“After the News”

Our idea of documentary—images or reports reflecting the facts as closely as possible—is constantly being undermined by manipulative or suggestive tendencies in the media. It’s not necessarily conscious propaganda per se; the very conditions of transmission ensure that the event is altered in the telling. Documentation goes hand in hand with interpretation. The increasing ambiguity of the genre has nevertheless had a positive effect inasmuch as the domain of the professional journalist has been breached, allowing an influx of strategies from ethnography, political activism, and personal journal writing. “After the News: Postmedia Documentaries,” organized by Carles Guerra, explored the increasing use of documentary practices in art in all its complexity.

This distance from conventional reportage is thematized by Bruno Serralongue in his photographic series “Risk Assessment Strategies,” 2002. He shows photojournalists learning, as part of a training session on operating in crisis zones, how to defuse mines, recognize different weapons, and administer first aid. This nonprofessional documentary about journalists presupposes the very distance that guarantees the freedom of documentation as artistic praxis. While the military-style preparations seem necessary for conveying the immediacy of events, a temporal, spatial, and conceptual distance can itself yield clues to their political meaning. The point is no longer events but their background. An important aspect of nonprofessional documentation is therefore media criticism. The group Article Z interrupted the continuous media coverage of the second Iraq war for twenty days in March with Ramallah Daily, a three-minute documentary segment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was otherwise being ignored by the news shows. Simply by virtue of its special format, this program, broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, formulates a critique of the propagandistic Iraq reportage on the English and American networks. Without voice-over or dramatic editing, the reports show the military force in the streets of Ramallah and provide, with the help of interviews, a kind of oral history of daily life in this crisis zone.

While Article Z reacted to reportage on Iraq with an intervention in the broadcast stream of the dominant media, the pseudonymous Salam Pax posted his “Baghdad Blog” on the Web as a kind of personal diary, an alternative news source from Iraq. The surprising success of this weblog, and the initially unclear identity of its author (who soon emerged as the Iraqi assistant to a foreign correspondent for the New Yorker), shows the general state of skepticism toward official information sources, as well as the tricky attempt to offer some opposition to the popular US media and its largely pro-government stance. Alan Berliner edits together scenes from home videos and films, in which families present themselves as if on a talk show. His work The Family Album, 1986, probably betrays more about American life than a seriously researched TV documentary. The late writer W.G. Sebald, who appeared here in a video produced by the CCCB, carried to an extreme the pseudo-authentic effect created by conventions of image documentation, in that he combined it with fiction. He illustrated his novels with historical black-and-white photographs, the original contents of which have nothing to do with the story developed in the novel.

The collected wealth of anti-journalistic documentation, one of the main points of the exhibition, argues against the believability of a genre that once stood for objectivity and authenticity (even though documentation has always been a construct, wielded in an age of media as a tool to shape public opinion). Only with postmedia, anti-journalistic forms of documentation can our perspectives on a given event multiply and thus enable a democratic view.

Nina Möntmann

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.