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Documentary—“Waking the Dead”
When Cardiff and Miller elected to engage nonfictional subject matter at a real historical site, they tapped the tradition of documentary. In fact, Pandemonium materialized at a moment when documentary-related strategies were broadly resurgent in contemporary art. This trend, which has since been designated art’s “documentary turn,” gained traction at Documenta 11 under the artistic directorship of Okwui Enwezor.  This five-part art event held in 2001 and 2002 in Vienna, New Delhi, St. Lucia, Lagos, and Kassel presented debates, symposia, and film screenings addressing global political topics from democracy to creolization. It culminated in Kassel in summer 2002 with the exhibition Documenta 11_Platform5, featuring documentary-style photographs, films, and video works by artists from forty-five countries, including the Black Audio Film Collective (1982–1998), Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956), Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), and Jeff Wall (b. 1946).  Co-curator Mark Nash describes the exhibition’s turn to documentary as an effort, “to explore a range of artistic practices that, in one way or another, attempted a connection with social and political reality.” Documentary has born a complex and dynamic relationship to “social and political reality” since its inception in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Documentary realism is predicated on the indexical power of photographs, films, or sound and video recordings, enlisted as “traces of the real” to provide and verify evidence about the world.  Yet evaluating a documentary’s credibility has been, from the beginning, a matter of stylistic convention and context. In the 1860s, photography was used to record expanding industry, colonial expedition, and war and thereby to authenticate ideologies propelling those efforts.  Staging aspects of a photograph was, for many, an acceptable way to enhance its symbolic weight.  Documentary filmmakers of the 1920s, like Robert Flaherty (1884–1951) and John Grierson (1898–1972), employed re-enactment and didactic voice-over in their pursuit of realism.  As a 1932 British Film in National Life report stipulated:A deliberate documentary film must be a transcript of real life, a bit of what actually happened, under approximately unrehearsed conditions. Grierson characterized documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality,” pointing to the tensions between the genre’s operations as “information and recording” and “rhetoric and aesthetics.”  Practitioners of documentary have balanced these dual aspects in diverse ways. Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov (1896–1954), for example, demonstrated a distinct approach to the problem in his Kinoks-Revolution Manifesto (1919), which called to overhaul cinema’s manipulative fictions with newsreel reportage. Beginning in 1922, Vertov’s Kino-Pravda (“Film Truth”) series disseminated footage of everyday life in an experimental flow free of conventional narrative.  Documentary’s patina of authenticity combined with rhetorical malleability has made it, throughout its history, a tool for political persuasion of every stripe. Technological advances have repeatedly influenced documentary criteria. Light-weight cameras and photomechanical processes drove photojournalism in the 1930s. Portable film equipment with synchronized sound ushered in direct cinema of the late-1950s. Viewer expectations regarding stylistics of ‘the real’ shifted in every case but made documentary no less ‘approximate,’ unmediated, or free of agenda.  Leveraged variously as propaganda, research tool, aesthetic frontier, and catalyst for populist social change, documentary stylistics have taken diverse forms and adapted to many purposes.These tensions—between objective fact and ideology, between direct recording of events and their creative interpretation—came under a wave of especially intense scrutiny in the 1970s. Poststructuralist and feminist critiques held documentary to be a falsely universalizing abstraction, a mode that totalized particular segments of experience and exploited the bodies of its often-marginalized subjects.  Postmodern thinkers deconstructed historical narrative and its legitimation by selective documentary evidence. They exposed the instability of photographic signification and argued that historical representation is purely a function of rhetoric.  Artists taking up documentary strategies at the turn of the twenty-first century faced a paradox, then, wherein ever more widespread cultural reliance on documentary images was coupled with habitual distrust in them. Artwork of the “documentary turn” engages this ambivalence, working in the interstices of “the aesthetic and the ethic . . . artifice and authenticity . . . fiction and fact . . .”  Fiction plays a central role, so much so that the “turn” is sometimes called “documentary-fiction.”  Artists use fiction to address the limits of the archive and the documents it holds from which so many perspectives remain excluded and therefore perpetually invisible. Enwezor, who has written extensively on contemporary documentary, emphasizes the ways in which photographs, especially those depicting atrocities, leave out psychic and multisensory dimensions of experience.  Memory, moreover, is an unreliable arbiter of a document’s accuracy and yet it is in many cases the only channel by which to reflect on experience. Accuracy, therefore, proves not always to be the most useful barometer of truth. Artists of the “documentary turn” strive to go beyond merely phenomenal testimony so that their work “surpasses the evidentiary . . . is beyond the event and not coded in representation.”  They aim to agitate the spectator’s critical and ethical apprehension, “[asking] the viewer to approach [the documentary-related work] as not only just [sic] a fact of something real in the world, but also something true, in the social condition of that world, that is difficult to support in a single film frame or photographic image.”  With an analogy curiously apt for Pandemonium, Enwezor calls the document a ruin that exposes:. . . a gap in knowledge of the event which can only be inscribed through acts of memory . . . the ‘waking of the dead’ . . . an intimate, proximate relationship to events that lie beyond the inscriptible, that is to say beyond the image.” In this framework, the “documentary turn” describes artists examining those aspects of experience obscured in the process by which collective narratives are constructed out of documentable facts. Treating undocumented experience as no less real for its contingency, these artists entertain fiction as a means to reflect on and memorialize dimensions of reality not officially preserved.“Documentary turn” artists use strategies like storytelling, historical reenactment, and constructed archives or counter-monuments to resuscitate documentary in an open-ended, exploratory way. They raise questions about the relationship of the past to the present and future.  They put narrative to work but disrupt conventions that it must be linear, logical, unified, or even factual, blending fact and fiction to evoke sensory textures of lived experience.  Writing about projects in this mode by multimedia artist Matthew Buckingham (b. 1963), curator and art historian Mark Godfrey clarifies:. . . the point has not been to intertwine and confuse fiction and documentary modes of representation as much as to treat works of fiction themselves as historical documents that are as valid starting points for reflections on present conditions as conventional documents might be. Art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty uses the term parafiction to describe artworks that fabricate narratives so credibly as to be (at first) believed.  Audiences accept these fictional scenarios because the artist goes to great lengths to match the conventions by which facts are accredited in contemporary culture, invoking endorsement by institutional spokespeople or corporate branding. Parafictions seem plausible because the artist, “refuses to separate the epistemological and the emotional,” so that audiences invest personal belief in the story.  Breaking that trust triggers strong emotions that can stimulate critical thought about which versions of reality are, in fact, plausible.  These operations work to renew belief that alternative realities are worth pursuing. While artists of the “documentary turn” are generally skeptical of images and single objective histories, they nonetheless ask audiences to consider the narratives they construct as partially meaningful and provisionally connected to something real. “Truth emerges as in-process,” and artworks too enter into its articulation.  These artists work with historical figures, places, or objects, “striving less to . . . abandon fact for fabulation than to establish an authentic connection to reality that acknowledges the inevitably subjective nature of this relationship.”  If documentary traditionally staked its truth claims on creatively persuading audiences of the accuracy of its evidence, recent art of the “documentary turn” presents unabashedly fictional details just as persuasively to expand the possibilities for what and who counts as real.Pandemonium operates as documentary but does so neither by organizing ostensibly accurate details into a persuasive narrative nor by constructing a plausible fiction. It is quite distinct from art both of the recent documentary-turn art and in the longer documentary tradition, above all in its exclusion of anything resembling indexical representation. Photographs, films, videos, and audio recordings, fabricated or otherwise, are nowhere to be found in Pandemonium. Its sounds may conjure images like, “batons dragged across bars” and “a riot fueled by the libidinal release of the dance,” but these are more likely derived from percipients’ memories of prison riots in Hollywood films and personal experiences of dance clubs than any real trace of inmate experience at Eastern State Penitentiary.  Pandemonium’s indeterminate passages, its abrupt dissipation just as it begins to tell a story, thwarts didactic purpose. The narrative it proposes most readily, that ghosts are haunting the cellblock, depends for its plausibility on an implausible Romantic belief in the paranormal. At the same time, Pandemonium distinguishes itself from work of the “documentary turn” by presenting real evidence: nonfictional found materials including an actual penitentiary building, its ideologically-charged infrastructure, and the furniture used by its inhabitants. Its resolutely acoustic method of producing live sound further enhances its concrete, nonfictional character.