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 http://www.bogost.com/blog/latour_litanizer.shtml
  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, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19267930

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. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/56328?rskey=ByymBe&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed September 05, 2012).
  2. “lesson, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/107483?rskey=vVrJDv&result=1 (accessed September 05, 2012).

Documentary and the cinematic thought machine

Provocation by Bettina Frankham

First Chaldaic Oracle
There is something you should know.
And the right way to know it
is by a cherrying of your mind.

Because if you press your mind towards it
and try to know
that thing

as you know a thing,
you will not know it.
It comes out of red

with kills on both sides,
it is scrap, it is nightly,
it kings your mind.

No. Scorch is not the way
to know
that thing you must know.

But use the hum
of your wound
and flamepit out everything

right to the edge
of that thing you should know.
The way to know it

is not by staring hard.
But keep chiselled
keep Praguing the eye

of your soul and reach—
mind empty
towards that thing you should know

until you get it.
That thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is.
–Anne Carson

Documentary practice is a way to think the world.  It is a formulating, a historicising, a narrativising of a world that is often otherwise chaotic and confusing. However if we are to engage with the way of knowing advocated in the above poem, it is to come through lateral approaches, patience, perhaps even intuition. There is 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. This is also 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 “that thing you should know” [i].

My interest lies in how an artistic practice can shift the work from a didacticism that says, “I know all about this topic, come and listen to my wise words”.  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 that thing”[ii]in multiple ways is mobilised.

The work I am currently editing, How many ways to say you?, is intended to create an experience through the audio-visual material of the film both as an echo of my experience travelling through Cambodia but also as a way to think through ideas of relationship, history, memory and representation.   At the time of filming there were constant questions raised for me about the impact of recent Cambodian history upon people’s (both locals’ and visitors’) being, their interactions with each other and ways of understanding this world.  My approach to and treatment of the raw footage has been an attempt to explore these ideas.  Through a methodology that has notions of photogénie [iii] at its core, I am trying to convey a sense of the affective impact that this place and these people had, and continue to have, on me.

The material of the film is arranged according to a poetic structure that is based on fragmentary sketches of the relationships implied through the use of the different ‘you’ words that appear in Khmer.  The footage can be described as adopting an observational style, inasmuch that, in filming, I have frequently taken a position of standing back and watching, waiting for moments of interaction and absorbing the scenes on which I have trained the camera.  While filming frequently has the effect of taking one out of the current, physical moment, in this instance, the camera actually facilitated a way of looking that was more akin to accretion than analysis.  It became a way to approach understanding rather than an attempt to subdue, preserve and pin down the world in front of the lens [iv].  The camera became a point of conversation and interaction with people, as those standing with me behind the camera would tell those in front that they were on camera and what they could see.

This kind of interaction is indicative of the overall intention for the work.  In contrast to a more strict interpretation of an observational mode of production, certain aesthetic techniques have been used to undercut the realist style of the footage.  There is a twofold motivation to this approach.  Firstly, it is part of a reflexive strategy.  By emphasising aesthetic choices I am attempting to negotiate some of the ethical problems of an observational visual style [v].  While there are sections where the subjects appear unaware of the camera, I have tried to balance this out by drawing out the moments where the subjects look back and engage with my presence.  Through using a frame within the frame, motion effected video (slow motion and time lapse), filters to create different visual textures, long dissolves and text on screen the constructed nature of the work is also made blatantly apparent.  Secondly, the aesthetic treatment is part of a conceptual approach that seeks to address what-has-yet-to-be-thought through images, their appearance and combination.  In embracing a Deleuzian notion of the “cinematic thought machine”[vi] I am working to draw out aspects of intuitive and perceptual knowledge through the very particular aesthetic approach of this film.  This isn’t an attempt to duplicate reality but to create an experience of the film in itself.

Although fragmented, the work does try to convey a sense of people as individuals with lives beyond what is captured in the frame.  While their images do constitute the aesthetic material of the work it is my intention to imply lives lived beyond that are much greater than the framing of this film.  Their presence gives some dimension to the abstract concepts of the different ways to say you but the clear boundaries of the inner frame indicate the limits of these representations.  It is my hope that they don’t simply stand in as archetypes to represent a word.  Through their looking back and engagement with the viewer through the device of the camera I hope to denote their particularity and unique humanity.

The combination of a few, basic English phrases, my fairly sketchy grasp of Khmer and the process of filming prompted many exchanges and the gift of time in halting conversation. Using a standard definition pro-sumer video camera, filming took place with the small in-built LCD most often turned towards the subjects.  This enabled me to capture the looking back of subjects as they are both watching themselves and returning the unblinking stare of the camera.  However, this wasn’t a longitudinal filming process associated with an ethnographic methodology.  These are brief glimpses and fragments accumulated over a three and a half week period of independent travel through Cambodia.  So while the material may have an observational appearance, the container or structure of the work reflects the fragmentary nature of the experience. These are snapshots rather than detailed studies.  Nonetheless they are moments of significance, instances of impact drawn out from their quotidian context for closer examination.  There also remains a sense of time unfolding through the work with a languid flow to the pacing created through long dissolves, slowed footage and a feeling of lingering on moments of quotidian beauty.  Time is also spent with people, situations and otherwise passing instances as a way to explore how they might connect with the title word of each section.

My creative practice in making How many ways to say you, is a key part of my research.  Through my research I am interested to expand the range of what constitutes knowledge in a documentary context.  I want to advocate for the importance of conveying experience and the role that an aestheticised approach has in offering up that experience in a way that encourages audience connection.  In many ways this means that I am working at the edges of what might properly be considered documentary.  I am exploiting the use of actuality to establish documentary credentials.  I am playing around with issues of indexicality to see how far I can push it before the connection with the real is weakened to the point of loss.  I am drawing on materials from the world to conjure something of the experience and the emotion of an encounter.  I am trying to embed theory, ideas and concerns in the very way that I treat and approach the material.  I am working to generate a practice that addresses issues in an essayistic way.  It is a tentative approach that acknowledges complexity, difference, difficulty, lack, insufficiency and incompleteness.  I’m interested in the territory of documentary that doesn’t seek to be an expert witness but that can engage with serious issues nonetheless.  It is my contention that this combination is possible through a poetic approach to documentary.

[i]^ Carson, A. 2000,Men in the off hours, A. A. Knopf, New York.
[ii]^ ibid
[iii] ^ See http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/great-directors/jean-epstein/ for a discussion of this somewhat nebulous concept.
[iv] ^ By the same token it was also important to acknowledge moments where I needed to put the camera aside and be present, letting my memory be the record rather than have a recorded image become my memory.
[v] ^ Among the criticisms, charges of ‘visualism’ has seen observational work come to signify “a distanced, disembodied, controlling gaze that objectified human subjects and denied them agency and history” (Grimshaw, A. & Ravetz, A. 2009, ‘Rethinking observational cinema’, JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL INSTITUTE, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 538-56.)
[vi] ^Huygens, I. 2007, ‘Deleuze and Cinema:  Moving Images and Movements of Thought’, Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], no. 18, viewed 21/05/2012, http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/thinking_pictures/huygens.htm.

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.

Speculative Documentary

How to describe the contemporary state of documentary? Is the term “documentary” itself any longer adequate to describe the complex set of ways in which dimensions of non-fiction (itself a problematic concept) are explored and elaborated? Perhaps in employing it, in imagining that documentary can become ‘expanded’, we are just demonstrating a residual and nostalgic affection for a field that no longer has the power to encompass what John Grierson defined in the early 1930s as “the creative treatment of actuality”.[1]

The problem, curiously enough, is less that that documentary has lost relevance altogether than it seems to have pursued multiple, incompatible fates. It is at once everywhere – in reality television, advertising, fiction film, pornography, surveillance and web-cam footage – and nowhere; the critical auteurist tradition of documentary has largely disappeared. In disappearing, however, the latter tradition has also endlessly proliferated in all manner of well-observed and disarmingly particular blogs [2], as well as small on-line videos that, while never attracting a wide audience, nonetheless seem, however unsatisfactorily, to realize the democratic aims of the older tradition. Yet it is not just a matter of at once appearing and disappearing. Documentary has also been transformed. This has involved not just being realized in other terms, via new forms of media, new modes of networked distribution, and so on, but also, more precisely, by taking shape as what is not documentary, what does not think of itself in terms of the language and traditions of documentary – that may even ostensibly oppose itself to the latter’s apparently predictable space.

I am currently teaching a ‘new’ subject entitled, “New Documentary”. I taught similarly titled subjects in the 1980s or early 1990s. Back then everything was very focused on the independent film tradition. The term ‘new’ tended to signal a shift away from the apparent complacency of early documentary traditions, with their fond faith in notions of documentary truth and the like, towards forms that were explicitly self-reflexive, essayistic, and possibly included fiction or performance elements. Aligned with post-structural and post-modern critical theory, new documentary involved a focus on the politics of representation and a questioning of notions of documentary authenticity. Bill Nichols’ well-known catalogue of the various documentary modes – poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive and performative [3] – positioned contemporary documentary practice as a logical limit point (a terminal state of suspicion and self-awareness; like Hegel’s owl of Minerva – only taking flight at dusk [4]). But now none of this seems so certain – not the creative potential of this space, not its public, intellectual standing, not even its confident bracketing of the real.

Just last week I showed my class one of the classic films of that era, Chris Marker’s Sunless (1983). They were profoundly unimpressed, finding it boring, disjointed and self-absorbed. I did my best to defend it, to explain how, for instance, its excessive narration works to undermine the tradition of expository narration, and also to clarify the various explicit and subterranean conceptual threads that tie the various sequences together, but it was to no avail. Appallingly, even for me, the film felt dated. While it remains historically and conceptually significant, I sensed that it no longer quite functions; all its insights concerning time, memory, representation, absence and the ephemeral no longer have the capacity to “quicken the heart”.[5] Is this because these themes are unpopular and have become less popular – or is it because our relation to the world has somehow changed?

In contrast, the students all loved Dennis O’Rourke’s Cunnamulla (1999). The film is just as thoughtful as Sunless, but avoids the latter’s forbidding (and playful) intellectualism, focusing on a subtle and more traditional ethnography of observation and story-telling. In its nodal structure – tying together a portrait of a small town through a mosaic of characters, distinct spaces and crossed paths – Cunnamulla seems now, in hindsight, to anticipate the possibility of forms of interactive, spatial-exploratory documentary (evident, for instance, in contemporary works such as SBS’s The Block (2012) and the Canadian, Katerina Cizek’s, Out My Window (2010) and One Millionth Tower (2011)). Yet at the same time, the artfulness of its interaction with the townspeople and the quality of the film’s observational strategies and editing suggest the dilemmas entailed in structuring modes of interaction that have any of the focus and deftly crafted critical edge of the best linear-sequential work. In this manner, while ostensibly ignoring the future, while appearing as one of the last exemplars of an apparently outmoded documentary tradition, Cunnamulla somehow discovers the capacity to provide a critique of contemporary work and to suggest alternative futures.

The Maysles brother’s Salesman (1967) provides a similar form of inspiration. Whereas in the past discussion may have centred around the limitations and naivete of its fly-on-the-wall observational approach, the film now appears as a intimate, wry and very smart examination of lower-class life in the United States during the mid 1960s. The constructed character of this portrait is plain, but this scarcely emerges as a key issue. It is not even quite, as Roland Barthes, argues in Camera Lucida, that the indexical truth of the depiction becomes paramount.[6] It is rather that the possibility of a relation to the real world no longer takes shape as a radical, irruptive possibility. Nor does a concern with the real appear entirely antithetical to a commitment to mediation and representation. Instead reality and representation seem to have evolved a new more complex and nuanced relationship.

Overall, the experience of revisiting the history of documentary film, watching again, for instance, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Walter Ruttmans’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938), as well as the films already discussed, suggests other ways of making sense of the tradition, not simply in terms of some narrative of gradual critical self-consciousness, but also as a richly diverse field of experimental enquiry into, for instance, aspects of the exotic and the everyday. For example, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, is interesting not only for its symphonic architecture – its powerful choreographing of music, camera movement, editing and modern machinery – but also for its poetic concern for the everyday. I think of blurred views from a train of impoverished living conditions on the outskirts of Berlin and a memorable shot of a piece of paper blowing along an empty street. These moments chart legible associations to the artistic tradition of studies of everyday life, from the Surrealists through to George Perec and ethnographie proche (ethnography of the near)[7]. So, in reviewing the history of documentary film, other histories and other concerns appear. The tradition takes shape less as a progressive critique of the conditions of documentary representation, than as a field of illuminating, half-forgotten creative possibility.[8]

It would be impossible to point to a precise moment when documentary drifted away from the radical artistic tradition, when it became responsible, dull and thoroughly proscribed. The moment never happened and yet has constantly been elaborated. But a single moment will do. In the early days of Situationist critique, Guy Debord produced two documentaries, The Passage of a Few Persons through a Rather Brief Period of Time (1959) and Critique of Separation (1961). These films work precisely at the limit point that I described earlier. They employ representation in order to proclaim its absolute inadequacy, in order to insist that representation must be superseded by direct social action. The long sections of blank white and black footage, which Sunless references later, attest to the concrete materiality of film – the material lie of its shadow world, its empty, socially paralysing truths. And so, with this sense of having reached an end, Debord abandons film, shifting instead towards the realm – the utopia – of the literal situation, however susceptible the latter is to spectacular recuperation.

But, of course, the situation, reconceived as post-object art, as ephemeral event, as performance, etc. must still find a means of becoming publicly manifest. So, with little thought of the documentary tradition – regarded, when it is considered at all, as mainstream, irrelevant and utterly compromised – there is still the recognition of a need for documentation, for a record of that which determinately no longer exists. Yet it quickly becomes evident that while documentation certainly demonstrates an allegiance to the absent event, it also shapes another space – of display, installation and performance. Apart from just recording what happens, it plainly manifests things in other terms, reflecting upon them, assembling and disassembling them and reconstructing them in the interests of another, equally real, equally distinct event space. In this manner, while clearly not speaking the language of conventional documentary film, traditions of visual art documentation discover a correspondence with the fundamental aesthetic conditions of the documentary genre.

This may perhaps account for strands of contemporary art that explicitly aims to rethink the poetic possibilities of documentary. I am thinking, for instance, of the multi-screen installation work of artists such as Kutlug Ataman, Isaac Julien and Yang Fudong. The interesting thing about their work is the way in which it plainly foregrounds documentary as a play of choreographed light and sound – as a distinct space of embodied real and virtual interaction – while also projecting a new sense of spectacular visceral immediacy. It is as though these tendencies are no longer so clearly opposed. In this manner, a new dialogue between documentation and documentary, between the simplicity of recording and the necessity of aesthetic engagement and intervention, becomes evident.

In summary, our interest in the notion of documentary seems no longer governed by an overwhelming concern with representation as a space of loss. Both the real event and the field of mediation itself have taken shape as concrete, virtual and material fields. A concern with reality – not as a curiosity, not as an ineffable terrain of otherness, but instead as something pressing and intimately configured seems to be characteristic of contemporary practice; evident, for instance, most clearly in strands of socially-geared art. Also evident, of course, in the contemporary philosophical movement of “speculative realism”, which delights in reversing the Cartesian equation, insisting upon the priority of the real over any necessity for human subjects, codes of perception, etc.[9]

So we discover in contemporary expanded practice both an increased awareness of the aesthetic character of the document and a sense that reality has shifted from a distant, ultimately absent referent towards something demanding recognition, engagement and intervention. Within this shift, reality is no longer cast as some determined realm of fact, but as field of opening and manifestation. Resistance is now less about debunking the real and critically elaborating the various machinations of ideological illusion, than about inhabiting the real and enacting its practical reinvention. Within this context, documentary – an unpredictable, multiply configured space – takes shape as a means of conjoining action to speculation. It comes to represent not only a form of reflection, but also a mode of being in the world.

Brogan Bunt


  1. Grierson, J. (1933). “The Documentary Producer”. Cinema Quarterly, 2(1), 7-9.
  2. See, for instance, Lesley Buxton’s blog, Fall on me, Dear – Motherhood, writing and the girl who falls down: http://onmefall.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/putting-out-the-fire-with-gasoline/, accessed 20/8/2012
  3. Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
  4. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Preface (1820): http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/preface.htm, accessed 20/8/2012
  5. A phrase employed in Sunless drawn from 11th century Japanese writings of Sei Shōnagon; Sei Shōnagon (1971). The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. trans. Ivan Morris, London: Penguin Books.
  6. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
  7. See Sherringham, M. 2006 Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford
    here I am indebted to Sigfried Zielinski’s heterological conception of media art history in his 2006 Deep Time of the Media, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England; MIT Press
  8. See, for instance, Harman, Graham. 2010. Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

The Accident

In a culture that likes to document and celebrate its successes, accidents are out of place. Yet no matter how big or how small, the accident has the potential to disrupt any event. Whether we believe the accident to be an essential part of an event or not, it is often in the accidental encounter, or the contingent, non-essential aspect of bodies and their relationships that we find materials for documentary engagement. The unintended slip, the malfunctioning machine, the plane or car crash, and the aftermath, all offer something about experience and our relationships with each other. What is accidental about documentary? How should the accident be documented? In what ways is the accident productive of new aesthetics and new ways of thinking? Weaving together three very different understandings of the accident, this session will examine productive, critical, and painful encounters with the glitch, gaps in transmission, and the blank page.

In a discussion of what it might be to be an “actant”, Jane Bennett raises the historical figure of the deodand (2004, p.355). Enshrined in English Law for nearly 600 years the deodand was an animal or inanimate thing that had caused the death of a human, and as a result must be legally forfeited to the Crown. Bennett highlights the active role of the deodand, for example, a carving knife or a tram or a pig were not necessarily an innocent party to the accident and thus could be tried by a court (pig) or confiscated (tram, carving knife). Furthermore, the law of the deodand distinguished between a thing in motion and a thing standing still. A cart in motion required the whole cart to be forfeited, whereas a fall from a stationary cart would require the forfeit of just the wheel. These guilty objects in motion were afforded agency. The practice of deodand was abolished in 1846; not coincidentally at the same time as the exponential rise of the railways. Too many accidents meant that the ongoing surrender of guilty things would remove most trains from the newly built tracks. Fault had to lie elsewhere. Increasingly complex laws of cause and effect replaced the deodand, but the machines and their accidents did not go away.

In philosophy the accident has a long and contentious history. Aristotle distinguished between substance and accident, arguing that the accidental is a recognition of a thing’s relationships with other things, beings or events. It is through the accident that the thing, being, or event presents itself to others. Aristotle’s accident is a relationship that reveals the substance of something, what it can do, but is not essential to that thing. The cat does not depend on its stripes. Its stripes are a specific accident that it presents to others. However, the stripes, like substances, are both universal and particular (Carriero 1995, p.256).

Fast forward a few thousand years, a few thousand accidents, and we find Gilles Deleuze writing about Frances Bacon’s paintings: “The form is no longer essence, but becomes accident; humankind is an accident. The accident opens up a space between the two planes, which is where the fall occurs” (Deleuze 2005, p.94). Deleuze ties a body back together with its accident. The body cannot be thought without accidents, and we know it not through what it is (striped) but through what it does (always falls on its feet). If humankind is an accident, documenting the fall could be a first step. But we might also want to think about where and how documentation occurs.

We all know that accidents are necessary. Experience is formed from them; as children this is how we begin to know nature, force, properties, gravity, and the limits and extents of our body. As parents we carefully document each faltering step. Nevertheless, the precise location of an accident remains a matter of ongoing debate. Mistakes come out of nowhere, accidents are more often than not a result of a special kind of event that occurs between bodies and bodies, or, bodies and machines, or, machines and machines – however we would like to define them. As the deodand demonstrated; to witness an accident is to play a part in the outcome.

In the contemporary world, complex machines bring their accidents with them. For example, Paul Virilio (2004; Lotringer 2005) argued that the ‘accident of art’ results from a proliferation of images that has lead to complex relations between seeing, knowing, and imagining a world: the generalized accident. In identifying a shift from the accidental as caused by relations between bodies (Aristotle’s specific accident), towards the intended affects of that body, Virilio’s generalised accident also (problematically) elides the difference between accident and attack. The lurking presence of catastrophe became the focus of Virilio’s ‘Museum of Accidents’ project at the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 2002 in which a disturbing romantic sheen was placed over the horror produced by accidental encounters between machines and architectures (Cubitt, 1999) and in particular the events of 9/11.

In the ‘Museum of Accidents’ images were placed together in order to encourage the appearance of some kind of essential connection; links between the nodes. The problem with this kind of exhibition of accidents is that the individual experience or event are not in themselves positioned or read as transformative or traumatic, but become fixed images. Once an accident is an image it can be traded and searched, and removed from context and affect it appears without properties. (Try a Google image search for ‘accidents’ – no longer tied to actuality, the Google accident does not require a subject for completeness). In harvesting machines or media into the service of accident, Virilio’s exhibition, like the Google search, demonstrates that in exhibiting, performing, or even reporting the accident there is a very real risk in aestheticizing trauma. If so, can the accident be documented? Is it at all possible to report on an accident without buying into the horror; or what we might understand as the perversely affective spectacle of another person’s pain. And conversely, do we have to take the accident so seriously that it removes our ability to speak? It seems that not all accidents are equal.

Of course prevention is the best cure. But risk management is just that, management. Control lies somewhere else. The accident can be humorous or catastrophic, personal or collective. America’s Funniest Home Videos – America’s longest running prime time television programme – is built on the predictability rather than unpredictability of the accident.

If each machine contains a concept of accident, encounters that recognize the creative potential of failure and instability are crucial to a twenty-first century understanding of ourselves, our relationships with others, and the catastrophes we live with and within. The accident as experimentation and exploration has contributed a particular aesthetics to practices in digital art and sound. Most of us curse the set top box as digital drop out prevents clear transmission and we spend our lives tweaking knobs to ensure glitches do not occur. Others relish the unexpected failure as creative possibility. The issue is not whether the accident occurs but where and how. How do we capture it? Reproduce it? Document it? The need to understand our own relationships with each other and the objects and things around us, still underlies the ongoing fascination and need for documentation of accidents in all their manifestations. Knowing something might go wrong keeps the news reporter at their desk and the experimental musician at their laptop.

Hillel Schwartz aligns noise with the accident of the machine. He says that working alongside a machine for long periods means we can intimately recognise its sounds, and that any shift implies a potential accident. Of necessity, the worker must remain attentive. A screech out of place could signal disaster. However, in this state of sustained and “tensed alertness”⁠ (Schwartz, p.349) we are more likely to slip up. At particular risk are the airline pilot and the long haul driver. As we listen to our machines, accidents occur.

Did you hear something?

Dr. Su Ballard, University of Wollongong


Bennett, Jane. 2004. “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter.” Political Theory no. 32 (3, June): 347-372.
Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Bogost, Ian. 2012. The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder. The Atlantic. Accessed 26 June 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/
Carriero, John. 1995. “On the Relationship between Mode and Substance in Spinoza’s Metaphysics” Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33 no.2, April: 245-273
Cubitt, Sean. 1999. “Unnatural Reality: Review of Paul Virilio The Vision Machine.” Film-Philosophy no. 3 (9 February). Accessed 26 June 2012. http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n9cubitt
Deleuze, Gilles. 2005. Frances Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. New York: Continuum.
Lotringer, Sylvere, and Paul Virilio. 2005. The Accident of Art, Semiotext(e)/ Foreign Agents. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Schwartz, Hillel. 2011. Making Noise from Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond. New York: Zone Books.
Virilio, Paul. 2004. “The Museum of Accidents” in Steve Redhead. The Paul Virilio Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, p.255-262.

Glitching the document

Provocation by Caleb Kelly


Pia Van Gelder, Synchresizer, 2011

Glitch, an unexpected occurrence, unintended result, or break or disruption in a system, cannot be singularly codified, which is precisely its conceptual strength and dynamical contribution to media theory. (Rosa Menkman)

The glitch is the digital tick caused by lost or incorrect binary code. This error in the transmission of data has proven to be a positive generative moment, the accident, the failure is here understood as a positive outcome. If the modernist dream of utopia is to be taken at face value then the end point of mediation is the perfect transparent and clear media object. The glitch in media art, however, is a valorisation of the lost belief in this goal as artists turn their backs on the dream of seamless data flow and instead force digital accidents that proceed to become core components of digital production.

Glitch flourished in the mid-1990s within experimental music. In part this was spurred by the then new access to computers and new media production tools. A surge of experimentation occurred with these new tools and the glitch developed as a process that opened up the clean and structure digital studio to chance, the accident and noise. Central to these practices is the documentation of failure, and of the accident. Certain types of failure where seen as productive and generative, (while others where not quite right) and thus were exploited for future use through recording and sequencing techniques. Interestingly the glitch was quickly assimilated into formal modes of production and its initial power to provide a political rebuttal of official modes of communication was rapidly lessened. The glitch became just another tool in the digital paint-box.

Glitch as an aesthetic interest has resurfaced in recent years. This renewed focus is not without issue and raises questions about why this is happening now and questions of there being any remaining power to the process – is this just digital eye-candy?

In addition to the digital glitch there has also been an overt reuse of analogue tools such as synthesizers for sound and image production. A local example is Pia Van Gelder whose work fuses sound and image in a grainy and brightly coloured array of error patterns. The use of these analogue tools raises the question, Why when we have a computer would one wish to return to old technologies such as synthesizers? Patch based synths cost more than computers to purchase and require specialist knowledge to run. The final output seems little more than feedback and could be very simply achieved in digital production.

Recently a virulent debate was sparked around a visual research blog entitled ‘The New Aesthetic’. The New Aesthetic sought to frame an emergent aesthetic that captures a blurring of digital workspaces and ‘real-life’ – mental and algorithmic universes are entangled through disturbances and bugs. Software infrastructure was seen to merge with our real life, opening a fertile ground for the transgression of the digital glitch into the everyday. In part this may be generated using locative media (mobile phones for example) as the computer left the office space a long time ago.

LoVid, ‘iParade’, http://www.lovid.org/iparade/

This raises wide reaching questions around the accident and the document. The blurring of the digital and mediated realism has long been discussed (think photoshop and pro-tools) but this has most often been an issue with the representation of reality. The New Aesthetic further blurs this with an incursion of the digital directly onto and into the everyday. The accident then becomes an aesthetic and a new way of thinking within and beyond mobile and social medias.

Stories from the margins

Provocation by Siobhán McHugh

 To ignore and exorcise subjectivity as if it were only a noxious interference in the pure data is ultimately to distort and falsify the nature of the data themselves.
(Portelli 1997:80)

An award-winning 1974 analysis of African-American slavery, Time on the Cross, written by Nobel prizewinner Robert Fogel and his colleague Stanley D. Engerman, focuses on the economics of slavery: the conditions under which slaves worked and the efficiency and organisation of Southern American slave plantations. Among their painstaking data, they note that  slaves tended to be whipped an average of 0.7 times a year. That’s a fact. But it bears little relation to reality. Because NO slave could ever have been whipped 0.7 times. You were either whipped or not whipped.

Former slave Frederick Douglass was less in thrall to facts. When he set out to write his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892), he was advised by well-meaning abolitionists to stick to the facts, so as to gain credibility. Instead, he included observations and opinion, discussing for instance, not just how often he was beaten but the degree of sadism with which the beatings were executed. Far from being irrelevant, his judgements are both liberating and illuminating, contends the Italian oral history theorist, Alessandro Portelli. ‘The discovery of difference, especially inner difference, is the first step toward recognising the humanity of one’s oppressors and thus affirming their own, which their oppressors deny: ‘I therefore began to think that they [white people] were not all of the same disposition…’ (Portelli 1997:80)

So is difference a positive or a negative force when it comes to one person documenting another’s lived experience? And how do different differences play out in the recorded exchange: gender, class, age, culture, power?

Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer prize-winning American broadcaster and author, recorded some 9,000 interviews with people from all demographics. He did not see the everyday lives he revealed – clerks, hookers, conveyor belt workers – as ‘ordinary’, but as ‘uncelebrated’. He did not see the exchanges as interviews, but as opening ‘the sluice gates of dammed hurts and dreams’. (Terkel 1972: xx)  A white, leftist, secular Jew, his work documents quintessential themes of American society, from race and class to war and capitalism, from a multiplicity of perspectives.

One of his biggest discoveries was that listening matters. Not so much WHO listens, but the act of being heard. He often talked about a poor black American woman he impulsively recorded one day. Seeing her, with two or three children, staring into an empty shop window, Terkel politely asked what she was looking at.

‘Oh, dreams, I’m just looking at dreams.’ So I’ve got my tape recorder and I switch it on and I say ‘Good dreams, bad dreams?” And she starts to talk… and when she stops talking after eight, maybe ten minutes or so, one of them [her children] says, ‘Hey mom, can we listen to what you said?’…  so I play it back and she listens to it too. And when it’s over, she gives a little shake of her head and she looks at me and she says, ‘Well until I heard that, I never knew I felt that way.’
(Terkel in Perks & Thomson 2006:126-7)

So, a sense of validation can be a positive outcome for a subject of the documentarian impulse. But what if her story had been found in the archives and used as proof of, say, the fecklessness of an unemployed welfare recipient? Does the documenter elevate, mediate or misrepresent the raw data he/she gathers? And how do we know, if we only see the end product?

What of the documentarian’s duty to interpret? As Italian scholar Luisa Passerini observes: ‘All autobiographical memory is true; it is up to the interpreter to discover in which sense, where, [and] for which purpose’ (Passerini 1989:197). Does this dictum bridge the gaps across power, class, race, culture?

Portelli recently published a forty-year study of Kentucky coal miners (They Say in Harlan County, 2011). He is white, Italian, middle-class, male. His interviews with poor American miners,both black and white, male and female, in his second language, are an exercise in Otherness. Even his transcriptionist was so far removed from the territory she misheard the drawled word ‘serpent’ as ‘servant’. Yet perhaps because of this striking difference, rather than in spite of it, the book is an exemplary portrayal of an isolated community.

Fieldwork is by necessity an experiment in equality based on difference. There must always be a line of difference across which the exchange becomes meaningful, but there must also be at least a line along which we can communicate the desire for a common ground and language that makes the exchange possible – our deep-rooted common human nature.
(Portelli 1997: 60)

So how does this axis of Otherness apply when telling Indigenous stories in Australia? In 2000, Aboriginal filmmaker Darlene Johnson advised SBS that   ‘issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories.’ (Peters Little 2002). But not all Aboriginal filmmakers believe that only Indigenous people should tell Indigenous stories. Frances Peters Little, Indigenous filmmaker (The Tent Embassy) and historian, argues thus:

The notion that Aboriginal filmmakers possess a certain connection to truth and instant rapport with any Aboriginal community or individual is naive. To think that Aboriginal filmmakers can shoot any Aboriginal community and capture the core of their history, politics, culture, personal relationships and social interactions without offending or misrepresenting anyone is presumptuous to say the least. Conversely there are many examples of white filmmakers (who) have made strong connections with Aboriginal individuals asking them to expose the internal disputations within Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal filmmakers while they share in something that is essentially Aboriginal by necessity or nature does not guarantee that they make stronger, more accurate or beneficial films for the Aboriginal community or individual than non-Aboriginal filmmakers. Questions of filmmaking ability (are) involved.

Some argue that ‘prosumer’ film-making will redress power imbalance: anyone with a smartphone can theoretically make a film these days, distribute it online and even have it financed by crowdfunding. SBS is actively developing democratising initiatives in the user-generated field of documentary, as online producer John MacFarlane can testify. Other practitioners, such as Hegelian Marxist and radio documentary-maker Colm McNaughton, eschew film in favour of sound, in order to mitigate issues of trauma and power. Liz Jessen, a Danish radio feature maker, also believes radio to be a far subtler form of storytelling:

In the close-up of a talking woman we see her big mouth, strong nose, narrow eyes, strange hair-do, unfashionable clothing, or whatever else we might decide to comment on as viewers, either to ourselves or to the other people watching. Every tiny impurity in her face is magnified and may distract us. Television can turn into (social) pornography when it moves in on the favourite genre of the radio feature: close-up recordings in which people speak from the heart or body. The beauty can disappear when projected from the screen.
(Jessen 2004: 5)

But how do art and aesthetics marry with politics and ideologies? These are key questions this session will raise. A final thought from filmmaker Ken Burns:

You know it’s often said that the digital revolution that puts a TV camera in everyone’s hands makes everyone a filmmaker. It’s bullshit… What makes someone a filmmaker is somebody who knows how to tell a story … I’ve been doing this for a long time, almost 40 years that I’ve been trying to tell stories with film and I still feel like a student…. and that means that it requires a kind of lifetime of devotion. It isn’t enough just to be there when something happens. It isn’t enough just to record whatever happens. We have to be storytellers and it’s just logical that only a few of us are going to be able to do that … I’m learning. I’m learning. I’m learning.
(Ken Burns 2010)


Burns, K. (2010). “Why Everyone Is Not a Filmmaker “. Retrieved 3 September 2010 from Big Think website at http://bigthink.com/kenburns

Jessen, L. (2004). “All you need is Love, God, Power or Money — an essay on radio narrative”. Retrieved 3 December 2009 from International Features Conference website on http://ifc.blog-city.com/essay_on_documentaries__lisbeth_jessen.htm.

Passerini, L. (1979). “Work ideology and consensus under Italian fascism”. History Workshop. No. 8: 82-108.

Peters Little, F. (2002), “The Impossibility Of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Films”, Art Monthly http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-Jan-2003/peterslittle.html

Portelli, A. (1997). The battle of Valle Giulia: oral history and the art of dialogue. Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin Press,

Terkel, S. (1972). Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. London, Wildwood House.

Terkel, S. (2006). “Interviewing an Interviewer”, in R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader, 2nd edn, London, New York, Routledge, pp123-128.


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’.

Charlie Victor Romeo

NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) Aircraft Incident Report
6. Appendix: Cockpit Voice Recorder Transcript
The following is a provocatively truncated transcript of the L-3 Communications FA2100-1020 solid-state
cockpit voice recorder, serial number XXXXXX, installed In various incarnations of the production Charlie Victor Romeo (CVR), whose text is created therefrom, which overran its original production season by twelve plus years.

CAM (Cockpit area microphone voice) Control and Momentum: The technical execution of CVR mirrors the circumstances of the incidents it represents. A chain of circumstances which, when line up in a precise sequence, can lead to a successful resolution or catastrophe.

HOT (Flight crew audio panel voice) Hearing Outsiders Talk: The recreation of tragedies in the air as depicted by actors in real time was a revelation for many aviation industry professionals. A reading of the cockpit voice recorder is standard in the investigation process. But pilots or investigators do not, as a matter of course, attempt to recreate the emotional tension and cognitive load inherent in these situations.
RDO (Radio transmissions) Reality Deserves Obsessiveness, rigour and a high ethical standard.

CTR (Radio transmission from controller) Central is The Research which evolves throughout the process of rehearsing and lasts as long as the project lives. We learned more about aviation from picking the brains of pilots in the audience whenever possible.

ATIS (Radio transmission from Automatic Terminal Information Service) Attention to Industry Standards which eventually lead CVR to consult with Dr Robert Helmreich, chair of the Human Factors Research Project, Dept. of Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin and author of the definitive book on human factors in aviation, Cockpit Resource Management.

OPS (Radio transmission from the Airlines operations) Other Professionals Started to notice the aviation industry’s standards for training in emergency situations. Many of these were in medicine. Medical professionals, studying team building and technology interface protocols, invited CVR to appear at conventions sponsored by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and the National Patient Safety Board, where these topics were raised.

TWR (Radio transmission from the airport tower controller) after show Talkbacks Were Regular features of the evening’s presentation. CVR delivers very technical terminology as it occurs in the transcripts, largely unedited. Also, due to the emotionally heightened content, a respite to decompress was found useful for both cast and audience. And many other questions about the circumstances around the incidents were raised, which were not addressed in the transcripts.

EGPWS (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System) Every Good Plan Will Suffer in its execution. The solidity of such plans’ foundations can mitigate potential dislocations.

-1 Voice identified as the captain
-2 Voice identified as the first officer
3 Voice identified as the flight attendant
-? Voice unidentified
* Unintelligible word
# Expletive
@ Non-pertinent word
( ) Questionable insertion
[ ] Editorial insertion
Note 1: Times are expressed in mountain standard time (MST).
Note 2: Generally, only radio transmissions to and from the accident aircraft were transcribed.
Note 3: Words shown with excess vowels, letters, or drawn out syllables are a phonetic representation of the words as spoken.
Note 4: A non-pertinent word, where noted, refers to a word not directly related to the operation, control or condition of the aircraft.

CAM-1 you think so? ok lets head for L A.
CAM [sound of faint thump]
CAM-2 you feel that?
CAM-1 yea.
CAM-1 ok gimme sl— see, this is a bitch.
CAM-2 is it?
CAM-1 yea.
CAM [sound of two clicks similar to slat/flap handle movement]
CAM-? *
CAM [sound of extremely loud noise] [increase in background
noise begins and continues to end of recording] [sound
similar to loose articles moving around in cockpit]
CAM-? *
PA [sound similar to CVR startup tone]
CAM-2 mayday.

CAM-1 push and roll, push and roll.
CAM-1 ok, we are inverted… and now we gotta get it….
CAM [sound of chime]
CAM-1 kick *
CAM-1 push push push… push the blue side up.
CAM-1 push.
CAM-2 I’m pushing.
CAM-1 ok now lets kick rudder… left rudder left rudder.
CAM-2 I can’t reach it.
CAM-1 ok right rudder… right rudder.
CAM-1 are we flyin?… we’re flyin… we’re flyin… tell ’em what we’re
CAM-2 oh yea let me get *

CAM-1 *
CAM-1 gotta get it over again… at least upside down we’re flyin.

PA [sound similar to CVR startup tone]
CAM-? *
CAM-? *
CAM [sounds similar to compressor stalls begin and continue to
end of recording]
CAM [sound similar to engine spool down]
CAM-1 speedbrakes.
CAM-2 got it. Appendix B 235 Aircraft Accident Report
CAM-1 ah here we go.
[end of recording]

End of transcript

Irving Gregory