It is not entirely unusual for a Canadian wildlife documentary to open with grainy footage of an animal being carefully approached by park officials, but any similarities between Bear 71 and nostalgic Canadian depictions of wildlife end about 15 seconds into the timeline. This interactive documentary opens with a young bear being sedated, hogtied, tagged with a GPS receiver and set free into the wilds of Banff National Park as narrator Mia Kirshner dryly explains that the tranquilizer used to facilitate the takedown was Telazol, developed “by the same people that make Zoloft and Viagra.” From this moment onwards our protagonist is ‘Bear 71’ and as she bounds back into her native habitat the point of view radically shifts to an abstract topographical map – an interface for exploring data and video collected documenting this subject’s movement and activities between 2001-09.
Bear 71 creators Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison have developed a unique narrative based off GPS data and thousands of photographs culled from motion-triggered cameras situated across the Western Canada. The ‘viewer’ is charged with navigating a gorgeous symbolic landscape in order to keep up with Bear 71 as she weaves in and out of contact with human infrastructure. The browser-based documentary provides an overarching chronology of the bear’s life and Kirshner speaks not only for the subject, but omnisciently – she speaks to highlight the tension between the bear’s instincts and the dense overlay of technological systems that it now finds itself enmeshed within. This point is highlighted in a few video segments, such as one where Bear 71 lumbers through a wildlife crossing and then a cut reveals a group of leisurely teenagers traversing the same route. In scrolling around the map, a viewer can activate any number of archival video feeds, each of which acts as a gateway to related sub-narratives. The interface is lush, animated and dynamically maps the movement and interaction of other animals (cougars, sheep and other bears) and vehicular traffic (cars and trains) to reveal a connected system that proves one of the key theses of the film, that “sometimes it’s hard to say where the wired world ends and the wild one begins.”
Bear 71 is not only gorgeously executed (tip of the cap Aubyn Freybe-Smith and Jam3) but the writing is just incredible. One sequence brilliantly draws a connection between a ‘rub tree’ (where bears ‘deposit’ their scent and communicate during breeding season) and a hiker making a Facebook status update. Another highlights how bears are able to harness their keen sense of smell to navigate the landscape and this registers as an oblique counterpoint to all the imaging technologies being relied upon to deliver this narrative. Beyond elegant conceptual framing and a poetic consideration of surveillance, few interactive works carry the emotional weight that this piece does – watch this loud, on fullscreen and undisturbed. [link]
There has (deservedly) been extensive chatter about the implications of Timo Arnall’s Robot Readable World over the last few days and I posit Bear 71 could work as a companion piece. Where Arnall’s editing stitches together footage of what Greg Borenstein (see the comments thread on the video’s Vimeo page) describes as “visualizations intended for human observers of the computer vision process”, Bear 71 deals with the tragic inability of wildlife to decipher human infrastructure – it might be romanticized, but it is riveting example of what post-Street View documentary might look like.