PART 5: ESTUARIES: MEDIA CO-CREATION ACROSS DISCIPLINES
Professional disciplines, sectors, and organizations are often deeply divided by specialization, jargon, protocols, and hierarchies. But around the world, artists, journalists, scientists, and institutions are developing estuaries in which to mix and create ideas and worldviews through crossing and dissolving these boundaries. With unconventional work methods, the sectors have arrived at unexpected outcomes. From temporary hackathons to more sustained models such as residencies, incubators, platforms, and labs, they mix art, science, and human-centered design with, for example, the newsroom, to produce climate-change reporting with citizens’ collection of evidence. These experiments tackle the complex problems of the 21st century while enabling inclusivity and diversity, and honoring expertise from people of all walks of life.
For us, media co-creation lives within a specific range; it is work that is devised together, that embarks on a joint journey of discovery, and has outcomes with implications for multiple disciplines and areas of knowledge. This work is not in service of one partner or discipline, although too often specialists and self-appointed thought leaders may push it in that direction. In this section we explore how co-creation can work in cross-, trans-, and even beyond-disciplinary spaces. But co-creation takes specific conditions to flourish: openness, flexibility, intention, iteration, abandonment of ego, deep teamwork, and, most significantly, time.
1. DISCIPLINES AND DIVISIONS IN SCIENCE, CULTURE AND MEDIA
While modern disciplines are an invention of the 19th century, and have left a mark on how arts and sciences are imagined, collaboration across disciplines was never completely abandoned. When specialists enter cross-disciplinary settings, there are legitimate fears of a backlash in the form of the braking mechanisms of hiring and tenure decisions at universities; grant categories and review boards; and academic journals and editorial boards. Still, we see efforts such as multi-disciplinary teams in medicine, multi-organization collaborations in other fields, and attempts to create interdisciplinary spaces.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was founded in the mid-19th century on the basis of breaking down barriers between areas of classic scientific knowledge. The university arguably created the industrializing world’s first co-working spaces when they put scientists from different disciplines into open working spaces together. The founders sought new educational models that stretched beyond the confines of classical institutions that they claimed no longer served an industrializing society. The motto of MIT is Mens et Manus, “mind and hand,” or, learning by doing. While it was a long while before the institution began work that intersected much with the arts and humanities—much of its agenda was driven for a time by military funding—MIT’s example shows how thinking can be affected by diverse disciplinarity. MIT understood early, that to spark innovation, diverse teams of scientists needed to work in the same physical space and share easily.
Well into the 20th century, the scientific world was still missing a tool for instantaneous collaboration across geographical space, one that was able to accelerate the now well-known benefits of multi-disciplinary approaches in the sciences. The internet (known then as ARPANET) had been invented in 1969 but lacked a many-to-many platform. The development of the web as we know it today was a luminary example of co-creation: multiple players moving in uncharted space to develop, iterate, and build platforms for sustained collaboration.
Tim Berners-Lee, now a professor at MIT, was a young engineer freelancing for the CERN laboratory in the latter part of the 20th century. CERN had been created jointly by a large international consortium of research centers, but it still lacked a way to share and communicate data across distances. Berners-Lee developed what would eventually be known as the World Wide Web, a peer-to-peer network of nodes, built on top of the internet. Fortunately, he also felt it should be free and accessible to the rest of the world, and with the generous act of releasing his code in 1991, Berners-Lee gave the world a decentralized computer networking protocol to share, innovate, and start-up, at levels not seen before.
Unfortunately, most cultural institutions around the world were slow to dive into the digital era that the open web revealed, and only did so by creating siloed digital departments. They relegated use of the web to marketing, and only later hired a few digital producers. “Sometimes there's a department over there, a skunkworks, a secret department, a leading-edge technology department, and they're responsible for innovation,” said Gerry Flahive, a documentary producer and writer who worked at the National Film Board of Canada for over three decades, “Meanwhile, the rest of us are over digging coal just the way we have for a hundred years.” Now, finally, legacy institutions are coming around to understanding that digital infrastructures and cultures are not only native platforms on which to create, but profound transformations of every possible form of cultural production.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley and the tech industry have become the 21st century’s predominant driver s of innovation, but they too suffer from hyper-specialization, with little social or cultural context, or interdisciplinary practice beyond the fields of engineering, programming, marketing, and complex finance. Recent revelations of nefarious uses of their data and systems have been met by astoundingly naïve and/or disingenuous surprise among these corporations’ senior management.
“I'd argue that if Facebook had worked very deeply and collaboratively with the creative community ten years ago or so, that they possibly wouldn't be in the trouble that they're in currently,” said Domhnaill Hernon, an engineer who runs the legendary Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) program at Nokia Bell Labs, in our interview. He continues:
Nor would any of the other big tech companies, in how they develop their technologies. So that's one element or one dimension — how they [could] influence our thinking to be more human-centric, which is completely, absolutely missing from the entire STEM education system globally as best I can tell. And that has not changed significantly in quite some time.
Evgeny Morozov describes this gap as “techno-solutionism,” that is, the troublesome belief that all problems can be solved by technology. He states:
[Solutionists] have a very poor grasp not just of human nature but also of the complex practices that this nature begets and thrives on. It’s as if the solutionists have never lived a life of their own but learned everything they know from books – and those books weren’t novels but manuals for refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines.1
The tech industry is building the engines and operating systems of humanity, all of which have huge ethical implications. While companies such as YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, Google, etc., are providing new platforms for the arts and culture, culture is imagined primarily as an engineering problem, that is, with recommendation algorithms standing in for individual and group tastes.
In Making a New Reality (2018), a report on inclusion and diversity in emerging tech storytelling, Kamal Sinclair calls for sharing space, finding these recurring themes in her experience and research. Sinclair believes that it is necessary to:
[p]romote the intrinsic value of each other’s sectors. Create shared language and practices. Invest in hybrid talent. Strategically embed artists with technologists and scientists. Thoughtfully include the arts in spaces of power. Build interdisciplinary community outside spaces of power.
Many of those interviewed for the purpose of this project agree that trans-disciplinary and beyond-sector co-creation are crucial to solving the world’s biggest problems.
2. CO-CREATION AMONG ARTISTS, SCIENTISTS, AND MEDIA
“Science is looking for answers, while art is looking for questions,” artist Marc Quinn told Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian, in 2011. He had been commissioned by England’s National Portrait Gallery to make a portrait of scientist John Sulston, one of the scientists who decoded the human genome. Quinn used DNA from samples of Sulston’s sperm, then cut and grew them in bacteria. Sulston says he actually did very little apart from contributing his DNA, thus the project was, technically, a collaboration and not a co-creation. But increasingly, artists and scientists have been discovering that truly co-creative partnerships can result in richer outcomes, when one partner does not have all the answers, or even all the questions.
Gina Czarnecki, for example, a British pioneer in bioart, has considered most of her partnerships with scientists as collaborative rather than co-creative, treating scientists mostly as “people who provide information.” But for her recent project, Heirloom (2016), she partnered with University of Liverpool professor of clinical sciences John Hunt in a deep, co-creative process of discovery in art, science, and the ethics of both. Their work has resulted in a project based on the harvested cells of Czarnecki’s daughters and built into 3D masks that have travelled to major galleries, but also resulted in Hunt inventing a new medium in which to grow stem cells. The mask project is in turn leading to innovations in medicine, since in previous clinical applications cells were grown flat and were then difficult to stretch over curved human surfaces. Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University is setting out to explore how the new techniques might be applied to reconstructing faces from archaeological finds, and there is growing interest in using these methods to treat burned or scarred patients.
“Working with John,” Czarnecki told the Forma Arts website:
has very much been an equal co-authored collaboration, with the focus being on progressing not only the artistic concerns which helped scientists with public engagement and educational agendas, but also the scientific possibilities which – working in the context of art – could facilitate new hybrid discoveries at a different pace.
Lisa Parks, a digital-media scholar at MIT, first experienced co-creation in 2003 when she worked with two academics/artists to produce research on physical and media infrastructure in Europe, as well as for her critically acclaimed art shows in Berlin. Parks stated: “We were excited about issues of technological literacy and how people in relation to these systems understood them as part of their life worlds, and what the limits of their knowledge [were].” Today, Parks is still co-creating as she unpacks infrastructures and how they interact with the people within and around them. In her new project she is studying local responses to the centralization of digital infrastructures in what she terms, Network Sovereignty. She is co-creating with Ramesh Srinivasan at UCLA along with three community partners around the world: a publicly owned mobile-phone network in the mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico, Rhizomatica; a community-internet network in the Serengeti; and Oki Communications, which is partly owned by the Blackfeet Nation. Parks observes in our interview:
There’s reason for those on the fringes and in these rural areas to actually assert ownership over these systems, rather than to just think the state, or a corporation, is going to build out the system in these areas, because often it's not financially beneficial. […] A lot of people who make claims that the world is going to be flattened by digital technologies simply haven't gone to rural disenfranchised communities to see what the material conditions are like, and to listen to the voices of people who live there.
Katerina Cizek co-created a comparable cross-disciplinary project under the National Film Board of Canada’s HIGHRISE umbrella, with the digital documentary Universe Within (2015). She partnered with two academics at the University of Toronto, the critical geographer, Deborah Cowen, and Emily Paradis, a social-work scholar specializing in participatory action research methods. Cizek, Cowen, and Paradis teamed up with a group of 14 residents in two high rises in suburban Toronto, where Cizek had been working for several years, to develop and conduct a participatory-action survey. The residents asked their neighbors (in more than a dozen different languages) about their digital lives, especially their transnational connections. The team also traveled to a suburban high rise near Mumbai, India and asked similar questions in community settings. Through these processes of joint discovery, they created media tools for use by the buildings’ tenants’ associations, and collaborated with the Universe Within video project, with the digital agency Secret Location. Secret Location conceived and developed the online interface and story structure which developed into a hybrid work of documentary/fiction. Cowen and Paradis et al. also co-edited a related collection of essays (forthcoming) entitled Infrastructures of Citizenship: Digital Life in the Global City.
The crossover of art and science is growing, as projects both use and investigate our ever-more-complex, networked world. With emerging media such as VR and AI, these connections are almost impossible to untangle. (For more, see also the Spotlight on Hyphen Labs in this part.)
Journalism and Science Meet
Journalists now also work across disciplines, and sometimes use co-creative approaches to address the biggest issues of our times — stories too complex for one reporter, or one newsroom, or the legacy journalistic tools of the 20th century.
The ISeeChange platform, as mentioned earlier, is an example of how co-creative and cross-disciplinary methods are shared between reporters, scientists, on-the-ground community members, and now, with NASA, “to create a citizen science corps that will correlate community experiences to space-based observations of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, season-to-season, year-to-year” according to their website. This trans-disciplinary approach comes from the ground up and the sky down, figuratively, and literally.
In ISeeChange’s first project tracking drought in Colorado (2015), the group’s CEO, Julia Kumari Drapkin, stated that “we found that the community flagged environmental trends up to three months in advance of official reports,” She reported in our interview:
So we were talking about drought and wildfire in March and April before Colorado burnt down that fall and summer. We had four trends that we ended up reporting ahead of time, but there were these two insights: One, that residents were experts in their own backyard and we could learn from them and take our cues from them and respond and let them initiate the process. And, two, that this form of record-keeping with stories and data and math together can be really powerful for documenting climate change.
Whether tracking rising urban heat in public housing in Harlem, or flooding in New Orleans, ISeeChange considers community members to be equal partners in the trans-disciplinary approach to documentation and campaigning. In this report, while we have divided transdisciplinary and community co-creation into sections for reasons of clarity, in reality all of these practices must go hand-in-hand. As Drapkin stated in our interview:
I come at it from the documentary space, the filmmaking space, radio space — I've worked in all of those spaces. But where do we begin and end, if it's art, if it's science, if it's data, if it's engineering or design? We're just laser-focused on empowering the community to include their voice on what to monitor and how to adapt.
She added, “Both journalism and science have pushed way too far in distancing ourselves — even failing to recognize that we ourselves are community members.”
(For an overview of co-creative practices in journalism, see Part 3.)
3. RESIDENCIES, HACKATHONS, LABS, AND INCUBATORS
Many organizations are helping to cross-pollinate science, arts, and media by creating long-term or temporary subspaces and events to bring practitioners together. In the next section, we’ll examine some examples of this work.
The American arts residency generally follows one of two traditions: “in the woods” or “in the lab.” The “in the woods” model has a Walden-like quality that favors the single author, isolates the artist, encouraging them to work in natural, secluded environments, perhaps with a cohort of other artists to meet for dinner and discussion. The “in the lab” model, by contrast, throws artists deep into the contained environment of a scientific lab or the routines of everyday life in government or industry for an extended period.
In the mid-1960s the London (UK) artist Barbara Steveni launched the Artist Placement Group or A.P.G. (later Organisation and Imagination, or O+I) with her husband John Latham, and participating artists such as Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, and other members of the Fluxus group, David Toop, Hugh Davies, and more. The purpose of this was to facilitate residencies for artists at non-gallery institutions such as the British Steel company, or the Department for Health and Social Security (U.K.).2 Their resultant work is now held at the Tate Archives. At around the same time in the U.S., MIT began to cross modern art with science at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, founded by Gyrögy Kepes. Meanwhile, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman co-founded E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) with the engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer, to facilitate projects using video, sonar, optical effects, and other new technologies for art performances and installations.
“In the artist-technologist collaborations that I’ve looked at from the 1950s and ’60s, the work that went on was primarily ideological,” Stanford communications scholar, Fred Turner, wrote. He observed:
It made it possible for engineers who were building our media and communication systems, the Bell Labs sound system, or the engineers working at NASA on rocket engines that would send things into space, or people working in Silicon Valley on Polaris missiles, to imagine themselves as the same kind of exquisitely sensitive and culturally elite person that, say, a John Cage was, or Robert Rauschenberg was.
These in-the-lab models fell out of favor for a period of time, but these practices are making a comeback. Gerfried Stocker, the artistic director of Ars Electronica, a think tank and festival founded in 1979 to champion the arts and sciences in Linz, Austria, was quoted in a 2017 New York Times interview, that he “believes that artists have become cultural missionaries in a time of intensive transformation driven by new technology. It’s crucial,” he said, ‘‘that humanistic voices address the ethical and moral questions created by this transformation.”3 Ars Electronica helped develop an arts residency at CERN, which in turn is now partnering with FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), based in Liverpool, to produce and showcase the work.
The residency model of the modern artist working within a scientific institution, however, still suggests inspiration, with at best, some collaboration, rather than true co-creation. More recently, Nokia Bell Labs, involved in early E.A.T. programs, revived them with co-creative results. Through their 2017 year-long artist residency, the dance troupe Hammerstep began experimenting with an emergent drone technology then in development at the lab. The dancers found the gesture-control interface for the drones very limiting, and through sustained dialogue and experimentation, according to Nokia Bell Labs’ Domhnaill Hernon, transformed it. In our interview, he said:
[the dancers] opened up the mindset of the engineers about how, through our design of those algorithms, we had really, severely limited the creative potential of the technology we were using. […] They now have a level of adaptability and flexibility that's much more intuitive and natural for controlling the drones that they would not have had if they were left to their own with their research and not engaged the artistic group.
The co-creative process resulted not only in a public dance performance, but significant design changes to the drones’ gesture-control algorithms, related wearable devices, and the platform-networking systems within which they operate. Other companies such as Facebook, Adobe, Planet Lab, and Autodesk have programs that often bring established artists into the lab for short residencies to beta-test tech, find new uses for the products, and also help to discover and solve bugs and interface issues.
In another, more socially engaged co-creative model, Katerina Cizek’s five-year, National Film Board residency at a Toronto inner-city hospital, called Filmmaker-in-Residence, included media projects that were framed as research projects in partnership with doctors, nurses, and other community stakeholders. All of these projects were passed through the hospital’s ethical-review board. The projects affected policies at the hospital, in the city, and even at the provincial level, including sensitivity training for emergency and delivery-room staff, as well as police protocols for dealing with people in mental-health crises.
Fellowships often also loosely follow the residency model. The Mozilla Foundation, funded by the Knight Foundation, for example, placed five cohorts of research fellows for ten months each in newsrooms across the U.S. and Germany to infuse journalism with open-source expertise. More recently, Mozilla has put the journalism fellowships on hold in order to run a variation of the program in which artists, coders, and activists are embedded into international NGOs to work on independent research and project development. All of these projects, however, are at risk of losing impact once the residency is over.
Hackathons, Labs, and Pop-Ups
Residencies programs imply a longer-term stay, often with big, established names. Many organizations have tried much shorter, leaner, and faster tests for cross-pollinations, as digital culture introduced a new era of collaborative possibilities. One early model was the (in)famous hackathon.
Hackathons began sprouting up in the tech world near the turn of the 21st century as a means to pool diverse coding talent and attack a specific problem in a software project, while locked up in the same room, often over 24 or 36 hours. A stereotype emerged from these hackathons: young, white, middle-class coders pulling all-nighters fueled by energy drinks, to solve a bug in the system. Soon, hackathons even became recruitment tools for companies, poaching talent that had proved themselves at exploitative hackathon-style auditions. Still, the core principle was generative: assemble divergent talent to solve a problem quickly and then come out with a prototype or something that will showcase the idea.
Within a few years, cultural provocateurs began adapting the hackathon model to the world of storytelling. Small groups and think tanks sprouted up to spread the word. Banff’s New Media Institute, a pioneer in emerging tech, convened groups. San Francisco’s Bay Area Video Collection (BAVC) residency program nurtured projects such as Question Bridge (see: Spotlight in Part 2) as the first public new media lab in the US. These hackathon-minded evangelists began to travel; Peter Wintonick roamed the world to documentary festivals, with his group, Docagora, and evangelized about the possibilities of the web and a connected world in the context of documentary work.
Power to the Pixel in London brought together European players from gaming, interactive, documentary, fiction, and other industries.
“It was kind of exciting and in the ten years, seeing relationships being formed,” said Liz Rosenthal of Power to the Pixel in our interview. “People who are usually stuck in their organizations or in their industry silo, coming together and going, ‘Oh my gosh, we've shared exactly the same issues and are looking at the same challenges and the same creative practices.’"
CrossOver Labs in the UK also germinated the seeds of rapid prototyping, and facilitated 50+ labs around the world. These labs hired technologists specializing in gaming, open-source coding, and interface design, to work with visual artists, story specialists in documentary, feature film, and editing, and specialists from fields as diverse as architecture, agriculture, physics and botany. Putting such diverse disciplines together in a room carried consequences. In our interview, the former director of the labs, Heather Croall warned that the process of self-examination and creative pressure is tough. “Everyone hates it when they're there, but it's really good to go through it because then that's where you discover really new things,” she told us (she is now the director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival). “In order to deal with that, we used to take people to really beautiful hotels in the countryside that they wouldn't want to leave. It's a bit like going to the [birthing] center or something. But then by the end of the time, it's great.”
By 2011, the Tribeca Institute, with their New Media Fund, began holding hackathons, which eventually extended into Story Labs, to incubate emerging media projects. One outcome was Do Not Track by Brett Gaylor, a six-part online “personalized documentary” that showed users, by accessing their own data, how a film and the web can watch you back. Tribeca ran hackathons across the States and internationally at CERN in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Israel. Opeyemi Olukemi, who worked with Tribeca at the time, said in our interview:
When people come together, everyone has a different philosophy of how to work. So I start from ground zero and I have them create the best way forward. And I don't push. … It's more about saying, what can we create together? … [It] goes beyond an experience, it goes beyond a project, it goes beyond an event. It's also the ability to really expand your mind to work in a different capacity. And also hopefully build relationships that can also extend in a more impactful way.
New Frontier (NF) at Sundance is perhaps the best funded and most influential cross-disciplinary lab currently running in the emergent media space. NF takes the longstanding film-lab model at Sundance and morphs it into a cross- and beyond-disciplinary week, with a carefully curated selection of six projects, organized loosely with a theme, and often focusing on emerging technologies. For a week every year at the Sundance Resort, a group of 40 people filmmakers, technology advisors and industry mentors convene. Kamal Sinclair, former director of New Frontier, always welcomes participants by assuring everyone that they are meant to be there, since many of them have privately confessed to her they have impostor’s syndrome when they first arrive, because the expertise in the room is so divergent.
Another Sundance program, called Stories of Change, running in partnership with Skoll Foundation, partners social entrepreneurs with storytellers. The relationships vary from simple coordination of film launches to deep co-creation in which a project is conceived and emerges from the partnerships. New Frontiers also has a Native Lab Fellowship specifically dedicated to supporting Indigenous filmmakers, and has partnered with the University of Santa Cruz’s World Building Institute to hold workshops imagining the future of Los Angeles with designers, documentarians, and technologists. As well, the London and New York-based Doc Society created Good Pitch, which developed into an international network of day-long gatherings to help match social and political documentarians with non-profits, foundations, and NGOs in an effort to co-create outreach and engagement strategies.
Meanwhile, new kinds of pop-up labs have begun to emerge. “These different models do different things,” reports Ingrid Kopp in our interview, formerly of Tribeca Institute and now co-founder of Electric South. Kopp continues:
I've always loved this idea of ‘temporary autonomous zones.’ You have these pop-up zones and they can't be commodified or corrupted too much because they don't last for long enough for any of that to happen. You can't even have someone write a snarky tweet about them. I think there's something really amazing about those.
Electric South’s VR+ labs tap Africa’s talent in fashion design, music, and photography in an effort to bring more disciplines into immersive media. Wendy Levy of the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture has run Hatchlabs in multiple U.S. locations to partner storytellers with scientists and community organizations in quick matchmaking sessions. Henry Jenkins runs adjacent workshops called Civic Imagination which have a youth and civic focus. The point of these sessions is to bring together diverse stakeholders in a local community, many of whom have been segregated from each other in their daily lives, to imagine their common futures.
Pop-up hacks, labs, or workshops may vary in length, approach, and commitment, but they are all intended to harness the new energy that is sparked when people from different disciplines and walks of life are put together. “You have to be really intentional about what it is that those [events] are trying to do,” said Ingrid Kopp. “Hackathons are terrible to build a project, but I think they're great to get people working together to think about different ways of working. It's nice to have a prototype. […] It doesn't have to go anywhere after that.”
Beyond the hackathon model, Silicon Valley birthed another method of tech development, the incubator. The most famous incubator is Y Combinator, which started in 2005 to provide seed money, space, mentors, and networking within the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Each year they accept two batches of projects, and to date the incubator has helped over 1,000 companies form, representing a combined valuation of over USD 80 billion. (Y Combinator takes 7 per cent equity upfront.) Similar tech start-up incubators have mushroomed around the planet.
The bottom line in this context is financial profit, but what if the model could be adapted to a bottom line that stood for something else? New Museum, for example, prides itself in having begun the first museum-led cultural incubator, NEW INC . Director Stephanie Pereira explained to us:
The museum’s incubator is predicated on the idea of artists and designers and people working in this weird, squishy space in between technology, architecture, civic design, etc. The ideas, the values, the belief system can be incubated by creating a space where those things can come together. We're going to advance culture and also [make] a space that's equitable.
Prior to New Museum, two universities in Bristol (U.K.) were already modeling a similar framework, collaborating with the media center Watershed to create the Pervasive Media Studio and its multi-year REACT project. REACT was a four-year project in which artists, makers, researchers, creative technologists, and others came together in a series of five sandboxes to explore themes such as play, heritage, and documentary. The documentary sandbox was the setting in which the Quipu team co-designed its work with collaborators in Peru (discussed in Part 2). The Watershed Sandbox, in their published guide , details how the methodology enables “creative risks within a carefully curated community, providing individuals and small companies with space, money and time to work on their most exciting ideas.”
The Power of Permanence
Incubation, development and project-based partnerships are crucial to co-creation, but there are cases to be made for long-term investments as well. Mandy Rose runs the Digital Cultures Research Centre which is based in the Pervasive Media Studio discussed above, and represents UWE Bristol, one of the two universities in that collaboration. Rose made the following comments in our interview:
The studio arose from a realization that teams were coming together to do innovative work with creative technology, but when projects were finished and teams disbanded, the learnings weren’t consolidated. […] The studio community and the physical space provide important continuity in which ideas and approaches can develop through different iterations across time. As academics, we’re part of that dialogue, and research feeds into it and grows out of it.
These types of more permanent hubs are popping up at American universities in journalism, film, and digital-culture programs. Some examples of these hubs are: Alex McDowell’s World Building Lab at the University of Santa Cruz, Lance Weiler’s Digital Storytelling Lab at Columbia University, and Gabo Arora’s Immersive Lab at Johns Hopkins.
But not all long-term collaborative spaces are academically sponsored. Since 1998, Eyebeam in New York has committed space that offers a locale in which, according to its website, participants may “think creatively and critically about how technology was transforming our society.” It offers residents time, space, and money to envision and produce in an open-source environment. Another example is Katerina Cizek’s experience in which she was privileged to find a long-term setting for her work as a co-creative documentarian at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). The NFB is perhaps unique as a cultural institution, having contributed to tech innovation (inventing IMAX, for example), as well as conducting social initiatives such as the Challenge for Change program, and projects such as Cizek’s Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE, which combined both.
In 2018, the DocLab at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) initiated a five-year research collaboration with MIT’s Open Documentary Lab as part of a larger research and development fund. Researchers, makers, technologists, and the public will work together to define and explore areas of mutual interest in the documentary and new media space. Ultimately, the goal is to shorten the cycle between research and production by linking research findings to project incubation.
Research and development departments at legacy media institutions come and go, but they do offer a level of in-house stability that can be very healthy for co-creation. The New York Times has research labs, as does The Guardian, as do many public broadcasters around the world. One lab may deal with VR, another with social media, and another with audience engagement. These institutions can foster cross-pollination by putting together unusual teams from different legacy departments. But the terms are often not long in existence, and the perspective can be short. The question to ponder is how might innovation and co-creation lodge more stably in the structures of such organizations?
MIT media scholar Ethan Zuckerman is excited about newly hired employee positions and/or programs at tech companies that invest more long term in new interdisciplinary co-creative methods. He lists prominent ethnographers now working for tech companies, such as Genevieve Bell, a senior VP at Intel, and dana boyd, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft.
Domhnaill Hernon at Nokia Bell Labs advocates for a deeper cross-disciplinary education, starting in the elementary and high schools:
[By university, in] the STEM subjects in particular, there’s practically zero exposure to the creative side of the world at all. I mean you're just forced to learn your algorithms and help solve technical problems. And in the actual workplace … it’s not just a matter of bringing in one artist for a month and then hoping everything will magically be better. That's just a load of nonsense. […] The creative world do not understand how technologists think and operate, they don't understand how tech companies think and operate, so there's a big disconnect between these two worlds. […] and there's not enough people educating across both sides to bridge those gaps. So I think that's the biggest challenge, but it's also the biggest opportunity.
4. CONCLUSIONS: BEYOND DISCIPLINES — OCCUPYING THE THIRD SPACE
Many co-creative practitioners and thinkers have moved so far beyond their disciplines that old-school definitions don’t apply anymore. At the beginning of every interview we conducted for this field study, we asked people to describe how they identify. One prominent artist simply said, “Person.” Another interviewee said, “Tired,” referring to Hannah Gadsby’s hit Netflix standup special called Nanette, which was in part about the performer’s weariness of laboring under the label ‘lesbian comedian’.
A few interviewees discussed working in an in-between space, including Lance Weiler, a speculative designer. According to Julia Kumari Drapkin, head of ISeeChange, “We have actually decided to just stop calling ourselves by any traditional label because it doesn't service what we do. We are very trans-disciplinary and we have just been shedding identity right and left in order to get it done, in order to do it right.” Danish cognitive scientist Kristian Moltke Martiny describes it as working in a Third Space.4 Academic funding agencies are moving beyond siloed approaches. For example in Canada, a new publicly-supported Fund called New Frontiers is a joint effort of three agencies that have historically been siloed in three distinct councils: Health, Natural Sciences, and Humanities. The fund aims to support international, high-risk, fast-breaking research (and includes media production), and mentions in its description (although does not define in its glossary) “co-creation of knowledge.”
At the MIT Media Lab , every job posting for new faculty lists “antidisciplinary” as a requirement for all candidates. Director Joi Ito explained on his blog in 2014:
Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. An antidisciplinary project isn't a sum of a bunch of disciplines but something entirely new. […] Only come to the Media Lab if there is nowhere else where you could do what you want to do. We are the home of the misfits — the antidisciplinarians.
The MIT media scholar, Ethan Zuckerman, stated in our interview that this can be an “uphill battle” when dealing with engineers, that is:
to get people thinking culturally about this idea that they might want to work with communities. […] Whether it's getting people to do ethnography before they design or whether it's more engaged methods like bringing [in] the people that you're hoping are going to use your tech … those are still pretty radical where I am.
“We will still need disciplines,” continues Ito in his blog, “but I think that it's time we focus on a higher mission and the changes needed in academia and research funding to allow more people to work in the wide-open white space between disciplines — the antidisciplinary space.”
In our view, media co-creation also demands this sustained acknowledgment of anti- or post-disciplinarity, and third spaces for types of practices that have been stifled by the limits of disciplines and siloes.
by Sara Rafsky
Hyphen-Labs is a virtual laboratory. Members of the group are a diverse and dispersed collection of women of color, based around the globe, who, according to their website, collaborate on projects at the “intersection of technology, art, science, and the future”. But their core mission is more tied to a defining process and a philosophy for cross-disciplinary practice in emergent media. According to the group’s three co-founders, the Turkish-born, Barcelona-based Ece Tankal, Mexican-Cuban-American Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, and Brooklyn-based Ashley Baccus-Clark, Hyphen-Labs was created out of a shared conviction that women of color were not being fairly represented, if at all, in the digital environment. Tankal and Aguilar y Wedge started the group in 2014, with Baccus-Clark joining two years later, in hopes that they could bring women together from different disciplines who shared their concern. The three founders have backgrounds in architecture, engineering and molecular biology, and their nine international collaborators work in technology, architecture, design, science, and art. Hyphen-Lab’s work now encompasses filmmaking as well as product and speculative design.
Collaboration has been an intrinsic part of the work since the group’s inception, as well as the pooling of their collective interests and skill sets. “I really like oral communication. Ashley is an amazing writer and Ece is an incredible visual communicator,” said Aguilar y Wedge, “Having those three elements together really helps bring a story to life, bring a project to life. And I don't think one can work without the other.” The women reported that typically the three of them will develop an idea together and then work with various artists, designers, and scientists to actualize it, so the process is collaborative every step of the way. Since Hyphen-Labs was cash-strapped at the beginning, by necessity they collaborated with people who wanted to work on a project solely because they felt passionately about an idea. “I think that's where collaboration has to start,” Baccus-Clark said, “Everybody has to love the idea.”
The most elaborate project yet to come out of Hyphen-Labs is NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, which was featured at the 2017 Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca film festivals. The project, described on their website, is a “three-part digital narrative that sits at the intersection of product design, virtual reality, and neuroscience, inspired by the lack of multidimensional representations of Black women in technology.” In the first part of the NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism experience, viewers enter an installation space that resembles a futuristic beauty salon. The salon is stocked with products that include prototypes for: a sunscreen specifically made for dark skin; a camouflage scarf that subverts facial-recognition software; a popular earring design repurposed with audio- and video-recording capabilities to use in dangerous situations, and a protective visor that allows the wearer to see out, but blocks people from seeing in.
The second part of the project is a room-scale virtual reality experience that places the user in a futuristic neurocosmetology lab. Since Black salons are sites for socialization and political discussion as much as for beauty treatments, according to Colorlines, the user sits in a salon chair and swivels to the mirror to find that they have embodied the avatar of a young Black girl who is set to receive brain-stimulating electrical currents interwoven in her hair extensions. After receiving these “Octavia Electrodes,” named in honor of science fiction writer Octavia Butler, the user is transported to a hallucinatory tour of a psychedelic Afrofuturist space landscape, as the team describes in an interview at Docubase. As a third component, the project gathers data to see if the rare use of a Black female protagonist in a VR experience has had any lasting neurological and physiological impact on participants.
As fantastical as the experience of Neurospeculative AfroFeminism was, each element was drawn from real life. The use of the hair extensions as a plot device, for example, nods to the difficulty of fitting the VR Oculus headset, or the brain sensors used in neuroscience tests, over big hair. The idea of sunscreen for people of color came from an incident in which Baccus-Clark, who is Black, put on sunscreen at the art space Storm King to find it left a layer of white film on her face. The three women decided to start with speculative products because “so often we found that we either had to modify products to fit us or we couldn't use them,” according to Tankal. “We wanted to come at it from the aspect of designers, like what are our needs? What can we create that can highlight those needs?” the team said at a talk at MIT, during their time in 2018 as visiting artists at MIT Open Documentary Lab.
To realize NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, Hyphen-Labs worked with over a dozen people in various fields, including the architect and developer Nitzan Bartov, privacy-focused artist Adam Harvey, artist Michelle Cortese, and the fashion label AB Screenwear. Baccus-Clark said the group seeks to get away from the overvalued celebration of individualism to focus on communal partnerships — the projects are more successful because the diverse group dynamic forces each member to “push through boundaries in our thinking.” Aguilar y Wedge added that they work by “feeding our disparate fields and the jargons of those fields into another and [through] seeing how they coalesce, and create new lines of questioning.”
Hyphen-Labs also sees its role as co-creating with communities. The lack of accessibility and diversity in design is a central concern, so the group says it looks to bring their projects into communities that have been neglected by the industry. This includes holding workshops and creating projects with high-school students, as well as with young professionals and specialists, and using a methodology based on project-based learning and human-centered design principles. Baccus-Clark said that when they develop projects around themes like income inequality, criminal justice, and police brutality, they aim to capture, “in your experience, in your own body, what does that feel like? And how are you impacted?” Beyond pulling from their own lived experiences, the group looks to communities and local organizer, to build on grassroots work already being done, or in progress.
In these processes, Baccus-Clark reported, there is “no boss-and-subordinate relationship. We want the people we work with to thrive, and to feel like they belong in the spaces that where we're making, and that their input is valuable.” Unsurprisingly, that process isn’t always seamless. “Art is inherently personal,” Aguilar y Wedge said. “Having another person or people in there trying to mold and shape those lines of inquiry can be challenging.” Agreeing on a shared goal and defining the different roles and expectations early on is one of the keys to a successful project.
The logistical challenges of collaborating with people across the globe may be more mundane, but perhaps even more complex. Navigating time differences alone can be a headache. Occasionally, however, these negotiations take on a more political tone. Geopolitical and economic realities often “hinder us from getting visas … and don’t allow us to physically be in the spaces that we want to be,” Aguilar y Wedge said. But, she commented, the women have become close enough that they can “create this body of work together and almost understand what each other is saying without necessarily even speaking to each other, or being in the same room.”
Then there are constant issues of finding funding. NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, which received support from Intel, was the group’s first funded project after years of the founders using their own resources. The women maintain a steady practice of commercial design work to maintain the studio, but for the more artistic and speculative projects they cobble together resources from a variety of sources. They are interested in the model of tech startups and hope that doing more work like creating software, or other commercial products and platforms, would allow them to filter revenue back towards the more experimental projects. Another inspiration from the tech world is the idea of having something like a board of directors to evaluate impact and “bring a critical eye to the work that you're producing … and see if you're actually being successful and reaching those goals.”
Hyphen-Labs will continue to prototype some of the speculative products they designed for their futuristic beauty labs — the scarf, they said, is the furthest along so far. The trio also has a long wish list of future collaborators that includes artistic luminaries such as Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, and Bjork, as well as people in philosophy, science, mathematics, and even government. Aguilar y Wedge said she was interested in exploring how one might apply design principles in the latter, particularly at higher levels of office.
The women of Hyphen-Labs revel in the slippery, wide-reaching definition of co-creation, using words like poetic, liquid modernity, and futuristic to describe their own conceptualization of the practice. These terms could also be applied to the work of Hyphen-Labs as they strive to push the idea of what is design, and who it is for. The fantastical products of the Hyphen-Labs beauty salon of the future may for now only be speculative, but as long as that speculation leads to wider conversation, the will have done their job.
SPOTLIGHT: Edge of the Knife
Edge of the Knife is a new $1.89-million feature film shot entirely in the Haida language and owned by the Haida Nation. The film, set in 1830, tells a traditional Haida story of a “Wildman” who through crime, guilt, and abandonment becomes lost and feral in the forest. Through ceremony and healing, he is returned to the fold of his community.
The film was co-created in an unusual three-way partnership between the Council of the Haida Nation, a world-renowned Inuit film production company Isuma, and a community and regional planning professor at the University of British Columbia, Prof. Leonie Sandercock. Together, they accessed an unusual mix of funds that allowed for a co-created and ambitious set of stages and goals for the project; and yet the project remained rooted in the community-driven aspirations of local economic development and Indigenous language revitalization.
“The secrets of who we are wrapped up in our language,” Gwaai Edenshaw, a co-director of the film told The New York Times in a 2017 interview. “It’s how we think,” he continued. “How we label our world around us. It’s also a resistance to what was imposed on us.” Today, fewer than 20 fluent speakers of Haida are left after over a century of colonialist policies and practices. In more recent decades, though, the Haida Nation has been politically resurgent, mounting some of the strongest political and legal campaigns for Indigenous sovereignty, including an as-yet unresolved land claim at the Supreme Court of Canada.
The primary partner and majority owner of the film is the Council of the Haida Nation (via a company called Niijang Xyaalas Productions). They own all intellectual property and have the power to hire and fire anyone on the project. The Council is the governing body of the Haida people who have occupied Haida Gwaii since time immemorial. The traditional territory encompasses parts of southern Alaska, the archipelago of Haida Gwaii (forested islands off the coast of what is now Prince Rupert, Canada), and its surrounding waters. The pre-contact population is estimated at tens of thousands who lived in over 300 villages, but according to the Haida Nation’s website “During the time of contact our population fell to about 600. [This] was due to introduced disease including measles, typhoid and smallpox. Today, Haida people make up half of the 5,000 people living on the islands.” The Nation now resides in two reserves, known as the villages of Skidegate and Old Massett, in which distinct dialects of the Haida language are spoken. Additional Haida Nation members live south in Vancouver and other urban areas, as well as north, in Haidaberg, Alaska, which has its own dialect.
The second partners on the film are team members from the powerhouse Inuit production company Isuma, led by Executive Producer Zacharias Kunuk. Isuma is based over 3,000 kilometers away from Haida Gwaii, over land, water, and ice, in the northern Inuit town of Igloolik. Isuma are producers of, among other works, the acclaimed Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner (2001), filmed entirely in Inuktitut. The production and creative team of Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn had been seeking to replicate the Isuma model of storytelling in another Indigenous nation, and finally found a partner in the Haida Nation.
“The community is of central importance to this type of filmmaking,” the producers said, in reference to the Isuma model in one of the early fundraising proposals for Edge of the Knife:
Community members are the primary audience, they are future cast and crew members, they are the prop and costume designers, and they are the storytellers. Storytelling is an ancient Indigenous practice. Within Indigenous communities, there is a host of storytelling talent, and what better way to create a dramatic film script then with local storytelling experts.
The project began not with a formulated idea or story, but with a year-long community-engagement process, enabled by a 2014 academic-research grant from SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) through Leonie Sandercock, a non-Indigenous professor of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Sandercock had been working with the Skidegate Band Council since 2012 and initially discussed with them the idea of a documentary to come out of this grant. The band brought it to the Council of the Haida Nation and they agreed enthusiastically.
Proposing film as a potential catalyst for community development, Sandercock’s research design allowed for the SSHRC funds to pay Haida Nation members to participate in two story-gathering workshops, one in each village. “We went in with a completely open slate of what we could do” explained Jonathan Franz, a non-Indigenous producer and director of photography on the film, who studied with Sandercock at UBC, and had also worked with Isuma in Igloolik for several years: “The Haida Nation had some parameters: that it's in the Haida language, that it's roughly balanced between the two communities [in terms of] hiring and people involved in the film, and that we try to hire as many Haida people as we can.”
The workshops were based on community and participatory-planning models that incorporated “tables of ten people, a facilitator, a note-taker, and we just wrote down as many ideas as we could in a few hours,” as Frantz described it. “We had some food, and just basically listened to people talk about any parts of a film that they would like to see.” Community members quickly identified numerous potential storylines, along with some specific cultural technology and traditions they wished to see on screen. Two more workshops followed, this time with an emphasis on the process of scriptwriting. A writing competition then helped identify storylines and writers.
The team ultimately had to turn a few story ideas down due to budget constraints — notably, two strong proposals for stories of reincarnation. “Reincarnation is a very important piece of Haida cosmology and they were wonderful stories,” remembered Sandercock, “and I was really passionate about doing a reincarnation story and so were the writers.” But Frantz was already thinking about the budget as a producer; a storyline with reincarnation would have involved three time periods, and three sets of locations and costumes, and so was beyond the financial reach of the project.
The group settled on the Gaagiixid / Gagiid —the Haida “Wildman” story as the backbone to the script, and identified three Haida writers, the winners of the writing contest. The next stage of development involved six-months of writing (with Sandercock as mentor), this time funded by a grant from Telefilm Canada as paying for actual film script writing was “outside the purview of the SSHRC grant,” said Sandercock.
“There are different times in the film process that it’s great to have a lot of voices and people involved,” said Franz, in our interview:
and then there are times where, just for efficiency and logistics of getting things done, it narrows down into the hands of a few key creative people. […] I think throughout the whole project that a narrowing of involvement happened. At the end of the day, the script was written by four people.
Nonetheless, throughout the process the group worked closely with an elders’ advisory group of 15 elders from both communities, including Diana Brown, 69, a language advocate who started teaching Haida in the schools in the 1970s. As Sandercock et al. wrote in the academic journal Planning Theory and Practice:
The writing team worked closely with elders and knowledge holders from both villages, from whom they sought advice about specific scenes (such as a ceremony to welcome the first salmon caught for the season), and these knowledge holders read each draft of the script and ensured cultural accuracy and sensitivity.5
The script was then translated into the two distinct Haida dialects, Xaad Kil and Xaayda Kil, as the Council of the Haida Nation wanted to ensure both were represented in the film. Finally, producers submitted the finished script to the Canadian Media Fund and successfully financed a line budget for the production.
The Production Process
Pre-production began in 2016 with the hiring of two Indigenous co-directors Gwaai Edenshaw (Haida), one of the scriptwriters, and Helen Haig-Brown (a member of the Tsilhqot’in Nation living on Haida Gwaii with her Haida partner). Edenshaw and Haig-Brown ran casting workshops and auditions in the two Haida villages, following the Isuma model of working with untrained community members. They recruited the cast and crew from the communities, scouted for locations, hired costume and props designers, builders, and consulted knowledge-keepers—all of this with a strong emphasis on historical and cultural authenticity.
The process of the project was slow and delayed, with stops and starts resulting from various expectations from funders, partners, and making sure that politically, the project was on good footing with all the community participants. A key location, for example, was eventually abandoned because they were unable to gain the right consent and approval through the governing protocols. Before they could begin filming, the cast not only had to brush up on acting and learn their lines, but also had to learn how to pronounce the Haida language. The team ran a two-week boot camp focusing on the complex pronunciation, grammar, and structure of the two Haida dialects; Haida contains 35 consonants and two tones, and there are 20 sounds that are not present in English.
Long-Term Benefits of the Project
In terms of economic development, Sandercock estimated that over CND $800,000 went directly into employment in the communities. But that’s not where the project vision ended. “This was always discussed from the beginning as a pilot project,” said Frantz in our interview, ”As the start of a potential local industry in the Haida nation, and one of many films to come.” Sandercock has since received another SSHRC grant, in partnership with the Haida Nation, to hire local researchers to gather community evidence and analyze the economic and linguistic impact of Edge of the Knife.
"I like the prospect of opening a new window of storytelling for us, and seeing what comes out of that," Edenshaw told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in a 2017 interview, "That's what we're looking at, the potential if we take to this as a nation, the potential for [film] to grow into a full-fledged industry.”