Transformative truth-telling at the MIT Open Documentary Lab
The lab's artists and technology scholars are exploring representation and reality — and designing the future of storytelling.
Image from A Father’s Lullaby,” an immersive, interactive work by Rashin Fahandej, a fellow in MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Photocredit: Aram Bogosian
"When people change the way they communicate, they change the way that they tell stories. And by so doing, they can transform how people see the world."
A man’s ghostly voice speak-sings from the black screen: “Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops…” It’s a tentative voice, unused to intoning lullabies, the voice of a man who was just released from prison. When he was convicted, his twin children were forty-five days old. Now, they’re 21. This father’s voice is one of dozens collected in the ongoing documentary project, A Father’s Lullaby, by current MIT Open Documentary Lab fellow Rashin Fahandej: a compilation of recorded lullabies and oral histories from incarcerated fathers separated from their young children. The project has taken such forms as a geo-located sound installation and an award-winning museum exhibition.
This inventive and moving inventory of lost lullabies is one of many examples of the boundary-pushing creative works that are found in the MIT Open Documentary Lab’s (ODL) archive — a deep archive known as the Docubase. Others include Nairobi Berries, a poetic city symphony of Nairobi in virtual reality; Another Dream, a hybrid animated documentary and VR game that tells the story of an Egyptian lesbian couple; and Sonic Trace, a participatory oral history of immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Many of these projects can also be described as “transmedia” — a term for works that extend beyond a single medium while playing to the strengths of each one.
Docubase, which takes the form of a vast website repository, is only one facet of the ODL’s ongoing mission to explore and incubate innovative forms of documentary using emerging technologies and techniques, among them cell phone recordings, virtual and augmented reality, and deep-fake manipulations. Other facets of the lab include many original projects; a co-creation studio; a weekly publication; conferences; championing public literacy about technologies, including AI, and their implications; and weekly lecture series open to the MIT community and beyond. Now celebrating its tenth year, ODL also boasts a far-reaching network of fellows, creators, and researchers, all perched at, and defining, the cutting edge of what a documentary can be.
In the late aughts, William Uricchio, a professor of comparative media studies and the founding principal investigator of ODL, recognized that documentary was in a moment of transition. He formulated the idea of a new lab at MIT’s unique crossroads of artistic and technological innovation, inspired by the Institute’s long history of using media to record aspects of the world.
Sarah Wolozin, the lab’s founding director and the creator of Docubase, says, “If you look at the history of documentary, it’s always evolving depending on what technology was available. One of the earliest examples are cave paintings. Today people use cellphones, cameras, computers, sensors, and many other technologies and processes to create stories about the world around us.”
Before helping Uricchio found the lab, Wolozin was working as a program manager at MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. As a multi-platform documentarian herself, she had been experimenting with media forms as a maker since the mid-‘90s, when the internet first became publicly accessible.
Video of the "The Enemy," the Open Doc Lab's first Fellow’s project
"How can stories be told in novel and innovative formats that both give voice to the subject and agency to the audience? The work produced by ODL and its fellows is often interactive and immersive — creating the feeling of being actively engaged and embedded in a story and often, enabling users to find their own stories."
Uricchio saw new technologies — and cell phones in particular — as revealing the many perspectives that go into telling any story and potentially changing who gets to tell it. Documentary, he and Wolozin realized, could have a new, accessible home on the internet where the many roles engaged in the genre — creator, producer, technician, subjects, and audience — blur together generatively. The legacy of the open-source movement at MIT also influenced their inspiration for the “open” ethos of the documentary lab: an open system that allows many people to contribute to and iterate on works.
The sea-change of cellphone technology and ubiquitous cameras can be felt deeply in our culture, Uricchio observes. Without omnipresent, publicly accessible camera footage, watershed national events, including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and the resulting national and international protests — would simply not have been visible to the country and the world. Understanding how documentary works and is experienced, as a form of witnessing and truth-telling, has developed into a significant focus of research at the ODL — and an exploration that has become more complex with the advent of deep fakes and other forms of manipulation.
Imagining the future
The nascent Open Documentary Lab hit the ground running in 2011 with its first New Arts of Documentary conference, which overflowed the Media Lab’s massive sixth floor with industry experts, makers, technologists, scholars, and curators. Uricchio recalls the concept: “We thought: Let’s put the funders, the technologists, the film festival people, and the makers at the same table to have a conversation. And it was magical. It’s been amazing to watch these folks help one another to re-imagine the future of documentary storytelling.”
“We were very outward facing from the very beginning,” says Wolozin. “It was really about being in dialogue and interacting with the field.” Wolozin began fostering partnerships with Tribeca, Sundance and other leading organizations in the field. The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, whose new media program is led by Uricchio’s former student, became an important collaborator. Together they created Moments of Innovation, Uricchio’s visual white paper that formed the basis for the lab’s approach to documentary.
Another immediate outcome was a program for MIT students developed by Wolozin and Sundance Film Festival New Frontier curator, Shari Frilot, called “Creating Critics.” It still exists today. Recognizing that there was very little critical discourse about the emerging new forms of documentary, ODL graduate student researchers are sent to Sundance Festival’s New Frontier program as critics to write about the New Frontier exhibit. Their articles are published in Indiewire, a film industry online publication.
Uricchio had also helped found MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing program itself — the department in MIT SHASS that houses ODL — working in collaboration with foundational new media theorist Henry Jenkins. Where Jenkins’ landmark scholarship focuses on participatory media in a networked body of work (e.g., user-generated content fueling massive companies like YouTube and Twitter, for instance), Uricchio’s ODL spirals participation toward vast new speculative horizons: How can stories be told in novel and innovative formats that both give voice to the subject and agency to the audience? The work produced by ODL and its fellows is often interactive and immersive — creating the feeling of being actively engaged and embedded in a story and often, enabling users to find their own stories.
Recalling some of her earliest work on the web in the 1990s — as the world first had public access to the internet — Wolozin reflects, “These impulses for participatory starts, storytelling, and interactivity have always been there, and they just evolve and change based on the technology that’s available.”
Image from A Father’s Lullaby,” an immersive, interactive work by Rashin Fahandej, a fellow in MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Photocredit: Aram Bogosian
“Understanding documentary as a form of witnessing and truth-telling is an important focus at the ODL.”
“We look at where new technology meets the mission of documentary,” says Uricchio. In his own scholarship, which entwines media historicity with forward-thinking possibilities, he is fascinated with how past forms of media inform the present and the future. “Media technologies and affordances have changed over the centuries, and if documentary as an interrogation of the world around us is to remain relevant, we must push the boundaries of – and better understand the implications of – today’s trends such as personalization, interactivity, and immersion. Just as importantly, we now have an opportunity to shift the balance of agency and change who tells the story.”
In that spirit, ODL is also the home of the MIT Co-Creation Studio. Launched in 2016, the Co-Creation Studio dives into the methodological implications of how documentaries are made in a networked world.
Katerina Cizek, a multi-Emmy winning documentarian who has been pioneering participatory and interactive documentary production for decades, leads the young but prolific Co-Creation Studio. Beginning in the early 2000s, Cizek worked as a director with the National Film Board of Canada, reinventing a huge program to use film to advance social justice and community development by partnering with people in the community across disciplines and sectors.
When she first came to ODL as a visiting artist, Cizek recalls, there was no real global hub for exploring co-creative methodologies. Five years ago, Wolozin and Uricchio invited her to bring her idea for a co-creation studio to MIT. In 2022, MIT Press will publish the Co-Creation Studio’s first book, Collective Wisdom, which in turn is based on a pivotal field study from the studio that rejuvenated interest in the hows and whys of the co-creative process in creative fields. “What the Studio particularly contributes is a focus on new and collective methodologies,” says Cizek.
Part 3, "A Short History of the High Rise," by Katerina Cizek, ODL/New York Times collaboration
"Katerina Cizek, a multi-Emmy winning documentarian who has been pioneering participatory and interactive documentary production for decades, leads the young but prolific Co-Creation Studio."
This past academic year, the Studio launched a big, ongoing project: Indigenous Digital Delegation, a partnership with the Indigenous Screen Office based in Canada. It is an initiative for what the Indigenous Screen Office calls “Indigenous narrative sovereignty”: Indigenous control over how Indigenous stories are told and who tells them. The Delegation’s partnership with MIT puts Indigenous media scholars and artists into conversation with a wide breadth of experts and thinkers at MIT.
“It’s two-way conversation,” says Cizek. “It’s really about developing deep conversation around Indigenous epistemologies, artificial intelligence, and digital worlds. The pickup at MIT was amazing. We had over sixty faculty, staff, and students respond to and participate in a variety of ways with the delegation, and we’ll be running the program again next spring.” Even today, there is no other lab doing this kind of work, says Wolozin, of the range and nature of ODL’s portfolio. There are new technological factors in the game — extended reality and artificial intelligence, to name two — but the lab’s mission continues to be bringing storytellers and technology scholars together to explore the relationship between representation and reality.
Each week, Immerse, ODL’s publication on Medium, offers a clear window onto the lab’s mission in action: From the role of street projections that subvert official narratives in South America to the social media life of an aging robot to speculative nonfictions in public space. The content of Immerse is all about how stories are being told now, in a dazzling array of media.
Co-founded by Wolozin and Ingrid Kopp, the director of interactive media at Tribeca Film Institute, and Jessica Clark, founder and CEO of Dot Connector in 2015, the publication is currently headed by Abby Sun, a CMS/W masters student with an extensive professional history in film festivals and programming. “Editing Immerse is a collective undertaking,” says Sun, honoring the input of several key collaborators and industry veterans, including Wolozin and Cizek. “My role as editor has expanded my consciousness and context for the long history and vibrant future of this work.”
Also at home in Immerse is research and writing by MIT Comparative Media Studies faculty and graduate students, including Sun and Diego Cerna Aragon in the first 2021 issue. MIT alumni who were associated with ODL include Andrea Kim, SM ’21, who recently received the Fulbright to continue her work on avatars; Sara Rafsky ‘18, a journalist and documentarian who produced "The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo," a feature-length Netflix Original documentary about a Mexican mother's journey to seek justice for her murdered daughter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; Sue Ding SM ’17, a documentarian on the West Coast, with a breakout 2020 feature on Netflix about The Baby-Sitters’ Club; and Samuel Mendez ‘20, now in a PhD program in public health at Harvard, who combines media art and public policy.
The content of Immerse is all about how stories are being told now, in a dazzling array of media: from the role of street projections that subvert official narratives in South America to the social media life of an aging robot to speculative nonfictions in public space.
A major function of the lab making space for marginalized storytellers to take agency of how their own stories are told. Currently, ODL is engaged in a massive, two-year project on augmenting public space — either through geo-located sounds, projections on the sides of buildings, or QR codes. “Now that we’re challenging the master narrative of which monuments should be there,” asks Uricchio, “how can we leave traces in a more collective way? How can we actually augment and enhance spaces with people’s stories and narratives?”
In one place-based act of history-telling, ODL fellow Assia Boundaoui projected redacted FBI surveillance reports of Muslim Americans against the walls of the NSA building, while using AI technology to fill in the redacted language. (Read more about her ongoing project Inverse Surveillance.)
Recently, a joint fellowship with MIT CAST to partner with Black Public Media brought two new fellows to ODL. One resultant project is Mapping Blackness, a powerful work by 2020-21 fellow Carla Lyndale Bishop, which uses innovative, intergenerational oral histories to document forgotten Black communities in northern Texas and Oklahoma. These small, century-old towns are very much alive and thriving — even if you might miss them if you blink driving by on the highway. Bishop’s work is a way to archive the stories of these communities and their histories accessible to a larger public.
Emblem from "Mapping Blackness," by Carla Lyndale Bishop, fellow at ODL
"A major function of the lab making space for marginalized storytellers to take agency of how their own stories are told. Currently, ODL is engaged in a massive, two-year project on augmenting public space — either through geo-located sounds, projections on the sides of buildings, or QR codes."
The lab focuses on the guiding ethos of increasing public literacy about emerging technologies: storytelling is a powerful way to demystify new technologies, to increase an understanding of their implications, and engage the public in decision-making about how emerging technologies will be deployed. Documentary itself as a discipline has always been deeply entrenched with technological and scientific thinking. “The reality at the core of documentary makes it an ideal lens for understanding our representational conventions,” Uricchio says. “Mastering those conventions, and at times strategically breaking them, enables documentary not just to interpret the world, but to change it.”
“Making technologies accessible has always been important in my work,” says Wolozin. “Helping people understand their potential for storytelling and information. If we think about stories as a way to understand the world, we can do that with technology, and we can reach people in new ways. Because when people change the way they communicate, they change the way that they tell stories. And by so doing, they can transform how people see the world.”
Open Documentary Lab
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Staff Writer, Senior Communications Associate: Alison Lanier
Published 30 August 2021