home June 23, 2020

Lived Experience, Passion Projects & Inspirational Futures

Having traveled and worked in over 40 countries on six continents, including a half dozen conflict zones, my personal experiences are often more interesting than my work itself, the latter mostly for-hire assignments hatched abroad with little room for iterative co-creation with the colorful characters I meet in the field. 

In preparation for a class I started teaching in 2020, research into MIT’s Co-Creation Studio and collective journey and participatory culture transmedia theory strengthened my conviction that in-field dialogue with the stakeholders a project is supposed to be for and about, and their powerful lived experiences, should dictate, or at least strongly influence, strategy and story. Something akin to lean startup methodology and user-centered design in the tech world. 

Too often with travel jobs or projects targeting dynamic online communities, 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 (often including their own clients or target audiences).

I’m certainly guilty of enabling top-down hero journey approaches, implementing collective journey narratives and co-creation processes implicitly and sporadically. Processes I was at least somewhat aware of when co-creating my first documentary LIBERIA: THE SECRET WAR, thanks to postcolonial graduate seminars I gook at McGill University with Professor Karin Cope (who later included LIBERIA in her curriculum). 

Even then co-creation was either more of a gut feeling or theoretical abstraction than something I could clearly articulate and argue for in the field. So trying to be more inclusive of (people formerly known as) documentary subjects, audiences, users and other key stakeholders too often ended in me caving to pressure from creative directors and executive producers with little understanding of the cultures and communities our projects, experiences or products depended upon. 

All this changed when I kicked off the aforementioned research into transmedia and i-doc theory for a class I was invited to teach at Seneca Polytechnic’s Documentary and Non-Fiction Media program. Riffing off of Mandy Rose’s inspiring writing on the subject, I define i-docs  as any technological or social innovation used to update the documentary form, including but not limited to interactive documentaries, transmedia strategy, (proto-metaverse) XR, AI, web3 and co-creation methodology central to the National Film Board of Canada’s (recently defunct) interactive documentary division and MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Co-Creation Studio, trailblazing the study of co-creation between humans and non-human systems found in nature and artificial intelligence. Going forward, I’m hungry to put co-creation theory into practice – explicitly and assertively – supercharged with emerging technologies best suited to specific project goals. 

That said, instead of focusing solely on co-creation with stakeholders like “people formerly known as documentary subjects,” you’ll still find me making myself the hero throughout this website, especially on my blog  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, BIKE THE PLANET and LOVE & SCHIZOPHRENIA were all inspired by remarkable stories of people I met traveling and filming around the world, as well as powerful stories of struggles at home. 

Whether child soldiers, ghetto gangsters, activist communities or schizophrenic artists, these real-life outsiders are my future subjects, fans, early adopters and especially co-creators, for whom I’ve methodically been crafting blueprints for radically transformative assemblages of collective desire. With whom I hope to co-create lines of flight that empower them and their communities – and those who oppress and repress them but could instead be inspired – liberated even – by courageous stories of pain turned to beauty. 

Using concepts created by my favorite philosopher Gilles Deleuze, which my projects remain virtual and which become actual depends on their value to the cultural assemblages I hope to contribute to. But referencing Deleuze again, the virtual is still real, and the creation of and experimentation with virtual concepts is necessary to bring forth anything actual and new IRL, and a valuable activity in and of itself. Without playful, brave and often ambitious experimentation, there is no new, no transformation, even if the majority of those concepts fade away or take time to stick or hit with the flows of the actual of co-creation – again, co-creation here understood as including non-human systems. 

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 professional skills) such as documentary filmmakers and art directors, and even thinkers who create concepts of the future. But unless their own first-lived experiences are highly relevant to the assemblage they’re co-creating, i-doc professionals shouldn’t impose their own hero journey agendas (or those of their paymasters), and think of themselves as collaboration designers, curators, facilitators or even “cat-herders.” In hip-hop culture, this is known as “playing your position.” 

The motto of the future is thus “nothing about us, without us” – expressing a commitment to equity and direct democracy or even something akin to the harmony felt in a smoky room “cooking” to live jazz. But also recognition that tech, culture and media-driven project successes depend on the communities they’re meant to resonate with most (e.g. fandom cultures, early adopters, activist communities). So when my first-lived experiences are relevant from a personal, research, witness or community perspective, I’m comfortable taking a more prominent role. If not, I’ll happily step back to “play my position” and support with my professional skills, knowing it’s for the good of the assemblage, conceived of as its own desiring subject, a post-human hero if you will.

As we know from science fiction’s influence on space exploration or even the Bible’s influence on narratives surrounding artificial general intelligence (AGI), storytelling has a huge effect on our future. But beyond stories that merely frame or inspire, today’s technological and social innovations allow us to prototype virtual future assemblages – to show that more ecological and equitable visions of the future aren’t impossibly Utopian, but rather based on actual changes in the here and now. Praxis that’s more realistic – and cheaper – than neo-Christian fantasies of Mars colonies, “God-like” sentient AI handling everything for us or humans becoming immortal through an upload to the cloud. 

Steps towards making the virtual into the actual through concept creation and process philosophy at the nexus of social, environmental and technological innovation – instead of  hallucinatory distractions about living in a simulation, where tech bros who supposedly have sole access to God-like tech must be given the power of medieval priests. As with all myths, stories and religions that involve power, money and politics, these tall tales can use a healthy dose of Nietzschean “who benefits” detective work to see beyond the click-bait titles and podcast sound bites. 

As for tools that have the potential to make the virtual into the actual, take WORLDING for example, in my view the most promising 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]

Imagine “Worlding,” a concept inspired by Deleuze’s affect theory, supercharged by his assemblage theory and concept of virtuality, expanded in MIT’s WORLDING initiative to include collective journey transmedia worldbuilding. Alternative social, economic, and technological futures could be prototyped alongside sustainable climate futures – for instance, by co-creating with non-human systems found in nature and artificial intelligence, crowd financing collectively ownership using web3 technology (but truly collective, not of in the neo-feudal anarcho-capitalist vein). 

Or at very least, imagine technological futures that contribute to an open metaverse free of cultural appropriation and economic exploitation of its users by thirsty culture and IP brands, MAANG “techno-feudal” platform dominance, data-exploitation by AI giants with no economic plan B for the huge loss in jobs they create and bad-actor-driven AI chaos. (This is what my work-in-progress Pax Life hood creator movement maps as “theory fiction,” as virtuality in my GANGSTA GLOBAL transmedia storyworld. Perhaps one day also  in the actual through IRL techno-social Pax Life assemblages, what Cizek from the open documentary lab calls “the human algorithm” co-creating with “non-human systems,” both natural and technological). 

Our future is only stuck on rails if we choose AI hype and hysteria 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 simulation dogma 3.0 over anti-transcendental Deleuzoguattarian co-created assemblages, and neo-reactionary transhumanism over posthuman lines of flight from the virtual to the actual.

This all starts with deep listening and honest phenomenological research into stakeholder needs and desires, technological innovation and disruption, power, politics and market forces and their effects on our shared Anthropocene – the ultimate co-created collective journey transmedia storyworld on which our lives all depend. 

Admittedly a scope and balance I have yet to fully live up to in my work, but as I articulate a process inspired by MIT’s Co-Creation Studio, I have a tool kit to work with and something to strive for – with those of you up to the challenge to make the virtual actual through co-creation! 

 

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