Aspects of the documentary image

After my rather long silence, an uncharacteristically short post.

We gathered, on an unusually warm day for January, at the London College of Communication in Elephant & Castle for the third seminar convened by the Artists’ Moving Image Research Network, with Pratap Rughani and Catherine Elwes as our hosts, to talk about the relations and tensions between documentary, ethnographic film, and artists’ film and video. We ranged across a whole range of topics from the ethics of representation—Pratap spoke about the film-maker’s relation to the subject—to the teasing out of meanings from the archives: Catherine Russell spoke about Los Angeles Plays Itself and The Exiles, and Laura Mulvey talked about Madame Dao. Hito Steyerl showed her video In Free Fall. Rachel Moore talked about Jean Epstein’s concept and practice of photogénie. Stan Frankland provided a trenchant and funny critique of Jean Rouch and a number of other targets, and Sean Cubitt summed up beautifully. What we’ve really been talking about, he suggested, was the problem of what can’t be seen as such, like culture, and the non-identity of the image, which I take to mean the import or sense in any image of what is not directly portrayed within it. Or to put it another way, what Wittgenstein would call the aspect of the image which can shift this way or that, especially according to the way the image is combined with others—and montage, of course, is the privileged mode of the film medium. (This ought to apply to sound as well, which unfortunately on this occasion remained a neglected topic.) 

As always, half the benefit of this kind of small gathering is the conversation outside the formal sessions. Here I sensed among a number of friends a series of parallel concerns to those under discussion in the seminar room, about the resonance of the same issues but in relation to the politics of representation of the popular uprisings of the past year and more, and the role of the mass creation and promiscuous circulation of images on the web, in which geographical boundaries disappear.

In other words, we might have appeared, in the formal sessions, to be enjoying a civilised exchange of views about the kind of abstruse topics which in the mainstream media stereotype of academia are of interest to only a tiny number of people. But we’re a bunch of academics who see the small artistic works we attend to implicitly as microcosms of the problematic of representation through which the big bad wide world is shaped in the collective imaginary. These questions matter because, as Thomas Hobbes put it about 350 years ago, power is the reputation of power. 

The only thing is, you can’t put this kind of thing down on the questionnaires you’re nowadays asked to fill in at the end of the seminar, so the organisers can supply the funding body, in this case the AHRC, with meaningless data about impact. One of the questions was what might you do to disseminate the findings of the seminar to third parties, so I put down that I might write a blog. There, now I’ve written it. 

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