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Is the Future of Storytelling Just a Bunch of White Dudes?

Is the Future of Storytelling Just a Bunch of White Dudes?

Last Sunday morning at 10 AM, I queued up behind a long line of groggy-eyed interactive media enthusiasts fighting through hangovers and jetlag, and shuffled my way into the Expozaal theater of the Flemish culture house De Brakke Grond, where IDFA DocLab holds its annual interactive conference. The audience, which seemed equally split between men and women from where I was standing, was greeted by Veerle DeVreese, fine art curator at De Brakke Grond and co-curator of DocLab’s Immersive Reality program. DeVreese quickly thanked everyone for giving up their cozy Dutch Sunday morning to sit in a theater and think about the future of storytelling, and then the program began.

A palpable sadness rippled through the Expozaal about an hour later, when curator Juha van ‘t Zelfde of Lighthouse shared a short clip from the video for Holly Herndon’s surveillance ballad “Home.” With its lyrics about everyday invasions of privacy and its skittering 8-bit imagery, the piece served as a deeply unsettling reminder that our homes have become panopticons, and our privacy may be lost forever.

READ MORE: Here’s How to Do Immersive Storytelling

Herndon’s work is more than a beautifully crafted knife to the heart — it is a form of therapy for the listener. Before the age of constant surveillance and ubiquitous social media, there was a common understanding that loneliness meant isolation from other human beings. Today’s version of loneliness is different because it is tempered by the realization that none of us, or at least none of us who choose to own a smart phone or a computer, are ever truly by ourselves anymore. We are always being monitored, and yet we still continue to produce and share more and more personal information online, presumably in an effort to connect with others. We don’t yet have the language to describe this new loneliness, or to explain our relationship with the faceless men and women who are constantly looking over our shoulders. We need more artists like Herndon to help us turn over and examine this collective trauma.

Unfortunately, Herndon only showed up on a projection screen that Sunday and did not appear in person. If she had, we may have had a very different day, and I may have successfully completed my original assignment for POV, a listicle entitled “7 Things I Learned From the DocLab Interactive Conference (Plus 3 I Figured Out Myself).” Instead, I must write about the lack of diversity on display at the DocLab Interactive Conference. Out of the 18 speakers who took to the stage, only four were women. Meanwhile, the racial make up of the conference’s presenters was so homogeneous that it would have made the audience at a Toby Keith concert look like the UN General Assembly.

IDFA DocLab is an event about the intersection of film and tech. If you were to create a Venn diagram to chart the connections between these worlds, the overlapping area would contain the words “No Girls Allowed.” This is not to give the impression that the DocLab Competition or Immersive Reality side bars don’t feature female creators. They do. My co-director Eline Jongsma is one, as are Sarah Koenig, Miranda July, Yuki Kho and many others. But the Interactive Conference was something else all together, and people noticed.

READ MORE: What’s to Be Gained with Immersive Storytelling?

Things came to a head midway through the day, when the conference was host to a five-person panel about virtual reality. The panel was a total brodeo, a shame given that VR in particular is a medium that holds the potential to allow audiences to experience perspectives other than their own. The Conference’s keynote speaker, Kyle McDonald, took notice by tweeting the message “@DocLab these guys all seem really cool, but is the future of vr & storytelling really dominated by young dudes?” Oscar Raby, director of the great Oculus Rift project Assent, responded by explaining that, in his mind, the panel was missing the voice of Nonny de la Pena, the virtual reality pioneer behind Hunger in Los Angeles and Project Syria. Sean Flynn of MIT Open DocLab tweeted a link to the White Guys Wearing Oculus Rift tumblr, while Brakke Grond employee Lara Coomans created the hashtag #blamecaspar — a (real? ironic?) jab at DocLab curator Caspar Sonnen and the rest of the programming team for their lack of attention to diversity. VR panelist Thomas Wallner defended himself by saying that he did not choose the panel’s participants. Some snorted at Wallner’s answer. I certainly did.

In retrospect, I had no right to do so. Just this October, I participated in a monochromatic, single-gender panel at NYFF Convergence about the difficulties of working as a small-crew filmmaker. I was aware of the problem before the panel and said nothing because I, like Wallner, didn’t think it was my place. Before that, in 2012, IDFA Paradocs celebrated the first festival exhibition of the installation version of our project “Empire” with a public discussion about the work between four white men (myself included) and Eline, whose gender and mixed Dutch-Indonesian heritage stood as the only barrier preventing the panel from achieving peak white-maleness. This last example is particularly egregious considering the subject matter of our work — the lingering effects of Dutch colonialism worldwide — and the diversity of the people who are represented on screen in the project. Because that panel was about our project, we could have done something to fix the issue. We did not, which in essence made us de facto curators totally deserving of a shaming hashtag of our own. I still feel embarrassed.

When certain people talk about curation, diversity is often framed in terms of restrictions. There are the artists who curators wants to program because they like their work, and then there are the semi-competent people who the curator has to program according to the rules of liberal decency. I get why this sounds like a drag, but it’s a logic built on a false dichotomy. If there’s one thing that our four years of life on the road for Empire taught me, it’s that there is no shortage of great new media work being made by artists of both genders, all over the world. Being committed to representing diversity means being committed to finding more work, and to promoting more artists, not less. Diversity is the antidote to the echo chamber effect that can make nascent art forms feel so boring so quickly. I am thankful, for instance, that the Interactive Conference introduced me to Holly Herndon’s work because her music speaks to me. Audiences want to have new experiences, and to hear new voices.

Kel O’Neill is one half of Jongsma + O’Neill, an award-winning Dutch-American creative team working at the intersection of documentary, art and technology. Jongsma + O’Neill’s latest project, the interactive documentary “Empire,” can be experienced at http://www.pbs.org/pov/empire/. Follow Kel at @keloneill

This post was originally published at POV’s blog.

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