UNIVERSE WITHIN is the final major global project of HIGHRISE, a multi-year, many-media collaborative documentary experiment at the National Film Board of Canada. Since its launch in 2009, HIGHRISE has generated more than 20 distinct projects, including interactive documentaries, mobile productions, live presentations, performances, installations, place-based intervention projects and films. Collaborating with partners as diverse as local residents’ associations, Mozilla Foundation, MIT and The New York Times, HIGHRISE has reached millions of viewers, and has worked closely with highrise residents in dozens of cities around the world. Collectively, the projects have both shaped and realized the HIGHRISE vision: to see how the documentary process can drive and participate in social innovation rather than just to document it; and to help reinvent what it means to be an urban species in the 21st century.
HIGHRISE’s projects have received international acclaim including two Emmy Awards, a Peabody, a World Press Photo prize, two Canadian Screen Awards, a Canadian Urban Institute Urban Leadership Global City and Innovation Award, a Sheffield Doc/Fest Prize for Innovation, the Inaugural IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling, and a BakaForum Cross-Media Prize for Youth and Schools.
The core HIGHRISE team includes director Katerina Cizek, senior producer Gerry Flahive, producer David Oppenheim, associate producers Sarah Arruda and Kate Vollum, senior creative associate Heather Frise and technical director Branden Bratuhin.
UNIVERSE WITHIN is a digital documentary that reveals the hidden digital lives of highrise residents around the world. From intimate whispers on Skype, to explosive political uses of WhatsApp in neighbourhoods under siege, this story takes us inside the hearts, minds and computers of vertical citizens around the world: from Guangzhou to Mumbai to New York and beyond.
As cities reach for the sky, the highrise building becomes a metaphor for the urban planet. Trapped in our apartments, how do we engage with our loved ones over the worldwide web? How has it rewired our brains and our relationships?
Drawing on documentary, fiction, photography, film, data art and webGL, UNIVERSE WITHIN confronts the viewer with provocative questions about ethics, emotions and empathy in our digital, vertical environments.
Universe Within is created by Katerina Cizek, the director of HIGHRISE, in collaboration with an academic team at University of Toronto, headed up by Drs. Deborah Cowen and Emily Paradis, along with one of Canada’s leading digital agencies, Secret Location.
Never in history have we humans been so networked and migratory, yet so segregated within our own cities and apartment buildings. Through our communications devices, we feel closer to people halfway around the world than to the person only a few feet away, on the other side of our apartment wall. We feel secure in our digital universes, but we are not.
How do our invisible networked lives map onto the vertical infrastructure of our cities?
UNIVERSE WITHIN is the result of unique collaborations between documentary makers, academics, technologists, and highrise residents themselves to answer these questions in an original online storyworld.
The idea for this project began while I was working on one of the first HIGHRISE documentaries, One Millionth Tower
, at two highrise buildings in suburban Toronto.
We were spending a lot of time at the buildings — we saw so many residents coming in and out, and yet we knew so few of them. And the mood at the building was so disenfranchised. Residents hurried to their own apartments, rarely speaking with each other, much less with outsiders.
We wondered about the digital lives and connectivity of the residents, so we decided to survey the building in a systematic way. Together with the academic team, we designed a participatory methodology, and we recruited a team of 14 residents to conduct a peer-to-peer survey of their neighbours, door-to-door throughout the building. Collectively, the researchers spoke 14 of the languages represented in the building, helping us to reach many residents who would not — or could not — speak with us.
It was a great process to be a part of, seeing how a survey, when conducted by residents, could help neighbours get to know each other, and to begin working together to make their home a better place.
The data gathered was fascinating. Ninety-three percent of those interviewed had not been born in Canada. More than 50 percent of the population was under the age of 20. Eighty percent of the households surveyed were connected to the Internet, despite the financial burden of doing so. Astonishing results.
It was also great to see how the data itself could empower the residents. Many surveys take months — even years — to process data and share results. But we made it a priority to share the data with the residents within a few weeks, and they immediately used it to successfully advocate for a much needed new playground for their children.
That early fruitful research formed the basis for a much broader academic and documentary collaboration called Digital Citizenship in the Global Suburbs , which later became UNIVERSE WITHIN. Drs. Deborah Cowen and Emily Paradis of University of Toronto secured an academic research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to develop our partnership. We became an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers, graduate students and documentarians.
We began searching for stories around the world. We slowly but surely found amazing ones in Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and North America. Meanwhile, the academic team chose three major sites — Toronto, Mumbai and Singapore — for in-depth research. Their own work in this project will result in an experimental, avant-garde academic publication to be released in 2016.
I spent many hours speaking about the ideas behind UNIVERSE WITHIN with faculty and students at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, where I’ve been a visiting artist over the course of the making of this documentary.
The research, ideas, critical analysis and knowledge generated through years of conversation with the academic teams are infused in every pixel of this documentary.
Also early on, senior producer Gerry Flahive and I approached Secret Location, an award-winning digital agency in Toronto. Our collaboration informed the production itself — the digital team did not come in as designers and developers at the end of the process, but at a key point in its birth. From the writing to the filming of the hosts to the art direction and development of the site itself, the collaboration with Secret Location has been profound.
The academic partnerships made this documentary nuanced, complex and critical. The collaboration with Secret Location has made this documentary simple and elegant.
And the collaborations we’ve had with highrise residents over the last years of HIGHRISE have been the most important of all. We thank them for sharing their homes, their first-person stories and perspectives in every aspect of HIGHRISE, all with the aim of improving how we build the cities and highrises of the future.
UNIVERSE WITHIN is the last iteration of HIGHRISE, a multi-year, many-media documentary experiment, and it’s an exciting and troubling place to leave off. For our species, both the digital and vertical are becoming inescapable. We race toward more digital integration with Artificial Intelligence, virtual reality, surveillance, big data and robots, along with often rampant vertical development of our cities that shuffles and displaces millions of people. Whom do these processes exclude? Who wins? Who loses? And how might we harness these new technologies to improve our collective future? It’s up to us; it’s up to you.
— Katerina Cizek
The tech and creative teams behind UNIVERSE WITHIN used still cameras, video cameras, audio recorders, 3D-video capturing systems, video-editing tools, and the open-source web technology webGL to build this project.
We also used The DepthKit. The DepthKit is open-source software created by James George, Alexander Porter, and Jonathan Minard. It is an experiment to capture photographic data in three dimensions, combining the languages of photography and data visualization. We used DepthKit to pair up digital SLR video with 3D-scanned depth information to produce interactive 3D-point cloud avatars on the web.
A Short History of the Highrise – Full 6-part Educator’s Guide is written to facilitate a meaningful discussion in the classroom about the subjects and ideas presented in A Short History of the Highrise, including the topics of communities, urban living, and highrise buildings, past and present.
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