home June 23, 2020

Lived Experience, Passion Projects & Inspirational Futures

Having worked in and traveled to over 40 countries, including a half dozen conflict zones, my personal experiences are often more compelling than my work itself, most of it work-for-hire assignments with little room for iterative co-creation in the field. In line with my recent research into MIT’s Co-Creation Studio and Open Documentary Lab, I strongly believe lived experiences like mine and in-field dialogue with the stakeholders a project is supposed to be for and about should dictate strategy and story. Too often with travel jobs, inflexible “big ideas” are enforced from afar by authority figures more concerned with their own career-driven “hero journeys” than co-creating authentic assemblages of meaning and value for all stakeholders involved (including their clients).

I’ve certainly been guilty of enabling top-down hero journey projects, implementing collective journey narratives and co-creation process implicitly and sporadically, approaches I was at least vaguely aware of when making my first documentary LIBERIA: THE SECRET WAR – thanks to a few postcolonial graduate seminars at McGill under Prof. Karin Cope. Even then it was often more of a gut feeling than something I could clearly articulate, so when trying to give agency and a voice to fans, users, documentary subjects and other key stakeholder I’d often cave to pressure from creative directors and executive producers with little understanding of the cultures and communities the projects depended on. 

All this changed in 2019 when started researching for an i-docs class I was invited to teach at Seneca College’s Documentary and Non-Fiction Media program,  with “i-docs” defined as any technological or social innovation used to update the documentary form, including but not limited to (proto-metaverse) XR, AI and co-creation methods central to the National Film Board of Canada’s interactive documentary division and MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Co-Creation Studio. I’m hungry to put co-creation theory into practice – explicitly and assertively – going forward. 

That said, you’ll still find me making myself the hero on this website instead of focusing solely on co-creators and other stakeholders like “people formerly known as documentary subjects and audiences.” This is because of another concept central to co-creation and i-doc theory: “first-lived experiences.” Mining my own first-lived experiences has led to my most authentic and compelling ideas to date: work-in-progress passion projects GANGSTA GLOBAL, PAX LIFE and LOVE & SCHIZOPHRENIA were all inspired by remarkable stories of people I met traveling and filming around the world, as well as equally compelling stories of struggles at home. Whether child soldiers, ghetto gangsters or schizophrenic artists, these real-life outsiders are my future subjects, super fans and co-creators, for whom I’ve methodically been crafting blueprints for radically transformative assemblages of collective desire – with lines of flight that could empower them and their communities. And those who judge them but could instead be liberated by their courageous fight to turn pain to beauty.

As MIT Co-Creation Lab co-founder Katerina Cizek points out, co-creation is a spectrum, where there’s still room – and a need – for specialists (or rather generalists with practical professional skills) such as documentary filmmakers and art directors. But unless the project is about their own first-lived experience, i-doc professionals shouldn’t overpower a project with their own hero journey agendas (or those of their paymasters), and think of themselves as collaboration designers, curators, facilitators or even “cat-herders.” The motto of the future thus becomes “nothing about us, without us” – expressing a commitment to equity, but also a recognition a tech, culture or media-driven project’s success depends on the communities it’s meant to resonate with most. So when my lived experiences are relevant from a personal, research, witness or community perspective, I’lll comfortable taking on a more prominent role. If not, I’ll happily step back to support using my professional skills knowing it’s for the good of the co-created assemblage. 

As we know from science fiction’s influence on space exploration or even the Bible’s influence on narratives surrounding AI, stories can have a huge effect on our future. But beyond stories that merely frame or inspire, today’s technological and social innovations allow us to prototype actionable assemblages – to show that more ecological and equitable visions of the future aren’t impossibly Utopian, but rather based on incremental changes in the here and now. Praxis that’s more realistic – and cheaper – than quasi-religious fantasies of Mars colonies, “God-like” sentient AI or gaining immortality through an upload to the cloud.

Take WORLDING for example, in my view the most exciting MIT initiative since the launch of their Co-Creation Studio:

“​​A first-of-its-kind research and development initiative, WORLDING explores climate futures at the intersection of documentary, land-use planning, speculative design and game-engine technologies. It’s a partnership between Unity through the Unity Charitable Fund, the Unity for humanity Program, and the Co-Creation Studio at MIT Open Documentary Lab.” [1]

Now imagine if, informed by Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage theory and concept of virtuality, WORLDING were expanded to include collective journey transmedia worldbuilding.  Alternative social, economic and cultural futures could be prototyped alongside climate futures – perhaps by co-creating with non-human systems found in nature and artificial intelligence and crowd financed using web3 technology. Or at very least, imagine technological futures that contribute to an open metaverse free of cultural appropriation and exploitation by brands, MAANG “techno-feudal” platform dominance and bad-actor-driven AI. This is largely what my PAX LIFE hood creator movement imagines, both as a story element in my GANGSTA GLOBAL TV series, and as a techno-social assemblage IRL. 

Our future is only stuck on rails if we choose AI rights over human, animal and collective rights, AGI and Mars colony fantasies over incremental environmental solutions, Nick Land’s singularity over Yuk Hui’s technodiversity, Nick Bostrom Christian dogma 3.0 over Deleuze and Guattarian co-created assemblages, and neo-reactionary transhumanism over posthuman lines of flight.

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