I recently had the opportunity to chat over Skype with Professor Sharon Daniel, who I met at Visible Evidence last summer, but whose work I’ve been following and admiring for some time. During our conversation I was inspired by how she described her own art practice methodology and how, in it, she is able to combine theory, practice, research, design, art and activism. We also talked her most recent work and current developments in the field of new media documentary.
Image from University of Washington's Simpson Center for the Humanities (from Oct 2011, Right: Sharon Daniel)
Q. To start, how do you describe the discipline your work belongs to?
A. I think I cross over a couple of different disciplinary boundaries. When I talk about my work I always point out that I see myself as a “context provider,” as opposed to a content provider – shifting the role of the artist from providing content to providing context. I describe the work I am doing now as “new media documentary.” I feel that it’s the most accurate and concise way to describe my current projects. This work is a form of digital humanities and it’s also a form of art practice. My background is in the visual arts, but I would say I include humanities analysis within a non-linear, database driven documentary, which is then framed by what I call “anecdotal theory.” So, I cross over between the arts and the humanities.
Q. Can you elaborate on the enduring role of “context provider” in your projects?
A. For me, the connection between new media documentary and context provision is quite direct because the work that I do is not single character, story driven documentary, but database driven documentary. I provide a context that makes the voices of the communities that I’m working with available. As those voices are multiple, the work is poly- and multivocal. For each project I collect the statements and the perspectives of a fairly large number of people who share a particular experience: for example, incarcerated women, or incarcerated people in general, first in “Public Secrets”and now for “Undoing Time”; or injection drug users, in the case of “Blood Sugar.” I try to provide a context that allows their voices to be heard both individually and as a collective voice. I have a firm belief in the power of this approach -- I think there’s a weight of evidence when you hear one story after another, after another. The impact has to do with the very particularity of one individual’s experience connected to the very particularity of another individual’s experience and how they relate to the same set of issues – this kind of oscillation between the individual and the collective helps produce an analysis of structural inequality. Now while a linear, story driven or character driven documentary film can be very powerful, in the sense that it tells a narrative, I think that it’s all too easy for this type of documentary to resolve with the viewer thinking, “well, how tragic,” or, “what a terrible travesty for this one individual,” or, “what an awful (but unique) miscarriage of justice.” That viewer is not compelled to consider the larger questions and implications – how racism, poverty, lack of access to education and health care – in short, how structural inequality lies at the core of the tragedy or injustice. If the viewer isn’t led, or forced, to analysis of structural inequality then he or she is not implicated and won’t be moved to act or change.
It all goes back to “the personal is political” – in early feminist consciousness raising sessions “the personal is political” meanttaking the focus off individual responsibility and recognizing that women were a subjugated “class.” Speaking from primary experience (as an individual with a particular perspective), and as part of a “class” of shared experience, constitutes a political act. It takes more than one story.
Screenshots from Public Secrets and Blood Sugar
Q. How are you currently exploring the form of new media documentary?
A. I see “Public Secrets” and “Blood Sugar” as part of a series of new media documentary projects examining social and economic injustice across a spectrum of public institutions. These works are designed to provide testimony and evidence of how state institutions, social structures and economic conditions connect in a causal chain that fosters and perpetuates social injustice. The third work in this series, “Undoing Time,” will be an online, database driven documentary, similar to “Public Secrets” and “Blood Sugar,” but it will also include a material archive and video installation. In this new work, I am exploring the potential of materiality, performativity and demonstration or gesture to test new forms of participation and collaboration, or co-creation, to address audiences in physical public spaces.
For the installation for "Undoing Time" I am taking products produced in prison factories and inscribing them with quotes from interviews in which incarcerated men and women describe their encounters with the criminal justice system and discuss what it means to "do time" in California’s state prisons. For example, I embroider a prisoner’s statement about medical malpractice in the prison onto a medical technician’s jacket. I etch quotes about prison conditions into steel mirrors and stain them into mattresses used in cells. I take a text written by former prisoner Beverly Henry while she worked in the prison flag factory -- a statement that contrasts her life experience against the promises of life, liberty and equality the flag purportedly represents -- and embroider it into the stripes of US flags produced in the prison.
Videos will accompany four of the products in the installation. In each of these, a former prisoner describes the methods used to produce the product, as well as how its making is part of "doing time," and how its meaning or function in a larger social context is "undone" by its origins within the prison. In each of these videos, the former prisoner/ interviewee/ co-creator performs a symbolic "undoing" of the product. For example, Beverly Henry un-does the stitches in one of the 8’ x 12’ US flags she sewed in prison.
The symbolic and poetic alterations performed on the objects in these videos provides a compelling gateway to an interactive online documentary, including interviews with more than 30 prisoners, which viewers will access through a custom designed iPhone/iPad "museum-tour."
Q. How do you apply your personal art practice methodology, with all of its intensity and rigor, to the development of a practice-based curriculum?
A. I try to have students explore the methodology that I use. I have them experiment with, and push, that methodology. I think that’s how most all people, particularly artists, teach. Now that methodology includes research, inquiry and theoretical exploration. It’s about finding the intersections between the fieldwork, and what’s collected there, and the core conceptual premise, and the theoretical apparatus that supports that premise.
For example, the piece I’m working on now, “Undoing Time,” is about justice and punishment; it addresses the question of time as punishment. The piece is about the perceptual and phenomenological aspects of doing time. In working on this project I’m simultaneously looking at all the interviews I’ve recorded with people who are serving life sentences while I’m also doing a lot of reading about theories of time and the perception of time, in addition to doing significant reading in legal studies about punishment and the constitutionality of punishment. And then at a certain point, I start to diagram or graph a set of relationships that are more conceptual and intellectual, and that’s the first step in the design process – the graph becomes the basis for the design of the information architecture. And, so, I do kind of think of myself doing information architecture when I design a database. I think diagrammatically and in terms of taxonomies. And I do that, in a way, through a set of theoretical premises, political discourses and also through conversations.
I think of design as argument, so I’m very interested in the terms of the way that humanists work, inquiry and argument. And I think I talked about this at “Visible Evidence” – when we first met -- using design as a form of argument and using navigation as the form of inquiry for the viewer, or user, of my work. And the argument is framed and supported by what I think of as “anecdotal theory,” which is how my own story gets integrated, to explicate the relation between the fieldwork material and the theoretical material.
I share my methodology - particularly in relation to design-as-argument and navigation-as-inquiry - as one approach for students to explore. I do encourage students to experiment and to find a methodological approach that is suitable to their own work. The curriculum I’ve helped to create for the Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) MFA at UC Santa Cruz is not focused on documentary practice but it is designed to produce hybrid artist-scholars who engage in a research-based practice and are able to theorize that practice – that’s the goal of the curriculum.
Q. What successes and challenges you have encountered in building a community? Although, in relation to your work “community” might be an overdetermined word. Maybe we can start by addressing the professional community of “new media documentary” practitioners and scholars. What have been the successes and challenges you’ve observed there?
A. Well, I think there are some really exciting things going on with explorations of documentary online. Though you’re right; for me, community is much more related to political and social issues. It’s about the way that people come together to articulate and engage in the realm of social justice and politics. But a professional community is also very important, in terms of sharing scholarship and practice. I remember once, when I was at a conference in India, I met a scholar from Australia, Danny Butt, and he said something that’s really important to me. He said that scholarship, like friendship, is about sharing. I thought that was a beautiful idea. Scholarship is really about engagement with others and I don’t think it has to be as hierarchically striated as it sometimes ends up being in practice. That’s one aspect of how I think about community and its importance.
In terms of the field of new media documentary and professional community, there seems to be a lot of energy around database documentary, new media documentary and database narrative emerging from filmmaking circles. There were two new and important conferences last year, namely the D|N|A symposium in Montreal last summer and the i-Docs symposium in Bristol last spring, I have actually just returned from iDocs – my second year to participate in this event. Last year both i-Docs and D|N|A concluded with a call for publication proposals and there are forthcoming publications, one digital – on the Scalar platform - emerging out of D|N|A, and a special issue of the Journal of Documentary Studies, representing the first i-Docs conference. The Tribeca Film Institute is starting to fund interactive documentary and web-based documentary works. Their call for proposals does seem to focus on “transmedia” – translating cinematic explorations of social issues with character driven and linear narrative approaches for the web. So, there is an interest in new media documentary coming from the film world. But there’s also a longer history of people, like me, doing net art online and working in participatory media. My background is not in filmmaking but in video and conceptual art practice – I’ve been making works that are in various ways participatory, collaborative and designed for the internet since 1996.
However, it can also be a little frustrating. I feel like the one world doesn’t know anything about the other world and, at times, I’m sort of straddling the two. Still, where these fields are intersecting interesting projects and tools are emerging. I find that exciting. And, of course, it’s always exciting when foundations and funders acknowledge the potential political and social efficacy of various types of scholarly and artistic practices -- which is something I’m very concerned about. I believe that public humanities scholarship and public art practice can be socially and politically productive. I like seeing that acknowledged by institutions outside academia.
Q. It seems like that’s part of the challenge – making the work understandable to the different communities that compose the larger community, while also making it understood to funders.
A. Exactly. Both of the conferences that I mentioned, D|N|A and i-Docs, when they met afterward to reflect on what publications should be included they both realized they needed a section about activism. I have written on the relation between art and politics and expanded documentary practice for both of these publications – taking two of my projects, “Public Secrets” and “Blood Sugar”, as case studies. I hope these sort of field-setting publications will help in this regard. But, more importantly, I’m personally very concerned about the actual efficacy of political art and scholarship. It’s important that these questions are emerging and being taken seriously. It’s important that people are reflecting on this and that there’s a larger conversation going on about it. In that, I do feel that a community is building. The challenge, for me and for this community, is to move forward in terms of the efficacious use of the tools and media, as well as in the methodologies and approaches that we’re all exploring.
Sharon Daniel is a Professor in the Film and Digital Media Department and the Digital Arts and New Media MFA program at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she teaches classes in digital media theory and practice. She engages in the production of “new media documentaries” -- building online archives and interfaces that make the stories of marginalized and disenfranchised communities available across social, cultural and economic boundaries. Her research is focused on the use and development of information and communications technologies to foster social inclusion. Daniel's work has been exhibited internationally at museums and festivals including, WRO media art biennial 2011 (Poland), Artefact 2010 (Belgium), Transmediale 08 (Germany), the ISEA/ZeroOne festival (2006 and 2010), the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival DEAF03 (Netherlands), Ars Electronica (Austria), the Lincoln Center Festival (NY/USA), the Corcoran Biennial (Washington DC) and the University of Paris I (France), as well as on the Internet. Her essays have been published in books including Context Providers (Intellect Press 2011), Database Aesthetics (Minnesota University Press 2007) and the Sarai Reader05 as well as in professional journals such as Cinema Journal, Leonardo and Springerin. She has been awarded the prestigious Rockefeller/Tribeca Film Festival New Media Fellowship and honored by the Webby Awards.