Sarah Wolozin is the director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and I had a chance to catch up with her at the IDFA DocLab 2022 in order to record her journey from being a storytelling to working at MIT’s Open DocLab. Here’s the mission statement of the Open DocLab: “Drawing on MIT’s legacy of media innovation and its deep commitment to open and accessible information, the MIT Open Documentary Lab brings storytellers, technologists, and scholars together to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative and interactive storytelling.”
I was able to capture some of the history of MIT’s Open DocLab in my three previous conversations with it’s founder William Uricchio (#855, #1042, & #1160), and Wolozin mentioned the inaugural New Arts of Documentary, one-day summit on March 20, 2012 as being a key turning point for her after seeing the energy and excitement from the community of creators exploring new documentary forms.
In the spirit of bringing scholars, technologists and artists together, she talked about some of the initiatives of MIT Open DocLab including Immerse News for creative discussion of emerging non-fiction storytelling, Docubase, which is “an interactive curated database of the people, projects, and technologies transforming documentary in the digital age.” They also have a number of research programs, and collaborate with the Co-Creation Studio (see episode #1160 for an overview of their latest book on Collective Wisdom).
Some of the other areas of interest for MIT Open DocLab is open questions around public space and community, facilitating conversations, reclaiming aspects of erase history, working with 3D game engines, the decentralization of storytelling + the shift to more collaborative modalities explored with the Co-Creation Studio, and countering disinformation. As our lives continue to blend the virtual and the physical, then Wolozin expects to see the genre of documentary to continue to integrate more digital production techniques to mirror our increasingly hybrid lives.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So, continuing on my coverage of IFA Dock Lab, today's interview is with Sarah Wallison, who is the director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab. So, the Open Dock Lab has been in collaboration and working with the IFA Dock Lab, and, in fact, got the inspiration for their name from the IFA Dock Lab. But I had a chance in previous years at Dock Lab to talk to the founder of the MIT Open Dock Lab, William Uricchio, back in IFA Dock Lab 2019, back in episode 855. Then, in episode 1042 at IFA DocLab 2021, it was the 15-year anniversary of DocLab last year, and I had a chance to talk to William Uricchio about the theory and practice and history of immersive storytelling. In both those interviews, we talk a little bit about the history of the MIT OpenDocLab. Then, this year, I had a chance to talk to William again with the co-creation studio, with the Collective Wisdom, co-creating media with equity and justice. So that's a whole other conversation. But talking a little bit about the history of OpenDocLab again in that conversation. But I wanted to also talk to Sarah Wallison, who's been there from the beginning as a director and helping to run the day-to-day organization of MIT OpenDocLab. So, the very first gathering was back on March 20th, 2012. It was a day-long summit called the New Arts of Documentary, and they were bringing together the community of artists and creators. A lot of stuff that was happening on the web and, you know, the Ifadoc Lab had started back in, like, 2007. The Sundance New Frontier was also coming about, so there was all this new energy of artists and creators that were pushing the edge of these web technologies, and folks like Shari Freelow and Kasper Sonnen were trying to figure out how to display some of these different emerging forms of storytelling within the context of these festivals. Kasper with the Ifadak Lab and Shari with the New Frontier. About four or five years later, it hit a critical mass, where the more academic and scholarly side wanted to get in together and start to build up this MIT OpenDocLab to continue to bring together both the scholars, technologists and artists, and have these different types of interdisciplinary conversations and research initiatives. They've been in collaboration with the InfoDocLab for a number of years now. So I wanted to sit down with Sarah just to get a little bit of her story and her journey into working with the MIT OpenDocLab and also just a little bit more context of some of the other efforts and initiatives and problems that they're looking at addressing with their research that they're doing. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Sarah happened on Tuesday, November 15th, 2022 at the IFA DocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:01.627] Sarah Wolozin: Hello, I'm Sarah Wallison. I'm the director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab. As director, I run the day-to-day of the lab. And the MIT Open Documentary Lab is a group of people. We study and incubate new forms of documentary storytelling using emerging technologies. We also build the field. You know, when we started the lab, William Uricchio was the founder. I was at MIT working as a program manager in the department, but I had this long history of documentary and emerging technology and media in general, not just documentary. And I already had worked at the Center for Civic Media as an associate director interim for six months and helped start that one. So I was already deeply involved in the research of the program. And when he wanted to start it, I thought that makes sense. You know, he said, we're at this moment of media in transition, and that's going to affect documentary. You know, I care deeply about documentary, called it the Documentary Project. You know, how are we going to help documentarians and the documentary move into the 21st century and stay relevant and still reach audiences and innovate and develop as it always has, right? People have lost a lot of the history of documentary that it didn't start in film. You know, documentary is non-fiction storytelling or some just say non-fiction factual communications, representation, starting with cave drawings, you know, and so it's always had these different platforms and mediums. And now, you know, looking at the 21st century, what are those and how do you tell stories with these new mediums? You know, you don't just put a two-hour feature linear documentary on the web. You know, you can for distribution purposes, but in terms of really thinking about documentaries not on the web, but of the web. That's a quote from Emily Bell, who started the whole Digital Guardian. And she used to say, you know, we want to think about journalism that's of the web, not on the web. And she made it, you know, the Guardian much more participatory and really engaged in that dialogue with the readership, which is I think what documentary does on the web when the interactive part of it is so much about creating a dialogue and allowing the people who are the audience, what we used to call the audience, people formerly known as the audience, how they can interact and participate in these nonfiction stories. So that's kind of the basis of the lab. At the time I was working, as I said, as a program manager and so I just did this as a side project for about six months and sort of, you know, William had the idea and, you know, my job was to figure out how to actualize it, right? And so we put up a website and actually William had the idea to have a convening so we had a convening and it was a really interesting thing because that started the research about who was out there and who are the players in the field and this is 2011 and also it was funny because we didn't know if we had this convening and we put it out there who would come you know Do people care what MIT has to say about this? And so we booked two rooms. One for 20 people, and then a big room for 100 people. And once we put it out there, it was amazing. People wanted to come. You know, we had to turn people away. Because we are in this moment of technological change. People needed a place to think about it and to reflect in a community to really move it forward because it's emerging. The language wasn't there, the grammar wasn't there, the infrastructure wasn't there. So there was this hunger for a community to reflect and experiment. in community. Now, you know, there were the festivals, you know, so there was already doc lab at that point. And I don't know if you knew, but Casper was a student. He says that. So he was a student of William. So he was one of the first people we reached out to. And William was already writing and part of this. So he already knew about this community. So that was an instant partnership for us. And we did moments of innovation together. That was our first project together. So we've had this long partnership with in Foot Dock Lab. So we had this convening, and at that time, we needed funding because MIT wasn't going to pay for this lab. And at this point, I decided I was going to leave my job at MIT in the administration and move over to running this lab, which of course meant I lost all my stability. And the funds for it were unclear. But after that convening, I really believed in it. And this is 2012, and March 2012 was when the convening actually happened. And we had funders there, and we had festival curators, and we had scholars coming from all over the world. You know, just everyone showed up. Technologists, obviously the most important, the makers. And it was really about looking at this expansive view of documentary, you know? The other thing that I think's really important, and what's important to MIT, is it's interdisciplinary. So, unlike a lot of these documentary organizations that are documentarians, we're documentarians. We're scholars. We're technologists. We're theater people. We have people, you know, come from the visual arts. You know, it's just this incredible group of people coming from all their different fields who are often alone in their field who come together to really think about what documentary can be and what are the implications, fix around it. Of course we have the co-creation studio that looks at alternatives to singular authorial vision. So we're really interrogating the use of these technologies as people move into VR and AR and you know they become hyped and very popular and glitzy, you know, we want to get beyond the shiny, you know, that's really important to us. It's like, in the end, it's about the story and it's about the mission of documentary, which is often about representation and social change. And we also really care about who is telling these stories. So we've built up partnerships to bring in fellows, you know, with black public media. And we just really try, you know, it's hard because we don't have, it's not a funded fellowship. And that's always been a problem for us because we can't open it up as much. And it became, you know, a bit of who could. you know, do a fellowship. We had Rainey Aronson, the executive producer of PBS Frontline, coming to us in the beginning, and that was profound because she came to us, she said, I want to understand these changes and then take it back to Frontline. And Frontline, in fact, started to do a lot of immersive media. And she really credits us with being the school she needed to make that transition in her program. Kathy Im from the MacArthur Foundation, When we first approached them, so, you know, back to sort of the funding issue, we were ahead of the game, and the foundations weren't there yet. I mean, Ford was a little bit. They had already been working with the New Media Fund with Tribeca, but certainly MacArthur had not moved into this space, and they really were very interested. They understood that, you know, especially if you want to reach audiences and they're on their phones and they're using all these technologies, why not use them to get your story out? or, in our purposes, involve them in the story. So, Kathy Im said, you know, in order to make a change at MacArthur, I'm going to come be a fellow and learn. And so she came and just, like, immersed herself in what we were doing. And at the time, too, I remember, like, the sort of motto was, the understanding of it was that people now had cell phones in their pockets, they had web for distribution, you know, this whole broadcast model. and this was 2011, there was already social media and whatever, but this whole idea of documentary as a broadcast, it wasn't the only way to think about it. And there was an opportunity to, rather than be top-down, to bring more perspectives into your stories. You know, with a film, you have to leave a lot on the cutting room floor. And so this was an opportunity for people to think about, you know, especially when it was, when we started, it was really about the web. and what you could do on the web. And so you could have many more perspectives, and as I said, you could have more interactivity and more dialogue. So it was a different opportunity to engage with the subject of the documentary. So that was the funding and the beginnings of it. Yeah, so when we started the lab, I felt like it was something that was really needed and it was going to take off. So I went on a year at a time funding and we started a dialogue with MacArthur and Kathy came in as a a fellow, and then commissioned us to do a report. The first report was the connection between journalism and interactive documentary. We held a convening, and from there we got, you know, multi-year funding. The other issue was that when William and I started the lab, neither of us, I have a storytelling background, but that's not what I was there to do. I was there to run the lab and make a space for other people to come in and do their work and support them. And the other issue, so neither of us were the storytellers, he was the scholar, I was the director, and our mission statement was we bring storytellers, scholars, and technologists together to advance the new arts of documentary. But where were the storytellers? So that's where we started a fellows program, which was modeled after the visiting scholar program at MIT, and started to build this community. And then because we had this community, we started a lecture series to bring in guests. And then we recorded those and made those public. And then just really thought about what are the different needs in this field. So I did a lot of listening at that period and one thing I heard is there's no central place where you can see this work and understand it. And so we got a grant from NEA, National Endowment of the Arts, to build Docubase. And that's something that teachers can use, that curators can use, any professional working in this field who wanted to introduce people to this idea of interactive documentary. At that time that's more participatory interactive were the words. They had this space and we could collect it and be a central place. We also had playlists. We invited people to come in and talk about their favorite projects and why. So sort of guide them through this new emerging field. And also connected to the past, you know, and the idea that people have always been experimenting with documentary. And there is this long, rich history of immersive media, of interactive media, of participatory media. So making that connection. And that actually is from William, who's the historian. And I call the Moments of Innovation Project his brain dump, you know, in which we made those connections between this long history of innovation and documentary, right? that documentarians are often the first to innovate with new technologies because it's also easy, right? You take it out and you film the world around you and tell those stories and they're a little more mobile or agile.
[00:14:45.846] Kent Bye: Is that a publication, those moments of innovation, or what was the output of that?
[00:14:50.238] Sarah Wolozin: And it was a collaboration with Casper and ID4DocClub. So it's on the website? Yep. So you can just Google momentsofinnovation.mit.edu or mitmomentsofinnovation. You'll find it. So that was something early on we built, Docubase. And then with me, Ingrid Kopp, and Jessica Clark started Immerse. And again, with that same idea of We need a place to talk about this field. And there were two key goals of IMMERSE. One was to give artists a place to reflect. You know, a lot of times they work, work, work, and we go to them and we say, do you want to write about this? And we have different themes we would cover and invite artists to write. But then we also wanted to bridge it with academia. So we'd have scholars write about it. And we also, you know, the vision is to take research and make it accessible and available to media makers. Because we found, too, another thing is that media makers, again, we're an emerging field. There's no set grammar, language, or process. And so people want to know what the research is out there. And so it makes sense that it's in a university, you know, and that there is a place at a university that's studying this and supporting the field and being a thought leader for the field and convening. You know, we always say, you know, we're a neutral space to convene people and it's something we do well because we're at MIT, we're at a technology institute and more importantly, We're surrounded by people and great scholars who are bringing a humanistic view to technology, who are criticizing it, who are critical, like applying critical thinking to technology, experimenting with it outside the field of documentary. So a lot of what we do too is bring that knowledge. and expertise and allow documentarians to interact with them and learn from them and learn from each other. We had an international Indigenous delegation, which was a partnership between the Co-Creation Studio, which is headed up by Kat Cizek, as you know, and the Canadian Indigenous Screen Office to bring Indigenous artists and scholars to MIT for a week to both be in dialogue with technologists at MIT, but also to bring their, you know, in particular, and I guess the key word is dialogue. So yes, to learn what they're doing, but also to have them learn about indigenous epistemologies and think about those epistemologies as they're doing their work. So it was a wonderful exchange and we're doing it again. So those are the kinds of things that we really try to do is both help MIT and help our field of documentary to learn from each other and be in dialogue.
[00:17:37.444] Kent Bye: Well, so I always like to ask people what your background and your journey into this space is because you kind of started the story with you being an administrator at MIT and that you mentioned that you have a background in storytelling, but maybe you could give a bit more broader context as to your background and your journey into what you're doing now in this documentary space.
[00:17:54.922] Sarah Wolozin: Yes. Well, I'll start way back and then you can edit what you want. But I would say in my childhood, you know, I was raised in a family that valued culture deeply and also storytelling. We had a fundamental interest in storytelling in my family. My father used to always tell me stories before. went to sleep it was always about the arc and I got to choose you know what I wanted the story arc to be each night and he would tell me based on that story arc you know three act structure so I had a choice of good good bad or bad good good or good good good or good bad good you know and I would set that up and then he would tell me a story based on that. So storytelling was always something that I loved and cared about. And then the other thing, I think, I also really cared about representation and whose stories were being told. And in fact, when I was a freshman in high school, we had to take Western Civilization. That was the course we had to take. And they started to teach it. And it was all from the point of view of the kings and the queens, right? And the wars and all of that from the political elite. And I, you know, I went up to him and I said, where are the stories of the people? And I'm going to date myself. But that was 1980. And it was actually the year that the Zen book, what's it called?
[00:19:17.260] Kent Bye: Howard Zen, The People's History of the United States.
[00:19:20.832] Sarah Wolozin: Yes, Howard Zins, The People of the History of the United States, which was in 1980. I did not read that, and I don't even remember it, but I learned many years after that that's the year it came out, and I thought that must have been in my house or been the zeitgeist somehow. But it really bothered me how history was being taught and how I was being taught history. And so I remember he said, oh, well, OK, why don't you go read a memoir? And so he assigned me this memoir. But it was from the point of view of a knight, you know? So it's like, no, that's not it. Where are these stories? So I just, from a very early age, really cared about the stories that were being told and who was telling them, and very aware of the power dynamic in what our knowledge was. The other thing is I love computers. So when I was young, there weren't computers in the home. And so there was a children's museum. And in that children's museum, right when you walked in, they had a big computer that you could sit there and play with. And that's what I remember. I would just love to go and play on that computer. So I loved computers, and people actually thought I was going to be a computer programmer. My family thought I was going to be a computer programmer. And I love stories. I was a history major, and I really cared about what history we were learning and what was being shared. And I love film and I also loved Italy and I loved languages. I lived in other countries and decided in my freshman year of college that I was going to spend my junior year in Italy. And so I did. And then I came back and my first job out of, I was interested in film and journalism. But I went to school in New York City. I went to Barnard, and I wanted to stay in New York City. So the choices of where I was going to work, I wasn't going to necessarily work for New York Times. I didn't really have experience. And I was interested in film, and I spoke Italian. So at that point, my first job out of college was for Rai, Italian television, because I spoke Italian. So I started to work on documentaries there, and I just loved it. And then I went and lived in Italy for a couple years, and then I moved back to Boston, which was a hub of documentary and started to work as a documentarian. Now, at that point, after a few years of working in documentary, the web came out, and I remember the first time I got on the internet. I remember exactly where I was. I was at work and I remember exactly, you know, the position of the computer and going on the web for the first time and being absolutely blown away because I couldn't believe, well, two things. One, I couldn't believe the access to knowledge, right? The connectivity between the world. I was like, this is incredible. Two, it was a total mess. It was way before Google. And so trying to get around it and actually find things and ending up going down rabbit holes, I came out completely overwhelmed. So that was kind of my initial reaction to it. But I was always, as I said, interested in storytelling and really interested in whatever technology it was. A, how to tell stories, like how do you tell stories with this technology? And B, to use storytelling as a way to understand that technology. And also, I didn't say it, but I used to do little radio stories a lot when I was a kid. So, I worked on audio storytelling first. That was a lot what was in my house was the radio. And so, I ended up working on a Department of Education grant to bring emerging technology to underrepresented youth, and we partnered with about 40 schools, and I was a producer of what was then called distance learning and live programming and I had a youth program where we would together co-create a program every week about a social issue that they cared about and we'd write it together and then they would be on the set in a loft-like atmosphere talking about it with youth from all over the country who are part of this grant, you know, and social issues from racism to health issues, you know, so things like that. But anyway, at that time I was there, and there were computers, and I had the summer off because it was programs during the year, and I thought, you know what? The web is so amazing, but it's so hard for kids and people to find things because there wasn't Google. So I had an intern who was an amazing illustrator, and we had a health educator. I said, why don't we build a program that has a character, and it was a comic strip. His name was Reginald. And each week, he would have an adventure. And so you would go to the website. At that time, you couldn't put video on the website. and you would have this one-page comic strip of a story of him. I remember the very first one, it was over the summer, is he got a job and then he spent his entire allowance in like one day. So it was about saving money. And then we had a health educator who had a page of links so they could learn how to go to links and go to websites and see that this place was full of knowledge. And then we also had young columnists, like teenage columnists, writing about this topic. seeing themselves as writers and being part of this web culture and being able to write about it. So that was an early influence. So I did that and I also worked at Blackside and ended up going there after which was a black-owned documentary company that was most well known at the time for Eyes on the Prize, which was 12 hours of documentary history of the civil rights movement, told very much from the point of view of people from within the movement. So Ken Burns at that time was already there telling his stories through his authorial voice and this was so much about the archives and the footage and the film of black people who had been part of the civil rights movement and you know my history this was a dream for me it's like documentary told from the point of view of the people who lived it you know and the black experience of civil rights is you know it's about black and white experience about the african-american civil rights and to have african-americans talk about it and tell it from their point of view at that time was new. It just social history wasn't really out there in television and stuff. So it was a big deal. It won lots of Emmys and what have you. So I worked there and I got trained there and did those documentaries. and continued on and then did web-based projects at WGBH and continued these two trajectories and also radio. So in my practice, I was someone who was working across media and platforms to tell stories. So it's fundamentally what I believed in. And I love to think about how you tell a story on the medium you're working on. So when this lab started, it made complete sense. It spoke right to my experience and to my heart and my belief system. That's how I came to the lab and wanted to put all my efforts in it to the point of risking. You know, I was a single mom with a four year old kid, but I just believed in it and I wanted to make it happen. So I just, I went for it. You know, it's like those risks in life that you take or don't take. And I took it.
[00:26:55.951] Kent Bye: Yeah, tell me a bit more about that turning point because you had mentioned that you were in an administrative role at MIT and then this initial gathering of folks from the interactive documentary web documentary at the time in like 2012 of March, it sounds like, that you had this symposium of folks. And what was it that you saw or heard there that was such a catalyzing moment that made you decide to make this leap into the uncertainty of this path that you've been on?
[00:27:24.689] Sarah Wolozin: Well, first it was because so many people showed up and so many people wanted to be there that I saw that there was a need. for a university, and MIT in particular, and our lab in particular. We were unique in the world to support this field, and that this field needed it. There were the beginnings of a field. There were curators at Tribeca, Ingrid Kopp and Kasper here, and Shari at Sundance. So there was the filmmakers. There were a few media funds. There were a few makers. So it was the beginning. you know, and especially in the US, right? There was the National Film Board of Canada. So there was already something there, right? So you have the National Film Board of Canada putting a lot of effort and funds into digital storytelling. You have France and you have Arte and other places beyond doing digital storytelling. in England, so there's already a field that's emerging, so you're not moving into nothing. And it really made sense that MIT would have a lab because we had the Center for Civic Media, we had the Gaines Lab, we had open source. The whole open source movement started there. We were the open documentary lab and wanted to bring a lot of, you know, at that time a lot of people were doing hackathons. So, at that point, that field was the convergence of technology and technologists and documentarians. And, you know, William was a media historian and had been a documentarian himself. I had been a documentarian. So, all the pieces were in place to make something that would work. What I didn't know if there would be funding, but I just saw it. It just felt like it made sense. And there was a great need and that we could help fill that need. And so I just couldn't imagine that it wouldn't take off. And you know, if it didn't, then I'd do something else.
[00:29:23.172] Kent Bye: Yeah, last year was the 15 year anniversary for IFA DocLab and I remotely had a chance to do a number of retrospective interviews with a number of artists from over the years since 2007 and it was also 15 years of the new frontier. Shari in the New Frontier and Casper at IFFA DocLab were these two curators that I think, when I think about this medium, I think about how there's new technology, new affordances, and then there's the artists that are making the manifestation, pushing the limits, but that distribution aspect of having a context to be able to show that work is so key, and I feel like the film festivals have been that stopgap for artists to be able to show their work, and then in the audiences is another aspect where they see the work and it has this feedback loop between what the affordances of the technology are, what the artists are doing, Getting into the hands of the audiences and through the film festivals eventually we'll get into other distribution aspects of like moving from this custom bespoke Distribution at the film festivals into the broader more consumer mass distribution that we've seen through other media technologies but that could in some ways be a function of the adoption of these technologies out into the field. I'm thinking in particular of virtual and augmented reality. But we have web technologies and mobile phones that have been a part of this programming from the New Frontier and IFADocLab. But as the OpenDocLab has come into, I know they've had a more explicit collaboration with the DocLab for the last five years, and you're just renewing that. This year, I'd love to hear a bit more context You've been 10 years? OK. So you've been collaborating with the DocLab for 10 years, since the beginning of DocLab. But I guess if a DocLab had been going for it since 2007, right?
[00:31:00.114] Sarah Wolozin: So they were first. And then when we started, one of the first things we did was contact Casper. Well, William was already in contact with Casper, because he was already the professor of this lab, in a way. He would come give talks and write. essays for the doc lab and I remember we had beginning conversations about what we were gonna call open documentary lab and There was this whole discussion because we're open documentary lab and their doc lab But I remember having a conversation with Casper and him saying it's okay, but it really made sense It was a little you know is it asking is it okay for the open documentary lab and your doc lab and he said it's okay because they're a little close and But maybe there's a reason for that because we're very close in what we do and our viewpoints. And the word open and the Open Documentary Lab was something that I came up with and really pushed for because I feel like it's a really good word to describe this field, like you need to be open. But then at MIT, it has this long history of open source, and we wanted to take the values of open source and iterativity and collaboration and all those key tenets of open source and bring them to documentary as documentary and technology merged.
[00:32:21.803] Kent Bye: So I'd love to hear a little bit more context as this collaboration, because when I was talking to William Uricchio, the fact that it is a lab sort of implies that it's in practice. It's not scholarly research that's from, you know, just observing, but it's actually participating in the active participation of the media, but also just Because of the different curation that Casper is doing here at the Dock Lab at IDFA, there's a close collaboration with the artists, but there's all these efforts to have a whole pipeline of funding. For me, it brings the community together on so many different layers of both the production and producers, but also the scholars and academics, but also to be able to see the work and to understand what the frontiers of what is actually happening. with the storytellers who are trying to push the limits of what's possible with the technology. So I'd love to hear from the MIT OpenDocLab perspective how being associated with the IFADocLab, what that does for your research and this collaboration, what the nature of that collaboration is in terms of what types of things that you're contributing to this overall effort of what we're experiencing here at IFADocLab.
[00:33:21.447] Sarah Wolozin: Absolutely. So from the beginning of the lab, it was key that we were in dialogue with the field and we weren't just talking to other scholars. And so, as I said, we had this initial, from the beginning, connection to DocLab and that really is even partly why we exist, right? Because I think William Riccio, who's a scholar, saw this DocLab emerge and also knew in the wider field that this technology was changing and that it affected documentary and that it was starting to emerge in these festivals. And DocLab was one of the pioneers. And so I think we developed a partnership and what it was was, you know, Casper has so much knowledge about what's out there and who the artists are and what they're doing and trends that he sees. And then William brings in this scholarship and this historical perspective and this ability to do research. And so as a team, we offered the context for what Casper was doing. We would also feed him projects that we saw. He talked about it the other day. the little boxy moxy, what was it called, that little robot that looked at robotics in documentary, that was something that came from our lab. So there really wasn't a knowledge exchange between our two areas. Him looking at the artist field, us looking at the scholarly field at MIT and the technical field and being able to analyze it. So I think you know research about this field is key because again it's emerging and there's so many questions and so many experimentations and trying to capture that and share knowledge is key and also understand it and understand what the trends are and understand what the issues are, what are the problems that are emerging? You know, if people are working with AI, how do we deal with the data that's being taken as people are working with it? Or what does a story mean? You know, for instance, in this collaboration, one of the things that William looked at was in a virtual reality setting, Are you telling a story and people just listening? No, you're setting up a space for them to explore a story. And so he labeled it story finding. So there was this idea of trying to analyze and understand what these artists were doing. And together with Casper, who provided the artists often, and the curation himself of what he was seeing, together with our research, really was, I think, is a key partnership in the field that A, brings, as you said, scholars, technologists, and artists together. and allows them each to bring their expertise to move the field forward and build the field in an ethical way and in a creative way and in a critical way, which in order to do good work and work that you're aware of the implications of what you're doing and how you're putting it out in the world and what it means to put it out in the world, that that knowledge and that understanding is being shared and created.
[00:36:28.492] Kent Bye: So what are the biggest open questions that you're exploring right now as you look at the MIT OpenDocLab and what's going to be driving your research agenda forward?
[00:36:38.297] Sarah Wolozin: So it's interesting for me in terms of how I develop initiatives at the lab is I immerse myself in these communities at these festivals or where have you with artists and I listen or at my lab. I hear a lot at my lab. What are the artists concerned about? What issues are they experiencing? You know, when we did back in 2015, we did a whole conference on virtual reality. That was because I went to Sundance and that was the year that what's the name of it that There was a Pixar studio director launch.
[00:37:10.995] Kent Bye: The Oculus Story Studios?
[00:37:12.857] Sarah Wolozin: Yeah, the Oculus Story Studio. Yeah. So in 2015, that Oculus Story Studio was launched and we were shown virtual reality. And I remember the screen, big huge screen that said, you know, virtual reality is a new medium. And it was a declaration. And so I came back and I said, let's explore this. What does this mean for documentary? Is it a new medium? What's the language? How do you tell stories with VR? And again, what are the ethics around it of using VR that only some people have access to or putting these cameras in communities and such? that extractive problem of documentary. So we had a whole convening about it. And so those kind of things that emerged from our lab are because we're going around and listening to the artists and we're in dialogue with them. So fast forward to today and what's on my mind in particular is distribution, you know. I sit there and we talk about this at Immerse, you know, it's like, here we are, we're building this field, we're supporting it, we're bringing in fellows, we're encouraging them and supporting them to build their work, but there's not a clear distribution plan in it. You know, that whole pipeline that happens with film, where they come to festivals and then they go out to theaters and what have you, we're still building ours. And a lot of times people, you know, have that problem that You know, if it's in VR, people don't have VR headsets in their house. It's not a mainstream use. And so where are the distribution channels? And I think a lot more work needs to be done to understand where we can distribute this work and exhibit this work and create new spaces, right? You know, there was a time when film came out, there weren't theaters, right? It was after film came out, and then eventually people built theaters to show these films, so it became a mass medium. And so what are the new spaces for immersive media? That's really interesting to me. And also understanding what existing spaces, public libraries, in a lot of countries, public libraries do become a space for virtual reality. storytelling and stories to be there and you can access them. We're not doing that in the States. You know, why not? And how can it happen? And what are the barriers? Public television, what are the barriers? What are the distribution? You know, before the pandemic, there was a lot of talk of location-based entertainment areas. You know, after the pandemic, that kind of changed. But then also at the same time looking at augmented reality, right? And all the changes that are already happening just with your phone, with technology we do have. So that's interesting. Where is that going to go? But a lot of us, you know, it's hard to tell stories on these little phones. And it's also, again, even though everyone has cell phones, it's hard to discover them. So all these exhibition and distribution channels are really problematic at this point and something we owe it to the field to try to figure out and make happen. So that's something I'm really interested in. Also another initiative that we have at the lab is called augmentation in public space. So again, looking at public space as this new frontier, physical public space, and how can we augment just, you know, not only with phones, you know, now we're getting used to the idea of phones and we're You know, the metaverse and this idea, this connection between the digital and the physical. So, what are other ways we can do that with projections? How do, you know, audio? Like, all these other ways they do it in other fields. And what is the emerging ways we can think about for documentarians? of how to use public space, which is a wonderful platform, right? And has a long history in the art field, but what does it mean and how can we tell documentaries of place with communities using technologies that are emerging and that we also have in our hand and that people are using? to think about the non-fiction stories, the stories of our place, the invisible stories of our place, you know, the long history of indigenous culture that was erased or gentrification and people who are in these buildings and such that are being kicked out or just yesterday there was a story about Budapest and you know the vibrant Jewish community there that's erased. So all these erased histories and just stories that are in these communities that it's a really exciting platform I think for telling stories within communities. So that's also of great interest to me. Of course, co-creation is something our lab supports and I've always supported and really think that there's a lot more work in that area. We're also doing work around game engines and, you know, game engines and Unity and Unreal and how that can affect documentary and how documentarians can work in these 3D synthetic worlds and also synthetic media. What does that mean for us? The fact that it's not fixed And people can have very different perspectives, and that it's reacting to you, and having an understanding of what that means, and that you're getting one particular view, which you're getting anyway when you look at something, you bring your own viewpoint. But everyone's getting different stories, so it's like this decentralization of storytelling, which is wonderful, but also needs to be understood. The one thing about broadcast is it had a unifying effect, for better or for worse, and probably for worse. But if we see our culture today, there's also huge problems with misinformation and very different information that people are getting. the polarization that creates and the lack of tolerance and, you know, sense of us versus them that's really problematic. So, you know, again, how can documentary be a place that perhaps brings people into conversation that normally wouldn't be in conversation and can bridge some of those gaps that these big corporate broadcasters and social media are creating. you know, these filter bubbles. So I think that's a really interesting idea. We're also, there's work on deepfakes and being both critical and Co-Creation Studio has a partnership with Witness and they're doing a lot of work around deepfakes and artists who are both using deepfakes to be critical and make people prepare and understand them better, but also their creative potential. You know, it's both sides so that you can see the world in new ways.
[00:43:58.380] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of these new forms of immersive storytelling might be and what that might be able to enable?
[00:44:11.326] Sarah Wolozin: For me, storytelling in general is a way to, A, help us understand the world better, especially if you have different perspectives and you have representation and you have people telling stories that maybe you haven't heard before. And B, they're transformative. They can be. When they're good, they're transformative. You do see the world in a different way. You might have more empathy or more understanding or more knowledge to change the world. Ultimately, this world needs a lot of changing. The systems are broken. And I think that narrative change and narratives are so important to how we understand the world and how we make sense of it. If we can change our narratives, we can change the world. And one more thing, in terms of doing that with immersive media, this is the world we live in. We live in a world that's both virtual and physical, so our stories need to be virtual and physical. Stories are a reflection of how we live and form is important, you know, in terms of what stories you can even tell and how you tell stories and speaking the languages of our present day and exploring the realities. of our present day. You know, a lot of people spend a lot of time in VR chat and, you know, virtual worlds, and they're going to be spending more time, and certainly young people spend a lot of time with game worlds, right? So why wouldn't you speak that language to tell non-fiction stories? And if you're not, you're not telling the whole story.
[00:45:48.863] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:45:57.011] Sarah Wolozin: I think there's tremendous talent in the immersive community and courage and openness to be in this community and to be flexible and understand that the world is changing and that there are always new ways of doing things and that stories that reflect the world we live in are urgent and I feel like a lot of the people in this community are really exploring how to have impact in the world, you know, and how to create embodied storytelling. I know you've talked a lot about embodied storytelling and that's a huge change and a profound change in terms of knowledge, right? There's so many types of knowledge, right? There's knowledge from seeing, from, you know, the multi-sensory type knowledge. feeling, touching, you know, having an understand it through your body. That's a profound type of knowledge and these stories are accessing that kind of knowledge and communicating and allowing you to understand the world through these many senses. And that's really exciting to me because I feel like we can share so much more knowledge and share so many more stories because also people have different ways of communicating. Some people are, you know, have really strong sense of touch or if you're, you know, have different abilities, you're disabled and you're blind or you can't hear. There are many other ways to understand the world and so this is also a community that has the potential to be more inclusive because we use many senses to tell stories. So I feel really excited and positive about the type of people in the world that is this immersive media because it's people who are really exploring the representation in a full human way and really trying to put themselves out there and push boundaries. And that's how you evolve.
[00:47:59.990] Kent Bye: Yeah. Awesome. Well, Sarah, thanks so much for all that you've been doing at the MIT OpenDocLab. I know it's key to have institutional support for this entire field. There's been the festival circuit, which is at the front lines of having these showcases for these films and these pieces, but to have a broader discourse and sense-making frameworks and the research and academia, and also just bringing the community together and these different partnerships that you've had with places like IFADocLab, which is, for me, I'm a documentarian at heart. I love documentaries. I love documenting things, obviously. with this podcast. And so, yeah, I feel like very at home in this community and just see the impact of having all these different institutions that are helping to bring the community together and to really push the limits of what is possible with the future of immersive storytelling. So thanks again for all that you're doing and for joining me today on the podcast to help share your story and everything that's happening at the MIT Open Doc Lab. So thank you.
[00:48:52.352] Sarah Wolozin: Thank you so much for having me. It's been wonderful to talk to you. So thank you.
[00:48:58.287] Kent Bye: That was Sarah Wellison. She's the director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab. MIT Open Doc Lab is doing a lot of really amazing work of chronicling a lot of these different immersive documentary experiences, web docs, coming up with different timelines. William Uricchio coming up with a little bit of the history and evolution of this field. The Immerse is a publication that's at Immerse.news. It's a medium. They have a number of different articles covering the different film festival scenes and also bringing together artists to talk about everything and a lot of really interesting collaborations with like the co-creation studio and trying to think about ways in which that the documentary is in collaboration and participation with media, how to facilitate those different conversations, how to deal with different erased histories and working with game engines and they're looking at the decentralization of storytelling and moving beyond single authorship, which is a lot of what the co-creation studio was focusing on their book of collective wisdom, co-creating media with equity and justice, you know, just facilitating those conversations and fighting disinformation. So yeah, just a lot of really interesting initiatives that they have there at the MIT Open Documentary Lab. And again, trying to bring together scholars, technologists, and artists to be able to, what they say is their mission is to bring together storytellers, technologists, and scholars to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative, interactive, and immersive storytelling. So yeah, just attending these different festivals and at these festivals, you really see a lot of the latest innovations of what's happening in the field and different curators, like the whole curatorial team there. If a doc lab of Casper Sonnen, Vatika Verma, and Annabelle Troost that, yeah, they're just been doing a great job of curating and as well as char in the new frontier, which, you know, for the last 16 years doing the new frontier program, although this year taking a little bit of a break and a pause to kind of reevaluate focus of ways in which that this program is serving the goals of the community. So yeah, there's a bit of a pause for the Sundance New Frontier. But yeah, just this whole interaction of the curators and the artists and the technology all in dialogue with each other as they're coming together and bringing together artists, storytellers, technologists, and scholars. So yeah, check out the immerse.news and the MIT OpenDocLab to see all the different initiatives and efforts that they're doing. And yeah, just good to hear a little bit more about the founding stories and also Sarah as well. She's helping to do a lot of really great stuff there at the MIT OpenDocLab. Yeah, I guess the final thought is just how our lives are increasingly the blending of the virtual and the physical. And so as our physical lives continue to have these different virtually mediated components overlaid on top of it, even if it's over your phone and remote technology, that it makes sense for the documentaries to start to expand their forms into also in a similar way, trying to blend these different aspects of the physical reality and the virtual reality. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you could become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.