How do media practices beyond the single screen imagine new ecologies to propel collaborative and co-creative modes in exhibition? How do these practices dispense with a romanticized auteurism, inadequate for multiscalar environmental and political issues that require many different perspectives and strategies? How do these new screen ecologies practices dispense with causal, character-driven linear storytelling? Can theorizations of co-creation move beyond production modalities into rethinking distribution, exhibition, and spectatorship/community/audiences? Can a collaborative polyphony of living, embodied ecologies of co-creative practices be enacted?


Installation view of Vertigo Sea (2015) by John Akomfrah; courtesy the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University; photograph by Simon Wheeler.


Installation view of Vertigo Sea (2015) by John Akomfrah; courtesy the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University; photograph by Simon Wheeler.

In Fall 2018, Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow launched an ambitious online participatory project in the online journal World Records entitled “Beyond Story: An Online Community-Based Manifesto.” It invites readers to contribute short articles about a wide range of documentary practices beyond long-form narrative story structures. They argue that documentary entails a great range of forms and practices beyond the “constricting contours” of a “one-size-fits all framework that is built to neatly hold a compelling cast of characters in their coherent world.”1

Juhasz and Lebow contend that long-form narrative mainstream documentaries use a small number of characters, depend on identification and empathy, arrange actions through “a set of recognizable spatial temporal templates that cohere only nominally to lived reality,”2 and adhere to a cause-and-effect logic. Festivals, theatrical exhibitions, broadcasters, streamers, and funders favor this form partially because it employs strategies from mainstream fiction film. These narrative documentary forms “privilege individuals over collectives, people over their environments, human will over systemic forces, feelings over analysis, passivity over action.”3

Juhasz and Lebow's polemic offers a powerful intervention into an increasingly commercialized international documentary sphere. These structures conceal the dangers of unified conceptual models. They reduce the multiplicity of forms, practices, and locations of documentary into a reductionist, auteur-driven, hierarchical, commercial, and linear construct, paring down complex issues of the human and the environmental into simple narrative arcs mobilizing identification with characters.

This excision of complexity, heterogeneity, and making connections across different epistemologies and positions obscures causal narrative documentary forms’ epistemological violence. This strategy invokes genre forms from classical Hollywood such as thriller, melodrama, film noir, and war film to excise ambiguity. It has a tendency to limit and constrict possibilities to make connections across political and epistemological differences.

In their 2019 state of the field report Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating Media within Communities, across Disciplines and with Algorithms, Katerina Cizek, William Uricchio, and others at Massachusetts Institute of Technology elaborate documentary scenarios beyond those critiqued by Juhasz and Lebow by advocating for co-creation.4 This report dives into documentary practices across platforms such as film, new media, AI, apps, and performance that move beyond the auteur and the story through co-creation models of collaboration, collectivity, and community engagement. It describes various co-creation practitioners such as WITNESS, Detroit Narrative Agency, Scribe Video Center, Video nas Aldeias (Brazil), Quipu Project (Peru), West Baffin Co-Op (Canada), and Electric South (South Africa). Collective Wisdom reclaims production strategies that flip the vertical auteur models into horizontal convenings of multiple people and organizations that present new configurations of media, place, and politics.

This essay expands on Juhasz and Lebow's arguments through an exploration of polyphonic structures that combine a multiplicity of voices, forms, and positions to create new ecologies of complexity in exhibition. Ecology suggests a continual process of interrelationships between organisms and the environment, where transformation, flux, connection and interaction, patterns of relations, and loops replace a fixed object.5 It also engages arguments in Collective Wisdom to nudge thinking about co-creation beyond production practices into the equally important yet underanalyzed terrains of distribution, exhibition, use, and the spaces and places where people encounter a project.

How can projects design space and structures to spur co-creation in viewers/participants and extend these collaborative processes beyond production? The cinema studies term “reception” is inadequate for analyzing these new media structures where the human (spectators/users/participants), the nonhuman, and the technological interact in shifting relations. The term “ecology” moves beyond the false binaries of media project and spectator into a fluidity of movement, contradictions, layers of different discourses and modes, and polyphonic structures.

A theorization of polyphony provides a useful operating principle for two kinds of practices: media projects that chronicle and explore environmental issues, and media designed to create, reconceptualize, and restructure environments. Polyphony emerges from music history and theory. It describes the layering of different melodies and voices to create new resonances, a combinatory art depending on both vertical and horizontal vocal movements. Polyphony is a common organizing structure in Renaissance and Baroque music, as well as in other types of music such as Indonesian gamelan, West African drumming, and Estonian and Ukrainian polychoral folk music. Historiographers have also criticized linear causal history as reductive of historical complexity, and have advocated for the explanatory power of polyvocal forms so that other voices and experiences can dislodge power relations.6

Applied to documentary form, polyphonic structures can generate heterotopias through assemblages of difference, diversity, and interdisciplinarity. By repositioning documentary practice beyond production processes and into exhibition spaces, it is possible to analyze the conceptual shifts that materializations of polyphony catalyze. Two museum installations serve as case studies to unpack how physical embodiments of the polyphonic might engender co-creation documentary exhibition.

Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet (2001) is a sound art installation that asks viewers to move through Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium motet (c. 1570), an unaccompanied piece of polyphonic choral music in Latin. The piece is a fourteen-minute loop with eleven minutes of music and three minutes of intermission. The title translates as “In no other is my hope.”

This installation interrogates the concept of documentary: it is a document of the performance pulled apart with different speakers to render each voice distinct but also in consort. It also documents technologies of reproduction, with individual voice recordings on separate speakers underscoring their distinct textures and timbres that an analog embodied concert performance cannot render.

Spem in Alium is a Renaissance polyphonic choral composition for five vocal parts: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. Recorded in Salisbury's Medieval Hall with the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, Cardiff's piece features forty loudspeakers mounted on stands positioned at eye level in an oval. Each speaker carries a single recorded voice from the motet. The installation, on exhibition in the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, Canada, in 2013–16 and 2018–19, was mounted in the rebuilt Rideau Chapel, an example of Gothic revival architecture with its fan vault and a gilt altarpiece.

It presented a mise-en-abyme of religious references of spirituality and community: a rebuilt chapel, visitors moving around the speakers like Catholic Stations of the Cross, surround sound, disembodied voices beyond the corporeal. It generates a complex sound ecology through juxtapositions between history and the present, a choir and an individual listener, polyphony and an individual voice, the religious and the secular. It suggests another contradiction: a sacred space without religious leaders, just congregants. The oval structure places the listener in surround sound, but also requires that the listener move around the installation, embodying the Latin root of the word “motet,” movere.

The Forty Part Motet exemplifies the spatialization of polyphony, moving co-creation into an exhibition relationship between ears and bodies as listeners move through the mounted speakers’ sculptural space. As Cardiff notes, the traditional concert position seats spectators in front of the performers. In her conceptualization of co-creation, the spectator transforms into not only an active listener but also a moving body. As she observes, as listeners go from speaker to speaker, they can assume the “viewpoint of the singers” and be “ultimately connected with the voices.”7 Thus, the installation generates a mise-en-abyme of polyphonic relations from the musical piece itself, the loudspeakers, the movement of the listener, and the relationships between the listeners and the space.

The Forty Part Motet instantiates a series of inversions, where music is decorporalized from the singer and virtualized in the recording and the loudspeakers, and then recorporalized in the bodies of the listeners. The piece transforms music into a sculptural experience of space and sound that toggles between the individual and the collective, between individual singers and how they sound in polyphony. Listeners vacillate between hearing individual voices and hearing the polyphonic structures of the motet, from assuming the position of the singers to moving toward a different role as remixers as they move between and around speakers.

The Forty Part Motet materializes and visualizes polyphonic structures, rejecting the idea of a single voice or authorial vision. Although it has authorship in Cardiff and editor George Bures Miller, the piece actually deconstructs the idea of a single author through its collaboration with the choir, its insistence on the technological interface of sound reproduction, and the way it compels the active movement of the listener to enter into different aural relationships with both the inanimate speaker and the animated voices.

Vertigo Sea (2015), by John Akomfrah, is a three-screen installation that deploys a polyphonic organizational and exhibition strategy to suggest the constantly reconfiguring relations between migration, slavery, terror, politics, the environment, and whales. Positioned adjacent to each other and large in size, the screens fill one wall in a darkened room where visitors sit on benches or stand. A forty-eight-minute continuous loop that premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale, it is currently on view at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, as part of the how the light gets in exhibition of fifty-eight artists from around the globe whose work deals with migration and immigration.8

Enacting similar co-creative exhibition strategies of polyphonic structure as The Forty Part Motet, Vertigo Sea poses philosophical questions about how we understand, know, and interact with the archival and the historical, with race and political terror, and with the movement of people and animals. It features images of the Atlantic Ocean, nuclear testing, slavery, Vietnamese boat people, Argentine death flights, whaling ships and harpoons, and underwater images of swimming whales.9


Installation view of Vertigo Sea (2015) by John Akomfrah; courtesy the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University; photograph by Simon Wheeler.


Installation view of Vertigo Sea (2015) by John Akomfrah; courtesy the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University; photograph by Simon Wheeler.

Like The Forty Part Motet, Vertigo Sea travels through and opens up a set of contradictions of scale and place, toggling between the sublimity of the churning ocean and whales, the largest mammals on earth, as well as between the politics and people above the water and the environments of the ocean below. Vertigo Sea asks how the Atlantic Ocean can be reconsidered as a complex and heterogeneous repository of histories, environments, the human, and the nonhuman of animals, land, and water.

As The Forty Part Motet physicalizes polyphony as an embodied aural environment, Vertigo Sea materializes polyphony as a combinatory process of visual imagery, novels, poems, philosophy, documentary nature imagery, reenactments, and Victorian tableaus of littoral zones between land and water shot in northern Norway, the Faroe Islands, and Scotland's Isle of Skye. It pulls quotes and sound from Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick, Heathcote Williams's epic poem “Whale Nation” (1988), and the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Virginia Woolf. Spectators/users must co-create in the space of the installation, scanning between the three screens while caught between a dialectic of horror and beauty, people and animals, political history and art. The Atlantic Ocean signifies that causal narrative and characters are inadequate for any documentary epistemology. The ocean is layers of above and below, history and the present, nature and politics, proposing that viewing is transformed into an ecology between the human watching and the nonhuman technologies of the installation in a constant state of flux and relation and transformation.

Both The Forty Part Motet and Vertigo Sea problematize auteurism by multiplying source material and creating engagements that necessitate that the spectator/user/listener enter into an ecology of movement to process layers of contradiction as the human part of the human/nonhuman environment. These installations jettison story and its causal, character-driven linkages through a polyphonic structure of both content and form that hinges on multiplicity and the continual formation of new relations.

Both projects redefine documentary as an interrogation of documents, contradictions, discourses, and co-creative exhibition epistemologies. With the spectator walking around the loudspeakers or scanning the three screens, each project churns up constant contradictions of scale. Both The Forty Part Motet and Vertigo Sea suggest the utopian possibilities of considering co-creation not only in production modalities, but in exhibition in situated places where polyphonies and ecologies combine.



Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow, “Beyond Story: An Online, Community-Based Manifesto,” World Records 2,


Juhasz and Lebow, “Beyond Story: An Online, Community-Based Manifesto.”


Juhasz and Lebow, “Beyond Story: An Online, Community-Based Manifesto.”


Katerina Cizek et al., Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating Media within Communities, across Disciplines and with Algorithms, Co-Creation Studio at MIT Open Documentary Lab (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019),


See Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For A Logic of Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) and Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).


See Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1995); and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).


Janet Cardiff, wall text for The Forty Part Motet, Clark Art Museum,


how the light gets in was on view at the Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, September 7–December 8, 2019,


Eric Morse, “The Oceanic Ecologies of John Akomfrah,” Art News, January–February 2016,