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‘Interactive Haiku’ – an Interview with William Uricchio

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Last week saw the launch of the latest interactive media collaboration from The National Film Board of Canada and ARTE, following on from prior projects In Limbo and Bar Code. With Interactive Haiku the challenge was set for artists around the world to translate the structural philosophy of haiku as a short-form expression to a series of digital interactive pieces which will continue to be rolled out over the rest of the month. Amongst the esteemed Competition Jury who managed to determine the twelve strongest concepts out of over one-hundred and sixty submissions was William Uricchio, an author, Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Lead Principal Investigator at the MIT Open Documentary Lab. We talked to William about his involvement with the Interactive Haiku project and the exciting strides being made as regards the increasing overlap of animation and interactive media.

Considering your work as part of the Open Doc Lab do you feel interactivity is a big part of the future of documentaries?

Absolutely, even just the use of documents – whether paper documents, photos, static documents that normally Ken Burns would have panned over slowly – as soon as people can assemble that stuff there’s a huge expansion of the vocabulary and especially a huge expansion of the audience.

How did you get involved with the work that the NFB have been doing?

When we started the lab at MIT we immediately canvassed who was doing what. The NFB are not just thought leaders but definitely one of the organisations producing incredibly innovative work. Interestingly there, because of the French/English split, it’s almost as though they’ve doubled the amount of investment and culture and possibility – this comes out of the French side primarily, but Kat Cizek’s work is coming out of the English speaking side. If you look at that as a whole, it’s really amazing. So we started to track what they were doing, got into conversations with them, did a lot of developmental brainstorming and workshopping on projects with them. We’ve been trying to learn from them and they’re great conversation partners when they’re trying to develop something with us, so it’s been fun.

Datum (Hamish Lambert/Ben Swinden)

Before Interactive Haiku had there been other projects you had worked with them on?

The NFB have a moment of annual reflection where they set their goals for the coming year or so, and I was invited up to talk basically to them, which was a great opportunity. So from that sort of speaking encounter I started working with them, I guess we’ve been really busy with the French side in particular, getting projects off the ground. A lot of the times behind the scenes there are fairly robust, academic components to this work , so as a university we can call upon specialists – the NFB can as well, of course. I guess the trick is to try and think about what’s the intellectual agenda, the intellectual substance to some of these things, while at the same time thinking of what kinds of forms might that take, what kinds of interactions might that invite from the user. Especially when talking to university professors, you think about the ways this information can come across that’s not just chalk-on-a-board but actually something that requires meaningful engagement and interaction. So those are the kinds of conversations and we’ve had them on a couple of different projects so far.

To what degree were you directly involved in the selection process?

It was a jury process where I chaired the jury, we combed through 162 proposals which was tough. Sometimes the way an idea is expressed can be defining and certainly with this kind of a process that was the case, but we were looking for people that were trying to really embrace the idea of haiku in a way that we hadn’t thought of, or imagined in a way that was evocative or seemed to live up to the potentials of what a haiku could be. Given that the idea of an interactive visual haiku was pretty new – there wasn’t a lot of precedent, there weren’t benchmarks to fall back on to – it really meant being open to understanding what people were trying to do. What’s interesting is that of the twelve winners, for me twenty or so jumped up and bit me. I’m sure for other jury members it was different, but for me the ones that stood out really stood out.

Facing the Nameless (Ziv Schneider)

Based on that selection process then do you get a sense that, on the whole, this is a form of new media that’s really taking hold?

Absolutely, and I think what was really nice about this exercise is that, at the end of the day, it really asked for some reflection on the space between “What’s your concept?” and “How is that gonna show up, a tactile or acoustical or interaction form?” What’s the elegance of the interplay amongst those elements, for example? On other juries I’ve sat on, a lot more attention goes into the content, the argument and the form. Well, there’s enough of an established vocabulary that you kind of take that for granted – you’ll talk about it of course, but here I would say the presentation of these ideas paid equal attention to the forms, the interaction and the idea. That to me was a really good sign that people were taking this opportunity to think outside the box – there is no box, so it’s an easy moment to think outside it.

Was it a positive experience, all told?

The judging process was really fun. There was a very diverse jury of people including Caspar Sonnen who runs the Amsterdam Doc Lab and organises the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival, and Jonathan Harris who, of all the folks out there making stuff, ‘haiku’ is the term I would equate with him first; Not that his work is short-form but that it’s elegant, where the balance of form and function is really refined, exquisite. So the discussions that took place were just terrific, everyone has their favourites. While I said twenty jumped up and bit me I think our final discussion was probably more like forty or fifty. People really saw this in different ways and were all articulate about it from very different perspectives, so that was terrific.

There were certain parameters set for the submissions, how were those determined?

We had ten ‘creative rules’ I think they called them, although that was before the jury entered the picture. We got a package with the rule set and, significantly, the tenth rule was that one of those rules had to be broken. So those led to some interesting discussions – one rule was the piece had to be sixty seconds, so the rule they broke was to make it five minutes; They had to have sound, well here’s one that doesn’t have sound. So it made for a wildcard in the discussion process, that’s for sure. I think for the creators it was interesting too, whatever they couldn’t abide by it was a great excuse to depart at that point.

Life is Short (Florian Veltman)

How valuable do you find the roles animation and graphical elements play with these types of interactive projects to be?

I think it’s really crucial. The NFB have done some marvelous stuff and while this of course is produced by them, not commissioned per se, it shows how robust that space is, how ripe it is for exploration. So I think for people who know animation, who think beyond what gets aired on television cartoons or maybe ads, it’s an amazing form. As with documentary it is transformative, it adds another dimension, it’s built in a way that there’s an economy because of the labour involved. Having to think about each frame really is well suited to interactivity, because that too requires very careful thinking all the time about what are the units, what kind of interaction, what are the triggers gonna be – and in a certain way animation strikes me par excellence as a vehicle for thinking through this kind of interactivity.
With a traditional live-action documentary, sometimes you’re lucky, things happen, or you shoot 10-1 or 100-1 and find the good material, but animation doesn’t work that way. Generally speaking with what I’ve seen or know about the animation production process, you’re really thinking about it frame by frame, you’re really thinking about in a quite different way. That works well, as some of these projects have shown.

The Interactive Haiku project can be explored at
To learn more about the work of the MIT Open Documentary Lab visit

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