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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

Material Realities, page 2 of 2

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Inquiry | Argument

I began visiting the California Correctional Women’s Facility (CCWF) in 2002. Before my first visit I held, on an intellectual level, a rather typical, liberal distaste for the idea of prisons but I had not seriously questioned my assumptions about justice and punishment. I took it for granted that those who were incarcerated had committed serious crimes and that the punishment they received would be just. I had never considered the larger questions of the relationship between crime and structural inequality, between criminalization and discrimination. I had never asked myself, “Why punish” and why in this form. I imagined that cases of prosecutorial malpractice, racial bias, human rights violations and wrongful conviction were the tragic, but rare stuff of investigatory journalism and documentary film. But after spending time at CCWF – meeting the women inside and, visit after visit, hearing one after another testify to the same injustices, the same egregious, pervasive, human rights violations they suffered both inside and outside the prison - the weight of the evidence, the repetition, the shared experience threaded through the vast amount of testimony that I heard, challenged my assumptions and destroyed my complacence.

The goal of Public Secrets, and of my work in new media documentary in general, is to offer this kind of transformative experience to the public. My strategy involves addressing an issue, context or marginalized community as a “site” (or scene or field) rather than through a single, linear story or individual narrative. I collect significant amount of direct testimony from a “site” and then I design an interface structured in a manner that will circumscribe this “site” of socio-economic and political experience as articulated by the participants. Rather than building a single road across that site to get from point A to point B (or the beginning of an argument to its resolution), the database design maps out an extensive territory – say, 100 square miles -- and the interface sets the viewer down within the boundaries of this territory -- allowing her to find her own way – to navigate a difficult terrain, to become immersed in it, and, thus, potentially to have a transformative experience. The interface and information design constitute a form of “argument” (as writing does for a scholar), and a user’s navigation becomes a path of “inquiry” (a distillation and translation of the encounter through which the speech of the participants emerged). Together, argument and inquiry are intended to challenge the viewer's assumptions and destroy her complacence.
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