The Production of Documents
“In history everything begins with the gesture of setting aside, of putting together, of transforming certain classified objects into ‘documents.’ This new cultural distribution is the first task. In reality it consists in producing such documents by dint of copying, transcribing, or photographing these objects, simultaneously changing their locus and their status.” 1Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History (1975), trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 72.
In The Writing of History (1975), Michel de Certeau criticized the perception of documents and archives as dormant sources waiting to be collected and interpreted by historians. Writing in the context of the critique of the document undertaken by historians grouped, in France, under the label nouvelle histoire, Certeau stressed the institutional aspect of historical discourse and its need to comply with academic rules. He argued, in short, that documents are never accidentally found but are always willingly constructed as such by historians through their practice.
While artists are not historians, Certeau’s reasoning describes well the position taken by certain artists who work with photography and express a keen interest in the idea of the document, understood not as unmediated evidence but as a product of specific conventions of knowledge production. Artists such as Zoe Leonard, Christopher Williams, Jean-Luc Moulène, Yael Bartana, and Akram Zaatari, whose work I have been researching for the past few years, develop different strategies such as restaging, appropriating, or deconstructing photographic documents, borrowing from and reworking different traditions of applied photography, in order to construe the document as a critical form.
To translate Certeau’s reflection on the production of historical discourse into the terrain of contemporary art entails favoring works that foreground the construction and presentation of sources over works resulting from the accidental encounter with them. It provides, as such, an antidote to the romance of found photography and the poetic value of chance encounter that has sustained practices ranging from surrealism to Tacita Dean’s 2001 Floh. This would seem all the more pertinent today in the context of the ever-greater availability of random images and digitalized archives that artists have at their disposal to produce artworks in what we may call the institution of contemporary art.
If Certeau’s words seem relevant in today’s art context it is not because, as time goes by, there are fewer photographs to be found at flea markets, but because the overabundance of visual sources that circulate digitally requires a more critical effort of selection and reworking of those available sources. Wouldn’t the digitalization of museum and library collections, of institutional as well as private archives render impossible a project such as Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s 1977 Evidence, which relied for a large part on the secrecy and anonymity of the sources it had somehow managed to obtain? (An alternative for artists might be to keep decidedly away from the digital archive as Alexandra Leykauf successfully does, focusing on the materiality of pictures reproduced in books and then translated into collages and paper sculptures.)
If the digital omnipresence of photographic sources requires a shift in conceptual strategies for artists working with archives, Certeau’s words are also an invitation to viewers to adopt a more analytic posture in front of artworks of a documentary or archival nature and to move beyond the fascination for the treasure of a little known source to questioning the protocols, thanks to which a document has been re-produced as a work of art. And if Certeau’s words seem to be even more relevant in a digital context than that of material archives and analogue prints, works such as Zoe Leonard’s Analogue (1997-2008) and Jean-Luc Moulène’s Objets de Grève (1999, 2001), make that connection clear even while they do not foreground digital technologies.
Leonard’s Analogue does so through her exhibition displays of the some 400 photographs that chronicle the disappearance of small neighborhood shops in Manhattan and follow the circulation of charity clothing in different places around the globe. In the different exhibitions of this project the artist displayed the images in grids of different sizes organized thematically that blurred the dominant subject matter of the project and created new thematic narratives and micro-histories. These visual arrangements made the series resemble more a database dependent upon its public visibility than an archive conceived as a closed body of information for select users. Moulène’s series of Objets de Grève presentés par Jean-Luc Moulène underscores the construction of documents through simultaneously addressing different contexts of reception. The work consists of a series of objects produced mainly during the 1970s and 1980s during the crisis of the manufacturing industries in France. The objects, made by workers during strikes in order to publicize or financially support social conflicts, have over the years been collected and photographed by the artist. He donated them to the Archives Nationales du Monde du Travail in Roubaix where they can be consulted as the “Fonds Jean-Luc Moulène” (reference 2003 025). The photographs representing them were acquired by the Musée National d’Art Moderne Centre Pompidou and also shown at the annual congress of the CGT union (French labor union federation) in March 2003. While Moulène’s collecting enabled the objects to become socially, politically, and historically visible in a context that had previously ignored them, what is even more interesting is the way in which both the objects and the photographs could simultaneously find different contexts of presentation and preservation.
What I find striking about these two projects is that they both address the way documents can be produced and convey meaning, and how that meaning might change swiftly upon a different place of presentation or the calling up of an alternative search term. At the same time, their subject matter testifies to the unraveling of the manufacturing-based economy, and to the advent of a dematerialized, finance-driven world economy that cannot but serve as an analogue for the shift from paper archives – still the dominant form at the time of Certeau’s writing – to digital ones. Through subject matter as much as material form, these works integrate the logic of the digital while being produced in analogue photography. And so if the digital, as Joanna Fiduccia proposed in her comments on my third post, has absorbed the analogue, reciprocally, these artists show they have absorbed the digital into their analogue productions.