Crowd-sourcing. Collaborative authorship. Accretive archives. These types of phrases get tossed around a lot in the interactive documentary world, and at times they seem to take on an almost messianic sheen. Participatory media is brimming with potential, but in practice it also poses some very real challenges. If a documentarian asks for input from viewers, what does it mean if you have too many submissions or, conversely, too few? How do communities work with media makers, and vice versa? Can coherent narratives be constructed from multiple voices? Can users make their own narrative by navigating an archive?

Yes! Of course! But participation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes work. And, in this respect, curation is a vital tool. I think some proponents of interactive doc shy away from taking too heavy a hand with curation, and for good reasons. Democratization of narrative control is exciting, as is the potential for people to tell their own stories and draw conclusions from archives of material. The last thing a media maker wants to do is to unintentionally limit the stories people can tell.

My background is in museum exhibition development and curation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a meeting, staring at a wall of several hundred images, and asked the question—which three do we pick? How can we help visitors make sense of this? A good curator can look at a mess of photos (or videos or artifacts) and pull out the one, two, or 50 that can be made to tell a story. But while curation is without a doubt an authorial act, it isn’t dictatorial. Good curating is like good interface design. It provides a gateway for users to experience primary material and draw their own conclusions.

In physical exhibitions, if people see a huge display of images, nine times out of ten they will walk away, or otherwise disengage. Archives without an entry point are not only overwhelming, they’re unintelligible. Curators shape material to give an entry point to the viewers that see them. The “entry point” can be aesthetic, historical, narrative, chronological, or associational—it could take any form. But it makes the difference between cacophony and intelligibility. Curation creates a platform upon which visitors can engage with material and draw their own connections.

One of my all time favorite exhibits is Here is New York.

Created in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Here is New York was a spontaneous experiment in real-world crowdsourcing. Days after September 11, 2001, a group of New York artists sent out a call for photographs related to the attacks and their aftermath. People brought their pictures to a SoHo storefront, where they were pinned to clotheslines. Over the course of several months, the archive expanded from a single image of the World Trade Center to thousands of photos, brought by visitors from all over the world. Responses were wide ranging, including everything from pictures of vigils to images of protests against American military retaliation.

The curatorial frame was multiplicity, reflected in the exhibition subtitle: “A Democracy of Photographs.” Anyone could make a submission and everyone’s submission received equal weight. Visitors could create their own narrative by drawing associations between photographs, but the metanarrative was clear. Here is New York was a celebration of democratic voices and different, even conflicting, points of view. This coherent vision (supported by the exhibition design) provided an entry point to an experience that might have otherwise seemed overwhelming. Without that curatorial lens, the exhibit would have faltered.

I believe that active curation is a powerful tool that interactive documentarians should embrace. It can provide an entry point, and ultimately, help an audience participate more fully in a project.

Posted by Katie Edgerton/MIT