It’s been a crazy couple of years thinking about the changing nature of documentary in the context of networked culture. In the background of developing Mapping Main Street and then Zeega — an open-source platform for creating interactive documentaries — I’ve also been doing research into what I call the urban database documentary. I define this genre as a mode of media art practice that uses structural systems as generative processes and organizational frameworks to explore the lived experience of place. And I believe that the invention of the computer did not give rise to the urban database documentary — it only enabled new forms of its realization. With this perspective, looking at historical work can often be useful for creatively thinking about the present.

So, while we prepare for opening up Zeega to more and more people, I thought it might be interesting to take a moment to begin some very cursory reflections on the relationships between our constantly evolving work on Zeega and the broader cultural questions percolating around documentary. This is the first of a series of more note-like posts to come over the coming months …

Zeega + Dziga in the Context of The City Symphony

Zeega’s namesake is Dziga Vertov, creator of “Man with a Movie Camera,” the famous 1929 film often described as a “city symphony.” This term is most commonly used to describe a series of avant-garde documentary films from the 1920s that focus upon the day-in-the-life of the modern metropolis.

These works are typically identified by various qualities: 1) a temporal structure, where the film begins with morning and ends at night; 2) rapid montage as the dominant editing style; 3) shots of individuals and crowds caught unaware by a concealed camera; 4) and the treatment of a cityscape itself as the main character and actor as opposed to individual personalities.

The most famous examples are Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City“ (1927), the work that gave the genre its title, and “Man with a Movie Camera.” Ruttmann’s 65-minute silent classic begins with Berlin’s awakening and culminates in evening fireworks, with rapid, rhythmic montage sequences of industrial labor, street crowds, communications technologies and other classic icons of modernity documented in between. The footage is largely observational.

Vertov’s work similarly follows the morning-to-night structure; however, the film also interweaves a narrative of the projection, recording and editing of the film itself into the documentation of the daily lives of urbanites in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. The first part of the film shows an empty theater with a projectionist taking out a reel titled “Man with a Movie Camera.” We then see people come into the theater and begin watching this film which shows a literal man with a movie camera out in the world recording events; the rest of the film follows this cameraman (who happens to be Vertov’s brother, Mikhail Kaufman), and also includes segments showing the film’s editor, Elizaveta Svilova, selecting clips from the cameraman’s reels, understood to be those selections that become the final film.

This reflective layer of “Man with a Movie Camera” exposes the highly mediated processes by which documentaries are made, and has since become a touchstone of film and cultural theory, giving rise to such fascinating web-based projects as Perry Bard’s Man with a Movie Camera: A Global Remake.

Algorithms ≠ Automation

From our perspective, it’s interesting to note that the city symphony’s defining qualities are in effect rule-based strategies for organizing collections of media (i.e., databases). Although the term algorithm is traditionally used to describe computational processes, I would like to suggest that we broaden our scope to conceive of algorithm as a sequence of rules with clear instructions that may be carried out by either a machine or a human. In this light, the editorial decision to assemble a body of material according to a temporal structure is basically a simple algorithm.

Moreover, the emphasis on categories of activity (e.g., residence, employment, etc.) points to a rule-based structure built on common themes. The editor has the ability to perform these algorithms, and now through techniques such as a tagging, audiences can also participate in authoring and performing such algorithms.

What’s important to distinguish in this definition, then, is that an algorithm is distinct from automation. This decoupling frees us up to make greater creative distinctions in contemporary computational media practice between modes of authorship, and moreover, helps us to better understand the longer history of rule-based artistic practices.

In the case of the historical city symphony, a work’s editor performs the very simple algorithm of organizing material within a day-to-night framework. Within this general scheme, the editor has a lot of flexibility in choosing the precise clips and their relative ordering. In contemporary culture, we see similar algorithms performed via automation by machines, such as the visualization of all images within Flickr according to their timestamps.

The differences between these two examples are, of course, many. But I would suggest that the most pertinent distinction is the role of the editor as human versus editor as machine. What a close reading of the city symphony’s formal characteristics exposes is that the aesthetic exploration of algorithmic approaches to media-making was already underway before the invention of computers.

However, the editing process by which these early algorithms were performed was by humans; whereas, today, many of these algorithms are automated, and the process by which they are human-authored is often obscured.

With Zeega, we hope to provide a set of tools that enable humans to author algorithms that creatively build narratives out of databases. Moreover, we aim to make these algorithms transparent in different ways to users, thus helping to facilitate a more critical culture vis-a-vis the many algorithms shaping our media experience. While often automated, algorithms are created by humans and carry significant opinion.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. The problem is not that algorithms are not “objective,” it is that we often think that they are.

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