Review of: "Cultures in Webs"

Ethnography in Old and New Media

Review of:
"Cultures in Webs" (CD-ROM)
Roderick Coover (Eastgate Systems, Massachusetts, 2003)

By Pat Badani

The representation of cultures and the study of ethnographic documentary images, finds interactive approaches in the recently published CD-ROM: "Cultures in Webs", in which author Roderick Coover discusses theory and practice in "old" and "new" media. More significantly, Coover reflects on the various ways in which the word "web" can be used as a metaphor, not only to provoke thought about the co-habitation of documentary photography, the moving image, and text in a hypermedia format, but also to argue in favour of this format in order to reveal a network of concealed narratives in co-existing, cross-cultural worlds. Composed of three essays that illustrate the use of digital media as a mode of cultural analysis, the work uses a host of media formats: HTML and Javascript, digitized video images shot in DVCAM and Hi8 Pal, digitized slides shot on 35 mm film using Nikon FG and Nikon N90, and written material. Published by Eastgate Systems in 2003 with an introduction by Lucien Taylor, the work demonstrates how interactive hypermedia can present and disseminate ethnographic information that would be difficult to convey in traditional form, thereby contributing an alternative model for the documentary arts.

Theory: World-making / Sense-making
The use of film in psychiatry became common practice during WW2 and was adapted to sociological research in the 1960's. Ethnographic filming was initiated by Margaret Mead in the 1940's and classical examples can be found from Robert Flaherty (1922) to Jean Rouch (1957). The works of Trinh T. Minh-ha and other filmmakers serve as examples of the renewed efforts to use the documentary camera by prompting the viewer to look and build a network of association. Coover references these in order to discuss cross-cultural representation in film. He notes that these filmmakers have used editing techniques to support multiple, and even contradictory, associative and narrative fields, and that their experiments in breaking linear form would seem to anticipate the multi-linear worldmaking available to digital media documentary authors today.

One of the three essays presented, "Metaphors, Montage and Worldmaking", discusses precisely these topics with theoretical texts, film samples and stills from three filmmakers: Robert Gardner's " Forest of Bliss ", Vincent Monnikendam " Mother Dao The Turtlelike ", specifically in reference to strategies of montage; and Trinh T. Minh-ha's : " Naked Spaces : Living is Round ", describing a physical as well as an intellectual process of sense-making that the viewer undergoes in order to build pictured worlds. By drawing parallels between the three filmmakers, who deny linearity and the authority of a single voice-over narration, a case is made in favour of documentary producers who abstain from reproducing the us/them power differential. To illustrate this, "Metaphors, Montage and Worldmaking" contrasts the three films mentioned earlier to Robert Flaherty's film : " Nanook of the North " in which the narrative is placed within a prefigured Western and romanticised archetype of a man battling nature. Coover supports the view that 'worldmaking is what one does in the act of looking' and further describes a 'way of looking at the world by defining relationships'. This way of looking guides decisions made while gathering images as well as choices made while editing, a theory of production geared to structuring the viewer's experience in the process of constructing reality. The essay shows how "new" media practices amplify "old" media with design elements that include the use of embedded digitized video clips, links and pop-ups. Multi-sensory ethnographic material is thus organised and displayed as interlaced fragments that can convey 'the culturally specific qualities of places' for the viewer to experience and make sense of.

Practice : Interconnected Patterns
The idea of visual documentation supplementing a written ethnography is certainly well supported in "The Harvest." In this second essay, Coover presents his own practice as ethnographic documentarist and tackles questions about the structuring of interconnected, layered information in view of audience reception. The work explores photographic stills in digital media through a fifty-image black & white photo essay about wine harvest in Burgundy, France, supplemented by three layers of text. The texts unfold horizontally as one scrolls laterally through the photographic diary. The occasional hyperlinked word will launch additional image pop-ups, or videotaped interviews and sample analyses that offer insight into the subject. Further, these hyperlinks inform the viewer on the author's conceptual decisions and the use of techniques. The texts address three different threads and narrative points of view. The first thread tells us about the harvest as event and includes a luscious description of a work-day at the vineyard; the tools, the methods, and the people who partake in the complicated task of growing three different varieties of grapes. The second thread offers the author's subjective "felt" experience of this event and about recovered memories that determine editing choices. The third thread conveys the historical and contextual background of the harvest. A story is told about winemaker Aubert de Villaine as someone who reflects cultural ideals by practising a profession with a long history and tradition. Interconnected patterns and relationships of meaning unfold as one moves back and forth and into the hyperlinked environment. In "The Harvest," Coover convincingly shows how grapes become 'substance for stories, histories, and images,' discovered by the viewer in the construction of meaning. (

Performance: Concealing/Revealing
The relationship of culture, communication, and audiovisual perception in a hypermedia context is once again explored in the third essay of the series: "Concealed Narratives." By intertwining written information with photo and video, organised in an interactive environment rich with hyperlinks and frames within frames, Coover hopes to mirror the complex structure of the content presented. Composed of field notes, video recordings, and photos taken in Ghana's Upper West and Central Regions, "Concealed Narratives" is a study of how the history of politics at the birth of the Fourth Republic emerged indirectly both through traditional performances (festivals, funerals, enstoolments, and religious ceremonies) and through painted words and images that decorate buses, boats, walls, and statues. Specifically, Coover narrates his own learnt lessons about the collision of politics and performance traditions, used actively to both conceal and reveal conflicting positions. These scenarios often expose latent struggles between several local, national and international bodies, and are used to reclaim a space in sites scripted by colonial history, or to claim a place within a new post-colonial order. The underlying stories that amplify Coover's written narration reach us through a number of video-taped interviews. These testimonies show multiple, and even contradictory viewpoints. By juxtaposing contrasting ideas and images as they move through different experiences and environments, the author encourages the viewer to compile the fragments into a whole, becoming aware of concealed narratives through the process.

A new model
"Cultures in Webs" intertwines theory and practice, the 'imagistic qualities of language and the paralinguistic aspects of visual media.' By suggesting a new relationship between the visual documentarist, the subject, and the audience, Coover combines the poetic, the didactic, and the interactive in what could well be a new model for documentary representation in cross-cultural media. Concerned with plurality, dialogism and reflexivity, the author fittingly withholds his authority as narrator in his own practice and explores the social processes of cultural self-representation as well as of spectatorship. Paralleling his intentions to that of three ethnographic filmmakers, the author seeks to go beyond conventional narration and exploits techniques of montage and metaphor in a new hypermedia context. Most importantly, he invites the viewer to navigate through and interact with a rich textual, visual, and aural landscape. In doing so, Coover probes processes of documentary production, circulation, and reception in a digital environment and aptly demonstrates how knowledge of the world may be acquired through techniques that can in some measure enable spectators to discover webs of signification for themselves.