New documentary forms as self-documentation

by Etienne Deleflie
I’d like to raise the question of the extent to which a new documentary technique or form might document itself as opposed to the subject of the document. I’ll illustrate this question specifically within the context of new technological means, but it may warrant consideration in other forms of new documentary not facilitated by technology, such as the re-enactment of historical performance art already blogged at this event. Can the form used to document an event result, to whatever extent, in documenting itself?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the root of the noun ’document’ to both the old french and latin words for ‘lesson’ [1]. A lesson, itself defined as ‘the action of reading’ [2], does not pretend to be an objective record. The perspective of the teacher and the biases of the teaching techniques are implied, if not unavoidable. What traces do these perspectives and biases leave on the completed document? Given the benefit of historical hindsight, might these traces overpower the actual subject of the document?

To explore this argument I will begin by pilfering examples from a site already mentioned on this blog. The New Aesthetic, a tumblr blog identifying the incursion of digital perspectives into every day life, has already received an introduction by Caleb Kelly. I am not so concerned with the articulation or identification of said ‘new aesthetic’, as I am in understanding how the digital medium might affect how we perceive the world outside of that medium. The New Aesthetic blog provides a few salient examples. These examples throw light on the question: Has the digital medium affected how we perceive the subject being documented? And if so, would the document not act as a record of the documentary medium itself?

The below image of a blurred photograph on a billboard casts the viewers gaze … placing it behind the lens of a digital camera positioned within a speeding car. This is what a photo would look like if taken with a portable digital device pointed out the window of a moving vehicle. It is a captured vision characteristic of a ‘smart phone’. Within the context of a ‘smart phone’ the image represents a poor photograph of scenery. Within the context of a billboard, the image can represent the medium of portable digital devices. Is this work by Ben Long a document of random scenery produced in transit? Or is it a document of the documentary form of portable digital photography?

Ben Long:  Moving Landscapes - The Hay Wain (after John Constable) Birmingham

Ben Long: Moving Landscapes – The Hay Wain (after John Constable) Birmingham

A Flickr search for Broken Kindles sparks a curious fascination with the aesthetics of the mechanical breakage of e-ink screens. Geometric patterns interfere with images in random yet occasionally intriguing ways. A glitch moment, certainly.

Images of broken Kindle screens

Having experienced a broken Kindle screen myself, these images remind of the moment of collapse of the (perhaps not so) futuristic idealism of e-readers. A printed text would not cease to be readable upon such a minor incident. These images offer a compelling aesthetic, but they also document some of the fundamental differences between digital text readers and printed texts. The screens are fragile; they break in such a way as to reveal some sort of underlying cartesian structure based on rows and columns. Perhaps most importantly these images represent an infuriating interruption to the engagement with a text, a kind of rude awakening to the trade-offs imposed by digital devices. The devices solve certain problems, but introduce entirely new ones foreign to printed texts. The interest in the aesthetics of these broken screens is paralleled by their action as documents of certain characteristics of e-readers.

Google maps, a detailed document concerning the sub/urban landscape we live in similarly documents itself. Google has a legal requirement to obscure the face and thus identity of passers-by. The image on the right shows a painted mural in which certain faces have been blurred, and others have not. An examination of this image forces the viewer to consider how the face detection algorithms might function. We thus attempt to cast our eyes into those of Google’s algorithms, trying to understand which facial characteristics of the non-blurred faces have escaped the face-detection logic. In so doing, we engage with Google Maps as a document of itself.

This task takes on an other dimension when considering this next image. Flowers in a window box have been blurred. It is evidence of some form of underlying stupidity in the system. Google Maps, the document of our sub/urban environment, is now documenting the chaotic inconsistency of its underlying digital detection algorithms.

I see these artefacts as evidence of the characteristics of particular mediums: as documents of those mediums, documents of documentary forms. These artefacts teach us about the nature of those mediums; how they frame the world. Currently, the artefacts described above hold much aesthetic interest, and for good reason. But I wonder if, with the passing of time and changing documentary forms, these artefacts might hold a significance equal to the documentary subject, in that they reveal aspects of the world view of the documentary technique.


  1. “document, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 05, 2012).
  2. “lesson, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 05, 2012).

Performance Saga – the story is longer

On our official website we state:
Performance Saga is a project by the artist Andrea Saemann (b. 1962) and the art historian Katin Grögel (b. 1970). Both live and work in Basle.
It transmits and updates the history of Performance Art on many levels and promotes a dialogue between the generations. The project includes the conception and realization of performance pieces, the publication of video interviews and the planning of events.
Eight Performance Saga Interviews were published in 2007 and 2008. They may be ordered from edition fink – Verlag für zeitgenössische Kunst. No further interviews are planned for now.
Three Performance Saga Festivals were held in Bern (2008), Lausanne and Basle (2009). Writing on the performances may be read at A documentary publication of the performance festivals was published in January 2011 by liveartwork and can be ordered through:

I state:
Performance Saga is a tool to travel in time and space. It allows me to experience a present, filled up with the past. It puts my own individuality into perspective and modifies its borders. It makes me realize, that art at any moment is a collective act. Neither copy right nor copy left but share the knowledge and shape the streams.

Andrea Saemann

Documentary and the cinematic thought machine

Documentary practice is a way to think the world. It can be a formulating, a historicising, a narrativising of experience that is otherwise chaotic and confusing. However there are alternative ways of knowing that come through lateral approaches, patience, perhaps even intuition. There can be a sense of accumulating understanding that speaks of an experiential kind of knowing that cannot be articulated or contained in a few rhetorical dot points. It is an approach where the sense of spending time and being open to ‘nothing’ happening and seeing where that might lead is valued as part of the process of coming to know.

My interest lies in how an artistic practice can shift the work of documentary from a didacticism that says, “I know all about this, come and listen to my wise words” towards an ongoing conversation. While the notion of an “art work” can have the effect of elevating the artist and the work above the ordinary, the openness of expression permits room for the audience to bring their own understandings to bear on the issues under consideration with the attendant possibility for greater and more deeply experienced impact. In the admission of uncertainty and the acknowledgement of complexity, the agency of the audience and their ability to know something in multiple ways is mobilised.

Bettina Frankham

Recreating the Unknown

All performance art is marginal, but some is more marginal than others.

Much of the discussion and activity around performance recreation is focused
on relatively ‘famous’ artists. This is essentially inevitable because in
order to make a recreation there has to be some documentation of the
original action available in the public domain and the published, accessible
histories of performance art still tend to feature a narrow selection of
familiar names.

For me, the very obscurity of many performance artists and their work is
almost intrinsic to the very form of performance art and it is something
that any history of performance art, or attempts at recreating performance
work, should consider engaging with.

Confronted with fragmentary documentation of an obscure artist’s work and
lacking a more detailed historical context, then the act of recreation can
operate as a tool of exploration when other forms of research are not

I propose that recreation can act as a way of sharing an experience, showing
someone else something that you, personally find interesting, or even
exploring something that you found interesting without knowing exactly why.

Chris Hewitt

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.

‘Radio documentary production and critical ethnography: the making of La Frontera’

‘La Frontera’ is a 48 minute radio documentary produced and broadcast in 2010 for the ABC, which puts together the pieces in regards to the conflict engulfing the Mexico/United States border. I argue that the journalistic practices engaged in to produce this feature constitute a reflexive form of critical ethnography. In this presentation I want to explain and reflect on some of the major contradictions that making ‘La Frontera’ revealed, and the practices I engaged in to make a cognitive map in sound. In theorizing journalistic practices I want to contend that documentaries made for the medium of radio can be a powerful and even transformative form of knowledge production – with a potentially a global audience.

Colm McNaughton

Let’s Take This Outside – Locative Documentary Forms

Locative Media is in essence the use of media to augment place. Experience of location is however always augmented by memory, imagination and response to environment while walking and motion through space creates a type of fundamental narrative. This presentation uses discussion of three locative projects, a monologue fiction for freeway drivers, a locative essay about national aesthetics and a locative history documentary for pedestrians to discuss the possibilities and restriction of locative documentary.

All three of these projects attempt to intensify, subvert and deepen the resonance of the places they are designed to be experienced in.

Chris Caines

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

“I believe that the next generation of cinema — broadband cinema — will add multiple windows to its language. When this happens, the tradition of spatial narrative which twentieth century cinema suppressed will re-emerge once again.” — Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media.

How do the documentary form’s strategies for creating meaning change when it moves to multiple screens (or windows) as film & video installation art? When montage, instead of being temporal, becomes spatial?

The documentary subject matter with which Adam explores these ideas is anthropogenic climate change. Specifically, the disconnect between the way we live our lives and the effects of our actions upon the environment.

Without delivering a climate change polemic, it is perhaps timely to explore how this crucial dissociation, of cause and effect, of today’s action and tomorrow’s result, of behaviour here and outcome there, might be addressed through a formalistic development: documentary polyptychs.

Adam Sébire

The Creative Pursuit of Everchanging Actuality

In most cultures that have grown from the Enlightenment, there used to be agreement that reality is something solid and weighty, even if it is often obscured or disguised. Indeed the Enlightenment has this idea in its very name: there’s something out there, something like actuality or truth, but it tends to rest in darkness unless the clarifying practices of inquiry, remembrance, analysis and knowledge-synthesis shine light on it. The enlightened person had to reveal the states of existence, to show what really mattered.

Note these words: ‘matter’ and ‘state’. They carry with them the idea that the real world is dependably static at its true core. The real world is not flighty or airy. It is solid. Therefore any activity, such as documentary, which pledges allegiance to the real world, must treat this solid actuality as creatively as possible, so that the truths subtending the real world can be revealed afresh.

But is reality actually solid like this nowadays? Does the old nominalism still hold? What happens when reality is understood as negotiated and ever-altering, when CHANGE is the main quality of most peoples’ real experience? What does it mean when one of the most popular and influential books on realism from recent years — David Shields’ Reality Hunger — is all bites and flighty contentions, all skitter and cross-reference, unconcerned with deep fundaments, more concerned with associative sparks and shimmers of momentary insight? What if reality no longer has status, depth, solidity but rather has quickness and dynamics? What then, is documentary practice, when changefulness defines the world over time?

Professor Ross Gibson
Keynote Address