On December 2nd 2015, the annual Graduate Research Conference kicked off with a day full of 10 minute presentations of current PhD candidates at RMIT’s Media and Communications Department. After being encouraged by Adrian Miles and fellow students to use this opportunity to present my work in progress, I sent an abstract to the GRC committee and was happy to find that I was put on a panel together with Hannah Brasier and Kim Munro. With Hannah talking about her approach to Korsakow as a tool for “composing multilinear rhythms” to “engage with the messiness of the world”, she provided an illustrative example for the ways this software can be appropriated. While my talk offered a meta-perspective on her practice, Kim concluded the panel with yet another example for an authoring tool to create interactive documentary – Klynt. In the following discussion, chaired by Sam Whiting, the questions mainly focused on the differences between these platforms (multilinearity vs. polyvocality), the reasons for using interactive (online) affordances to construct documentary (and fiction?) meaning as well as the specific disposition and experience of the audience. What was most interesting for my research, however, was the discussion surrounding Korsakow’s standing within the field of interactive documentary (new interest?) as well as the difficulties of my role here at the non/fictionLab having to do research with as well as on Hannah. In return, the question bounced back to Hannah who told us how it made her feel to be observed and interviewed by me.
Here is what I presented:
Hi and welcome to my short presentation on Interactivity and Documentary Knowledge. With this talk, I would like to accomplish two things: First of all, I would like to give a short introduction to myself and my PhD project and secondly, this will hopefully provide an answer to the question of what I am actually doing here at RMIT for the next 5 months. So let’s get started…
My name is Franziska Weidle and I am a visiting PhD candidate from Göttingen University in Germany. I’ve been working on my PhD thesis since October 2014 as a member of a research training group which mainly consists of literary scholars focusing on the overall topic of literature and the dissemination of literature in the digital age. During my Masters in Cultural and Visual Anthropology I learned how to use photography, film and video as a tool for ethnographic research and representation. I found it to be an invaluable extension to the anthropologist’s toolkit to pay justice to the richness of the fieldwork experience. Given my research group’s focus on the digital age and its influence towards literary forms, I then started wondering: in what ways are technological advancements influencing documentary forms and how could digital tools be used for anthropological research?
When trying to map the rapidly evolving field of digital interactive documentaries, I found it really difficult to make sense of what I encountered:
- augmentation, mobile and social media, live performances, virtual reality, 360°
- databases, UGC, geo-mapping (to name only a few)
Not only was I dealing with a highly diverse palette of forms and contents, different levels of engagement and interactive affordances, moreover, these phenomena were all framed as “documentary”. This observation clearly challenged the notions of documentary that I had encountered in my studies. Well to put it bluntly, I was highly confused.
To shed a bit of light onto the chaos unfolding in front of me, I decided to approach this issue on a micro level: When I was looking at all these different interactive formats there was one tool that stood out for me because it appeared to incorporate all the essential ingredients, I was interested in:
So what is this software all about?
Some refer to this software as an authoring tool for documentaries, others might use broader terms such as nonfiction or simply interactive works while German artist Florian Thalhofer who developed the software in 2000 talks about creating nonlinear, rule-based, interactive narratives. He invented this tool because he was working on a film about a mental disease which leads to dementia and was interested in finding a form which would imitate this fragmentation of the brain. However, over the years other filmmakers, artists and scholars have started using the software to produce a significant body of documentary work. Hannah Brasier is one of them and her presentation already provided a wonderful example for this software and how you could make use of it (yes, we are talking about Korsakow). Korsakow is also subject of debate amongst interactive media practitioners and scholars of various disciplines, it is discussed at international documentary film festivals, and even used for teaching media and film students.
So why am I looking at this?
My proposition, for the time being, is that if we take a closer look at Korsakow, its affordances, its makers and players, the agents, discussions and dynamics surrounding it, then we begin to see a microcosm of its own which, nontheless, shares significant characteristics with the general developments in the wider field of interactive documentary in general, and the ecology of an interactive or “living” documentary as Sandra Gaudenzi has put it, in particular. So by studying the software as a system that is embedded in a wider discourse and by asking what its users do with it and why they do what they do, I hope to gain a better understanding of the different dynamics at play when using interactive technology to construct documentary meaning. My observations, then, will hopefully lead to some insights into how this could be applied to cultural and visual anthropological research.
So how am I going to study this?
Apart from analyzing the software itself and the works that have been produced with it, I undertake participant observation in on- and offline environments which means, I follow the discussions surrounding Korsakow on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, I have visited several international documentary film festivals that have developed programs dedicated to interactive forms and specifically addressing Korsakow, and I have already conducted several interviews with Florian Thalhofer, the inventor of Korsakow. Last but not leat, I have also developed an online questionnaire with which I hope to address the invisible and anonymous group of people who only watch Korsakow films but not produce films themselves or take part in the discussions.
Now, to take my fieldwork a step further, I am currently conducting a camera-ethnography at the nonfictionLab where Adrian Miles appears to have institutionalized the software to a certain degree. Not only does he writes about the software and uses it to make his own interactive works, he also started using it for teaching and is currently supervising Hannah Brasier’s work which is also of particular interest for my research.
So for my research stay here at the nonfictionLab, I have set myself an agenda: Not only will I take part in the Lab’s activities such as workshops, meetings and events, I will also film my observations and interviews with key protagonists as well as compile an audiovisual field diary on my experience. Then, I hope to learn how to use Korsakow by taking part in one of Adrian’s workshops before I’ll eventually use the footage I have collected to make my own Korsakow film to test my proposition how this could be used for an ethnographic approach.
Apart from the Lab, RMIT University is also of great significance to me because of its focus on practice-based research which is a complete different environment for me compared to my home university. Furthermore, my take on visual anthropology has been heavily influenced by Sarah Pink’s work on Sensory and Digital Ethnography. Thus, I am very happy to have the chance to meet her here and familiarize myself more with the Digital Ethnography Research Center of which she is currently the incoming Co-Director. By taking part in the reading sessions and other DERC events, I hope to facilitate discussions on not only my research but also on methodological approaches in general when it comes to engaging with digital environments and affordances.
By the beginning of April next year, I will have returned to Germany to teach a class on interactivity and documentary knowledge production at Göttingen University. For this purpose, I hope to use the knowledge and skills I have acquired at RMIT and together with the visual anthropology students in Germany, I would, then, like to test how Korsakow lets me think about cultural anthropology in a different way.