The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in KwaZulu Natal

The Agri/Cultures Team meeting in South Africa – A reflection on a week in the field in Kwa-Zulu Natal

red maize growing in a 'seed garden' on one of the permaculture farms

red maize growing in a ‘seed garden’ on one of the agro-ecological farms

In mid April we had our first team meeting in South Africa. The visit was both a team meeting and a chance for Fern, Amaranta and Rosa to spend two weeks in South Africa getting to know some more about the South African context in relation to maize agriculture. We spent the first week in KwaZulu- Natal where we visited a number of farms and the second week in Cape Town where we had project meetings as well as were involved in some seminars at the University of Cape Town.

The aim of the first week was to visit some of the sites that I will be working in for my PhD. While the broader project in Spain and in South Africa looks at the wider maize agriculture system, for this trip we focused only on visiting small-scale farms which are a big part of the focus for my PhD project (the other key area I will be focusing on will be the Research and Development stage, which I will expand on in my next post).

A key factor to take into consideration during the trip was the current drought that farmers in KwaZulu-Natal are facing. Many farmers in the province were unable to grow a maize crop this year as a result of late and minimal rainfall. We were able to find some maize growing but most farmers had not planted and those who had had small yields.

On the first day we accompanied one of the masters students from my department to her field area in Hlabisa where she had planned to report back her project fieldwork to the farmers that she had interviewed over the past two years who are involved in growing GM maize varieties on a small-scale. This took the form of a meeting in a community space that was accessible to farmers coming from a wide are in Hlabisa.

After the meeting one of the farmers at the meeting he welcomed us to his farm where he showed us the land where maize would usually be growing this time of year. There was no crop this year due to the drought. Instead of maize, the field was covered in a knee high mono-crop of weeds which the farmer pointed out to us. He explained how this was a new weed for which he had no name and that had only emerged over the past season. The weed appeared to be resistant to the herbicide he had been using along side the GM maize. He said that he would try and dig in into the soil if he could get his tractor working and failing that look for another kind of herbicide that may kill the weed. He said that the agricultural extension officer for the area had not been around recently and so he as yet had not been able to get assistance with this problem. This farmer told us that he had not been framing for a long time in the area and so it was possible that the weed is known by other farmers in the area. I would like to speak to more farmers about the emergence of new weeds or changes in the types and volumes of weeds that are now present. The following week During the Seminar at UCT, Rosa presented on ‘The emergence of Glyphosate resistant weeds in Argentina’ and I learned more about the complexities of weed resistance and the immense social and ecological affects they have had in Argentina. Rosa spoke about how due to the use of pesticides, there had been a reduction in experts in universities studying weeds and many farmers have lost touch with traditional methods of farming and thus knowledge useful in relation to dealing with weed problems. There has therefore been a break in the transmission of knowledge and capacity to find solutions. With the introduction of new technologies and the consequent layers of socio- ecological changes that ripple outwards, it is possible that farmers find themselves in place with little understanding or access to information that can help them to solve critical problems associated with new farming methods they are using. A sense of disconnection with vital information needed by farmers appeared to be a theme in the maize farms we visited that were growing GM or Hybrid seed. Later in Pongola farmers expressed their concern around the use of pesticides and the dangers associated with them. They asked for our thoughts on this, as they were unable to access such information themselves due to their remote geographical location and access to information.

On the second day we traveled to Pongola where we met with one of the members of Biowatch. He took us to visit some of the ago-ecological farmers that were affiliated with the organisation and who were growing traditional maize varieties along side many other vegetables and grains on small-scale farms. We met with 5 women from the project. First we spent some time introducing our project to the group and then learned about their farming histories and how they had come to be involved with Biowatch. We also learned about their recent activism against Monsanto and their work to mobilize the Department of Agriculture to recognize their needs as agro-ecological farmers. When we had finished talking we shared a delicious meal that one of the members of the group had prepared. Almost all of the ingredients had been grown on her land such as traditional savory melon mixed with maize meal, samp, morogo (wild spinach) and jugo beans. After this we visited some of the members gardens. Here farmers grown food for the home as well as some to sell. With the guidance of Biowatch farmers have also started growing ‘seed gardens’ and curating a central seed bank in one of the members homes. It was very inspiring to see the diversity of seeds that were being collected. The enthusiasm and knowledge that the farmers in the group had was very inspiring as well as to witness how farmers, supported by Biowatch were mobilizing to get support to grow their farms and get better access to resources and build more resilient farming systems. Reflecting on the farm we had encountered the previous day one was able to note a very different feeling that accompanied on one hand the empty (but for weeds) field where GM maize usually grew and the complexity and diversity of the field in which traditional maize grew on these farms.

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savory melon growing on one of the ago-ecological farms

On the last day in the field we accompanied an extension officer from the Pongola Department of Agriculture to farming area where small-scale farmers were growing a mixture of GM and Hybrid seed. I drove with the extension officer and along the way he showed me the areas where maize would normally, outside of the drought be planted. We met with group of women farmers at the home of one of the farmers. Here we sat under a tree and spoke for a long time about their farming histories and how they had come to be growing GM and Hybrid maize as well as about their experiences, successes and difficulties associated with this over the years. One of the farmers still grew her traditional maize but none the others still grew it. They spoke about how they no longer had the seed and would like to be able to get some. They had been growing GM maize since 2013 as well as hybrid seed. They had access to hybrid seed at no cost via the Department of Agriculture and some farmers who have the available income buy GM seed in addition to this. Once the maize is harvested farmers hire transport to take their produce to the mill in Pongola. But sometimes the price they are offered for it at the mill is too low and they bring it back and sell it within their community area. In 2013 a mill that was intended to specially target the needs of smallholder farmers was launched in Pongola. It had been my intention that we visit this mill in Pongola but I found out that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.

During our time in KwaZulu-Natal we saw a diversity of small-scale farming systems and learned a great deal from farmers about their experiences with growing different types of maize. It was also valuable experience to be there with the team from Norway and Spain and compare how the Spanish and European context differs and what factors and concerns may be shared between the different contexts.  I was also able to identify some areas to explore further in my next field visit. One of the areas I would really like to explore more is the use of a multi-species lens for gathering stories about agri/cultural relationships with insects and how this can open up narratives concerning socio-ecological change within farming systems. I would also like to explore in more detail the theme of visibility and invisibility in relation to genes, pesticides and other ‘un-seen’ elements that are experienced on farms and how this related to changing systems of knowledge and scientific vs experiential knowledge. I am interested in comparing the Research and development stage with the farm stages and we spoke about this in our team meeting as a way of focusing in detail on these parts of the maize agriculture system. This will form my next post!

 

 

Following maize seeds through time and space – grounding some fieldwork sites in KwaZulu Natal

For this week’s post I wanted to reflect on how my fieldwork is unfolding in relation to the methodology i have proposed using. As discussed previously the team in Spain and myself are using a follow the thing methodology and actor network approach as a basis for gathering information about the multiple sites in maize agri/culture systems, how these systems function and have changed over time and in relation to seed. As Fern explained in her July 2015 post “We find it incredibly useful when explaining our project to talk about how we are following the journey of a kernel of corn through different cultures of agriculture and mapping the various places, people and processes we encounter”. This July post reflected on the compelling-ness of using a kernel of corn as a character (actor), specifically for the purpose of the internet documentary that the team in Spain is putting together.

Over the past few months I have found following a kernel of maize to be a very useful methodology. The sequential approach it provides offers a good framework from which to proceed and begin plotting fieldwork sites but also allows space for other tools and methodologies to be added in. The recognition drawing from Actor-network Theory that maize seed is not just an object but a powerful actant and force provides much space to explore the complexities of relating at play in each site.

In previous posts I have spoken about the multispecies and sensory methodologies that I wish to bring in as a way of mapping, noticing, recording and interacting within each site I visit as I follow the journey of maize seed through 3 small-scale maize agri/culture systems. In addition to the maize seed, the multi-species lens has opened up space for a conversations around a multitude of other living organisms that enter into the conversation and how they affect and are affected by the other actors and actants involved. After having done some preliminary trips i feel excited about the possibilities of combining these methodologies in the field.

At this point having spent much time discussing theory and methodology in previous posts i wanted to provide an update on the sites that I will be visiting over the next few months. Having done two short scouting trips to different maize growing regions in South Africa as well as doing much desktop research I am starting to get some insight into who I may be speaking to, what places I will need to travel to and what processes I may be encountering by means of following maize seed through the system. Below i have outlined some of the sites and also located them on a map.

As mentioned previously I have decided to focus my attention on small-scale maize farming systems in KwaZulu Natal. Firstly I will be visiting the area of Hlabisa, 3 hours from Durban where GM maize has been grown since 2001 by small-scale farmers. I will also be interviewing farmers in nearby KwaHoho where farmers are using traditional varieties using ago-ecological methods.

I will then be traveling up North to Pongola where GM, hybrid and traditional varieties are grown. It is an interesting area to explore issues of coexistence because here there are farmers growing different varieties of maize side by side or on neighboring plots of land. I am told that some are farmers in the area believe strongly in GM technologies and others who are very against it and would like to be able to talk to farmers of both opinions and perhaps others that have perhaps not chosen a strong opinion. I was told in Hlabisa that the GM maize seed depot that was established by the department of agriculture which was formerly in Hlabisa has now been relocated to Pongola. I would like to visit this depot and see if i can establish any contacts for interviews here. From what I am able to gather online I have established that Pongola is also the home to a relatively new micro milling facility that was established in 2013 by the Department of Agriculture in collaboration with a business cooperative called the Sikulungele Pongola Enterprise who run the mill. Before the establishment of this mill small-scale farmers were unable to mill their maize and sell it as maize meal and so it is likely that this has had much influence on the neighboring agri/culture systems. I would like to see if it is possible to visit the mill and interview key stakeholders about the changes this mill has facilitated and put into motion. I am also interested in using a multi-species lens here to ask questions around maize storage, pests and how these are managed.

Further, I hope to also visit the Kuvusa Mill* located just outside Durban. This mill was established in 2013 and described as “The first small-scale mill in Durban“. Its objective like that in Pongola is to provide milling capacity in rural areas and thus reduce the milling cost and accessibility to small-scale farmers. The company hopes to continue rolling out more mills of its kind. I would like to set up some interviews with Kuvusa Mills.

I will also travel North East to Ngwavuma where traditional varieties are grown and there is a local market where I hope to find traditional seed being exchanged and sold. I am interested in mapping maize seed systems around this market.

  • Update May 2016: It had been my intention that i visit this mill in Pongola but I found out recently that it had never gotten off the ground and had closed down last year. I will explore the details surrounding small-scale farmers experiences of selling their produce in my next field visit.

I hope that these sites will offer a good start into mapping the relationships around maize seeds in KZN of course the follow the thing methodology is all about seeing what actually happens on the ground so I will see as I go.

Next I am starting to try and gain an understanding into the research and development stages which happen upstream from the farms!

Small-scale farming systems in KwaZulu Natal – visiting field sites and thinking about multi-species methodologies

hlabisa

View over some maize farms in Hlabisa which are badly affected by the country-wide drought conditions.

Last week I travelled to KwaZulu Natal to visit some potential field site areas with my supervisor, Rachel Wynberg and Hellen, a master’s student who is also looking at the impacts of GM maize on small-scale farmers in South Africa. Hellen was conducting some focus groups with members of a cooperative who are using GM maize in Hlabisa near the town of Mtubatuba. We decided that Hlabisa would be an important site for my fieldwork as it has a long history of farmers growing GM maize seed varieties due to a number of interventions in the area. There have been a number of studies done in the area looking at the social and economic benefits and impacts of GM maize for small-scale farmers here over the past decade, however little research on socio-ecological dimensions. Hlabisa was one of the first sites in South Africa where Monsanto rolled out Bt maize through government programs in 2001. It is estimated that throughout the country 3000 small-scale framers attended introductory workshops on using GM maize.

While we were in Mtubatuba we met with one of the key members of Biowatch who is based at their offices there. He has worked in the area for a long time and was able to advise me on what small/scale maize agri/culture sites he felt would be suitable for the project. We discussed how Pongola, which is on the border of Swaziland could be a good site as farmers there grow both traditional and GM maize, however there is a strong resistance to GM maize by some of the farmers in the area. He also suggested that the area of Ngwavuma could also be good as it has a very high diversity of traditional maize seed varieties present. While I was unable to go to these sites further North this trip we will be going there during our project meeting in March which will be in South Africa.

We spent one day visiting a group of women from an agro-ecological cooperative affiliated with Biowatch located near Mtubatuba. We spent a few hours speaking with the chairperson (whose home we met at), the vice secretary and an additional member. The farmers here grow a number traditional maize varieties as well as a diversity of other food crops (see the photograph below). Their crops are spread out between 3 different growing sites. They each have a ‘summer’ and a ‘winter garden’ located at their homes ans these are farmed for household use. The summer garden is where maize is grown and despite the drought some maize had been planted and was growing. In addition they also all work collectively on a large ‘market garden’ which they use to generate income through selling produce such as spinach, leeks, green peppers and other vegetables to a nearby supermarket. All gardens are tended to using agro-ecological methods which BioWatch provides training in.

This visit was a great opportunity to reflect on method. We had a long discussion about how the farmers in the cooperative had come to grow the maize they grow now and farm using the methods they currently use. We also spoke a lot about drought and the survival of different maize varieties as well as other crops in times of drought. The farmers explained how they had only recently begun farming again over the past few years. While they were born in families where their parents were farmers, grown up farming and gotten married into farming families (often receiving a diversity seed as part of a dowry), many factors had cause them to move away from farming. They told us of how during a period of drought in the 1980’s many oxen had died and so they started to plant by hand or hire tractors when they were available. Another problem that started to increase was that of stray animals (goats and cows) would always come into their fields as no one was herding them anymore due to various social changes and pressures I have not explored at this point.

This story of how a changing relationship with cattle is an important part of the changing agri/cultures was also expressed in Hlabisa during the focus groups Hellen was conducting. In Hlabisa farmers mentioned that they started to vaccinate their cattle in the 1980s as well as adopt foreign breeds of cattle introduced by white farmers which weren’t as resilient. Some felt that the vaccinations affected the cows health as well as the quality of milk and meat. Cattle are a key species in small-scale maize farming systems in South Africa. I feel I have much more to explore and understand here around the importance of cattle in small-scale agri/cultural systems and how relationships with cattle changing over time due to climate and political history is connected to maize growing.

As explored above many farmers in Kwawhowho had given up on farming due to the loss of oxen, drought and other pressures until Biowatch came to the area to carry out training workshops. Biowatch motivated people to start planting again, first on a small-scale with household gardens and then through the introduction of ‘market gardens’. But drought has been a constant a problem. Last year it was bad however they did manage to keep seed. This year it threatens to be worse. When I asked about the types of maize being grown the chairperson went to collect some maize cobs as well as buckets of seed in various jars and we laid these out and leaned about the different types of maize and other kind of seed as well as how it is planted and what insects are both good and bad some of which had gotten into the jars. We were shown a variety of traditional maize with a small pink cob that grows well in drought. There were also some other vegetable species that were considered good survivors in times of drought.

maize kwawhowho

Maize varieties we were shown in Kwawhowho ( we were told the one on the left fairs well in drought conditions)

Talking around the different seeds offered a great way of learning about the complexity and diversity of the agri/culture system. We also walked around the garden and explored what was there and how things were planted as well as looked as some of the insects and other specie sin the system and how they are connected. These maize systems are not part of a supply chain but are rather closed systems. Maize seed is saved and in times where seed is running low farmers trade with nearby farmers and farmers rely little on external or bought inputs. During the few days we were in KwaZulu Natal  I began to see how the multi-species methodology can be a powerful tool for uncovering socio-ecological connections and wider narratives about agri/culture systems. Reflecting on some writing I read recently I started to see how a multi-species approach in conjunction with the use of photography and sensory data collection could provide a way for engaging with agricultural system in a way that draws out new complexities. George Monbiot in his recent book Feral writes how: “Most human endeavors, unless checked by public dissent, evolve into monocultures. Money seeks out a region’s competitive advantage – the field in which it competes most successfully – an promotes it to the exclusion of all else.” (Monbiot, 2014: 153)

I look forward to exploring many different systems of small-scale agriculture and how an interest in the multi-species as a window into understanding these systems better. I am interested in looking at a range of systems from those that sustain an increased level of diversity growing various kinds of traditional maize varieties as well as other crops to those that resemble monocultures growing only one varitety of GM maize. In March we will be be visiting various types of small-scale maize farms in the Northern part of KwaZulu near the borders of Swaziland and Mozambique where farmers grow traditional, hybrid and GM maize more commercially and so that will be an opportunity to explore the supply chain linkages and the use of the multispecies as a way of researching maize agri/culture systems.

‘Unlikely’ protagonists: a multispecies approach.

European Corn Borer

Multispecies ethnography has become a popular area of research in recent work concerned with nature/culture relationships and moving beyond anthropocentric perspectives. As Kirskey and Helmrich (2010) explain “multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces”. Furthermore, how now “creatures previously appearing on the margins of anthropology—as part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols—have been pressed into the foreground. Animals, plants, fungi, and microbes once confined in anthropological accounts to the realm of zoe or “bare life”—that which is killable—have started to appear alongside humans in the realm of bios, with legibly biographical and political lives”.

Multi-species researchers are interested in working beyond previously defined sets of ideas within anthropocentric discourses in which humans are conceived as occupying a higher position to ‘other’ life forms. This effort has opened up a space for an enlivened body of work that moves between human and other lives that matter. Van Dooren and Bird Rose put forward the concept of “lively ethnographies”, which they describe as “a mode of storytelling that recognises the meaningful lives of others”, in which they mean ‘other’ than human. An interest in species beyond our own, and a curiosity about our entangled engagement with them, offers a different set of stories that can open up a new set of possibilities for thinking about the present and future of life on earth.

In Anna Tsing’s (2012) famous multi-species work, she explores the lives of fungi and through this reflects on the phenomena of domestication of species and our tendencies to try and create mono-crops and farmed spaces that are disconnected from ‘nature’ (seen as set apart from the human realm). She states that “Domestication is ordinarily understood as human control over other species” however humans are also affected by these same species and their behaviors and tendencies and this is usually ignored. The idea that one is either in the realm of the human or of nature she explains “supports the most outrageous fantasies of domestic control” whereby on the one hand we find ourselves subjecting other species to life imprisonment and on the other we preserve wild species in gene banks “while their multi-species landscapes are destroyed”. Further, she argues that we need to explore how despite our efforts and habits towards compartmentalizing ourselves there are complex relations of interdependency at play and attention to this can perhaps “be the beginning of an appreciation of interspecies species being.” .

James McCann in his book Maize and Grace (1999) explores relationships between people and maize in Southern Africa between 1500 and 2000. Before McCann’s work, much of the story of how maize came to be such a pervasive crop was left unwritten. In order to write this (without a lot of written records) McCann explores the history expressed by maize “through its genetic make up, its varieties, its agronomic imperatives, its qualities as food, and its own peculiar symbiosis with its human hosts and the land they inhabit”. In this way, the maize species becomes the protagonist in the book. McCann explores maize as a species with particular character and ability to relate to humans as well as a crop that lent itself to mono-crop agriculture (linked to concentrated state and corporate power) and that these characteristics were important for it becoming such a successful crop in South Africa. This provides an insightful and creative approach to thinking beyond the human while at the same time offering insights about human-maize connections that would not have unfolded without this vantage point. This book is a foundational resource for the work I am hoping to undertake over the next few years looking at small-scale maize systems in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Recently I have been working on the idea of incorporating a multi-species approach into this work.

Beyond maize as a protagonist species though, I would like to explore a diversity of multi-species nature/culture relationships within maize agri/culture. By paying close attention to a range of protagonist species I hope to unfold new narratives concerning nature/culture interactions, how these shape and are shaped by agricultural systems and how the replacement of seeds with new seed technologies may disrupt or alter the complex interrelationships at play.

As I am at the very beginning, I have just started to map some of the species that are likely to play a part in the story, however, I also look forward to exploring this in the field and meeting some unlikely protagonists there.

One emerging protagonist is the corn borer Ostrinia nubilalis. This species has definitively shaped the history of GM maize and been the catalyst or ‘poster’ bug driving the development of GM Bt Maize. I am curious to explore the prevalence of this insect, the human relationships with it, the traditional ‘control’ methods in KwaZulu Natal where small-scale farmers are being encouraged to adopt Bt crops. Do the ways of the South African relative of the corn borer Busseola fusca (often termed the stem borer in South Africa) warrant the use of GM Bt maize varieties on small-scale farms? What other non target insects native to these regions play a role or may be threatened and what are the human connections and knowledges of and with these species?

 

Citrus Swallowtail Papilio demodocus – Butterfly species common to Southern Africa and found in Kwazulu Natal: Photo Source

As I start to map the multi-species that play a part in the story of maize as it moves through the supply chain, the list keeps growing, from Bacillus thuringiensis – the bacteria that lends its genes to scientists to insert into the DNA of Bt Maize, to molds that grow on maize cobs, to mice and weevils who threaten stored maize, to the pigs who produce good manure to boost the soil fertility on traditional fields to the cows who are fed on GM maize. I am excited to begin developing and applying this multi-species approach to my work to map maize agri/cultures and highlighting the stories that connect us together.

a pair of pigs i came accross in the Eastern Cape South Africa on a traditional maize farm

The noses of pair of pigs I came across in the Eastern Cape South Africa on a traditional maize farm

 

 

Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

Chapter 2: Practicalities 

This post follows on the one I wrote a couple of months ago about the challenges of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research simultaneously.

As I mentioned in that previous post, The Agri/Cultures Project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data. Our intention is to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

This time I will focus on the differences regarding some of the practicalities required for both processes.

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For qualitative research, the equipment we need is quite simple. Basically, we need a recorder for the interviews, a notebook and a pen for the observations and it is convenient to bring a photo camera to illustrate the contexts we visit. For the documentary making, however, we need the video camera, the sound equipment (including headphones), the tripod and, additionally, depending on the situation, it might be also convenient to have a camera stabiliser, and a white screen for light management. That amount of equipment items makes it advisable to have more than one person to carry out all the tasks involved. Actually, most professional documentary teams are likely to consist of at least 3 people (one for the camera, one for the sound and one for running the interviews).

In our research there are mostly two of us doing the fieldwork: one takes care of the development of the interview and the other takes care of the technical aspects of filming. A couple of times, however, only one of us could attend the interview and the multitasking became extremely challenging. In this situation the researcher is required to meet the interviewee, have some small talk with him or her, explain again the aims of the project and how the interview will take place, run the interview, have a strong presence with all the senses and interact according to the interviewees responses. At the same time, the researcher needs to prepare all the equipment, do a soundcheck, look for an aesthetic spot to shoot and take care of the technical needs that might happen during the interview, as well as make sure there are different shots in the scene to be able for editing purposes. The few times that only one of us has done all the work alone, the audiovisual part has been slightly neglected (e.g not changing the shot in the whole interview and having some problems with the sound) because it was impossible to develop all these tasks well simultaneously. Specifically the ability to maintain full presence during the interview is a real challenge since for the research is really important to be engaged and active listen to the interviewee in that specific situation. If the interviewer is trying to manage the camera and the technical aspects at the same time while running the interview, the interviewee might feel slightly disrespected and the interviewee, also aware of the low presence, might feel overwhelmed by the situation.

In all her colorless glory.

Also, while audiovisual filming can occasionally happen at night, it is worthwhile to take into account the emotion tone triggered by images of certain weather conditions or the strength of light during the different hours of the day. Sometimes it might be better to reschedule the interview in order to have different nuances (e.g the effect of filming an interview under the midday sun or on a rainy day is very different). Research interviews in a more traditional form, on the contrary, are more time-independent and simple to perform, as they do not depend so much on the light conditions.

We are experimenting with all these processes and trying to navigate these waters the best we can. Any practical advice is greatly welcome.

Do you think are there additional practical challenges between these two (sometimes mixed) processes?

 

Academic Research & Making an Interactive Documentary: Compatible Worlds?

  Chapter 1: Discourses vs Characters

The Agri/Cultures project attempts to investigate new ways to document and communicate scientific data.

To be experimental, the project has begun fieldwork with an intention to create an interactive documentary (also known as i-doc, web documentary, web doc or multimedia documentary). An i-doc differs from traditional forms of documentary by having a non-linear narrative, containing different sorts of interactive information (audio, infographics, photography, video and text material). In this type of documentary, interactivity offers more power and agency to users. It also allows them to navigate through a network of relations, exploring an ecosystem of dynamically interlinked nodes.

The process of creating a web-doc:

I will be writing a series of posts related to the challenge of using audiovisual documentation devices and techniques to do research. I will try to summarise some of the difficulties and opportunities we have found when trying to reconcile these two logics.

The first difficulty deals with the different focus: Discourses vs Characters

On the one hand, when doing research, we are interested in identifying, describing and explaining different discourses. That is, different ways people understand, talk about and interact with the world.

In research, these discourses are fragmented and partially reproduced by many of the research subjects. Our job is to explore, categorise, reconstruct, and weave these fragmented discourses.

Critical_reflective_discourse_free_zone

In the communication sphere of documentary-making, however, the main focus is not discourse, but character. There is a use of compelling and moving characters who can act as vessels to help users navigate through a story or a topic. Sadly, not everyone can be a good character for a documentary. For those selected though, more visual information about each character is needed so audiences can empathise with them. This has important implications for us as researchers.

For an i-doc (or a more traditional documentary) we need to go beyond filming talking heads from interviews, which is a bias researchers who use cameras to focus on discourses often take. To go beyond implies filming activities that the character does in his/her daily life or familiar places in which she or he lives, things he or she likes to do that will illustrate his or her talk. It is about creating an emotional connection with the character.

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This creates a practical limitation to the number of characters that can appear in a film or a story. It has to be a manageable number, so audiences can connect with them in a relatively short space of time.

We are trying to find a compromise between these two demands of research and i-doc making, but the truth is that it’s not very easy.

On the one hand, we already know that we will have many more interviewees than our documentary can have. Asking all of them to show us their homes or places of work is also intensively time-consuming. This creates hundreds of hours of recorded material that is difficult to store and handle and not very efficient for the editing. Interviews by themselves take time, approximately 2 hours, which increases to 3 if we are filming. So, if we also add more time to be able to film additional material, it goes well beyond 3 hours for each interviewee.

Usually, when making a documentary, there has been  research about the main characters of the story and they are identified from the very beginning. The research project has just begun. Now it’s summer in Spain. We are having an extreme and unprecedented series of heat waves with temperatures going beyond 38 degrees, and it is a busy time for farmers. It gets very difficult to steal more time from them to film something that we are not even sure we will be using.

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So, what are we doing with these different demands in practice? We are currently prioritizing the research (and therefore, the discourses) and we are trying to do as much filming as possible. We are playing it largely by ear in relation to the changing context we are seeking to map. While we continue to learn about the tools available for i-doc making in our digital age, we film the interview and if there is time and the interview went well, we ask to film more images about the person’s workplace and environment. If we later identify an engaging character that we want to have as a main character for our i-doc, we can ask them about filming further.

As we navigate this new territory though, we welcome any advice and ideas on how to continue moving forward.

Field work interactive map

We have now created an interactive map to show the locations and actors that we have engaged with in our field work so far. Please click on the image to follow our journey as we attempt to map maize agri-food systems in Spain. Also, feel free to let us know in the comment field if there are additional actors or nodes in the system that you would like us to include as the field work continues.

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