Temporal Narrativity and Trueness

To delve deeper into issues of what makes a narrative — and how that story can be received by an audience with different levels of knowledge about the root material — I chose the following video of the first day of this past weekend’s InfoCamp, made by the I School’s Paul Goodman.

At first glance, this short video doesn’t appear to have a lot in common with my class project. (What does the first day of a conference have to do with how people watch television?) But while their content and subject matter are quite different, the InfoCamp video and my project must address, or attempt to address, issues of narrativity and “trueness” and be constructed in a way that accounts for the levels of meaning that different members of the audience may bring to the story. I have struggled with how to make sure the interviews I’m doing end up used in a fashion that feels fair to my interviewees; in that way, watching a video in which I appear was an interesting exercise in seeing whether the depiction felt fair to me.

For the sake of this post, I want to discuss whether this video is a narrative. But my viewing and writing are absolutely informed by (and tinged with bits of) Sturken and Cartwright’s writing on “the myth of photographic truth” and our class discussions of such issues. In essence, this video is a surveillance video — recording events as they happened, no words, just movement — framed in a particular way to show a particular slice of the event. And yet for all its surveillance conventions, it’s not objective. It’s altered, sped up and set to music, cut together in a particular way to evoke a particular feeling. I recognize this event (see also: Barthes), but it’s not the event as I experienced it.

So: Is it a narrative? It absolutely has temporal events, and many of them, as per Steiner’s definition; the video shows the passing of time. (I know that, because I was there, but I believe even a viewer coming to this video fresh would see discrete events and even gain some sense of their time order: a room begins to fill up with people; an empty board has papers tacked to it by the end; people leave one building and enter another.) Characters appear, disappear, and reappear as they move throughout the building; the first time I saw the video, I was struck by how many times one person in particular seemed to go up and down the stairs. The repeated characters help to keep the viewer anchored in the narrative: “Oh, there’s that girl with the headband again!”

But could the events in this video really be “double ordered”? The video itself is sequential; the events it depicts are also sequential — again, something that I know from being there, but something that the structure of the video strives to make clear as well. Could a viewer zoom to a particular part of the video and tell a story from just that? Re-order the footage and tell it backwards? I’m not sure. What I do know, though, is that even if the temporal ordering stayed the same, the retelling of the story would almost certainly be different for different viewers. People who were there might look for themselves and remember what they were doing in the moments the video caught them; I certainly do. People who weren’t there might make up their own stories about what’s happening, because aside from a few text titles sprinkled throughout, there’s nothing in particular to explain the events.

This video also seems to gel with Ryan’s definition of narrative. A setting? Yes; we see the event’s world — or, more accurately, worlds — clearly. (Back to Steiner for a second: the buildings almost become their own characters in this story, as we start at one, leave for another, and return to the first.) Characters? Yes, those repeating figures who dart in and out of the frame. Actions and happenings? Yes: people drink coffee, bound up and down the stairs, pin papers on boards, greet each other. Changes in the narrative world? I believe so; the main room shown at the start of the video looks and feels different at the end than it does at the beginning, and we see conversations start and stop — little changes in those people’s worlds, even if we can’t hear or understand them.

And yet: Even though this video seems to fit both Ryan and Steiner’s definitions, even though it has a clear temporal ordering that define its start and finish, and even though my own definition of narrative when we first discussed these two pieces in class should be sufficiently broad to encompass this video as an absolute example of a narrative, some part of me still wonders if it is. Are time, characters, and setting really enough? Can a start and an end of some event fully constitute a plot? Perhaps it’s because I know that the end of this video isn’t the end of the event, but it feels unfinished to me. I want to know more; I want to see how it wraps up. But for someone else, someone who wasn’t there, perhaps this video tells a satisfying story (or lets the viewer tell him or herself one). I’d be curious to know.

One final note: I wonder about the decisions made about the music for this video. Why this score? Why paced this way? On my third or fourth viewing of the video, I realized it wasn’t actually the music itself that fascinated me but the way it matched different segments of the action and didn’t — to me — seem to match others. The soundtrack is consistent here; it’s all instrumental except for the lyrics that come in right at the end and essentially serve as another signal that the narrative is done. I don’t know the source song well enough to know if it’s all one piece of music, but it certainly could be. What strikes me is how well it seems to gel with the (artificially accelerated) movements at the start and finish of the video, and how it seems out of place with the more natural-time sequences in the middle. And again, I think this has something to do with how I experienced the event. The first and last few scenes of this video really did feel that rushed, and the music seems a perfect soundtrack to the frenetic activity. But the middle segment, when the keynote speaker takes the stage, was a chance to breathe. The event felt like it slowed down at that point; the rush ended and time reverted to its normal pace. The video slows down, perhaps to mimic this. But the music pushes relentlessly on; it doesn’t let us rest.

Kimra’s Three-Photo Story

I unexpectedly found myself without a computer for much of the past week, so this is an iPhone special — the photos were taken with my phone and then uploaded to flickr. It was interesting trying to work with this camera in low light, but I gave it a shot …

Kimra’s Project

My project for this class will tie into my I School Master’s final project on personal TV scheduling. However, what specific part of that study I will capture here is something that’s been constantly in flux — and I would love to discuss issues of practicality (vs. perfection/ideal situations) in this kind of work.

At this point, my main idea is to present photographs from my study participants’ TV-watching lives, synced with audio of them talking about how they watch television. What follows is a brief synopsis of all the discarded ideas that got me there and the questions I still have about how to make this work.

My first plan was to photograph or video-record my participants in their homes, ideally on their couches or near their televisions or laptops. Except a) many people, especially the total strangers I recruited, are more comfortable meeting in public places (as, frankly, am I!) and b) very few of the people I recruited said they were willing to be videotaped or photographed.

So I came up with another idea: I’m doing a diary study as part of my research, and so I decided to give each participant a particular style of diary — selected partly for its photogenic nature! — and photograph those, then create a collection of still photographs augmented with audio of the participants talking about their viewing habits as reflected in the diaries.

I gave out my first two diaries last week, and both participants said they were unlikely to use them; both said they’d prefer to keep the diary online, take their own pictures, and send everything to me. The basic concept still works, but I obviously have much less control over the quality of the photos I receive that way.

Audio quality is another issue — my recorder is awesome for picking up audio almost anywhere, but that’s for transcription purposes, not presentation purposes. I’ll also be doing a number of follow-up interviews by phone or Skype, which are likely to have less crisp quality.

As I’m trying to make this as easy as possible for my participants, what’s the best way for me to balance the realities of my research and the ideals of this project?

Kimra’s Morning

Obligatory Cat Photo
Obligatory Cat Photo
This is Griffin sitting in his favorite spot. I attempted to use fill flash on this one but couldn’t get it to fire fast enough. This looks darker than I remember it being — I took a few with different manual settings before he eventually ran away from me, but none of them seemed quite right.

Getting Ready
Getting Ready
I was packing for a trip to a conference on Wednesday morning. When I pack, I have a habit of throwing everything I’m going to take onto the bed and then splitting it up into bags from one giant pile. I was down to little stuff by the time I took this photo (the camera was previously in the pile).

I love this bagel shop because of its huge case right in the front (and because it has pumpernickel bagels, let’s be honest). I initially wanted to get the case straight-on so it would fill the whole frame with just bagels, trays, and labels, but the glare was awful. I still have more glare than I’d like, especially on the left side.

A Lowbrow Example …

Forgive me for producing an example that’s the lowest of the low-brow, but today’s discussion about reality and constructed scenes made me think of the ending of the MTV show The Hills. For those of you lucky enough to have missed this particular phenomenon, the show was a spinoff of a previous MTV reality show (Laguna Beach) and followed one of that show’s “characters” and her friends as they moved to Hollywood. Like a lot of reality TV, it was criticized for being set-up and possibly scripted — criticisms that only grew as the show’s stars became tabloid fixtures without that part of their lives ever being shown on screen.

Anyway, the show attempted to maintain some level of mystery about just how much it was setting up the story, until the final episode, which ended with the following scene — in which two characters say a mournful goodbye, only to have it revealed that (SPOILER ALERT!) they’ve been filming on a soundstage.


Hi! I’m Kimra

I’m Kimra McPherson, a second-year master’s student at the School of Information. I’m a user experience researcher, blogger, and former journalist (both traditional newspaper reporting and online entertainment writing), and I’m particularly interested in people’s personal relationships with media of all sorts.

I’m a recreational photographer with one photojournalism class under my belt and a minimal amount of experience of taking photos for publication. I’ve also done some shaky Flip-style video interviews and edited videos using iMovie. I’m taking this class both to learn more about best practices for multimedia narratives and to figure out how to incorporate different techniques into my final project presentation.

My e-mail: ude.yelekreb.loohcsinull@armik