The Goggles on “Welcome to Pine Point”: digital narrative chases memory and loss
What if your hometown disappeared, literally vanished from the map? How would you hold onto it? Would the community of people who had lived there continue? “Welcome to Pine Point” is a website that explores the death of a town and the people whose memories and mementos tell its story today. The site lives online under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada and came into the world via the creative duo of Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (also known as The Goggles). I haven’t seen anything quite like Pine Point before — it incorporates music to haunting effect but is especially innovative in its use of text and design. I called up Simons and Shoebridge earlier this week to talk. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, in which they discuss memory, narrative, the concept of “liquid books” and more.
How did you come to this project? What kinds of things have you done in the past?
Shoebridge: We used to work at a magazine called Adbusters. We were the creative team there for five or six years and tried to push the visual storytelling thing as much as we could. Adbusters was a nice place, because you would work on conceptual stuff as well as art, and sort of combine the two things and try to make that narrative flow as much possible – the words and pictures feeding off of each other.
After that, we did a book called “I Live Here” with a couple of other folks. It was a fairly intense, big project of telling stories from four corners of the world – again, in a much more interesting, different way than what we had seen up till then. And then after that, we’ve done interesting story-based projects, or what we think are interesting story-based projects, or kooky art things and stuff like that. And then we ended up doing this as our most recent project.
What is The Goggles? Is it just the two of you?
Simons: We’ve been together for about 12 years as a creative team, a small firm. We actually do have other people help us, but up until recently, we’ve been a two-person team that produced different kinds of media, from art to a lot of print stuff. We’ve been working on some television scripts, a lot of campaign activism, and projects like this.
Where did the Pine Point project come from?
Simons: From us. We always have a dozen or more projects on the go. We stumbled across a website called “Pine Point Revisited.” Pine Point was a small town in the Northwest Territories that I had visited as a kid. I was about 9 years old and going to a hockey tournament, and it was the first place I went alone without my family. So I just looked it up one night when I remembered that I had been there, and it was gone. It wasn’t even on the map anymore. It had been removed from the earth in 1989. That was our starting point: what happened to this town?
The “Pine Point Revisited” site was made by one of the former residents. It had a real wealth of visual assets and tons of photos, and people who had lived there had contributed video and badges and all sorts of artifacts of the town. You could tell there was a deep-rooted community there. This was more than just a tribute to a town. There did seem to be a secondary or deeper community that was still existing.
That’s where we started from. How was this community preserved in this way that housed memory and what was the story behind why the town disappeared?
You mentioned this trip you made when you were 9. There were some other memories of your own that get woven into it – I remember you come back to your own past at one point in the story with the space junk. How did you approach the question of how much to make yourself part of the story?
Shoebridge: That was a back-and-forth as far as where the narrative voice would come in, and whether there would be a narrative voice. We started out actually not having Mike’s voice as the primary thing, and then as we moved further in and the more personal the story became, the more we realized it would be beneficial to just tell the story from that point, to give it a good beginning and also to give the readers somebody to compare themselves to. In the way that we like to identify with narrators, we felt this was a story people could identify with. We felt like having a person attached to that voice would help them do that.
Narrative can be a wide term. How did you think of this as a story?
Shoebridge: I don’t know if we were thinking of it in technical terms. I think we just told the story how we thought we could tell it. How it became what it is now was a function of the organic process. Because we wrote it together, and there are many of my experiences as well as Mike’s experiences woven into this single thing, I don’t think it’s a journalistic document. We think that it’s more part memoir for people growing up at that time and feeling things about what memory was to us, what tangible objects meant to us, and how memory gets flaky but interesting and romantic. Sometimes concrete and sometimes evocative.
For us, we kept writing the story around that and tried to keep it as intimate as possible. Because we were creating the visuals as part of it, we had the luxury of not having to hand it over to a cinematographer to realize the story. We were able to say, “This is where a picture would do better than words, and this is where words would do better than pictures.” And then to include sound as well. We were building the narrative room that we felt the story could take place in.
Most people agree there has to be some kind of transformation in a story. And the town is gone, so obviously there’s this really big change in the background. But I thought when you brought in where these people are as adults, it was so interesting, because even though we don’t see them change across the story, there is this sense of what’s changed. Did you know right from the beginning that you would include this information about where they are now?
Simons: I think we did. We had this sense of that sort of update that people get from people in their past and their hometown. That’s what we were trying to give, more a snapshot update of “here’s what happened to that person.” This idea of being introduced to them at a certain period of their life and then having a lot of time passing without having any detail or context is what we were trying to achieve.
This is where they are now. And people do fill in what they remember these people as. Everybody has these assumptions and remembers people from high school or their youth, and then all of a sudden they get an update 20 or 30 years later. Sometimes it informs where that person ended up, and sometimes it doesn’t. For people who know them, they still have that reference point of where the person came from.
We wanted to give it a nice clean break and then have a look at them 20 or 30 years later without anything between.
There’s this implicit change over time: a beginning and an endpoint. But there’s a lot of information in the gaps. The gaps feel really important. It sounds like that was intentional.
Shoebridge: I think that’s a lot of what it’s about, in a way. The gaps in the memory and what we choose to fill them in with. In the case of Pine Point, there was point A and point B, but no point C – or a point in between those two. It existed for a while and doesn’t exist anymore. People have filled that space up with their own beliefs about who they were. Nobody can go back and check on that. What was this town like? Was it really this amazing place? For them it was, but there’s no proof of that, other than in memories.
Did you call it a liquid book, or is that a term someone else coined?
Simons: Other people have tried to come up with a term for it. People are excited about it. They thought it might be a new form of storytelling, something they hadn’t seen before. So that was a name other people attached to it.
It was new to us, this kind of interactive documentary, but we didn’t find anything else that we could reference for this, except for, obviously, books and film. But nothing interactive – nothing with the written word, audio and visual. So I think that’s what’s been exciting people the most so far. What is this thing? What we’ve been told is that they’re not used to having this emotional response from a website.
Shoebridge: Because we were book guys, we kept a lot of the old handmade book-like things, in keeping with that medium-is-the-message concept. We tried to emphasize what each medium does well. Keeping the words as writing rather than voiceover narrative was something we wrestled with at the start, but I think we’re happy we kept it as words.
For us, it’s that kind of internal narrator. You can have a different conversation with yourself. And reading is a more active experience than listening. I think we’re happy we did that, but we haven’t seen multimedia projects where writing is the number one thing you’re seeing, and everything else informs that.
Are there any projects that might not have inspired it in form but might have inspired it in spirit?
Simons: We were reluctant to get involved in something like this. There are lots of great interactive websites, and there’s lots of great information online. It’s just that we hadn’t seen a project like this that we could use as a reference. So I think we were just taking our collective experience and trying make something with it.
For us, the interactivity needed to be there, not just technical achievement or being able to click on something and make it wiggle or move around a page. For us the interactivity had to move the story forward as well. We had to apply our own rules and sense of how we thought a story should unfold online. We resisted a lot of the typical interactivity you find that tends to be, for us at least, a lot more flash and form over substance.
You had this idea, this memory of yours that you wanted to do something about. What were the practical arrangements from there? How did it come together with the National Film Board?
Shoebridge: We proposed it to them. It was something that we had an idea about – we were toying with this idea of the death of the photo album. We’ve been interested in what’s happening with print and tangible memory-containing devices, things like books. We were playing around with ideas, and we pitched this to the NFB, and they helped us produce the story over the long haul.
Is this something you’d like to do more of, or do you feel like, “That’s our interactive thing, and that’s it”?
Simons: We’d be interested in trying more. We’re already working on some initial ideas for other projects. I don’t think we’re necessarily moving in this direction; we also tend to jump around from project to project. It was an interesting challenge for us, and there’s maybe a couple more we could do. For a website, there’s no market – in the sense of selling it – so you do need somebody to finance it and sort of believe in it.
Shoebridge: But we do think there is potential for monetization of this as a new form, as a kind of book. You could see books becoming something like this – obviously not all books. And not all publishers would get how to do it. But as a sort of rich-media storytelling, we’ve discovered something, we think, and we’d like to do more of it.
Is there anything about the Pine Point project that people wouldn’t know from watching it that would be useful for them to know?
Shoebridge: The thing for us that we’re happiest with is that we stuck to what linear “narrative” has done for so long: that beginning, middle and end. Because we stuck with that, that’s the thing that worked the best for us. People want to be told stories, they want to be engaged.
When people think of digital interactive media, one of the first things they say is “It’s going to have multiple entry points, and you can go wherever you want to.” And sure, you can deliver certain kinds of information like that, but it’s not super-great for stories, at least in our experience. You can skip ahead, if you want to, you can go four chapters ahead, but you can also do that with a book.
We’re hoping that we’re keeping people engaged and keeping each section as interesting as possible. For us, I think that was the key. We had to break it into chunks, because that’s how it had to go. We wanted people to be engaged, so using media like writing meant that you have to read it to experience it. You could flip through it and kind of experience it, but if you don’t read it, you’re not really getting engaged.
And then breaking it into pieces like a magazine. If you flip to the middle of the magazine, it’s still intriguing, you still want to keep going through it. For us, I think we tried to pull as much old-media logic into a new media form as we could.
Simons: The challenges and limitations were things that we had never considered before, like the loading up of information. Part of the more bite-sized pieces of the story were dictated by how much information we’d be able to technically upload onto someone’s computer so it didn’t crash, while still keeping it seamless and moving. We were presented a lot with technical challenges that we didn’t know about or care about before we got into this world. So some of those things did inform how we had to deliver the story. I don’t think it changed the content, but certainly the experience was altered by limitations of the media.
What kind of reception have you gotten?
Simons: it’s been really good. The thing that was very exciting for us was that we had great reception from writers and publishers and literary folks. Those were the people we sent it to before it was launched, to get feedback on the story and how they responded to it.
Writers were excited by the possibilities of a new form of storytelling. They were excited by being able to participate in this form. We think that before, they felt excluded and not interested, like a lot of other creative people. The gatekeepers for this kind of media were the Flash teams and the people who put it together; they were generating a lot of the content. That excluded a lot of writers, creative people and filmmakers. Where I think now the reception even from filmmakers is that there might be a place for them to tell similar kinds of stories online without having to be the kind of interactive Flashy website that Paul was describing.
That’s what I think has been exciting – and also the emotional response. It’s the best emotional response we’ve had from our work. We’ve had a lot of people say, “I didn’t know a website could make me cry.” We weren’t sure how it would be received in the U.S. It’s a very Canadian story –we thought – but we weren’t sure. We’ve had great feedback from all over the U.S. Some of our strongest feedback has been in France. It surprised us it how well it was received.
Shoebridge: And it’s across the spectrum, too, from people who don’t look at this kind of media at all, to people who build this kind of media, to people who build other kinds of media. So we’re really surprised and pleased with that. People who go through the whole thing seem to quite enjoy it, but the challenge is getting people to do that to begin with.
It’s a commitment, right? It’s 15- to 20-minute commitment on a single thing. People are used to spending time on the Internet but not particularly on a single thing. It’s not like when you pick up a book or movie, where you know what you’re getting into. They all have a defined amount of time, whereas this, you don’t know. Even if people say, “Oh, it’s a 20-minute thing,” nobody’s told you that before about a website. So for us, there’s a bit of a leap there. We’ve never done anything like this. Its newness helps it but also hurts it in a way, because people don’t know how to consume it.
Simons: We’ve talked with publishers in New York and in Toronto about the potential of this kind of storytelling. I think at first they were cautious and suspect of even giving it a shot. But people who have looked at it have been interested and excited, so they want to explore more and open the discussion. That was something we had no idea would come from this.