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Brett Gaylor: Building critical literacy through interactive experiences

Brett Gaylor has been making documentaries about and with the internet since the early 2000s. As a PhD student and researcher in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology’s Making Culture Lab, Gaylor researches the role of documentarians in building critical literacy around Artificial Intelligence.

Before joining SIAT, he explored the early days of online remix culture and the ways in which its practices conflict with intellectual property and copyrights laws in his feature film Rip! A Remix Manifesto. Later, he worked as Director of Advocacy Media at the Mozilla Foundation, working to build a healthy internet that would allow everyone to participate in online life.

“Along the way I began making interactive documentaries that use the "viewers" data to help tell the story - Do Not Track and Discriminator are examples of this type of documentary.”

After nearly two decades of filmmaking, Gaylor decided to pursue creative research and a PhD at SIAT in the Making Culture Lab. The upheavals caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Simon Fraser University’s pivot to online offerings helped guide his decision. At a time when everyone was locked down and unable to make films, he saw it as an opportunity to study and think.

Returning to academia, Gaylor realized that he had a lot to learn. He credits the courses, projects and people at the lab with exposing him to ideas that are improving his work and helping to make it more inclusive of different perspectives and decolonial methodologies.

“The Making Culture Lab is exciting as the place to house my research because it is home to many people practicing creative research. It's a new and exciting way for me to think about documentaries: making the work is the research, and it suits the kind of documentaries I like to make where the audience experiences the phenomenon that you explore in the work.”

One of the phenomena Gaylor is currently exploring in his work is the ways in which documentarians can use artificial intelligence within their work as a way to help people build critical literacy around A.I. One of his latest works, Necessary Tomorrows, – a podcast series which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival – exemplifies this goal of experiencing A.I. to understand A.I.

Gaylor says the series was inspired by the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and whether it would be a moment in which society would restructure itself, and what it would look like on the other side. He worked with three speculative fiction authors to create stories set in the year 2065 in which different aspects of our lives, be they political or social, are radically different than today. 

“Based on those three stories, we made documentary episodes about people who are trying to make some version of that future come true - and an AI from the future is helping you understand your life in 2065 by studying the 2020s - a really whacky historical time period where everything seemed to be changing and no one knew what would happen next!”

Gaylor sees value in filmmakers making work that is meaningful to them and that only they could make. He encourages any current and future students who may be interested in documentary and interactive filmmaking to make as much media as they can while they are students.

“Find people you like to work with and exorcise your bad films!”