At the risk of not conveying the context adequately, but that in itself being akin to a documentary gesture, Okwui Enwezor outlines a distinction between documentary and vérité that alludes to the distinction I am trying to make between documentary gestures in filmmaking and media art practices. Quoting from the essay “Documentary/Vérité: Bio-Politics, Human Rights, and the Figure of ‘Truth’ in Contemporary Art,” Enwezor provides this definition of documentary:

“[It] refers to a set of techniques and types of images directed at, and drawn from, the ‘real’ world. The general dispensation of such techniques, and the purloined “reality” they embalm as images, are commonly understood to be distinctly organized to interact with and comment directly on that ‘reality’. This type of work generally is typified by an attitude of commiseration with the subject of the documentary, and where violence or catastrophe is present with the pain of the subject, that is, to the real…But to document is never to make immanent a singular overwhelming truth. It is simply to collect in different forms a series of statements (what Foucault calls ‘statement events’ as an enunciative function of the archive) leading to the interpretation of historical events or facts. The documentary as such is never outrightly  a claim of truth, namely, that this happened; therefore, it is true. In its relentless singularization, in the guise of bearing witness to that which is part of our reality, even if it may be outside our immediate experience, the documentary claims for itself the burden of truth in that it directs itself to what it sees as recordable reality.”

As to vérité, Enwezor claims the following:

Vérité has been defined as truth. But also it refers to lifelikeness, a trueness to life…Bio-politics [a certain understanding of human rights], then, is both the conceptual envelope and the philosophical determinant for how the loose therm ‘documentary’ came to inhabit such a palpable space in the galleries of the exhibition [Enwezor is here referring particularly to documenta 11]…On the one hand, in the idea of vérité we confront the conditionalities of ‘truth’ as a process of unraveling, exploring, questioning, probing, analyzing, diagnosing, a search for truth or, shall we say, veracity. For the documentary mode, on the other hand, there is a purposive, forensic inclination concerned essentially with the recoding of dry facts to be submitted to the vérité committee. It is here that the pure relationship between documentary and vérité become clearer, for they each define the relationship between the spectator and the image–what in Camera Lucida Barthes defined as the studium–the interplay between fact and truth. Comprehension and verification is the agitated field of the studium for ‘to recognise the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s [filmmaker’s/media artist’s] intentions, to enter into harmony with them, to argue with them within myself, for culture (from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers.’ This is what governs the relationship between the documentary and vérité, since  there is nothing inherently true or factual in the documented image if the purpose of such a documentation does not further ask the viewer to approach such documentation as not only just a fact of something real in the world, but also something true in the social condition of that world which is difficult to support in a single film frame or photographic image.”

Although Enwezor is not using the language of (non) narrativity, he is suggesting that a difference in form correlates to a difference in reception. I am interested in distilling these differences to such a point that an artist’s or filmmaker’s documentary gesture cannot be a spectator sport for the people who encounter their works.


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