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The documentary goes online

John Grech & Matthew Leonard

Sharkfeed, archival footage, courtesy ABC Sharkfeed, archival footage, courtesy ABC
In July 1960, a Sydney schoolboy was abducted and killed. His family had recently won 100,000 pounds in the Opera House lottery—the reason Stephen Lesley Bradley targeted the boy—which triggered cultural responses like ‘stranger danger.’ There have been a variety of readings of this narrative, and Sharkfeed is the latest, a new ABC website which highlights some of the challenges and possibilities for delivering documentary content on the internet. Here artist John Grech and sound designer Matthew Leonard discuss some of the issues raised in its production.

ML Attempting to bring the philosophy of the radio feature or documentary to the internet harks back to elements of the historical form after the Second World War. There is a real emphasis on writing again; and balancing this with the potential for carefully deployed images and sound. Both share a sparseness of texture.

JG There is a lot of scope for artists to transform their practices into new media. However, this presents the same problems that early filmmakers faced. For example, how do you make a movie like Metropolis when no-one’s ever made a movie like that before? How many movie genres do we have today? Back in 1900, there were no such production discourses available. But artists must adapt their techniques to new technologies to utilise new media possibilities, not try to make new technologies do what old technologies do. Also, writing highlights the origins of documentary. As film theorist Bill Nichols pointed out, the distinction between writing as description (traditional documentary) and writing as narrative (fiction) is spurious. Writing a fictional narrative and writing a documentary description are both highly constructed, creative acts of storytelling.

ML Sharkfeed has enabled us to explore the subjectivities that surround these various acts of storytelling. Another interesting aspect has been the disruption of chronology which historically characterises ‘classic’ radio and cinema documentaries. Has this also had an impact on your approach to the visual material?

JG Visual art is basically a spatial medium. Although the web offers an unpredictable space, it still deals with time as time, not just by spatialising it as visual art does. The digital screen is a fascinating way of experiencing both time and space, but I’m not sure there is yet a very useful critical or theoretical framework on how people actually experience these.

ML Again, if we compare it with existing forms, the experience of hearing a radio program is driven by the durations of sound events, conversations, voices. This has a critical impact on the tone of a program, but part of the trick with the internet is being able to anticipate such factors as download time and server timeouts which strongly dictate the ‘tempo’ of the work. From a sound perspective, this is a critical difference.

Sharkfeed Sharkfeed
JG This probably represents the greatest limitation of the medium. But it is closer to how people experience an exhibition in a gallery—someone might walk quickly or haphazardly through a space, while another might tread very carefully along a more predictable path. One major difference between the web and a gallery is the fact that people in galleries still determine the speed and succession of events. On the web, these are determined more by technology. The web is still at an early stage of development.

ML The potential for synchronous sound on the internet is still at a fairly primitive level, and seems to require a high level of commitment and experience from the users to get the most out it. We agreed it was important that the site represent a mixture of period and contemporary interpretation in a way that leaves interpretation open for the audience. However, I feel that Sharkfeed has also become an interrogation of our own processes of understanding, particularly with the inclusion of a variety of commentaries in the experience.

JG That was one of the lies about conventional documentary. What gave analog photography the “aura” it had was the belief that it truly was the “Pencil of Nature” or that it created a footprint of the real world on a negative which was incapable of being interfered with by its maker. Thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes have shown that no image is neutral of its maker’s subjectivity. If we eradicate our subjectivity from the things we make, they would become meaningless. Subjectivity gives meaning to things. Without subjectivity, everything is reduced to a flat and featureless landscape. It’s the difference between noise and sound, although people like John Cage have played a lot with such distinctions.

Sharkfeed, Matthew Leonard & John Grech, (expired), was launched at ABC Radio Arts, Sydney, July 25. See review, Working the Screen, page 3.

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 26

© Matthew Leonard & John Grech; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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