Memoradic narrative

I have worked with this resemblance of human memory recall and computer data retrieval in the architectural design of The Shoebox where fragments (stored in different areas of the database) accessed randomly by the user within the project space combine to make a memory story, a linear story. This linear story is Heather’s story which, she tells in a remarkably similar way regardless of her audience. I have called this “memoradic narrative.”

The term “memoradic narrative” could be used to describe Michelle Citron’s digital media CD-Rom Mixed Greens (2004). Mixed Greens opens with an animated sequence finishing with a set of still graphic images of salad items arranged in neat rows. As the user rolls over each salad icon a word-category appears: Mystery, Time, Place and so on. Clicking on an icon, a corresponding fragment of linear video is placed on a timeline at the bottom of the frame. Up to a maximum of eight icons can be chosen and each new selection butts up against the previous one on the timeline. The timeline can then be played as one continuous linear sequence of video fragments.

Citron’s interactive architecture for Mixed Greens is similar to the retrieval and collation of memory fragments used during the process of communicating a memory story. Engel (1999:6) explains the memory process as:

“One creates the memory at the moment one needs it, rather than merely pulling out an intact item, image or story. This suggests that each time we say or imagine something from our past we are putting it together from bits and pieces that may have, until now, been stored separately.”

In the case of The Shoebox the linear narrative of The Shoebox Movie is a fixed story line, rather than a flexible story line as it is in Mixed Greens. As each embedded media clip is accessed in The Shoebox by the user/viewer its corresponding thumbnail image appears in its designated space on the timeline. This approach fits more neatly with the nature of Heather’s memory recall whereby Heather tells and retells her story in a similar way, irrespective of her audience, through the process of memory rehearsal. Engel (1999:8) explains this process of repetition, even if done silently to one’s self, as cementing the memory, allowing it to remain strong and vivid into old age.

“The more often that particular memory is invoked, the more solid and strong that neural pathway becomes” (Engel 1999:5).

The next phase

The current interactive prototype design of The Shoebox has been a vehicle to explore the technique of memoradic narrative and has been built with an eye on a further extension to the project. Four panoramic scenes will be added to the current two—these are the greyed out image icons above the central viewing frame—Bill’s Gully, Wimmera Landscape, Abdullah Park, and WWI Battlefields. Each corresponds to a 360-degree panoramic scene which represents a locality and time period from Heather’s story (see image 21). All four additional scenes will be embedded with five pieces of media—artifacts and flashbacks—that reveal small portions of the narrative through video, voice-over, and montage sequences. Consequently, the timeline will be extended to hold thirty thumbnail mages (see image 22).

21. Plans for additional scenes.

The choice of 360-degree panoramic scenes follows a tradition in Australian cinema for stories set inside expansive landscapes. The wide vistas and open skies of the Wimmera, an area best known for growing wheat, display an ageless beauty as well as a sense of remoteness and isolation. Contrasting this are the interiors, which are tight, restrictive and unyielding. These are the domestic, feminine zones of lounge room, bathroom and kitchen. The male domains are exterior landscapes; wheat fields, battlefields, horse yards.

Even the “Shed” an interior panorama that crosses the divide of time from 1950 to 2002 holds the girls’ records tight—safe, but forgotten. Uncle Jock places the shoebox here in the early 1950’s and then returns to his external world. His grandson Grahame McDonald happens to rediscover it over half a century later.

22. Storyboard design of The Shoebox—next phase showing six active panoramic icons and thirty thumbnail image divisions within the “Timeline”.

The non-linear nature of the digital medium enables the complex and disconnected nature of this narrative to be accentuated and enhanced as the user navigates through a fragmented story in a disjointed way. Additionally the digital medium enables a design structure to be built for the current working prototype that allows additional scenes and media to be added as they becomes available. This flexibility of production is unknown in “traditional” documentary filmmaking.


Site specific or online, non-linear interactivity performs well when the content is abstract and ephemeral, or when a series of rewards for the user are incorporated into the design as in popular computer game-play. However, when narrative is added and the producer wants the user to gain not only an experience of interactive-play but also the content of a story then the question of how to conflate these forms becomes important.

The critical question for documentary makers is how to incorporate new digital technologies, with their potential for innovative narrative structures, and still make a factual story understandable to the audience. Working digitally allows the “conventional” documentary narrative form to shift from temporal to spatial, from horizontal to vertical, from sequential to concurrent. Digitality also provides interactivity. With interactivity comes a potentially spontaneous, engaged and active audience able to choose how they receive the content. Yet, documentaries need to convey critical pieces of their narrative for their story to be comprehensible to their audience.

As Negroponte (1995:84) phrased it over a decade ago

“being digital will change the nature of mass media from a process of pushing bits at people to one of allowing people (or their computers) to pull at them. This is a radical change….”

With traditional modes of media the audience leans back and is a witness or observer to the unfolding events, whilst with interactive modes the audience leans forward and is a participant in the pace and revelation of the story (Pesce 2004). 

The first computer artists began experimenting with their machines ability to provide feedback and mostly created abstract works. As computers advanced, digital art evolved in unison. The speed of modern computers and the complexity of interaction between computer and users has enabled an unprecedented audience engagement with the art works. As Edmonds says,

“the opportunities for including audience participation have been increased by the advent of digital technology” (2006:xxiv).

However, interaction for its own sake can become tiring for the user and much research has gone into the design of interfaces to make them more appealing (Brown 2006:6).

To incorporate the changes brought by the digital revolution and to make productions both flexible and understandable to audiences, a conflation of non-linear and linear narrative in digital documentary may be necessary. In fact, both digital artists and commentators are acknowledging a combination of non-linear interactivity and linear narrative in digital media is more understandable to users (Dovey 2002:143, Wand 2002:167, Gibson 2004:1).

Today, digital media practitioners as well as their audiences want more from interactivity than lights turning on and off as the participant walks through a gallery space. Since time immemorial humans have wanted campfire stories and even in the age of digital interaction, they still do. This is particularly true when the content of the interactive digital media is factual, such as a documentary where we are engaging with a true story, about real people and real events in real locations, that have a logical sequence and narrative.

With my interactive digital documentary prototype The Shoebox, I have engaged with these issues of non-linear narrative, linear narrative and interactivity. In The Shoebox the fragmentation of memory plays a large part in the protagonist’s story and mirroring this fragmentation the non-linear sections enable the user/viewer to navigate to small pieces of content inside the practical project. This interaction in turn creates another story space, a linear story that translates the fragments of this biographical tale into a narrative the user/viewer can sit back and absorb.

I have termed this method memoradic narrative whereby the act of accessing the story content mirrors the process of memory encoding, storage, and retrieval. Memory recall seems to be the retrieval of a linear sequence of an event that took place sometime in the rememberer’s past—however researchers have shown that memory is in fact a reconstruction of fragments remembered, added to, and qualified by the rememberer over time. The reception conditions of the memory may also modify the recall.

Fragments of story/memory accessed in The Shoebox fall into their unique positions on the timeline. Once three fragments have entered the timeline the timeline itself becomes active and can be played as a linear narrative. If the timeline became active after a single interaction the user/viewer would be able to move directly to the linear mode of viewing. By delaying this option I am ensuring the user/viewer engages interactively with the project for at least three non-linear explorations. Gibson (2005:1) in his discussion of interactive digital media productions calls this technique “the magic of three,” whereby one or two interactions seem too short, and more than three appears too long. Further Gibson claims, even numbered interactions leads to symmetry whereas odd numbered interactions tend towards openness—hence “the magic of three.”

In its present form, The Shoebox is exhibited as an online documentary. This choice was one of simplicity. By using a web-based platform I could manage the project through to completion without having to apply for additional funding or patronage from external producers or distributors. The digital platform also provides the flexibility for new data and media to be added into the current project structure as it becomes available.

Additionally, the interactive architecture created for this prototype can be easily adapted for use as an exposition mode for museums, art galleries, libraries, cultural centres or similar exhibition spaces. A number of such institutions are beginning to explore digital stories as an exhibition component of their curatorship. Two excellent Australian examples are the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne with its “Memory Grid” exhibition space and the State Library of Queensland’s recent Q150 Digital Stories project.

The “Memory Grid” is described by ACMI as:

“a showcase for emerging talent and alternative voices in the mediums of short film, animation, documentary, TV, video, multimedia and single screen interactive design.”

Artists, filmmakers, multimedia practitioners and members of the public are encouraged to submit their stories, which are exhibited on-site in the purpose built “Memory Grid” section of the ACMI gallery.

In 2009, as part of the sesquicentennial celebrations for the state of Queensland, the State Library created an innovative “Digital Stories” project and exhibition. Historians, librarians, teachers, indigenous leaders, government officials and the public were invited to submit their stories to the Library’s web site. Over seventy stories have been uploaded. The State Library of Queensland describes the Q150 Digital Stories project as:

“part of the Queensland libraries exhibition “Queensland Stories” which tells stories of people, places, past present. The exhibition … illustrates the state’s evolution, diversity and innovation since it became an independent state from NSW in 1859.

You can see the albums in the 'Heritage Collection Reading Room,' at the State Library, or in the new virtual exhibition 'Becoming Queensland' on the State Library of Queensland website. It can (also) be searched on the library’s digital catalogue.”

As the revolution in digital media evolves, some documentary makers are responding to its challenges and developments with vigour. New technologies have enabled new forms of documentary to emerge on new platforms. These changes have produced creative outcomes as diverse as the challenges for documentary producers and their audiences. With The Shoebox I have intervened in the discourse by engaging with the creative process surrounding these challenges and potentialities with an approach that bridges the new and the old paradigms of documentary production and exhibition.

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