Thanks to all those who participated in the Expanded Documentary seminar over the last couple of days!

Thanks to Ross Gibson for his great keynote and input, as well as to all the session convenors, speakers and conversationalists.

Thanks to Bettina Frankham for her huge help in getting the whole thing happening and running.

Thanks to Anna and Aaron for recording the whole event.

Thanks to Olena Cullen for managing all kinds of vital stuff (coffee, tea, water, mints, cakes, lunch…).

Thanks finally to the Institute for Social Transformations Research strength and the Creative Arts + Social Transformation research centre for supporting the event.

Great to see all the material written for the site. I’ve opened up another area called “Furtherances” for anybody who feels inclined to follow up on issues that emerged during the sessions or to suggest new lines of enquiry. Contact me if you’d like an author log-in or just send me the material and I’ll post it to the site.

Brogan (

If a thing fell in the woods and other things saw it

by Ted Mitew

Ian Saville, Deep in the Shed, Carcasi, Revelations (Battlestar Galactica), Church of St Julian, Wellow, El Torito, CT Chamaeleontis, Stanbridge Station, Quebec

Snake Bite Love, Les Reed (football coach), Josy Barthel, April 8, 2003 journalist deaths by U.S. fire, List of Python software, Jaffna Diocese, Delač, Venezuela at the 1980 Summer Olympics

Plunderer, Changchengopterus, 1768 Appenzella, Overseas Chinese restaurant, Mark Smeaton, Autonomation[1]

The above list, a Latour Litany, was generated through Ian Bogost’s Latour Litanizer – a proof of concept project using Wikipedia’s random page API to extract heuristic lists of things. What is interesting about it is that it is the result of an object-oriented taxonomy[2] where humans, events and various artifacts are perceived through a list documenting the results of documentation; an object-centered phenomenology [3]. I think of this project as a conceptual illustration of the machine-to-machine sensory exchanges forming the invisible stratum of the nascent Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT involves extending connectivity to daily objects and minute items, therefore allowing them to act as interfaces to internet functions. Once connected, for example through an Arduino board, things gain a network address making each discrete object uniquely identifiable; they usually have some sort of layered sensing capacity allowing them to dynamically register changes to their environment; they are often able to store and process that information, as well as independently initiate action (actuation); they are remotely localizable within their environment; and they may be provided with a human interface.

The sensory data stream at the intersection of a thing’s location, identity and state forms the thing’s context. This context is a dynamic document of that thing’s state in time. Dynamic, because it is a data flow; document, because it is a sensory taxonomy of a setting – what is documented is always already sorted. Often this data travels to, and is stored and interpreted by, a remote database for which the physical thing is the dynamic document. Something strange happens however when things acquire connectivity, semantic depth, and the powers of computation and memory – they immediately and drastically transgress the ontological borders assigned to them. The thing, its setting, and the record of that setting become a dynamic aggregate which, from the perspective of other things, is identical to the Latour Litany above.

The provocation: Just recently a cemetery in Denmark started offering a new service [4] allowing visitors to access enhanced memories of their deceased relatives by pointing their smartphone cameras at a little QR code embedded in each gravestone. The enhanced memories can contain potentially unlimited amount of data, sorted from a database containing documentary evidence of the person’s life. A Latour Litany?

  1. ^The Latour Litanizer is at
  2. ^See Harman, G. (2011) The Quadruple Object, Winchester, UK: Zero Books.
  3. ^See Bogost, I. (2012) Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to be a Thing, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  4. ^Brabant, M. (2012)’ Denmark pioneers hi-tech graveyard memorials with QR code’, BBC News,

Documentary Polyptychs: Multi-Screen Video Art on a Theme of Climate Change

Provocation by Adam Sébire

Recently I happened upon a field of study called counterfactual history: it asks questions such as what if the Nazis had won World War II; or Al Gore the US Presidency; or Archduke Ferdinand the 1914 Eurovision Song Contest; etc. But if we undertook a counterfactual history of cinema, we might be tempted to ask questions such as, what if projection had been standardised within a circular, rather than a rectangular frame? What if cinema was dominated by animation (today, CGI) while live action films were relegated to the status of a novelty for kids? What if holography had become viable before 3D? What if that which Lev Manovich calls spatial montage — simultaneous depiction of multiple separate events within a space, dominant in representational art for so many centuries in forms from frescoes to tapestries — had remained ascendant over the linear narratives of cinema and novels? And, in tandem with that, what if multiple screens had become the norm in cinemas and homes alike, whilst single screen cinema with its rituals of fixed seating, darkened auditoria and classical montage became the sole preserve of contemporary art galleries with their other strange pretensions?

As a documentary maker, the majority of my work ends up on small screens, often received distractedly, or at worst passively. Documentary which makes it to the cinema undoubtedly enjoys a more engaged experience. Yet it insists its spectators sit quietly immobilised at a pre-ordained time in order to watch the filmmakers interpret reality for them within a single, framed window-on-the-world. It’s a strong rhetorical and aesthetic strategy, but increasingly one from another era.

Documentary film & video art installations exhibited across configurations of multiple screens — diptychs, triptychs and so on — are becoming increasingly common. They actively position their viewing visitors as editors, between screen-images, asking them to create meaning in space and in time, to question both what is shown and what is positioned outside or between the frames. Such polyptychs can represent multiple perspectives on the same aspect of reality. They are less strait-jacketed by narrative demands and can be more transparent in their construction.

I might, for example, challenge the broadcast conventions that require I deliver a documentary of exactly fifty-two minutes’ duration by running my interviews unedited on multiple screens throughout a space. Or I might use one screen reflexively to expose the artifice underlying the images on the others: think of Isaac Julien laying bare green-screen techniques in his extraordinary Ten Thousand Waves which ran across nine screens and 9.2 channels of audio at the Biennale of Sydney in 2010.

Installation view of Ten Thousand Waves (2010) by Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves (2010). 9-channel 35mm film transferred to HD. 9.2 surround sound. 49mins 41sec.
Installation view, Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai. Photograph: Adrian Zhou.

Documentary polyptychs insist that the visitor navigate their own channels between multiple streams of audio and imagery: they must choose where to look or to move, and what associations to make between simultaneous aural and visual elements that may initially appear dissociated. That is to say, they must ‘perform’ their own spatial montage. A visitor required to think around an idea — to make their own autonomous connections — comes away with concepts they’ve constructed, at least in part, themselves. This is quite a different proposition to being presented with a linear argument by means of an editor’s single-channel montage. Certainly, polyptychal filmmakers need to accept a loosened grip on their rhetorical tillers, but the trade-off for documentary with a social agenda comes if this can provoke in the visitor heightened or affective engagement with multi-faceted issues — such as climate change.

Documentary polyptychs offer models for the creation and reception of ideas which are both responsive to, and build upon, the ubiquity of electronic windows and screens in contemporary visual culture, as well as the emergence of new participatory modes. This culture bombards us with fragmented, multiplied and mobile imagery. Yet multi-channel gallery installations can provide a contemplative space rarely found in other media; perhaps even time for the ‘pensiveness’ that Roland Barthes felt was missing in the cinema.

Spatial montage challenges the dominance of ‘cause and effect’ in single-channel narrative cinema; it can be open, looping, unresolved. As documentary filmmaking delights in the revelations of ‘life caught unawares’ so the juxtaposition of images in a polyptych — particularly if each screen is on a loop of a different length — can create epiphanies unique to each viewing visitor.

The polyptych’s visitors search for commonalities, differences and dependencies in the subject matter. Within the immersive affect of multiple event streams they may perceive temporal and spatial relationships physically. They are thus implicated; almost forced to take sides. Passivity is not an option. An installation demands the viewer splice images to create meaning, or more powerfully still, splice themselves between images. Writes Peter Weibel: “The spectator slowly becomes part of the system he observes.”

All this does not come without qualifications of course! Leaving aside the manifold problems of exhibition in a gallery space, on which many a critique exists, multi-screen installation artists sometimes rue the transient level of visitors’ engagement with their work. The temptation to keep on walking when confronted with something confusing, or which refuses to tell a linear story, or which challenges the visitor’s preconceptions, can be high. Polyptychal documentary needs to ‘unfold’ over time; it cannot be perceived instantly as a whole. It demands engagement. In return, the visitor expects intelligent use of the form: the subject matter and ideas need to have a raison d’être as multiple screens. Gratuitous multiplicity for the sake of mere spectacle is easily dismissed by the visitor.

All that is solid melts into air (2008) Mark Boulos

Mark Boulos: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008). Two-channel video (colour, sound), 15 min.
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam. © 2012 Mark Boulos.

Mark Boulos’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008) is a brilliant documentary diptych on commodity fetishism. The viewer is positioned between two worlds which though removed from oil materially, deal with it conceptually in their own ways: one screen shows oil futures traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; the other represents members of a revolutionary army fighting to rid their lands in the Niger Delta of exploitative multinational oil companies. Boulos describes it as a phenomenological work, in contradistinction to the evidential modes more often associated with documentary. Its powerful dialectic derives from its simultaneous, bipolar juxtaposition of two separate but interconnected worlds.

The challenge I have set myself in the second year of my MFA is to develop a poetics of documentary polyptychs suited to addressing another set of interconnected phenomena: sea level rise due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

The possibilities opened up by multi-screen documentary will provide a formal framework to examine the disconnect between the way we live our lives and the effects of our actions upon our environment. At the heart of climate change as a problem lies dissociation: of cause from effect, of today’s action from tomorrow’s result, of behaviour here from outcome there, and more fundamentally, of human beings from Nature. Largely estranged from the effects of climate, cocooned by air-conditioning, we find its variances easier to ignore. There is perhaps a fundamental flaw in humans — evolved as we are for flight, fight or freeze responses — that makes dealing with threats that are geographically displaced, or imperceptible, or which become apparent only years hence, so paralysingly problematic.

This is where we need a new take on the prosthetic kino-eye of Dziga Vertov’s The Man With The Movie Camera (1929) — and perhaps to add a kino-ear! — to enhance our perception of the world. (I suspect Vertov would have embraced multiple screens, if his pioneering use of the split screen is any indication.) How else to comprehend a problem that is planetary, when we can only experience the ‘local’? To make apparent the time spans of climate change, imperceptible in quotidian existence? To apprehend the effects of our invisible gas emissions?

Documentary polyptychs offer a powerful formal model with which to explore the binaries, correlates and incompatibilities posed by climate change. Immersion and involvement can drive audience connection. And an emotional connection to environmental risk — which scientists’ graphs have, so far, struggled to engage — is something we could do with urgently.

Re-Enacting Performance Art

Explores the re-staging of ephemeral/live artworks from the 1960s and 70s by contemporary artists. Re-creation as live documentation strategy.

Re-enactment and re-creation of performance art is increasingly being employed as a method of art-historical research, as well as an artform in itself. Well publicised recent examples include Marina Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces” (2005) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the series “A Short History of Performance” (2002-) at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Re-enactment can situate artists, as “action-researchers”, at the centre of a discipline traditionally dominated by (non-artist) scholars.

In contrast to the kind of knowledge that is generated through reading about artworks after the event, or viewing documentary photographs and videos, re-enactments seek to provide a different kind of knowledge by making it possible to encounter the artworks directly ourselves.

The process of re-enactment goes beyond polite homage, or slavish devotion to the “authentic” work of art. Instead, re-enactments are an interaction with history, transforming our experience (and therefore our understanding) of the original ephemeral artwork.

This session brings together artists and teachers who use re-enactment as an artistic and pedagogic strategy.

Andrea Saemann, a Swiss performance artist, has for some years been attempting to tap into feminist performance history. Her works often begin by seeking out and meeting with key figures such as Carolee Schneeman, and evolve into hybrid events which combine the re-enactment of the 1960s or 70s work, layered with additional material gleaned from her meetings.

Christopher Hewitt teaches performance art practice and theory in Berlin, and his educational process involves critical appraisal of documentation materials left behind from seminal (as well as lesser-known) works of the past. His students are encouraged to re-create these photographs or videos live, as a way of trying to understand the institutional framing of ephemeral performance. Christopher is also actively involved in documenting contemporary performance works, though his venture LiveArtWork, which publishes and distributes DVDs of recent performances.

Lucas Ihlein’s re-enactment work has primarily revolved around Expanded Cinema from British artists of the 1970s. Working with Louise Curham as “Teaching and Learning Cinema”, Ihlein’s approach involves a carefully annotated and documented re-invention of the original works, paying particular attention to the technological specificity of film, video and digital media.

Andrea Saemann (Switzerland) and Christopher Hewitt (Germany), in conversation with Lucas Ihlein.

If It Bleeds, It Leads

Provocation by Shawn Burns

Screen capture of online local news site

Of all the confronting things to hear in a newsroom, the phrase: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ ranks well toward the top of the list.

News editors, chiefs of staff, and journalists are well aware of the phrase, but awareness makes it nonetheless confronting when it resurfaces from time to time.

Kerbel (2000) used the phrase as the title of his book investigating the anatomy of television news. His book begins with a disclaimer:

“WARNING: Everything you are about to read is true. The following chapters contain graphic content that may not be suitable for all readers. Some of the material is of a violent or sexual nature. You may encounter descriptions of bizarre or antisocial acts, committed out of desperation by despondent individuals. There will be accounts of frightening conditions and descriptions of portentous situations, which may well make you feel threatened, fearful, endangered, jeopardized, or at risk. Some of the imagery described to you will be disturbing.

That’s because you will be watching the news.” (Kerbel, 2000, p. xi)

As a mini case study – more than a decade on, I can still hear the voice of a former state news director personifying the phrase in question on one ‘quiet’ news day. Like every newsroom chief of staff, I was faced with a blank rundown – 23 and half minutes of a bulletin to fill and nothing on the radar. Admittedly, the day was young and the first coffee was yet to be completely consumed. The phone rang, and it was my boss on the line. No ‘Good morning’, no greeting of any kind – simply: “You’ve got you’re lead – there’s been a fatal at Gundagai.” Strangely enough, this seemed to work as a greeting all the same.

So where does it come from, this news approach that allows a loss of life, the carnage of a car crash, and the instant and lasting impacts of such an event to be seen, and, it could be argued, devalued, as simply an automatic ‘lead’. Or, as it was for me on this occasion, two minutes that no longer needed to be filled in my bulletin.

I contend it comes from the presence of the fearsome ‘blank page’ or, in broadcast news, the empty daily news rundown. It is the knowledge that the in-tray is empty at the end of every news day. The stories have either run in the bulletin, or been discarded in the circular filing cabinet under your desk. Every new day starts with a ‘blank sheet’.

However, matching the predictability of an empty rundown is the inevitability of an ‘accident’. This is where it can be argued newsrooms rely on the ‘known unknown’. While the empty rundown exists, it is relatively short-lived due to the fact news ‘happens’, and in many instances this is in the form of an ‘accident’.

It was the much-maligned former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld who memorably attempted to annunciate the concept of the ‘known unknowns’.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknows. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we know”.

While this is confusing in its delivery, and I suspect deliberately so, the idea of ‘known unknowns’ is what keeps newsrooms active, and news directors and chiefs of staff semi-sane. It is the knowledge that while we don’t know ‘what’ is going to happen, we do know ‘something’ will – and much of the ‘something’ comes in the form of an accident – literal and metaphoric.

So, the concept: ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ starts to be placed within the frame of the ‘accident’. It could be argued the ‘bleeds’ is metaphoric in many instances – for example, the politician found to be rorting travel expenses – but, equally, a literal accident, be it a car crash, a house fire, and/or a sporting collision, is likely to lead. These events satisfy many of the elements of what make something newsworthy, most significantly ‘impact’, ‘visibility’ and ‘shock-value’. (McKane, 2006)

Interestingly, the value of a literal accident in a newsworthiness context is also influenced by proximity. Rural and regional newsrooms, in which I spent my journalism career, will look to any car ‘accident’ as a potential top story, whereas metropolitan newsrooms may require further contributing factors (e.g. number of people involved) to help decide a story’s ‘lead’ potential.

The place of the ‘accident’ in the newsroom is significant. It helps provides the content to fill the blank page, and/or the empty rundown. It serves to put truth to the phrase ‘If it bleeds, it leads’.

Out My Window

An impressive 2010 on-line documentary: Out My Window, Katerina Cizek, Canadian National Film Board. Examines responses to highrise living, focusing on a range of international case-studies. More info at the project blog.

Nice re-examination of QTVR – both playfully resisting the seamless 360 view (enabling a kind of navigable collage) and also pushing seamlessness to new levels (the Yellow Bird technology enables video qtvr).

An offshoot project is One Millionth Tower (2011), which deliberately avoids the use of proprietary software – it’s all HTML5, open-source Javascript libraries, etc.. A link to the GitHub code.

Seminar Update

We have made some progress in planning for the Expanded Documentary seminar:

  • The event is scheduled to run in the latter half of the Faculty of Creative Arts Postgraduate Week – the afternoon of Thursday 6th of September and all day on Friday the 7th of September.
  • The Thursday session will begin with a keynote address by Ross Gibson, Professor of Contemporary Arts at the University of Sydney (Sydney College of the Arts). From his innovative 1986 film, “Camera Natura”, an essay-style documentary on white representations of the Australian landscape, to his more recent immersive, interactive installations (created in collaboration with Kate Richards), Professor Gibson has been at the forefront of Australian experiments to develop new forms of documentary that recast the relationship between document, documentary, narrative and critical scholarship. His role will be to frame our overall discussion, positioning the concept of documentary and considering its evolution beyond standard linear-sequential forms and its integral relationship to a diverse range of contemporary practices. For more info on Professor Gibson, please see his website (
  • After the keynote address, the plan is to run a set of invited panel sessions that address central questions of contemporary expanded documentary practice. I have made a tentative effort to define these questions in the post just below (“Key Questions”, March 6 2012). I should note that for me the key question is the third one that addresses the positioning of the document in contemporary practice. Interested if people think we should go with this as the core issue/question… It is hoped that these or similar questions can provide the basis for a set of case-study based responses from a range of different disciplines – specifically, Theatre and Performance, Visual Art, Media Art, Cultural Geography, Cultural Studies and Journalism. Panel participants will be expected to post short papers of a maximum of 1000 words to this site prior to the actual event. This will mean that everybody has an opportunity to read papers prior to panel sessions, enabling a focus on discussion rather than the formal reading of papers. There will be a single stream of panel sessions. The first one will be on Thursday afternoon after the keynote. The remaining two will run on the Friday morning.
  • The Friday afternoon session has yet to be defined precisely. One suggestion is to run a poster session, in which seminar participants have the opportunity to present and obtain feedback on their ideas, questions, case-studies and the like. Another option is to attempt a small exhibition of expanded documentary work, involving both on-line and gallery components. Either way, the overall aim is to foster inter-disciplinary discussion and collaboration and to enable all participants a chance to showcase an aspect of their work.
  • Oh yes, plan to have a seminar dinner on the Thursday night.

The next thing is to nail down the panel sessions, keeping in mind that everything needs to fit together into a coherent set of three 2 hour panel sessions. Stuff that does not fit into a dedicated panel session may be better positioned in the poster session/exhibition.

Key Questions

  1. What happens when documentary shifts beyond linear-sequential form – when it becomes a collection, a constellation, a model, a navigable space?
  2. How do current modes of spatial, networked, embodied and affective interaction relate to the traditional forms of documentary interaction – exposition, storytelling, etc.?
  3. How is the notion of document conceived within contemporary documentary practice? How does the document mediate a relation between the space of events and the space of documentary form/aesthetics?

Artangel – A Tender Subject


An interesting example of “Expanded Doco” in today’s Guardian: a performance installation work which explores the world of gay prisoners:

“Anderson believes that A Tender Subject is a “pivotal work” for Artangel which has wide-ranging implications for the arts in Britain.

“Its roots are in educational practice, it articulates itself through social value and through the value of those participating in the process but it stands in a mainstream arts framework.”

Though Storor’s previous work includes For the Best, made with terminally ill children at the dialysis unit at the Evelina hospital school in Southwark, south London, he says that A Tender Subject was his most challenging project yet – not only in persuading the prison officers that it was worthwhile, but also in the work’s nature, trying to find moments of intimacy in a world where violence and fear are far more common.”