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Interview: Documentary Pioneer Katerina Cizek on the Future of Cities and the Web

Oct 28, 2016

Documentary pioneer Katerina Cizek

Last month – as part of Waterfront Toronto’s FUTURE CITIES talks – Kat Cizek, an acclaimed filmmaker and pioneer in interactive and participatory documentary production, spoke about the lessons we can learn from the ways that cities and the World Wide Web intersect. Ilana Shamoon spoke with her to expand on the themes of the talk.

 

Ilana Shamoon: When we approached you to participate in our FUTURE CITIES talks, we asked you to think about future urban communities and help us understand what they might look like from your perspective. Would you explain why your attention immediately focused on the web? More specifically, how does the web – from the early hopefulness for a seemingly limitless democratizing tool to the later wakeup call as the systems at play revealed themselves – help you understand the direction that urban communities may be headed?   

 

Kat Cizek: We all “arrive” at the city and at the web for the same reasons. We hope for greater accessibility to people, ideas, energy, opportunity, for democracy, and for equity. In Toronto, specifically in the mid-2000s when I began work on the HIGHRISE interactive documentary project, it became apparent to me that our thinking about Torontopia – a utopic vision of what this city could be – coincided with a deep sense of cybertopia. The web was widely understood as an incredible place of democratization and peer to peer communication.

 

We had also learned so much from the great Jane Jacobs, who told us that cities begin with neighbourhoods. In parallel, Web 2.0 was emerging as a participatory, communal space. At this time, the city and the web made similar promises to communities. And while these values do play out for some people, it’s clear they don’t play out for most. Our web is filtered, surveilled, and our city is increasingly segregated. It is worth looking at how these larger structures are inter-related.  

 

IS: In our discussions leading up to your talk, you touched on the need to look beyond location as a foundation for an updated definition of community. Maybe you could expand on this?

 

KC: I was likely thinking about the work that someone like Mariana Valverde is doing at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. She is thinking about the post-Jane Jacobs moment: how do we go from thinking strictly in a neighbourhood sense to effectively addressing larger systems? We need to focus our activism, passion and love beyond neighbourhood communities to embrace a bigger picture of the city. This is the post-Jane Jacobs mandate.

 

Since the hopefulness of the mid-2000s, our ideas have significantly evolved, as we slowly started recognizing the bubbles we create for ourselves in both urban and virtual spaces. We started critically thinking about whether we are simply consumers of the web or its citizens, and about the vastly differing degrees to which people access information.  

 

IS: What are some of the facets of the open web that you look to for inspiration, and what is their impact on our capacity to become urban citizens rather than simple consumers?

 

KC: The work that Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Mozilla Foundation are doing are crucial and important to the idea of the open web. Citizen Lab is demanding transparency, and is doing urgent, important investigative work to ensure we remain citizens of the web rather solely consumers or even victims of it. Mozilla is looking at the digital divide. They are doing great ethnographic work, mapping out how people are “arriving” at the web for the first time in many places around the world, and they are investigating the complex consequences of the Internet of Things which is coming at us very quickly.

 

IS: During our talks, several speakers referenced Toronto’s unique character: as a place of experiment, as possessing an inherent (if forgotten) sense of risk-taking, as a rare example of a city that truly celebrates diversity. The examples you cited are all Toronto-based. Is that a coincidence?

 

KC: Ha, yes. I used Toronto-centric examples to lift up Toronto’s role on the global scene, but also to help us think local.

 

IS: In her talk, Vass Bednar from the Martin Prosperity Institute addressed the potential pitfalls of using the term “community” when talking about public policy, and the importance of qualifying and quantifying it. So I use the word cautiously here: what is the role of the “community” as we seek to become better citizens? How are communities empowered through involvement in the definition and evolution of initiatives like the Tower Renewal Program or the HIGHRISE project, and what is the role of the expert in these types of community-driven endeavours?

 

KC: As Vass pointed out, the word “community” has become a catch-all phrase that means very little. Who is the community? How are they represented in your process? Who speaks for whom? In HIGHRISE, we sought to peel back only the very first layer of this conversation for Tower Renewal. We were so excited by the Tower Renewal project’s efforts to identify a very invisible housing stock in the city: 2,000 post-war apartment buildings. With HIGHRISE, we wanted to take at least one of these towers and try to understand at a deeper level. Who are the residents? How can residents’ voices be amplified at the table with politicians, bureaucrats, planners, developers, social agencies, and so on?

 

IS: Are you able to elaborate on the work you’re doing at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and how it relates if at all to this discussion? Where will your next project take you?

 

KC: I’ve taken in a new role at the MIT Open Documentary Lab to help develop the idea of a co-creation studio. This will be a place to explore how media makers can co-create with citizens, technologists, and academics in new ways. We are really looking at how to move beyond the legacy media production processes, into something much more participatory and collaborative.

 

Learn more about Waterfront Toronto’s FUTURE CITIES talks, a new lecture series that encourages interdisciplinary dialogue between urbanists, culture-makers, advocates and citizens to reimagine what it means to be city builders in the twenty-first century.

 

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post contributor

  • Ilana Shamoon

    Ilana Shamoon is Interim Public Art Program Manager at Waterfront Toronto. She is also a curator of contemporary art.