2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
There goes the neighborhood: Tabasco Video’s multi-platform
media strategies against gentrification
Et Le Panier dans tout ça?
Marseille is France’s second most populous city, known for its diversity as well as its history of urban mismanagement and corruption made famous in fiction as old as The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) and as contemporary as the Netflix suspense series, Marseille (2016). Of course, Marseille’s pop cultural notoriety obscures a complex social make-up. As one of France’s most important port cities, Marseille has seen strong patterns of immigration, current and historic. Le Panier, the oldest neighborhood in Marseille, offers a window onto the diversity and character of the city as whole. In WWII, the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators declared Le Panier a hotbed of criminal activity, crimes understood to be both racial and political and squarely in support of the Resistance. In January 1943, the city’s Vichy regime evacuated Le Panier, deported almost 800 of its Jewish inhabitants, and bombed the section of Le Panier closest to the Old Port. Despite these efforts, the portion of Le Panier that was spared now attracts tourists with the quaint, labyrinthine streets that once sheltered resistance fighters. To this day, the neighborhood remains a diverse, working class neighborhood with a strong left-leaning and union-activist population, and, unfortunately, an unemployment rate that is almost three times the national average.
In 1995, Le Panier and neighboring Rue de la République were targeted for a colossal urban renewal project, Euroméditerranée, meant to make the neighborhood more livable, more sustainable, and more amenable to commercial and touristic development. As outlined in its mission statement, the goal of Euroméditerranée has been to “acceler[ate] the process of making Marseille an attractive and influential city between Europe and the Mediterranean.” Billed originally as the largest urban renewal project in Europe, Euroméditerranée has meant a massive infusion of private and public funds for Marseille. Yet it also represents a model of development aimed at raising tourist revenue and creating urban dwellers with more taxable income than Le Panier’s long-term residents (Rescan). Amid official assurances that Euroméditerranée would benefit locals, residents of the Le Panier felt left without recourse or a voice.
Tabasco Video entered this field in 1999, a field marked by the increasing privatization of both public airwaves and urban spaces. Situated in Le Panier, Tabasco is a community video group committed to creating alternative channels of communication and creative expression. This article examines the participative practices of Tabasco video as they move from video workshops and creative community distribution to web-based practices. How well are efforts to create meaningful social interaction supported by new interactive technologies and art forms? Via an analysis of Et Le Panier dans tout ça (And Le Panier in all that?, 2015), the group’s first foray into web documentary, we will consider how effectively the group has translated and transposed its carefully crafted ethos of “participative television” to the web.
Since its inception, Tabasco’s brand of participative television has brought filmmaking and instantaneous exhibition to the streets of Le Panier. The foundational goal of participative television is to bring community members into dialogue—intergenerationally and interculturally. In so doing, Tabasco displays its roots in the neighborhood video movement in France (The Federation of regional and neighborhood video groups, La Féderation des vidéos des pays et des quartiers or VDPQ for short). The Federation of VDPQ itself emerged in 1989 from a felt need for local networks for the exchange of information and experience. Federation Coordinator, Thierry Michel recounts that the public television network, France 3, wouldn’t take videos from local groups. In response, local producers, who had trouble finding distributors banded together and founded the federation, which mobilized social “animators” (local activists and social workers), television, and video makers in the production of community media. Thus, the movement parallels the U.S. community cable-access television movement but with funding coming from local public sectors, both municipal and regional sources. Tabasco, too, hoped to intervene at the local level, but always with an emphasis on process and “product.” Their mode of participative television is fundamentally activist and local, “inscribed in the territory,” as they put it. Yet rather than opposing politics to aesthetics, their method mobilizes the social force of local representation (“voice”) by fostering attractive, collaboratively-produced media and effectively distributing it locally.
In this sense, their model of community video creates forms of “living documentary” (Gaudenzi, “Living Documentaries”) that conscript old and new media into local transformation and the production of new social relations. Sandra Gaudenzi, in her original work defining interactive, “living documentary” resists fetishizing the medium as the motor of social change:
“Living Documentaries are not the simple evolution of linear documentaries through digital technology. Digitality is fundamental, but not enough. Their liveness and adaptivity is what permits them to change; it gives them a transformational power” (“Living Documentaries” 16-17).
Thus, Tabasco’s sense of interactivity pushes past the function of community media centers as sites for technical training alone. Tabasco views media interactivity and participation “’as a condition of being’ rather than just ‘delivery mechanism’” as the group aims to affect change by enacting meaningful forms of participation from pre-production to exhibition (Gaudenzi, “The Living Documentary” 29). Tabasco’s participative television practice, particularly in its move to the web, imagines that community media can be artistic, politically relevant, and socially effective – on the ground and online. In their own words, their aim is “to weave ties by means of video as an expressive tool.”
To be meaningful, their conception of participation requires the production of media art that effects social transformation by inviting constant participation in the conception, creation, and distribution of the work. Each moment in the creative process holds out the potential for building community, creating social ties, and informing.
Seen in this light, participative television already contains a model of “interaction” in its philosophy, particularly if both interactivity and participation are always understood as social, creative, and technical. Yet, as many activist artists stress, real interactivity is always promise and a challenge. Interactive documentary scholar, Kate Nash draws attention to the fact that what we mean by interactivity is multivalent:
“interactivity as a feature of technology; interactivity as a communicative dynamic; and interactivity as a kind of participant experience” (Nash 53).
In the specific context of Le Panier, for Tabasco, this has always meant merging these three senses of interactivity by creating media that help community members intervene in the processes of development and gentrification overtaking the neighborhood. For Tabasco, meaningfully participative television keeps the life cycle of media in mind, from process to product, from the social work of producing media to the social work of enjoying, consuming, and distributing it. Interactive media seems to hold out the promise of intensifying the relational dimensions of community media, offering, perhaps, a richer “afterlife” to the community media process and media product. In this sense, a notion of relational media echoes Latour’s actor-network-theory and enriches the model of collaboration that we understand to be at the heart of community media.
As used by scholars of interactive media, relationality signals modes of interaction between media works (circulating DVD’s, webdocs), processes (making media together), institutions (community media associations, distribution networks), and people (producers, trainees, and audiences). The quality and longevity of the relations knitted together by collaborative, local production matter deeply to community video groups. To keep that ethos alive, the technical interactivity offered by webdocs must constitute something more than a limited set of commands for how to interact with a website. Nash notes that in interactive works, often users are “compelled” by the design of the site to relate to the information in prescribed ways: where to click, how to scroll, which personal information to enter (50-60). To enact more meaningfully interactive and participative forms, then, means seeking media processes and aesthetic forms that foster open-ended and ongoing communication across online and social contexts.
A review of Tabasco’s historical engagement in Le Panier will illuminate Tabasco’s relational practice. Before the turn to web interactivity, the group’s method of participative television consisted of three central modes of interaction with residents of Le Panier, 100 Paroles (100 Words, video interviews and debates on the streets of Le Panier), video production workshops, and C’est pas joli, joli (Not a Pretty Picture, 2008-2010), a locally-produced soap opera.
100 Paroles was a multi-topic project for which residents conducted video interviews with other residents about issues of local concern: employment, housing, health, immigration, gentrification, current events (from the local to the national), in addition to “man on the street” reportage (micro-trottoir/spontaneous sidewalk-microphone interviews), or more formal documentaries. Neighbors were convened in the street, at local businesses and often engaged in pleasant on-camera debate (solo or in groups). Élodie Sylvain, director and then development officer for Tabasco, described the essential character of 100 Paroles:
“[It is]totally open. Interviewees can speak about whatever they want. They can reminisce about dead friends, contemporary politics, anything, right wing, leftwing, personal stuff, and the weather. We do not direct people. The point is to get them to express themselves, nothing more.”
In all these endeavors, Tabasco worked from its deep roots in the community, via social service organizations, women’s centers, cultural groups, schools, and prisons to make sure that the largest cross-section of neighborhood residents has the opportunity to discover production.
Tabasco Video members are proud to have trained many local residents—of varying ages and education levels—encouraging them to go out into the street and interview other residents and, in the process, giving residents who might never have spoken the context to do so. Tabasco also took their project, 100 Paroles, to the corner bar, a strategy that found people where they were comfortable socializing and debating politics, and one which, at the same time, actually reanimated neighborhood cultural life. Their modus operandi rests on the principal that community expression and debate, whatever the topic, work against forces of gentrification by strengthening ties and local awareness.
Video production workshops
Tabasco carefully designs its video workshops to ensure that participants choose the topics and guide the forms of expression. The workshops have produced straightforward documentaries, news style interviewing and reportage. On occasion, participants have imitated familiar televisual genres, like cooking shows, “Tabasco Invites Itself into Your Kitchen,” charting what locals are eating and how they make their food (a favorite topic in French Culture), as well as other popular forms, including rap and music videos, as well as mock promotional videos for local events (including a lively musical promotional video for the Sardine Festival, a celebration of Mediterranean cuisine and industry).
Exhibition and distribution
In addition to open-air projection and community screenings, Tabasco has been very inventive about forms of exhibition to maximize audience reach and to continue the conversations in all corners of the neighborhood. Older community media groups often emphasized the process of learning and making media together over the quality of the final work. Rapidly improving video quality has aided Tabasco in enhancing the creative success of the final work. Productions are edited in workshop and then literally pushed back out on the street via the “Télé-Poussette,” (or Tele-Stroller) a baby carriage outfitted with a monitor.
The télé-poussette represents an elegantly simple solution to the age-old problem of community media: the videos produced seldom have much of an after-life and there are few venues for distribution. Tabasco’s télé-poussette re-embeds the videos in the communities that produced them, providing occasions for instant debate and appreciation and a particularly mobile form of distribution.
Collective viewing, as well, holds a central place in the group’s method. Tabasco maintains a lively website, http://www.tabascovideo.com/, that serves as both forum and archive for the community productions. Tabasco also organizes télé-plateaux (television sets), which typically feature live debates engaging both the opinions and newly-formed production expertise of workshop participants. Sylvain recounts the pride of three Le Panier residents, older Algerian women, Zara, Kadijda, and Fatna, who had never touched video equipment before. They were approached by Tabasco at a neighborhood social center (Centre Social Baussenque) and began one of Tabasco’s training workshops. As Sylvain recounts, the process of filming drew the women into places they had previously felt were closed to them, for example, a bakery that the women had assumed was “just for tourists.” The interview process gave the women and the shop owner a chance to get to know each other over pastry.
In addition to facilitating this kind of fundamental social interaction, the télé-plateaux provide the occasion for participants to demonstrate their technical expertise. At a June 2009 debate, by then veterans of the production workshops, Zara, Kadijda, and Fatna, volunteered on set (as interviewees and technical staff). Describing the social and personal power of technical training, a Tabasco intern on set that day noted,
“There’s a certain pride for these women to be here…. It’s also social to appear on a TV set, to be on camera. People look at you differently. Fatna was afraid to jump in, at first. I had to stay closer to her. But in the end, she did it and she did it on her own. It’s a powerful form of emancipation” (Michel 5).
Along with technical competence, the quality of the aesthetic works instill pride in their producers each time they are performed and rebroadcast. This is especially the case for some of Tabasco’s younger trainees, who have written and performed their own music. Tabasco’s websites, live events, and partnerships have created venues for the performance or re-broadcasting of rap songs created via workshops, re-inscribing collective creation in community life via local festivals and street fairs. While remaining local in scope, all of these initiatives have the effect of valorizing the works created, building confidence in their producers, and, at the same time, creating new occasions for conversation and socializing.
In many of its workshops, the Tabasco team has emphasized reportage, documentary, dialogue and debate. Nonetheless, the group readily follows its workshop participants in the styles and content that speak most readily to them, from the music videos, and rap mentioned above, to political parody and fiction. For its largest and most ambitious project, Tabasco orchestrated the production of a neighborhood soap opera, C’est pas joli joli (Not a Pretty Picture), which brought together a cast of 40, including fishermen, taxi drivers, politicians, merchants, school children, and workers to write, direct, and act in a three-part soap opera. Tabasco conceived C’est pas joli, joli in response to Plus belle la vie, a torrid, nationally-broadcast soap opera that uses Marseille as mere backdrop. In contrast, C’est pas joli joli constituted a playful, locally-produced rejoinder that not only reflected the ethnic and economic realities of Le Panier and Marseille, but also served as a stinging critique of the destructive politics of gentrification that have plagued the city for over a decade.
For Tabasco, community engaged docu-fiction offers a valuable political aesthetic. Database Documentary artist, Sharon Daniel holds that fictional forms, particularly the interactive fiction of database and online documentaries, are imaginative and collective means of “staging reality” and, in the process, “enabling political subjectivation” (Daniel 217). Tabasco’s model conceives of video training and production as facilitating social and political subjectivation in this manner. Put simply, all aspects of media production are treated as thoroughly social processes. In brainstorming and creating together, workshop participants draw from and recognize their shared experiences and identify ways in which they can intervene in shaping their worlds, much in the vein of Pablo Freire’s Theater of the Oppressed. By writing, acting, and directing fiction together, by “re-imagining and reconstructing the ‘fictions of the real,’” they “stage” the democratic forms in which they would like to participate. For artists seeking rich notions of relational and interactive documentary, the challenge for web doc, then, is to transpose this political aesthetic to online forms.
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.” 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.
1. In French cinema, Marseille also features in Hungarian painter and photographer, László Moholy-Nagy’s first film, Marseille Vieux Port (1929), Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936), as well as Denis Gheerbrant’s epic, seven-part documentary, La République Française (2009), which also addresses neighborhoods affected by the urban renewal plans discussed below.
2. See Euroméditerranée’s webpage for a longer history and description of the urban renewal plan, now characterized as the “largest urban renewal project in southern Europe” (Euroméditerranée). http://www.euromediterranee.fr/districts/introduction.html?L=1
3. According to EuroMéditerranée, public sources of funding include the European Union, the French State, the Region (Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur), the Department (Bouches-du-Rhone), the City of Marseille, and the larger metropolitan area. Euroméditerranée estimates that some 7 billion euros will be spent by the end of the project with the lion’s share of that funding coming from private sources and with half of that having been spent on phase one (1995-2007). Euroméditerranée 2 began in 2007.
4. In a 2015 article on the continuing gentrification of Marseille, geographer, Elisabeth Dorier estimates that “in 2012 fewer than 60% of Marseille households were taxed on their income” (qtd. in Rescan).
5. Over the long decades of the Euroméditerranée project, neighborhood residents described a host of tactics aimed at forcing out low-income renters since the inception of Euroméditerranée. Some of these, documented by the local organization, “A Downtown for Everyone,” have been informal and small-scale, with corrupt landlords pushing current tenants out in the hopes of increasing rents. In Le Panier, residents complain of rising rents, a secondary consequence of the increase in tourism around the revitalized Old Port (Rescan 2015 and Tabasco).
6. Comments translated from an interview with the author on February 26, 2010 at the Federation of VDPQ’s headquarters in Aix-en-Provence, France.
7. Unlike U.S. cable-access, airtime is not offered via private cable networks, nor via national or regional TV channels, as with Michel’s example of France 3. France 3, a regional network that pays more attention to local issues than national or private channels would, still seemed to shy away from material deemed confrontational or “amateurish,” in Michel’s estimation, a factor that fueled the development of VDPQ. And local sources of funding (regional, departmental, and municipal) constitute 60% of VDPQ’s funding (as opposed to federal sources). Today, VDPQ comprises 28 member groups across 13 regions, producing some 300 hours of programming (see www.vdpq.org).
8. For a variety of interpretations of relationality along these lines, see, in particular, the chapters by Kate Nash, Jon Dovey, and Adrian Miles in New Documentary Ecologies. In her dissertation on interactive documentaries, Sandra Gaudenzi argues, “Behind every type of interactivity lies an assumption of our power to intervene in/with what is around us. When the interactor can just explore, and choose within a closed number of pre-determined options, the assumption is that our world is pre-determined, although full of options, and that our power lies in choosing our path, not in creating or changing such world” (Gaudenzi. “Living Documentaries” 53).
9. Translated from the French. Interview with Benoit Ferrier (Project Lead and Filmmaker) and Élodie Sylvain (Development Officer and filmmaker), 27 January 2010 at Tabasco’s headquarters in Le Panier. I accompanied Tabasco on a couple of filming sessions for 100 Paroles in 2010. In one installment at the Bar des 13 Coins (The 13 Corners Bar) in Le Panier on 12 February 2010, the filmmakers invited anyone in the bar to comment on the front-page issues of the week, which ranged from neighborhood kids having been held overnight in their pajamas at the local police station, to whether recent comments made by a French Socialist Party member were racist. The responses, recorded on camera, were candid and varied.
10. Daniel’s full formulation of this political aesthetic quotes Rancière at length: “The configurations and constructions that database documentary, as an art practice that facilitates political subjectivation, […] constitute a field of intervention that maps directly onto and into ‘politics’, re-imagining and reconstructing the ‘fictions’ of the real. Such acts of subjectivation attempt to undo the status quo and implement the only universal in politics: we are all equal’ (Rancière 2007: 86)” (Daniel 226).
11. The European Cultural Capital program, initiated in 1985, is likewise a development project with culture as its subject. Cultural Capital years are often situated in less prominent cities of a nation, for example Kosice, Slovakia which was also selected as a Cultural Capital in 2013. The European Commission promotes the project in this manner: “The idea is to put cities at the heart of cultural life across Europe. Through culture and art, European Capitals of Culture improve the quality of life in these cities and strengthen their sense of community. Citizens can take part in the year-long activities and play a bigger role in their city’s development and cultural expression. Being a European Capital of Culture brings fresh life to these cities, boosting their cultural, social and economic development. Many of them, like Lille, Glasgow and Essen, have demonstrated that the title can be a great opportunity to regenerate their urban centres, bringing creativity, visitors and international recognition.” https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/creative-europe/sites/creative-europe/files/library/ecoc-fact-sheet_en.pdf
12. Comments here are translated from French from online and in-person conversations with Nicolas Dupont and other Tabasco members between the summers of 2014 and 2016.
13. See Craig Hight in New Documentary Ecologies on software editing tools and the ways in which they can “serve, shape and constrain the development” of documentary forms, among others (219).
14. In a recent conversation, 12 May 2016, Dupont clarified that it makes more sense to rely on coders, who specialize in the specific needs of each project. The technical demands of making good, web-based works, then, requires a certain level of expertise. To his mind, the students’ work—their overall process and contribution in the form of interviews, videos, and photographs—ended up being valorized by the quality of the online product. I realized in this conversation that I was perhaps placing too much value on the teaching of post-production skills. In this case, that would have meant training in web and interaction design, training that would have been time consuming and not necessarily socially engaging. Dupont also pointed out that each online project presents different technical needs and challenges and that’s the design work and programming required for one project aren’t necessarily applicable to the next.
15. This moment remains, for Dupont, the crowning achievement of the project. In May 2016, Dupont reiterated to me that more important than the online document, for him, is the fact that the students created the documentary together and took pride in seeing it screened publically at a cultural venue as significant as Villa Med.
16. In our conversation of 12 May 2016, Dupont was less concerned about the fixed nature of the final product than the fact that the online documentary had received very few visitors. “Without a lot of financial support, it’s impossible to get significant web distribution.”
17. See note 2.
18. These lessons include the importance of effective production, distribution, and exhibition techniques in the current documentary eco-system, as Elizabeth Coffman illustrates: “Gershon and Malitsky emphasize the importance of the question of circulation within networks for documentary studies—circulation in terms of the exchange of information, locating how the film arrives at certain facts or evidence; circulation in terms of funds for financing; and circulation of media as connected to a documentary project’s exhibition/distribution history. How and why these elements circulate will help to explain the finished film, its political mimetic procedures and its impact” (114).
Almeida, Andre and Heitor Alvelos. “An Interactive Documentary Manifesto.” Interactive Storytelling special issue of Lecture Notes in Computer Science 6432 (2010): 123-128.
Aston, Judith, and Sandra Gaudenzi. "Interactive Documentary: Setting the Field." Studies in Documentary Film 6.2 (2012): 125-39.
Coffman, Elizabeth. “Spinning a Collaborative Web: Documentary Projects in the Digital Arena.” New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses. Eds. Kate Nash, Craig Hight, and Catherine Summerhayes. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2014. 129-148.
Daniel, Sharon. “On Politics and Aesthetics: A Case Study of Public Secrets and Blood Sugar.” Studies in Documentary Film 6.2 (2012): 215-226.
Euroméditerranée. “Presentation of the Euroméditerranée Project.” http://www.euromediterranee.fr/quartiers/presentation.html
Gaines, Jane. “Political Mimesis.” Collecting Visible Evidence. Eds. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 84-102.
Gaudenzi, Sandra. “The Living Documentary: from representing reality to co-creating reality in digital interactive documentary.” Diss. University of Goldsmiths, 2013.
Gaudenzi, Sandra. “Strategies of Participation: The Who, What and When of Collaborative Documentaries.” New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses. Eds. Kate Nash, Craig Hight, and Catherine Summerhayes. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2014: 129-153.
Hight, Craig. “Shoot, Edit, Share: Cultural Software and User-Generated Documentary Practice.” New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses. Eds. Kate Nash, Craig Hight, and Catherine Summerhayes. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2014. 219-236.
Kaplan, E. Ann. “Theories and Strategies of the Feminist Documentary Film.” New Challenges for Documentary. Ed. Alan Rosenthal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. 78-104.
Lesage, Julia. “The Political Aesthetics of the Feminist Documentary Film.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3.4 (1978): 507-513.
Michel, Thierry. “Plateau TV participative à Tabasco Vidéo Marseille.” La Lettre de VDPQ (VDPQ Newsletter). Juillet 2009: 5.
Miles, Adrian. “Seven Small Propositions that Fall, Autumnally, Upon Interactive Documentary.”New Factual Storytelling. University of Canberra. DocLab, Canberra, Australia. April 2015.
Nash, Kate. “Clicking on the World: Documentary Representation and Interactivity.” New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses. Kate Nash, Craig Hight, and Catherine Summerhayes (eds). Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2014: 50-66.
Rescan, Manon. “In Marseille, Downtown Still Resists Gentrification.” (“A Marseille, le centre-ville résiste toujours à la gentrification.”) Le Monde.fr. 16 June 2015. http://www.lemonde.fr/logement/article/2015/06/11/a-marseille-le-centre-ville-resiste-toujours-a-la-gentrification_4652108_1653445.html
Scott-Stevenson, Julia. “The interactive documentary in a cross-platform, community context.” Expanding Documentary 2011: Conference Proceedings. 1.2 (2011): 181-188.
Tabasco Video. Et Le Panier dans tout ça. Tabasco Video: Marseille, 2014. Web. 1 Oct. 2015. http://www.lepanierdanstoutca.tabascovideo.com/