Teaching with Warez: Korsakow and the Database Documentary
For the last three years, I have used Korsakow, an open-source application for making database films (K-films) and other types of non-linear, interactive narrative, in classes with both undergraduate digital art students and graduate students in visual anthropology. I expect visual anthropologists will have the most interest, but these reflections also have broader relevance to the anthropology of technology and computing.
I heard about Korsakow in Jan or Feb 2010 from Steve Anderson at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy. At that time I was teaching video production in a newly launched MA program in visual anthropology at USC and was also a lecturer in Studio Art at UC Irvine where I taught visual culture and the foundation series in digital art. In spring 2010, I got assigned a class I hadn’t taught before, “Interdisciplinary Digital,” an intermediate projects course focused on the art-making affordances, imaginaries, and practices of networked, digital media. I decided to have the students make K-Films for their first project so I could learn Korsakow alongside them. While it may seem risky to teach a system one is also learning, this is actually the best way to model the process of trying out new software–something that comes up again and again for anyone working in this territory.
Using Korsakow, students can make a database of video clips, thumbnail images, and text, and set up relationships among the clips, or SNUs (smallest narrative units), to create structured pathways through their material without any programming expertise. Readings I have paired with Korsakow assignments include:
- Digital Revolution is a Revolution of Random Access, Grahme Weinbren, 1997
- Generation Flash (.doc), Lev Manovich, 2002
- Database as Symbolic Form (.rtf), Lev Manovich, 1998
- Prologue, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich, 2002
Lectures and discussion focus on sequence, structure, and narrative and I talk about Manovich’s conception of database and narrative as primary cultural forms in contemporary media culture.
Korsakow is a free download (both Mac and PC) with excellent documentation and a strong showcase of examples. Students can download and install it on their own computers. This option presents some valuable challenges that I’ll discuss shortly. For less intensive engagement with the technology, installing Korsakow (and making sure Flash is up-to-date) on lab computers is the way to go.
Through this initial experience, I found the value of the Korsakow assignment lies as much or more in the process as the product. That was certainly true for the many students who chose to download and install Korsakow to their own laptops and PCs. These students ran in to all sorts of technical difficulties on many different combinations of platform/OS/browser/Flash version, both with K-film builds and the display of finished projects. This gave me the idea and opportunity to add bug reporting and beta testing to the assignment. Both activities, by the way, that benefit from and hone observational and note taking skills so central to ethnography.
Most of the students had never before downloaded and installed an app like Korsakow and had never used non-commercial, free/open source software (F/OSS). The experience of troubleshooting on their own computers, learning to write meaningful bug reports, and in some cases, posting these to the Korsakow.org forum and getting help, was tremendously valuable. I was able to explain how software like Korsakow is developed, and talk about the difficulties of cross-platform development with a budget and user base far, far smaller than the Adobe and Microsoft suites they’re more familiar with. They come to see the similarity between software development (of Korsakow) and their own work as artists who want to explore digital, code, and networked art. Both involve interface, usability, cross-platform accessibility, and require backend structures and processes that don’t exist in quite the same way in the plastic arts (sculpture, painting, etc.).
For digital arts students, I push the lesson of cross-platform complexity and inter-operability even further by extending it to consumption (distribution and display) of their K-films. This is a highly effective way to demonstrate the many social conventions and shared protocols required to make media technologies work. Students were required to post their films online by the due date and, over the next few days, view and post feedback on all peer projects, including detailed bug reports on projects they could not view, had missing images, or other errors. I provided a template for them to fill-in system information on hardware/software they were using to view. After the project was done and graded, we wrote up a comprehensive report and posted it back to the Korsakow forum. The whole experience was a valuable initiation into testing and bug reporting as vital parts of the production process.
After this I wanted to use Korsakow with my ethnographic film students at USC, but our MVA program is cinema-centric, with the thesis requirement a 20- to 30-minute video. My strategy for introducing these students to non-linear, interactive media is to schedule the K-film assignment late in the second semester of my yearlong production seminar. At this point students have already spent time analyzing narrative structures and developing treatments for their thesis. They’ve all shot interviews and other video, logged footage, transcribed interviews, and learned paper-edit techniques, such as making index cards for all selected clips and playing with arrangements. I introduce Korsakow and the genre of the database documentary, showing pieces like Planet Galata: A bridge in Istanbul and The Border Between Us. I point out that the stacks of index cards representing interview clips and other sequences selected for potential inclusion in a film is a database of material through which there are many possible paths. The K-film assignment is an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on their material, explore some possible paths, and discover new relations among clips. Even if they have no interest in making this type of new media, I argue that the K-film is an exercise that gives them an opportunity to play and take a break from the heavy and serious burden that all thesis projects become after 9-months work.
This year’s MVA cohort, a remarkable group, produced some fine work in the 3 weeks they had for the assignment and the 2013 MVA K-Films demonstrate the possibilities of the database documentary for ethnographic representation. In using Korsakow, I bring my own research on new forms and social imaginaries of media production and consumption into my teaching of ethnographic filmmaking. My argument is that, while cinema remains a dominant and relevant cultural form, it exists today within an entirely new media ecology that radically alters both production and consumption processes and contexts. My students will need to thrive in this ecology and I believe having both hands-on and theoretical understandings of it will be a great benefit.
Though they write about new media, both Weinbren (1997) and Manovich (2001) privilege cinema and make their arguments in cinematic terms, which goes over well with my MVA students, young ethnographic filmmakers embarked on their first serious missions. The fact that Manovich devotes his prologue to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a film they study in depth as a formative influence on documentary and ethnographic cinema, only furthers their connection and sense that, however great their devotion to cinema, it is always already part of a much wider cultural sphere. Theorizing the practice of cine-ethnography within this sphere is the book on which I’m currently working.