Friday, January 12, 2007

Click and Flick: Storytelling on the Web

The recent discussion of Robt Hood and Ed Kashi’s Flipbook film on Lightstalkers provoked some of us to question the technique, along with the marketing and, on a higher level, the overall nature of multimedia storytelling -- or any kind of storytelling -- on the web.

I got curious and decided to dig out the original experiment that one of the members alluded to, some of you may remember it: Gilles Peress and Fred Ritchin collaborated on an unusual narrative process facilitated by the web whereby the reader can plot a variety of paths through the “essay,” thus ceding some authorial control to the viewer, opening up possibilities for more complex connections, and compelling the viewer to take an active part in the consumption of news—which may well be the most important aspect of the experiment. As Matthias Bruggman pointed out, the current spate of multimedia potentially induces the usual passive participation that we get from watching TV. We want to engage our audience, not turn them into couch potatoes.

Fred Ritchin’s argument, printed in 1996, can be seen HERE. But I wanted to reproduce a selection from his concluding statement in order to spark some thought among you all and perhaps a willingness to take up the experiment where it left off. That is what I intend to do, along with further experimentation with multimedia. Ten years after this interesting project, it seems that little has been done to explore the possibilities of communication over the net, other than what can be seen on the Pixel Press site. The new craze for multimedia is turning us all into sound recorders, but really I dont see much real innovation in most of them: they are slideshows with a song, or maybe some oral history (as if that were somehow a superior means of providing authentic content, a notion I just dont buy and I find, to my dismay, is almost universally assumed to be true by the current Left in the debate about the politics of representation). Their brevity ensures that the oral history or ambient sound be too clipped to allow for indepth commentary.

Here are Ritchin’s comments:

” Certainly ‘Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace’ is a flawed and fairly primitive attempt to build a new model of photojournalism. But at least one commentator feels that it succeeded in important ways. In Print magazine, the only publication to cover in depth what we had tried to do, Darcy DiNucci wrote: ‘Clumsy as today’s low-bandwidth presentations must be in some particulars, the site indeed pioneers a new form of journalism. Visitors cannot simply sit and let the news wash over them; instead, they are challenged to find the path that engages them, look deeper into its context, and formulate and articulate a response. The real story becomes a conversation, in which the author/photographer is simply the most prominent participant.’

Can such a project happen again with better results? Certainly it should be possible. In the masses of new Web publications coming out there is hope that some will recognize the need to tell stories differently about issues of serious interest, . . . many photographers and their collaborators already know that conventional photojournalism needs new ideas.

Undoubtedly these new attempts to tell stories on the Web, some accomplished with very meager financial resources, will also affect previous media so that partially non-linear, layered photo essays will appear in magazines and newspapers. Ironically it may not be the linear photo essay that is eventually revived after its long decline, but a new essay form that makes the collage of television seem rather predictable.

The new medium of the Web brings with it many valuable legacies – one is the possibility of exploring the world differently, with greater complexity and from many points of view, in order to help photographers, reporters, editors, readers and even subjects understand what is going on in deeper and more meaningful ways. Whether these new models come from personal homepages, students frustrated by conventional journalism, relief agencies, new media companies or more conventional ones, we can only benefit. They are sober alternatives to forthcoming virtual reality systems. They may also be productive extensions of deconstructionist critiques that encourage new and timely strategies of knowing. Once implemented, their impact on the ways in which we think and act should be considerable.”

Reflecting on these words ten years later, I have to say that I agree with Matthias, the current experimentation with multimedia is somehow flawed, if the ideals expressed by Ritchin here are taken to be the goal for which we strive. And I am dismayed by what seems to be a failure to followup on the promise of this endeavor and the fact that mainstream narrative venues appear not to have been induced to experiment, despite the hope expressed by Ritchin in the penultimate paragraph. Unlike Matthias, I dont believe that multimedia is necessarily reactionary just because it doesnt allow for an active participation on the part of the viewer -- I happen to think that, like reading, it does in fact allow for a kind of active participation and we cannot really discount the power of the reader to make his or her connections in an autonomous manner (anyone who has read Proust probably will remember that author's famous ruminations on boredom and the nature of reading -- I rest my case). I know that I certainly dont sleep through a good multimedia—I was glued to all 15 minutes of Chris Anderson’s report on Lebanon. And I am aggressively pursuing a multimedia agenda of my own, which depends on the argument that multimedia should make greater use of film technique. But be that all as it may, I am not surprised that multimedia in its current form is so successful given that such form is really a recapitulation of the narrative status quo favored by the institutions that govern the media, and we are still left with this unanswered challenge from Ritchin and Peress.

And Multimedia puts special strains on all of us: we have to capture sound and image almost simultaneously; we have to learn new softwares, learn new behaviors or skills, buy new equipment, spend more time at the screen instead of shooting, etc; we work harder, longer, for basically the same amount of money (or proportionately less). I like a challenge, so I dont mind learning these new things (in fact I am enjoying it all) but I like a fair paycheck too, and I am a bit worried by two aspects of the current situation: (1) that marketing these things is not an open and transparent process in which we all share equally and with full knowledge (the current players have not been open about their practices and thus no one is helping to establish fair protocols whereby we can all formulate some notions of fees etc;—we are already screwed by the fact that fees for digital processing were never adequately threshed out by everyone, so practices vary, with the result that many clients simply do not compensate us for all the extra time we spend editing); and (2) control of the market is largely concentrated in the hands of a few players intimately connected to the mainstream media, and this leaves the individual players in a very weak position. One thing about Ritchin’s project was that it was intended to open things up for people outside the mainstream, and thus exploit the web’s nature as an open communication medium. I would hate to see that openness be thwarted.

Since "Bosnia," new softwares and greater bandwidth delivery have facilitated the creation of narratives built round Flash as well as html -- you can see some interesting experiments in the work of Alfredo Jaar and Kim Köster's 99rooms site. But the essential modus operandi remains the same: the viewer clicks through scenarios, thereby following links. Narrative threads are composed of linkages, so the question becomes how to make the linking stimulate the linker and amplify the meaning of the imagery.

This led me to speculate whether gaming held a clue to the future of narrative. Friedrich Schiller established the fact that the “spieltrieb” (play-instinct, or drive) is at the back of all learning processes, and it manages to consolidate our divided nature (form vs content, sense vs intellect). Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here after all: that we need to reintroduce a bit of playfulness into narratives, a bit of indeterminacy and hazard or chance. Let people wander at will and learn formatively. In the case of the 99 rooms, I was disappointed by the fact that ultimately it came down to a simple mechanism: mouse around until you find a switch to click on (event/action structuring); click it and watch something happen; find the exit and move to the next tableau. The scenarios initially are intriguing, but the repetitive clicking and content become tiresome.

HERE is the link to the narrative experiment that Peress and Ritchin created. Enjoy it.

1 comment:

Sion Touhig said...

Hi Jon,

I'd agree that now is the time to insist on proper compensation for our multimedia efforts.

Editing video requires some serious time intensive effort, and I've had to insist that its compensated for by charging for an editing days as well as a shooting days. Ironically, this is for print clients who have no such additional fees for digital processing - because we allowed them to get away with that, and so now a lot of us spend time processing digital files for nothing.

Editing video and producing multimedia is even more labour and time intensive than that, so we've reached a limit to what we should be expected to achieve, and in fact can achieve, for 'free'.

Obviously as a freelance, I want to satisfy my clients, but I don't satisfy them by having inferior tools, and those tools need to be fairly paid for.