the precarious nature of actual documentary

as stated by Hito Steyerl in her contribution on Documentary Uncertainty for the current issue of the A Prior magazine, which thematically focuses – as far as one can say that by displaying blue fonts on blue background, or eventually the magazine already wants this way to point to the difficulties of current readabilities – on the event of the documenta 12.
I will list some of her interesting observation and connect them to one occasional find on the Uncertanity Principle in Documentary and some specificly selected reviews and thoughts on Ranciere’s ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ as this is one of the major source Steyerl refers to, but as well as his writings are generally moving thoughts and ‘scene’ …..

… Terms like ‘truth’, ‘reality’, ‘objectivity’ and so on are characterised by the lack of any generally valid intepretation and of any clear cut definitions. Thus, we are faced with the first paradox: the documentary form, which is supposed to transmit knowledge in a clear and transparent way, has to be investigated using conceptual tools, which are neither clear nor transparent themselves. The more real documentary seems to get, the more we are at a loss conceptually. The more secured the knowledge that documentary articulations seem to offer, the less can be safely said about them—all terms used to describe them turn out to be dubious, debatable and risky.

This principle of documentary uncertainty is obviously just a provisional definition of modern documentary; it is highly contextualised within our historical moment. But at no time than in the contemporary context of globalised media circuits has it been more acurate. In this age of widespread anxieties, of precarious living conditions, of general uncertainties and media-provoked hysteria and panic, our belief in the truth claims articulated by anyone, let alone the media and their documentary output, is shaken. […] Thus, documentary forms articulate a fundamental dilemma of contemporary risk societies.[2] Viewers are torn between false certainties and feelings of passivity and exposure, betweenagitation and boredom, between their role as citizens and their role as consumers

But there were also other developments within the field of art in the 1990s, which made documentary modes an obvious choice for artists. First, the practice of so-called ‘contextual art’, in which producers tried to figure out the economic and political conditions of their own activities. Since documents were usually involved in assessing these parameters, working with or upon them was self-evident. Documents were used, or sometimes simply brandished, in order to evidence archival research, social inquiries or alternative knowledge production. A further affinity was created by the impact of Cultural Studies on the field of art and consequently there emerged a preoccupation with the politics of representation. The awareness of power relations within, not only documentary articulations, but all forms of representation, was heightened and in many cases also transformed by new modes of narration, which reflected their own implication in authority and in the hierarchies of knowledge production with their effects on gender and other social relations.

Within the wave of excitement associated with the use of social documentarism, important aspects of the character of documents were neglected by many producers. Since documentarism was automatically assumed to be enlightened and critical, many producers paid little attention to the fact that, on the contrary, documents are usually condensations of power. They reek of authority, certification, expertise and concentrate epistemological hierarchies. Dealing with documents is thus a tricky thing; especially if one aims to deconstruct power, one has to keep in mind, that existing documents are—as Walter Benjamin once wrote—mainly made and authorised by victors and rulers.

Jacques Rancière has recently described the importance of these structures of seeing and knowing as the ‘distribution of the sensible’. According to him, the political component of any aesthetic endeavour is precisely located in the way in which certain aesthetic regimes enable certain visibilities or articulations and disable others. Thus, the political importance of documentary forms does not primarily reside in their subject matter, but in the ways in which they are organised. It resides in the specific distributions of the sensible implemented by documentary articulations.

As Brian Massumi has demonstrated using the example of the colour-based terror alerts in the United States, power now also adresses us on the level of affect. Plain colors trigger off multiple emotional reactions. Television in the age of terror creates a “networked jumpiness” by modulating the intensity of collective feelings.[4] Ironically, power takes on the artistic gesture of abstraction. Politics as such are increasingly shifting into the realm of pure perception. They are not only aestheticized. They have become aesthetical as such, as they work (through) the senses. The relationship between politics and art is thus being reconfigured on a level beyond representation.

(continue reading)

Fittingly – even though arguing on a different level – I found just these days this short post on Heisenberg’s Uncertanity Principle transformed onto documentary anthropology as organised by the Documentary Educational Resources Website.

And as announced above further links to follow up the current influence of Ranciere: first J.Nechaval’s review of the book The Politics of Aesthetics and then second Eyal Weizman’s already in 2006 published approach on Ranciere’s Politics of Aesthetics, in which he gives provides clear insight to the topic though hardly mentioning the philosopher himself. To give an impression some excerpts will be posted here, but follow the external link to read the full text at

… Art is not political owing to the messages and feelings that it conveys on the state of social and political issues. Nor is it political owing to the way it represents social structures, conflicts or identities. It is political by virtue of the very distance that it takes with respect to those functions. It is political insofar as it frames not only works or monuments, but also a specific space-time sensorium, as this sensorium defines ways of being together or being apart, of being inside or outside, in front of or in the middle of, etc. It is political as its own practices shape forms of visibility that reframe the way in which practices, manners of being and modes of feeling and saying are interwoven in a commonsense, which means a “sense of the common” embodied in a common sensorium.

That distribution and re-distribution of times and spaces, places and identities, that way of framing and re-framing the visible and the invisible, of telling speech from noise and so on, is what I call the partition of the sensible. Politics consist in reconfigurating the partition of the sensible, in bringing on the stage new objects and subjects, in making visible that which was not visible, audible as speaking beings they who where merely heard as noisy animals. To the extent that it sets up such scenes of dissensus, politics can be characterized as an “aesthetic” activity, in a way that has nothing to do with that adornment of power that Benjamin called “aestheticization of politics”.

Consensus does not simply mean the agreement of the political parties or the social partners about the common interests of the community. It means a reconfiguration of the visibility of the common. It means that the givens of any collective situation are objectivized in such a way as they can no more lend themselves to a dispute, to the polemical framing of a controversial world into the given world. In such a way, consensus properly means the dismissal of the “aesthetics of politics”.

Art is more and more to-day about matters of distribution of spaces and issues of redescriptions of situations. It is more and more about matters that traditionally belonged to politics. But it cannot merely occupy the space left by the weakening of political conflict. It has to reshape it, at the risk of testing the limits of its own politics.
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