The POV Hackathon team members working on the Living Los Sures project are examining the hardscrabble past and hidden histories of New York City’s now trendy Williamsburg neighborhood. I spoke with two of the team members, UnionDocs founder Christopher Allen and software engineer Danny Bowman.
Allen is founder of UnionDocs and an initiator of numerous experiments in documentary and interactive media. His individual works and collaborative productions have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the Volksbühne theater, Direktorenhaus in Berlin, Independent Film Week, and at Sonár, DIVA and the Conflux Festival.
Bowman is a recent Bay Area transplant to New York City. He’s worked as a front-end software engineer at a social gaming startup in San Francisco and as a program manager and internal tools developer at Google.
The team also includes Andre Almeida, a media theorist, filmmaker and Ph.D. candidate currently writing his dissertation on interactive documentary. He is affiliated with UnionDocs and the University of Porto and has been exploring the boundaries of nonfiction through linear features, including From New York With Love and interactive projects.
Also on the team is Kyle Warren, who engineered the nonprofit site govoteabsentee.org for the 2008 election after receiving his degree in computer science. He has recently worked on such products as Words with Friends, Timehop and projectOPEN, while finding time to cultivate his interest in software as art.
POV: Can you explain the project you’re working on?
Christopher Allen: Living Los Sures is an ongoing collaborative project of UnionDocs. It takes the 1984 film Los Sures that was shot in the neighborhood that UnionDocs has been a part of for the last 10 years. Paco de Onís and Pamela Yates, who lived in the neighborhood, gave us the film and said, you should definitely watch this. In it, we saw a lot of openings into the history, character, culture and community of the neighborhood that previously had been difficult to connect to. We’re working with the original director Diego Echeverria to do a series of projects. Twelve collaborative artists each year come in to make a short documentary to update the story from 1984 — the characters in the film, the neighborhood and the themes that were touched on — and also spiral off from that and tell new stories about the neighborhood as it is today. The idea is that the place is very complex and layered. The individuals come from very different backgrounds, resource levels, means and cultures that are in the same space, but don’t necessarily interact all that much. We’re hoping that this will not only create a historical record and document of one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city, but also provide a way for people to connect as neighbors through lots of small, little projects.
In 1984, the neighborhood is one of the poorest in the United States. There’s a lot of violence, gangs and drugs — it was suffering a lot from the Reagan cuts. People who’ve lived here for 30 or 40 years have seen a lot, the AIDS epidemic was pretty major in this area. But a lot of that history is hidden, and more and more of the people who lived through it are being pushed out of the place they call home.
POV: What do you hope Living Los Sures will get out of the Hackathon?
Allen: We have a number of things we want to flesh out with the developers. The main goal is to come away with a way to test content and to work with next year’s UnionDocs Collaborative to have a really direct involvement in the interactive element of the project. We’re looking to create a set of test navigational features that will allow us to play around with this group of 12 people and see what works and what doesn’t. I think for a lot of this, the content can’t come before the coding — to date we’ve been coming up with the content and then working through ways to weave it in. We want to have interactive be part of the conversation from the beginning. We have six different diagrams and ideas that we’re going to go through with the developers, and see which of them seem the most accomplishable and would be most beneficial to the project, and then choose one or two of them to move forward on. Hopefully the developers will bring their own ideas to the project as well, that’s what happened at Hot Hacks. We might be trying to edit and shoot some things simultaneously as well, because there’s a real need to do the content in tandem with the coding.
A lot of the ideas we’ve had are on the navigational side. At Hot Hacks we created something that allowed the older film to play with the newer content beneath it. There was a slider beneath the videos so you could wipe and see one underneath the other. It works quite well. We could edit from the pieces that we had shot and the B-roll that we had to match the film. We’d done some exercises to try and match the film shot for shot. In order for it to be really interesting, if you have someone in profile shot and you wipe to someone else in profile, they need to be taking up the same percentage of the frame as the original shot, and their head has to be tilted the same way. You have to understand what you’re going to use this profile shot for and build accordingly. It comes down to stuff that’s really technical. Our idea is to have a set of shifting navigational tools, where it’s very clear what the expectations of the audience are. But those tools are constantly shifting every 90 seconds through the project, presenting the viewer with a different interaction that’s there for a reason.
POV: How did you find out about the Hackathon, and what made you want to participate in it?
Danny Bowman: I actually found out about the Hackathon through a friend of mine, Joe Posner, who I went to school with. He worked for a long time with Eugene Jarecki. He was plugged into that world. I actually just moved to New York, and he knew that I was moving here in time for the Hackathon, so he just reached out and said I should apply. I’ve been to one other hack weekend in San Francisco. That one was a lot of fun because it wasn’t a standard hackathon where you’re just building something. It was organized around something that was using technology for art. I’m interested in the places where technology and something else meet.
POV: Is there anything in particular you’re hoping to get out of the Hackathon?
Bowman: My main objective is to learn something new, that was the main thing I got out of the last one I did. I already know that we’re going to be working with some technologies that I haven’t used before. It’s really a chance to keep my skills fresh and learn something new, and create something that’s interesting. In terms of output, we’re hoping to produce a couple of prototypes of ways that you can interact with documentary content. I also thought it would be a cool way to meet some other developers. New York’s start-up scene and technology world seems a bit more focused on media content — music and things like that, whereas in the Bay Area it’s almost technology for its own sake. It seems a bit smaller, but everyone seems to know each other. I keep hearing how up and coming the scene is now.