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Assembly Over Algorithm: Resisting Overnarrativization
Assembly Over Algorithm:
We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on
which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the
Uypi Tribe of the Awaswas Nation. Today these lands are
represented by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band who are the
descendants of the Awaswas and Mutsun Nations whose
ancestors were taken to Mission Santa Cruz and Mission San
Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the Central Coast.
Today the Amah Mutsun are working hard to fulﬁll their
obligation to the Creator to care for and steward Mother Earth
and all living things through relearning eﬀorts and the Amah
Mutsun Land Trust.
"We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional and unceded territory of the Uypi Tribe of the Awaswas Nation. Today these lands are represented by the Amah
Mutsun Tribal Band who are the descendants of the Awaswas and Mutsun Nations whose ancestors were taken to Mission Santa Cruz and Mission San Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the
Central Coast. Today the Amah Mutsun are working hard to fulﬁll their obligation to the Creator to care for and steward Mother Earth and all living things through relearning eﬀorts and the Amah Mutsun Land
I hope we can consider where we ourselves stand in relation to this process.
In the spirit of this conference — moving beyond false senses of closure — I hope to try and ask questions rather than pretending to answer them.
I want to express my gratitude to the organizers, and to everyone whose labor is making this conference possible. I'm especially grateful for the manifesto, which voiced thoughts so many of us have had over
the past few years.
I'm going to talk about what I call "overnarrativization," presenting some history, some alternatives and some warnings. "Overnarrativization" doesn't necessarily mean "against story" or "beyond story," but it
certainly means "too much story."
History has skewed to favor narrative
Warren Avenue and Cadieux Road, Detroit, 2011
Our former Librarian of Congress James Billington, liked to say: "Stories unite people, theories divide them." It's funny -- I always wanted it to be the other way around.
"Sometimes reality is too complex. Fiction gives it form." —
[ALPHA 60 computer, Alphaville] — Jean-Luc Godard
"Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will
be told." — Carolyn G. Heilbrun
"After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are
the thing we need most in the world." — Philip Pullman
"To hell with facts! We need stories!” — Ken Kesey
Almost everyone in the media, history and museum businesses (and I use that word intentionally) obsessively emphasizes the word "story" and repeats how basic story is
to our humanity. Where does all that anxiety come from? Story is in control. But if it was as deeply ingrained in all of our consciousnesses as the storytellers claim it is,
we wouldn't have to pledge allegiance to it so often.
Kern County, Calif. 1938,
shot by Charles Edward Smith
While many of us are here to critique “story," we might also remember that what we call "storytelling" has progressive, even radical origins. In the 1930s a revival of folk culture and a workerist Left helped
build awareness of narratives by and about rural and working-class people. WPA workers were paid to collect life stories of former slaves. Storytelling's interpretive capabilities posed a radical alternative to
mass culture. Many cultural workers in the 1970s appropriated this and other practices from the 1930s, hoping to ﬁt radical narrativity into the toolbox of revolutionary cultural practices. This, plus a growing
understanding that the personal was political, made storytelling a key feminist practice.
Also in the 1970s, independent documentary acquired a certain cachet and developed into a small but signiﬁcant theatrical business. Public television began to show independent documentaries and in the
1980s cable and homevideo began commissioning original programming from independent and even radical documentary makers. New distribution systems require cheap programming. Over time, they tend
to look for cheap airtime in similar places: archives, for one; independently produced media for another. And over time, as nonﬁction became a business, it began to converge with its ﬁctional other. This
process has been well described.
[This still comes from a ﬁlm aimed at consumers, on prospecting with a Geiger counter] Before I soured on the supposed universality of narrative, I was a bit of an angry
archivist. Or a disappointed one. Images from my archives propagated widely in the media, but rarely had a chance to ride solo. They were clipped short, shown with
overbearing narration or emotionally invasive music, deployed not for the evidence they contained or their formative ambiguity, but to serve as narrative glue, continuity
ﬁxes, eye candy. The idea that archival clips might prompt audiences to learn to watch and listen more deeply, to view themselves as historical beings; this was
suppressed. Bits and pieces from our collections were being woven into works that weakened and sometimes trivialized their components.
Our Secret Century
Voyager Company, 1996
I hoped, and I still hope, that archives could speak for themselves. Or if not completely for themselves, without too many ﬁlters. I made laserdisc and CD-ROM
anthologies of entire ﬁlms with contextual materials and a little three-inch Rick suggesting critical perspectives. I worked with Internet Archive to build an online digital
not ﬁlms, events
And I made screenings. In 1991 I was invited to Britton, South Dakota (a town of about 1,400) to show some home movies from 1938-39 in the local theater. To keep a
long story short, the town was still there, the theater still there, and many people in the ﬁlms were still alive. So was Ivan Besse, the shooter. Until then I had never seen
European Americans talk back to the screen.
Castro Theatre, San Francisco
In 2006 I began making urban history documentary events. There are now about 25 of them, which have been presented about 105 times to some 45,000 people. These
barely-plotted events (sometimes titled as "Lost Landscapes") leverage public assembly and mass dialogic presence as a means of creating multiple, coequal
consensuses around historical evidence that can be read in multiple ways, and try to mobilize audiences to produce their own "narrative of the moment" on the ﬂy.
To speak plainly, I show intricately assembled and lightly-edited footage (especially parts of home movies) to audiences who talk to one another in the dark.
Is there a “story?” Sort of. There are arrangements, sometimes topographic, sometimes topical. There is a measure of causality, and some segments are nested inside
others. But in general the audience, who is often familiar with the places in the ﬁlm, makes their own narrative.
Unlike almost all ﬁlms, these are made for noisy audiences. They are dialogical encounters where I work with audiences to set the terms for discussion. And unlike most
"interactive" and "participatory" documentaries, they are realized through public assembly rather than algorithm. They don't use browsers, apps, or social media
platforms to connect viewers — they just use the human voice.
Live MCs encouraging audiences to raise their voices in real time: this kind of behavior has been policed out of the theaters. But it's actually an echo of traditional practices. To name a few: The
presence of the benshi (live narrator) in Japanese silent cinema. The performative spectatorship occurring in pre-multiplex urban cinemas, where the "rule of silence" never strictly applied. The
Elizabethan theater, whose pits were often said to be populated by rowdy "groundlings" commenting loudly on plays and performers, preﬁgures a highly engaged form of audience interactivity.
Later the theatrical space functioned as a virtual stage onto which racially integrated audiences performed social relations. As Elizabeth Maddock Dillon describes in her book NEW WORLD
DRAMA, deterritorialized common lands were remapped into the space of the theater; eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century audience members didn't just go to the theater to see a play, they
went to represent themselves, to make common space and often common cause. In 1804 a Boston writer complained that the theater didn't have bright enough lighting during the show, because
people weren't there just for the performance. And when Richard III was performed at the Bowery Theater in New York in 1832, over 300 audience members swarmed the stage to assist in slaying
the tyrannical King.
I need to be clear that this project wasn't premeditated: it’s been ﬁnding its own way for 13 years. And while I used to see it as radical, I now think of it as radically
traditionalist. [explain clip]
In the 1920s, Bertolt Brecht spoke of the sports audience, particularly those assembled to watch a boxing match, as an ideal audience for his "epic" theater. Such
audiences are highly knowledgeable and aware, uninhibited, vocal, opinionated, keen observers keeping their "eyes on the course" rather than simply "eyes on the
This is the drug war in 1914, this time directed against the Chinese community — SFPD and Treasury agents burning opium outside San Francisco’s city hall. I urge people to focus on the
future rather than the past. But the conﬂict between those who look backward and those looking forward doesn’t always lead to discussion.
The results depend on the state of the city, the composition of the audience and their mood. But they point the way to a low-tech way of reenlisting viewers in making their own ﬁlm.
One ﬁlm is not the same to all audience members.
[narrate clip] Earl Caldwell, Oswald Sykes. National Rehabilitation Association, boat to Alcatraz occupation, etc.
I have found that Black and white Detroiters watching Lost Landscapes of Detroit often see very diﬀerent ﬁlms. And there is one vexing contradiction around the
presentation of granular evidence. The ﬁlter of local history tends to throw up highly granular detail as a defense against tough or irreconcilable questions.
Detroit Yellow Pages
I see San Francisco, Detroit, Oakland and Los Angeles as cities of extreme contestation, cities in which battles were fought to maintain racialized power and control,
cities ﬁlled with zones where bodily safety was contingent on race, class, gender and age. Not everyone wants to recall how African Americans have been priced out and
"redeveloped" out of San Francisco, especially since World War II, or how Asian families were prohibited from living on the west side of the city for many years. I
hypothesize that focusing on the web of granular historical detail may screen out uncomfortable issues. Or perhaps people have become too worried about the possibility
of evoking anger or triggering conﬂict.
FHA-mandated wall between Black and white neighborhoods, Detroit, 1951
I have actually quit working in Detroit, too many settlers. It needs to become a community-owned project; I want to repatriate it, and I’ve found that lots of people want to show the ﬁlms.
But it's not about the ﬁlm, it's about the process in making the ﬁlm.
One route that seems urgent and perhaps inevitable might be to think of the screenings not as ends but as means. What if Lost Landscapes evolved into a community project whose
work happened mostly at the neighborhood level? What if younger makers, for instance, connected with elders to ﬁnd images, explicate them and identify people pictured, and edit
presentations that would ﬁrst happen locally? But to shift the emphasis from putting on a one-time event to enabling a process of local connection and discovery would relocate historical
agency from one ﬁlmmaker to many others, and perhaps be a stimulus for media training as well.
My positionality is also a very real issue. Who am I to speak about these cities? To interpolate oneself as an teller or reteller of histories is to construct one's own
pedestal. These are not my own stories to tell. In general I think of these events, especially those that take place outside my own city, as inputs to a process that I only
assist as a scout and presenter, not as an interpreter or authority. I tell Detroiters that the future of their city is theirs to decide and theirs to struggle for, that the images
I'm showing are here to support their discussions. At the same time I make the programs available online so that community members can show them as and where they
please, and remix the footage to make their own historical videos.
One might ask, is this ﬁlmmaking? We are ﬁlmmakers, and we live to make ﬁlms. But perhaps "making ﬁlms" is the problem.
Could we expand our understanding of cinema to encompass works made primarily for participatory public assemblies? And could we think about interactive and participatory documentary
without assuming that interactivity and participation are enabled through technological means? And could we imagine that it might be not only possible, but formative, to resist the forms of
interactive documentary primarily realized through algorithms and digital platforms?
The model is spreading. In March I convened a workshop of makers in Pamplona, Spain, who took footage supplied by local archives and YouTube and made a local history ﬁlm in 4 days.
Here are some clips from what they did. Many of them were Basque nationalists, so the ﬁlm expressed a strong sense of political commitment. It just showed this evening in San
Sebastian, and I think there will be more of these experiments in Spain. It ends with this Up with People-style singing, which had to be explained to me — it’s the youth wing of Opus Dei,
the ultraconservative institution within the Catholic Church that controls many of the institutions of Navarra, where Pamplona is.
Learning in progress
Some things I’m learning.
Narrative at worst is packaging -- and many ﬁlms are already fairly arbitrary assemblies of emotional triggers, presented as attractive packages.
A good yarn weaves its own scarf, it needs no excessive trim.
Documentation is itself compelling. It can be its own narrative.
As we walk through a cemetery, the stones suggest stories, and we are often drawn to think of the communities in which deceased people lived. Names and social
groups might suggest narratives. The enigmas we see in the "unendowed" sections are especially telling.
There are so many ways people have constructed narratives without reverting to conventional storytelling.
Sick call register, The Tombs
(city prison), New York, 1944-45
Here is the list of prisoners who sought medical attention at the Tombs in August, 1944. Note the claims of police violence.
George R. Stewart
--> George R. Stewart describes a transcontinental journey through forestation
“When Beth walked with Connie she met on the street a towhee, a
sugar maple, a Darwin tulip. Other beings crowded the spaces
between human habitations. When she was with Miriam, the space
between things was ﬁlled in with human cries and colors of
relationships; the needs, the hungers, the plots and plans of people
they knew swarmed around them. With Laura, streets were political
manifestations: on this block the scars of urban renewal showed, on
that a particular corrupt combine owned apartment houses and
gouged rents, here was the site of a busing controversy.”
— Marge Piercy, Small Changes (1972)
Marge Piercy frames the city through different personal geographies; this paragraph is itself a 7ilm treatment
--> An alt-future shown through the Soviet military map of the San Francisco Bay Area
--> Rephotography, which proves that the minimum needed to construct a narrative is two frames. This is my living room window over time, as seen by Google’s cameras
Home movies, which also address the overnarrativization problem. Every home movie is at minimum a capsule narrative — the articulation of a relationship between the
shooter and who or what is being shot — and many home movies are even more complex. Home movies also tempt audiences toward immediate identiﬁcation with their
subjects, and their intimacy and the historical material counterweight one another. Home movies also overﬂow with historical signiﬁcance that is easily interpreted by any
viewer, especially if a context for doing so is created. Finally, they contain immense evidentiary value that is only beginning to be recognized.
The change of scale also provokes a role change in the audience, who without necessarily expecting it become more than simple commentators and perform new and
sometimes unpredictable modes of agency. They turn into ethnographers, noticing and often remarking on every visible detail of kinship, word and gesture and every
interpersonal exchange. They also respond as cultural geographers, calling out streets and neighborhoods and buildings, reading signs aloud, repeating tradenames and
brands and marking extinct details in the cityscape. If voices could be captured (and this would be diﬃcult, because it is hard to intelligibly record the voices of hundreds
of people in one room), the recording might constitute a kind of urban research project distributed through a crowd of investigators.
Burrowing owl, near Salton Sea, California, March 26, 2017
I don't propose these arrangements as models, but as provocations.
We cannot deny story's history, but we can stop short of eternalizing it. We can insist on its cultural and historical speciﬁcity, and resist trying to force the non-human into
human frames, and let go the idea that most human narratives are containable within the kind of media we collectively make. Not all stories are ﬁlmable, not all can be
contained within a glowing rectangle. Some should remain embedded in individual and collective memory, body, landscape, fauna, earth. And some belong to other
near Delta, Utah
So much is happening now outside the world of conventional documentary
-- in the archives world, people are speaking of archives as speculative places, places where we might rehearse new arrangements not only of history but of society -- as
Bethany Nowviskie puts it, "counter-insurgencies to inevitability"
—many challenges to dominant white settler temporality
I do not seek to bury the algorithm. But I question any retreat from public assembly, especially if such retreat occurs under the rubric of engagement, as so much interactive cinema asserts. Public
assembly substitutes aﬀective power based on presence and unpredictability for the simulative power of algorithmic media. The virtual auditorium of apps and browsers oﬀers aﬀordances that
provide various senses of collectivity but at the same time accentuate the split between onscreen and oﬀscreen engagement. Without dismissing the potential of technologically-enabled interactive
and participatory media, I would strenuously argue that the diﬃculties of realizing a participatory commons in an unequally provisioned world should not inhibit us from low-tech, person-to-person
experimentation. We are not always going to be able to rely on programmers, sysadmins, code and connectivity to enable community in virtual spaces. And I would also argue that restoring big-
screen experience coupled with direct participation is a route towards staging the meeting of diﬀerence without its dilution, a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
near Lincoln Center
NewYork City, 1960s Globe, Detroit Public Library mezzanine
Finally, public assembly begs the question of what ends it could serve. The conﬂuence of shared interests that lead people to gather in a room for a ﬁlm signiﬁes the commencement of a process
that most ﬁlms never seek to take further. What more could we do with an assembly of people gathered in a room than simply screen a movie? Could we stimulate audiences to take on greater
agency and new responsibilities? Could a screening be a model for deeper participation, for collective efforts to remediate conditions that resist individualized labors and concerns? Could we try
to make theater-in-the-round within a rectangular box? Could we model a new commons?
There is a compulsion to reconstruct the enclosures of the past even while building futures.
Expanding possibilities bring out ambivalence. What's exciting in Amsterdam and Sheﬃeld is frightening in Burbank. The suits are scared at the new kinds of
Will the future of mediamaking progress past old stories? Not necessarily. It is a bad sign when we see a lot of capital funding new platforms. As scholars and
nontraditional makers, we support and often honor experiments in narrative. But those occupy the lower tier of a two-tier system policed by gatekeepers and distributors,
where participation is contingent on so many rules.
Our agency is limited. But we could always aspire to make dialogical, liberating work. We could ask more of ourselves and of our viewers. As water ﬁnds new ways to
ﬂow over a plain, we could help etch new cognitive paths in their minds.
In my opinion, one of Google's innovations was to take the structure out of the data and put it into the query. It's my understanding that the data in Google's vast cache
of the web is fairly unstructured, and that when we send Google a query they contextualize it with their vast knowledge of us, our habits and desires, and whittle down
vast possibilities into the subset that they think we might want to see.
What does this tell us as makers and critics?
It might tell us that structure is not inevitably a necessary part of a story. That how the audience approaches the work is much more signiﬁcant. That we might locate
narrative intelligence in the audience, rather than in the work itself. To use a cybernetic analogy: put the data in the movie, but rely on viewers to execute the code to
interpret it. As online news pioneer Bill Dunn put it a long time ago, "the metadata exceeds the importance of the data it describes."
Might it be that our job is to oﬀer viewers strategies for sentience and rewards for decoding? To treat them at least part of the time like gamers, with lives to gain?
Might our works resemble the Internet as it was originally designed to be: smart at the periphery, dumb at the center?
I could not forget, in an age of space-ships, world wars
and publicity, that the real things of the country were hidden
(Van Wyck Brooks, From the Shadow of the Mountain, 1961)
And, ﬁnally: just because the tools to create mass media are easier to access than ever before, does this mean we should actually aspire to make mass media? Or should
we work within familiar communities, hang near home and stay out of airplanes? If we're going to trim the weeds of narrative, we might begin in our own gardens.
Red-Tailed Hawk nesting, Great Highway & Taraval St., San Francisco, June 2015