Traversing Digital Boundaries: Rethinking the Vox Pop Interview

vox-pop-carnivalOn April 19th I’ll be presenting a version of my project, Synaptic Crowd: Vox Pop Experiments, for the HASTAC III conference, Traversing Digital Boundaries, at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).

I’m interested in understanding how identity performance adapts to the contextual uncertainty of online media where audiences are distributed unpredictably across space and time. The Synaptic Crowd: Vox Pop Experiments project represents a series of performative explorations in which I attempt to mediate remotely distributed audiences as collaborative agents in the here-and-now of a public interview space. In my current design model, remote participants collaboratively nominate and vote on questions which get relayed via mobile phone during a vox pop (“on the street”) interview.

I’ve always been fascinated by the vox pop interview as a kind of oddly evocative performance space. There is something bizarre about walking up to a stranger with a camera in hand. For me, the experience is an odd combination of artifice and exhilaration — a tension that seems to emerge out of the dance of solicitation, as the camera-operator tries to persuade a potential interviewee to offer up the gift of testimonial. In this state of provocation, the interviewee will sometimes demand more context by asking the interviewer “what is this for?”

The question not only points to the here-and-now of the interview context, but also points to a there-and-then of future addressees — a mysterious audience which is both present and not-present at the same time.

A camera-operator’s answer to this question is likely to be only half of the story. Potential interviewees must also resolve the question of context on their own by playing detective. How is the camera-operator dressed? Do I trust their face? How official does the equipment look? Seizing upon these clues, the interviewee can attempt to orient themselves to their non-present audience.

But let’s return for a moment to the interviewee’s plea for context: “What is this for?”

I’m interested in how the answer to this question has evolved with the emergence of new models for distribution and appropriation, so that there is no longer a single straightforward answer to questions of exhibition context. For users of video sharing or social networking sites, questions about the nature of ‘address’ are increasingly complicated, as users struggle to account for fluid boundaries between multiple audiences and conflicting expectations about intimacy, professionalism, and exposure. In short, digital media tends to bleed from one context to another, complicating notions of audience and ‘self.’

“What is this for?” now seems like an inadequate framework to encapsulate the way that media objects travel, transform, and outlive their baptismal moments of exhibition.

This shift in the media landscape has fueled my interest in exploring new technologies for mediating distributed audiences. I draw from Michael Wesch’s notion of ‘context collapse’: the experience of performative experience — often associated with video blogging — where one’s audience is both everyone and no one at the same time.

My work aims to reposition this kind of unstable performativity outside the proverbial bedroom, posing the question: What happens to context collapse when a remotely distributed audience is mediated in the real-time of a public interview encounter? How does context get built on the fly in these sorts of interactions? Such questions complicate the camera operator’s role as mediator in a vox pop interview and point to new possibilities for distributed audiences to intervene as collective agents in public space.

In my performative experiments, I walk up to potential interviewees with both camera and phone in hand. I call a number and a TTS voice relays the question that a distributed group of participants have written and collaboratively selected. When I’m inevitably asked “what is this for?” I tell them (honestly) “I don’t know yet.”

Cross-posted at the HASTAC Blog

HASTAC III. “Traversing
Digital Boundaries.”

This blog is part of a series of blogs leading up to the third annual HASTAC conference, which will be held April 19-21, 2009, at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign under the theme “Traversing Digital Boundaries.” As the theme suggests, the gathering will focus on the exploration of new territory and on work
that crosses, manipulates, or simply ignores traditional boundaries. The
conference program will include presentations of research, performances,
technology demonstrations, posters, panel discussions, and “virtual” participation
via telepresence technology. For more information, visit
or contact