Monday, March 24, 2014

Hollow Documentary as New Media and Procedural Rhetoric

Elaine McMillian’s Interactive Documentary experience, “Hollow Documentary”[1] is an interesting piece of transmedia storytelling.  With a large amount of give-and-take between visible traditional mediums (photographs and videos) and the invisible technological platforms that support and showcase them.  Together, and along with more interactive mediums like data-collection charts and graphs, they create an overall user-experience that shares some elements with the procedural rhetoric described by Ian Bogost.[2] 

The project certainly utilizes the new media logic described by Manovich[3], that it “privileges the existence of potentially numerous copies, infinitely large number of different states of the same work, author-user symbiosis (the user can change the work through interactivity), the collective, collaborative authorship, and network distribution (which bypasses the art system distribution channels.)”  Though it appears that by bypassing those very distribution channels the creator has found herself with an economic conundrum.  The site costs upwards of $700 each month to maintain, and too few people are willing to pay to access or support something that is, by nature of its platform, “free.”  This is a first sense in which McMillian’s project shares characteristics with Bogost’s examples of procedural rhetoric.  As the singular “author” of this piece, she fits his “concept of authorship incorporate[ing] another feature of art more broadly: the pursuit of a particular truth irrespective of the demands of reception or sales.”

Ultimately McMillian’s project is a intermediary example of new media, because so much of the content has been produced in traditional, more linear-fashion, and certainly with a near-minimum of technological involvement.  This is an example of Manovich’s description of “Human-computer interface com[ing] to act as a new form through which all older forms of cultural production are being mediated.”   Manovich seemed to lament that “Software is used in some areas of film production but not in others.  While some visuals may be created using computer animation, cinema [still] centers around the system of human stars whose salaries amount to a large percent of a film budget… the computer is kept out of the key “creative” decisions, and is delegated to the position of a technician.”  While the “stars” of this piece were not of the “large-percent of a film budget” variety, the footage filmed of and by them was still created using a minimum of technology and software.  This, along with the linear, unidirectional movement of the web-navigation of the Interactive Documentary both combine to limit the ways in which this project applies to a variety of definitions of new media.  However, Manovich allowed that “Both then and now, the filmmakers used new filmmaking technology to revolt against the existing cinema conventions that were perceived as being too artificial.  Both then and now, the key word of this revolt was the same: “immediacy.””  And “immediacy” is something this project capitalizes on profoundly.

This project cannot be perfectly applied to Bogost’s definitions of proceduralist rhetoric either, because while Bogost claims that “A proceduralist rhetoric makes a claim about how something works by modeling its processes in the process-native environment of the computer rather than using description (writing) or depiction (images),“  This project and its platform attempts to create a claim about how something works by creating an immersive experience that certainly requires the user’s navigation of the experience, but also relies heavily upon words, images, and an often-didactic style to set clearly defined parameters for the user’s interpretation of their experience.

Still, the project does succeed at a level of emulation of other of Bogost’s criteria, such as that “A proceduralist rhetoric does not argue a position but rather characterizes an idea.  These games say something about how an experience of the world works, how it feels to experience or to be subjected to some sort of situation.”  By creating a rather cultural-studies-centric platform giving voice to the under-represented communities of a “dying county,” this project attempted to make an “experience of the world” available for the exploration of its audience.  And it is certainly left up to a viewer to put all the pieces the documentary makes available together into a picture of a whole experience or reality, or social message.

In this sense the documentary succeeds at two more of Bogost’s criteria for Proceduralist rhetoric, that the “goal of the proceduralist designer is to cause the player to reflect on one or more themes during or after play, without a concern for resolution or effect,” and that “These games pose questions about life and simulate specific experiences in response, but those experiences rarely point players toward definitive answers.”  McMillian’s documentary hints at constructive efforts being made to vitalize these communities, but doesn’t pose any answers for the heavy overarching questions and problems she presents.  The impossibilities of unemployment and drug use are left for the viewer to wrestle with, and make sense of. Because there is not a single narrative, and no definitive “end” to the documentary project (they continue to collect photos, videos, tweets, and statistics on ancillary websites)[4], the platform itself renders an answer or resolution or “ending” impossible.

While it might have been more applicable had the platform allowed for more difference in individual user experience with this text, this is certainly an artifact that engages with its audience in a manner Bogost would attribute to Art, and ultimately to Proceduralist Games.  Despite the fact that scrolling through this documentary provides essentially the same experience for every viewer (with only the option to click or not click on the hyperlinks that pass through in a set order), it is a text that requires engagement and invites change in its audience.  “Art has done many things in human history, but in the last century especially, it has primarily tried to bother and provoke us.  To force us to see things differently.  Art changes.  Its very purpose, we might say, is to change, and to change us along with it.”

[2] Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
[3] Manovich, Lev. "New Media from Borges to HTML." The New Media Reader. Comp. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003. N. pag. Print.

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