Water, land, animals, trees, plants, flowers, insects, and humans are entangled with past and present racism and colonialism, built environments, park systems, speculative development, industrial agriculture, and political corruption in the complex ecologies of South Florida’s Everglades. SwampScapes by Elizabeth (Liz) Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar (2018) is a multi-platformed cocreation that offers a mosaic of multiple issues, politics, and environments in South Florida. As codirector and coproducer Miller puts it, “swamps are everywhere.”1 The project consists of an extensive, information-rich website; an interactive Virtual Reality (VR) documentary; seven VR films; a photo exhibition; a swamp symphony; 360-degree landscapes; maps; and educational materials for middle school, high school, and college students. The project was coproduced and codirected by three people: Miller, who works in documentary digital storytelling and participatory media; Grinfeder, director of the Interactive Media Program at University of Miami and specialist in immersive storytelling and 360-degree films; and Zaldivar, a documentary filmmaker and sound editor/designer.

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Film still of where water touches the sky in the Everglade’s river of grass in River of Grass (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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Film still of where water touches the sky in the Everglade’s river of grass in River of Grass (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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South Florida’s last 150 years are marked by two environmental threats: drainage and development, which have altered the landscape and the ecologies that depend on particular flows of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.2 As Miller points out, “most cities [in the world] are built on swamps.”3 South Florida has been drained and developed into a suburban sprawl that stretches from Miami along the East coast to West Palm Beach and along the West coast to Tampa. In the interior, entire ecosystems have been destroyed for industrial farming. The results have been catastrophic, though they have only garnered mainstream media attention when algae blooms threaten the lifestyles—and property values—of wealthy retirees and other residents.

Earlier waves of environmental devastation that affected Indigenous peoples were largely ignored. The appropriations of lands to make national parks effectively transferred land from communities who have lived with the native ecosystems of these lands for generations, to transplanted communities who enjoy the lands as weekend sites for recreation, without a daily connection to the land. National parks physically mark the dispossession of Indigenous communities and suggest overlooked histories within conservation movements.

Indigenous flora and fauna have received a little more attention as species become endangered or go extinct—and as invasive ones are brought in by humans. A settler-colonial understanding of land as a so-called natural and inexhaustible resource for select humans to use and transform into profit undergirds the irreversible destruction of the Everglades and is reflected in an absence of responsible political leadership. Indeed, a core premise of environmentalism is recognizing that “environmental degradation is not the result of inherent conflict between humans and nature; it is the result of conflict between [humans].”4 Florida is not the only US state where elite groups of humans have destroyed swamps and other ecosystems for profit, but it offers a compelling area to unpack these issues given the uniqueness of the landscape.

SwampScapes is significant in new media arts where technology meets climate crisis, presenting inviting, nonconfrontational ways to enter into contentious politics. The project moves through different kinds of places—focusing on the infiltration of information rather than the confrontation of accountability. It uses technological interfaces to reconnect people to the swamp environment and to environmental epistemologies. In environmental conceptual thinking, SwampScapes is an act of restoration, moving away from drainage and development into embodied and immersive engagements with natural environments that continue to exist in proximity to human-built environments.

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Indigenous educator and activist Betty Osceola shares images of what has been destroyed by cattle and sugarcane farming in Rivers of Grass (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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Indigenous educator and activist Betty Osceola shares images of what has been destroyed by cattle and sugarcane farming in Rivers of Grass (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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SwampScapes becomes more than a new media documentary project. It functions as an act of potential restoration. First, it adopts a plural and polyphonic approach. Its concept and design model change, fluidity, and process for audiences. Through open access points, the multi-platformed design builds in a plurality of perspectives about the Everglades and swamps. Second, it approaches larger issues of climate crisis, water, and wetlands with a strategy of mapping small geographies, limiting the scope to a specific region, the Everglades, and to smaller places within that region. These small places, however, are part of larger ecosystems. If they collapse, the larger ones will collapse with them. Third, SwampScapes deploys a range of technologies such as VR, photography, 360-degree videos, sound, and online and printable teaching guides to create immersive landscapes that demonstrate how human autonomy dissolves through interaction with the more-than-human environment of air, animals, bacteria, dirt, insects, plants, and water. These technologies enact a scenario where human life is dependent on more-than-human cohabitants. Fourth, the project embodies practices of cocreation with a horizontal rather than vertical system of production and exhibition, involving interdisciplinary teams of artists, designers, and scientists. This cocreation model extends into the visual structures of the films, 360-degree videos, and educational materials.

SwampScapes reroutes both environmental documentary modes and popular culture iconographies of swamps away from dominant tropes that work to separate swamps from our daily lives. Many feature-length documentaries on the environment vacillate between the extremes of spectacle and awe over the so-called mysteries of the natural world and unreconciled horrors over its degradation. Often neither extreme contributes in any substantial way to understanding humans’ responsibility to these ecosystems, as well as their dependence on them. Romanticizing swamps or sensationalizing them as impediments to progress and development does not advance environmentalist thinking.

The films of David Attenborough typify this presentation of nature-as-spectacle with elaborate visualizations through technologies such as drones, slow-motion footage, and microscopic close-ups that reveal the hidden wonders of the natural world, a world most often evacuated of humans and human/nonhuman interactions. The films span the thirteen episodes of Life on Earth (1979), continuing through the BBC’s Attenborough-produced Planet Earth (2006) (the first high-definition nature film and one of the most expensive nature documentaries made to date) and most recently, Attenborough-narrated projects such as Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019), Our Planet (2019), and Life in Color (2021), the latter two currently streaming on Netflix. They feature a natural world of wonder and spectacle, rendered seamlessly through technological advances that dissolve the separation between filmmaker and nature. These films depend on spectatorial passivity: assuming the ecological is inaccessible to human eyes, and therefore, a mysterious thing of wonder.

Swamps have also figured in documentary. Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948) takes place in the bayou, chronicling the adventures of Alexander Latour, a young Cajun boy, and his pet raccoon. He becomes obsessed with older men who work on an oil derrick on land conceded to the petroleum industry by his father. A corporate-sponsored rather than independent film, Louisiana Story was commissioned by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey to show the dangers and challenges of oil exploration.5 Shot in a poetic realist style, Louisiana Story offers a lyrical, romanticized view of the bayous into which images of oil derricks and workers are uncritically inserted. As in most imperial documentaries of the immediate postwar era, the machinery of oil extraction is photographed to seem clean and efficient, often in shots that make the derricks appear to be higher than surrounding trees. The young boy’s awe of the machines draws upon a romantic colonial thematic of man overcoming nature that is central to the literary canon of United States colonialism.6 An ode to extraction industries figuring them as benign, the film revels in water, pirogues, plants, and animals. Given what oil companies knew about their culpability for environmental damage, the film reads like greenwashing today. Due to its complex and fragile ecosystems, the bayou is particularly vulnerable to destruction due to oil extraction.7

In popular culture, swamps have been sites for B-grade horror and action films, places that are neither water nor land, but somewhere in between, boiling with unknown dangers and perils. The titles of these films—Swamp Woman, Attack of the Giant Leeches, Curse of the Swamp Creature, Swamp Girl, Swamp Thing, Man-Thing8—depict the swamp as a place where nature is out of control, spawning monsters and engulfing its human inhabitants with terror and violence, posing a threat to human civilization.9 Although the films might be easy to dismiss as harmless popular culture entertainment, they normalize ideas about land management by corporate interests. The swamp is figured as a frontier that needs to be settled and civilized, and its complex ecosystems are dismissed as unproductive. These films are evidence of a massive failure by (nonindigenous) humans to understand themselves as part of ecosystems and as an invasive species.

The Attenborough formula produces feats of technological prowess to bring us deeper into an unseen and unapproachable world, and horror-action films about swamps generate dread and fear. In contrast, SwampScapes works differently: it dispenses with awe and horror, replacing them with environmental and scientific understanding. SwampScapes rejects the passivity and overproduced beauty of Attenborough and the sinister, frightening universe of horror films, instead inviting the spectator to enter into and become part of the world of the Everglades. As Miller points out, the use of VR in SwampScapes is to “bring us to spaces we will never get to.” According to her, the purpose of SwampScapes is not to manufacture awe or reverence but instead, to disrupt preconceptions and “invite you into a new inquiry” about swamps.10 Ultimately, SwampScapes opens up a place to explore new ideas through sensorial experience.

Environmental new media mobilizes interactivity to counter voyeurism, romanticization, passivity, and distance. It is typically designed to invite viewers to become users in the sense they that they must select videos from a database. They can also add and remove layers that offer contextual information. Some projects involve role-playing games as a means of educating. They are nontheatrical, having more autonomy from the market-driven demands of feature-length analog documentary.

Examples of animated counter-games that address environmentalism include Molleindustria’s The McDonald’s Game (2006), which asks players to side with massive capitalist corporations to generate profit from fast food, requiring the destruction of rainforests and dispossession of Indigenous people in order to “win.” The collective’s Oiligarchy (2008) asks players to extract cheap oil, which pollutes unprotected environments, then ship the (toxic) oil to another part of the world.11 Comparably, Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga’s Ometepe (2016) looks at environmental devastation, Indigenous dispossession, and species extinction from the Chinese-sponsored Nicaraguan Canal through land declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, an ecosystem of unusual natural significance.

Many interactive documentaries focus on the consequences of oil extraction, including Brenda Longfellow, Glenn Richards, and Helios Design Lab’s Offshore (2013), an animated interactive documentary that allows users to work through the documentary’s architecture (which resembles an offshore oil rig) to access videos and information on the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.12 Comparably, Nicole Defranc and Katrine Skipper’s The Black Gold—A Web Documentary (2017) allows users to evaluate Norway’s effort to preserve its economic wealth while also considering the cost of oil extraction on the environment, even without catastrophes like the one examined in Offshore. Users work their way through different kinds of information from politicians and scientists to differentiate green policies from greenwashing.13 Extraction of other substances also contribute to catastrophes whose complexities often require the modular and non-linear design of new media. Isabelle Carbonell’s The River Runs Red (2018) documents waves of ecological and cultural devastation resulting from the collapse of a tailings (mine residue) dam, a common means of disposing of waste in iron-ore mines in Brazil. Users select terms to untangle the consequences of the disaster from the different perspectives.

The climate crisis is another important subject in environmentalist new media. Amelia Marzec’s Weather Center for the Apocalypse (2015–17) speculates on what the future could become by predicting environmental changes. A series of interviews requires users to toggle between different perspectives on climate crisis. The project also operates a personal satellite radio system, called Future Satellite, and a homemade weather station, called Weather Tower, to collect information such as temperature, pressure, wind speed, and rainfall. Described as “a storybook for the future,” Liz Miller’s The Shore Line (2017) conveys ways that forty-three people, living by the shoreline in both urban and remote areas of nine countries, have confronted the world’s problems of rising seas and violent storms due to global warming. Although these conditions affect all of us, they affect us in different ways.14 A project that also looks at environments in South Florida, Rachel Johnson’s Escaped Exotics (2018) examines the entwined histories of trade, colonialization, and indigeneity, focusing on the effects of invasive plants on tropical environments. All of these projects heighten awareness of particular occurrences that may not seem earth-shattering but offer insights into the entanglements of humans and the environment.

Elsewhere, we have advocated for shorter films and longer discussions.15 We wanted to nudge thinking beyond the documentary feature, which tends to dominate documentary due to the inequitable and profit-driven systems of film distribution and exhibition, particularly in the US where documentaries seldom appear on free-to-air television. They appear mostly on cable networks, public television, and subscription VOD services. When they do appear, they follow broadcast or theatrical temporalities, running sixty to ninety minutes long. Documentary bows to the needs of exhibitors whose business models were adapted from commercial narrative entertainment models of consumption over education or provocation. They often resemble Louisiana Story more than SwampScapes’ short videos, whose components evoke short videos that circulate via social media.

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Nonindigenous biologist Mike Owen developed his relationship with plants in Fakahatchee Strand over more than a decade in Fakahatchee (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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Nonindigenous biologist Mike Owen developed his relationship with plants in Fakahatchee Strand over more than a decade in Fakahatchee (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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In fact, news organizations such as Al Jazeera (Qatar), Sixth Tone (China), and Vice (Canada/US) that engage with younger audiences on social media produce short-form documentaries that resemble the videos in SwampScapes. They are created as stand-alone shorts, however, and not as part of a larger project. The videos in SwampScapes simultaneously stand alone and work together, offering a kaleidoscope of different perspectives on a much larger set of issues. Rather than a unified expository voiceover to control and contain the voices of experts, audiences/users have to work through a polyphony of different voices. They must think about the relationships between these voices and perspectives. The videos can be navigated in three ways: as short time-based media, as 360-degree immersive experiences, and as data on a map that allows users to understand how specific locations intersect with the larger environment.

SwampScapes fosters users’ immersion into the land, water, science, and people of the Everglades, one of the most biodiverse swamps in the world, comprised of 1.5 million acres (6070 km2) of wetland with sawgrass marshes, mangroves, palms, ponds, and pineland that are home for rare and endangered species such as American crocodiles, Florida panthers, leatherback turtles, manatees, and many species of birds.

The Everglades became a National Park in 1947, the same year as the publication of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s landmark environmental book, The Everglades: River of Grass.16 Everglades National Park is unique in the world, an ecosystem not found anywhere else. It is designated as a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty. The Everglades National Park covers 11,000 square miles (44.5 km2), and its ecosystem covers the southern half of the state of Florida.17

These protections and accolades, while impressive, do not reveal the full story of South Florida’s environmental history, which has been one of environmental degradation since the mid-nineteenth century. Projects to drain the swamp, build dams and canals, and reroute rivers for land reclamation, expanding water-intensive citrus and sugarcane farming have taken a toll on the Everglades.18 This terrain was also the home of Indigenous peoples: the Calusa and then the Seminole and the Miccosukee, now dispossessed and displaced. The histories of land grabs, real-estate schemes, and urban development also mark this terrain. South Florida has experienced several eras of rapid growth, from the 1920s to the postwar 1950s and into the 1980s, where development of coastal cities, resorts, golf courses, suburbs, and gated communities accelerated—all in search of cheap construction costs and low/no taxes to seduce mid-income migrants from the Northeast and Midwest into relocating and living an American fantasy that would ordinarily be beyond their financial means.19 Florida’s development is premised on speculation, not on infrastructure.20 In short, Florida’s rapid economic growth is neither sustainable nor environmental. It has intensified water shortages and the effects of the climate crisis.

SwampScapes enters into these layered histories and multiple landscapes as an act of alternative reclamation through a polyphonic epistemology. According to Miller, SwampScapes can be considered an “alternative field trip” into the Everglades, one where VR, sound installations, photography, short videos, and maps engage “an ethics of immersion with a view to decolonization.”21 Miller explains that polyphony cannot so simply be reduced to a multiplicity of voices, but also entails “multiple ways of knowing a place.” The content of the short videos disrupts our tendency to see natural environments as discrete from built environments. The connections between industrial agriculture and inexpensive real estate are clearly evident. Audiences/users come to understand that development schemes are counterproductive and differ significantly from the perspectives of indigenous communities and nonhuman ecosystems.

Rather than a controlling voiceover as in one of Attenborough’s BBC series, SwampScapes removes voice-of-authority exposition to make space for six human guides with different expertise and relationships with the Everglades to speak. Occasionally, the voice of one of the documentarians asking a question is audible, but more often the only sounds come from birds, insects, water, and wind. While each video can be screened separately as a takeoff point for discussion, the videos also combine to generate larger, interwoven questions when screened sequentially. The modular design ensures no prioritization of one perspective over the others. Users/viewers can select any one of the six videos, then work their way through all of them. Each offers another expert guide, another point of access into the complexity of understanding the various ecosystems and ways that they impact and interact with one another.

In Fakahatchee (2018), nonindigenous biologist Mike Owen describes his relationship with plants in Fakahatchee Strand, some of which he has known for ten to twelve years. The 360-degree feature allows users to gaze upward from Owen to the upper branches of the highest trees and then gaze downward into the thick layer of mud and silt at his feet. Each centimeter contains multiple life-forms that might be easily missed by someone without Owen’s relationship to the environment. Ferns grow on branches of trees; birds and insects nest in them. Owen calls attention to the ghost orchid, a plant whose branches conduct photosynthesis since it has no leaves.

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Nonindigenous algae specialist Larry Brand takes water samples to measure the toxins from agriculture that will be consumed by shrimp and fish that will later be consumed by humans in Poison Water (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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Nonindigenous algae specialist Larry Brand takes water samples to measure the toxins from agriculture that will be consumed by shrimp and fish that will later be consumed by humans in Poison Water (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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River of Grass (2018) provides a counterpoint, articulated by educator and activist Betty Osceola of the Miccosukee tribe, which was part of the Seminole nation until 1962. Their ancestors migrated from what is presently Georgia in response to invasive settler colonialism in the eighteenth century. As with other Indigenous peoples, the Miccosukee face continual threats from federal and state agencies, particularly over claims to land. Osceola describes the Everglades as a mere “skeleton” of what she knew as a child. An environment that once allowed the Miccosukee to sustain themselves has been devastated by pollution from cattle and sugarcane farming, which have destroyed the waters beyond regeneration. She operates tours of the “shimmering waters” of the aquifer that creates potable water for much of South Florida. The cinematography is stunning. Lily pads lift in the breezes over the water, their smooth surfaces appear kissed by sunlight. It offers us insights into similar environments in canonical black-and-white films, including Emilio Fernández’s María Candelaria (1943) and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Unlike these films, however, users can redirect the camera to understand the space through its scale. Waters extend to the horizon in all directions. Like Owen, Osceola directs us to details that ordinarily escape notice, though her relationship to the swamps is much older than that of Owen.

The other videos offer diverse perspectives. In Tree Island (2018), Miccosukee artist the Reverend Houston R. Cypress describes the reclaiming of tree islands for community gatherings. Indigenous people plainly see that the ecosystem is “out of order.” With less water flowing from Lake Okeechobee into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, the Everglades waters are becoming too salty for the natural aquifer. Excess salt is not the only thing in the water that escapes notice by humans without a relationship with the swamp. Algae specialist Larry Brand calls attention to the damage of drainage via canals and dikes to the ecosystems and the toxins that enter the ecosystem in Poison Water (2018). Toxins originate in the sugarcane farms, which use chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and then wash into the swamps, where they are consumed by shrimp and fish, which are in turn consumed by humans. Although the toxins do not kill humans, they can contribute to neurogenerative ailments decades later. The only solution, Brand maintains, would be to reflood the wetlands, allowing the natural filtration system to operate again.

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Indigenous artist and reverend Houston R. Cypress shares stories of reclaiming of tree islands for community gatherings in Tree Island (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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Indigenous artist and reverend Houston R. Cypress shares stories of reclaiming of tree islands for community gatherings in Tree Island (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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City Swamp (2018) examines the proximity of urbanization and swamps. Nonindigenous biologist Donna Molfetto, a specialist in raptors (birds of prey), describes how the red-shouldered hawk, a top predator in nature, faces extinction. The intrusions of nonindigenous humans threaten the very existence of nonhuman species; moreover, these humans are unaware of the role that each Indigenous species plays in the ecosystems. In Disturbances (2018), nonindigenous disturbance ecologist Win Everham describes how the occurrence of fires can be traced directly to nonindigenous human modifications of the swamps through bulldozers and concrete. These modifications occur at a pace so rapid that ecosystems cannot recover. The videos offer parallel perspectives on the catastrophic destruction of the Everglades by settler colonizers.

Traditional practices in nature and animal photography excise human intrusions, as if there is no human presence in the environment being pictured. By contrast, the short videos in SwampScapes emphasize human intrusions by featuring guides who speak inside these environments. Their voices are enmeshed within what conventional filmmakers call “ambient noise”—that is, background audio selected to convey realism. Here, human and nonhuman voices are inseparable. Humans might speak louder than insects and birds, but their voices are recorded to convey how humans become part of the Everglades ecosystems when they enter the swamp. The videos reject the sanitized “clean” sounds of studio-recorded voiceovers that are physically and epistemologically disconnected from the natural environments they describe.

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An adult raptor circles and surveils the damage of human-made fires in Dr. Disturbance (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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An adult raptor circles and surveils the damage of human-made fires in Dr. Disturbance (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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SwampScapes situates six different human voices—sometimes recorded over the sounds of birds and insects—to evoke what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls a “polyphonic assemblage,” an open-ended gathering of multiple species, including humans. She learned to notice ecosystems and the human place within them when she considered wild mushrooms that grew in forests devastated by logging in the Pacific Northwest. After the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 contaminated European mushrooms, opening the market, these wild mushrooms came to support the livelihoods of Indonesian refugees now living in the Pacific Northwest.22 She suggests that we need to notice what we have been acculturated not to notice, see, or hear: rhythms that are not defined by single-perspective definitions of progress, sometimes leading us to forage for an “unpredictable wild product” like mushrooms.23 Polyphony involves noticing more than one voice at once—and considering ones that we might not fully comprehend as offering valid and valuable points of view if we only understood them.

With its assemblages of loggers, pines, fungi, exposed mineral soil, refugees, and mushrooms, SwampScapes, avoiding the single trajectory of narrative, structures video polyphonically in a way that invites us to notice multiple perspectives without dissolving into cacophony. The videos themselves create a polyphony of overlooked perspectives, beautiful cinematography, and ugly truths, which is nevertheless constructed as nonconfrontational. This strategy avoids triggering defensiveness among audiences for whom progress might be an unproblematic concept.

Watching and listening to these videos shows us our implication in the shared human destruction of swamps by nonindigenous peoples. If the Anthropocene marks a new epoch when humans are the dominant geological force—announcing for many the end of the world—then the videos in SwampScapes invite us to think about what Tsing calls the precarity, the vulnerability exposed because everything is in flux. For her, indeterminacy—the unplanned—makes it possible to imagine alternatives to the capitalist progress that engendered the Anthropocene, particularly in settler colonies where the invaders have relatively short attachments to the land.24

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Breathtaking view from a nonindigenous human perspective camouflages the precarity of proximity for Indigenous animals, birds, reptiles, insects, plants, and trees in City Swamp (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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Breathtaking view from a nonindigenous human perspective camouflages the precarity of proximity for Indigenous animals, birds, reptiles, insects, plants, and trees in City Swamp (2018), a film in SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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By asking humans to speak alongside rather than over hawks, islands, orchids, and water, the SwampScapes videos also nudge users/viewers to consider the Anthropocene as incremental violence against the environment though development projects. In other words, it is not only carbon emissions from cars and planes—plus the less frequently discussed carbon dioxide produced by massive amounts of cow, pig, and chicken excrement on industrial farms—that damage the environment, it is also the desire for cheap beachfront or river-view property in South Florida and elsewhere.

Making everything worse, all of this destruction is legal, since Florida law, a particularly egregious example, enables exploiters to do damage with impunity. SwampScapes reminds us to consider others, despite what destruction and devastation laws might allow. Joseph Pugliese suggests that we need to acknowledge how states and their laws create a biopolitics that determines not only which humans can be “categorized as lawfully killable,” but also which more-than-humans—an affirmative way to refer to nonhumans that recognizes beings that “exceed human qualities and conceptual parameters”—are also lawfully killable.25 The polyphony of human and more-than-human voices in these videos opens thinking in terms of the precarity of hawks, islands, orchids, and water without which humans might also struggle to survive. For the most recalcitrant human capitalists, these more-than-humans are dispensable, a form of productive extraction for investment. By extension, ultimately, so are all of us.

Like many artists and documentarians working with VR technologies, Miller is guided by what she calls an “ethics of immersion with a view to decolonization.”26 Whether any documentary can actually push US voters to demand the return of stolen (or euphemistically termed “annexed”) land to Indigenous people as a necessary step toward decolonization seems unlikely. The objective of VR in documentary and journalism is often to cultivate empathy, often viewed as lacking in more deductive forms of nonfiction address. Empathy is a debatable claim and an unstable term, often associated with the pathos of melodrama. Nevertheless, it involves imagining oneself in the place of another, removing the distancing of sympathy.

Grant Bollmer alerts us to the overstated and universalizing claims of VR as “empathy machines” that aspire to translate emotional experience via technology, especially digital simulations.27 Digital simulations are designed to place people experientially in a place other than where they are physically present. They try to create structures of interaction that avoid tumbling into the “uncanny valley,” where audiences feel uneasy with simulated humans. Still, empathy requires more than being someplace else. It requires connections with others. VR often fails to accomplish much more than virtual tourism. In contrast, the 360-degree videos of SwampScapes allow viewers/users to discover interconnections and a way to think and see anew.

In response to the logos- and ethos-driven narratives of so much nonfiction practice, documentarians have turned to 360-degree video, which allows users the optical illusion of moving in continuous space. It is premised on sensations, not simulated experiences and encounters. The visually and aurally immersive experience offers greater opportunities to encourage curiosity despite obvious distortions in size and scale. In SwampScapes, 360-degree video becomes what Miller describes as “a way to foster connection to places at risk” through “a virtual field trip.”28 The 360-degree videos offer children and adults a different way to experience faraway swamps. Since neither the 360-degree technologies nor the high-speed internet access needed to use them are available to everyone, SwampScapes exists in both “flat” and 360-degree versions, an instance of multiple iterations offered to deal with differences in political economies and technological access.

A key feature of the SwampScapes project is the section entitled “Swamp Symphony.” As Miller notes, the project is interested in the “ethics of how we enter land and territories.”29 SwampScapes’ immersive storytelling practices open up pathways into new relationships between the natural world, more-than-humans, humans, and technologies—a nexus that can be productive rather than prescriptive, and evolving rather than static.

Broadly considered, environmental media often privileges visual images, documenting environmental destruction as spectacle. An example of this large-scale emphasis on visual elements as environmental catastrophe spectacle can be found in Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene project (2018).30 Alternatively, “Swamp Symphony” moves away from the epic and large to the small, with individual sounds of animals, birds, insects, water, and wind, focusing attention on aural elements of the environment through interaction and immersion. It rejects the distancing effect of conventional documentaries that privilege visual images.31

As the webpage explains, “Swamp Symphony” “bridges science and art.” It instantiates biodiversity as the user places different icons of animals, insects, and rain onto three layers, controlling the volume of each sound and therefore the timbre and texture of the symphony. Ten different sounds are featured, including those of the belted kingfisher, red-shouldered hawk, green tree frog, Fakahatchee gator, northern yellow bee, southern leopard frog, tricolored bat, and heavy rain. Biologists from the CREW Land & Water Trust in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed recorded the sounds at night. Bat sounds are not audible to most human ears, but ultrasound microphones, placed in flight corridors or near water, were able to record them. The user determines which sounds to drag and drop into the three-layered symphony grid structure and can also decide on the volume. “Swamp Symphony” creates soundscapes generated from the nonhuman. The user has agency to use sounds that are named and distinguished, pulled out of nature, to generate a sensorial experience of biodiversity.

“Swamp Symphony” offers an artistic user-centric remix project, an environmental pedagogy teaching us to listen more acutely to nonhuman sounds as an environment and a taxonomy of the different species populating the Everglades. It bridges science and art, enmeshing both in a generative relationship that rewires the sounds of the swamp into an ever-evolving environmental epistemology.

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Screenshot of map interface for the film City Swamp (2018) offers a sense of swampland that has been drained for human misuse; from the website for SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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Screenshot of map interface for the film City Swamp (2018) offers a sense of swampland that has been drained for human misuse; from the website for SwampScapes (2018), produced and directed by Elizabeth Miller, Kim Grinfeder, and Juan Carlos Zaldivar.

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SwampScapes is a project that not only spans different technological interfaces (video, 360-degree video, text, photo) but also spreads across multiple locations and multiple uses. A salient design element of this project is accessibility to environmental, geographic, and scientific concepts that invite the user into the material, rather than providing a distanced and denatured perspective. The education section of the website emphasizes that immersion and interaction are key to environmental thinking, contending that the goal of these handouts and exercises is to “learn to coexist with our disappearing swamp.”32

SwampScapes has not been confined to the world of distribution and exhibition, but has moved beyond traditional platforms into installations, photo galleries, and even interactive dance installations. One important aspect of this movement through different milieus is the education section of SwampScapes’ website, which features downloadable teacher guides for students and instructors from middle school, high school, and university, as well as supplemental material on “Swamp Literacy” and “How to Use VR.” In addition to the teacher guides, these materials, designed by science teacher Bertha Vazquez, include lessons and discussion guides featuring short explanations of the swamp’s ecology, animals, land, and water, supplemented with images.

The section on education avoids indoctrination, instead modeling collaborative cocreation of environmental awareness and knowledge with students, teachers, and others. The introductory material explains that the educational guides facilitate “collective discovery about the vital role of swamps” and offer a “framework for teaching about our endangered wetlands in an engaging and conversational style.”33

The teacher guide for sixth through eighth grade consists of a three-page downloadable document, divided into two parts. Part One focuses on the “sights and sounds of the swamp—ecosystems, biotic and abiotic factors, food chains, human impact on the environment, careers in science.” Part Two concentrates on evolution and the climate crisis, organized into categories titled “Big Ideas,” such as “Interdependence,” “Diversity,” and the “Evolution of Living Organisms.” The guides emphasize cooperative learning as a model for environmental pedagogy: “We are invested in the method of cocreation and the need to work across disciplines. Many of us are disconnected from the beauty of the swamps and the vital role they play in filtering water, fostering life, and buffering storms.”34 The guide also features “The SwampScapes Lesson” and the “Student Response Sheet.” These materials structure the experience of the swamp as a dynamic interaction between the human, the nonhuman, and the natural world, rather than distanced observation or awe.

The method of designing for accessibility and clarity of ideas and explanations continues in the supplemental material. Included is a one-page “Swamp Literacy” document. With an image of alligators meandering in a swamp across the bottom, the document outlines the “4 Reasons We Need Swamps”: they protect us from storms; they clean the air; they purify water; they nurture biodiversity.

SwampScapes is more than an interactive web-based documentary project. It can also be understood as a collaborative and cocreative practice of documentary. Cocreation is a way of making documentary that refuses artificial divisions between director and subject as an extractive process. Instead, cocreation situates itself within a system of relationships that are not only horizontal, but are also processual, responsive, and iterative.35 Rather than a director operating as an auteur with a single controlling vision, SwampScapes was assembled employing a team with different kinds of skills working in collaboration with the featured presenters in the VR/film segments.

In this project, cocreation extends beyond the human and looks at a world where the swamp, its plants, insects, and animals have agency and operate in a relationship with the user. The teacher guide explains the process that SwampScapes used:

The SwampScapes project emerged from a collaboration between students, professors and community partners. We are invested in the method of cocreation and the need to work across disciplines. As educators ourselves we know that classrooms are a powerful portal to social transformation especially when students and teachers tackle complex social problems and engage with community partners.36

The project was developed with a large multidisciplinary team of web designers, mediamakers, digital storytellers, scientists, and science teachers. Beth Vazquez, a veteran middle-school science teacher, designed the teacher guides in collaboration with Miller, Grinfelder, and Zaldivar. Students from the interactive design program at the University of Miami developed the website.

SwampScapes’ collaborative processes extended beyond the design team to include community organizations and community partners, underscoring a place-based and people-centric strategy of production. For example, guides in the films include an activist, an algae specialist, a biologist, a disturbance ecologist, a raptor biologist, and a member of the clergy. Further, the project builds in user/spectatorial collaboration and participation across its multi-platformed design, with VR, films available to watch online, and the teacher guides, which incorporate interaction with science and the environment.

SwampScapes’ design brings the user/viewer into the project to cocreate an environmental epistemology—that is, an environmental way of knowing emerging through process and cohabitation with the more-than-human elements of land, water, wind, animals, insects, and microbes. The project figures collaboration and cocreation as a materialized instantiation of environmental thinking, fashioning an epistemology comprised of process, interaction, and change between humans and more-than-humans. SwampScapes offers a combined and iterative process of continuous re-seeing, re-thinking, and re-experiencing in different ways that move from a popular culture consideration of the swamp as a place of horror and mystery to a more citizen-science view of the swamp as an essential wetland for environmental sustainability.


Elizabeth Miller, “Presentation of SwampScapes,” Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF), Ithaca, New York, March 31, 2021.


See Michael Grunwald, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006); Cynthia Barnett, Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).


Miller, “Presentation of SwampScapes,” FLEFF. For an environmental and cultural analysis of how major cities were built on swamps and wetlands, see Rod Giblett, Cities and Wetlands: The Return of the Repressed in Nature and Culture (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). Giblett analyzes Boston, Chicago, Hamburg, London, New Orleans, Paris, St. Petersburg (Russia), Toronto, and Venice.


James K. Boyce, Sunita Nurain, and Elizabeth A. Stanton, “Introduction,” Reclaiming Nature: Environmental Justice and Ecological Restoration (London: Anthem, 2007), 1.


Richard Meran Barsam, The Vision of Robert Flaherty: The Artist as Myth and Filmmaker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 99–101.


For an example of how settler colonialism and environmental issues entwine, see Philip Steer, Settler Colonialism in Victorian Literature: Economics and Political Identity in the Networks of Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020).


Deborah Dardis, principal investigator, “The History: How did all this start?,” Louisiana’s Oil: Understanding the Environmental and Economic Impact website, Southeastern Louisiana University, www2.southeastern.edu/orgs/oilspill/history.html.


Swamp Woman (1941, directed by Elmer Clifton), Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959, directed by Bernard Kowalski), Curse of the Swamp Creature (1968, directed by Larry Buchanan), Swamp Girl (1971, directed Donald Davis), Swamp Thing (1982, directed by Wes Craven), Man-Thing (2005, directed by Brett Leonard).


The Amazon River region features as a site for horror in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, directed by Jack Arnold), which was exhibited in 3D. The Shape of Water (2017, directed by Guillermo del Toro) is an artsy ode to monster-horror films.


Miller, “Presentation of SwampScapes,” FLEFF.


Dale Hudson and Patricia R. Zimmermann, Thinking through Digital Media: Transnational Environments and Locative Places (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 34–36, 151–52.


Hudson and Zimmermann, Thinking through Digital Media, 175.


Dale Hudson, “Post-utopian Interventions by Students: Interactive Documentary and Micro-revolutions,” in Utopia and Reality: Documentary, Activism and Imagined Worlds, ed. Simon Spiegel, Andrea Reiter, and Marcy Goldberg (Cardiff: Wales University Press, 2020), 207–32.


Patricia R. Zimmermann and Helen De Michiel, Open Space New Media Documentary: A Toolkit for Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2018), 91–95; Dale Hudson, “Interactive Documentary at the Intersection of Performance and Mediation: Navigating ‘Invisible’ Histories and ‘Inaudible’ Stories in the United States,” Studies in Documentary Film 14, no. 2 (2020): 128–46.


Hudson and Zimmermann, “Insurgent Habitats: On Media and Environment,” Film Quarterly 72, no. 3, special issue on Cinema of Urgency (2019): 41.


Marjory Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades: River of Grass (Marietta, Georgia: Mockingbird Books, 1947). See also Jack E. Davis, “Conservation Is Now a Dead Word: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the Transformation of American Environmentalism,” in Paradise Lost?: The Environmental History of Florida, ed. Jack E. Davis and Raymond Arsenault (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998).


Everglades National Park, Florida, www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm.


David McCally, The Everglades: An Environmental History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999), 129–74.


Barnett, Mirage, 23–26.


See for example Gary Garrett, “Blasting through Paradise: The Construction and Consequences of the Tamiami Trail,” in Paradise Lost?


Miller, “Presentation of SwampScapes,” at Climate Emergency Creative Practice and Climate Crisis Webinar, sponsored by iDocs, Bristol, United Kingdom, July 16, 2020.


Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 18.


Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 24.


Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 20.


Joseph Pugliese, Biopolitics of the More-Than-Human: Forensics Ecologies of Violence (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 3–4.


Miller, “Presentation of SwampScapes,” iDocs.


Grant Bollmer, “Empathy Machines,” Media International Australia 165, no. 1 (2017): 63.


Miller, “Presentation of SwampScapes,” iDocs.


Miller, “Presentation of SwampScapes,” FLEFF.


See Edward Burtynsky with Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas De Pencier, Anthropocene (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2018).


Jack E. Davis, “Alligators and Plume Birds: The Despoliation of Florida’s Living Aesthetic,” in Davis and Arsenault, Paradise Lost?


Education Page, SwampScapes, http://swampscapes.org/education.html.


Education Page, SwampScapes, http://swampscapes.org/education.html.


“The Teacher Guide,” SwampScapes, http://swampscapes.org/dist/pdf/1_SwampScapes_TeacherGuide.pdf.


Reece Auguiste, Helen De Michiel, Brenda Longfellow, Dorit Naaman, and Patricia R. Zimmermann, “Co-creation in Documentary: Toward Multiscalar Granular Interventions Beyond Extraction,” Afterimage 47, no. 1 (2020): 34–35, https://doi.org/10.1525/aft.2020.471006.


“The Teacher Guide,” SwampScapes, http://swampscapes.org/dist/pdf/1_SwampScapes_TeacherGuide.pdf.