MIT professor William Uricchio reflects on ten years of IDFA DocLab.
Although (for some of us!) it may feel like yesterday, ten years is an eternity in the age of Moore’s Law, when processing capacity doubles nearly every two years. 2006 was the year that Google acquired YouTube and Facebook first opened its services to the public. In the intervening decade, the Internet went from wide open spaces to ever more colonized, scrutinized, and monetized clusters of economic development.
IDFA’s DocLab was founded before Apple released its iPhone. And now, ten years later, mobile phone ownership has surpassed the 100% mark in most nations, developing economies included. Public participation has also changed dramatically. In 2006, YouTube’s users broke records by uploading 5,400 minutes of video per hour. Today the upload rate is closer to 1,440,000 minutes per hour. Meanwhile, Facebook claims 1.71 billion monthly active users – people who post, comment, and share. And Facebook is but one of the many platforms fighting for our attention, our personal data, and access to our credit cards.
As people deploy technologies in ever-changing ways, incorporating them into their lives, and using them to transform digital space into social space, the implications for the documentary arts are clear. Beyond the tools of the trade, beyond even new modes of distribution, the possibilities for the documentary emerge from the people who have grown up with new expectations regarding personalization, navigation, and participation. Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar articulated those new possibilities on the eve of DocLab’s birth with We Feel Fine, documenting the virtual social ethos not through sounds and images, but through data traces of social media; not through authorial curation, but by enabling the user to find her own way; not by ‘telling’ but by enabling.
We have entered a new era, and exact parallels are still lacking. One of the closest documentary precedents we have appeared with Cinema Vérité and Direct Cinema – new tools and style, newly defined relations between maker and subject, and above all, a new platform (television) that transformed the distribution of documentary. But television was still a highly centralized, ‘one-to-many’, platform, and distribution still formed a major bottleneck, still enforced the maker-audience divide. And it remained stable for decades.
Compare that to the past ten years during which high definition video became widely accessible (even a standard feature on most mobile phones), interactivity emerged as a norm, and the internet enabled ‘many-to-many’ distribution logics. IDFA DocLab was one of the first to consistently track, curate, and cultivate the implications of these developments, creating a truly international platform for what has become known as “the art of interactiveand immersive storytelling”. The history of DocLab’s programming is about as close as one can get to tracing the history of these new developments. But while it is tempting (and useful!) to look back at that work in an archival way, the real value lies elsewhere.
Moore’s Law means continuing change of dramatic proportions. And DocLab has a track record of anticipating change, of remaining flexible and creative in its definitions and selection criteria. The work of the last ten years suggests that we should watch DocLab and its sisters carefully if we want to understand what’s next. Consider the ‘internet of things’. There is every reason to expect that things large and smallwill document their own trajectories through the world, and that these traces will be as relevant to documentary makers as the sounds and images of the past. Consider AR and VR, with their new twists on immersion, interaction and even location. In our increasingly connected and ‘datafied’ world, things like biometrics, robots, artificial intelligence, and geo-location technologies will help to bridge the gap between the analog and digital, while at the same time providing new terrain for documentary makers – and a new vocabulary for the production process. These developments have been ongoing, and have already been broached by IDFA DocLab in its search for new documentary forms.
But despite the relentless churn of the new, with all the excitement and fear it provokes, the heart of the matter remains the stories we tell about the world, and the memories and values that we use to bind ourselves together as a culture. Documentary remains that harsh mirror in which we see ourselves and our relations to the world in ways that are simply impossible with the unaided eye. Regardless of its form or the elements from which a documentary is composed, it remains shackled to this most human of tasks. Each generation seems convinced that it inhabits the most complex of times. And perhaps we’re the same, or perhaps we’ve really managed to get ourselves into a uniquely complicated situation this time. We live increasing portions of our lives in digital spaces, are finding new ways to connect the previously disconnected, and continue to invent and transform our condition in surprising ways. And the pace of change is relentless. But the same curiosity that drives these developments also offers us new ways to reflect, to represent, and to embrace our undefined future.
Here’s to the next ten years of curiosity and commitment to undefined notions of reality and art.
William Charles Uricchio
Professor William Charles Uricchio is an American media scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Utrecht University. He specializes in beginnings, when old media were new and new media emerge and stabilize. In 2011, Uricchio and director Sarah Wolozin started the MIT Open Doc Lab, a leading institution for academic research and support of interactive documentary art and storytelling.