In September 2018, the MIT Open Doc Lab and the Co-Creation Studio hosted a symposium on co-creation in new media. According to the Co-Creation Studio working definition,
Co-Creation offers alternatives to a single authored vision. It's a constellation of media methods and frameworks. Projects emerge out of process, and evolve from within communities and with people, rather than being made for or about them. Co-Creation also spans across disciplines, organizations and can also involve non-human systems. Co-Creation ethically reframes who creates, how, and why. Co-Creation interprets the world, seeks to change it, with a commitment to equity, and justice.1
In response to this symposium and subsequent publication of the proceedings, our working group mounted a workshop at the XXVI Visible Evidence Conference on Documentary at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to probe deeper into the possibilities and challenges of co-creation in documentary across platforms. The workshop focused on power dynamics in production, often excised from the ecstasies of co-creation modalities. In analog media, we consider authorial voice, authorship, ownership, ethics, and decision-making processes. On the “community” side, we think about the plurality of participants with varying stakes and levels of involvement. Who is behind the camera and who is in front?
This dossier expands on the Visible Evidence workshop and features five essays from workshop participants, plus a jointly authored set of speculations. Co-creation is frequently positioned as emancipatory and nonhierarchical. What is the distinction between this rhetorical salvo and more complicated embodied practices? In co-creation projects, power differentials frequently divide between those with lived experience who are the bearers of potential stories, and facilitators, documentary directors, and technical creatives with formalized expertise. This foundational division is frequently (but not always) overlaid with various differences of privilege. How are these differences negotiated? Can we move beyond the euphoria of co-creation to ground it along a spectrum of contextually specific interventions?
This dossier unpacks the philosophical underpinnings of co-creation, its organizational structures of production, and its paradigm shifts in thinking and doing. It explores co-creation as an embodied practice produced in specific places and contingent upon dialogue, openness, and the free play of imagination and understanding. Documentary co-creation is a self-reflexive dialectical practice driven by desires to establish a more liberating ethos of moving image practice.
Reece Auguiste's essay, “Visible Things Unseen: Co-creation and Its Philosophical Turn,” outlines co-creation's underlying precepts. It draws on Alain Badiou's notion of the event that illuminates possibilities once unthinkable but now doable. Co-creation opens space for reconceptualizing practice through hermeneutics and shifting dialogic creative modalities rooted in nonhierarchical constructions, multivocal voices, and radical political imaginings in the twenty-first century.
In “When Is Co-creation Possible?,” Dorit Naaman applies Rosi Bradiotti's concept of “nomadic ethics” to the relationship between makers, participants, and co-creators across ethnic, national, and colonial divides, as well as across the artistic class/community divide. She reflects on her experience producing the participatory work Jerusalem We Are Here (2016) and asks what sorts of conditions, ethics, and relational practices can enable co-creation.
In “The Private Life of Documentary,” Helen De Michiel looks at documents for co-creation production that serve as agreements between producers and participants, outlining the ethical rules of engagement that have been developed by a variety of collaborative projects that engage communities. She sharpens this analysis of co-creation production agreements through the lens of Buddhism and affect theory.
Brenda Longfellow's essay, “Co-creation is Not for the Faint of Heart: Musings from an Evolving Field,” proposes a granular consideration of co-creation's challenges, limitations, and complexities. She is currently working on a documentary project that collaborates with formerly incarcerated women in Vancouver, British Columbia, demanding intense reflection on ethical responsibilities as initiator and facilitator. She explores the messiness, mistakes, commitments, and revisions inherent in these processes.
In “Polyphony and the Emerging Collaborative Ecologies of Documentary Media Exhibition,” Patricia R. Zimmermann examines how new media practices dealing with environmental concerns dispense with auteurism as inadequate for multiscalar challenges. She analyzes two installations that suggest how thinking about ecologies and polyphony can contribute to theorization of co-creation beyond production modes into exhibition contexts. She offers polyphony as an operating principle for co-creative media that generates heterotopias through assemblages of difference, diversity, and interdisciplinarity.
“Fifty Speculations and Fifteen Unresolved Questions on Co-creation in Documentary” concludes this dossier. It represents the co-creative and collaborative work of all five of us to begin thinking through this mode of documentary practice.