Documenting Documentary

As documentary retreats from the public to the private sphere Sarah James asks why

Much contemporary art has long been afflicted by a suspicion of the ‘real’ and the ‘objective’. This is something Richard Sennett – one of the most compelling critics of today’s tyranny of intimacy – has argued. He goes on to lament the fact that unfortunately this doubt about the reality of things rarely arouses the urge to make things better, and instead substitutes any real subversive artistic tendencies with supposedly radical but ultimately ineffectual strategies of exposure. For him, a truly radical art would be an art that could restore our attachment to physical things. It is within documentary, that we find this crucial attachment to things and reality, a valuable epistephilia – the desire to know – and also where we are forced to address perhaps the most difficult of art’s issues: on the one hand, its relationship to politics and class, and on the other, the ontological status of the image, the epistemological status of representation, the potentialities of historical discourse, and the fact that fictive elements always reside in the non-fictive. The prevalence of the documentary in recent art production is clear, and is frequently commented upon. But what is specifically at stake with today’s exploitation of the genre is far less apparent.

Indeed many of the pitfalls experienced by present approaches to the documentary are brought to the surface in the current Tate exhibition ‘Making History’. The fact that Tate Liverpool has decided to put on the first show that purports to tackle the central issues of the position of the documentary in British art is refreshingly ambitious, for an institution not defined by its curatorial edge. Perhaps it is the grand scope of the show that makes it such a paradoxical exposition, part-brilliant, part-failure, but certainly worth seeing. Curated by Tanya Barson, this investigation into the documentary is arranged into four chronological but idiosyncratic sections: ‘Defining Documentary, 192949; ‘Looking at Britain, 1950-69’; ‘Gender, Race & Society, 1970-89’; and ‘Reconstructing History, 1990Now’. It brings together a huge number of films (21 in total), photographs, paintings and installations from artists as diverse as the Euston Road painter William Coldstream and video artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien. Before getting involved in the manner in which the documentary is approached, there is already a tension here between the exhibition as a survey of a tradition over eight decades, and a very selective commentary. Further, it is clear that Tate is very keen to frame the show in terms of contemporary art and what is rather limply termed, its ‘concern for historiography’. This indeed seems to nod at disappointing trends in past cultural theory, and is a shame, as focusing upon the historical mutation of documentary and its aesthetic could have been much more rewarding. The documentary nature of contemporary art is couched in terms of a broader discourse, which we are told rather ambiguously embraces questions of authenticity, truth, surveillance, evidence and reality. What is this if not outdated Michel Foucault? The curator suggests in her essay that the impact of the politics of social observation, the position of the viewed and the questioning of authority are all critical to any understanding of documentary practice, yet in actual fact these concerns are far from many of the selected contemporary practices which play upon the documentary, and are more oriented towards the confessional and the deconstructive.

The first section is perhaps where some of the more critical framing could have been done. Instead documentary is approached in terms of the 30s film movement led by John Grierson. His 1929 film Drifters, a silent documentary about the North Sea herring fleet much indebted to Soviet cinema, incorporates montage and can be understood in terms of his larger effort to reintroduce socially directed commentary into formalist film. And there is something really mesmerising about this watery film. If Grierson’s notion of documentary is essentially bound up in its capacity to educate, Dziga Vertov could have provided an important counterpoint, arguing that the highest aesthetic of documentary was to be found in its capacity to capture real life events as they happen. This is a tradition developed later by Free Cinema, and carried right through into contemporary practices. Or, thirdly, the position of personal documentary could have offered an interesting juxtaposition, whereby the personal vision self-consciously moulds the documentary, as in the work of Robert Flaherty, and later, Humphrey Jennings.

The exhibition moves onto the theme of the Depression, the working classes and the politicisation of art – and there is some really excellent photography: Roger Mayne’s portraits of working-class children and teddy boys, and Nigel Henderson’s bizarre pictures of wig stalls and Guy Fawkes ‘penny for the guy’. Bill Brandt is framed in terms of Surrealism and his implication in propaganda, working for the Ministry of Information. It is also great to see the Mass-Observation experiments, established in 1937 by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Jennings, a project that precariously straddled anthropology, documentary and Surrealism. Although the focus is on British work, international elements are brought in through the photography of Viennese émigré Wolfgang Suschitzky, Edith Tudor Hart, who was briefly at the Bauhaus, and also in the clear New Objectivity influences in Humphrey Spender’s work. The catalogue makes clear that one of the objectives is to chart the interactions between art and documentary, and this is arguably where the exhibition most clearly fails. Maybe this is because of its British limitations, certainly in relation to the earlier period: while there is a wealth of film and photography, in terms of the painting of the Avant Garde, we are limited to the interactions between the Mass-Observation Project and the paintings of British surrealist Julian Trevelyan. Yet this relationship could have provided the crux of an exploration based around the idea of the need for documentary to balance a degree of formal and discursive exploration and referentiality. Indeed, the particular tension between realism and Surrealism within modernist documentary is frequently hinted at, and in terms of the aestheticisation of the documentary this would have provided a particularly productive paradigm. For like the documentary, Surrealism de-emphasises the element of personal creativity, replacing it with the anonymous and impersonal, with collective and cooperative cultural production, and it is these two poles that animate much of the photography in this period.

Photography is displayed alongside war films by Jennings, works such as Listen to Britain, 1942, filled with smiling factory workers and tanks rumbling through English villages, combining film, music and poetry, and Lindsay Anderson’s Brecht-inspired Free Cinema movement of the 50s, which sought to present as direct a view of the working classes as possible. The leap to the 60s seems clunky, presented in terms of the rise of TV docudramas and regional soap operas, which are seen as effecting a dissemination of ‘documentary realism’ through popular culture. This is paired with painting and the modernist realism and ‘kitchen sink’ realism championed by both David Sylvester and John Berger and represented by Freud and the garish works by John Bratby. Next the show jumps to the section on gender, race and society covering the Women at Work 1973-75 project and the Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners, 1975 with its exploration of class, labour, duration and repetition.

The show presents itself in terms of correcting the fact that for many years documentary has been undervalued as a genre, identified as a crude and formulaic mode of representation. It is also framed in terms of disrupting the idea that the documentary reflects a world of uncomplicated objectivity. But who exactly still holds such ideas? And why does the exhibition not engage in the more challenging debates surrounding documentary? Even those now very dated discourses from the 70s onwards, including Martha Rosler, Victor Burgin, and John Tagg are not gestured towards. An exploration of the expansion of the documentary aesthetic itself could have incorporated an engagement in ideas such as the aesthetics of failure and epistemic hesitation, ie the very impossibility of true documentary. Clearly, the documentary being so closely related to the real, deconstructive theories have predominated the critique of documentary. However, addressing the question of realism today would have been far more productive. The use of the documentary forces us to confront the fearful and unfashionable idea of objectivity, and to reject the now so clichéd impulse to disrupt and dispute every instance of the supposedly objective with the subjective. And what of addressing the idea of documentary and the failure of the left? For example, clearly the problems of subjectivity, consciousness, argumentive form and voice remain in documentary today, but with interesting new inflections, and perhaps looking to someone like Roy Bhaskar would crucially help frame such issues within ideas like the loss of agency in reality.

Central to any exploration of the documentary is the fact that historical consciousness is essential for an analysis of its conceptual foundations. Again, the exhibition limply gestures at long critiqued trends in cultural theory, slammed from the left for its incessant ahistoricism and relativism. While the first half of the exhibition frames the work in the social history of the period, in the last section it is as if history – at least social and political history – has come to a standstill. It is as if the inclusion of a time-line on the exhibition guide that runs from the Wall Street Crash through the legalisation of the contraceptive pill, Bloody Sunday, Thatcher’s election, to the Gulf War, 9/11, the end of the IRA’s armed campaign and the bomb attacks on London, can in some way replace the need for any further political framing. In the earlier sections documentary projects and writings are referenced, and this could clearly be extended to the later period, taking note of the important development of leftist photography magazines from the late 70s onwards, such as Camerawork and Ten.8. Indeed, this would have helped develop the interesting feature of documentary that, from Grierson onwards, it can be distinguished by its degree of self-theorising. A focus on the subversion and expansion of the documentary in British conceptualism could also have been productive, while other more interesting parallels might have been drawn in relation to documentary’s earlier moments, for example, the 70s project of Chris Steele-Perkins and Nicholas Battye (as ‘Exit’) that documented poverty in the inner cities and formed a modern equivalent to the Mass-Observation work.

This history of documentary leaps to the contemporary and obvious choices such as Jeremy Deller, Gillian Wearing and Willie Doherty. But why include Richard Billingham, unless to make some comment on the apolitical confessional fetishisation of the documentary? And instead of Billingham, what about photographers such as Tom Wood, whose approach to his subjects is as respectful as it is voyeuristic. The politics of documentary seems to be blurred in this individualist paradigm which instead wrongly seems to take up some sort of outdated cultural theory take on constructed histories, memory and the distrust of the document, of facts and history. Finally we are led to Isaac Julien, whose place in the development of documentary exploring racial identities is unquestionable, but whose Paradise Omens, 2002, with its visual odyssey and part-fantastical, part-autobiographical content makes for a rather peculiar and disappointing choice to conclude a show that started off with such gritty truths. Such a positioning seems only to proclaim the end of documentary, buried by the personal, fantastical and ‘other’. This seems to echo the strange catalogue essay by Mark Nash, which argues that the proliferation of documentary forms in contemporary art should be understood as both an indication of the productivity of the form and a symptom of an underlying failure.

In the same sense, ‘Making History’ stages both this ubiquity and malfunction. It is a bold effort and in places a thoroughly enthralling show, but I can’t help leaving with the feeling that it really could have gone further into exploring the more difficult depths of documentary. Like recent theoretical discourses, the show failed most resoundingly in refusing to ask the question of what it really means for the documentary to retreat from the public to the private. In terms of the mutation of the documentary aesthetic, there is so very much more that could be explored: for example, charting the implications in terms of documentary’s modes of revelation and assertion in relation to those significant shifts in its social and aesthetic expectations: for example, in the rise of television and reportage over the cinematic essay. Further and most problematically the changing relationship within documentary between theory and the left is neglected, a shift that is perhaps the most crucial within the terrain of the documentary and sees a transformation from theories for documentary to theories against documentary, and against realism itself.

Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now is at Tate Liverpool from February 3 to April 23. The Humphrey Jennings Collection DVD published by Film First is available through MovieMail.

Sarah James is an art writer.

First published in Art Monthly 295: April 2006.

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