Forum, October 2021

The Polyphonic Entanglements of Co-creation


  • Judith Aston

The Co-creation Convenings have called for a re-set.

They have called for resistance to reverting to past ways of doing things. They have opened a space to reimagine the academy and the role of documentary and journalism both within and beyond these walls.

I write this in Bristol, United Kingdom, in my capacity as a co-convenor of the i-Docs symposia. I have actively participated in the Co-creation Convenings. I have very much appreciated the ongoing spirit of dialogue and exchange that they have engendered.

This sense of ongoing-ness has been a revelation; we are no longer confined to the more intermittent spaces of face-to-face conference, festivals, and symposia. This has brought significant advantages and rewards.

Figure 1. A Polyphonic Documentary Project planning meeting across mainland Europe, the UK, and the USA.

The i-Docs symposium has fallen into a pattern of being held in Bristol every two years. However, for the 2021 symposium, we had already begun to re-think this strategy given our core theme of climate emergency.

How could we justify the carbon footprint created by bringing everyone to Bristol? What hybrid models could we conceive where some events might be held elsewhere? Could we hold some simultaneous events using digital technology to connect and create transnational dialogue, building on the liveness of the conference format?

We started this process by collaborating with Liz Miller from Concordia University as part of our 2020 symposium. Liz curated a program of keynotes, panels, and workshops, some of which we planned to livestream at i-Docs, subsequently creating digital hook-ups at key touch-points. We saw this as the first step in a radical experiment in climate-aware conferencing.

Scheduled for March 2020, the same month that the UK’s chaotic lock-down finally began, the symposium had to be postponed. Only a few weeks away from launching our full program, this delay was devastating.

However, we re-grouped.

We met virtually with Liz to imagine how we could draw something positive from the situation. The result was an ongoing series of meetings with her and fellow i-Docs colleague, Sharon Daniel. We shared experiences, exchanged ideas, and enjoyed each other’s company.

One outcome of these meetings was to launch a new online series called “i-Docs Community Conversations.”  Putting “community” in the title was deliberate to emphasize the spirit of fluidity, openness, dialogue, exchange, and collaboration that i-Docs has always held at its core.

Our first Community Conversation was held in July 2020, a few weeks after the first Co-creation Convening in June. Because both events were looking at co-creation in times of pandemic, we cross-promoted these events. We have remained committed to ongoing exchange across our common orientations, goals, and projects.

Our Community Conversations aim to break down hierarchies and create inclusive spaces for dialogue and exchange. The advantages of the digital are clear. Anyone with access to a computer or smartphone can register to attend. This allows people who previously would not have been able to be present in Bristol to join as equals online.

To date, we have mounted four events building on themes initially developed for the 2020 symposium: co-creating in times of corona pandemic, creative practice and climate crisis, i-docs and multiperspectival thinking, and immersive audiences.

These events have opened up opportunities to explore documentary ideas and practices in a more genuinely transnational context than previously possible.

Our involvement with the Co-creation Convenings has been key with multiple crossings of concepts, discussions, and ideas. One clear example is our common commitment to a theme that intersects with co-creation and resonates strongly across our shared spaces – polyphony.

Polyphony resides in the heart of i-Docs, and was key to our third community conversation on multi-perspectival thinking.

Figure 2. i-Docs and Multiperspectival Thinking: Community Conversations 3.

It was also the topic for the third Co-creation convening a week beforehand on pedagogy, polyphony, and polarization, led by myself and Mandy Rose in full collaboration with its conveners. This convening was a living example of collaborative exchange, entangled and dialogic in spirit.

Subsequently, I have launched a collaborative research project on Polyphonic Documentary with Stefano Odorico.

Where co-creation brings to the table a horizontal model of collaboration rather than a top-down model of a single author or writer, polyphony applies this dialogic process within the compositional structure of the work itself, creating a means through which multiple perspectives can be addressed.

There is clearly strong synergy between polyphony and co-creation, although the one is not necessarily dependent on the other. Polyphonic texts can have single or multiple authors, and co-created texts do not always engage with polyphony.

Polyphony and co-creation are important and relevant in a time of pandemic and protest, as a response to increasing polarization and a proliferation of media technologies used to divide us further through algorithmic manipulation and filter bubbles.

Our ongoing dialogues across the i-Docs Community Conversations and Co-creation Convenings are refreshing because they make a genuine effort to convene inclusive spaces. We have been brought together around a shared desire to re-think the systems and structures within which we operate through the lens of co-creation and polyphony.

Figure 3. The results of an interactive Mentimeter poll conducted during our i-Doc Community Conversation.

Many of us work in University film departments, while others work across various sectors within the documentary film industries and archives. How we should be teaching the next generation of documentary filmmakers is a recurring question. Our intention is to ensure that co-creation and polyphony are included within our curricula.

The way we teach storytelling constitutes a crucial part of this work. Non-hierarchical and multi-perspectival approaches demand rethinking the dominant plot model of conflict, climax, and resolution, all too often presented as the dominant paradigm within filmmaking departments.

My own pedagogy starts from the premise that the art of documentary is to engage life as played out through the realities of an uncertain and messy world. My teaching emanates from the belief that documentary needs to be explored through a wide range of forms and possibilities.

Through my ongoing engagements with i-Docs and the Co-creation Convenings, I have been privileged to find like-minded souls. They are motivated to stimulate a critical and expansive concept of what we mean by “documentary” and by “story” in the academy.

In our ongoing work and convenings, we have been looking at ideological polarization and climate emergency, two serious problems requiring radical solutions. With the power of the “we” being greater than the power of the “I”, we need all the skills of collective action and multi-perspectival understanding that we can muster. Long live i-Docs and long live the Co-creation Convenings!

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Judith Aston is Co-founder of i-Docs and an Associate Professor in Film and Digital Arts at UWE Bristol. She has an interdisciplinary background in anthropology, geography, interaction design and creative media practice. As an active member of the University’s Digital Cultures Research Centre, she is also an experienced tutor and PhD supervisor. At the heart of her work is the desire to put evolving media technologies into the service of promoting multi-perspectival thinking and understanding. She has published widely on this and her collaboration with Stefano Odorico on Polyphonic Documentary is the latest manifestation of this ongoing endeavor.

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