Toward a Theory of Participatory New Media Documentary
By Patricia R. Zimmermann
[Ed. note: This “Dossier on Collaborative Documentary Practice: Histories, Theories, Practices” will be posted on Afterimage Online in three parts, beginning May 15 with the Introduction and Essay One, followed by Essay Two on May 22, and Essays Three and Essay Four in June.]
Dedicated to John Hess (1939–2015), who, with Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage, founded the collective that has produced Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media for over four decades.
- Disclaimer and Warning
Disclaimer: I will not present a manifesto on participatory new media documentary. A manifesto renders resolutions and claims, whereas in this essay I prefer to offer a looser, less hortatory form that opens up inquiry into an important and vital area of documentary that is dynamic and still rather unresolved.
This unresolved, still-forming new territory excites me. But its vastness, global reach, complexity, and technological affordances also intimidate.
My argument is simple. A diverse documentary ecology thrives beyond the character-driven, narrative arc, genre-infused feature film, the heavily resourced interactive documentary, and the documentary infusion in galleries. We are living in one of the most exciting periods of documentary, as evidenced by the increased attention it is receiving in the biennales globally. More importantly, the face of documentary is changing as the Anthropocene turn, the digital turn, the participatory turn, and the postcolonial turn churn up our theories and histories.
Amid these developments, the ideas previously known as theories and the practices previously known as production have been dropped into a Cuisinart and blended, such that the old definitions and distinctions are no longer discernible. Therefore, I offer a tentative, modest, provisional argument in favor of collaborative, extended time frame, local, modestly resourced, small scale, and sustainable projects often ignored by festivals, museums, new media artist convenings, and scholars.
Warning: This paper invokes the utopian—an imaginary, unresolved realm of participatory new media collaborative documentary built on collectivity, engagement, politics, and process. And yes, it is idealized, fanaticized, and romanticized—but it can expand our arsenal.
A traffic jam of new technologies, affordances, and political challenges compel us to reexamine documentary. As theorist Okwui Enwezor observes, “Artistic and intellectual collectives tend to emerge during moments of crisis.”1 Clearly, now is one of those moments.
- Histories: incomplete, fragmented, and crooked stories
No longer a fixed object, documentary is moving to iterative, shape-shifting forms. With multiple screens and transmedia structures, documentary continues a parallel history that displaces the auteur and the concomitant strategies of character development and story arcs. These parallel histories recalibrate documentary with a more place-based, political practice of collaboration, collectivity, and community. They tell what postcolonial historiographers call crooked stories: incomplete, fragmented, and without resolution.
Participatory new media documentary exists within a dialectic of new and old. Let me share some navigational and historical signposts. Nanook of the North (1922, by Robert Flaherty) can be read as a collaborative project. Flaherty worked with the Inuit who provided input, film developing, feedback, and food, a position elaborated by David MacDougall in Transcultural Cinema (1998).
In the 1920s, Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s group called the Kinoks provided another example of collective political practice, as film historians Joshua Malitsky and Yuri Tsivian have argued. In the 1930s, Workers’ Film and Photo Leagues in the United States and elsewhere chronicled labor unrest that had been rendered invisible by news blackouts, according to Russell Campbell. Finally, 1960s Latin American Third Cinema practices constitute another progenitor for participatory and collaborative new media.
New media collaborative documentary is also linked to community media in organizations like Challenge for Change (Canada), elaborated by Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton, and Michael Brendan Baker in their Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada (2010); in film collectives like Newsreel as researched by Bill Nichols; as well as both Appalshop (US), and Kartemquin Films (US) in the 1970s. The Black Audio Film Collective (in the United Kingdom) in the 1980s and ’90s threaded together collective practice, interventionist representation, and postcolonial histories, as Reece Auguiste has shown. In the 1980s, community-based video initiatives like ACT UP, Guerilla Girls, Paper Tiger Television, and Scribe Video, all US based, appeared. Indigenous-generated Video in the Villages (Brazil) and other First Nations initiatives told stories from communities often ignored by long-form features or television documentaries. Colectivo Cine Ojo (Chile) and Sistema Radio Venceremos (El Salvador) elaborated influential practices of collective production.
In the 1990s, anti-globalization movements propelled collective practices, with indymedia.org and Big Noise Films (US) aggregating media, as well as WITNESS, an NGO mobilizing the power of cameras and communities for advocacy. By the late 1990s, the international digital storytelling movement of user-generated stories confronting social issues, identity, or trauma extended participatory practices. For example, StoryCenter, formerly known as the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, has worked with organizations and people across the globe to share stories of trauma, personal history, and social issues.
In the 2000s, collaborative practices multiplied. They constitute an important subset of i-Docs; they define distributed social media in anti-regime actions in Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, Egypt, Hong Kong, Iran, and Tunisia; and they inform global citizen journalism. These histories of community-based, collective documentary practices revolve on cooperative praxis, crooked stories, and the value of iterative use. Decentering the artisan, the auteur, and the text, participatory new media projects continue these historical trajectories.
- Theories: Micro, Migratory, Multiple
Participatory new media projects are defined by a rejection of hierarchy in favor of horizontal, place-based production. These projects emphasize continual recalibrations and process. They often operate in a non-confrontational modality, creating space for multiple dialogues on conflictual issues rather than a singular, deductive exposition. Their political argument resides in their design, a mosaic model as advanced by participatory media pioneer Helen De Michiel.
These collaborative new media projects engage conflictual, unresolved politics at the microlevel as supplements to larger-scale political struggles. They open dialogic spaces built from multiplicities that environmental, political, and social conflicts sometimes overshadow. Deploying a migratory strategy across many interfaces, these projects traverse the analog, the digital, and the embodied.
Recent scholarship has analyzed a new transmedia ecology where media travel across film, gaming, product tie-ins, and social media. Through long-tail marketing and affective consumer relationships with corporate-produced storyworlds, this transnational sector expands media product shelf life. For media scholar Henry Jenkins, this multi-platformed media universe depends on participatory audience engagement through appropriation, fan culture, remixing, sharing, and user-generation. Jenkins calls this “spreadable media.”
Art historians Claire Bishop and Grant Kester offer a different notion of participation as mobilized collective encounters in socially engaged community arts practices. In the last decade, participatory relational aesthetics informed the design of projects to instigate collective action around contradictory, unresolved issues such as democracy, the environment, and housing. These dialogic practices mobilize embodied encounters, interdisciplinarity, and materiality. They are place-based rather than abstract, involving participants from different social sectors.
Participatory new media documentary operates within a more porous, open structure that I call “permeable media.” Permeable media instigates engagements with the social and the political. These small-scale new media participatory documentary practices permeate into and through commercial media, communities, governments, and nongovernmental organizations. Rather than promulgating audience entrapment in corporate storyworlds, permeable media practices operate on the micro level, activating mutation and story mosaics, and infusing different institutional locations and platforms. De Michiel’s Lunch Love Community project, for example, aggregates twelve different short videos about healthy food in public schools, assembled in a mosaic on the project’s website. They can be programmed in different combinations depending on the location and the audience.
In permeable media, infiltration and seepage replace confrontation and binaries. These transitory public spaces are not Jürgen Habermas’s idealized public sphere, but the dynamic places of geographer Tim Cresswell, where people and an environment create meaning at the nexus of intersecting flows. Permeable new media produce convenings and microcommunities, a generative process with multiple foci and tactics.
Megan McLagan and Yates McKee, in their book Sensible Politics: The Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism (2012), reject political media as static objects of representation and deconstruction. Instead, they argue for the “processual aspects” of the activist imaginary, defined by networks of affordances, circulation across proliferating platforms, distribution, exhibition, material sites, and production. McLagan and McKee term this nexus “image complexes.” The participatory new media documentary image complex entails communities, contexts, the micro, the mobility of images, permeability, and place.
- Case Studies
EngageMedia (www.engagemedia.org) is an environmental and human rights social media portal and collaborative project engaging the Asia Pacific region. It features heterogeneous short videos produced for activism and advocacy (including some produced by youth activists); amateur user-generated and experimental videos; nongovernmental organization (NGO) training pieces; professionally produced news; and public health videos. EngageMedia negotiates specifically Indonesian contradictions between accessible consumer-grade media technologies, highly regulated commercial media, and social media openings. The need for the distribution of works produced across Indonesia developed out of anti-Suharto oppositional politics during Reformasi in the late 1990s.
EngageMedia exemplifies collaborative, malleable, migratory, and permeable new media. As a portal, it aggregates user-generated social media content about Asian Pacific environmental and social justice issues. Dubbed the “YouTube for Asian Activists,” EngageMedia assembles countries, genres, and topics to map the underside of the massive economic development redefining the Asia Pacific. EngageMedia focuses not on the national but on connections between microterritories as transnational.
EngageMedia’s Migrant Worker Stories exemplifies a collaborative image complex. Testimonies are gathered in short, shareable videos produced by migrants and circulated through transnational labor networks. The International Labor Organization of the United Nations estimates that over 4.3 million Indonesians are overseas migrants in the Middle East and Asia. Seventy-five percent are women domestic workers. To counter Indonesian government official migrant narratives, EngageMedia initiated the Migrant Worker Stories project in 2012. They collaborated with migrant worker advocacy organizations in Indonesia and Malaysia, launching capacity-building workshops in Kuala Lumpur and West Java to train migrants to tell their own stories with cheap video and mobile phones. EngageMedia also collaborated with Citizen Journalists Malaysia, an initiative from Malaysiakini, a highly successful alternative news website countering government and corporate news monopolies.
Operating not only as a video aggregator but also as a partnership and organizational aggregator, EngageMedia counters the state-focused hegemony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional, state-focused trade hegemony.
On the other side of the world is the Quipu Project in Peru (https://interactive.quipu-project.com), a migratory participatory new media project traversing the analog, digital, and embodied. It addresses an unresolved political conflict in Peru: the forced sterilization of rural Quecha-speaking women in the 1990s under President Fujimori.
This project aggregates the voices of indigenous women in remote villages without access to the internet, creating a testimonial archive for political action and justice. To protect the women’s anonymity and to work around the lack of digital capacity, the designers set up a toll-free telephone number. Women were given mobile phones to tell their stories anonymously via a phone call.
The project collects the stories on a website, protecting the women’s anonymity. The project operates with the participation of the women, reached through small gatherings in collaboration with Amnesty International and local women’s groups. It depends on a collaboration across outside organizations and rural women’s communities. Through stories shared via phone, the project generates a testimonial cartography.
The project aggregates testimonies rather than identities. The stories become mobilizing agents, impelling more meetings of women and political demonstrations. The project is based on the quipo, an Andean circular necklace constructed of cotton or camelid fiber strands knotted into a circle. Also called talking knots, they were record-keeping devices. The quipo functions as a metaphor for the participatory process. It structures the project design across analog, digital, and embodied forms of engagement, creating a circulation of gatherings, stories, and women.
In Fall 2013, after Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych rejected joining the European Union, citizens protested, and the Maidan Revolution commenced. In what was referred to as the Revolution of Dignity, an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 took to the streets of Kyiv and occupied Maidan Square to protest the EU decision and government corruption and to advocate for civil society. International news organizations converged in Kyiv, covering the spectacle of mass demonstrations, occupations, and shootings in which one hundred people were killed. Documentary film directors of Ukrainian heritage also arrived, producing epic, feature-length films such as Maidan (2014) by Sergey Loznitsa, and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) by Evgeny Afineevsky. Ukrainian activist filmmakers criticized these films and also the international news coverage for their focus on spectacles of burnings, massive demonstrations, street actions, shootings, and violence, to the exclusion of the issues that generated dissent and to the smaller, less grand actions of everyday people.
During the Maidan Revolution, the Babylon ’13 collective (https://vimeo.com/babylon13) emerged to counter these representations with localized, on-the-ground stories, showing daily activities like cooking and conversation. The Babylon ’13 filmmakers first gathered in December of 2013 in the basement café of a famous Soviet-built cinema. The one hundred filmmakers of the Babylon ’13 collective reflect a wide range of ages and technical acumen, from professionals to amateurs, from broadcast TV reporters to beginners with mobile phones. A famous 1929 soviet film about the 1871 Paris Commune (The New Babylon, directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg) inspired the name. The number 13 was derived from the year of the Maidan Revolution. The Babylon ’13 Collective produced their videos specifically for sharing among activists across Ukraine, a micro-archive generated from the ground up. These short videos countered the Russian propaganda which argued that arguing that CIA and US government operatives instigated the Maidan. The videos were designed for sharing on Facebook, a platform used more frequently than email in Ukraine, rather than for festival screenings or television broadcast.
The works of Babylon ’13 are not signed. Many, but not all, have English subtitles. Posted on the Babylon ’13 YouTube channel, these shorts document the Maidan, with its diversity of ages and classes, elaborating a more complex portrait than is seen on international news. After the Maidan ended in February 2014, fighting broke out in the Eastern region of Donbass, a predominantly Russian-speaking area that sought independence, with indirect Russian support. Subsequently, Russia occupied Crimea. Babylon ’13 filmmakers covered Donbass and Crimea. They chronicled soldiers’ stories about the crowd-sourced war, where citizens donate money and food, and about the more than one million internally displaced people. They explored environmental destruction in Ukraine linked to corruption by oligarchs, entrepreneurs who emerged in the post-Soviet period of privatization of state-owned assets with political and economic influence. Babylon ’13’s urgent, anonymous short-form micro-documentaries map occupation, political transition, and war from multiple viewpoints, a participatory new cartography.
Conclusion: Some Strategies of Participatory and Collaborative New Media Documentary
- Collaboration among filmmakers and subjects
- Engagement with communities and individuals
- Making Place to counter dematerialization and nationalist narratives
- Micro perspectives: small, localized, focused
- Multiple participants and viewpoints
- New Cartographies of media environments
- Participation including producers, performers, and audiences
- Permeable discourses including input from anywhere at any stage of production
- Unresolved conflicts maintaining multiple perspectives in a mosaic structure
PATRICIA R. ZIMMERMANN is professor of screen studies at Ithaca College, co-director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (www.ithaca.edu/fleff), and author of many books on documentary.
NOTE 1. Okwui Enwezor, “Coalition Building: Black Audio Film Collective and Transnational Post-Colonialism,” in The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982-1998, edited by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of the Otolith Group (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 122.