Collective Wisdom (Part IV): An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio and Katerina Cizek


Near the end of the report, you explore the question of whether meaningful co-creation can take place with “non-human agents,” whether natural or digital. You stress here the question of equivalent agency, which has a strong ring given your discussion throughout on the ethical choices involved in the co-creative process. What might we learn about co-creation more generally by drilling into the concept of equivalent agency in discussing human-nonhuman collaborations? 

Co-creating with non-humans is the most speculative part of the report.  Notions like agency and the impulse to consider equivalency as a relevant factor are emphatically human, so it’s difficult to step out of a homo-centric frame.  But that said, as we learn more about other species and larger non-human systems, and the more developments in AI continue to cycle exponentially through their boom-and-bust trajectory, the question of how we will work with these entities is more pressing than ever.  So on the one hand, we can’t avoid grappling with this: it is simply in our face.  And on the other, as your question suggests, there’s also a heuristic value in engaging with these questions, speculative or not, much like world building.  They help to reveal something about our underlying assumptions and relations to the world, and they expose the foundations of the method we’ve been exploring. 

If we look at our culture’s default behaviors with nature, with other species, and with AI, we can see unmitigated evidence of the extractive behaviors that we’ve critiqued in other settings.  This begs the question of boundaries.  Are there domains that are free from ethical concerns? Or do we need to think about ethics in a relational manner, where they imbue our every engagement in the world?  In a study of co-creation, the answer is evident, and so we decided to take that relational stance and push it.  We sought out practitioners who thought about AI or biological organisms as more than mere tools, or who were at least open to questioning their relationship.  And we were particularly intrigued by those who interacted with and learned from these non-human systems, rather than simply ‘using ‘ them.   

You asked earlier why so many of our examples of best practices emerged from Indeginous makers, and this is a great example of why.  In the West, we have a simple hierarchy of being in which we humans are important, and everything else is … not.  Whether the question of how our philosophical systems treat non-human life, or how our biological and psychological systems understand animal consciousness, or how we in the aggregate treat the larger ecosystem of which we are a part, our cultural response is shockingly indifferent.  By contrast, those who dominant systems have spent centuries marginalizing and maligning for their otherness and beliefs in many cases have a far more nuanced and open relationship to non-humans.  In the report, we have a quote from Blackfoot philosopher Leroy Little Bear — via Jason Lewis, an Indigenous scholar and artist —  that captures this sentiment beautifully:

[T]he human brain is a station on the radio dial; parked in one spot, it is deaf to all the other stations … the animals, rocks, trees, simultaneously broadcasting across the whole spectrum of sentience) 

It’s a rich insight, and one that resonated with the artists we interviewed who work with cells, bees, or AI systems.  Yes, this is a speculative domain, and it takes significant effort to cast off centuries of assumptions about the nature of the world, of hierarchies of agency, and of our own status.  And the work that we explored and artists we interviewed more often than not interrogated the possibilities of equivalency, even if not necessarily accepting it as a given.  Agency is not uniform, and we are certainly not equating human agency with that of a slime mold.  But acknowledging the possibility of agency of whatever kind, and attempting to work with and learn from other entities (rather than simply using them) seems to be a fundamental part of redefining our relationship to the world.  So yes, we are open to and even share a healthy skepticism even as we share a willingness to explore and consider new relationships with non-human entities. 

 This is an extraordinarily provocative and important area.  As the global climate catastrophe continues to force increasingly difficult ethical choices upon us and and our delegated policy makers, entertaining notions of ‘equivalent agency’ and attempting to co-create with non-human actors takes on an urgent character.  These engagements offer ways to help us to think through our relationship with the world at a make-or-break moment.  Fast accelerating developments in machine learning, on the other hand, offer an equally pressing motivation to consider both the limits of human agency and the potentials and pitfalls of co-creation.  Carrot or stick, this domain offers ample incentive to learn from the creative process as we work with non-human entities.


Can you say a bit about how collaborative processes shaped the development of the report itself?  

This report went through many iterations, and grew and grew… into a study of over 250 pages, ‘authored’ by two people, co-authored by twelve people, based on conversations with 166 people, developed in group discussions with many more, and all subject to an extensive and iterative review process.  We are very aware of the hybrid form of the report’s authorship, on one hand hewing to academic and institutional requirements for attribution, responsibility, and ultimately transparency regarding the choices that a text like the report represents.  It is, ultimately, authored.  On the other hand, we wanted the report to reflect structurally as much of the ethos of co-creativity as possible.   We thought a lot about the process, and did our best to be inclusive, to listen deeply, to create space for autonomy, and to learn.  

We originally intended to produce a short, 50-70 page white paper, based on a few phone interviews with key people in the field. But we realized after our 60th interview that not only did we need many more voices, but that the report might best work as a documentary rather than synthesis. We moved towards a polyvocal approach, with many quotes, less “narration”, and diverse and sometimes even opposing perspectives on any given theme that we identified. We sought to be more democratic in the editorial process, as well. We asked some of our interviewees to develop their interviews into longer chapters. We also organized group conversations at five key events in Europe, Canada and the US, where we presented some of the key findings from our early research (such as the definition, the principles, some of the charts and frameworks). We integrated those ideas, critiques and quotes into the study. We held a symposium in September 2019 at MIT structured around the themes, and had twelve facilitators lead breakout sessions which were also integrated into the study. One main critique that emerged from the symposium was the centering of Artists of Color in the conversation about co-creation. In response, we asked five artists of color to hold a recorded conversation about the history and legacy of co-creation in communities of color. We also had an intense review process, including peer review, and we shared the draft with all interviewees for their comments/suggestions. Finally, the publication itself is a “work-in-progress” both as a series at IMMERSE, and on the new MIT Press PubPub platform, which invites readers for comments and feedback to nurture a living, breathing document.

What do you see as the next steps for your center? How do you plan to address some of the issues your report identifies? 

We identified six key recommendations in the study, all of which are also helping to guide the next steps for our Co-Creation Studio. We are spending the next few months focussing on outreach with the report, in many different settings, such as a celebration of co-creative works in VR at the Venice Film Festival, and in festivals such as Banff, IDFA in Amsterdam, Leipzig, and more. We have organized key strategic events to share the findings, we are in conversation with educators, institutions, foundations and organizations on how to get the word out, but we are also listening deeply to the responses to the report.  

Beyond outreach, we are also committed to the deployment of our findings in the report and to testing and sharing the results.  In this regard, we are thrilled to host a Mozilla Fellow for the first time ever at the Co-Creation Studio, starting this Fall.  And we have developed a number of workshops to enable us to work closely with various creators and questions, and to explore tangible deployments of co-creation in radically different settings. 

The needs identified in the report include creating a hub for co-creation tools, resources, and curriculum modules; working with institutions to support process over product in their funding and evaluation models; researching new business models for collective ownership such as co-operativism. Our biggest next step is the incubation of co-creative projects. In the coming year, we will redouble our efforts to host workshops, develop labs, and support various collections of work with partners, all the while hoping to research and share what we learn along the way.


Katerina Cizek is a two-time Emmy-winning documentarian working across emergent media platforms. She is the Artistic Director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Recently, she wrote (with William Uricchio and 12 co-authors) a ground-breaking field study on co-creative practices in the arts, journalism and documentary, entitled Collective Wisdom. As a documentarian for over a decade at the National Film Board of Canada, she helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, with the Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE projects. Both community-based and globally recognized, these two ground-breaking serial and digital projects garnered: a Peabody award, a World Press Photo Prize, 3 Canadian Screen Awards, amongst others. Cizek has forged unconventional, co-creative partnerships with such diverse organizations ranging from an inner-city teaching hospital to Mozilla Foundation, to The New York Times. Her projects are also interventionist, and co-creative: they have significantly contributed to conversations about health-care policy, urban planning as well as the health outcomes and living conditions of the participants themselves. Cizek’s earlier human rights documentary film projects have instigated criminal investigations, changed UN policies, and have screened as evidence at an International Criminal Tribunal. Cizek's films include the Hampton-Prize winner Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002, co-directed with Peter Wintonick), In Search of the African Queen: A People Smuggling Operation (1999, co-director), and The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda (1995 editor, co-writer, narrator). She is frequently invited to travel internationally to teach, advise and share innovative approaches to the documentary genre, emergent media and journalism.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.