The following article by Ricardo Almeida, originally titled SXSW: Project Empire e a reinvenção do conceito de narrativa, was published on the Brazilian technology site IDG Now on March 10th, 2014. Thanks to our friends from Brazil for helping out with the translation:
Most of the history of the world, regardless of what we’re examining, is absolutely three-dimensional. While we strive to create timelines in our minds—to establish a beginning, middle and end—the truth of our experience is actually a chaos of colliding perspectives that generate a multiplicity of competing stories with every impact.
The diverse behavior of audiences at SXSW presents a good example: while experts lecture here, individuals in the audience assume different behaviors : some watch quietly, while others take notes; some others write articles, and others just sit back and meditate on their lives. Each audience member is affected in their own, unique way. If you want to tell your a story truthfully, you must take into account this diversity.
Although this is still a concept too complex to be adopted by many brands, one recent project— Empire—has made a vital and valid attempt to address this subjectivity.
The central theme of the project is the impact of Dutch colonization around the world, from the most remote locations such as Sri Lanka, to the city of Amsterdam itself .
But how do you address an issue as broad as the current-day effects of one of the largest global-imperial missions that this planet has ever seen? And how can you transmit your findings in a manner that is adequately all-encompassing to a dispersed, global audience?
The answer the creators found was unusual: the work allows several artistically-rendered narratives that play out simultaneously, effectively bombarding the audience with content, and forcing them to dive deep into the project’s filmic universe .
The “movie” is divided into four layers:
1 ) Art installations
Empire is not traditional cinema. To watch the film in its originally intended form, users have to enter one of the four installations that have been presented at exhibitions around the world (not yet in Brazil, unfortunately). The exhibitions have generally been presented indoors, with monitors everywhere and stories running simultaneously. Interwoven soundtracks from the various countries give viewers a narrative thread to hold onto.
For example, while a resident of Ghana grabs your attention in one video, people from a secluded Brazilian village talk about their day-to-day lives in another. There is a bond between these narratives that comes from a shared Dutch colonial history—and eventually a multifaceted narrative arises and allows the audience to recognize the overlapping habits, customs and beliefs of these people, and to understand more deeply the details and subtleties of colonial legacy. From the point of view of art, few things could be more revolutionary for film.
2 ) Online adaptation
The problem with physical exhibitions, however, is that they are physically limited. They require space and require the user to actually attend and walk around in order to take them in. This problem led to the birth of the second layer of the project: the online version, which can be found at www.empireproject.eu. Experiencing the work on a computer, the user can replicate the installations’ feeling of simultaneous narratives through UX design that is absolutely unusual and innovative. It is well worth a browse, if only to experience a site that was explicitly created to tell several stories (that share an original foundation) simultaneously.
3 ) Book
The entire project, from its conception to execution, has also been recorded in a book. The objective of the book is clear: to document the documentary in the most logical, direct way for anyone who wants to understand its legacy in concrete terms. In the words of the directors, the book is the history of the project, and will be available to future generations who want to understand it. It is funny, but a project that is built on so much cutting edge technology uses a good old-fashioned book to secure its immortality.
4 ) Supplementary Materials
Throughout production and distribution of such an innovative project as Empire, a ton of reports, articles (like this one), photos, and making-of videos were generated.* To the creators, all of this material is also part of the narrative. This is a simple idea, but one that is nevertheless ignored by almost all filmmakers or authors. A whole story can only be told truthfully when you supplement it with all of the aftershocks and impressions that it produces in its viewers. All the chaos caused by the idea of creating a story made up of a mass of simultaneous narratives ends up being part of the overall story of the project, closing a powerful cycle that can help draw new boundaries of storytelling.
And if storytelling is the great theme of SXSW, we in the media would do well to look closely at initiatives that are challenging and beyond the commonplace. Might a model like the one used in Empire fail in the long run because of its complexity? It could, but one should never forget that innovation is generated from a plurality of trial and error—and just knowing that is a big step .
So what should we do now? Open another browser window and soak in the world of www.empireproject.eu
Have a good trip!
*One very minor quibble here: the supplementary materials we were referring to in our presentation primarily consisted of Empire-related pieces that we’ve made throughout production and sold to third parties, including this article for Vice, this series for The Creators Project, and this short for De Correspondent. That said, we applaud the author’s understanding of a project that has a lot of moving parts and can be hard to boil down (even for us).