[-empyre-] empyre Digest, Vol 108, Issue 8

Richard Wright futurenatural at blueyonder.co.uk
Sat Nov 9 01:31:38 EST 2013

Hello Patrick,

thanks for your comments!

I haven't read the books you mention but I am aware that you can approach this by extending the documentary definition to include more experimental and open ended forms. But for me it is very useful to make a distinction between documentary and essay films. If I were to tell people I was a documentary film maker they would get the wrong idea. I also make commercial documentary for tv so I might be more aware of the differences in most people's perceptions.

My first essay film made nearly 20 years ago was "Heliocentrum" (with Jason White), a computer animation about Louis XIV and the politics of electronic culture and spectacle. At the time we called it an experimental documentary because we didn't know the term essay film!

So I think that the essay form has now established itself with its own history, aesthetics, values and practices. Stretching back to Chris Marker in moving image and Montaigne more generally. And this might be a flexible way to think about connecting to and artistically extending the domain of political events.


> ------------------------------
> Message: 2
> Date: Thu, 7 Nov 2013 17:41:59 -0500
> From: Patrick Keilty <p.keilty at utoronto.ca>
> To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Against documentation, for the Essay
> Message-ID:
> 	<CAG1hG5dxF=wxaAgGeDF+purQR5pyohOpibpMJ1OYfWFa5rVEFw at mail.gmail.com>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="windows-1252"
> Richard, Tantalum Memorial is very cool! It stuck me that, at one point, we
> associated a sound with information processing, now nearly silent, as we
> barely hear electrons passing through silicon, unless you go to a major
> processing centre, like 1 Wilshire in Los Angeles. (The sound of a data
> processing centre:
> http://www.hark.com/clips/czqvzjlsnj-computer-room-data-processing-center.)
> However, that very recognizable bang, bang, bang sound of of typewriters,
> early telephony systems, and morse code/ telegraph is still recognizable to
> my students, even if it was way before their time. I don't know why I am
> suddenly thinking about sound.....
> I wonder if Tantalum Memorial is not so much against documentation as it is
> a form of documentation -- not just of old media, but of the politics and
> material consequences of the physical infrastructure (and technological
> apparatus) of tele-communication. I like how this project both reminds us
> of the material history of bits and the politics associated with it. For
> more on that history, see Jean-Fancois Blanchette's "A Material History of
> Bits" (*JASIST* 62.6: 1042-1057).
> I guess  to answer this question, we need to clarify our understanding of
> "documentation" and "document." I'll leave it to the documentary folk
> scholars to speak from their filed and to explore the relationship between
> documentary and essay film. In Information Studies, we understand a
> "document" quite broadly, beyond even fixed forms, toward an unlimited
> horizon of aesthetic formats and an unlimited horizon of techniques and
> technologies (and of documentary agencies employing these) that are often
> culturally specific and put to culturally specific uses. This line of
> thinking, within our field, starts with Suzanne Briet's treatise *Qu'est-ce
> que la documentation? *(1951?) The most recent translation comes from Ron
> Day (Indiana University) in 2006. For more on Briet and what we call the
> first and second waves of European Documentalism, see Ron Day's book *Modern
> Invention of Information*. It's a secret gem.
> There. I've done my field's intellectual flag-waving for the month. :P
> On Thu, Nov 7, 2013 at 8:30 AM, Richard Wright <
> futurenatural at blueyonder.co.uk> wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> Hi there,
>> great posts on a very demanding and complex issue in arts practice.
>> I want to offer an example of a way that we went about trying to extend
>> the domain of an arts project (which I think of as a bit different to an
>> artwork) when I used to work as part of the Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji
>> artists collective until 2009. This is, I think, an argument against
>> documentation and for the wider poeticising of an arts project using
>> artistic use of media systems, and through that reaching a wider audience.
>> We had done a project called "Telephone Trottoire" a few years previously
>> with a Congolese radio program called Nostalgie Ya Mboka. This was, very
>> briefly, to invent a telephone network for the Congolese community in the
>> UK to pass around messages and share opinions on topical subjects, often to
>> do with their experiences as asylum seekers and refugees in Europe. It was
>> very popular and we got arts funding to do a larger scale version in 2008.
>> But the network was all in the Congolese language of Lingala and
>> participated in by growing the social networks in Congolese communities so
>> it was difficult for anyone else to appreciate what was going on.
>> So our solution was to connect it to a gallery based artwork called
>> "Tantalum Memorial", a memorial made for the 4 million Congolese who have
>> died as result of the Coltan wars, built out of racks of mechanical
>> telephony switches. Tantalum is the metal derived from coltan mining in the
>> Congo. The traffic in this valuable metal is now used in mobile phones and
>> many other media devices and this trade is siphoned off by militia to
>> finance fighting in the Eastern Congo, exacerbating political conditions
>> that have caused many Congolese to leave for Europe (and the Congolese love
>> using their mobile phones, so you see the contradictions already).
>> "Tantalum Memorial" is built from old Strowger switches, the first
>> automated telephone system invented in 1891 by an American undertaker Almon
>> Strowger, at a time when the Congo was being enslaved by Europeans such as
>> Belgium, for industrial materials including rubber used to insulate the
>> new telephone cables.
>> This is how it works. When a Congolese person makes a call through the
>> "Telephone Trottoire" network it triggers the rack of strowger switches in
>> the gallery. So people can physically see the calls happening and get a
>> sense of a historical perspective on how the development of
>> telecommunications technology over 100 years has had such raft of social
>> and political ramifications. There are also call pattern displays on a
>> monitor and an audio playback of the Trottoire topics (which are all in
>> Lingala so not many people will understand directly but that's okay in this
>> context). Linking these two media projects brought together issues of
>> globalisation, immigration and the history of telecommunications in a more
>> poetic context that allowed the references to keep circulating in a way
>> that did not try to resolve these very complex issues like a conventional
>> documentary would tend to. So we felt that an artwork was a good way to
>> allow an audience to explore the many sides of such a very intricate and
>> involved subject.
>> I also think of the project's form in terms of the difference between a
>> documentary and an essay film (which is more my core practice) - in my
>> opinion an essay being a better approach to articulating difficult,
>> contradictory, multi-layered subjects.
>> Artivism for Activism. Artworks for Artivism.
>> There's a full description here on an old web site:
>> http://mediashed.org/TantalumMemorial
>> and video documentation (can't entirely get away from it!) here:
>> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0LlN20Aj--0
>> Cheers,
>> Richard Wright

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