Issue 3/2003 - Reality Art

Politics of Truth

Documentarism in the Art Field

Hito Steyerl

Documentary strategies are among the most important features of contemporary art. Since the early nineties there as been a succession of various waves of an adaptation of documentary techniques in art, which have also been integrated in the mainstream with documenta X and 11. Especially in the context of institution-critical practices, a revival of forms arose in the nineties, which were developed primarily in the seventies and based on practices such as research and journalistic techniques. At the same time, although there has so far been little theoretical treatment of it, a zone emerged of an overlapping of video art, cinema, reportage, photo essay and other forms, in which various existing genres and formats intersect and constantly change their stylistic devices in the form of audiovisual, film, video and installation works. Didactic and realistic works alternate with reflexive documentary productions, with visual machines, which reflect on the organization of documents and organize the subjectivities thus produced. An interest in the formal specific characteristics of the documentary form in the art field has only recently begun, for instance with exhibitions such as "True Stories" 1 at Witte de With in Rotterdam or "It is Hard to Touch the Real" 2 at the Kunstverein Munich – but has hardly taken place yet at the theoretical level.

Truth of Politics or Politics of Truth

Documentary forms in the art field are currently assuming primarily two contrary functions. First, they represent a strategy of authenticity, which is intended to ensure the claim of artistic works to contact with an auratized field of the social or the political. The formal devices employed here are often social-realistic and attempt to remain as transparent as possible. Examples are art documentations, in which performances or interventions are depicted and which illustrate certain effects in the social field. Here the documentary moment is used as proof of social relevance and evidence of an »organic« relationship to the field. In this perspective some forms of art documentation represent one of the currently most widespread strategies of authentication in the art field by cultivating the Rousseauan myth that there is an art actively embedded in local practices and communities, which is absolutely uncorrupted by any art market that first produces it through its demand. In their function of structuring and intervening in the social field, these documentary forms assume biopolitical tasks.

Authenticity becomes a vitalistic ideology here, which is chosen as the desired raw material of difference, particularly also in the context of globalization. It is nourished from the myth of the genuine and different local, which is currently reproduced in post-ethnographic and neo-culturalist exhibitions. 3 The documentary is intended to depict a certain truth of the political here, an authentic and "genuine" core of the social, which is reproduced, according to Marina Grzinic, in "flat documentaries". 4 Grzinic claims that the "flat documentary style" forms a model (which works according to the logic of cloning), with which given local situations can be fed into the global art field: through an ambivalent procedure that makes authenticity ripe for global serial production. This can be reproduced through reportage-like forms of recording, which transport quasi-sociological knowledge, or conversely through very personal, "intimist" forms. A striking example of the biopolitical aspect of the "flat documentary style" are the works by Santiago Serra, whose hyperrealistic and naturalistic displays of so-called concerned persons 5 represents a drastic form of misery-voyeuristic exhibitionism. The "flat documentary style" arises most of all from the decontextualization and draining of the authenticity-objects to be transferred, as a quasi biotechnical product. Here the myth of the authentic that forms the vistalistic fetish of documentary discourse proves to be a sophisticated, hybrid and artificial product of palatable difference and repetition.

In contrast to this, there is another, more reflected current of the documentary, which perceives its own devices as socially constructed epistemological tools. In these works there is no intention at all of depicting the authentic truth of the political, but rather of changing the "politics of truth" on which its representation is based. The visual and epistemological formations of the documentary themselves are thus defined as functions of the political. The term "politics of truth" 6 is originally from Michel Foucault and designates a social order of truth, which generates the acknowledged techniques and procedures for producing and determining this truth, and which is always linked to specific power relations. Power and knowledge interlock in the organization and production of facts and their interpretations. It is in this indissoluble tension between power and knowledge that the concept of the document also moves. This concept is derived from legal discourse and represents a technology of truth 7, in other words a recognized procedure for the production of truth. Other codified procedures of truth production include witness testimonials, the integration of historical documents, the talking head format, etc.

Thus the question posed to documentary works in the art field can in no way be limited to the appropriateness or accuracy of the respective representation, but must instead be directed to their internal politics of truth. Which politics of truth are articulated in documentary images and sounds? Which strategies of authenticity are applied to support their assertions? Which rhetorics of truth, sincerity, objectiveness or genuineness are articulated politically? How do documentary works refer to reality or truth? Which role do social agreements on the status and production of truth play in this? How is their interconnection with power relations and the production of subjectivities to be understood? Which technologies, practices and rhetorics of truth are developed in the process? What is their connection with institutions, political discourses, and social or biopolitical technologies? What impact do they therefore have on the intersections between power and subjectivity that Foucault called "Gouvernementalité" 8? The concept of governmentality that Foucault developed defines a specific form of exercising power, which operates through the production of truth. 9 Documentary forms can also assume this function of governmentality through truth. 10 For documentary images are historically connected with technologies of control, surveillance, normalization and other police techniques. 11 Colonial or fascist regimes produced their own "documentalities", which were closely linked with ethnographic gaze regimes, the production of racist knowledge and military technologies. Photographs of colonial peoples circulating around the world contributed to the spread of colonial "knowledge", just as fascist "documentalities" endeavored to make Soviet prisoners of war, among others, appear "subhuman". 12

This intersection between governmentality and documentary truth production can be termed "documentality". Documentality describes the permeation of a documentary politics of truth with superordinated political, social and epistemological formations. Documentality is the pivotal point where forms of documentary truth production turn into government - or vice versa. It describes complicity with dominant forms of a politics of truth, just as it can also describe a critical stance towards these forms.

A more recent work that problematizes this multiple political function of (in this case historical) documents is the installation "Searching for my mother's numbers" by Sanja Ivekovic, which was also shown at Documenta11. Three video projections flank an installation arranged like an archive, which is intended to be used for research on the prisoner's number of Ivekovic's mother in the concentration camp Auschwitz. In the video tapes the various functions of documents are investigated along with their different forms of writing and recording. Official documents like endlessly bureaucratic forms, on which a pension for the mother is denied by the responsible Yugoslavian agencies, are contrasted with another document, namely the mother's handwritten diary laconically recounting her arrest and liberation. The interview with contemporary witnesses that is otherwise conventional in this context is dispensed with entirely in this work. Instead the focus is on the documents in their material reality, which are (partially) read in a voice-over. On the one hand they function as instruments of repression and the non-acknowledgment of historical facts, as in the official correspondence. On the other hand, though, a document such as the mother's diary can also bear witness to a writing of history that not only "rescues" marginalized facts, but also forms a laconic counterpoint to the depiction of helpless and intimidated concentration camp victims. In this case, the document is not the basis of a historiography permeated by power, but instead becomes a monument to the "tradition of the oppressed", of which Walter Benjamin speaks in his theses on the concept of history.13

Another example of the problematization of the status of historical documents is the short video "Schwarz auf Weiß" (Black on White) by the artist group Klub Zwei. "Schwarz auf Weiß" concentrates on the question of the photographic document – specifically by means of a radical withdrawal of the images of the Shoah that are spoken of in the voice-over. While the supervisor of a photo archive raises questions on memory, image and history, all we see are written plaques on black and white. Despite their principle technical reproducibility, images change, according to the thesis. Grey tones disappear with every generation of the photographic print; what remains in the end are the hard contrasts of black and white. It is particularly by withdrawing the pictures that are spoken of, however, that a reflection is set off about what distinguishes their status as historical documents. It is not exclusively the face of the pictures of obliteration, which are often used purely symbolically, but rather the inconspicuous back with its stamps and remarks, which first gives the pictures their historical context and thus also their significance, as Klub Zwei argues. The use of pictures as icons, on the other hand, frequently leads to their use as mere illustrations of authenticity. In contrast, "Schwarz auf Weiß" insists on perceiving photographs as something we have given up "reading" (Walter Benjamin) 14. The video is positioned within a debate that attempts to carry out a critical reading of pictures – yet without rejecting every representation altogether as a purely social or media construction containing no truth. Unlike many media-critical approaches of recent years, this reflection therefore does not lead to an endless, circular and narcissist self-reflexivity, but rather to an ethical-political stance.

For the reflexive documentary forms there is also always the danger of generating a kind of idling reflexivity, which cringes before the ethical dimension of the themes treated in favor of the comfort of unresolvable ambivalence and the task of claiming any kind of truth. This tendency is articulated for instance in a meanwhile almost ornamental form of apparatus criticism, as it is evident in the reflexive integration of satellite images, surveillance pictures, flow charts and network surfaces in documentary works. Amateur material that is often realistic and sensationalist is garnished with elements of self-reflexivity here, which have themselves congealed into cliched and affirmative phrases of global mediality. These forms additionally develop interesting affinities with more recent television formats such as "Big Brother" and other Reality-TV shows, in which it is specifically the aspect of the constantly concurrent self-reflexivity of the media that conversely achieves the greatest authenticity effect. 15 The result is an exponential realism that only differs from classic strategies of realistic authenticity by degrees. This form of idling reflexivity is anticipated by the documentary film theorist Bill Nichols: Although it may contain a political position at the content level – it has none for the viewers themselves, who are held in a zone of inescapable ambivalence. 16

With the import of documentary forms into the art field, new versions of the classical problems of the documentary appeared there too – the linking of documentary forms with political and social power relations and with the major power/knowledge complexes of law, science and journalism. Yet the gaze regimes of the documentary, their connection with forms of control, objectivization and categorization are also imported into the space of art. One of the new aspects of documentary approaches in art space is its spatialization in installation form, which also generates new forms of the "attention economy", according to Tom Holert, as well as new diagrams of visibility. This goes hand in hand with a change in the arrangements of the gaze from central-perspective perception situations to spatially heterogeneous arrangements working with various media and forms of presentation. This in turn affects the relationship of the duration and space of the documentary ensemble. What is articulated in the classical documentary film as duration and thus as intensity in its perception, is now articulated conceptually in many documentary installations and thus formulated as an idea, for which the documentary picture material in part only supplies the illustration or the proof. Many documentary installations thus function less through the articulation, organization and intensification of duration, but rather through a synecdochic compression of a situation in space, which can be captured to a certain extent in a memorable image (of a plot). In the new documentary conceptualism the documentary image thus functions as a technology of truth and as proof for a proposed hypothesis as well.

In between biopolitical realism and idling reflexivity, between documentary conceptualism and a precise reading of gazes and images and the ethical-political negotiation of their claims to truth, there are the most diverse documentary approaches, which are not only articulated through various documentalities, but also represent various forms of a politics of truth. Thus it is particularly the questions of truth, ethics and reality that have been increasingly banned from theory in the last twenty years, but which are now raised in a new form due to the emergence of documentary works in art space.


Translated by Aileen Derieg


1 True Stories; Jean-Pierre Rehm, True Stories, 24 January to 30 March 2003. Flyer, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2003
2 Soren Grammel: Es ist schwer das Reale zu berühren. Printed material, Kunstverein München, Spring 2002, p. 44-45
3 See for instance: Boris Buden: Da bumst der Wahnsinnige den Verwirrten, in: springerin 2/2003
4 Marina Grzinic: Global Culture, Biotechnology, Imperialism. Unpublished manuscript 2003
5 For example in "Hiring and Arrangement of 30 Workers in Relation to their Skin Color": "He positions 30 people of different ethnic origin according to the color of their skin along the front of the completely closed exhibition space. [&] Sierra often employs radical means: by making workers execute certain things in museums and galleries, he turns them into exhibits. Transferring them into the system of art and explicitly presenting them, he utilizes the methods employed in the sphere of economy. This is why he often provokes protests with his projects, as for example when he paid people for agreeing to being tattooed a black line on their backs. He has also highlighted the ambivalent situation of political refugees in Europe who are forbidden to earn any money by paying them to crawl under cardboard boxes and hide there for several hours. Part of the provocation is certainly based on the obvious absurdity of the assignments and their unproductive character." (Announcement text Kunsthalle Wien, September 2002)
6 Pasquale Pasquino, Allessandro Fontana: Wahrheit und Macht«. Gespräch mit Michel Foucault vom Juni 1976, in: Michel Foucault: Dispositive der Macht. Berlin 1978, p. 51
7 Michel Foucault: Technologien der Wahrheit, in: Jan Engelmann (Ed.): Foucault Botschaften der Macht. Reader Diskurs und Medien. Stuttgart 1999, p. 133-144
8 Media forms as forms of gouvernementalité are also described by Toby Miller: Technologies of Truth. Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media. Minneapolis 1998, p. 14-18
9 Thomas Lemke: Eine Kritik der politischen Vernunft. Hamburg1997, p. 32.
10 On these terms, see also Lemke 1997, p. 31
11 Martha Rosler: Drinnen, Drumherum und nachträgliche Gedanken (zur Dokumentarfotographie), in: Martha Rosler: Positionen in der Lebenswelt. Wien, Generali Foundation 1999, p. 105. Cf. also James R. Ryan: Picturing Empire. London 1997
12 See for example the exhibition "Beutestücke Kriegsgefangene in der deutschen und sowjetischen Fotografie 1941-1945" at the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, 14 June to 14 September 2003
13 Walter Benjamin: Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen. Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Frankfurt 1978, p. 84
14 Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt/Main 1966, p. 64
15 Cf. also "Das Authentische ist Produkt einer Laborsituation". Judith Keilbach in Conversation with Wolfgang Beilenhoff and Rainer Vowe, in: nach dem Film, 12/00,
16 Bill Nichols: Representing Reality. Bloomington/Indianapolis 1997