At its heart, documentary cinema has always been an experimental medium. Its evolution has been driven on the one hand by the creativity and interests of the media maker and on the other by technological invention and the evolution of particular sensing, imaging and display technologies.
Some insight into the experimental trajectory of the documentary approach can be found in definitions and naming conventions that emerged. Where as John Grierson’s famous definition, the “creative treatment of actuality”, speaks to the object, Richard Leacock’s, “the feeling of being there”, emphasizes the audience’ experience, which strongly parallels the filmmaker’s in the task of making. The difference lies not only in the sensibility of the maker but also in the technological breakthrough that allowed Leacock to marry the motion image to synchronous sound, thus vastly expanding the horizon of what stories could be told.
For the past two decades, the story experience was expanded as media makers incorporated computational “interactive” interfaces into their work, inviting the audience to re-order the presentation on the fly as they explored an archive of short segments. In this phase, however, the documentary impulse continued to be defined by the primary sensors of the past: motion images and (synchronous) sound.
Today, the arrival of expanded sensing technologies is reshaping the documentary opportunity. In a new work-in-progress, DoppelMarsh, developed in the Responsive Environment Group at the Media Lab, data from a dense network of diverse environmental sensors are mapped to deliver “a sense of being there” in a re-synthesized, ever-changing landscape.
Glorianna Davenport is a co-founder of the Media Lab where she directed the Interactive Cinema Group (1987-2004) and the Media Fabrics Group (2004-2008). In 2008, she turned her attention to transitioning a 600 acre cranberry farm in Plymouth Massachusetts into restored wetlands and conservation property. In 2011 she founded Living Observatory, a collaborative of research partners including the Responsive Environments Group at the Media Lab to develop a long-term study of this property and create experiences that invite the public to witness ecological change across this landscape in transition. Davenport is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab.