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DocLab 2011: a treat for idoc lovers

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For documentary lovers IDFA (Interanationl Documentary Festival Amsterdam) is like a sweet shop full of wanderful temptations… and for the interactive documentary festival lover it is  a bit as a treasure hunt… where lots of jewels can be found, and they are spread here and there in the city. Could there be a better excuse to visit such a wonderful town as Amsterdam?

I went to IDFA just for DocLab (the new media part of the festival), where fifteen idocs have been selected to illustrate the best stuff around this year. Follow the link to see their selection. The man behind DocLab is Caspar Sonnen: as early as 2008 he understood that the idoc genre was here to stay and to expand, and he created DocLab – that is still one of the best places in the world to spot and discuss interactive documentaries.

But there is more than fifteen idocs at DocLab: there is an exhibition space dedicated to idocs experiments and installations – Expanding Documentary – lots of talks and live presentations of projects by their authors, and also a forum where a few interactive projects are pitched in front of commissioning editors and potentially funding partners (this is the match making part of the festival).

So… what did I come back with in my DocLab goody bag? The jewels I found through my own teasure hunt are of different nature: people, projects, ideas and debates got all mixed up in my DocLab reward bag, and this is why it is so difficult to give them an order. I shall try.

First: simulating reality, rather than representing it, can be very powerful – but it needs an aim

I enrolled to, and tried personally, the experimental 3D VR project presented at the Exploding Documentary exhibition: CAPE. CAPE is a virtual walk through a 360 video world of Brussels where a virtual character guides you by hand. This is a bit difficult to explain, so I shot a video to explain it better.

The plot itself is just a tour around strange places in Brussels, but what is interesting is the possibility of being catapulted physically in another reality and adapt instantly to such virtual real/physical space. How can this technology be used in documentary genre? I could not help but linking it to Nonny de la Pena latest experiments – such as Hunger in LA (to be launched at Sundance Festival in Jannuary!).

Second: interactivity needs to be meaningful and project-appropriate

I finally met Casper Sonner, the guy beyong DocLab. He is the sweetest and most competent person I have met in this field for a while. With a typical Dutch casual and relaxed style he manages to hold together demanding guests, technical issues, introduction speeches and last minute panics. When introducing the idoc genre said something that made me laugh: “interactivity is like salt: it does not get better if you put more of it”. This is so true! How many projects are currrently adding features just because “it is possible”? Should we first not question what we want to create – as an experience, as a meaning- and only then decide what sort of interactivity is appropriate to convey such message/feeling? This brings me to my thirds point.

Caspar Sonnen at DocLab 2011 – photo by Sandra Gaudenzi

Third: the art of mobile Apps – interactivity as a way to perceive our environment differently had a double presence at DocLab: there physical installation where one could pick up white plastic objects in a room and barcode them to trigger a video (it was not working when I tried it and, to be honest, I do not think that as an exhibition it was particularly meaningful) and there was a Live presentation and debate of the project by David Carzon (Arte) and Hugues Sweeny (NFB). If you go to you will see a sentence: “objects are like mirrors- they reveal who we are”. This ambitions project starts as a mobile app, and  only later became a website. The aim is to make you look at what is around you with different eyes. If you pick up an object (the act of selection is already a step towards awareness) you can then either barcode it by photographing it with your phone, or type its name into the  interface. This will spring up a video linked to the category of object you have selected. A pool of 30 artists created a 100 videos for

Carzon (ARTE) and Sweeny (NFB) presenting at DocLab – photo by Sandra Gaudenzi

When I first tried Barcode on the web I could not see the point of it – probably because the videoclips are not clearly connected with the object you have picked up (it is linked to the category of objects – so if you take “shoe” it will put it into the “clothes and fashion” section, and you’ll might watch a video about umbrellas…which might be a long shot from your original expectation). I think this is a floor in the project. But on the other hand I can see how, as a phone app, it makes total sense: it uses technology not to learn about things, but to see them differently. This type of idoc is not trying to inform us, but to get us out of what we perceive (or do not see anymore) all around us. This is quite powerful stuff! My next point goes exactly on the opposite direction…

Fourth: Proposition One or the art of immersive video.

Condition One is a technology (a technique of shooting with special lenses and a software to edit the rushes and author it for tablets) that is being launched and marketed at the moment. This is not a project per se, but a new way of presenting 180 degrees video (might be 360…I am not sure) where the user can navigate immersive video via his/er tablet or iPad. Imagine a gigantic image of which you only see a portion – the size of your iPad. In order to see the rest of the image you need to move your iPad around. This is supposed to make you feel part of the action. If you are not getting the concept – as it is quite complicate to explain it- do have a look to a part of the presentation that I recorder while I was there:

Now, this is a use of technology that is not trying to show you what you do not see, because what it is aiming at is the opposite: give you the feeling that you ARE there. This is not about changing approach, but about feeling immersed in the action.

They guys at Condition One did the fundamental mistake of using war footage to demo their technology. Show this at  a documentary festival and you switch on a bombshell: is it ethical to let you navigate into a war scene full of dead bodies? is the role of the filmmaker, and the editor,  not to select for the audience what should be seen? and if the filming is done at 180 degrees, then what is the point of having a cameraman – as there is no framing to be done? Wowww… the debate got quite animated!

But as Caspar Sonner rightly pointed out when you are browsing through the scene on your iPad you are effectively becoming the cameraman, and at this stage what is interesting are the decisions that YOU are going to make: are you going to watch that dead body or are you going towards that kids that needs help? We might have to learn when to use, and how to use such immersive video technology, but what is interesting is that along the path we’ll might learn even more about ourselves! Speaking about ethical decisions, which ones would we take if we were there?

This again points at the fact that technology per se is meaningless, it is its context of use that makes it useful, or not. And with “context” I move to my next point…

Fifth: the interface as context

Context is what gives meaning to our acts. Everything is situated. But what creates a context in an idoc?

While Bruno Masi was presenting La Zone, an idoc about the ghost area around Chernobyl, I could not help noticing that  his project made much more sense to me while he was explaining and introducing the videos, live, than when I was navigating through it on the web. The reason is clear: Masi was aurally expressing the context of his work, and therefore providing it, a context that is lost in the project itself. The three levels of navigation that are offered to the user are guiding through layers of videos, but they do not explain why such videos are crucial and how they might be meaningful within the global narrative. Arranging content into three levels gives videos an order, like in a map, but not a purpose nor a meaning.

As Sweeny and Carzon said in their presentation, color, font, navigation and interface all give meaning. The interface is as important as the content. And to this I would add that the interface does not only give the tone, the look and the mood of a project, it offers the entry and exit points, limits and possibilities… which effectively is what context is and does…

And finally: from desolated zones to playful cities…

Sixth: INSITU, or interactivity as playful poetry

INSITU has just won Best Digital Documentary at IDFA!!! Congratulations Antoine Viviani!

Interestingly enough this is probably the least interactive of all the projects that were presented at DocLab this year- it is effectively a 90 min movie on urban art performances covering different countries, with three  interactive points. Refreshingly director Antoine Viviani does not see interactivity as a must have, but as a plus that needs to be weighted depending on the topic of the idoc. Since INSITU is a symphony of city poetry –  I sincerely suggest that you watch it online, as it is really so beautiful and subtle as a movie – it generates a dreamy atmosphere that does not call the user to act or change the plot, but rather to dream with it, maybe by listening to people’s thoughts in the tube, by a simple click of the mouse…

INSITU proves that interactivity can be linked to fantasy, playfulness and dream, and does not always be linked to decisions or choice.

In conclusion: a lot of interactive projects have been presented to DocLab this year. Please go an see their website as I cannot review them all.  What I came back with from this trip to Amsterdam is a lot of fog (litterally!) and the conviction that it is not technology but a carefully balanced syntax between interactivity and context that makes a project work, or not. Interactivity can lead to choice,to dream or to immersion, while context can be provided by a narrating voice or by an interface… but those elements need to work together to build a whole.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 29th, 2011


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