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Reading Bourriaud’s The Radicant:

The documentary turn pervasive in art practices since the 1990s is a response  to “a dual need for information and thorough examination,” born of cinema’s lack of interest in the real world, the place where its product (Hollywood films) are distributed (30). Where cinema once acted as some sort of indices related to the external world by capturing, at least, the spirit of the place and time that the film was made in, cinema’s contemporary interest with the world is simply as a “storehouse of settings and plots” (31). I can imagine that CGI technologies are deeply connected to this because they allow landscapes and characters to be presented in the language of the real without any correspondence to the lands, people or stories of the earth.

Bourriaud proposes that this function of relating information about the world has been taken up by art practices, thus the current proliferation of documentary gestures in galleries and biennials. This is a reversal of the roles of art and cinema, so that “while film has been moving more and more toward the image (to the detriment of the shot), art has been going in the opposite direction, fleeing the symbol to confront the real through the documentary form” (31).

I certainly agree that documentary forms are prevalent in art practices today (though, perhaps given my age, I don’t remember them not being), but I find it curious that Bourriaud does not mention documentaries, as in the old-fashioned type of film that aims the tell you a story about the world. Does Bourriaud mean to imply that this type of filmmaking has been perverted in such as way as to lose its correspondence to the real? It just feels like such a glaring omission. Not to mention the plethora of other media that deal in relating the real: news television, newspapers, news radio. It is possible that Bourriaud does not consider these forms because of a probably justified concern with their perversion due to advertising, editorial, or state agendas. I just find it difficult to imagine that for the average person art would present itself as an alternative to cinema for finding out about the world. Wouldn’t the first place people would look to discover truths other than their own be the news? Or, if they were to turn to cinema at all, that they would seek out explicitly educational documentaries? And that if all else failed, they would look to art?

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  1. alex says:

    the omission of documentary film is a curious one, indeed. not that this would disprove any thesis on his part, but it feels to me as though, documentary has benefitted from a great deal of renewed interest in recent years. i’m not sure to what extent i buy into the depth of much of it, but it is there plainly for all to see, i would think. it is the flip to what felt like a resurgence of expressionism in Hollywood, to which i imagine he is mostly referring (although other filmmaking zone certainly had a stake).

    i’m curious about this statement:
    “…while film has been moving more and more toward the image [to the detriment of the shot]…”

    what do you figure he means by making a point of splitting these two terms here?

    is it the relationship to CG, which might be analogous to so many actors and actresses talking around the potted plant microphone in the early period of sound film? bad relations with improvisation and mobility? something akin to an interest in iconography?

    does one edit instead?

    i think a lot of cinema folk would suggest that in the world art house, a minimalism very preoccupied with the shot–often aspiring to a downright documentarian sensibility even when ostensibly fictional–has been very present, acknowledged and celebrated if not necessarily dominant over this last patch of time.

    and i guess it would be worth making the distinction here big time between what i perceive that field to be and that of the aforementioned Jesus Camps, Michael Moore films and other such social-issue docs…

    as per always the claim to realism and worldliness is contestable in the ole realm of cinema

    a few thoughts for you.

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