Move to the web
The decision of several of the Tabasco team to experiment with interactive, web-based documentary flows from their interpretation of participation. In launching their first interactive web documentary, Et le Panier dans tout ça, Tabasco sought an online format that might enhance the kinds of involvement they have always aimed to generate. Nicolas Dupont and Rémi Laurichesse led Tabasco’s first foray into interactive web doc by reaching out to the junior high school, located in Le Panier and next door to the major development projects on J4—a quay on the old port that had been a major point of arrival and departure for migration for centuries.
Tabasco specifically wanted to engage school-aged children, in this case junior high schoolers, to reflect on changes in the neighborhood. Tabasco had already been very involved in supporting Le Panier residents in resisting various relocations that had occurred around several, decades-long development projects that came to fruition in 2013, the year Marseille was deemed a European “Cultural Capital.” [open notes in new page] 2013 also saw the completion of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MUCEM) and its neighbor, Villa Méditerranée. Both buildings landed on a part of the old port (Vieux Port) that had been a favored site, where locals would stroll, play soccer, or fish and where the circus and fair would set up when in town.
Dupont and Laurichesse took these development projects as the subject for Volume 1 of Et Le Panier dans tout ça, conducting a four-month long workshop with junior high schoolers. To mount the project, Tabasco received the support of regional and city governments, the Villa Méditerranée, MUCEM, and some crowd-funding. The partnerships with Villa Med and MUCEM gave the students and team access to the architects and program directors of MUCEM and Villa Med, as well as government officials and historians.
Undertaking a web doc proved to be more time-consuming than Tabasco’s typical video workshop model. According to co-director, Nicolas Dupont, “We had to decide certain aspects of the architecture of the web doc in advance, which imposed a bit more pre-determined structure on the students” than would typically have been the case. Having been committed to letting the creative demands of their workshop participants determine content and form, this felt like a cumbersome compromise to Dupont and he hopes to create “a simpler structure” to mount their next web-based documentary. Tabasco chose to work with an “out-of-the-box” storytelling platform, RacontR, because Dupont and Laurichesse did not feel “ready to undertake coding a web doc themselves.” Some of the choices that they made at the outset regarding design “turned out to be more complicated in the web creation phase than they had expected” (e.g., the narration, or flow, of the story is controlled in a somewhat cumbersome fashion by the scroll bar).
Despite the difficulty for the team of getting the work online, the structure is simple, but attractive—inviting the internaut to enter the students’ stories and informing visitors that a full exploration of the site will take approximately 40 minutes. Once inside the narrative branches, the tone of the piece is dictated by the students, with their voices and photographic or video representations drawing the user through the informative threads. The storytelling follows four junior high schoolers, each pursuing a specific line of inquiry, which is animated by both student research and student-conducted interviews.
The user interface is not intensively interactive as it employs what Adrian Miles (2015) might call a “branching tree” format. The interactor can follow specific pre-set branches, but the project is a semi-linear, web-based documentary (one doesn’t have to follow any particular structure, but the scrolling arrows tend to lead you in one direction once you’ve chosen a line of inquiry).
In this sense, Le Panier dans tout ça is an “interactive artifact” – a linear documentary in the terminology of Gaudenzi (“Strategies of Participation” 130). It records and preserves the social interactivity of the production process, though it is closed to further authorship and evolution online. For example, if an online visitor chooses Rostom’s image, she will follow Rostom’s exploration of MUCEM, likely from start to finish. While the program doesn’t prevent the visitor from moving backwards or revisiting vignettes, the flow and logic of the information follows a linear sequence.
The participation and production training furnished by Tabasco’s method remain visible and audible, with the questions, interests, and frank style of the adolescents shaping the content throughout the web documentary. Yet it is clear that the prefabricated platform, RacontR, restricted the aesthetic content somewhat and limited the possibility of student participation in the initial aesthetic choices and in the final online design.
Web documentary, interactivity—participation
Most initial discussion of interactive web doc has focused on setting the genre(s), and establishing a workable set of descriptive terms that help to characterize the texture of interaction afforded by different aesthetic choices of the online format. For community video organizations, however, it is crucial to examine the extent to which the online aesthetic choices resonate with a group’s historical practices and desired forms of social interaction.
In Et Le Panier dans tout ça, formally and content-wise, the most interactive dimensions of the project occurred in the pre-production, production, and exhibition phases of Tabasco’s work, with less emphasis on involving workshop participants in the post-production phase. Indeed, for an online documentary, post-production requires good collaboration and coordination between the directors, the video animators, and the web designers on the project. This process left less room for post-production workshops with the students. Still, Dupont and Laurichesse argue that their aesthetic goal remained to “construct a narrative and to represent the voices of the students while being enjoyable for the internaut.”
In some ways, the documentary practice of “representing voices” might seem like a step back from the forms of social interaction developed in Tabasco’s participative television workshops. In terms of the concrete elements of participation, the students conceived, directed, and executed the interviews and historical vignettes. They also wrote, directed, and performed in several small fictions meant to dramatize the texture of their experiences. The flow of the web documentary follows their discovery process—their experience of the interview and creation process, and of the museums, which most of the students had never visited before the workshops.
I asked Dupont and Laurichesse how the students responded to the production work, as junior high school is a developmentally-intense period. They found that the students were often a “bit embarrassed and shy about beginning activities” and in interacting with adults. It was only “at the very end of the project, when the students were applauded by a full audience at the first public presentation of the work at Villa Med—that the students finally took real pride in the work.” For the directors, working with adolescents was at times “exhausting,” but they valued the experience of drawing the students out of their own social awkwardness and into the larger world, coaching them to take charge of new forms of expression and inquiry.
As Julia Scott-Stevenson reminds us, the interactive or “cross-platform” work is true to the activist spirit of the interactive mode of documentary in diffusing “textual authority” between the directors and the students, as well as those interviewed by the students during the shooting of the film. Further, “collaborative authorship” is essential to establishing the “new documentary ecology,” described by Elizabeth Coffman (111), in which “subjects are increasingly aware of their abilities to drive the narrative and opportunities to tell their own stories” (Coffman 111).
The student’s authority comes across most directly and comically in the interview with one of Villa Med’s architects, Ivan Dipol, in the “History and Architecture” section of the web doc. Rostom takes the architect by surprise when he asks why the building looks like a “giant whistle,” a burning question for him and his classmates. Dipol has just laid out a poetic and serious explanation of the shape of the building as a structure that encircles and harbors a fragment of the Mediterranean, represented by the reflecting pool in front of the Villa. The architects wanted the sea to be present in the visitor’s experience. Rostom’s question interrupts Dipol’s rehearsed response. He laughs and admits that the form of the building is “rather particular” and that, in fact, his young daughter thinks the building looks like the number “7” toppled on its side.
Choices regarding voice, textual authority, aesthetics, production process, and design all evince a particular ethos of participation. Yet, transposing participatory community media practices and goals to the web remains a challenge. Platforms can, of course, enable or hinder those objectives. As Kate Nash cautions,
“The tendency to view interactivity as a characteristic that transforms the traditional relationships between documentary makers, subjects and their audiences is understandable and yet, as numerous new media scholars remind us, there is no necessary connection between interactivity and audience empowerment” (Nash 51).
In addition to critically assessing the audience impact of technical and aesthetic choices, directors must consider the kinds of storytelling interactive web documentaries (and different platforms) facilitate. Who will own it, where will the stories “go” (and circulate), how will they live on the web, how will they be used?
Et Le Panier is most successful in the ways in which Tabasco has already been successful, in creating “living documentaries,” in making visible the social “web,” the nexus of interactions between social forces, in leading novices in the co-initiation and co-production of content:
“Besides co-authoring and co-producing there is another way to include the participant in the production of interactive documentary: co-initiating content. This happens when the collaboration is placed in the preproduction phase of both the video material and the interactive artifact. In this case, the participant is not a user of a launched interactive artifact but a potential subject of a project in its shaping.” (Gaudenzi, “Strategies of Participation” 138).
While the prefabricated platform (RacontR) limited richer opportunities for evolving online authorship of the piece, the students initiated their own inquiry into larger social processes that had affected their lives. In turn, they learned how to make their perspectives known and how they might be circulated on the web. Viewed in this light, the production workshops for the webdoc can be seen as a useful initial foray into imagining how the participative television model might be carried into meaningful online interaction. In leading students to map the social transformations that affect their lives, Tabasco is close to enacting something akin to the “multi-dimensional” interactivity described by Kate Nash,
“a multidimensional phenomenon in which the actions of users, documentary makers, subjects and technical systems together constitute a dynamic ecosystem” (Nash 51).
For the adolescent participants in the preproduction and production parts of the project, the modes of interaction engendered by the project were indeed multidimensional. The project led students to develop their own political voices, to map social processes, and to stage reality in the fictional vignettes. Yet from the standpoint of the online experience, the “branching tree” representation might not be interactive enough (socially/aesthetically) to engage a new online audience. The online experience of Le Panier dans tout ça might best be characterized in Gaudenzi’s terms as a “categorical webdoc” delivered in the “hitch-hiking” or “hypertext” mode (“The Living Documentary” 48-49). The strength of “the ‘categorical webdoc” and a feature that was chosen and valued by the Tabasco team, is that it
“has a structure that does not push a chronological narrative, but rather proposes a collection of simultaneous entry points or equivalent micronarratives” (Gaudenzi, “The Living Documentary” 31).
Once online, however, these narrative entry points are fixed and perhaps enact a form of interactivity too circumscribed to provoke the same kind of social activation that Tabasco’s regular workshop methods accomplish. In the extreme, Gaudenzi suggests that the “hitchhiking or hypertext mode” creates an ““environment [that] is not unpredictable anymore, it is just explorable” (Gaudenzi, “The Living Documentary” 50).
For some critics, exploration in itself can constitute a worthwhile interactive experience. In their “Interactive Documentary Manifesto,” Andre Almeida and Heitor Alvelos argue that good “interactive documentary should always explore unique approaches to the subject that cinema can't achieve -the so-called "being there" feeling,” for e.g. (Almeida and Alvelos 126). Most suitable and effective, in their view, would be works in which the filmmaker would serve as more of a “trail designer” rather than a “bus driver” (Almeida and Alvelos 127-128).
Et Le Panier dans tout ça does encourage the internaut to explore the perspective of the workshop participants and the tourists and Marseillais that the students interviewed. The documentary also gives online visitors the chance to see the urban areas affected by redevelopment projects. What’s missing, then, is neither that “being there feeling” nor the potential for exploration, but precisely the dynamic and “multi-dimensional” political-aesthetic practice Tabasco has built into its community workshop model over the years. Carrying over the multidimensional engagement of Tabasco’s workshop model into the online experience is crucial, because, as Sandra Gaudenzi points out, “each interactive mode carries with it an inherent vision of the world, and our role within it” (Gaudenzi, “The Living Documentary” 19).
Tabasco infuses each stage of its community video workshops with its deep belief in the potential for citizens to intervene in the cultural and political life of the city by contesting existing realities and staging alternative ones. The conversation around gentrification in Marseille was already a charged one that only intensified with the large-scale development projects before and during 2013, Marseille’s “Cultural Capital” year. Locals felt pushed aside. Those in Le Panier felt this perhaps most intensely, as denizens of the neighborhood closest to the Old Port, the epicenter of tourism in Marseille where large cruise ships unload their tourists for a day for easy access to bouillabaisse and the mall for souvenirs. In engaging students, citizens, visitors, and local leaders in a broad discussion about changes to the Old Port, the production of Et Le Panier dans tout ça constituted an important continuation of Tabasco’s intervention in ongoing plans for urban renewal. The web doc stands as an online document of that process.
The challenge for activist groups, then, is to reimagine the shape and significance of the community envisioned by an online work. As Tabasco is well aware, it takes some measure of money and luck to obtain web visibility. Yet, the endeavor remains an important one: the creation of spaces of dissensu—on the ground and online—that can mutually inform and support ongoing community work. Tabasco Video aims to create platforms for democracy, with a commitment to recognizing community and democracy as fundamental messy, unruly, and local. Necessarily, the artistic forms supporting that democratic vision take shape differently online, but the most successfully and multi-dimensionally interactive forms will continue to engage visitors as co-creators of their online work and of their shared social experience.
Activist groups seeking new modes of online interaction must contend with the foundational dilemma of traditional activist documentarians: how to engage audiences and encourage what Jane Gaines calls political mimesis, how
“to align the viewer emotionally with a struggle that continues beyond the frame and into his or her real historical present” (93).
Interactive documentary represents a powerful new form, but one that multiplies and complicates possible frames of connection. Interactive documentarians must perhaps be even more creative in figuring out how to connect filmmakers and audiences to a larger struggle and to analytical frameworks outside the film (Gaines, Kaplan, and Lesage). The subjects, participants, and explorers of online documentary need to learn how to tell their own stories (that they can, how they can, where they can). Tabasco’s experience underscores the importance of attending to the life-cycle of the documentary, diffusing textual authority, mapping sites of critical intervention in social processes, and staging “fictions of the real,” as well as creating dynamic documentary forms that live online and in the streets. Developing these insights might help move participants and viewers between frames, to link multi-dimensional sites of reflection and action. A frame, in this sense, is more protean and labile than the fixed argument of a traditional documentary. As such, the multiple frames of interactive documentaries hold open the promise of political mimesis, of mobilizing bodies and producing affective connections.
New documentary forms, privy to techno-innovations can (though don’t automatically) open up new possibilities for collaborative authorship and offer new opportunities for connecting filmmakers, subjects, and users. For their next project, rather than a technological retreat, Tabasco Video is exploring the interactive properties of mobile technologies. Marseille: La Ville dont je suis le héros (The Hero of Marseille) will enact form of “choose your own adventure,” what the directors consider an “emotional journey” in Le Panier. Via a transmedia docu-fiction featuring audio-visual portraits of Marseille denizens, participants will be led through the city via GPS-activated narrative threads. The potential for connection, discovery, and exploration offered by technologies of “geolocalization” has motivated Tabasco to move quickly from interactive webdoc to locative i-docs.
There’s a certain euphoric, montage effect that accompanies the aimless urban walker. It is this immediate engagement with the social and built environment that attracts mobile media artists and perhaps promises to overcome limitations of “hitchhiking” web documentaries. In moving the sites of interaction from the laptop to everyday encounters in the urban landscape, mobile technology offers Tabasco a means to keep their activist media art grounded in a lived experience of Marseille, “inscribed in the territory,” which has always been a key element of their participative practice. Ultimately, perhaps Le Héros will achieve the “bi-directionality” that completes the loop between filmmaker, subjects, online document, and user/spectator and creates a meaningful afterlife for the interactive work. As Gaudenzi expresses it,
“[In]teractivity is a way to position ourselves in the world, to perceive it and to make sense of it…. [S]uch relation is bi-directional: we affect our environment while we are being affected by it” (70).
With Le Héros, Tabasco hopes to extend its artistic methods of political subjectivation not only its workshop participants but to its user/spectators at the other end of the production process, creating “the felt perception of reality by transforming the user into an embodied enactor” (Aston and Gaudenzi 135). Mobile technology suggests the possibility of mobilizing stronger affective ties to the neighborhoods and communities in which Tabasco has worked since its inception. It is these affective ties, as the crucial substrate of political subjectivity, that Tabasco has always aimed to forge, always ready to experiment with, perfect, or move beyond, technical-aesthetic means to do so.