In preparation for Update or Die, we spoke with curator and festival organizer Caspar Sonnen, Head of New Media at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and creator of IDFA DocLab, who will be speaking at the conference.

How would you define a digital documentary?
I wouldn't. When we started IDFA DocLab, ten years ago we really tried. We quickly stumbled upon the fact that it's hard to define what is a newspaper today. It's also hard to define what is a documentary. When we do, we usually define what it's not instead of what it is. I think interactive documentary moves quite freely between established media, like feature films or video games or art installations. Actually, the flexibility, the fact that it is such an undefined art form, is the thing that attracts me. The freedom you have within non-fiction—as long as you keep a close relationship to reality, and not just make everything up, everything else is free. The fact that there is very little established business models or established history means that you can do a lot of things that are not possible with existing formats.

What are some side effects of their influence on our lives?
It's interesting to see how interactive documentary is pushing traditional media, not necessarily with that as an intention, but I think interactive documentaries were the first try out: what does it means to tell a visual story when you're not sure whether someone is actually listening to the audio? Can you combine text with video? Does that even work? I remember ten years ago when we were starting IDFA DocLab, for one of our first web series, a lot of people were like, 'Who wants to watch a beautiful cinematic short film on their cell phone? That's just an insult.' I think now, we can all agree that the best way to see a beautiful piece of cinema is on the biggest screen available. However, when you're in bed or in an airport, we all watch amazing things on our cell phones, and maybe that requires a slightly different aesthetic. Interactive documentary projects and web series have shown that people are actually consuming things like this, so it works.

I think you can see, years later, how we got sucked in and our personal lives became commodified by social media. And at the same time, we've lost the urge to share our inner secrets on a personal blog for the entire Internet. There's no difference anymore between the Internet and the rest of the world, the physical world. The Internet used to be a place where you can find kindred spirits, now they're everywhere and people are much more about releasing each other from the Internet. This is a big question...

It feels like a lifetime question!
Yeah, for me that's what IDFA DocLab is about, the art we show, those works deal with these questions. Look at BLA BLA by Vincent Morisset, which is a wonderful way of exploring what interactive means as an art form.

I think this conference is not just about saving some of the best examples of the work that came out of the open, experimental Internet that we knew for the last ten years, it's also about saving the Internet itself that we're losing.

What are you looking forward to exploring at Update or Die?
There's a really important part that’s about archives and preserving. But I think it's also about, how do we take it into the next era? How do we future proof things? We can't do that for the entire Internet. We can't take a big snapshot of everything on the Internet and have it work on everybody's computer forever. And it doesn't make sense, either. We can't save everything, especially our generation understands that.

In terms of how do we preserve works from the past, we need systems to keep everything accessible. At the same time, keeping things alive and bring things to new audiences is not just about documenting and preserving and keeping things somewhere in a database, it’s also about keeping it alive. Also as a festival curator, how do we keep performing these works? Just like a text that Shakespeare wrote that became Hamlet. It’s actually seeing it the format of a play as he wrote it, intended for that specific theatre... Or whether it’s reimagined by someone else as a film or maybe as a VR piece in a couple of years... I’m interested to see how that becomes part of the discussion.

Is that one of the reasons you created the DocLab’s Interactive Documentary Canon?
Last year, we celebrated our tenth anniversary. We thought, ‘If we had to choose, which projects would we want to take into the next century?’ That's a hard question. So that's why we started the IDFA DocLab Interactive Documentary Canon. We're not making a top ten, that's way too easy, we wanted to make a top 100. Because that's a body of work you can have a discussion about. We're not saying every project on that list should be preserved forever, but it's a start of a discussion.

That said, here's are a few key projects, classics if you will:

- Bear 71 by NFB/Interactive
- We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar
- BLA BLA by Vincent Morisset and NFB
- Highrise by Katerina Cizek and NFB
- Gaza Sderot by
- Somebody App by Miranda July
- Do Not Touch by Moniker
- Question Bridge by Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith, Kamal Sinclair
- 18 Days in Egypt by Jigar Mehta and Yasmin Elayat
- The Johnny Cash Project by Aaron Koblin and Chris Milk
- Thanatorama by Julien Guintard, Ana Maria De Jésus, Upian
- Welcome to Pine Point by The Googles, NFB

Update or Die: Future Proofing Emerging Digital Documentary Form—a one-day conference curated by the MIT Open Documentary Lab and Phi, in collaboration with IDFA DocLab and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision—will be held at the Phi Centre May 5.

À propos du Centre Phi
Le Centre Phi, c’est des salles qui se transforment au gré des activités: lancement, conférence, colloque, projection, exposition, concert, spectacle, installation interactive. C’est des studios de création et de production, avec la technologie la plus sophistiquée, mise au service des besoins artistiques. C’est un centre multifonctionnel où l’art peut s’exprimer dans tous ses états. Et c’est surtout un lieu d’échanges, d’apprentissage, de découverte, de lancement, de tournage, d’enregistrement, etc.

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