For the last week I’ve been in Connecticut working with students at the Hartford Art School’s MFA Program. One of the things I love about this truly distinctive program is its emphasis on the photo book. Every single graduating student produces a book. While there is also a final exhibition, these books show a depth and complexity that’s impossible to display in the limited space allotted in a group show.
But as much as I cherish the photo book and admire the work these students have produced, there’s something nagging at me. Two weeks ago while writing about the development of Manga, I mentioned my belief that The Americans of our time will not be a book, but something else: a website, an app, perhaps even a video game.
In response to this, one of the participants of the LBM Summer Camp, April Dobbins, sent me a link to the interactive media website: Welcome To Pine Point. But here’s the thing, had April told me that it was an “interactive media website,” I likely wouldn’t have clicked on the link. Those words give me chills. Over the years, there have been countless efforts to harness new technologies like Flash to create a new form of media. But invariably when I watch these efforts, what I’m most aware of is the effort to harness new technologies. The content falls by the wayside.
Welcome to Pine Point was a breathtaking exception. Created by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (aka The Goggles), the project actually began as a book project about the decline of photo albums. But then The Goggles stumbled across an amateur website memorializing a Canadian mining town that had been shut down in the late 80’s. Created by a former resident, Richard Cloutier, this website contained photos, videos and memorabilia.
Just as it felt natural for Cloutier to make a website rather than an album, it made sense for Simons and Shoebridge to use a website to tell the story of this town. What is thrilling about Welcome to Pine Point is that it does tell a story. Unlike Cloutier’s album website, The Goggles created narrative tension much like a book or movie.
In an interview with The Nieman Storyboard, the Googles address this narrative construction:
The thing for us that we’re happiest with is that we stuck to what linear “narrative” has done for so long: that beginning, middle and end…People want to be told stories, they want to be engaged… When people think of digital interactive media, one of the first things they say is “It’s going to have multiple entry points, and you can go wherever you want to.” And sure, you can deliver certain kinds of information like that, but it’s not super-great for stories, at least in our experience.
While watching Welcome to Pine Point, I realized what a rare experience it is to be immersed in a website. The exception is movies. When I watch a movie online, I’m not thinking about the mechanics of Netflix. The content carries me away. Something similar happened with Welcome to Pine Point. I forget about my fingers turning the pages and entered the book.
“We’ve started calling them “liquid books,’” says Paul Shoebridge in an an interview with the National Film Board of Canada, “Like, not quite a web doc, not quite an interactive doc… some form of “rich book.”” Is this “liquid book” the form for the next Americans? It is hard to say. But I agree with Michael Simons when he says “I think storytellers – widely defined “storytellers” – should start entering this world and experimenting with the form.”