Each year the MDOCS Storytellers’ Institute considers and celebrates documentary work and practice around a central theme. For the inaugural Institute in 2015 we explored FAMILY. In 2016, the Institute considered what constitutes documentary with WALKING THE LINE: FACT AND FICTION. Last year we delved into SPACE AND PLACE in documentary work and practice. Our fourth theme will consider an act at the core of documentary –– SURVEIL/SURVEILLED.
The act of observing, watching, listening and recording, is fundamental to documentary practice and to surveillance. The documentary maker surveils a/the subject. As populations are increasingly surveilled by all levels of government, through security and military interventions into public space, we also increasingly surveil ourselves. Personal data is collected and mined by private companies through social media and other forms of internet archiving that so many voluntarily use on a regular basis. What happens to this growing amount of documentary material amassed by surveillance systems? What rules govern its use? As with all archival material past and present, the entity that controls the content controls access, availability, and how stories are told and remembered.
From the strictly observational work of filmmaker Frederick Weisman, to multi-media artist Sophie Calle’s personally invasive investigations, the work of documentarians unintentionally and intentionally interfaces with SURVEIL/SURVEILLED. Documentarians increasingly use tools of surveillance to position the user as the surveiler or the surveilled in order to confront the ethics of these technologies. Photographer Tomas-van-Houtryve’s Blue Sky Days uses drone photography to challenge U.S. use of drones abroad by photographing on America’s own soil the same crowds that have become regular targets for U.S. foreign air strikes—weddings, funerals, groups of people exercising, etc. The data driven project In Limbo invites the user to willfully give up personal privacy in order for the web-based platform to construct a narrative of the user’s life based on the information archived about them throughout the internet.
During this year’s Storytellers’ Institute, we will: analyze documentary as a form of surveillance; consider the ethics and legalities of observing and the vulnerability of being observed; learn how to protect from surveillance; and engage with the documentary material that surveillance systems yield to explore its storytelling and truth telling potentials.