Thursday, 8 January 2009


Deimantas Narkevicius, The Role of a Lifetime, 2003, Super 8 film transferred to DVD, 17 minutes. Courtesy of GB Agency, Paris; Jan Mot, Brussels and the artist. Photo: Chris Kendall. Installation view from The Greenroom:  Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art, Center for Curatorial Studies and the Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, September 27, 2008 - February 1, 2009.

In which More Milk Yvette commences a serial reading of Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl ed. The Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1 (Sternberg Press and CCS Bard, 2008). ISBN 978-1-933128-53-5.

As Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl make clear at the very beginning of this anthology, to think about documentary is to think in terms of contradictions. This contradiction, moreover, manifests in a variety of forms: the increased pervacity of documentary images that goes along with a lessening of  trust in such imagery; the ongoing contradictory relationship of art and documentary; and the impassioned call to capture reality that is actually a declaration of the forms own uncertainty about its status. 

There is much more here. Documentary expresses ideas of progress and education, but both documents and is responsible for the failure to reach such ideals. The values on which it is founded - certainty, conformation - are no longer fashionable ones on which to base a cultural practice. It leaves a vagueness and ambivalence, which may not, however, be a cause for despair. As this publication testifies - along with the other books and journals from which its various essays have been gathered -  it is all highly productive in  "the contested field of desires and anxieties to touch the real" (17)

Olivier Lugon ""Documentary": Authority and Ambiguities" provides a useful historical groundwork. Confronted by the vagueness of the word and the unsatisfactory desire to see "things as they are," Lugon outlines different historical models. In early twentieth century France, he notes, "film documentaire" referred to "a cultural or travel film of an edifying character" (29), whilst in photography it was related to archiving and inventorying cultural heritage. Photos were  already being used to try and raise public awareness about, for example, urban poverty and worker exploitation, but this was not associated at that time with "documentary." 

That connection, Lugon argues, only came to the fore in the 1930's. In its British and American translation as "documentary" it acquired connections that are still its dominant definition: non-staged recording of social reality, alongside " extremely positive moral and political connotation associated with the quest for truth and social commitment." (30) Thus conservation, social reform, and a notion of the literary all swill around, with an associating set of issues about the role of the creator, and his or her relationship to their subject. 

(TOP:) Gerard Byrne, New Sexual Lifestyles, 2003. Video installation and C-prints. Dimensions variable. Private collection, Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Chris Kendall. (BELOW:) Harun Farocki, War at a distance, 2003. Video 54 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo: Chris Kendall. Both installation views at The Greenroom

For Lugon, there is no resolution of these issues: the documentary is constantly reinvented. Alongside the archive-social reform conflict, is that between documentary and art. Lugon stresses the bond,  noting that it is against and within art that documentary can defines itself. From the earliest debates, too, documentary and art were connected through their joint desire to "regenerate:" and somehow "restore" (33) their medium; improving themselves whilst also improving the world. In the 1930's the social empathy around the Great Depression was connected to an acknowledgement of film and art as legitimate art forms.


Given that documentary combines its commitment to "things as they are" with an "ever different renegotiation of the authorial position" (36) it is no surprise that Walker Evans emerges as the emblematic figure in Lugon's account: 

.. he [Evans] has formulated a curious, self-reflective definition of the document, suggesting that the photographer might efface himself in favor of the subject, representing things "as they are" and yet claiming this impersonal recording as a personal creation. (36)

Subsequent essays take a less historical perspective but also seek to explore a documentary that gains its vibrancy from its contradictory character. As Jean Pierre-Rehm puts it in "The Plays of Witnesses":

To give documentary back its relevance, to enable it to develop the barren space it represents and signifies in its variety, is to first accept that it is not the vehicle of supposed transparency. It means understanding that, contrary to this, documentary only contains opacity and thickness, and that is in itself object of study, document among documents, link in a process of interpretation offered to the political freedom of the spectator. (41)

Rehm goes on to explore a range of work that moves beyond data into a sense of information that works on many levels, in order to - as he writes in reference to Jia Zhang Ke's In Public - "raise the atmospheric character to the dimension of a social novel." (43) As the novel- reference indicates, Rehm's argument focusses on how "the opposition between fiction and documentary becomes something inoperative, as the two introduce a manufacture of what is visible and intelligible." (44)

(TOP:) Nestor Kruger, Analog (three cameras through a model of Haus Wittgenstein), 2005. Three-channel video installation. 28 minutes. Courtesy of Goodwater, Toronto. Photo:  Karl Rabe. (BELOW:) Michael Rakowitz, The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series), 2007. Middle Eastern packaging and newspapers, glue (objects on wood tables), sound, brochure. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York. Photo:  Chris Kendall. Both installation views at The Greenroom.

Rehm proposes the "witness" as a figure who emerges to chronicle and document this state.  When Rehm quotes Paul Celan - "Nobody bears witness for the witness" (44) - the extent of what is at stake becomes clearer. I had a sudden picture of  the documentarian as a necessarily isolated figure, without shared values and assumptions, yet still, to a degree, operating on the level of big assumptions: community, society and nation. As Rehm observes of the film work from which his argument emerges:

But these different documentaries have chosen the most difficult way to bear witness in a language they do not claim to master, no longer that of "capturing" images and sounds, and to show this to an audience whose expectations they did not claim to know. It is no longer a question of delivering the fruit of a translation satisfied with moving with the meanings, but rather its wanderings, its mistakes, its difficult work in the heart of what appears as a living substance. (46)

This, then, is what the opening essays of this anthology plunge us into: shred of any objectivity, the documentary is intoxicating, energised by its new found contradictory personality. But how does this avoid just being a very enjoyable game? How does one make such an observation and then advance, or at least develop? Isn't this moulding a definition of documentary around what artists have always done anyway? 

Reading Jörg Heiser's essay on Mandarin Ducks, a film by Jereon de Rijke's and Willem de Rooij, I found these concerns escalating. I haven't seen Mandarin Ducks, which Heiser describes as "a scripted film with actors, a chamber piece employing devices from the auteur film." (51) But Heiser's use of the film in his search for "a concept of truth that can be applied to the process of viewing art" (52)  triggered the car alarm in my brain which was already on high alert as Habermas, Lacan and Foucault all drifted past in the space of a couple of paragraphs. I noted:

Is everything a documentary? What is the relationship between the subtle, complex perceptual models outlined in these essays and the process of actually watching (or making) a film? Is there a problem of talking about a marginal, sub-culture - art and documentary - as if it was an amalgam of X Factor, the United Nations and CNN? Do the conversational , mental, "action-al" routes out of these works all lead  to more art?

Good thing there's 150 pages of The Greenroom still to go. 


The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art is a collaboration between Maria Lind of the Centre for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and Hito Steyerl. The book accompanies an exhibition of the same title at CCS and Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College (Sep 26 2008- Feb 1 2009), which is extensively and admirably documented on the galleries website