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From Screen to Stage

In her article for The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson expresses concern over the "lonely" or solitary aspects of the new interactive digital media exhibits she witnesses at the Tribeca Film Festival's Innovation Week / StoryScapes Lineup. She's talking about the way many contemporary digital experiences seem to be -- at their core -- designed for single users. It's a common criticism of the interactive media exhibits that are cropping up at film festivals around the world. Step into a box, small room, or cylindrical holodeck. Don on a pair of VR glasses, and the world is your oyster... but it's yours alone. Rarely do we find interactive exhibits specifically designed to bring groups of people together around the same content at the same time in the same space. Perhaps this is simply a function of where the technology is at: it's hard to share Oculus Rift or Google Glass hardware without bumping noses.

Robinson is fairly unperturbed by all this, noting, "There’s no particular horror in the way all these futuristic presentations are meant solely for one viewer at a time, except to people who already feel threatened by the trend away from the collective theater-viewing experience, and toward the home-viewing experience. There’s a long tradition of finding new tech threatening and believing it’s going to destroy us all." While I take her point, I will risk sounding like a frightened Luddite to express my love of collective, live experiences in public spaces; experiences that bring groups of people together around the same moment, theme, or issue. I believe that collective experiences are very powerful agents in promoting dialogue and social change, and am encouraged to see trends in digital interactive media expression that seem to be grappling with ways to embrace the collective experience -- not just online -- but live and in the moment as well.

A great example of this is a project I worked on called The Seven Digital Deadly Sins. This collaboration between the National Film Board of Canada's Digital Studio and The Gaurdian (UK) is participatory online storytelling, and story forming, at its finest. The online project looks at our internet-based behaviours from a moral perspective, through the lens of the seven deadly sins. Users can watch videos, read interviews, and contribute to online polls meant to take our collective moral "pulse" in the digital era. In creating a live version of this project for Vancouver's DOXA film festival - the team at the NFB has honoured that collective storytelling spirit. Using the considerable talents of comic Ophira Eisenberg, whose personal video testimony appears in the original online project, the content was brought to life for a live audience in the form of a live theatre game show. Audiences watched some of the videos about "digital deadly sins" on the big screen, then took part in real-time polls while Eisenberg cracked jokes about their often outrageous responses. Their answers to questions about their digital behaviours were then summed up on the screen in front of them. A simple-enough formula on the surface, though Loc Dao of the National Film Board made the point that an important part of the project is data tracking, a statement designed to make audiences take note that digital media projects often take in as much information as they put out. Eisenberg said she finds it interesting to note the differences between online responses and live responses, and the different character of responses in various cities. And if you think about it, it's true that it's one thing to fill out an anonymous online poll -- quite another to raise your hand in a crowded theatre in your own city, where you may see people you know, and admit to some vaguely abhorrant online behaviour, such as stalking your ex on Facebook... which I never did, by the way... because that's just creepy. In any case, the result of all this comedic polling was a happy, engaged live audience, busy answering qustions via their smart phones, and unashamed to be tweeting the whole time they were sitting in the show. The experience was very collective -- if not exactly warm and fuzzy -- because it seamlessly incorporated live theatrical technique and digital technology. It ultimately worked very well as a way of bringing people together around a single issue. Turns out, digital projects can get the punters out afterall.

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