The Olive Project

a theoretical reflection || watch || interact

theory | process


Recent advances in digital technology have radically transformed the practice of 21st century oral history, opening up new modes of recording, preserving, composing, and distributing the oral life narrative. Sherna Berger Gluck (1999) emphasized the potential for these "technological breakthroughs" to place the narrator's voice back at the center of oral history, promoting a more critically embodied approach to interpretation and providing access to new layers of meaning in the "silences . . . intonation, pitch and style of delivery" of the audio recording (p. 8). In contrast to the often "flattening" affect produced by reading textual transcription, the experience of listening to an audio-recorded interview allows for a more nuanced affective connection with the narrator (Eynon, 1999, p. 22) and may in fact "help us get closer to the real human interaction at the heart of oral history" (Eynon, 1999, p. 22). Noting the central role of more "democratized access" to digital tools in enabling this trend, Michael Frisch (2006) argued that this "wide-open door" alters "the very nature of . . . what can be done, by whom and for what purposes" in oral history (p. 111). My work in the Olive Project emerges out of a dual concern with the exciting possibility and the ethical risk implicit in this statement.


Moving from an analysis of the affordances of oral history's "digital revolution" to a critique of its practices, Frisch argues that it is still largely employed in the service of traditional "documentary." Constricted by linear, analog modes of arrangement and selection, this approach promotes a practice of reception as passive consumption (p. 112). Finding myself intellectually and ethically dissatisfied by the condensed, pre-packaged product that resulted, these limitations impeded my initial effort to compose my grandma's oral history as an experimental video collage. Seeking to disrupt this product-oriented documentary with a focus on process, Frisch asked: "What would a contrasting approach to documentary be like, one that proceeded from the fluid, flexible, multi-pathed non-linear access to core documentation?" (p. 112). In the interest of promoting "an ongoing, contextually contingent, fluid construction of meaning" (p. 113), he argued that such an approach might open the experience of reception to "a shareable, dialogic capacity to explore, select, order and interpret" (p. 112). Thus, Frisch's call for a "post-documentary sensibility" informs my experimentation with alternative modes of creative-critical composing in this project.