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Reality Is the New Fiction in Our ‘Hall Of Mirrors Information Era’

If future journalism is to serve our global village, bold design and digital innovation labs are key

Crisis in Syria Living under the regime ‘Damascus, a city of people waiting for the unknown’ Andrea Bruce | NOOR
Since 2007, the narrative (web 2.0) has fragmented into intimate alcoves and elective communities commonly referred to as ‘friends.’ News is no longer what’s on the homepage of traditional media organisations, news is what’s shared — essentially on social media.

But is there a risk of losing a collective consciousness in the comfort zone? How will we consider, care for and bond with, for instance, the 60 million vulnerable people affected and displaced by wars and conflicts? That’s a figure equivalent to a population the size of Italy or the number of HSBC consumers worldwide —and they have no voice. Who is assigned to highlight their everyday life with factual information, empathy and nuance through engaging visual stories? And where will these stories land properly to be shared?
Who will report with global perspective on the lives of refugees, victims of war and internally displaced peoples with concerned lenses, keyboards, design, code and a heart?
A new model is needed to welcome the future of virtual reality, interactive storytelling and serious gaming — where the viewer is the pilot, not just to kill. Who will build human stories with human reporting conditions, when too many visual storytellers have been left down the road by a moribund business model? Who will finance the interactive cinema of the real?
The “documentary renaissance” has found great outlets for funding through festivals, non-profit and private support, but that isn’t enough to feed the future of transmedia* deploying on screens and through art installations: that is the 2015+ narrative landscape.

We need seed money for story labs. We need bold, clever and intuitive investors for field labs to take place; investors that aren’t just growth driven. We need to think of funding in the way Hollywood thought of funding — seeding a collaborative process (producer + screenwriter + director), for immersive storytelling to take off along multiple screens and stages.
The Enemy. Standing at the crossroads between neuroscience, artificial intelligence and storytelling, The Enemy is a virtual reality experiment that puts the viewer in the middle of two combatants from opposite sides observing each other.
Having met promising talents at workshops who bear financial hardship in exchange for their devotion to story, solving the funding model problem is our key issue. There is a need to design sustainable furrows for creative authorship to develop and grow along the creator’s ‘obsession’ to tell a story. As a society, we should be worshipping independence in storytelling.

Visual storytellers are our best factual and emotional sensors. But the broken business model has narrowed their intentions and the possibilities.

The Concerned Web

So, once again: how will the 60 million displaced population ever enter the spheres of everyone’s filtered news and friend-based customised feeds?

If let’s say, my main focuses these coming months were to: 1/ build a start-up, 2/ keep updated daily on my research on interactive design and technology, 3/ prepare my wedding 4/ and design my road trip-honeymoon throughout Italy … where are the Syrian refugees sharing their journey?

How will stories of critical humanitarian concern pierce and affect my comfort zone? Through a greater series of news articles I might wave away? The news tends to be striking repetitive chords; the news-cycle can be as nerve-wracking as endless, single beat music. The information as delivered needs labs to be re-engineered completely.
Laid out neatly on a dressing table, a tiara, hair ornaments, lipsticks, eye shadows and mascara, cigarette lighters and a Quran sit on display at a beautician’s shop in Zaatari Camp’s Sharia Souq (Market Street). Run by twenty–year–old businesswoman Seba, the boutique has helped support her whole family since fleeing the war in Syria. @Alixandra Fazzina | NOOR
Meanwhile who will deliver the story to me if my friends don’t? Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his CPO Chris Cox are pressing the dominant media brands to join their platform? Maybe that will bring vital, global news stories to everyone’s conscience, or maybe it will just increase Facebook’s market share, metrics and profits? And, what if we don’t do Facebook or the other mainstays of social media?

It’s most likely that future content and media niches will emerge from a range of start-ups rising from the ashes of a broken media model. That and video-on-demand and TV moving (slowly) on digital screens.

At least that’s the hypothesis. We could be so more ambitious.

Blueprints are required to set the right funding model behind multimedia content and authors who are keys not only in visual storytelling but everywhere else in the software architcture: Storycoders meeting Fieldreporters. Do we really need anything else in the way? Yes, low profile meticulous researchers and investigative, data journalists.

Less talks more investigation.
“Hybrid roles demand multiple skill sets — business, marketing, and technical — rolled into one person. And these jobs pay well, $100,000 or more in some cases”
The next generation of transjournalists has hybrid skills.

To prepare their landing, an état des lieux is required. I ask, what should we preserve/save/revive in visual journalism practice?

– We need to bring on board senior brains with experience in print and digital journalism, who care for innovation.

– We need to support storytellers with lenses building the dramaturgy of the real through grants for their independence to be preserved.

– We need to match interaction designers, coders and UX architects with storytellers.

– We need to nurture the emerging scenes of data journalists eager to investigate.

– And we need “do-tanks” around scripts, business models, adjusted workflow, and end product deliverables.

Most importantly we need to test UX to build and adjust, build and fail, test and reset, UX resilience is the future of media, and the best way to launch and ripple-effect multidirectional content.

The project could launch with small groups for everyone to share background, experiences, and directions. Cell production v/s pyramidal hierarchy. To start is to support authors with creative edge and storytelling ethics, and help them shape a series of blueprints. Independent producers are fighting for these labs to be funded. Film funds in France, Canada, and Luxembourg do more for #transmedia stories than any corporate media will or any technology-based platform has.

That’s where seed money is needed: to monitor, record and share insightful investigations, conversations, testimonies and their findings.
Beirut February 2015, refugee families living in a wrecked building near Shatila Camp, South Beirut, Lebanon @Vianney Le Caer
Beirut February 2015, refugee families living in a wrecked building near Shatila Camp, South Beirut, Lebanon @dandyvagabond
A Case Study: Sharing Journalism’s Best Practices at the Global Reporting Room

In 2009, when I met Paul Pangaro at NYU Tisch School we initiated a series of conversations on the importance of journalism. The result was the need for a Global Reporting Room; a visually based wiki platform to share journalism best practices. The difficulties to find funding froze the platform project.

The knowledge, experiments and solutions to supporting visual journalism can no longer be left to the academia, the traditional media, or foundations for freedom of speech and human rights. The responsibility is to be shared with by seed-money investors, and the main actors in IT along with their own data findings. Tech giants have the cashflow lacking in most of the previously named institutions, but their ethics are still at test.

Forbes recently listed the top industries producing U.S. billionaires:

1. Investments: 100 billionaires
2. Technology: 51 billionaires
3. Media: 37
4. Energy: 35
5. Food and Beverage*: 31
5. Service*: 31
7. Fashion and Retail: 28
8. Real Estate: 27
9. Manufacturing: 18
10. Sports: 15
Facebook’s progression

Content and technology need twin thinking hand-in-hand, with mutual respect, and a blank canvas.

Building the new with the old is the best way to fail (having experienced it for a decade, it is one of the most painful ways to fail). Two main reasons: 1 — The middle managers you work with aren’t the people set for change. They will either stand behind obsolete decisions or rally as the ‘conservative branch’ against change, to ‘preserve’ a traditional practice.

Visual storytelling has been eroded online by the absence of content curation, mediocre interfaces, broken business models and an absence of strategies.

Take for instance ads on digital platforms replicating the old broadcast and print model. It’s a nonsense strategy affecting user experience. All it does is deter people from watching quality content buried under infuriating pre-roll ads. That’s old school thinking. The worst has recently been reached with ads peppered between images on online portfolios. These templates are already poor in their navigation, now they’re shopped by ads placed every fifth photo.
We need brands to be intelligent partners; no longer content-obstructers. Brands preventing the viewer to watch a thoughtful piece of content are building negative brand equity — something metrics can hardly analyse.

Since roughly 2007, the lack of cutting-edge templates for visuals, the absence of common languages [and concerns] between editorial and technology, the lack of respect for visual storytelling, and writers turned into ‘living room’ journalists, has made the browser a mainstream experience.

Text is amazing in investigative long-form journalism such as the series ‘Sea Slaves’: The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock, produced by the New York Times. And if text is currently favoured as a medium, it might be by default, because it is more relaxing to read online currently than experience any cluttered and choppy set of visuals or video templates.
Chien–Chi-Chang @Magnum Photos in his own words (on Instagram): “A platform for expression with more room for imagination.”
Instagram sets apart — especially when re-invented by authors such as Chien–Chi-Chang of Magnum Photos, in his own words: “A platform for expression with more room for imagination.”

When creatives are no longer seeking new online options for shaping and experiencing their visual content, they revert to print.

The Best Independent Curators Are Book Publishers

In the past decade, the two-level conversations offered by social media paired with the low UX quality and the messy user-based content on the web, have encouraged the upcoming ‘indie’ curators in visual arts to express on paper.
Art books are refined, designed, and audacious — everything the digital experience isn’t.
These factors alone paired with the romantic lasting and definitive nature of print, could express the blossoming of indie book publishers in London. Among them some ‘mavericks’ such as Bruno Ceschel | SPBH, Damien Poulain | Oodee, and Aron Mörel/ Mörel Books are following in the footsteps of Gigi | Trolley Books. But here too, business angels and passionate investors are wanted.
SPBH at Tate Modern Turbine Hall @Antonio De Luca
When SPBH takes over the Tate Modern Offprint book fair, its installation mixes live performances, multiple TV screens, a giant totem controlled by human ‘Playmobiles’ in boiler suits saying ‘Play With Me.’
SPBH at Tate Modern Turbine Hall @Antonio De Luca
But where is the support for the interactive adventure on screens? Land on SPBH. A valuable community is faithfully gathering around a daily updated photo blog. A platform built five years ago in WordPress template-corset that is financially unsupported. Imagine the possibilities to scale it up?
SPBH at Tate Modern Turbine Hall @Antonio De Luca
In a similar vein, the creative journey of art director Damien Poulain of oodee books to identify and commission five female photographers in five cities in five years was a great achievement, built independently.

If Web 2.0 and social media helped Poulain reach out to emerging talents in cities such as Bogota, Beirut and Johannesburg — chosen for “their absence of established cultural institutions,” the result is an exquisite and coherent book collection to inspire and morph in multiple shapes and installations, and even to be interpreted by other instances.
oodee Collection of art books framing the work of five female photographers in five cities in five years @dandyvagabond
Damien Poulain chose the book form “as an excuse for a physical event to take place.” Now rich of a wealth of experience and networks that have great value, he too is tired to be the lonesome cowboy riding along with no external funding.

Is the London ‘Mecca’ failing to seed its cultural fish tank indie scene? The song of punk band Clash London Calling (1979) might find its antonym with London Exit (2015). Too many talents are now escaping the high cost of living, after having pushed the boundaries of the established powers, setting new cultural markers at their own costs.
Crisis in Syria Living under the regime ‘Damascus, a city of people waiting for the unknown’ Andrea Bruce | NOOR
We Need Seed Funding for [Indie] Digital Labs

The fantasy of everyone to become a storyteller, journalist, artist or musician has reached its limits and left bare-naked some of the greatest talents — shying away from the noise. We need to free creative technologists to free from the giant tech silos. They will bring quality, depth and visual edge to the screens. And their innovative thinking will roll back the mirage of user-generated content slammed into [mostly] file-cabinet templates. Instagram is one of them. Bought by Facebook, as much as its display of content evolved?

The mirage has made someone wealthy. Initially designed for ‘friends’, Facebook is now coined ‘data platform’ by advertising agency strategists, building its empire on user content and behaviours.

It’s time to gather in noise-free alcove-labs where content and technology can merge for a conversation to start in comprehensive languages and with great listening.
60 Million People Fleeing Chaotic Lands, U.N. Says Syrian children crossing into Turkey this week. The U.N. says the war in Syria is the world’s biggest source of displacement. CreditBulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
When eleven of the 60 million people currently displaced are Syrians, with four million abroad since 2011, isn’t it urgent we find new ways to give them a voice? To team and to build comprehensive information knowledge through innovative storytelling?

A noise-free uncluttered space to experience curated content is crucial. The time for scattered monologues is over. How can we even believe in the effectiveness of dispersed and repetitive flows of articles in such a saturated landscape? All we have left is an exhaustion-resistance to the aftermaths of the Arab Spring.

No other cluster of events has dated and outpaced the traditional media more than the Arab Spring. The scale and repercussions of the event, the sectarian and proxy war in Syria with growing complexity and consequences; the massive exodus of the Syrian population, the spectre of ISIS, the recuperation of the event by Bashar Al Assad with the most despicable cynicism. The set of tools used to report on such complex issues are too often texts and blogs.
2009 Manifesto by @dandyvagabond — Ask for copy
In my 2014 manifesto Reality is the New Fiction, I wrote about the importance of upgrading thinking, teams and tools for the 21st century journalism. Recently, curator and producer Liza Faktor did so in What Is Transjournalism?

Addressing Short Attention Spans

If New York Times’ interactive reports such as The Global Struggle to Respond to the Worst Refugee Crisis in Generations offer the best current multimedia reporting, the stakes and visions could be higher.

The potential online experiences should be designed to ‘occupy’ minds of short attention span. To describe complex battlegrounds, migrant flux, or any form of control by state or corporate power, just works better as a documentary at the moment, because the information is condensed, immersive, and entertaining.

That’s just the beginning. The best CG, 3D, VR, and gaming script writers will need to gather. To counterattack the video propaganda produced by ISIS, a new type of immersive journalism should be nurtured — data journalism meeting design, storytellers with lenses meeting coders, and writers learning how to script for image.

If we want to capture attention span, the level of content needs to rise in quality and pleasurable user experience.

In his report, The Information Revolution and Globalization: Seizing New Opportunities for Youth Employment, Nuimuddin Chowdhury wrote:

“In the United States, computerisation in business absorbed 40-50% of all business investment in 1999, rising from a tenth in early 1990s. A cluster of innovations, virtually all led by American research labs, stimulated this investment.”

Has journalism found its model?
The Computer Science Laboratory at Xerox Parc — under the direction of Bob Taylor (1978–1983)
Information Technologies are in constant incubation mode with business angels at their bedhead. As a result, they provide sharper software and pleasurably addictive tools. While then, the storytellers reporting the real and technologies have never properly merged; except in independent labs of visionaries such as Upian @upian and Helios Design Labs.

In traditional media, the newsroom habits seem unbreakable — with the exception of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian which under the crook of Aron Philofer is experimenting new visions. But for most journalists and creatives in traditional media, the endless frictions between editorial and technologies are killing the dream in priority meetings, designed to worn down any intention to collaborate.

What’s left? To choose the independent path. But let’s face it, the authors/creators/creatives currently freelancing in a broken market are ‘The Nouveaux Pauvres’ (the new poors) of the global economy.

This status quo feels dramatically long and is excruciatingly hard to swallow when a caliphate is edified with the blood and slaving of innocent civilians, and when among the victims of the Syrian conflict — according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (June 2015) — over 11,000 are children.
Crisis in Syria Living under the regime ‘Damascus, a city of people waiting for the unknown’ Andrea Bruce | NOOR
This Time, We Are Not Able To Say ‘We Don’t Know’

The question therefore remains. What will be the trigger for the Syrian conflict to outdo the noise? What presentation will pre-empt audience attention and build active emotion for a global response?

One of my friends, slightly annoyed, asked me recently, “What do you want us to do?” Here’s what:

— –> Make it your dominant dinner conversation. Use any form of skills and tools to keep the tragedy present in minds.

— –> Inertia kills. If ISIS wouldn’t have reached horror transcendence and spurred governments to counter-attack, we would have spent another year of an open source massacre with no interventions.

The fatal ‘compassion fatigue’ (@sdmoeller) behind which some veil their indifference is an excuse to look away from a people sieged, killed, abducted or fleeing war.

In the face of stories of people who are condemned to permanent camping in ineffective living conditions left for neighbouring countries to dyke up, compassion fatigue is irresponsible.
We Have Never Had Better Tools To Act

The 21st century carnage that takes place in a ‘Versailles Hall of Mirrors Information Era’, recalls the mirror maze of Orson Welles’s film noir, The Lady from Shanghai.

Elsa (Rita Hayworth) mortally wounded, screams with reverberating haunting echoes: “I don’t wanna die”… “I don’t wanna die”… “I don’t wanna die”…
The Lady from Shanghai directed by Orson Welles (1947) Extract from the mirror maze — ending scene
“Killing You, Is Killing Myself, It’s the Same Thing”

The Syrian people’s wounds will reflect in a myriad of fragmented screens for longer than we think. For now, we click away. So the scream becomes a vanishing echo. But history is a boomerang. Two generations from now, the Syrians we have condemned by our own inertia will have the same tools we have to ask, “‘Where were you?”

When I was a child who discovered the holocaust, I had no doubt we would neutralise tyrants and prevent mass murder from ever happening again. A half-century later, Syrian ruler Bashar Al-Assad launches our summer with an ill-advised campaign. On June 22 the state-backed Syrian Arab News Agency tweeted:

‘Now that #summer is upon us, snap us your moments of summer in #Syria using the hashtag #SummerInSyria.’

On Twitter, the campaign backfires with images.

On Spotify, Nina Simone sings Mississippi Goddam:
“If you have been moved at all
And you know my songs at all
For God Sake join me
Don’t seat like that
The time is too late now
Good God, you know!
The kind is dead.
The king of love is dead.”

The Future Was Now
This essay is an revised version of my contribution to Vision Anew: The Lens and Screen Arts (May 2015) by Adam Bell and Charles H. Traub (eds.)

‘The ubiquity of digital images has profoundly changed the responsibilities and capabilities of anyone and everyone who uses them. Thanks to a range of innovations, from the convergence of moving and still image in the latest DSLR cameras to the growing potential of interactive and online photographic work, the lens and screen have emerged as central tools for many artists. Vision Anew brings together a diverse selection of texts by practitioners, critics, and scholars to explore the evolving nature of the lens-based arts.’
Thank you to Katie Nguyen & Sophie Baruchel for proof reading, to Sarah Tilotta and all at NOOR for your warmth and trust, to Chien-Chi for your inspirations and airport stories, and thank you to my dear friends (and patrons) Laetitia & Tom.

This article has been slightly retouched in April 2, 2018.

Claudine Boeglin is a creative director in digital media. She has worked as managing editor of Colors Magazine before shifting online where she managed the editorial team and conceived the first multimedia prototypes at CB_ has served as creative director of Magnum Photos where she co-founded Magnum In Motion, Magnum’s multimedia digital studio and was the multimedia director of Thomson Reuters Foundation, during the so-called Arab Spring. She is an independent creative director since 2014 at Dandy Vagabonds Ltd. and @dandyvagabond on Twitter.

First publication on Jul 29, 2015.

© Dandy Vagabonds 2019