5. The Production of Documents
Published: 08.04.2013
in the series What Remains of the Photographic beyond Photography
Previous Next

“In history everything begins with the gesture of setting aside, of putting together, of transforming certain classified objects into ‘documents.’ This new cultural distribution is the first task. In reality it consists in producing such documents by dint of copying, transcribing, or photographing these objects, simultaneously changing their locus and their status.” 1Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (1975), trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 72.

In The Writing of History (1975), Michel de Certeau criticized the perception of documents and archives as dormant sources waiting to be collected and interpreted by historians. Writing in the context of the critique of the document undertaken by historians grouped, in France, under the label nouvelle histoire, Certeau stressed the institutional aspect of historical discourse and its need to comply with academic rules. He argued, in short, that documents are never accidentally found but are always willingly constructed as such by historians through their practice.

While artists are not historians, Certeau’s reasoning describes well the position taken by certain artists who work with photography and express a keen interest in the idea of the document, understood not as unmediated evidence but as a product of specific conventions of knowledge production. Artists such as Zoe Leonard, Christopher Williams, Jean-Luc Moulène, Yael Bartana, and Akram Zaatari, whose work I have been researching for the past few years, develop different strategies such as restaging, appropriating, or deconstructing photographic documents, borrowing from and reworking different traditions of applied photography, in order to construe the document as a critical form.

To translate Certeau’s reflection on the production of historical discourse into the terrain of contemporary art entails favoring works that foreground the construction and presentation of sources over works resulting from the accidental encounter with them. It provides, as such, an antidote to the romance of found photography and the poetic value of chance encounter that has sustained practices ranging from surrealism to Tacita Dean’s 2001 Floh. This would seem all the more pertinent today in the context of the ever-greater availability of random images and digitalized archives that artists have at their disposal to produce artworks in what we may call the institution of contemporary art.

If Certeau’s words seem relevant in today’s art context it is not because, as time goes by, there are fewer photographs to be found at flea markets, but because the overabundance of visual sources that circulate digitally requires a more critical effort of selection and reworking of those available sources. Wouldn’t the digitalization of museum and library collections, of institutional as well as private archives render impossible a project such as Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s 1977 Evidence, which relied for a large part on the secrecy and anonymity of the sources it had somehow managed to obtain? (An alternative for artists might be to keep decidedly away from the digital archive as Alexandra Leykauf successfully does, focusing on the materiality of pictures reproduced in books and then translated into collages and paper sculptures.)

If the digital omnipresence of photographic sources requires a shift in conceptual strategies for artists working with archives, Certeau’s words are also an invitation to viewers to adopt a more analytic posture in front of artworks of a documentary or archival nature and to move beyond the fascination for the treasure of a little known source to questioning the protocols, thanks to which a document has been re-produced as a work of art. And if Certeau’s words seem to be even more relevant in a digital context than that of material archives and analogue prints, works such as Zoe Leonard’s Analogue (1997-2008) and Jean-Luc Moulène’s Objets de Grève (1999, 2001), make that connection clear even while they do not foreground digital technologies.

Leonard’s Analogue does so through her exhibition displays of the some 400 photographs that chronicle the disappearance of small neighborhood shops in Manhattan and follow the circulation of charity clothing in different places around the globe. In the different exhibitions of this project the artist displayed the images in grids of different sizes organized thematically that blurred the dominant subject matter of the project and created new thematic narratives and micro-histories. These visual arrangements made the series resemble more a database dependent upon its public visibility than an archive conceived as a closed body of information for select users. Moulène’s series of Objets de Grève presentés par Jean-Luc Moulène underscores the construction of documents through simultaneously addressing different contexts of reception. The work consists of a series of objects produced mainly during the 1970s and 1980s during the crisis of the manufacturing industries in France. The objects, made by workers during strikes in order to publicize or financially support social conflicts, have over the years been collected and photographed by the artist. He donated them to the Archives Nationales du Monde du Travail in Roubaix where they can be consulted as the “Fonds Jean-Luc Moulène” (reference 2003 025). The photographs representing them were acquired by the Musée National d’Art Moderne Centre Pompidou and also shown at the annual congress of the CGT union (French labor union federation) in March 2003. While Moulène’s collecting enabled the objects to become socially, politically, and historically visible in a context that had previously ignored them, what is even more interesting is the way in which both the objects and the photographs could simultaneously find different contexts of presentation and preservation.

What I find striking about these two projects is that they both address the way documents can be produced and convey meaning, and how that meaning might change swiftly upon a different place of presentation or the calling up of an alternative search term. At the same time, their subject matter testifies to the unraveling of the manufacturing-based economy, and to the advent of a dematerialized, finance-driven world economy that cannot but serve as an analogue for the shift from paper archives – still the dominant form at the time of Certeau’s writing – to digital ones. Through subject matter as much as material form, these works integrate the logic of the digital while being produced in analogue photography. And so if the digital, as Joanna Fiduccia proposed in her comments on my third post, has absorbed the analogue, reciprocally, these artists show they have absorbed the digital into their analogue productions.

6 comment(s)
megan driscoll
Posted 08.04.2013 at 18:31

Thank you for the thought-provoking final post, Sophie.

In his 2004 essay, "The Archival Impulse," Hal Foster seeks to define a trend in contemporary art toward a certain kind of archival production, using Thomas Hirschorn, Sam Durant, and (as it happens) Tacita Dean as examples. He argues that their work points to history as fragmentary and to its documents as "indeterminate," suggesting that by presenting documents in this partial and uncertain fashion, "archival art is as much preproduction as it is postproduction: concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces...these artists are often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects - in art and in history alike - that might offer points of departure again." This strikes me as related to Certeau's assertion that history "consists in producing such documents" - in Foster's view, these artists are actively engaging in this kind of production of history and documentation, and in so doing, they highlight the made (as opposed to received) quality of the archive, its documents or objects, and archival knowledge.

However, Foster is at pains to distinguish archival practice from what he calls "database art," which he seems to broadly mean to refer to anything that derives from the Internet or another electronic archive. To Foster, this condition of history as incomplete, and thus as produced by our documentation, can only be brought out by the "tangible and face-to-face," the "recalcitrantly material."

This aspect of Foster's argument has always struck me as a bit forced (particularly in its implication that the Internet is a "mega-archive" that somehow points to history as complete or total, which strikes me as the exact opposite of what the digital has done to the document), and I find it interesting that you point to the kind of work he's describing - in particular, Tacita Dean's Floh - as poetic, and by extension perhaps even a bit old-fashioned, something that romanticizes the "chance encounter." While I don't agree with the suggestion that this work resists the condition of the archive as produced (I am reasonably convinced by Foster that the shifting of the found objects is its own kind of production - in fact, the turning of the pages of the book in Floh seems to announce the change in these images), I do think that you've come up with a more interesting and effective way to consider the relationship between the analogue and digital without reducing it to "archive" (with all its implications for history and shared knowledge) equals "material" and "database" (with all its apparently unmotivated lack of organization) equals "digital."

However, what is not entirely clear to me is what is specifically digital about the logic of Leonard's or Moulène's projects, what digital is being absorbed by their analogue. It isn't the simple fact that "documents produce and convey meaning." Is it the swiftness of the change of that meaning? Or their engagement with changing economies? And must an archival project point to this quality of de-materialization in order to keep up with the movement of the digital world?

Thanks again for your great posts this month!


Sophie Berrebi
Posted 10.04.2013 at 09:25

Thanks Megan,
I think that Foster's Archival Impulse is a bit over-quoted. Maybe that points to a real lack of substantial texts on artists using archives, but I have never found that essay fully satisfying - of course, it was on my mind as I was writing the post.
In part, I have problems with it because the idea of archive that he uses is too simple. As you mention, there are not total, complete archives and some of the historiographical literature in the field of history addresses that. See for instance the question of the document-monument, not only in the beginning of Foucault's archaeology of knowledge but also in an article by Pierre Toubert and Jacques LeGoff, and in a text by LeGoff from 1978 published only in Italian and called Documento/Monumento. I also think that his discussion of artists points to a very specific and by no means general way in which artists make use, appropriate or recreate archives.
I was also thinking about Claire Bishop's Artforum piece on the Digital Divide, which I find also unsatisfactory because of the way she hopes for works that actively foreground the digital as a theme, instead of just using it and pretending it isn't there. I don't think that art should work with themes or demonstrate things particularly. But I am still trying to figure things out concerning this illicit or implicit presence of the digital in projects such as those of Moulène and Leonard. Definitely, this database organisation struck me when I saw Analogue at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. I wrote more extensively about this in a piece in Afterall.

Carol Yinghua Lu
Posted 10.04.2013 at 10:12

Dear Sophie,

Your last post touched upon a subject matter that I am particularly interested in and have addressed in several of my curatorial projects, the exercise of subjectivity and creativity in the writing and research of art history and in one's engagement with the past.

You wrote, "While artists are not historians, Certeau’s reasoning describes well the position taken by certain artists who work with photography and express a keen interest in the idea of the document, understood not as unmediated evidence but as a product of specific conventions of knowledge production." There is no shortage of art historians who would adopt the same spirit and mindset that the artists carry with them when they work with photography and document "not as unmediated evidence".

History is never static. An artist recently described to me his irritation when an art critic told him that she was writing an objective history of contemporary art in China in the 1990s as she experienced and witnessed it. The artist told her straight away that no history can be objective but rather the connections one makes and establishes among different events, historical facts, and the narratives that arise from making such connections are personal and subjective and there is nothing wrong about it. When we face the same image, object or a fact, our perception of the very same subject inevitably differs based on each of our own position, experience and subjectivity. However, the claim for objectivity and the assumption of the ethical position in creating an objective history is questionable in itself.

In a way, I see the potential parelel between the practice of an artist and that of an art historian in that the focus of his/her practice is on making innovative discovery and to formulate interesting and inspiring perspetives and stories on what has happened, rather than to conform to what has been told over and over again. I would not go so far as to saying that an art historian is like an artist but I would argue that art historical practice can also be a form of creative practice, a visionary practice.

I have more than once presented the creative practice of art historians such as Hans Belting and James Cahill in my exhibitions. Both are figures I respect very much as creative practitioners in the art system. I have recently featured a 27-part online lecture of James Cahill in the 9th Gwangju Biennale. Titled "A Pure and Remote View: Visualizing Early Chinese Landscape Painting”, This series is composed of short introductions by Cahill and over 2,200 detailed high-resolution images of selected Chinese paintings from the early period up to the end of the Song dynasty in the late thirteenth century. It’s not merely an extremely valuable archive of hard-to-come-by visual materials accumulated by Cahill over decades of research and study of traditional Chinese art either. Neither is it merely filling the absence of a comprehensive historical account of early Chinese landscape paintings, which in Cahill’s view is comparable to the European Renaissance-Baroque tradition in their endeavors to approximate better what they saw in nature. It’s above all exemplary of outstanding academic research and scholarship primarily informed by creative subjectivity of the researcher and narrator rather than relying on stereotypical theoretical approaches to artistic productions of the past and the present.

In his research and discussion of Chinese paintings, Cahill stresses one’s proximity to the artworks and the subject of his study, and invites viewers of his lectures to watch his lectures on the largest screens available so as not to miss out the close-in detail. Instead of formulating his arguments and judgments of traditional Chinese paintings relying on existing descriptions, myths or any system of categorization and references surrounding traditional Chinese art, Cahill managed to produce a highly original account of this period of Chinese art based on perceptive investigation into individual practices and complex conditions embedded in the production of art such as the mutual and often indefinable influence between artistic practice and art critical discourses. An important principle of Cahill’s approach to art history is that he doesn’t isolate traditional Chinese painting as an art form accessible only to those familiar to Chinese traditions and cultures but studies it in relation to and on equal terms with some of the greatest Western traditions. It interests me the most that how James Cahill uses these images to produce "a product of specific conventions of knowledge production".

Thank you again for your writing.

Posted 08.05.2013 at 23:02

Just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed reading your writing a lot!
I hope to see you again in Rotterdam.

David C. Williams
Posted 08.06.2013 at 04:44

The exhibition [based upon] TRUE STORIES is being held at Witte de With from January 23rd. It focuses on the documentary film as one of the most fertile cinematographic and artistic forms. It is part of the special program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), an event that includes feature films, shorts, installations, photography, and digital media by filmmakers as well as visual artists. For Catherine David, director of Witte de With, and Jean-Pierre Rehm, curator of the Festival International du Documentaire de Marseille, the pivotal questions when putting together this exhibition were how filmmakers/artists are engaged in their visual testimony and what rhetorical choices they make.

Posted 10.12.2014 at 17:11

Once again a great post, thanks. I totally agree when you say that, "these artists show they have absorbed the digital into their analogue productions"

Cancel reply