Hannah Brasier has started her PhD, and I’m very happily one of her supervisors. Late last year she successfully completed her PhD confirmation, and she’s put her slides and some excellent notes on her blog. Towards Affective Knowing in the Diary Film and Interactive Documentary.
This is a small iBook project that came out of the nonfictionLab symposium held in December. Been working on it over Christmas, amongst cleaning the pool, presents, family and visitors.
Rezine 01: Research Notes Toward Critical Nonfiction Practice (iBook, 157MB).
From the introduction:
The first nonfictionLab symposium kicked off at RMIT University in December 2013 bringing together a sampler of the scholarly work being undertaken by the lab. Or, as we pimped ourselves:
From the essay, film-making, poetry, documentary, vernacular media, digital archives, memoir and design, nonfiction is increasingly a site of creative, theoretical and analytical interest. With keynote speakers, Ross Gibson and Jeff Sparrow, this inaugural nonfictionLab Symposium 2013 seeks to place some markers, critical and adventuresome, across the interdisciplinary domain of nonfiction studies. Panels sessions include: Guessing games: Interpreting surfaces, subverting perceptions, Experiments with experience: Negotiating memory, observation and imagination, (Dis)placements: Locating perspectives: spectral sites and designs, Patternings: Generating rhythms, rituals and the accidental.
This rezine is the first transitory, possibly ephemeral, quick and dirty research sketch, or field notes, of our work. The intent is to show things in progress, a snap shot collage list of small bibs and bobs that are all on their way to becoming something else. A chap book come digital pamphlet that is an opportunity to begin to describe and argue for the sorts of theoretical and critically engaged creative nonfiction we do. Let’s open the black box of research and scholarship and rethink scale, practice, documentation, the rational and poetic.
This is the Bunnings of research, welcome to rezine 01.
Rezine 01: Research Notes Toward Critical Nonfiction Practice (iBook, 157MB).
Interesting…but fiction is also insecure. I really like this essay by Vivian Sobchack (1999) ‘Toward a Phenomenology of Non-Fictional Film Experience’ because she suggests that there aren’t fixed boundaries between fiction and documentary – that it’s about spectatorship- and depends on the viewer’s experience of a film , how we might view, feel, interpret changing moments in any given film. Thus her famous quote: “One viewer’s fiction may be an other’s film-souvenir; one viewer’s documentary, another’s fiction”. Nevertheless, your post has got me thinking – last night I watched “The Outlaw Michael Howe” on ABC TV; it is a tele-movie, a historical period drama about a convict in Tasmania. I have a range of issues with this film which I am grappling with how to address…then today I read it was (part?) funded under Screen Australia’s National Documentary Program’s Making History Initiative. Well, it may be based on a true story but this does not make it a documentary! and why it received government funding as a documentary concerns me. So obviously I do think there are significant differences in the fiction-non fiction modes of address. Sobchak’s essay is in Collecting Visible Evidence (1999), ed. Michael Renov and Jane Gaines, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 241-254.
The insecurity I have begun to think about (in two different ways, one is about centres of indetermination, the other the one that Jeni’s responding to) is a way to think about the sorts of willingness of documentary, historically, to play with form and technology. While fiction has done this, documentary seems to be a richer site of technical experimentation, as well as more complicated modes of address. Fiction, in film, might play with story and plot, it might ‘break’ the fourth wall (Godard of course springs readily to mind), but not that many play with modes of address that, say, Marker did way back in Letter from Siberia (direct address, irony, animation, literal repetition of footage).
Translating this to online, and I think the evidence is showing the documentary is doing much richer things in regards to networked practice than fiction. There is more variety of approaches and work, certainly more experimentation in relation to content, style, form, platform, and so on, than I think has happened in fiction film making. So I was wondering why. Why would nonfiction be more willing than fiction, which after all is celebrated as the place of ‘creative’ practice, be more conservative in relation to these things.
So my tentative answer comes out of possible worlds theory and those elegant definitions that I Iike (for their pragmatic exactness) where fiction are works about a world, while nonfiction are works about the world. In the former the world has to be internally consistent, and true. So it is true that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, and that Jedi Knights have light sabres. Just as it is true that Ethan Edwards is a returned soldier from the American Civil War who undertakes a quest to, perhaps, kill his kidnapped niece. These are truth claims, and verifiable as truth claims, but they are truth claims that can be verified because they come from fictional universes with internally coherent rules. Nonfiction, on the other hand, makes claims about our world. They can be contested, but the evidence doesn’t come from the fictional world, it comes from outside the text, from the world.
Hence fiction is very secure in itself. Once I set the rules I can do what I like. Unreliable narrator, in a universe where people sprout limbs as required, photosynthesise, and reproduce like fungi. Where if you fall in love you die. It really isn’t a problem. So narrative is sovereign, in that solar, regal, absolute way that the idea of sovereign demands. It lets you do whatever you wish, just keep it internally consistent. Nonfiction on the other hand can’t do this. The world is always there, bearing witness. I can make all sorts of truth claims, sure, but here narrative is not fiction, narrative is telling and claiming about a world that is external to itself. Here, in spite of how arrogant any nonfiction work wants to be in its claims for certainty and concrete absolute factness, it’s test is not internal coherence but the outside. Which is unbounded. This is the reverse of fiction, for fiction always has clear edges – there is no scientific breakthrough that will suddenly render the universe of Star Wars wrong – and so nonfiction can’t invest in narrative as sovereign. The world is sovereign here and so narrative becomes unsure of itself. AKA, insecure. As the world is sovereign, and outside, and unbounded, in relation to any nonfiction work, then what I say, and how I say it, can never have the security of fiction, and this insecurity opens up the form to, well, wonderment and experimentation.
So, nonfiction is much more willing to break things, play with things, question. It finds itself having to, because it can never pretend to say enough to create the sort of hermetic universe that is fiction’s right.
Visible Evidence 2012 (Canberra). The website was http://www.visibleevidence2012.com. Visible Evidence 2013 (that’s still this year), seems to have been http://www.vexx2013.se/. One is now Japanese with information about loans, I”m assuming it’s some sort of SEO scam. The other is vacant. Not sure what it says about things when one of the major documentary conferences so misunderstands the deeper structure of the interwebs (if you buy a domain, you only own the name for as long as you pay for it, it’s more a lease really) that it fails to keep its own recent history, but I wouldn’t think whatever it says is very good.
Fiction creates a bounded universe within which narrative is sovereign. It is all inside. Nonfiction finds itself within an unbounded universe where the world is sovereign. It is all outside. This makes documentary, as form and in its modes of address, necessarily and inevitably insecure.
Hot off the new documentary list.
Jeni Thornley on September 24 wrote: “Sure the digital turn beckons in the era of the active co-creator-maker of the text, as Gaudenzi’s four interactive modes indicates, but a sentence like this seems quite a sweeping statement: “….to move documentary studies from its obsession with representation to a wider focus on documentary systems. From questions of what does documentary mean to questions of what does documentary do?” (Aston, Dovey & Gaudenzi 2013: 124) I don’t think that documentary studies is ‘obsessed’ with representation; and also plenty of documentarists and scholars have investigated deeply ‘what documentary does’. I am thinking of Thomas Elsaesser’s application of being ‘stung into action’ by one’s own intense and empathic engagement and response to a film – in his terrific essay: ‘Subject positions, speaking positions: from Holocaust, Our Hitler, and Heimat, to Shoah and Schindler’s List’, in The Persistence of History, Routledge, 1996.”
Again I think Jeni’s picked a really important part of this essay. The shift from representation to ‘doing’ is picked up in lots of recent theoretical work, part of the stuff being critiqued via ‘new materialism’ and the ‘media archeology’ sort of stuff. This work argues that media (and we’ll stick doco studies in there for now) has been fascinated with representation, with what things mean, what people do with them, and what institutions do with or around them (the audiences, texts, institutions which defines media, communication and much cinema studies). The criticism of the recent work is that this research looks straight ‘past’ what the media is, to what we think it does in relation to whatever social system we want to investigate it through, but in that moment we don’t see or can’t see what the thing is in itself. I think Jeni’s point from Elsaesser is a good one, though still within the regime of ‘documentary doing’ that is representational or at least as a call outside of itself towards something else. (This could well be an elegant definition of documentary in relation to fiction.)
On the other hand I don’t think Aston and Gaudenzi quite get to where they could. Documentary systems is where the research needs to go. Partly to pick up and intersect with all the work being done in software studies, platform studies, new media and so on. I’m currently writing about how Korsakow, We Feel Fine, and Cowbird could all be thought of as documentaries, but as systems they are qualitatively different and this is a difference that makes a difference. (Bettina F. also used Cowbird as an example at Visible Evidence last year in Canberra.) The shift we are now defining is post digital to the extent that it is computational (procedural and processual) and networked. Yes it relies on the digital but the first wave digital was really only about access and ease. Just because I shot and edited digital I could still make the same sorts of things in much the same sorts of ways. But once we think of them as systems, then representation falls to some extent by the wayside, certainly to begin with because system dynamics (different systems produce different representational epistemes and experiences), and it is the relations afforded by the systems (between content and its parts, people, other systems, as well as procedural and computational processes) that matter.
Why don’t I think it quite gets there? Because the focus on what ‘documentary does’ risks becoming another way to representation, of what it means. Which is fine. But there is a lot to be learnt and understood by first thinking and answering what documentary systems there are, where system is closer to systems theory (let’s not forget Burnham’s system aesthetics either) and Actor Network Theory than socio-political conceptions of system. Different systems, different documentary possibilities, at all points/moments/facets of these systems.
This is a Venn diagram I made to help think about the research proposal that I outlined the other day.