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Must be seen: Out My Window launches Participate

Last week has been very active for documentary maker Katerina Cisek:  Highrise, the project she has been working on at the Canadian NFB for some years now, has just re-launched its website. At the same time they have launched a new experimental web-documentary, to fit under the umbrella of Out My Window: a collaborative photographic essay of views from the towers of the world called Participate.

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

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

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

Highrise is not about suburbia, it is about our preconceptions about suburbia. Its political value is to use documentary as a way to bridge several worlds: the one of people living in tower blocks with the one of people living outside of them. But there is more: there is the relation suburbia-city, but also suburbia-other suburbia, and also the difference of suburbia within one city, and within other cities of the world… So the way I see Highrise is as a relational piece: it puts in relation people, worlds and realities… and this is why it is a damn good documentary (although it can use unconventional forms such as a Flickr photo essay or a physical installation in an art gallery – not to mention the web format).

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

When I write, and think, about  interactive documentaries I often try to see what they are good at: what is it that this interactive  media  adds to the whole process of documenting reality? For me Highrise encapsulate a lot of the potential of interactive documentary: it shows how an emergent and evolving process can be more effective than a linear one to describe a complex reality such as suburbia. It also shows that stepping out of the narrator’s chairs can be done in a multitude of ways, and that the route is wide open to exploration at the moment. Finally, Highrise shows that collaboration – the hype word of the moment- has multiple meanings, and that participation can be used in different ways to reach different results.

Now you know why I am a big fan of this project: because it shows that interactive media might be a very effective language to learn to relate with the complexity of our world; not through straight lines, but through layers and networked journeys of exploration…

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 8th, 2011


  1. On March 23rd, 2011 at 00:39 Kate wrote:

    Sandra- what an amazing project for so many reasons… thanks for highlighting it! Especially enjoyed Out My Window, as the high rise is such an integral part of any city which has always arrested my attention since I was a child and growing up in single family homes in the country. Such individual experiences despite the misleading uniformity of the architecture, and always this weaving in and out of different stories and perspectives that is afforded by the technology and graphics used on the site. I could lose many hours lingering!

  2. On April 4th, 2011 at 12:05 Arnau Gifreu wrote:

    “Out my Window” (Katerina Cizek, NFB, 2010): a masterpiece that changed the way we produce interactive documentaries forever. The best era of a new audiovisual genre called interactive documentary is here!.

    I like to discuss (in relation to the post of Sandra Gaudenzi: An exclusive interview with Katerina Cizek (March 8, 2011,,the Highrise (National Film Board of Canada) phenomenon and one of his latest projects, Out my window.
    Personally I knew there would be a premiere about this project in IDFA Doclab, -held in Amsterdam in November last year (2010)-, and did not hesitate a moment to buy the plane ticket and improvise a trip to attend the festival.
    The Doclab is the most experimental part of the IDFA Festival, one of the most prestigious festivals related to the documentary film world. Started three years ago, the IDFA Doclab is a small festival (subfestival) related to interactive documentary within the film festival. Therefore, somewhat like Highrise and Out my window, the IDFA is turning into a sort of umbrella which brings together various documentary trends year after year.
    I must confess that I took the decision very fast and didn’t know the details and the nature of what was cooking in the Highrishe Department of NFB. Once I saw the online screening -was very emotional- and could participate with the interactive installation was when I started to realize what I had in front my eyes and how this project was starting a new era of this new audiovisual genre called “interactive documentary”.
    I would comment on each of the three parts, in addition to the complex technical project, because the project develops a very interesting multi-platform and multi-format proposal:

    a) The project site is truly amazing, combining a sleek and innovative design (the overlap of plans and the idea of 2D navigable photocollage), a rather simple and very efficient usability, variety thematic and documentary quality and a set of different media converge to perfection (even 3D navigable videos – developed technology in Germany-). It also offers 3 modes of navigation that complement each other perfectly, as are the testimonies (faces), spatial (map of world cities to choose) and stories (issues and people from different places). Other important factor is how quickly is the loading if we consider the nature of the original material: 3D navigable videos, photos in high definition, complex graphics, audio, etc. The proposal metaphor is also very interesting: a building with different houses and balconies.
    b) On the other hand, the online screening conducted by the same author and director of Highrise, Katerina Cizek, was successful and was the time I enjoyed in the same way with the display of an interactive documentary as with an audiovisual one. We were immerse more than an hour and the next half was devoted to questions of the author, but all the spectators had been quite astonished at this project and how to navigate through it.
    c) Finally, the interactive installation that was exhibited at the De Braake Grond, a theater and cultural center perfectly performed for this type of events, although it was not technically complex (just a light sensor attached to the ground, which changed history when a particpator was placed above the light focus point), was very effective and emulated well the metaphor used at the interactive online part. A set of panels with various deeps allowed to create an almost three dimensional and immersive environement about three or four stories (not all, that showed for the occasion).
    Also note that, apart from the incredible creations that are part of Out my window and Highrise, it is important to say that this project follows the guidelines of the documentary genre: reflection and change of consciousness, trying to become a catalyst for social change and to help publicize and give voice to people and places that such proposals have never had. Therefore, its value added is that is part of a social incentivation process. A masterpiece that has changed the way we produce interactive documentaries forever.
    Only a few details before the end: I saw in Amsterdam other projects, such as Welcome to Pinepoint (Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simmons, NFB, 2011) or Soul Patron (Frederik Rieckher, 2010) , which also had much to say but did not have the NFB budget: around 80000 euro…
    And now, the next one:
    Are you ready for that?

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