Fillip 10 — Fall 2009

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. 

But I think there’s a bit more to be said here in light of our given topic, as it should be recalled in recasting these beginnings that the Lumière brothers actually attempted La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon, 1895) three times in 1894 and 1895 before getting the 45-second take we all know as the first film. Of course, it’s not all that surprising that the scene would have been staged to a certain extent, but it’s worth noting additionally that the proprietary intimation of the film’s title has been elided over time as the film is widely referred to as simply Workers Leaving the Factory, and, likewise, rarely, if ever, is it mentioned that the “birth of cinema” scene required the assembly of the Lumière workforce—taken from the work benches where they produced Lumière brand photographic equipment—on repeated occasions over a number of months. In other words, the first mirroring of workaday reality in moving images was, in fact, a highly staged incident inflected with the industrialist ambitions and class presuppositions of its makers. Doesn’t this first false divide of cinema continue to inflect discussions of the documentary and the art world’s recent fascination with the term? Certainly, the master narrative of filmic realism always begins here but usually without queries or caveats.

German filmmaker Harun Farocki mines the contradictions and complexities of this originary moment in his film essay Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik (Workers Leaving the Factory, 1995), wherein he assembles a montage of film footage showing workers inhabiting the space before factory walls in scenarios both real and fictive—as part of a strike, melodrama, or end-of-the-day dispersal. In Farocki’s view, there is a trope to be found in this first scene that complicates cinema’s claim on the real at its very inception: 

In the Lumière film of 1895 it is possible to discover that the workers were assembled behind the gates and surged out at the camera operator’s command.... They were released from this regulation at a particular point in time, contained in the process by the factory gates as in a frame. The Lumières’s camera did not have a viewfinder, so they could not be certain of the view depicted; the gates provide a perception of framing which leaves no room for doubt.
The work structure synchronizes the workers, the factory gates group them, and this process of compression produces the image of a work force.... Images are closely related to concepts, thus this film has become a rhetorical figure. One finds it used in documentaries, in industrial and propaganda films, often with music and/or words as backing, the image being given a textual meaning such as “the exploited,” “the industrial proletariat,” “the workers of the fist,” or “the society of the masses.” [2]

Ostensibly staged by the Lumières to convey the reproduction of recognizable, everyday motion, the exit of workers from the Lumière factory walls is also, Farocki argues, irrevocably a stand-in for the invisible movement of goods, money, and ideas via industrial circulation, revealing what he sees as cinema’s signature economic characteristic in its very first gesture, “Signs and symbols are not brought into the world, but taken from reality.” Film is, indeed, the industrial art form par excellence, a point the Lumières’s opening salvo makes rather indelibly.

But what about Méliès’s place in all of this? While Farocki’s work critiques the inherently coercive construct of cinema at its degree zero, isn’t there also an overlooked role for Méliès to play in a discussion of documentary’s origins? Consigned as he is to the realm of fantasy and only revived critically via his influence on Dadaist filmmakers, the story of his cinema of signs and symbols includes an interesting chapter in rethinking early claims upon capturing the real.[3]

For his L’Affaire Dreyfus (1899), Méliès undertook the first serial film as he re-created key events (Méliès’s term for this strategy of re-enactment was actualité reconstituée) surrounding the infamous political scandal that divided France in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Centred on the false conviction and imprisonment of Jewish Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, Méliès’s sympathetic portrayal of Dreyfus provoked great debate and resulted in his film being the first to be banned for political reasons. Ironically, just a year prior Francis Doublier, a Lumière cameraman, tried to capitalize on the furor over the Dreyfus trial by cobbling together blurry footage of French soldiers, a warship, and a building, with a script for live running commentary (a common practice until the appearance of intertitles in 1903) that claimed the newsreel footage to depict the real Lieutenant-Colonel Dreyfus in uniform, then aboard the ship taking him to prison, and, finally, inside the building where the trial was taking place. It was only when spectators repeatedly reminded the aptly named Doublier that the first two events took place before the invention of cinema that the film was pulled from distribution for its factual inaccuracies.[4]

And so, even in the first days of cinema, we’re confronted with the dilemma of the real and its dissembling nature. One Dreyfus film uses real footage but takes everything out of context in an effort to claim authenticity while the other engages the artifice of theatre to claim a subjective position in a very real conflict. It begs the question, how would a discussion of the real unfold that included Méliès alongside Lumière? It would certainly clarify that the blurring of fact and fiction that much contemporary discourse seems so enamoured with has been present from the start. And, might it not in some small way promote the moment of indecision about which you write so eloquently as deserving a place in any discussion of the real?

Looking forward to your thoughts.

I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier but the encounter is truly one of the most important aspects of my practice. It’s embedded in the very essence of much of my work. It is important to recognize and value the encounter, this state or condition/frame of reference and contact ... _finding, sensing, usually_this is effaced—as is nonrecognition _and invisibility—_along with the indecisiveness discussed earlier, but within the interstitial a facsimile of the encounter can be preserved. This is a space of liminality but not limited by it. In terms of self-regard, _it is the end of what we can or cannot connect to, it is the limits of our own (temporary) being, but it can also be the beginning of something else. The potential of interconnectedness, disconnectedness being the shield in this reality. Thus, the document starts out as record of that particular moment in time, from that specific historical locale between the players involved or re-presented, then it can move within and beyond that. The limits of _self-regard are absolutely necessary to acknowledge and to forget ... to be cognitive and thoroughly conscious of, and to not let this hinder or repress the event/exchange/gift/encounter/reception. I stand on the ontological with narrative structural (and structuralist) elements to mediate this.

The “false divide of cinema” still rears its ugly head. Lumière as research positioned against Méliés as spectacle, and equally entrenched, Eisenstein’s theatrics positioned against Vertov’s Kino-eye. Lumière had his friends, family, and workers going through the motions (repeatedly), Vertov his camera manipulations acting as figures of the new technology and revolutionary era he believed himself to be in. This discursive split, of film and art historical separation, is one of the reasons we have been so late to acknowledge that subjectivity lies at the heart of all objective inquiries. Objectivity is itself more a fiction than fantasy (at least in video and film and definitely in science where objects of study commonly behave differently as they are studied or looked at). 

This brings us full circle to where we ended previously, the indecisive moment exemplified in the interstitial space. Because we cannot and should not try to fake it any longer—is it the humility of not knowing which scares and stifles artists us, 
the anti-authoritarian critic now repressed, shallow contexts pervade. Taking a chance, embracing without replacing, engaging while stating a position, which doesn’t necessarily mean claiming. Vulnerability creates leaves an opening where the viewer/audience can get at you. This unease mimics the physicality of place and merges mediates sites of production and reception.... I refuse the separation of these terms words, documentary and contemporary art. If contemporary art is so narrow as to not include all forms of documentary then it does not interest me. Let’s dump this terminal baggage in the station locker as if within some future time capsule where this frivolous discussion’s archaic nature will be revealed. The real is, in fact, many things at once. No one reality, a state encompassing all, the fake signifies much more than its opposite, more than it obviously wants to. Why is it so difficult then to imagine a different condition, one that you allude to, supplanting the cinematic ”origin myth.” In the actual, contemporary situation where we have arrived, I would hope we can accept and intuit that the only position with criticality, with engagement, is one that recognizes the more complex and complete nature that disproves the duality and polarities constructed. 

Meade: Apologies for the delayed response to your last letter as I had a terrible bout with the flu and then had to travel, which compounded things. But one of the only benefits of a prolonged fever was lingering with various phrases from your last letter in mind. I think you put it very succinctly when you write about how the “discursive split, of film and art historical separation” lies at the heart of a denial of subjectivity’s inevitable place within objective inquiry. And I think the discussion of encounter or “embracing without replacing” gets at one of the central issues surrounding the so-called “social” or “documentary turn” in much recent contemporary art production. For your mention of the moment in the streets of Bamiyan when you decided to forego self-imposed interdictions and, through putting off that very judgment of context, enter into an “unease that mimics the physicality of place and merges sites of production and reception” shifts the discussion of encounter in an important way. 

This intimation of a false dialectic reminds me again of issues first broached (and perhaps more directly in some regards) around the close of the nineteenth century and central to the beginnings of modernist positivism. And, perhaps it’s partly the Vancouver/Seattle connection in our personal backgrounds, but another street scene comes to mind in response to your moment of recognition in Bamiyan that relates to research I’ve been doing for a film project based loosely on German anthropologist Franz Boas’s initial visits to the Pacific Northwest in 1886 and 1888 to study the languages and cultures of Native American coastal tribes from Vancouver Island down to Portland. A more thorough discussion of Boas aside, the letters to his family and journal entries from this time feature a questioning on Boas’s part of how form and memory could continue to converse in the rapidly altered environments he encountered. In a passage describing the streets of the relatively new city of Vancouver, written at the end of his trip and just before returning to New York, the question emerges whether a more effaced otherness doesn’t arise in the city sprung up overnight than in the myriad encounters that Boas had with Native Americans in sundry settings over the previous months:

Vancouver makes a very strange impression. It is scarcely a year since the city arose from the wilderness, the moment it became known that the Canadian Pacific would have its terminal here. Where there are no houses, even in the middle of the city, there are burned or burning tree stumps. People from all lands, no one really seeming at home, swarm the streets, which are covered with wooden planks. The streets are not yet completely finished, and where there are no wooden side streets, as well as other streets not covered with wood, there is nothing but impassable swamp. [5]

It is only here, at the end of a trip where he has seen and heard various cultural forms and rituals under extreme duress but morphing and resilient nonetheless, that Boas sees in the image of the new city a forthcoming otherness that might outstrip all efforts at shared memory, including his own humble attempts. I mention this anecdote because for all of the issues surrounding Boas’ assumption and assertions regarding the Kwakwaka’wakw people especially, but also a number of other tribes—and there are many—the so-called father of modern anthropology was acutely aware of how “the real is, in fact, many things at once,” as you put in your last letter.

And while there’s much more to be said about the questions that informed Boas’ revisionist view of ethnography—the indecisive moment is recurrent and acutely felt in the process of Boas’s field work—I mention it here along with Méliès’s attempts at a kind of fictive cinema journalism as a way of opening back up trajectories, which have been too often closed and bracketed merely to create newly phrased versions of old divisions that still have their roots overmuch in the vestiges of Enlightenment thought—e.g., “the blurring of fact and fiction,” “illusion versus realism,” “body/mind split,” and so on. As you mention, it’s hard not to respond to “documentary forms and contemporary art” as yet another dialectic of this kind. 

And, in turning the conversation back to contemporary art, this question of false dialectics is an important one. For though an artist and filmmaker like Harun Farocki might repeatedly adopt the film essay as a form, he has done so to raise questions and provoke problems that go largely unresolved—indeed, it seems as though the essay form is reserved expressly for creating productive problems within Farocki’s repertoire. However, recent work that adopts elements of the essay does so in a way that often reaches a quick resolve or facile triangulation and appears to escape having to actually engage a position: Omer Fast’s poststructuralist strategies come immediately to mind as do Emily Jacir’s neatly constructed conceptual forays into mystery-like fictions wed to real world politics. That is not to say there isn’t much to admire in this work, for there is a polish and ability to angle political work in a seductive way that is undeniable here and can undoubtedly reach wide audiences, but I have to ask if an engagement with more unruly and compromised positions—as in works by such artists and filmmakers as Yael Bartana, Artur Zmijewski, and Rosalind Nashashibi, to name just a few—doesn’t offer a more generous trajectory. These are practices that mimic and, thereby, risk the physicality of encounter you’ve outlined. 

And here it is important to add that I’m not advocating for a formulaic approach to positioning cultural difference and conflict, and, thereby, codifying the subject as “other” a priori—a risk that critic and art historian Hal Foster has insightfully called the “self-othering” of “the artist as ethnographer” [6] —but rather promoting a discussion around works that “merge production and reception,” to borrow your insightful phrasing, works that allow the problems of encounter to remain problematic rather than neatly summarized.

Thanks Jayce for your insights and patience. We’ll have to take this dialogue up in person in the future. And I look forward to seeing more of your work upcoming. 

  1. Jean-Luc Godard, January 1966, speech delivered at the Cinémathèque Française on the occasion of the Louis Lumière Retrospective, quoted in Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, eds., Godard on Godard: Critical Writings (New York: Viking Press, 1972), 235 (first published in French in 1968).

  2. Harun Farocki, NachDruck/Imprint (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk, and New York: Lukas and Sternberg, 2001), 234–36.

  3. It’s interesting to note that Dadaist filmmaker Hans Richter had embarked on a collaboration with an elderly Georges Méliès—abandoning it only after Méliès’ untimely death in 1938 and shortly before Richter’s forced emigration to New York—that would have transposed the fanciful tales of Baron von Munchhausen to contemporary Third Reich Germany. The intended target of their unlikely collaborative satire was the rapid rise of fascism across Europe and its widespread acceptance in popular culture.
  4. Elizabeth Ezra provides a detailed discussion of the two films in Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 68–78.
  5. Franz Boas, “Monday, December 13, 1886,” in Ronald P. Rohner, ed., The Ethnography of Franz Boas: Letters and Diaries of Franz Boas Written on the Northwest Coast from 1886 to 1931 (The University of Chicago Press, 1969), 77.
  6. “Now it may be, as many critics claim today, that this self-othering is crucial to a revised understanding of anthropology and politics alike; or, more circumspectly, that in conjunctures such as the surrealist one the troping of anthropology as auto-analysis (as in Leiris) or social critique (as in Bataille) is culturally transgressive, even politically significant. But there are obvious dangers here as well. Then as now such self-othering easily passes into self-absorption, in which the project of ‘ethnographic self-fashioning’ becomes the practice of philosophical narcissism.” Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer,” in The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1996), 183.

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.

You Might Also Enjoy
Folio FOut Now