Documents Magazine 1992–2004: Part One, Miwon Kwon
Documents, a now defunct magazine created by Helen Molesworth, Miwon Kwon, Margaret Sundell, Chris Hoover, and James Marcovitz, ran for twenty-three issues, produced between 1992 and 2004 in New York City. Within that period, the publication carved out a unique and rigorous model of interdisciplinary engagement with contemporary art and the broader social and cultural field. Fillip heard about this publication through art historian, critic, and curator Julian Meyers, who has contributed to both magazines. Although Documents is well-known and appreciated within specialized circles, particularly in New York, our decision to spotlight Documents has much to do with how exceedingly difficult it is to find; it has almost no trace online or in library archives, and so its contents have been largely lost to subsequent generations.
Our focus on Documents is spread out between Fillip’s print and online platforms: conversations with Miwon Kwon and Helen Molesworth appear in print alongside a partial reprint of Documents Issue 4/5’s “Terror and Terrorism” survey (1994); a conversation with Margaret Sundell appears online alongside other selections from the “Terror and Terrorism” survey. These articles and artist projects have been scanned directly from the magazine, in order to highlight Documents’ design in addition to its content.
Our heartfelt thanks to all the editors for their support in producing this feature, as well as to the “Terror and Terrorism” survey authors, who graciously granted permission to reproduce their work. Their enthusiasm about the project almost two decades later is a testament to the energy and interest Documents produced in its twelve-year existence.
Thanks are also due to Julian Myers, Johanna Burton, Ann Butler, David Senior, Liza Eurich, Noah Chasin, and Victoria Lum.
Part One: Miwon Kwon
Amy Zion – Not surprisingly, contemporary magazines are focusing on ideas and topics that Documents investigated less than ten years ago such as privacy, labour, taste, and feminism, among others. We’d like to excavate a small section of an early issue of Documents and invite its editors to provide perspectives on the project, as well as context for the excerpt. So, to begin, what stands out to you as Documents’ legacy after its twelve-year run?
Miwon Kwon – I am most proud of certain structural things that we put into play. For instance, we invited artists to do projects specifically for the pages of Documents, and then commissioned multiple responses to the project. I think we might have been one of the first to present Gabriel Orozco’s series of photographs, along with two responses, a letter to Orozco by Laura Hoptman and a piece I wrote about the difference between photographs as documentation and photographs as primary works of art.
In the beginning, we tried to think of Documents as a quarterly, but in reality it was almost more like an annual, with the early issues being much larger volumes than the later ones. In our first issue we started off with multiple reviews of Bravo 20: The Bombing of the American West, a photo project by Richard Misrach that incorporates a park proposal for the atomic testing grounds. The reviewers ranged from Claire Pentecost, an artist, to Andrew Ross, an American cultural studies professor, and myself. So, already in that selection and setup, we were taking a multidisciplinary outlook on the evaluation of an art project that, in itself, engaged several different disciplines. We also devoted enough pages to artists’ work to fully represent a very complex project. It is of note that Claire responded with a fictional narrative inspired by Misrach’s photos. This section on Bravo 20 was followed by a conversation between Mark Dion and three of the editors (Helen, Jim, and myself). This issue also included what would become a regular feature in Documents, what we called a “survey.” For the inaugural issue, the topic of the survey was “boredom,” with nine respondents ranging from artists to a psychoanalyst, to an art historian, an activist, etc.
Zion – I noticed throughout Documents that whenever a survey appears, it has the same introductory format: a title page with monochromatic, halftone images that relate to or represent the topic surveyed. A column, appearing on the left-hand side, lists the names of respondents, and then a paragraph, written by the editor of that particular survey, contextualizes the survey along with a dictionary-like definition. Would you say this “survey” structure, which is included in the first issue and up to Issue 19, is representative of Documents’ larger ethos?
Kwon – Probably. The “Boredom” survey provided a structure we tried to follow in future issues, like in Issue 3, the survey topic was “Passing,” as in passing for somebody else, something else.... Issue 4/5, which came out as a double issue in 1994, had a survey on “Terror and Terrorism.”
Zion – So, earlier issues are more representative of your initial goals, to produce larger volumes centred around these surveys, which don’t become themes, but operate more as organizing principles for the issue, ideas that parallel projects by artists and writers could compliment?
Kwon – I definitely think so. By Issue 8, the initial conceptualization lost a little energy because of certain practical demands of trying to manage the size, or scale, of production. Conceptually, the first issues are more fully in line with our goals in my opinion.
Zion – Since Documents is so hard to track down, I haven’t seen a complete set yet, but I can see what you are talking about, that you were trying to create a more kaleidoscopic view on any given topic, exhibition, or artist’s practice. What initially inspired you to get together and create a magazine?
Kwon – There were five of us and we were all involved with the Whitney Independent Study Program although not at the same time. Initially, I believe it was Helen Molesworth and Christopher Hoover who started talking about making a journal. They initiated conversations with a few people—James Marcovitz, who has since left the art world and works in the legal profession, was one of the first. Then, I believe I was the next person they approached. I am older than them and I had more publication experience, even at that point, as with design and printing. Then Margaret Sundell was the fifth person, and she had much more background in arts funding and the gallery world. I’m not certain if those were the reasons why we were invited, but we each brought different skills, different experiences, to the project.
One the one hand, we shared a desire for a venue or a forum for art-related discussions that were not bound to the commercial gallery structure. We thought most magazines were tied to this structure. On the other hand, we didn’t want to be locked into a theoretically exclusive, scholarly academic discourse that had a very limited audience. We believed there was a space in between the commercial and the overly academic in which very intelligent writing, unexpected, non-formulaic approaches to thinking about art practice and art interpretation could be brought forward. We were trying to make a publication we wanted to read.
We were also motivated by an understanding of art as “cultural work,” as a means to engage with fields and disciplines beyond art and as a means to impact culture in a broader way. We wanted to break existing categorical divisions in terms of the types of art and writing that were privileged in art publications. We further wanted to break perceived barriers between cultural zones of activity, meaning that commercial activity could be on par with high theory, that small film and architectural projects are as interesting and significant as an art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. I suppose we were reflective of what has been called a postmodernist expansion of art discourse. But we tried to pursue this expansion with rigour; we were very conscious of the problems that accompanied a lot of interdisciplinary endeavours at the time...the pluralist trap of the more the better and “anything and everything is equally viable.” So I do not actually feel comfortable with the term you used just now, “kaleidoscopic,” to describe what Documents tried to do.
For us, the purpose of having multiple views on a project or topic, for example, was a way to create really precise constellations and not simply to show that, wow, there are really diverse viewpoints. Or that no one has the final word. If we just did that, then it becomes simply entertainment. One just experiences an accumulation of different tastes, opinions—or something like that. Maybe the line is not that clear between what I am trying to describe as a very rigorous multiplicity versus pluralism, but we were going for the former not the latter. I think pluralism basically allows for many different positions to just coexist. What we wanted to do instead was to make them cross or contradict relationally, so that five or more voices, for instance, could actually interrogate each other obviously or indirectly in the pages of Documents.
Zion – Can you talk about a specific example? Are there any famous or successful “crosses” or “contradictions” that come to mind?
Kwon – I am looking at Issue 6, where we had an essay by Walt Odets, a clinical psychologist, about AIDS education, and then we had an artist’s project by Zoe Leonard about the body, in particular the broken body, the open body, which resonates with the AIDS piece, obviously. Then we had multiple reviews of Judith Butler’s book Bodies That Matter (1993), followed by a rather deadpan photo project by Tom Burr about public toilets in New York City, which could be taken as a study of an architectural type, a view onto a neglected urban space of private bodily management, as well as an investigation of “queer” social space. In the same issue we also had a very long survey featuring twelve responses to the topic of “habits,” particularly bodily habits. So the whole issue in some ways could be seen as a “body issue”—but we weren’t interested in the body as a theme per se because such themes can be just reductive product packaging. For me, the publication’s real substance emerged in between things, between the articles, projects, responses. Again, it was about creating a structure that allowed for that.
Zion – When I began researching Documents, I was able to search its content, since all the articles have been entered into the Getty Research Index. However, you have to know what you’re looking for when you use this resource. There is no way to access this content digitally, as PDFs, for instance. Part of our interest in presenting Documents here is to bring attention to this issue; we want to find a way to make Documents accessible once again. It is important to us that the unique discussions and debates from this period do not disappear, since even just ten years later, the same topics continue to re-emerge and re-circulate. It’s almost as if my generation is left to reinvent the wheel again.
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About the Author
Miwon Kwon is faculty at UCLA where she teaches contemporary art history (post-1945). She was a founding co-editor and publisher of Documents, and serves on the advisory board of October magazine. She is the author of One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (MIT Press, 2002), as well as lengthy essays on the work of many contemporary artists.