Fillip 10 — Fall 2009

Harun Farocki, <em>Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik</em>, 1995.

Re: Documentary Practices

Fionn Meade and Jayce Salloum

Jayce Salloum: It’s rather odd to be writing to a complete stranger, especially considering the predicament we have accepted. We don’t know each other, our mutual acquaintances may exist but this feels like something between a blind date set up by Fillip or some other awkward connect via a chatline-net dating service, or perhaps a form of Texas hold ’em, anyways, I like to gamble, not so good at bluffing, but remember, everything 
I write to you could be a lie, compelling or otherwise, but hey, don’t blame me, as that is what representation is, in a way we are all liars, the inadequacies of representation belie this, but what else do we have to work with stereotypes there is a grain of truth in all of it (representation). I don’t lose sleep over any of this—but I must admit I was writing this in bed last night. Hmm.... Let me begin again and I’ll try not to start off on the wrong foot ... so ... our suggested subject, “Documentary Forms and Contemporary Art” ... I don’t think it gets any drier or post/out-dated. I would’ve thought we have moved beyond this ... whether the separation of terms (documentary and contemporary art) is incidental or meant to be provocative, in either case I’ll take the bait and throw this into the ring, an [edited] quote from JLG, which I’ve carried around for a while, sandwiched somewhere between Gibran, Khalil and Göring, Hermann:

A distinction is usually drawn between Lumière and Méliés. Lumière, they say, is documentary, and Méliés is fantasy. But today, what do we see when we watch their films? We see Méliès filming the reception of the King of Yugoslavia.... A newsreel, in other words. And at the same time we find Lumière filming a family card game in the Bouvard et Pécuchet manner [of Flaubert’s unfinished posthumously published novel, in which two solemn petty bourgeois are determined to master every field of knowledge in turn.] In other words, fiction. Let us be more precise and say that what interested Méliès was the ordinary in the extraordinary; and [what interested] Lumière the extraordinary in the ordinary.[1]

This is from 1966—seems like long ago :)—but discussions like this surely have been going on for alas centuries if not longer, since paleolithic cave painting? — what’s that, about 32,000 years, so maybe we should put this baby to bed and let it rest like many of us have. I know much work that is being made and unfortunately along with this many curators have taken up this fetishization of “truth vs./+ fiction,” as if you can have one without the other. I would venture and say that anyone that makes a big deal of this is still figuring it out. Recently I was working on a project in Afghanistan, for the most part with Hazara people, walking down the dusty muddy cold hot wet streets of Bamiyan one spring day I thought, what the hell, why don’t 
I try photographing people—something I never really did due to an internal critique—adopted back in 1979 while living in San Francisco and the dominance of (objectifying) street and (sterile) urban/social landscape photography being made and bantered about—I didn’t speak any Hazaragi or Dari (still don’t) except for the word “good” and the usual greetings, but as I walked up and down the street “speaking” in gestures with one word at my disposal, and being alone (my translator and driver having dumped me so they could have an a few hours off to check their e-mail, nap, and have more tea), I began a process of making portraits of people, I just had to make one, and then show it to the next person so he could see what I was doing and get his approval and so on.... So I made my way down the street and had soon amassed a collection of 60 or 70 images made at a close range while holding the camera up between the person and me, for just long enough until the smiles stopped, and there was that space/time where an unsureness arose, a faint question, then I took the picture. I wasn’t sure what if anything I would do with these but what interested me was the interstitial questionable interlayered moment of indecision, and how any expressions and images of a face could be made and read to be connected to that place, time, and condition and position(s) on both sides of the frame or in front of it, and if not, what it was I ended up with. I’ve started showing preliminary versions of the installation and I continue working with those images, but I still don’t know if the meanings are recuperable of that space/recoverable/useful in any way shape or form. One of the most poignant single images so far is of a blind man sitting by the side of the road in the middle of seemingly nowhere on a mountain pass, palms held out, blessing us as we drove by. That’s a picture I didn’t make.

I liked that Walter Benjamin quote from 1934 that you used: “Rather than ask, ‘what is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?’ I should like to ask, ‘what is its position in them?’” Nicely states much of what is ignored in the ”contemporary art world” today.

Fionn Meade: There’s something in your decision to forego previous edicts and simply allow yourself to take pictures and gesture yourself to the space in between that seems recuperative of encounter rather than record or document. And don’t you think acknowledging that we perform the limits of self-regard when portraying a given subject is one of the recurrent challenges for so-called documentary practices? Perhaps this is something you’ve brought to the fore in the recent project? But as you intimated in quoting Jean-Luc Godard’s inversion of cinema’s first split, the documentary trajectory is a particularly fraught one as it repeatedly claims a criticality that seeks to refuse both ontology and narrative. Indeed, the way that Godard flips the oft-ascribed divide between Georges Méliès’ escapism and Lumière’s realism reveals the false dichotomy that lies at the centre of so many discussions of the moving image and its engagement with the real. For, as Godard underscores, Méliès did, in fact, shoot newsreels just as Louis Lumière’s early catalog included a range of domestic follies and indulgences—_Démolition d’un mur_ (Demolition of a Wall, 1896), for example, was often projected in reverse to the delight of mesmerized audiences. So, in Godard’s apt revision the oft-maligned whimsy of Méliès’ trick-film repertoire actually included political awareness and the “there and now” of the Lumière actualités—forever positioned as single-handedly ushering in the cinematic real—also included a ready appetite for illusion as it were. This reversal definitely makes for a richer origin myth. 

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Image: Harun Farocki, Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik, 1995.

About the Authors

Fionn Meade is a writer and curator living in Seattle whose writing has recently appeared in Bomb Magazine, NYFA Current, and The Stranger among other venues. Nocturnes, a curatorial project exploring animation works by four artists working from their studio practice, will open at the Boise Art Museum next year. He also curates programs at the Henry Art Gallery.

Jayce Salloum has been working in installation, photography, new media, and video since 1975, as well as curating exhibitions, conducting workshops and coordinating cultural events. His work takes place in a variety of contexts, critically engaging itself in the representation of cultural/social/political manifestations and other cultures.

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