New documentary forms as self-documentation

I’d like to raise the question of the extent to which a new documentary technique or form might document itself as opposed to the subject of the document. I’ll illustrate this question specifically within the context of new technological means, but it may warrant consideration in other forms of new documentary not facilitated by technology, such as the re-enactment of historical performance art already blogged at this event. Can the form used to document an event result, to whatever extent, in documenting itself?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the root of the noun ‘document’ to both the old french and latin words for ‘lesson’ [1]. A lesson, itself defined as ‘the action of reading’ [2], does not pretend to be an objective record. The perspective of the teacher and the biases of the teaching techniques are implied, if not unavoidable. What traces do these perspectives and biases leave on the completed document? Given the benefit of historical hindsight, might these traces overpower the actual subject of the document?

To explore this argument I will begin by pilfering examples from a site already mentioned on this blog. The New Aesthetic, a tumblr blog identifying the incursion of digital perspectives into every day life, has already received an introduction by Caleb Kelly. I am not so concerned with the articulation or identification of said ‘new aesthetic’, as I am in understanding how the digital medium might affect how we perceive the world outside of that medium. The New Aesthetic blog provides a few salient examples. These examples throw light on the question: Has the digital medium affected how we perceive the subject being documented? And if so, would the document not act as a record of the documentary medium itself?

The below image of a blurred photograph on a billboard casts the viewers gaze … placing it behind the lens of a digital camera positioned within a speeding car. This is what a photo would look like if taken with a portable digital device pointed out the window of a moving vehicle. It is a captured vision characteristic of a ‘smart phone’. Within the context of a ‘smart phone’ the image represents a poor photograph of scenery. Within the context of a billboard, the image can represent the medium of portable digital devices. Is this work by Ben Long a document of random scenery produced in transit? Or is it a document of the documentary form of portable digital photography?

Ben Long: Moving Landscapes – The Hay Wain (after John Constable) Birmingham

A Flickr search for Broken Kindles sparks a curious fascination with the aesthetics of the mechanical breakage of e-ink screens. Geometric patterns interfere with images in random yet occasionally intriguing ways. A glitch moment, certainly.

Having experienced a broken Kindle screen myself, these images remind of the moment of collapse of the (perhaps not so) futuristic idealism of e-readers. A printed text would not cease to be readable upon such a minor incident. These images offer a compelling aesthetic, but they also document some of the fundamental differences between digital text readers and printed texts. The screens are fragile; they break in such a way as to reveal some sort of underlying cartesian structure based on rows and columns. Perhaps most importantly these images represent an infuriating interruption to the engagement with a text, a kind of rude awakening to the trade-offs imposed by digital devices. The devices solve certain problems, but introduce entirely new ones foreign to printed texts. The interest in the aesthetics of these broken screens is paralleled by their action as documents of certain characteristics of e-readers.

Google maps, a detailed document concerning the sub/urban landscape we live in similarly documents itself. Google has a legal requirement to obscure the face and thus identity of passers-by. The image on the right shows a painted mural in which certain faces have been blurred, and others have not. An examination of this image forces the viewer to consider how the face detection algorithms might function. We thus attempt to cast our eyes into those of Google’s algorithms, trying to understand which facial characteristics of the non-blurred faces have escaped the face-detection logic. In so doing, we engage with Google Maps as a document of itself.

This task takes on an other dimension when considering this next image. Flowers in a window box have been blurred. It is evidence of some form of underlying stupidity in the system. Google Maps, the document of our sub/urban environment, is now documenting the chaotic inconsistency of its underlying digital detection algorithms.

I see these artefacts as evidence of the characteristics of particular mediums: as documents of those mediums, documents of documentary forms. These artefacts teach us about the nature of those mediums; how they frame the world. Currently, the artefacts described above hold much aesthetic interest, and for good reason. But I wonder if, with the passing of time and changing documentary forms, these artefacts might hold a significance equal to the documentary subject, in that they reveal aspects of the world view of the documentary technique.


  1. “document, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 05, 2012).
  2. “lesson, n.”. OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 05, 2012).
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