Rick Prelinger is an archivist, writer, filmmaker and Professor of Film & Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz. His collection of 60,000 ephemeral films was acquired by Library of Congress in 2002. His archival feature Panorama Ephemera (2004) played in venues around the world, and his feature project No More Road Trips? received a Creative Capital grant in 2012. His 27 Lost Landscapes participatory urban history projects have played to over 45,000 viewers in San Francisco, Detroit, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere. He is a board member of Internet Archive and frequently writes and speaks on the future and politics of archives and archival access. With Megan Shaw Prelinger, he co-founded an experimental research library in San Francisco in 2004, which serves over a thousand artists, researchers, and activists each year.

Assembly Over Algorithm: Resisting Overnarrativization

Rick Prelinger

Volume 5Article 4

Assembly Over Algorithm: Resisting Overnarrativization

Rick Prelinger

Volume 5Article 4 Download

Assembly Over Algorithm: Resisting Overnarrativization

Rick Prelinger
Volume 5/Article 4 Download
Rick Prelinger is an archivist, writer, filmmaker and Professor of Film & Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz. His collection of 60,000 ephemeral films was acquired by Library of Congress in 2002. His archival feature Panorama Ephemera (2004) played in venues around the world, and his feature project No More Road Trips? received a Creative Capital grant in 2012. His 27 Lost Landscapes participatory urban history projects have played to over 45,000 viewers in San Francisco, Detroit, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere. He is a board member of Internet Archive and frequently writes and speaks on the future and politics of archives and archival access. With Megan Shaw Prelinger, he co-founded an experimental research library in San Francisco in 2004, which serves over a thousand artists, researchers, and activists each year.

The “Beyond Story” manifesto voiced thoughts that so many of us have had over the past few years. While this is not a new train of thought, it’s a considerable leap from the collective feeling that old-school storytelling’s time has passed to the appearance of alternatives to the vocabulary and ideology of storytelling. The critique of narrative supremacy is still emergent. In this spirit, this piece aims to ask questions that it may not be able to pretend to answer.

I’ve been using the term “overnarrativization” to describe the problems I see with the current regime of storytelling. “Overnarrativization” doesn’t necessarily mean “against story” or “beyond story,” but it certainly means “too much story.”

Former US Librarian of Congress James Billington spoke for many in the media, history, and museum businesses when he said “stories unite people, theories divide them.” Almost every cultural gatekeeper obsessively namechecks “story” while offering variations on the same platitude: story is basic to our humanity and identity. This emphasis seems more anxious than celebratory, more defensive than adventurous.

From where does all that anxiety come? Storytelling already rules the media. But is its consensus really so fragile? If it were as deeply ingrained in our consciousnesses as the storytellers claim, we might not have to pledge allegiance to it so often.

While there are plenty of reasons to criticize “story,” it would be good to remember that what we call “storytelling” has progressive, even radical origins, at least in the US. In the 1930s, a revival of folk culture and a workerist left helped build awareness of narratives by and about rural and working-class people. WPA workers (predominantly white) were paid to collect life stories of the formerly enslaved. Storytelling’s appearance of authenticity and its supposed lack of artifice seemed to pose a radical alternative to mass culture. Many cultural workers in the 1970s appropriated storytelling and other 1930s cultural practices, hoping to fit radical narrativity into their revolutionary culture toolbox. This impulse, plus a growing understanding that the personal was political, also made storytelling a key feminist practice.

Figure 1. Footage still courtesy of the author.

But the expansion of the documentary sector in the late 1970s and, along with it, the production of many more nonfiction films, has ironically marginalized narrative experimentation. While documentary space has historically been relatively hospitable to makers and works that cross established boundaries, distributors have been less welcoming. As documentary audiences have broadened, the range of marketable representation has narrowed. This process began when independent documentary acquired a certain cachet and developed into a small but significant theatrical business. Public television aired independent documentaries, and in the 1980s cable and home video began commissioning original programming from independent and even radical documentary makers. To develop audiences, the new distribution systems required inexpensive programming. Each new platform repeated the search for cheap airtime, looking in the same places its predecessors had looked: archives, for one; independently produced media, for another. And when nonfiction media became a stable market, it began to mimic its fictional other, as even the briefest glance at recent documentary offerings and their promotional materials will reveal.

Before I soured on the supposed universality of narrative, I was a bit of an angry archivist. Or perhaps a disappointed one. Images from my archives propagated widely in the media, but rarely had a chance to ride solo. They were clipped short, shown with overbearing narration or emotionally invasive music, deployed not for the evidence they contained or their formative ambiguity, but as narrative glue, continuity patches, or eye candy. The ideas that archival clips might prompt audiences to learn to watch and listen more deeply or to view themselves as historical beings; these were suppressed. Bits and pieces from our collections were woven into works that weakened and sometimes trivialized their components.

While I don’t expect that process to end, I hoped and still hope that archives could be permitted to speak for themselves—or if not completely for themselves, without too many filters. To this end, I made LaserDisc and CD-ROM anthologies of hundreds of archival films with contextual materials and a little three-inch Rick suggesting critical perspectives. I worked with Internet Archive to build an online digital collection, which continues to flourish as a source of films to screen or to clip for stock footage.

And I arranged screenings. In 1991 I was invited to Britton, South Dakota (a town of about 1,400) to show some home movies from 1938-39 in the local theater. To keep a long story short, the town was still there, the theater still there, and many people in the films were still alive. So was Ivan Besse, the shooter. Until then I had never seen white Americans talk back to the screen. This experience was very much on my mind when, in 2006, I began producing urban history documentary events. There are now about 25 of them, which have been presented about 105 times to some 45,000 people. These barely-plotted events (sometimes titled as Lost Landscapes) leverage public assembly and mass dialogic presence as a means of creating multiple, coequal consensus around historical evidence that can be read in multiple ways, and try to mobilize audiences to produce their own “narrative of the moment,” on the fly. To speak plainly, I show intricately assembled and lightly edited footage (especially parts of home movies) to audiences who are encouraged to talk to one another in the dark.


Excerpt from LOST LANDSCAPES OF SAN FRANCISCO 14 (Prelinger, 2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Is there a “story?” Sort of. Segments are arranged sometimes topographically, sometimes topically. A measure of causality unfolds, and some segments are nested inside others. But in general, the audience, whose members are often familiar with the places in the film, makes its own narrative. Unlike most film screenings, these are made for noisy audiences. They are dialogical encounters where I encourage audiences to set the terms for discussion. And unlike most “interactive” and “participatory” documentaries, they are realized through public assembly rather than algorithm. They don’t use browsers, apps, or social media platforms to connect viewers—they use only the human voice. I need to be clear that this project wasn’t premeditated: it’s been finding its own way without a mission statement for thirteen years.

And while I used to see this as a radical project, I now think of it as radically traditionalist. Live MCs encouraging audiences to raise their voices in real time: this kind of behavior has been policed out of the theaters. But it’s actually an echo of traditional practices. To name a few: the presence of the benshi (live narrator) in Japanese silent cinema; the performative spectatorship that occurred in pre-multiplex urban cinemas, where the “rule of silence” never strictly applied; the Elizabethan theater, whose pits were often said to be populated by rowdy “groundlings” commenting loudly on plays and performers, prefigures a highly engaged form of audience interactivity. Later, as historian Elizabeth Maddock Dillon describes, the theatrical space functioned as a virtual stage onto which racially integrated audiences performed social relations. Eighteenth and early nineteenth century audience members on both sides of the Atlantic didn’t just go to the theater to see a play—they went to represent themselves, to make common space and often common cause. In 1804 a Boston writer complained that the theater didn’t have bright enough lighting during the show, because people weren’t there just for the performance. And when Richard III was performed at the Bowery Theater in New York in 1832, over 300 audience members swarmed the stage to assist in slaying the tyrannical King.{1}

In the 1920s, Bertolt Brecht spoke of the sports audience, particularly those assembled to watch a boxing match, as an ideal audience for his “epic” theater. Such audiences are highly knowledgeable and aware, uninhibited, vocal, opinionated, keen observers keeping their “eyes on the course” rather than simply “eyes on the finish.”{2}

Audience reactions make clear that there is no single takeaway. I’ve found that Black and white Detroiters watching Lost Landscapes of Detroit often see very different films. Younger and older San Franciscans don’t always regard their city’s history in the same way. Presenting urban history to public audiences almost inevitably foregrounds contradictions that demand collective conversation, and some local historians are drawn to throw up highly granular historical detail as a defense against tough or irreconcilable questions. Many residents of such cities as San Francisco, Detroit, Oakland, and Los Angeles might think of them as places of extreme contestation: cities in which battles were fought to maintain racialized power and control, cities filled with zones where bodily safety was contingent on race, class, gender, and age. But not everyone wants to recall how African Americans have been “redeveloped” out of San Francisco since World War II, or how Asian families were prohibited from living on the west side of the city for many years. Instead they focus on amusement parks, histories of families at leisure, vanished department stores and movie palaces. I hypothesize that focusing on a web of granular historical detail may screen out uncomfortable structural issues, or that perhaps people have become too worried about the possibility of evoking anger or triggering conflict.

I worked with Detroiters to research and produce five urban history film events between 2010 and 2015. But in recent years settlers have brought dramatic change to downtown Detroit and the Woodward Avenue corridor, which no longer resemble the Black-majority city it was for forty years. Not wanting to be part of this takeover, I have stopped iterating my Detroit project. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be continued, but it needs to become a community-owned and community-run project. I’ve approached organizations to whom the project could be repatriated, but I’ve not yet found a potential convener. There are a number of people and organizations that would love to screen the films, but the finished films aren’t what this project centrally concerns. What’s more important is the process of making the film. It seems urgent, if not inevitable, to consider the screenings not as ends but as means. What if Lost Landscapes evolved into a community project whose work happened mostly at the neighborhood level? What if younger makers, for instance, connected with elders to find images, explicate them and identify people pictured, and edit presentations that would first happen locally? Shifting the emphasis from putting on a one-time event to enabling a process of local connection and discovery would relocate historical agency from a single filmmaker to an entire community, and perhaps be an opportunity for media training as well.

Excerpt from YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW IN DETROIT (Prelinger, 2015). Courtesy of the artist.

Who am I to speak about these cities? My positionality is also a very real issue. To interpolate oneself as a teller or re-teller of histories is to construct one’s own pedestal. Usually these are not my own stories to tell. I think of these events, especially those that take place outside my own city, as inputs to a process that I only assist as a presenter and scout, not as an interpreter or authority. I tell Detroiters that the future of their city is theirs to decide and to struggle for, that the images I’m showing are here to support their discussions. At the same time, I make the programs available online so that community members can show them as and where they please, and remix the footage to make their own historical videos.

One might ask, is this filmmaking? We are filmmakers, and we live to make films. But perhaps “making films” is the problem. Could we expand our understanding of cinema beyond what we generally accept as “movies” to encompass works made primarily for participatory public assemblies? Further, could we think about interactive and participatory documentary without assuming that interactivity and participation are enabled through technological means? And could we imagine that it might be not only possible, but formative, to resist the forms of interactive documentary primarily realized through algorithms and digital platforms? Don’t the terms of engagement associated with interactivity allow for a broader scope of work than simply “digital storytelling?” If not, nonlinearity, participation, and even interactivity itself devolve into mere buzzwords.

Some things I’m learning: Narrative is, at worst, packaging—and many films are already fairly arbitrary assemblies of emotional triggers, presented as attractive packages. A good yarn weaves its own scarf; it needs no excessive trim. I’m also realizing that there are so many ways people have constructed narratives without reverting to conventional storytelling. Documentation, in fact, is itself compelling. It can be its own narrative. As we walk through a cemetery, the stones suggest stories, and we are often drawn to think of the communities in which deceased people lived. Names and social groups might suggest narratives.

Marge Piercy frames the city through different personal geographies; this paragraph is itself a film treatment.

When Beth walked with Connie she met on the street a towhee, a sugar maple, a Darwin tulip. Other beings crowded the spaces between human habitations. When she was with Miriam, the space between things was filled in with human cries and colors of relationships; the needs, the hungers, the plots and plans of people they knew swarmed around them. With Laura, streets were political manifestations: on this block the scars of urban renewal showed, on that a particular corrupt combine owned apartment houses and gouged rents, here was the site of a busing controversy.{3}

Home movies also address the overnarrativization problem. Every home movie is at minimum a capsule narrative—the articulation of a relationship between the shooter and who or what is being shot—and many home movies are even more complex. Home movies also tempt audiences toward immediate identification with their subjects, and their intimacy and the historical material counterbalance one another. Home movies overflow with historical significance that is easily interpreted by any viewer, especially if a context for doing so is created. Finally, they contain immense evidentiary value that is only beginning to be recognized.

The change of scale that comes when home movies are shown on a large screen also provokes a change of role among audience members, who without necessarily expecting it become more than simple commentators and perform new and sometimes unpredictable modes of agency. They turn into ethnographers, noticing and often remarking on every visible detail of kinship, word and gesture, and every interpersonal exchange. They also respond as cultural geographers, calling out streets and neighborhoods and buildings, reading signs aloud, repeating trade names and brands, and marking extinct details in the cityscape. If voices could be captured (and this would be difficult, because it is hard to intelligibly record the voices of hundreds of people in one room), the recording might constitute a kind of urban research project distributed through a crowd of investigators.

I don’t propose these arrangements as models, but as provocations.

We cannot deny story’s history, but we can stop short of eternalizing it. We can insist on its cultural and historical specificity, and resist trying to force the non-human into human frames, and let go the idea that most human narratives are containable within the kind of media we collectively make. Not all stories are filmable, not all can be contained within a glowing rectangle. Some should remain embedded in individual and collective memory, body, landscape, fauna, earth. And some belong to other temporalities. So much is happening now outside the world of conventional documentary.

Further, I do not seek to bury the algorithm. But I question any retreat from public assembly, especially if such retreat occurs under the rubric of engagement, as so much interactive cinema asserts. The simulative power of algorithmic media is a poor substitute for the affective power of presence and public assembly. The virtual auditorium of apps and browsers offers affordances that provide various senses of collectivity but at the same time accentuate the split between onscreen and offscreen engagement. Without dismissing the potential of technologically enabled interactive and participatory media, I would strenuously argue that the difficulties of realizing a participatory commons in an unequally provisioned world should not inhibit us from low-tech, person-to-person experimentation. We are not always going to be able to rely on programmers, sysadmins, code, and connectivity to enable community in virtual spaces. And I would also argue that restoring big-screen experience coupled with direct participation is one route towards staging the meeting of difference without its dilution, a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Finally, public assembly begs the question of what ends it could serve. The confluence of shared interests that lead people to gather in a room for a film signifies the commencement of a process that most films never seek to take further. What more could we do with an assembly of people gathered in a room than simply screen a movie? Could we stimulate audiences to take on greater agency and new responsibilities? Could a screening be a model for deeper participation, for collective efforts to remediate conditions that resist individualized labors and concerns? Could we try to make theater-in-the-round within a rectangular box? Could we model a new commons?

At the same time, perhaps we also need to rethink the idea of a commons and understand how, at least in North America, it rests upon “foundational violence and dispossession,” as noted by Macarena Gómez-Barris.{4} Still, I want to propose public assembly and the raising of voices as a counterforce to media that insists on being consumed in silence and hires private guards to police its theaters.

Even while building futures, there is a compulsion to reconstruct the enclosures of the past. Expanding possibilities bring out ambivalence. What’s exciting in Amsterdam and Sheffield is frightening in Burbank. The suits are scared of the new kinds of mediamaking. Will the future of mediamaking progress past old stories? Not necessarily. It is a bad sign when we see a lot of capital applied to funding new platforms. As scholars and nontraditional makers, we support and often honor experiments in narrative. But those occupy the lower level of a two-tier system policed by gatekeepers and distributors, where participation is contingent on so many rules.

Excerpt from LOST LANDSCAPES OF NEW YORK (Prelinger, 2017). Courtesy of the artist.

In my opinion, one of Google’s innovations was to take the structure out of the data and put it into the query. It’s my understanding that the data in Google’s vast cache of the web is fairly unstructured, and that when we send Google a query they contextualize it with their vast knowledge of us, our habits and desires, and whittle down vast possibilities into the subset that they think we might want to see.

What does this tell us as makers and critics? It might tell us that structure is not inevitably a necessary part of a story. That how the audience approaches the work is much more significant. That we might locate narrative intelligence in the audience, rather than in the work itself. To use a cybernetic analogy: put the data in the movie, but rely on viewers to execute the code to interpret it. As online news pioneer Bill Dunn put it a long time ago, “the metadata exceeds the importance of the data it describes.”

Might it be that our job is to offer viewers strategies for sentience and rewards for decoding? To treat them at least part of the time like gamers, with lives to gain? Might our works resemble the Internet as it was originally designed to be: smart at the periphery, dumb at the center?

And finally: just because the tools to create mass media are easier to access than ever before, does this mean we should actually aspire to make mass media? Or should we work within familiar communities, hang near home, and stay out of airplanes? If we’re going to trim the weeds of narrative, we might begin in our own gardens.

Our agency is limited. But we could always aspire to make dialogical, liberating work. We could ask more of ourselves and of our viewers. And as water finds new ways to flow over a plain, we could help etch new cognitive paths in their minds.


San Francisco / October 10, 2019



Title Video: Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 14 (Prelinger, 2019).

{1} Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, New World Drama: The Performative Commons in the Atlantic World, 1649-1849 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 4-5.
{2} John Willett, ed., Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964), 6-8, 37.
{3} Marge Piercy, Small Changes (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 341.
{4} Macarena Gómez-Barris, “Countermanifestos and Audibility,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 4 (Summer 2018), 124.