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


You write, “To present co-creation within media as a re-emergent practice without explicitly acknowledging the long-standing co-creative approaches practiced by communities of color, doesn’t simply erase their work, it undermines the very tenets of co-creation.” Explain.

At its core, the idea of co-creation seeks to reconcile systemic power and singular authority. This fundamental principle extends beyond the creative process within media making, compelling all of us to interrogate fundamental ideas of ownership, meaning-making, attribution and—if we optimize the potential of co-creation—realize a more just society.  Context matters, and as we said earlier, we need to be mindful that in co-creating we are part of a long standing human tradition.  However, particularly in the West, co-creation has been occluded by an extractive economic order.  This is embedded in euro-centric legal language and metaphors: consider ‘intellectual property’ in which revenues accrue to the owner, but not necessarily the maker, in the form of ‘royalties’. That extractive economic order was at its most rawest and visible in the experiences of enslaved people, whose lives, labor, and creativity were someone’s property.   

Throughout this, co-creation has thrived at the margins.  But precisely because of this position, dominant cultures have tended to ignore the history of co-creation especially within communities of color.  There are so many unacknowledged keepers of the flame. 

With this larger imperative in mind, we developed a chapter of the report that seeks to provide an introduction of the long-standing co-creative practices within communities of color. The function of this chapter is to begin mapping the history of co-creation within communities of color in the U.S., to explore non-institutional power, innovation, and co-operation amongst media makers of color, and to unpack the un-calculated costs and labor of deep co-creation processes. 

Thomas Allen Harris, filmmaker, and co-author of the chapter states: “This benign neglect, often due to the work’s resistance to certain stereotypical narratives, resulted in its marginalization so that today some can speak about co-creation as something new, without feeling the responsibility to find and cite precedence within media makers of color that have long been ignored by the mainstream. The result is a kind of a painful double negation. So as we revisit or re-package the concept of co-creation, it’s important for us to interrogate our power relationships and our motivations vis-à-vis process, community as well as outcomes.” 

I was struck by how many of the examples illustrating your best practices come from indigeneous media makers around the world. Are some cultures more accepting and accommodating of co-creation than others? What does this suggest about larger social shifts which might be needed for the full potentials of co-creation to emerge in industrialized western cultures? 

We argue that western, eurocentric, and extractive media-making practices have dominated the scholarship, the institutions, and the models of the way we understand media-making.  Identifiable authorship and intellectual property ownership have been joined at the hip since the advent of capitalism and the industrialization of culture.  These notions are not only embedded as norms, but they are systematically enforced through things like education, the promotion and tenure process at universities, the pathway to careers in the arts, and of course the legal system.  Paradoxically, the very conditions that have marginalized Indigenous peoples in this system have also to some extent exempted them from this trap.  

The global Indigenous Renaissance (expressed in film, arts, literature and scholarship) is a guiding inspiration to funding alternative structures and models to singular authorship. It has a rich tradition of co-creation to fall back on, and that legacy is now being recognized and finding support.  In Canada, where I am based, a recent (2015) Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the century-long Indigenous Residential School system has recommended a reframing of the relationships between Indigenous communities and government as “nation to nation.” The 94 recommendations and models to de-colonize institutions, epistemologies, and methods of creating provide important models for fulfilling the potential of co-creation. 

So yes, some cultures -- especially those most marginalized within the current order of things -- offer uninterrupted legacies of  alternatives such as co-creation.  As noted earlier, co-creation has even served as a survival and resistance strategy for many communities.  And our field study makes amply clear that it can provide a robust alternative to exploitative and extractive behaviors, offering the rest of us a survival strategy as well. 

You are right to point to the need for larger social shifts in the Western industrialized world if the real power of co-creation is to be unlocked.  Casting a glance across the planet at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century, amidst the climate crisis, with tensions between globalization and nationalism, between governance and sovereignty, between fascistic authority and radical self determination, and the myriad contestations of identity, suggests that dramatic social shifts are already underway.  It’s a frightening moment, because those shifts are earthquake-like in their power and capable of destroying much of the civilizational infrastructure that sits atop deep fault-lines.  But it’s also an opportune moment if we are alert enough to mitigate disaster, to rethink the way -- to extend the metaphor -- that we build, and distribute resources, and live.  So the changes that are disrupting some of our industries, that have led to anxieties and intolerance in our populations, and indeed, that have degraded the very ecosystem that we all inhabit may well expose the frailties and limits of the Western industrialized world sooner than we think.  The critique of late capitalism is a familiar one.  We hope that the tremors snap us out of the same old extractive and exploitative behaviors, and incentivize us to be more thoughtful about our interdependencies with the greater world.  In this sense, we see co-creation as a methodology that offers hope and meaningful ways to build trust and a common future.


Over the 20th century, the art world has been organized around individual, “personal” expression and community-based projects often get treated as “crafts” rather than “art.” What work needs to take place as collaborative artists seek more recognition for their collective accomplishments? 

Work needs to take place at several levels. We spoke earlier about the debate over process and product, and said that the nature of the process bears heavily on the product, especially now that tools and access are within reach of more people than ever before.  And we noted the growing insistence, especially within community media groups, to make sure that the work gets out.  There are a couple of strategies that might be deployed in tandem.   

We might consider ways of tapping the status quo evident in existing hierarchies of taste, in the traditional mechanisms that give it form (galleries, cinemas, museums, festivals, etc) and offer long-accepted ways to have work valorized.  So let’s press for more inclusivity, but with a twist. 

Hank Willis Thomas suggested in our interview that we need to build a canon for co-creative work. We need to recognize that co-creation can produce high quality art, film, media and journalism. We need to acknowledge and recognize this work, this canon. Then we need to support the funding and evaluating process rather than concentrating merely on product. We need to create pathways for funding development, and relationship building.  If you consider the work of organizations like the Ford Foundation, such work is already afoot.  And Ford’s president, Darren Walker, has been quite explicit about using the ample residues of 20th Century industry to support these new -- and one might even say, post-industrial -- criteria, pathways, and opportunities.  Another encouraging sign in this regard is the growth of art museums that specialize in non-attributed and non-canonical forms, whether ‘outsider’ or Indigenous; and encouraging as well is the growth in existing museums of collections of the same.   

Another strategy involves re-envisioning our place in the world.  We mentioned earlier that history sometimes seems more concerned with retrofitting the present onto the past, than exploring the past for new insights about the present.  Until recently, much the same thing could be said about a discipline like anthropology: it often seemed more concerned with investigating the Other as a way of confirming our own position, than as an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about ourselves.  Fortunately, change has been afoot here as well, and with it, much greater openness to learn from the experiences and lives of those long relegated to the margins.  With this recentering will necessarily come a reappraisal of the norms (like single authorship) that we too often take for granted.  In museums around the world, paintings that were once asserted as acts of individual genius (Rembrandt, Reubens, Caravaggio, take your pick) have slowly become ‘complicated’ by the fact that the master’s hand may only have painted a face or two, while his minions did the rest.  This acknowledgement is important, and although still contained by the old aesthetic regime, it is moving in a direction increasingly compatible with collective work. 

Institutions, schools, foundations, organizations, broadcasters, media production companies, and non-profits all need to invest in development and understand that it pays off in the quality not just of the art, but the larger social implications. We need to give people a chance to become better co-creators, by sharing skills and resources on how to listen, collaborate, and move away from ego-driven methods to collective ones. 

As you note, co-creation can and has been “misused for profit and power.” How can people identify which relationships are exploitative before they decide whether or not to participate? 

We inhabit a moment when some of our fastest-growing media organizations rely on user-generated content (think YouTube or FaceBook).  Like massively multi-player games or social media, without ‘us’ -- our content and our data -- there would be no business.  So it’s not surprising that these organizations and platforms like them invest considerable energy into making their users feel like part of the community.  Yet for all of the emphasis on the social, on collaboration, and even, increasingly, terms like co-creation, the user base is ultimately harvested and rendered into a source of profit for stockholders.  These developments have been muddying the waters, making it difficult to discern exactly what these terms entail. 

So yours is a great question, and fortunately there is a pretty simple answer.  When we see a project that identifies itself as “co-creation”, it’s important to examine who has governance of the project and who benefits from the project. What are the terms of agreement? If these issues are not clear, not transparent, then we need to interrogate and ask deeper questions about why they’re not transparent. The keys to co-creation are the relationships, and the overt discussion, articulation, and identification of  power, ownership, finances, decision-making and creative control in a project. If those discussions are absent, or not available, then it’s probably not co-creation.

You drew some interesting parallels between world-building as a process in science fiction and in documentary. My readers will likely be much more familiar with world-building in science fiction. What are some of the ways that world-building is influencing documentary production?  

As the old certainties of what’s real and what’s not (or in the jargon du jour, what’s ‘fake’) fade into a dim memory, people in the ‘reality business’ have been a lot more attentive to crafting and articulating their vision of the world, not just assuming that it will be accepted.  Journalists and documentary makers have been using a battery of tactics to demarcate their space, including world-building strategies borrowed from fiction.  In fact, historians (also chroniclers of the real) have routinely reveled in world-building, and their endeavors show how crucial such scenography is to the particular historiographic spin that they put on the past. World-building enables their project, supports it, renders it obvious.  So, too, with documentarians.  The days of building an argument on the basis of an assumed understanding of the world are fast fading.  And particularly at a moment of hyper mediatization, creating a fabric of cross references to other media representations and working with the narrative conventions of the moment are essential ways to construct a frame of reference that audiences can comprehend and navigate.   

World-building is relevant in a different way for documentarians working in the immersive space, where entire environments or “worlds” are literally created, whether in the form of VR, games, AR, mixed reality, theatre or other spatial experiences.   And we are slowly figuring out how argument, narrative, and representation operate in these worlds.  In a VR experience, where the user is free to look pretty much anywhere and explore the depicted world, should we fall back on storytelling techniques derived from film, that is, a directed vision? Or are we better off encouraging the user to explore, find the dots, and connect them in their own way, much as they would in the real world?  The answer has important implications for what, precisely, gets communicated.  And this emergent situation resonates with some of the issues we have addressed with co-creation.  Should master storytellers ‘tell’ and audiences ‘listen’? Or should world-builders working in these media collaborate with world-explorers to ‘enable’ various possibilities, paths, and experiences?  

Worlds are colliding, so to speak, as genres intertwine in these new contexts, as they are enabled by new modes of production, and as they are targeted to audiences / collaborators with new frames of reference.


Katerina Cizek is a Canadian documentary director and a pioneer in digital documentaries. From 2008-2015,Cizek directed the National Film Board of Canada's Highrise series on life in residential skyscrapers, including the 2010 world's first 360 degree web documentary Out My Window, winner of the inaugural IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and an International Digital Emmy for best digital program: non-fiction, and the 2011 webdoc One Millionth Tower, which lets users explore a highrise complex in 3D virtual space, as Toronto residents re-imagine their neighborhood. Cizek collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenDocLab unit to develop the final production in the Highrise project called Universe Within. As part of MIT’s Visiting Artists Program, she worked with scholars and apartment residents to ask how new technological forms are reshaping personal lives in suburban high-rise communities. She is currently heading up a new research and production initiative at MIT Open Documentary Lab.

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.