A bear walks through the Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies and is ensnared in a trap where she is tranquilized, tagged, and collared with a GPS device. She has now become Bear 71, and joins a group of wired wildlife who document the interactions between nature and their increasingly encroaching human neighbors. Bear 71 is a new interactive project produced by the National Film Board of Canada’s digital studio, and includes an interactive web documentary site, a social media microsite, and a live installation piece that launched in conjunction with the Sundance Film Festival.
The main part of the project consists of an interactive web documentary created by NFB’s Jeremy Mendes and Leanne Allison, which introduces viewers to Bear 71 and then drops them into an interactive map of the Park, where they encounter other wired creatures that live in Bear 71’s home range: golden eagles, Big Horn sheep, wolves, and deer mice, all similarly tagged and under surveillance. The animals’ movements can be seen as they move about the park, and clicking on their markers reveals a video feed and information about the animal. Viewers can click on their own marker as well, which launches a group of surveillance feeds including their own (the site requests access to the viewer’s webcam and microphone, which can be denied) and any other viewers who happen to be browsing the site at the same time, tagged and tracked like the animals. Landmarks such as the freeway and railroad that run through the park can be seen, cars and trains moving on them as the animal’s markers cross back and forth, highlighting one of the project’s main points: when technology and the wild intersect, it is often to the detriment of the wildlife. There are also video feeds and observation points marked on the map, showing actual pictures and videos from their real-life counterparts in the Park.
While exploring the interactive map, the story continues from Bear 71’s point of view as she describes life for herself, her cubs, and the other resident animals, narrated by Mia Kirshner (The L Word, 24). During the narrative, Bear 71’s marker can be followed as she moves through the forest, in line with the story. In one of her stories, Bear 71 explains how the trains often spill grain onto the tracks, tempting bears to go onto the tracks to eat the grain only to be hit by subsequent trains. During this, if the viewer has followed her marker, the train goes by in pixelated form, backed by a sound effect track. In another, Bear 71 talks about swimming in the lake as the Banff park rangers look on (having tracked her there), and her marker can be seen moving through the map representation of the lake. The entire story is 20 minutes long, and afterwards the viewer is left on the map to explore at will, or to replay the story.
There’s an additional social networking layer to the story, centered around @iambear71 on Twitter, a Tumblr blog, and a microsite where visitors can role play as one of Banff’s wired wild animals. Selecting an animal displays a screen capture from a video feed, facts about the creature, and the ability to tweet as the chosen animal.
The highlight of the project is the art installation, which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier in Park City, Utah on January 20th and was on display through the 29th. Co-created by Lance Weiler (Pandemic 1.0), the installation has a large screen which shows surveillance videos of the wired animals alongside viewers of the website, a larger version of the window seen on the main website when the viewer clicks on their own marker. Along with the surveillance screen is another large screen playing the interactive documentary as seen on the main website. Unlike the online version, the installation uses an iPad to add an additional layer of augmented reality by allowing the viewer to use the iPad’s camera to “select” one of the trail markers, and view the video recorded from that trail marker’s camera. Also included with the installation are an actual trail cam from Banff, and a tree brought over from Banff, stripped to resemble a bear’s rub tree. The installation can now be seen at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art through April 19.
Bear 71 is a unique and powerful way of telling the story of a bear under the influence of human technology, using that same technology as the medium. By adding viewers as markers on the map alongside the video feeds from animals and fellow visitors to the site, Bear 71 allows its audience to watch surveillance of fellow participants while at the same time being subject to surveillance. The pervasiveness of observation throughout the story helps to bring the viewer deeper into the story, nurturing a deeper sympathy and connection with the wild’s wired animals.