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Troubling the Desktop

Observateurs

In an age when digital screens mediate hours of daily existence, it seems logical to turn that experience into the basis for a movie. Low-budget narrative features like Unfriended and Searching are widely known examples of desktop cinema, but the approach flourishes in a range of other practices, from YouTube videos (Klaire fait grr…) to experimental media art (Nick Briz, Foundland Collective). Our own desktop cinema practice deals with it specifically as documentary, starting with Kevin’s 2014 video Transformers: The Premake and leading into our current project, Bottled Songs, a feature-length investigation of online terrorist media. Leading a workshop with the students of Non Linear Narrative master’s program at the Royal Academy of the Arts in The Hague, Netherlands, we dove into specific challenges we’ve faced in our work. How does one transform the online experience into something compelling: narratively, visually, cinematically? 

Encountering the students, media artists whose formative experiences have largely taken place online, we also wondered: what could we teach them about the desktop experience that they don’t already know? We had to find strategies for them to distantiate themselves from the media they consume and produce every day; our primary mission was to change the nature of their gazes on their screens. We invited them to select a single item of online media that they deemed “troublesome” and devote the entire week to articulating their difficulties with this media in a desktop-based video. This directive could disrupt the normative online interfaces designed to keep the user at ease, refocusing critical attention to how images operate in the online mediascape. To explore their troublesome media objects, students conducted several short exercises inspired by our research and production methods, in terms of the epistemological (what we know and how we learn it) and the affective (what we feel, and how to convey these affects to others). 

Sharing our collaborative filmmaking practice with the students brought out distinct differences in our approaches. Chloé holds firm on a principle of realism, showing her entire screen as much as possible and taking the viewer step by step through her investigative processes. This method is in line with her larger interest in what she terms “netnographic cinema,” which applies ethnographic filmmaking to the internet. This ethos becomes particularly relevant given the unstable nature of online data: Her method produces factual, transparent archival traces of the online environment of our time. Kevin is more inclined to cinematic gestures like cuts and close-ups, as well as moments of visual abstraction or patterning, to mine the expressive potential of the desktop as both a canvas that presents online experiences and a camera that moves within it. The differences in our approaches reflect different expressions of what we might call “desktop subjectivity.”

On the last day, the students’ productions (five short films and a two-channel video installation) were exhibited. They included a vertical screen mapping of more than 50 videos and articles related to Microsoft’s recent sinking of an underwater data center; a playful video chat between two fictional artificial intelligences crawling the web at hyperspeed while aiming to launch a wellness and experience startup; and a part-smartphone recording, part-desktop-based critical examination of food-related Twitter posts by Italian politician Matteo Salvini.

What did we learn from leading the workshop? We were amazed by the ease with which the students appropriated the form, spontaneously generating many exciting ideas for how to creatively reinvent the space of the desktop. This provoked us to reconsider our own collaborative work beyond the aforementioned realistic/expressive divide, and to position our respective artistic choices on a wider map of possibilities reflected in the students’ works. We were also struck that the idea of rigorously documenting their online activity was absolutely foreign to them. One student described her online research as a unconscious “dérive”: Following links and algorithmic suggestions, she could never remember where she started from. To keep track of their online trajectories, and to think about ways to creatively narrate these journeys in a video form, posed a real challenge for them. 

In all, the student productions were extremely inventive and unapologetically political. This makes us very hopeful. It speaks to the ongoing potential of the desktop documentary as both a creative and investigative art form, as well as the capacity of its adopters to address the challenges of our times in compelling and self-critical ways. 

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