is the cultural stage and the second one is the computer stage. According to him, new media documentary is a sort of transcoding between these two stages. The filmmaker and the user/viewer take forward this transcoding through every single 'proactivity' in interactive mode. But the challenge for us is the process of smooth integration of the cultural stage with the computer stage. The most difficult part of this challenge is to de-mystify the computer technology so that the creativity and commitment of the filmmaker to the subject of the film is synthesized seamlessly with the sensitivity and limitation of digital technology.
Interestingly, one writer shows that non linear, database documentary did not start with new media at all! One of the earliest successful documentary films in history had all such properties and possibilities built into it. He is talking about Man with a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov. The film comprises three separate visual montages. 1. A cameraperson is shooting materials for the film and an editor is doing the montages, 2. Viewers are watching the film in a film theater, 3. A day from early morning till late evening in Moscow, Kiev and Riga. The writer feels that the film has a non-linear, multi-layered, open-ended narrative.
Therefore, this film can be an ideal example of a database documentary. Moving image, especially the documentary variety of it is one of the major elements in new media art. Naturally, the documentary filmmakers would not like to give away this space without a challenge! On a more serious note, this is not a mere question of giving away space; this is also important in terms of creating new expression in new form and reaching out to the greater community. Presently, an experiment is going on in creating a fully open, interactive presentation using the core materials of the film Man with a Movie Camera. A website is encouraging people to provide new images complementing the images of Man with a Movie Camera. People are uploading hundreds of moving images each day which are similar in themes or motifs with those of the film. In this manner, each day, arguably, each minute, a new version of the film is becoming available on the net.
4. A kind of Prequel
We shall conclude by addressing some conservative issues. But let's begin again with a quote from new media theoretician Lev Manovich, 'A hundred years after cinema's birth, cinematic ways of seeing the world, of structuring time, of narrating a story, of linking one experience to the next, have become the basic means by which computer users access and interact with all cultural data. In this respect, the computer fulfills the promise of cinema as a visual Esperanto – a goal that preoccupied many film artists and critics in the 1920s, from Griffith to Vertov. Indeed, today millions of computer users communicate with each other through the same computer interface. And in contrast to cinema, where most “users” are able to “understand” cinematic language but not “speak” it (i.e., make films), all computer users can “speak” the language of the interface. They are active users of the interface, employing it to perform many tasks: send e-mails, organize files, run various applications, and so on.'
Manovich is trying to convince us that computer technology is doing exactly what the earliest filmmakers wanted their films to do. It may thus be argued, that film will only reach its desired destination by embracing this technology. Manovich feels that we all understand the language of film, but not everyone can speak it; more specifically, not everyone is a filmmaker. Digital technology is providing a structure which may open up the gate for any creative person to try a hand at filmmaking. Personal film is already a hugely discussed and very exciting proposition. On the other hand, Manovich is showing that computer users can at least use the interface through which the computer communicates.
There are elements of truth in this, but there are uncomfortable issues also. The interfaces through which, we as commoners communicate with computers, the vocabulary, the navigability through the digital labyrinth are controlled by a few organizations and a few people. Sometimes, this becomes a great obstacle for the creative people. We would rather like to have meta-languages which would give a creative filmmaker much more independence to work with this exciting technology. She would write her own functions and routines in a simple language. She would write her database queries using a language which is almost compatible with asking a question to a person next door. There are quite a number of visual artists the world over who do computer programming to create their art works. However, when you see their works you may develop an uneasy question in your mind: is a big part of the creative energy lost in the process of creating the container alone? Rather we would like the computer programming to be demystified. We are not asking for the democratization of interfaces only; we want the creation of interfaces to become democratized! I am proposing this within the context of filmmaking ventures in the paradigm of new media art.
We agree and feel strongly through our experience that there is something called the language of film. Filmmakers like Griffith, Eisenstein, Vertov, Stroheim, Renoir, Truffaut took moving images as the basic elements and created this language over time. On the other hand, theoreticians like André Bazin, Christian Metz, David Bordwell and Joseph Anderson gave different theoretical bases to the film language. Sometimes this has worked from the perspective of filmmaking, sometimes the reading of film became important in analyzing this language. Recently, the film theoreticians are talking about new film aesthetics keeping the proactive film viewing in mind. It is being said now that, 'Distinctions between passive and active viewing in contemporary, or more specifically, postmodern cinema, are incompatible with ways of seeing, or spectating, that contemporary culture employs.' We cannot bypass all these thoughts while considering the possibilities of new documentary cinema within the paradigm of new media art. Behind all these thoughts we have one and a quarter century long experience of making and viewing films. We can recall the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir (2008) by Ari Folman. The Lebanon war of 1982 is its subject. Folman was a 19 year old infantry soldier of Israel in that war. This film is a kind of soul-searching for him on that war. He dealt with his participation in the war, the genocide by the Christian militia in the Palestinian refugee camp with the help of the Israeli army in this film. This is a feature length documentary which, apart from a very small part in actual footage, has been created as an animation film. The film uses realistic graphics, surreal scenes, classical music and popular music from the 1980s and has won many awards in film festivals. The point I want to make is, the film uses many elements of media art and yet could meet the demand of the existing film viewing paradigm. But my eagerness to impress 'experienced film viewing paradigm' may sound a bit fundamentalist when it is being stressed that new media art has thrown the idea of the medium of art into oblivion! We don't need to start a debate on this. The art-experience and sensibilities of humans can define art in a time and space, and we can safely keep faith in the process.
Allow me to conclude with one of my favorite themes on documentary cinema. I strongly feel that any documentary; social, anthropological, political, personal; seek a kind of truth. In this journey reality is its vehicle. But reality is a relative phenomenon with parameters like an individual and time. Still, the documentary filmmakers excel in this journey, in this search for the truth. This consideration remains valid even in these times of revolutionary changes. Documentary filmmaker Amanda Lin Costa writes, 'Today's documentary filmmakers, exhibiting a strong postmodernist self-awareness of the blurred and murky lines crisscrossing vérité and agenda filmmaking, are more inclined to believe that, like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder.'
The truth, then, lies in the glance cast by the documentary filmmaker. We conclude with hope that new media art will inspire the documentary filmmakers in this relentless search for the truth.
MAHMUDUL HOSSAIN is a Dhaka based film critic and art writer.
- From Celluloid to Cyberspace: The Media Arts and the Changing Arts World: Kevin F McCarthy, Elizabeth Heneghan Ondaatje.
- New Media Documentary: Playing with documentary film within the database logic and culture: Ersan Ocak.
- 6 Filmmakers Talk About Documentary Films in the Digital Age: Amanda Lin Costa.
- Database Documentary: From Authorship to Authoring in Remediated/Remixed Documentary: Hart Cohen.