Profiles

Crowd in the Sky

Katerina Cizek & Highrise at the NFB

Zanillya lives with her music and her father (former member of the group Boney M.) in the Bijlmermeer development in Amsterdam.

Katerina Cizek’s many projects constitute some of the most intelligent gestures and tactical moves in contemporary Canadian battles against the status quo. Her latest effort, Highrise, is “a multi-year, multi-media, collaborative documentary project about the human experience in global vertical suburbs” that finds in interactive media a language to talk about geo-politics and domesticity at once. Launched in October 2010, the interactive web documentary Out My Window is the most recent addition to the Highrise project, and is garnering international accolades for its exceptional success as an interactive artwork.

This flurry of excitement and attention hit an early pinnacle in November when the project won IDFA’s (international Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) first ever DocLab Award for Digital storytelling. The hype is merited. Out My Window puts interactive technology at the service of a good story in an ungimmicky and beautiful online world that discloses its collection of small-scale, big-impact tales with gentleness, grace, humour and compassion.

Each of the 13 international apartment spaces in Out My Window is a 360-degree panorama of a home that incorporates dozens of still interior photographs with images of the view, along with stories told by residents about particular objects or scenes outside. shot in 13 languages without an edited plot line or arrangement of the spaces in any kind of narrative progression, Out My Window invites you to experience its collection of 49 stories as a densely packed highrise where every door is open. An attractive hand-drawn world map pops down from the top of the screen to help one navigate among the cities and continents, while users can also move through the highrises by choosing apartment spaces in the centre of the screen, or names and faces from the thumbnail portraits along the bottom.

What each character sees out of his or her window is weirdly in synch with everywhere else. A soviet building is nicknamed “the great Wall of China;” a community in Havana is positioned to get the best signal of broadcast American TV and hip hop in Cuba; a Montrealer works in a Lebanese bakery and wants to learn Arabic; a Tibetan Torontonian is official musician to the Dalai Lama; a Turkish mother’s child is in Germany—everyone is thinking about somewhere else. perhaps the most heart-wrenching of the stories in Out My Window is from Johannesburg, where an urban revitalization project is combating a trend of “hijacked” buildings whose owners have been shot and replaced with brutal gang leaders. Decimated bodies turn up often in this neighbourhood, where suicide matches murder as an all-too-frequent cause of death. Here, the church is essential to hope, and an emblem of endurance exists in its roof, which is destroyed and replaced each year. indeed, such community organization—whether through music, faith, festivals or construction work—is a primary and completely inspiring theme of Out My Window. One family of photographers in prague found this path through their artwork: as they took snapshots of the natural world surrounding their home in residential towers, the buildings themselves began to creep into their photographs, as if they were living entities providing sustenance to the crowd that inhabits them in the Czech skies.

Instead of working in each country herself, Cizek directed local journalists, filmmakers, activists, planners, technologists and four different tech companies over Facebook, Skype, e-mail and telephone. With over a hundred collaborators representing a vast spectrum of expertise, the project has the credit list of a major feature film. To facilitate this distributed production process and to ensure the piece had a consistent look, sound and feel, Cizek expressed her vision in a 25-page style guide for producers on the ground. “The simplicity of the concept really translated well across languages and miles,” says Cizek. “The idea is elegant enough that people get it instantly.”

Clicking on a window or a point on the map leads into an individual story from highrises around the world.

One of the most striking components of the project is Cizek’s use of 360-degree Yellowbird camera technology to film musicians playing in their apartments, often in family settings with children or friends hanging out. Mounted on an interactive platform, the 360-degree footage lets viewers travel about the room by reframing the picture, thereby creating their own windows on these international buildings, even as they craft the stories they want to follow through the apartments. Focus on one particular kid and the segment becomes a story about her; follow a cigar-smoking groupie or guitarist and suddenly the crowded apartment is his stage and his alone.

Despite this innovative use of video, most of the project is actually constructed out of still photographs set in subtle motion with overlapping frames and fades—which many of its viewers seem to interpret as video, based on internet comments. This move to tell stories through stills is an extension of a widespread culture of still photography online. “The internet has really reinvigorated photography and allowed a whole new vision of how it can facilitate storytelling,” says Cizek. “Video is a lot less interesting online than still images combined with audio. Something about the calmness of the still allows the story to come through in the sound. It changes the balance between audio and visual and creates space for the user to relate to the storytelling in a different way—it’s a better environment for interactive media.”

Indeed, the wonderful sound design of Out My Window, which uses artful music and ambient noise to coincide with interactive elements of piece, and randomly repeats clips to avoid sounding looped, is a major component of the immersive story world it creates. stepping away from the computer as I watched the project to make a cup of coffee, I felt I was hearing myself open the package, pour water, scoop the grounds for the first time—the sounds were accentuated and intensified, as though my home were one of the story environments. in addition to growing awareness of housing worldwide, Out My Window makes actual space and sound feel more real.

With such spooky effects, the catchiness of this immersive doc is unsurprising, and Out My Window is not unlike last year’s doc-hit Babies in that it travels the globe in search of one common element of human life. As a work of interactive art, however, Out My Window risked being consigned to niche—or just nerdy—audiences. Just as e-book uptake is now beginning to spike, however, the medium of interactive narrative art seems to be at a tipping point, and is increasingly getting covered by mainstream media outlets. While Cizek has taken note of this spike in media attention as a significant change since making her last major project, Filmmaker-in-Residence, the iDFA award and recognition represent giant step toward having her interactive media work widely acknowledged and seen. “Having IDFA’s name behind the Digital Storytelling award really helps. They’ve said it’s not an emerging genre—it is a genre, and we honour it.”


The story of Sylvia’s life with her children and father in a highrise in a Prague neighbourhood.

Also helpful in increasing the audience for interactive work, Cizek points out, is the vocal support and enthusiasm of the internet world. “The whole project has been an interesting adventure in social media,” she says. Facebook is the most common referring site of Out My Window’s viewers, while Cizek also credits Twitter as a wonderful resource for learning about how users and audiences are responding to the work. Just by watching whose tweets mentioned Highrise, she saw the project move through the architecture community, circulate among media people, photographers and housing activists, then generate a burst of excitement in the education community—which awarded Out My Window the BaKaFOrUM Cross-Media prize, one of its most prominent honours.

It turns out that whether Highrise is reaching “mainstream” audiences is not that interesting a measure of the project’s achievement. “ratings are useful,” says Cizek, “but there are many ways to measure success that don’t necessarily involve people visiting the site itself. Media coverage and critical dialogue are also successful in instigating conversations in the mainstream press. Most important is just letting Canadians know about what’s going on around them. A project’s success can be in the dialogues that happen offline from the project.”

Cizek is interested in the extent of the engagement the project can produce, a standard that reflects the aesthetics of her interactive medium. Out My Window is an engrossing experience without the guidance of a voiceover, edited combinations of the stories, or other features of traditional documentaries, so users who want to find a broad thread of argument for the piece must think for themselves. The interactivity of the project is so intuitive it recedes into the compelling stories, but even just to proceed through the website does require that users click and choose where to go—if you’re feeling tired or are busy washing the dishes, you can’t just set the project to play through.

Out My Window insists on engagement at every level, a challenge to which audiences have been rising. “The average length of a user’s stay is really high,” says Cizek. “people are spending 40 to 60 minutes on the site.” she counts the long attention span of the project’s viewers as a major achievement: “That’s huge for us,” she says, “because a big goal of ours was to challenge the notion that the internet is making things shorter and shorter. Out My Window is made of fragments, but people are spending lots of time on them.”

This form of hyper-engaged movie-watching comes with an implicit ethical question about how far any one user will actually let herself engage with the social justice issues at play on the screen. If I’m willing to click on this story, Out My Window insists its viewers ask, am I willing to get off the internet (to quote the feminist band Le Tigre) and meet you in the street? From iPad control touches to the power of individuals on the world stage, interactive media scrutinizes the meaning of our actions, and Out My Window infers that only a spectrum of difference and not a divide exists between token and significant gestures, between a click and broad social change.

Behind the scenes, a new method matches the deep interactivity of Cizek’s medium. since she believes the ethics and process of a documentary production must meet and mirror its theme, and that positive change should be a filmmaker’s ultimate objective, the creative process behind Highrise is a self-conscious collaboration among many storytellers, producers and directors, including the residents and urban activists involved. Through collaborations in front of and behind the camera, and by using screens not as glass-window barriers between filmmakers and audiences but as open doors for connection, Cizek arrives at a kind of media practice of compassion that hasn’t yet failed to produce powerful and beautiful artworks.

Horn is a female construction worker living and working in a new highrise going up in Phnom Penh.

Cizek developed this methodology through her last project, Filmmaker-in-Residence, for which she spent five years as part of the community at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Taking a cue from the “intervention research” of the scientists she encountered at St. Mike’s, Cizek calls her method “interventionist media”: doc-making that uses the elusiveness of objectivity as an invitation to work with subjects toward social innovation. Through this approach her cameras became portals used by staff and patients to look at the institution and themselves. The resulting collection of films and stories is a subtle deployment of documentary forms, a network of vantages on the hospital that exceeds what any one individual could generate on her own, and that gently intervenes in the social spaces it observes.

Since this intervention-media format and process proved so powerful, plans for a sequel were bandied about early on. Filmmaker-in-Residence had allowed Cizek to collaborate with many urban activists, so the idea to make a city-based project recurred in start-up talks. Some were keen to have her placed as a resident at City Hall, but she was reluctant simply to repeat the Filmmaker-in-Residence structure of working in one building or institution. After a long process of study and discussions at the NFB, focusing on life inside highrises began to seem like a compelling direction—a topic of both local and international import and appeal.

Although she conceived Highrise to promote positive change in general, Cizek leaves the social intentions of Out My Window open and unspecified. “At the very least,” she says, “I hope it’s a source of inspiration for communities to find a way to harness their energies.” In contrast, the first installment in Highrise had a very pointed direction for its social intervention, and was designed to coincide with E.R.A. Architects’ thoughtful Tower renewal project. A photo-based web documentary, The Thousandth Tower launched in May 2010 and gathers six residents’ photo documentaries of their lives in one Toronto highrise. We learn about how the ravine reminds pritvanti of the sacredness of Kashmir, the longing for Jamaica that Hope’s apartment hibiscus assuages, the birth ceremony Ob holds in his apartment to carry on traditions from Ghana, Jamal’s struggle with the help of his mother to resist joining a gang, Irene’s survival of breast cancer, and Maggie’s eviction. The piece captions their photographs with short stories about their perspectives on the world, and situates its own insight into their building as just one of the many possible vantage points on a city of towers. An update to this project, The 2000th Tower, is set to launch in the spring, and will display the animated results from a charette held among the residents and some guest architects to imagine how their buildings could be reinvented.

One of the triumphs of Highrise is its effort to redirect an agenda for activism by amplifying the voices of people who are too rarely heard by legislators and, indeed, many downtown activists. The Thousandth Tower points out that Toronto is home to more residential highrises than any other North American metropolis except Manhattan, but these mainly suburban dwellings aren’t often used to define Toronto in print or on screen, though they house a vast phalanx of the city. Legislators usually account for this host of often marginalized people by parsing them into statistics, but The Thousandth Tower gives the numbers at least a few faces and voices. giving a platform to these residents—single mothers with low education levels, or new immigrants facing unstable jobs or unemployment because of language barriers and Canada’s ongoing failure to recognize foreign credentials—is a gesture against injustices in the system.

The politics behind this form of media work underpin the history of Canadian documentary films too, and an interview on the box set of Filmmaker-in-Residence with 91-year-old George Stoney (director of the NFB’s Challenge for Change program from 1968 to 1970) explains the place of Highrise within this long history. speaking with Cizek, stoney describes his method as “an approach to media which assumes that social change is the objective.” For both filmmakers, using media as a tool for change often means consciously reorganizing circuits of knowledge transfer among filmmakers, subjects and audiences, whether by ensuring subjects are well- informed about the objectives of the film, or by holding discussions after screenings, or simply by refusing to let the filmmaker seem to be an unquestioned authority.

It’s somehow reassuring that NFB producers have such a living and self-conscious tradition of tactics to prod Canadians into knowing themselves better. Seen through this long history, social media begins to look like an extension of the social doc, and the recent ascendance of the NFB into a world player in interactive interfaces (with its iPhone app topping best-of-year lists for 2009 and its 2008 CFC collaboration on north America’s first interactive feature, Late Fragment, in addition to Cizek’s Webby award–winning work) can be seen more as manifest destiny than dark-horse success.

Despite this long NFB tradition, it’s still rare to find work like Cizek’s that exploits the real power of the documentary genre to act as social media, as a mediator between people in various positions in front of and behind cameras and screens. When asked last summer about other interactive documentary projects she admires, Cizek referred to a list of over a hundred links she keeps for students in her EsoDoc classes and a wave of strong work coming out of France, as well as the initiatives taken by the BBC to invest in interactive docs, but then admitted with a conciliatory smile that the field as a whole had yet to meet her expectations.

While the new iDFA award will mitigate this lack somewhat, interactive documentary has yet to grow a coherent community, publication or festival to broadcast and inspire exceptional work. Web-docs, meanwhile, she feels, could be more critical: the technologies have gotten more sophisticated more quickly than the perspectives they’re being used to express. “A lot of Web projects wouldn’t hold up to values we now demand of documentary filmmakers in terms of ethics, truth claims, having a self-reflexive and critical process—a lot of them are lost in a lazy-eyed fascination with technology itself.”

Cizek delivers this fierce indictment with a sharp blue-eyed gaze so steady that even her blinks seem intent. “Lazy-eyed” is the last critique anyone would ever level against Kat Cizek or her projects. she spent a year studying urban issues in the development of Highrise in an NFB funded sabbatical, and “vigorous research” is a phrase that recurs in her conversation. She remains preoccupied by finding ways to extend the experience of interactive documentaries, even to re-appropriate the cinema as a space that brings communities together around contentious issues, since once a group of people has gotten together, change can begin. This faith in the social power of documentary was vibrantly evident at the May launch of The Thousandth Tower, when a beaming Cizek, obviously delighted to have created a City Hall podium for the highrise residents who made the piece, turned to the legislators she’d invited on stage and asked, “now what will you do to address these issues?” While Kat Cizek is working at the heights of her power both as a documentarian and as an interactive- media innovator, her docs seem to exist primarily for her not as perfected aesthetic expressions of ideas or situations, but as preludes to real change.