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).

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.
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.
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’,

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.

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