Wednesday, 28 July 2010

What Counts as Documentary: Redux

One of the issues we need to confront in the current media ecology is the many forms of documentary (and its hybrid forms) that appear on the internet. Video and audio forms (originally from Cinema, TV, and Radio) now mingel freely with Photo-Documentary (originally a print form; photo-journalism) and written documentary forms (e.g. reportage). It is the hybridity of all these forms of documentary that is most interesting. Documentary has always hybridised with journalism (and with fiction to some extent - consider Hunter S Thompson's roman à clef 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' which is a form of documentary but one that has been strongly interpenetrated by the fictive) and online this cross-over is even stronger. The capability of the internet to blend audio, video, image and text recourses into one coherent montage has dragged documentary forms ever closer to one another and this is before we get to the really odd documentary forms present in the online world.

Adam Curtis (who I posted about here) maintains a wonderful blog at the BBC that must surely count as documentary in some fashion but which is clearly quite, quite different to the more established forms we are used to. Similarly Dr Michael Wesch has made some remarkable works about peoples' use of the internet that are worth looking at and which again must count as some form of documentary but quite which form is hard to say. In both cases it is the other concerns of the writers (documentarian and academic anthropologist respectively) that cause some of these issues of categorisation that these works present us with. Both of these documentaries are still recognisable as such however and it is the next set of online documentary forms that give us the greatest difficulties.

Let's start with Flickr. This massive repository of photographs is a 'metadocumentary' in that it is multiple sets of series of documentaries made by its participants, can be turned to documentary purposes by searching through it, and is it self a documentary of photographic practice and concerns. This makes the whole site a mixed and odd documentary form (almost) all of its own. The need to interact with the site in order to turn it into a documentary - of a personal & temporary kind - is the key characteristic of the form that Flickr is part of but exactly which form is an open question.

Which brings us to the last of our odd/new documentary forms: Google Maps & Street View. There are some specific implementations of googlemaps allowing access to information some of it of a documentary nature (especially Tate) but the important and interesting thing is streetview itself. This massive photographic record of the streets of the vast majority of the 'developed world' (an issue of post-colonialism in the digital world) is a documentary but of a most peculiar kind. As with Flickr it needs to be interacted with and interrogated by us the users in order to turn it into a documentary and as with the more obvious online documentary forms there is this mixture of image and (in this case) maps and the cartographic. However, the sheer scale of streetview and its changing nature (the images are updated from time to time) renders our use of it for documentary purposes rather limited because the effort necessary to 'documentise' it is so huge. That said it is clearly a most remarkable documentary of the quotidian.

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