All in Time and Deeper Focus: The Dialogue and Ethics of Co-Creation

As a part of the CMF Trends feature on co-creation, co-creative projects from the Toronto mediascape take the spotlight.

What is Co-Creation and How is it applied? 

According to the first of its kind MIT study titled Collective Wisdom, co-creation is an alternative to top-down production, conventional media, and meaning-making. Its predominant function is to challenge a singular author or process in creative production, seeking renewed partnerships and alternative production methods. Collaboration in co-creation becomes understood as a multi-faceted relationship amongst creators, producers, audiences, community members, educators, algorithms, and the list goes on. 

Let’s Talk Intention

As the practice of co-creation includes collaborative media, it conjures the image of media as dialogue between creators, audiences, and financial supporters. But where has co-creation been exemplified, and what does it look like in creative communities? Toronto in particular has no shortage of creative voices with vibrant stories to tell. With creators looking to joint ventures backed by public funding and academic institutions, co-creation emerges as a useful exploratory model. 

When applied in practice, co-creation ultimately develops into ethical criteria. Relatedly, it reminds creators to be constantly iterative in their work. Dr. Richard Lachman is the Director of Zone Learning for Ryerson University, a network of ten incubators across Ryerson including the Social Ventures Zone and the Transmedia Zone. He is also the Director of Research Development for the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD). Lachman notes a greater appearance in Zone Learning of “a T shaped person,” or individuals “who are deep in one area of knowledge but broad across other specialties, who can speak to different things.” As the Transmedia Zone gains momentum, it develops improved strategies for the diversification of Canadian media content.

Despite its attributes, co-creation can be exhaustive as a deeply involved approach, and can appear difficult to justify. When asked about co-creation as he oversees respective Zones, Lachman noted “some creators might ask themselves ‘how many of these projects do I have in me,’” when pondering their investments and long-term timelines. But Lachman adds: “design thinking methodology is really where incubation spaces overlap with co-creation,” noting an opportunity to highlight processes of content development. When this intersects with the highly social aspect of media making, it can demonstrate in the immediate sense that experiences alone provide original value. 

But how is this value established, and when is it reinforced as collective? In particular, co-creation brings into question imperatives on how to interact with community members that may be involved in media production as they offer input, stories, and collaboration. The reality of this involvement can influence things like new product or concept design, and raises questions of how best to officiate and organize credit due.

Principles and Implications

Dr. Janine Marchessault is a Professor of Cinema and Media Arts at York University, where her professional involvement spans numerous roles such as the former Canada Research Chair in Art, Digital Media and Globalization. She is currently the Principal Investigator for Archive/Counter-Archive: Activating Canada’s Moving Image Heritage, a six-year SSHRC funded research creation project built around the interactions of six working groups, numerous community partners, and their joint research initiatives. The work of each working group varies in theme, from Cultural Policy, IP, and Rights Ecosystems to Indigenous Methodologies. Respective community partners include the National Film Board of Canada, Vtape, and ImagineNATIVE. Feedback and collaboration are activated in the work of eight case studies through historical and archival-based media research. 

The A/C-A community includes over sixty participants with access to diverse archival collections and experiential knowledge. “The whole project itself is an ecology,” states Marchessault, in which the A/C-A working groups and community members have been “developing a document called ‘principles of respect.’” This document is intended to consider the true impact of archival work “as we think about the ways history is written.”

“You’re constantly refining and developing your research questions to keep things on track,” adds Marchessault. In fact, A/C-A’s common goals must be constantly discussed within its teams, to prevent communications of a project its size becoming what Marchessault jokingly refers to as, “just a listserv.” 

Counter Approach for Collective Results

The co-creative aims of A/C-A must also resign to the complicated ownership of found footage or archival films in order to enshrine acts of reclamation, one of the project’s foundational directives. The Winnipeg Film Group as a community partner recently denied the use of full films for its case study participation in “Found Footage: Re-Examining the History of the Winnipeg Film Group,” granting only clip length use. To quite a different effect, the A/C-A and Library and Archives Canada inaugural artist residencies with Jennifer Dysart and Nadine Valcin have shifted the initial skepticism of LAC involvement in A/C-A. There’s “value in these kinds of small, slow, and important collaborations that have an end result that is public,” Marchessault states. 

While A/C-A creates space for “improvisations, surprises, and failures,” it remains committed to the rights of creators and community contributors. In particular, it focuses in part on Canadian cultural rights and studying how these rights might be enacted differently. The Cultural Policy, IP, and Rights Ecosystems working group is currently defining what is intended to be a digital infrastructure or distinct platform to help Canadian content creators hone possibilities in the IP of their work. The working group is aware that there is no real policy framework for archival footage and the legalities of its ownership, and is currently weighing strategies to change this. 

In it for the Long-Term

As two co-creative examples in the Toronto mediascape, both Zone Learning and Archive/Counter-Archive attest to the importance of long-standing relationships amongst practitioners, scholars, community members, and policy advocates within the creative cultures of Toronto. They might even draw out what Dr. Lachman sees as “infrastructure changes” that give “kudos to projects exhibiting long term relationships [with a given] population.” 

“We want people to evaluate risk in content creation,” states Dr. Lachman, with the implication that it is not worth shying away from. As risk assessment remains a core activity of co-creation, it makes space for what Dr. Marchessault calls a “multiplicity of practices.” When articulating her larger goals for Archive/Counter-Archive, Marchessault states: “I want that dialogic element that comes from spending time together and developing the conversation.”


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Kathryn Armstrong
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