Lance Weiler is a renowned innovator of storytelling forms, with his projects often blending technology and live events and blurring fiction and nonfiction worlds. Founder of Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab, Weiler’s work over the years has featured stories that are dispersed across multiple platforms and often told with global participation on a massive scale. Regardless of the number of narrative threads at work, the technology deployed, or the size of the audience engaged, Weiler’s work is notable for its evocative storytelling and personalized experience. Clarity of concept or theme is one glue that seals the diverse elements together in his projects, as well as a skillful use of objects, both physical and virtual, that connect the audience to the story, to each other, and to the world of making and reflection.
In April 2019, Weiler’s Where There’s Smoke premiered as a physical installation at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the artist planned to tour the show.1 Shortly thereafter, the shutdown from the pandemic ended those plans abruptly. Weiler then developed a virtual version of Where There’s Smoke, incorporating some seemingly unlikely tools from the online world—videoconferencing application Zoom and the whiteboarding platform Miro—alongside home movies, experimental video, photography, and live performance. The online experience of Where There’s Smoke is unique for its nonlinear navigation and almost infinite “playability.” A mix of oral history, medical crisis, family drama, and crime mystery, the story weaves through personal tragedy and trauma and leads the participants through memories and healing zones. Throughout the experience, space is given to reflection, individual and collective, to connect our stories with Weiler’s and our fellow participants’ stories. Loss and restorative groundwork are jointly shared.
I was able to go through the online Where There’s Smoke several times, with each experience quite distinct and new material discovered on each passage. I was struck not only by the scale of the project in terms of volume of materials deployed in the story, but also by the diversity and moments of poetry and beauty in the work. In June 2021, I interviewed Weiler via Zoom about Where There’s Smoke and his use of the term “generative documentary” to describe the work. We discussed the work’s potential for reimaging the documentary genre as well as its possibilities within healthcare, specifically in the field of narrative medicine.
I think of your work centered in experimental and emergent media forms, typically blurring fiction and nonfiction storytelling. Can you begin by talking about the genesis of your project Where There’s Smoke and your turn to working in a form weighted more on the nonfiction side?
Where There’s Smoke is probably the most vulnerable work I’ve ever attempted to make. My dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, and we had an experience when we were at the doctor’s office that demonstrated such a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion—it cut like a knife. That was the inciting incident for the project. The piece is a bit unclassifiable in certain respects, which much of my work has been for some time.
It’s almost like an in-betweener. It has the qualities of an escape room mixed with elements of an alternate reality game fused with immersive theater combined with cinematic qualities and interactive documentary. You could call it a “generative documentary.” A work usually starts with something I want to explore, and I take an iterative approach toward it. Much of my work, even my fictional work, is a process of excavation. My work often explores memory, is about surfacing truth, even my fiction work. Where There’s Smoke sparked from a moment of feeling incredibly overwhelmed by the medical realities of my dad’s terminal illness, finding out that my parents hadn’t planned for their end of life, and…not knowing how to go forward.
I could have made a linear piece, but I wanted to delve into the idea of being clouded by grief and the challenges of navigating care for a loved one—especially in terms of the bureaucratic structure, the disconnect in language, and the number of the challenges represented within a healthcare system. I could have made a documentary, but there was a moment where I thought, wow, this is just so traumatic. It was devastating because of the news that my dad was getting, but it was also traumatic in terms of the way it was handled.
I thought, why is this so difficult? Why is the compassion missing? What happened to the empathy in this exchange? I became aware of narrative medicine as a practice. I wondered, what if I was able to explore the grief I’m feeling? What if I was able to shape an immersive experience rather than a documentary film or linear format? Could I create something that evolves over the course of the grieving process, and what might that look like?
The piece does push at the boundaries of documentary. What were the factors that led to slippage outside the genre? How did you imagine the shape of the form you were exploring?
At that time, my dad had difficulty expressing himself. We found ourselves in the situation where my dad was obviously in a lot of pain, but he wouldn’t show it. At a certain point, as he was getting closer to knowing that he was going to die, he invited me to sit down and interview him and said I could ask anything I wanted. Now, another driver for the project was an underlying mystery that had plagued me for over thirty years. We had two devastating fires in our family in a very short period. Our van burst into flames on a family vacation and then eleven months later our house burned to the ground.
I had grown up in a firefighting household, and my dad was a volunteer firefighter and amateur fire scene photographer. When I was a kid, my dad introduced me to photography. We would listen to fire scanners and then race off to take photographs of things that were burning. There was a part of me always wondering, was it possible my dad had something to do with the blazes that disrupted our lives? There were many questions around that possibility and numerous loose ends.
The last part was that my dad was an enigma. There was a side to him I didn’t know. As he was dying, the piece became a way to have a chance to talk and process it. I tend to process things by making, and it was something I needed to say. Later, I realized I was making a grief ritual.
Where There’s Smoke is a story of my father and has elements of a memoir, but at the same time, our story, my dad’s and my story, becomes a springboard to allow others to reflect on their own lives and loss. Participants contribute to the larger narrative, like a tapestry.
What’s striking about Where There is Smoke, especially in its online form, is that it defies categories. There are these poetic, experimental videos playing alongside home movies—artifacts and documents next to, often clashing against, quite different visuals of experimental video. The audience navigates along nonlinear paths and comments on the experience. In terms of a nonfiction or documentary project, you have described this as a “generative doc.” Can you say more about what you mean by “generative documentary” and what that offers the broader genre of documentary?
With “generative documentary,” I’m referencing what was happening in my life, what my family was going through, and the experience of grief as nonlinear. You find yourself flip-flopping through those five stages of grief. I was fascinated by “What if?” What if people came through the Where There’s Smoke physical installation and saw it from different perspectives? What if the audience contributed to the story, and it could evolve? That’s exactly what the physical installation became: a living, breathing documentary, not just of my family’s story but of the stories of each audience member. When you entered the installation, you would sit down across from a stranger and together you’d go through a visualization exercise. You were asked to think about where you live. Then, you come to realize that your residence is on fire, and you only have a few moments to save an object that you are emotionally connected to. Once you have identified the object, you are asked to draw it and then hand it to the stranger sitting across from you. You take turns interviewing each other with a single prompt that you ask five times in a row: “Why are you emotionally connected to this object?”
Afterward you explore a box of artifacts that were my dad’s. You are instructed to find a map, two flashlights, and an envelope that says, “Please do not open until the end of the experience.” A door creaks open, exposing a burned-out hallway. Using the map, you move through the set of a burned house. When you enter the main room, everything is charred. The map guides you to several objects that allow you to unlock the stories that are hidden within the room.
The objects—including a rotary phone, a walkie-talkie, a cassette, and a 35mm camera—are devices used for communication. The found story fragments present contradictory information via my dad’s 35mm slides as well as audio recordings taken from my interviews of him. Some fragments talk about my dad being a firefighter, but one talks about an arsonist on the force. One talks about our house burning down. Other materials are about the medical side of his experience.
Some objects talk about our family and our history, our interactions, the family dynamic. You might come into the room, and you might never get a story about the fire, but you’re standing in a burned-out set. You might think the burned-out set is a metaphor for terminal illness. Or you might enter, only get the story about the fire, and miss other elements. When people come out and compare, they have experienced different things.
In the online version, it was fascinating to see two tech tools, Miro and Zoom—which are typically used for rather mundane, practical tasks—employed in such a creative manner. This was particularly the case with Zoom, which has been ubiquitous for our interactions during our COVID-era isolation and has come to define it in the form of “Zoom fatigue.” How did you reimagine those tools for your “generative documentary”?
When it came to creating the virtual experience, I started subverting productivity tools like Zoom and Miro and made them storytelling and sense-making tools. The generative part is what happens when people experience these fragments in different orders, from different entry points. What does it mean to the overall narrative and their interpretation of what the narrative is? Moving forward, the project will generate new artifacts and stories based upon participants’ interactions and contributions. This “documentary” is not trying to give a definitive answer. You are left with more questions than answers, which is what happened to me.
Underlying the piece is the idea of memory and memory as highly subjective. When I talk to my brothers about our childhood, we have different perspectives on our past. We might agree on certain facts, but the emotions that we feel, or the nuance, or what we choose to describe, or what we’re focused on is different. The generative format is a way to explore these shifts. This is a “documentary” evolving, and it’s different each time you go through it.
It’s a living organism because others can add to it as well. I have hundreds of cards that were drawn at the Tribeca installation, and we have all the Miro boards from the virtual shows. For the longest time we’ve assumed the final piece (the film, or whatever you’ve made at the end of the process) is the artwork––and the journey to get there is messy. What if the act of making a work is the artwork?
It’s like the film Fitzcarraldo (1982, directed by Werner Herzog). You’re pulling a huge boat over a mountain in the Amazon and you’re fighting all the elements. But what if you leaned into the process side and didn’t adhere to the traditional structure of a documentary? What if, instead, you explored the idea of those formerly known as “the audience” as participants within this emerging piece. What I’m doing is not dissimilar to what a documentary does. I’m searching for the truth in this piece, but there’s such a level of complexity to the story: the issue of somebody being terminal; the dynamic between a father and a son; the skeletons that emerge from the closet, the secrets left unsaid…all these things are difficult to navigate.
Going through the online experience, what stood out for me was the sheer scope of the project. I went through several times, was always a bit overwhelmed, and certainly didn’t get to see all of it, despite multiple trips. Can you speak to this quality of scale in the work?
It was important to me that you could never get through everything. You could never complete everything; your choices were unlimited. Time was limited, and you were left wondering how much more was there. At the end of Where There’s Smoke, you see that the whole Miro board is dying, and all of these things are being deleted. Often people comment: “I never saw that. I didn’t see that. What was that?” They’re left feeling pulled in so many different directions, which is what you feel when someone is dying. Where do I put my attention?
The tasks to keep my father alive were getting in the way of him dying with dignity in a humane way. Keeping him alive was completely counter to his quality of life at a certain point. I wanted that tension to be there for the person going through this. But I also found that the generative quality allows for people to be participants within this experience in a way you don’t get an opportunity to do within a traditional documentary. This piece brings in the social impact potential of storytelling. Stories lead to reflection, can transform, and can produce action. Where There’s Smoke leaves people reflective. I don’t think it could be as powerful unless it was participatory and generative.
Regarding form, you had a live, in-person, immersive experience and then everything is shut down by the pandemic. What was your first response? Was it to wait until things reopened, or did you immediately think, “How can I translate this to the virtual?” Or was it tempting to just move on to your next project? It must have been difficult, moving from an in-person experience to a virtual one.
Where There’s Smoke, the physical installation, was to tour that year, in 2020. Obviously, we could not proceed, but we had experienced something with my mom where I’d seen her go from not talking about my dad to, after going through the installation, begin talking about him again. I saw a level of transformation in my mom, in my own family.
I challenged myself to think how this could reach more people. The task was to move from a four-person, forty-five-minute physical installation experience—to scale up so more people could go through it. I had used Miro for a bit in my classes; I’ve been using Zoom for years. I challenged myself to imagine a new version of this, because I don’t see it as an adaptation. The online Where There’s Smoke becomes its own thing. Much of the work I do evolves, and they are multi-year projects. They are never quite one completed thing. They end up becoming ecosystems. In some instances, they are multiple different incarnations or branching experiments around a core story or core concept I want to explore.
The themes explored are the same, but the executions are quite different. Where There’s Smoke is similar. It is an evolution, iteration, not necessarily an adaptation. Many people were apologizing to me: “I am so sorry you can’t do the physical installation the way you want. It must be heartbreaking to have to do something virtual, let alone in Zoom and Miro.” But I was excited by the opportunity; I felt like Miro moved at the speed of creativity. It was moving so fast, and it was this beautiful, infinite canvas challenging how we interact with the internet.
Miro models a physical space I can be in, you can be in, and we might not be in the same place at all. It’s like being at a music festival, and we are trying to find each other. I’m over at one stage and you are at another, and we’re texting back and forth trying to find each other. That’s very much the aesthetic of what navigating grief has been like for me.
I was totally liberated by the virtual version of this. With the physical version, if I was honest with myself, I was hiding behind the mechanics of it because my dad had just died. The project was a diversion at that point in time from the feelings I was having. When the pandemic hit with such incredible loss, I found myself examining the feelings I had and began to make art and collaborate, taking my father’s 35mm slides and making new generative pieces from them. It was as if my dad and I were making art together.
It is productive to hear you say this was not an adaptation, but a piece in its own right. I’m curious to know how the audience responds in each case, to the in-person event and to the online event. Can you speak to how the audiences responded to the physical installation versus the virtual experience?
In both cases, I’ve never made a piece of work that received as much feedback as this piece has—unsolicited. People emailing the day they experienced it, or weeks, months after, emailing multiple times and expressing what the piece meant to them. People struggle to classify it. They say: “I’ve never experienced anything like that before”; “It’s left me thinking, and I went off and I recorded interviews with my parents”; “I drove seven hours to see my dad who was terminal”; “It opened me up to a different way to think about the relationships that I have in my life.” There were similar responses to the physical installation and the virtual version. Much of that has to do with the fact that the aesthetic for both is similar and some of the mechanics carry over from one to the other.
We had people who visited many times. They commented on how it was different each time, whether it was the board evolving in a way that they hadn’t expected or them seeing parts of it that were unknown. It functioned as an evolving database narrative, pulling from a collection of fragments. Those fragments expand based upon participation by audience members.
The generative side of that, which is always evolving, is quite unique for interactive work. Many times, an interactive work will be approached by an artist as if they are thinking, “We’re going to finish this site, or browser based I-doc, and it will have a beginning, middle, and end.” It’s like Jean-Luc Godard famously said: he makes films that have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order. The nonlinear nature of it is a radical departure.
You spoke about your desire to change interactions with medical professionals in terminal cases as well as your exploration of personal loss, but when did the issue of healing become clear? Was that through audience responses? Or was the idea of narrative health and healing in place from the beginning? Has that aspect evolved with the virtual component? Did anonymity on the virtual side help with healing?
The lack of empathy or compassion within medical care was the inciting incident that led to it. The other component that escalated it was that my dad was dying. He was terminal, and there was a chance that everything was going to die with him, and I would never know the truth.
Those two things became a real driver, but one reason I moved in an experimental way was that I wanted to create something to serve as a discursive design artifact that would allow people to have discussions around end of life. How do you help somebody care for themselves when they don’t really want to do it? When someone is in denial about what is happening and doesn’t make plans for it, what can you do?
In the initial incident with the doctor, I had gone in with my wife because my mom was too overwhelmed to go. We asked questions because we needed to go back and tell the rest of the family what had transpired. My dad could not process the fact that he was terminal. He kept saying: “Okay, well, when it’s gone” and the doctor would say, “It’s never going to be gone. It’s going to kill you.” My dad couldn’t process that.
Dr. Rita Charon, who founded the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, came as the installation was wrapping up at Tribeca. She went through and was quite moved. We’ve collaborated numerous times over the years. At the core of this is the desire for connection, which is what narrative medicine is about. I left that day from the doctor’s and drove my dad home. I kept thinking I’m going to make something and through making it I’ll be able to, and my family will be able to, heal. Maybe it can help others heal. Maybe it could fit with what the narrative medicine program is doing at the university—and now we’re collaborating on ways to bring elements of Where There’s Smoke and digital storytelling into a series of workshops.
To follow up on another part of the question, did the sense of anonymity that can happen with the virtual change people’s reactions, or did that make it more powerful? Did you get different kinds of reactions through the online experience?
The online experience allows people to be alone and together at the same time. It’s unique to be browsing through an environment that doesn’t have a hierarchical structure, as in a normal site map, and to be able to get lost in it, while others are right there. You might be focused on moving in the Miro board, but you’re in a breakout room in Zoom, and you’re connected via audio with all these other people who are with you in that room. There was something about that experience. For some time, we went back and forth between setting it up so they were talking to each other versus doing it silently.
We had a mix: some people would talk to each other, and others would be silent the whole time. There was an element of being alone and together, which feels like what grief is like. When somebody is dying, people don’t know what to say to you. They try to be kind. You can be around a lot of people, but then the question starts to become the same question and they only get to a certain level. You feel even more alone and frustrated by the whole thing.
Sometimes people introduced themselves to each other during the experience. But there was something powerful in being alone and together. It was reflective of the pandemic too. That was at the core of it. You felt alone, but you could be connected through virtual things, which felt like pale comparisons of what it is to be together. That is quite different from what it feels like to be in a room with someone, or to be able to embrace somebody, to hug somebody. It’s just different: two dimensional versus being there in the real world.
What do you have planned for Where There’s Smoke? Can you say a little regarding its future? How is it shaping what you’re thinking about in terms of future projects?
Moving forward, I would love to return to a local/global approach. What would it be like to combine the physical installation for a small group of people in person, and then have a larger group of people going through the virtual version? How could I interconnect those two things and expand on the themes of the piece? I’m constantly experimenting with that in my work; the challenge of finding intimacy with varying numbers of participants across digital and physical environments.
I want to explore more deeply the question: Can you have personalized documentaries for each audience member? That flies in the face of what a documentary is. I have the story of my dad and me, but then we have all these other stories that are in a tapestry of healing together. What if stories surfaced through the virtual component and then were performed or engaged within a live performance? What if it takes on a Theater of the Oppressed approach, where some of the things that are surfaced in the virtual side then become manifest in the real world through performances that others can see. It becomes this Moebius strip, folding in on itself.
I am also experimenting with nonfungible tokens. Using the blockchain in a way that asks, what is it like to have art that fades over time like a memory? I will use NFTs to enhance the experience—for example in ticketing around the event, to enable people to have some of the art from the experience. But what if the art fades or transforms over time, and it’s another form of expression around the piece? It becomes an extension of a piece. I want to explore blockchain as a storytelling form and subvert its transactional nature.
I intend, as my mom heals from a stroke, to do recordings with her and weave more of her voice into the piece. We have had conversations with museums about the possibility of my dad’s work becoming part of a permanent collection and doing something that would allow the project to live in a museum space. The challenge is in terms of archiving and defining what it is.
Archiving usually comes from oral histories, visual case studies, or written texts about what an immersive installation was, but it’s difficult to experience what an installation was like. I’m hopeful that in the case of Where There’s Smoke, a design challenge in collaboration with a museum would mean the work itself would take on a timeless nature. How does this work get archived in a way that others can experience it?
Another area of exploration is how digital storytelling might integrate and weave into narrative medicine practice. This centers back to the origin of where it all started. The project’s coming full circle now. I am in conversations with the Narrative Medicine program, and we did our first medical academic conference with it this past June at the Comet Conference in Como, Italy. Those are some of the things we have been working on as well as an art book around the project.
This brings us back to the classification of your work. This is a problem with emergent art overall; it’s still being looked at through the lens of past artistic models. There’s also the problem of archiving. Projects that were amazing, transformative, and reviewed, they just don’t exist anymore. That’s another challenge in terms of this project and other projects like it.
How do you tell the story of these types of projects? That’s an ultimate challenge. Because I feel that for twenty-some years, the work that I’ve been doing has always been faced with bridging two worlds: the world of preservation and the world of innovation at the same time. You need to find ways to share and allow people to experience it. I believe, and I’m not saying this about my work, but some of the great works of the twenty-first century employ forms that are difficult to classify at this moment, that will solidify and become what is next. But sometimes it’s hard to see that. Things that are different are hard to explain; you’re always trying to find a comparison. It’s like that Marshall McLuhan quote: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”2
Lance Weiler’s Where There’s Smoke (April 24, 2019–present) had a physical installation in the Storyscapes section of Tribeca Film Festival, New York (April 24–May 5, 2019) and a virtual experience with showings at IDFA (November 18–December 6, 2020), Portland International Film Festival (March 5–14, 2021), and Currents New Media Festival (June 18–27, 2021), in addition to public online showings in spring 2021.
Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1967), 75.