At least since Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002, documentary practices have been a prominent feature of contemporary art. But what idea of documentary has emerged from this context? This talk will propose that the denigration of surface appearances—a phobia of the descriptive capacities of “mere” recording—is a key characteristic of the documentary turn in contemporary art. This line of argumentation proposes that the best access to reality occurs through artifice and casts observational documentary as a bad object that naively indulges in illusory transparency and uncreative copying. It will situate these arguments within a longer history of attacks on the mechanical reproduction of phenomenal reality in the intersecting histories of art and film, and, through a discussion of recent artists’ practices that assert the primacy of lens-based capture, will question the continuing viability of these arguments today, in our era of “alternative facts.”
Erika Balsom is a senior lecturer in Film Studies at King’s College London, focusing on the history of the moving image in art and experimental documentary practices. Her most recent book, After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation, was published by Columbia University Press in 2017. She is author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (2013), the co-editor of Documentary Across Disciplines (2016), and a frequent contributor to Artforum and Sight and Sound. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grey Room, e-flux, Cinema Journal, and numerous exhibition catalogues. In summer 2017, she was international film curator in residence at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre in New Zealand, and in 2018 her essay ‘Instant Failure: Polaroid’s Polavision, 1977–80’ was the winner of the Katherine Singer Kovacs Essay Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
This talk is programmed as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2018: Unintended Consequences exhibition, featuring new moving-image commissions by Maeve Brennan and Imran Perretta, 6 April – 3 June.