News

The Global Lives Project

Cameron Parkins, January 23rd, 2009

The Global Lives Project is a project that aims to “record 24 hours in the lives of ten people that roughly represent the diversity our planet’s population.” Accomplishing this via a volunteer-network dispersed through out the globe, GLP aggregates video for these subjects based on a unique spreadsheet approach to understand global demographics. All of the work produced by GLP is released under a CC BY-NC-SA license, a decision explained in the following interview with Global Lives founder David Evan Harris. Read on to learn more about the project, how CC licenses are being used, and how to get involved yourself as a volunteer/contributor.

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Give us a bit of background on the Global Lives project. How did you begin? What is your mission?

Global Lives’ mission is to reshape how people around the world perceive cultures, nations and people outside their communities by collaboratively building a video library of human life experience. The content of our video library “lives” online and is regularly presented to the public in unique open-source video installations and screenings. Our shoots so far have taken place in Malawi, Brazil, Japan, China, Indonesia and the US, and we’ve shown our work publicly in most of those countries and a few others.

The Global Lives Project all got started in 2002, during my third year in college, when I was lucky enough to spend eight months living and studying international development in Tanzania, India, the Philippines and the UK as part of the International Honors Program. For the majority of these eight months, I lived with host families. I stayed in a bamboo house in the Philippines, a squatter settlement in Mexico City, and a rural village in northern India, among other places. While I learned a ton during the year about the politics, economics, history and ecology of these countries, the part of the experience that stuck with me the most was sharing the experience of daily life with the families and individuals from these countries.

Today, I can’t read a newspaper article about rice without thinking of my host mother Violeta in Barangay Daja and her rice paddy and water buffalo. The experience forever changed the way I understand people from other cultures and nations and my own role in the world. And I wanted to bring that experience to people who didn’t have the same opportunities to travel abroad as I did. So I came up with the idea of Global Lives. What I didn’t expect was that so many other people would find the idea to be so interesting, and that it would resonate so well with people from all over the planet.

The project really started to get off the ground in 2004, when Daniel Jones decided that he liked the idea enough to fly out to California from Kalamazoo, Michigan and do our first shoot, with cable car driver, James Bullock. Shortly thereafter, I moved to São Paulo, Brazil, and met José Santos and Ana Nassar at the Museum of the Person, which became one of our most important collaborators. Soon word spread and in 2007, it really took off. That year both Jason J. Price and Irene Herrera each contacted me about wanting to organize shoots, Jason in Malawi and Irene in Japan. At the time, both were Ph.D. students and both were interested in joining the project as a way of engaging with both the aesthetic and intellectual questions that they were thinking about in their own work. Their universities – New York University and Temple University Japan (TUJ) – supported their shoots by giving them access to equipment. Ron Carr, Chair of TUJ’s Communications Department, became a key supporter, helping us to execute both the shoot in Tokyo as well as the China shoot in 2008, which was led by Ya-Hsuan Huang, a Taiwanese-American documentary filmmaker and MFA student at the New School University. Andreina Lairet of the United Nations University‘s (UNU) Media Studio in Tokyo was a lead photographer on the Japan shoot, which then paved the way for our first major urban installation at UNU this past September.

While these university professors and students were key to Global Lives’ success, a large number of commercial video producers and photographers were also instrumental in many of our shoots. Helio Ishii and Maria Laura Cesar in São Paulo each came from the advertising industry to Global Lives, as did Nobuhiro Awata and Chieko Kato, who each took part in the Japan and China shoots. Khairani Barokka, producer of the Indonesia shoot, came from yet another background as a journalist, working at BBC’s Jakarta Bureau.

All of which is to say that GLP comes from a massive snowballing of volunteer efforts from around the world, and made up of people coming a variety of backgrounds, who all coalesced around the project and surrounding community.

All of the footage shot for the Global Lives project is released under a CC BY-NC-SA license. Why did you decide to use CC licenses for the project, and why BY-NC-SA in particular?

The use of CC licenses in the first place was a no-brainer. Having grown up in the Silicon Valley, I was exposed to the ideas of the open source movement from very early on. Though not a coder myself, I admired the open source ethic and started contributing to Wikipedia as soon as I first found out about it.

As the Global Lives Project grew from a concept into a community, choosing a CC license was the clearest and most obvious way to demonstrate to all the members of the community that their hard work producing and shooting video around the planet would be preserved as an enduring public document of human experience, free and accessible to the public indefinitely.

By using CC licenses and establishing ourselves as a nonprofit organization, we aim to clearly position our work as situated within the same gift economy of commons-based peer production that projects like GNU/Linux and Wikipedia emerged from.

The choice to use the BY-NC-SA license has not been easy and took some serious debate between our collaborators (all volunteers) from around the globe. I was one of the earliest advocates of the license, something I came to support as I started participating more and more in the CC community – attending the iCommons iSummits in Dubrovnik (’07) and Sapporo (’08).

But most of the producers of the GLP shoots were hesitant and, I came to see, for good reason. As one core volunteer who co-directed our shoots in China and Japan, put it at first:

“My understanding is that once we agree to place GLP works under this license [CC BY-SA], basically we have no recourse, no matter how the subject is disrespected… This license should be applied to design, fine arts or something very abstract.”

This attitude was reflected as well by the Director of the Malawi shoot, who was particularly upset by misuse of his 24 hours of footage of a 13-year-old Malawian junior high school student, Edith Kapuka. Concerned that certain types of mashups or remixes of Edith’s day could present her in a negative or possibly even in a sexually suggestive light, he balked at even the idea of noncommercial remixes. But he consented to using the CC license under the assumption that for a harmful remix of the shoot to reach large audiences, it would likely need to be distributed via commercial channels, and as such we would have some legal recourse in the case that we decided to issue a take-down notice.

As I learned more and more about both the copyright and non-copyright intellectual property regulations that applied in the dozens of legal jurisdictions where GLP work was being shot and displayed, I began to see that were it not for a few small holes in the implications of the CC-BY-SA license itself that we could potentially consider the license for GLP use. It’s important to note here that none of the major objections from GLP collaborators centered around substitution arguments – given our public mission, generally speaking GLP collaborators have been open to the idea of freely allowing public displays of our work in modified and unmodified forms.

While we would like to find ways to monetize our work beyond just grant-writing and physical installation commissions, as a group I think it’s safe to say that we recognize the value of taking a liberal attitude towards the re-use of our footage, provided that it does not disrespect or damage the identities of our subjects. Basically, the problem boiled down to the issue of moral rights, and the distinct lack of moral rights legislation in many of the key jurisdictions in which we work. A recent vandalizing of one of our Japan videos posted on DotSub.com, subtitling one of our subjects’ lives with vulgar mistranslations in Spanish, drives home the point that the fear that many GLP collaborators have for their subjects’ integrity is not simply paranoia. While many CC advocates might argue that such transgressions can and should be simply corrected and disregarded, this argument does not necessarily hold water with documentary filmmakers or photographers who take very seriously a professional commitment to preserve their subjects’ dignity.

Given both the negative feedback from GLP collaborators and from our attorneys on the proposition of a switch from CC BY-NC-SA to CC BY-SA, I haven’t been pushing too hard on the issue in recent months. That said, if our group of collaborators were to reach consensus on the issue, it is fully within the rights that we hold to the material produced to date for us to switch to a different license at any point in the near future. In particular, if a future version of the CC BY-SA license were to include a clause that afforded subjects in photos or video the same moral rights that are given in certain legal jurisdictions which prevent the abuse of individuals’ images, I could definitely see our organization making the switch.

Your subject selection process is fascinating. Can you describe it for our readers?

When Global Lives got started, our core objective was to record the daily lives of ten people who were “roughly representative of the world’s population.” Roughly is probably the most important word to remember there – GLP is not a scientific endeavor to classify and present the human species under a microscope, but rather an artistic and educational undertaking, seeking to transform people’s understanding of the world by doing a pretty good job of showing them what it’s like to live a day in a human body.

As such, the early collaborators on the project enlisted the support of an economist and a geographer and we did our best to come up with six selection criteria that would help us create a process of elimination method for choosing the ten people whose lives we would film. The criteria are 1) world region, 2) population density, 3) gender, 4) age, 5) religion and 6) income. Each time we do a shoot, we cross off one box and the following shoot has to adapt to fill in the remaining open slots. With six complete and four to go, we’re well on our way to making the whole thing work out pretty well.

Inevitably the process won’t be perfect, but one possible way to make it get better and better that we’re currently exploring is developing an algorithm that helps us select even more subjects that make the group overall a progressively better representation of humanity. Since starting the project, we’ve had inquiries from filmmakers interested in collaborating in more than 30 countries, and right now a major focus of our world is building the institutional capacity to receive and host a rapidly growing number of terabytes of footage. We’re in the process right now of developing a partnership with the Internet Archive to host all of our footage for us but also to have it accessible through our own website with much more metadata and interactivity features. All our web development to date has been done by brilliant volunteers, led primarily by Newber Machado, Arthur Hebert and Hunter Blanks. These folks are really dedicated and they could really use a lot of help, so interested folk should definitely get in touch.

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The GLP subject selection process

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A mockup of a page in our video library of human life experience

Global Lives is established online but also maintains a number of real-world screenings and exhibitions. The physical space constructed by Architects Roberto Corrêa, Gaurang Khemka and Daniel Markiewicz is particularly stunning. Why did you choose to do this? Can you explain what the exhibition allows for that the website does not?

Great question. The project began with the physical installation and that was a choice really based on my own and many of my collaborators’ feelings that a large-scale video installation with floor-to-ceiling projections really can be a much more immersive and ultimately transformative experience than something watched on a computer or TV screen.

My inspiration for this comes from the work of artists like Nam June Paik, Bill Viola and Barbara Kruger, each of whose interactive media works I experienced in high school and college. These works influenced me deeply, drawing me out of my own daily experience and into an altered physical reality. I feel strongly that video installations offer a much more bodily and visceral experience than what you can get with a computer screen.

Ultimately, Global Lives installations are intended to create both social and meditative experiences for viewers. As people walk through the exhibits, we want them to really leave their own bodies and be transplanted into the lives of other individuals on the other side of the planet. For the same reason that some movies are better seen in theaters than on laptops, I really got excited very early on about building something physical and specific for the video that I wanted to create in this project.

From a much more practical perspective, I think that it’s important to consider the state of mind that the average web surfer is in versus the average museum-goer. While someone might spend a few minutes on our website and then get distracted by an IM or another tab in their browser, we’ve seen in our pilot installations that people frequently stay for 30 minutes or more, discussing the footage with a friend as they watch or just sitting alone, engrossed in the lives of our subjects.

These pilot installations, each featuring four screens with footage from our first four shoots, were hosted by the United Nations University in Tokyo, iCommons in Sapporo, and the Institute for the Future in San Francisco, and they really gave us a chance to see how audiences interact with our work, and it’s looking really good.

Lucky for us, we recently found a guardian angel at Sony who has been generously loaning us really incredible projectors and sound systems for these pilot installations. Without his support, I’m not quite sure where our ragtag bunch of young filmmakers would be getting the equipment we need to do this work. It seems though that with persistence and dedication, lots of little miracles just keep happening.

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Global Lives is actively seeking help involvement from video makers, exhibition hosts, translators, programmers, educators and funders. How can people get involved with Global Lives?

The best way to get involved is to shoot an email to info at globallives dot org, telling us exactly what skills you have to offer (resumes are great!) and we’ll then put you in touch with the volunteers working on whatever area you’re interested in.

What is up next for the Global Lives Project?

Right now we’re working hard to finish the last four of our first cycle of ten shoots in preparation for installation launches in Brazil, Japan and the US in 2009 and 2010. In the US, we have a commitment from the Long Now Foundation to partially fund our US exhibit launch, and we’re currently looking for venues. In Tokyo and São Paulo, we’ve been asked to submit proposals for some major venues, and we’re currently waiting to hear back from those. The locations for our next three shoots are India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. We’re still working to nail down a sub-region in Asia for our tenth shoot.

At the same time as we work on executing these shoots and preparing for the installation launch, we’re working hard on building the institutional capacity to grow the project into a true video library of human life experience. Our installations are conceived of as a gateway into our collection of footage, which we hope to expand greatly in the coming years.

We’re also currently working with educators to test out our content in classrooms for a variety of age levels. We’ve already shown video shorts of our shoots from Malawi, Japan, Brazil and the US in classrooms around the world, and the responses that we are getting are stellar. We are looking to release some curriculum materials at the same time as our installation launch later this year, but we really need some help from additional educators to get that in gear.

We also just put out our first real DVD – it’s an hour long and features shorts from our shoots in Malawi, Japan, Brazil and the US. These should be available on our website soon. A group of our volunteer photographers as well as our stellar print designers, Corrie Harper and Renato Hofer, are also working on a photo book hopefully to be released later this year as well.

As you can see, things are busy busy busy over here at Global Lives. Probably the most important thing for us to do right now is to bring in some additional major funding. Though there are more than 250 volunteers involved, we still have not been able to hire a single full-time staff member. I’m at the center of this whirlwind working part-time for minimum wage and we only just recently hired our second employee to work ten hours a week doing development and general project coordination. Though we’ve made it extraordinarily far with very little cash to date (USD 60k in 4 years), we are really getting to the stage where without full-time employees it’s becoming quite difficult to manage the onslaught of production volunteers and exhibit opportunities that’s coming at us.

That said, 2008 was our best year for fundraising and for production to date, and 2009 is already shaping splendidly. Now if only I could catch up on all those emails…

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One Response to “The Global Lives Project”

  1. An amazing initiative. Every time I hear more about it, I become more fascinated.
    I’m glad it’s up on the Creative Commons front page, I hope that leads a lot more people to get involved. I know there are plenty more people out there with skills and connections who would find this very rewarding.