This talk introduces arguments and examples from Nick Thurston’s current book project, Document Practices, which explores aesthetic and political frameworks for analyzing acts of re-publishing already public documents. With case studies that range from shadow libraries to experimental videos, and ideas about “the document” which haunt the sociology of literature as much as documentary arts practice, Nick sketches out the project’s starting points and some of its key debates.
Documents remain the primary media form of public information and record, so the social and epistemological status of “the document” should be central to a spectrum of debates, from data literacy norms to intellectual property claims. Yet, as buzz terms like “post-truth” and “deep fake” remind us, the social lives of documents are entwined with the techno-political conditions of the communities who produce, save and share them. As such, the status of any document and its content are both contextually variable. Since the 1970s, as a response to the suppression of marginalized histories and the rise of personal computing, radical practitioners from across the arts have shifted from representing “the document” as a symbol of power to critically (and sometimes illegally) re-publishing documents as an artistic act.
With this macro picture in mind, Nick’s project takes the micro perspective of art criticism to figure out some comparative frameworks for thinking across media and across artforms about the public-ness of publishing.
These preliminaries settled, he did not care to put off any longer the execution of his design, urged on to it by the thought of all the world was losing by his delay, seeing what wrongs he intended to right, grievances to redress, injustices to repair, abuses to remove, and duties to discharge.
About Nick Thurston
Nick Thurston is a writer and editor who makes artworks. He is the author of two experimental books, Reading the Remove of Literature (2006) and Of the Subcontract (2013), the latter of which has been translated into Dutch (2016), Spanish (2019) and German (2020). He writes regularly for the literary and arts press as well as for independent and academic publications. His most recent book is the co-edited collection Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right (2018). His recent exhibitions include shows at Transmediale (Berlin, 2018), Q21 (Vienna, 2018), MuHKA (Antwerp, 2018) and HMKV (Dortmund, 2019).
From 2006–18 he was a co-editor of the influential publishing collective Information As Material (York), with whom he was Writer in Residence at Whitechapel Gallery (London, 2011–12). He has been Artist in Residence at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Dublin, 2014) and was awarded a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists (2020). He is currently Associate Professor in Fine Art at the University of Leeds, where he co-founded the Artists’ Writings & Publications Research Centre and is a fellow of the Poetry Centre.
The following is a transcript of the video’s content, with human corrections during and after. For any errors the human missed, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nick Montfort 00:49
Nick Thurston is author of two books, a chapbook and three Pocket Books two with co-authors. He has been an associate and visiting lecturer at various arts academies in the UK since 2007. And he’s now an associate professor at School of Fine Art History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds
Nick Montfort 01:22
to orally republish a statement from his faculty page. My practice more broadly as a writer and editor who makes artworks involves traditional and post digital forms of publishing, as well as exhibitions and readings. His print and sculptural works are held in public and private collections around Europe, including the Van Abbemuseum, Leeds City Art Gallery and the bibliotech Nationale de France is bookworks are collected by institutions including the V&A, the Tate and the MoMA.
Nick Montfort 02:12
Since 2006, he has been co editor of the independent artists book publishing imprint information as material in York, with whom he was writer in residence at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2011. To 2012 Today we’ll hear from Nick about document practices. So I wanted to give you a glimpse at least of his work with and published by information as material. So first, let me show you a bit of Nick Thurston 2006. Book, reading the Remove of literature.
Nick Montfort 03:08
It is not Maurice Blanchot’s 1955 book l’espace littéraire. And it is not the English translation of this book. But rather, it’s a publication, if you can see of thirst is marginal annotations to that translation. Originally, of course, annotations that were not handwritten that were handwritten, but we’re not typeset as you see here, as it says on Goodreads, the premise is interesting. It is not wholly unique, but it is intriguing and has elements of being something that had extreme potential. But unfortunately, the severe lack of plot, the abysmal world building, and the utterly annoying characters, let it down. I’ll display one more of Nick’s books.
Nick Montfort 04:12
This is a book of poems called of the subcontract published in 2013. I call it Nick’s book. But as you can see, it’s actually it’s actually written there we go. There’s everyone. It’s actually written by Time magazine’s 2002 Person of the Year, you are perhaps Time magazine’s 2022 person of the year, the Uber driver, or only a bit more literally, and specifically, workers aka turkers that Nick Thurston, recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk, a service that allows human beings to be brought into an Intellectual supply chain as easily as computing power from Cloud services.
Nick Montfort 05:14
As McKenzie Wark writes in her foreword to the book, poetry sets a sky aflame at sunset, magically transforms a familiar landscape into a Snow White Wonderland, and prints a clump of daffodils with the glow of soft sunlight. Actually, not written by McKenzie Wark, she had a graduate student do the job for her. No, just kidding. The Graduate student was probably too busy picking up Mackenzie’s dry cleaning. So the foreword to the book was actually written by a ghostwriter in Pakistan via freelancer.com.
Nick Montfort 06:14
I’m particularly glad to have Nick Thurston speak with us tonight about his critical theoretical and scholarly approaches to document practices, because they grow from his excellent and provocative work as a document practitioner,
Nick Montfort 06:37
a publisher and co author as well as an author, someone who not only stops to smell the roses, but has indeed printed that clump of daffodils. Welcome, face to face through a hole in space. Nick Thurston.
Nick Thurston 07:01
Thank you, Nick, that was really kind. I’m just going to pull up my desktop. Is that coming through? Great, okay. And then I’ll come into here. And that was really kind Nick. Thank you. And thanks to to Heather and Andrew for the invitation to speak. And to William and his colleagues at the open documentary lab for enabling everything. Well, I hope I’ll actually get to come over someday. But in the meantime, these kinds of events, at least get a conversation going. And I’m really grateful for that. So the the phrasing of my title today is weird. Document practices is an odd, even awkward formulation. But it’s one that I started to use in 2017. To try to make sense of a long term project I debuted that year with my other hat on as someone who makes artworks. That project is dense but simple. It was about creating sociable reading environments for audiences to pay close attention together to the networking and collaboration forums used by far right and fringe right political parties around Europe. The project was called hate library. And it involves really simple but time consuming data extraction and republishing methods. So this odd formulation, document practices was something that I deduced as a kind of, like an epistemological coping mechanism or something, a way to help me understand what on earth I was doing speculatively, and aesthetically in my artistic practice. Now, I’m not planning to talk about hate library today. But I’ve pasted a few links into the zoom chat if anyone wants to follow up on it. The most pertinent link is probably the short article for the house journal of the transmedia festival in Berlin. It’s a short magazine II type article, but it bridges between my investments in that background project hate library, and the new project that I will talk about today, which is shaping up as a monograph of criticism. Now, I wanted to start with this little bit of background to raise two quick points by way of a frame for what I’ll share. those points are personal and simple. But I hope they’ll help you understand how I’m coming at this new book project. The first point is really methodological. I’m not a scholar in any strict sense. And I’m not sharing that as an excuse, or even as an apology. All of the work I’ve done that’s involved scholarship has like this new project, somehow reversed out of things that I’ve stumbled on in the process of making and writing artistically, and from being part of communities if you do the same. Now typically, that happens when I notice a commonality between artistic gestures that somehow ill defined or undefined, and if I can’t find a historical or theoretical genealogy that adequate With the accounts for that common gesture as an artistic impulse, then I’ll start to try and think in the gap. That’s typically how I decide to what what to work on as a critic. I’ve always called called this kind of work para scholarly in the sense of it being dependent upon but somehow outside of proper scholarship, in no small part because its focus tends to be pretty subjective, and less about the needs or lacks within any disciplinary discourse. Now Today’s the first time I’m going to talk about this new project document practices. And it’s very much a periscope only endeavor in ways that I think are both good and bad. Now, at the moment, I’m not entirely sure whether this is a book that will say, here’s a bunch of exciting things. And here’s one way of thinking about or whether it’s going to do something philosophically deeper at a meta critical level in relation to the triangle of issues that anchor it. Now that triangle is up on screen, but I’ll just voice them quickly. First, the status of the document in documentary practice, second, the social lives of textual documents in our media scape. And third, the stakes of republishing as art or via the contexts of art. Now, my new project really comes from noticing this trio of issues bubbling up in the field. But there being given way to triangulate them critically, such that it’s currently hard to understand why, if at all, their co occurrence is connected. So the book that’s shaping up is full of examples. And as such, the writing of this book, its propulsion is really being driven by critical description.
Nick Thurston 11:51
Now my second framing point is a kind of invitation and a caveat guess I’m I’m I’m actually a subscriber to the podcast series that comes from this colloquium. So I have a kind of listeners impression of the types of projects and methodologies normally brought to the forum. Now, I don’t have a data set, per se. And I’m not going to talk about behavioral tendencies or mass media issues. But I’m also not going to bore you with loads of art history or literary theory. I’m going to use bits of those discourses for scaffolding. But at the heart of this project are unresolved questions about comparative criticism, and about the media critical stakes of re publishing. So I’m going to talk you through lots of examples, starting with two precedents for what I’m starting to call document practices. And what I really value from the discussion afterwards is some collective problematization of the media critical stakes these examples dig up. Because if I’m honest, I think that aspect of my project is still undercooked at the moment. So in short, I’m coming to you from a power position with a project that’s kind of in its teens, if not, its infancy. And I’m looking forward to a chance to talk with you all about some of it not not just its threads. Anyway, that’s the little bit framing I wanted to do. Right, so I’ll get to business. Now. Heather suggested about 15 minutes of presentation, so I’ll speak for about that. But certainly no more than no more than 55. The aesthetic and political category that lurks behind this new book project is the one half spoken in its title, documentary. You can’t think about documentary that alone talk about it without invoking some notion of the document. Now, I know that teasing the seemingly obvious link between documentary and documents is a trope of discussions about documentary, it’s the most obvious self reflexive trigger. But part of what’s attractive about that trope is that it doesn’t take much teasing out to show that the meaning of documentary is slippery, if not even ambiguous. We can talk about documentaries and aesthetic category and have irresolvable debates about where its value lies. We can talk about documentary as an aesthetic genre, either within a particular art form or across art forms, and tried to establish what kind of realism it generates. And we can talk about documentary as an historic graphic method, a way of reopening the past and registering that rupture, and maybe even advocating for an alternative. Now, one commitment I’ve made in this project is to stay with that slipperiness rather than try to bypass it, or even to try to resolve it upfront, theoretically, not least, because innovative documentarians keep making it more slippery, and as a practitioner and critic, I think that’s a good thing. But to quickly distill what’s giving the book project some ballast, as I negotiate that Live greenness. I want to share a sequence of two guiding questions. This pair of questions or underwriting my approach to that triangle of issues I mentioned, which is still up there on the screen. Now we all know that documents and documentary are not the same thing. Something can be a document without being a documentary. And a documentary needs more than just documents in the roar. filler. Logically, we might say that because one is the return for the other, the genus species relation seemed clear. But what exactly constitutes a document now, in an era of accelerated mediatization, is just as slippery or gray is the definition of documentary, particularly so in relation to textual documents in a post print media scape. And I suspect that’s one of the reasons why people like me, are noticing a created upsurge or resurgence in aesthetic misuses of documents in ways that don’t bear all of the hallmarks we associate with documentary, like the narrative vibration of evidence, etc. And I’m just one of the people noticing that in a field of practice, that seems to be settling somewhere in the hinterlands between experimental writing, experimental publishing, experimental intermediate arts practice, and digital activism. So when this new project, the way I want to pin together the thickness of the document, and the status of the documentary, is by surveying some practices that creatively misuse textual documents in ways that generate effects that go beyond what we generally understand the documentary to be doing or aiming for.
Nick Thurston 16:47
But simply, I’m interested in whether there has emerged an aesthetic use of documents as documents that exceeds what we can usefully call documentary. Now instinctively, I know that sounds oxymoronic, or just like a cute paradox. But I think there have been some changes in the aesthetic intention of what artists are trying to do with documents in the context of this triangle of issues. And the effects of those intentions are motivating something at least slightly different. This is a change of intention that might be epitomized in the extreme by something like file sharing, or maybe better yet, Shadow libraries. It’s a change in intention and gesture that’s creating new aesthetic effects, effects that have stakes or consequences that are more than just cute. So the first of those guiding questions I promised will be in our critical one. Are these practices that are gathering under the umbrella document practices, somehow exceeding what we can usefully recognize as documentary? Or are they just a limit case for one more way that documentary practice is changing in response to the world? That’s the little bit of art discourse scaffolding that I followed you about. But the second question, the second knock on guiding question, opens beyond our critical discourse. And it’s simply the question of how and why whether document practices or nudging one horizon of the documentary, or they constitute a break from the documentary, how and why do these projects do what they do? And it’s with that second question, that my commitment to critical description as an analytical method is pinned. Now in its drafting this book I’m working on this teenager, is organizing an answer to that pair of guiding questions through six chapters. Each chapter has a thematic anchor. The first looks at the legacies of montage and experimental print and post print literary publishing. The second chapter looks at testimony in textual records, and the aesthetic use of that testimony. The third chapter centers on the big question about facticity about the truth claims we mobilize published documents to underwrite. The fourth chapter focuses on declarations or the idea of telling evidence, and how that idea is being inflected by the growth in size and availability of data sets of documents. The fifth chapter addresses shifting notions of publicness or how sharing the republishing documents can be a mode of explicitly ideological counteraction. And the sixth Final Chapter looks at bottom up structures for organizing public access to documents platforms effectively from shadow libraries to print on demand models. Now the straightforward editorial principle from my book is that the theme for each chapter then Because a set of examples, the slightly less straightforward application of that principle is that each thing currently anchors a lot of examples, probably far too many, which is just really a consequence of my enthusiasm. But also of the Paris scholarly method I mentioned, the fact that I’m reversing into critical writing from practice or from the field if you like. And we all know that things are kind of exciting but messy in the field. Now, I’ve known Williams work on participatory culture for a while. But I first came across the work of the open documentary lab because of the microsite moments of innovation, which is a fantastic precedent for the kind of media historical openness that constitutes this field that I’m trying to explore. One thing you’ll notice is that many of the practitioners I mentioned have never umaine never self identify as a documentarian. Just because I’m trying to read their artistic gestures through critical description. It doesn’t mean that I always agree with the artists intentions, if you like, that’s one of the critical differences to this kind of description. It begins with a disentanglement of intention and effect. And as a critic, you always start with your experience of a works effects, and then decide where and how far you want to take your inferential projection. At the moment, the examples I’ve gathered include scrapbooks, book, scanning devices, billboard posters, a computer game, a tumbler based poetry press, Shadow libraries, and a performance work organized around a single rubber stamp. So it’s a real melting pot of mostly cross out from practices.
Nick Thurston 21:45
What I’m going to show you today are just six examples, that center in on the mobilization of textual documents across contexts. But all of these are done explicitly in or via the frame of aesthetics. That’s aesthetics broadly put, be that as literature, art, or whatever Mongol combination of registers. So these examples are practices where the artwork has both process and outcome is based on the republishing of already public documents. And by republishing, what I mean is to make a public again, for more than private audience, which is an act that need not involve printing. So I’m going to show you those six examples in three pairs, effectively in three subsets. And I’m going to use the sequence of those subsets as a very quick way to abridge a few of the key moves in the argument of the book as it’s taking shape. Now, that argument leans on the walk work of a core group of theorists, especially Lisa gitelman. On the document, you see Perico on media archaeology, Rachel Malik on the horizons of the publishable and a number of people on documentary aesthetics from Allison James to Carlos guerra, to forensic architecture. Now this hodgepodge of references will shake out in the writing. But right now, you’ll probably hear echoes of them all. In a drip feed. As I described the examples. The three subsets of examples I’m going to share each coheres around a format as well as an artistic intention. And I’ve done that, in part to help keep some of the jumps between subsets clear for today. The book chapters actually mixed the format’s of their examples, but that doesn’t really matter, right. For our purposes today, the first sub set of examples begins with print publishing practices that are in some sense, extra literary. The second subset jumps to experimental video, predominantly artists Moving Image work. And the third subset jumps to cross platform, digital first archives, syllabi, and software. Now I’ve picked examples for today that either have a US resonance, or I hope, somehow kind of usefully strange. So in the first subset, we’ll start with an odd precedent in documentary editing from the British left, going back to Humphrey Jennings in the 1930s. And then we’ll look laterally to something more open and mashed, which is Middleton Harrison, Milton Harris, or in Toni Morrison’s the black book. In the second subset, I’ll show you two artists Moving Image projects, the first performative video work by on yakka egg way. The second is simple epic by Steve McQueen, based entirely on scanning. In the third subset, I’ll show you a project about counter archiving by Paul Sue Ellis. And lastly, an activist co learning tool and shareware project called the pirate care syllabus. Now building up through the subsets there is some sense of a kind of deformation Have documentary nodes. So it’s in that sick phase of platform attics and shareware tools that I think there might be a break from anything, we could usefully still call the documentary, a break caused by creating misuses of documents as documents. For now, that’s just a hypothesis rather than a claim. But I figured that it’s worth you knowing that trajectory up front.
Nick Thurston 25:29
Okay, so to the first subset. Now, the influence of the filmic idea of montage on documentary literature is well known and well discussed. And of course, we can go back to a pre film era and talk about documentary literature’s from 19th century France to the 18th century pamphlet cultures, and we can keep going backwards looking more and more widely. My first example, adapted montage very literally, it was, in a sense, lifelong project by someone who might be most familiar. As a co founder of the mass observation organization. Humphrey Jennings was an English documentary filmmaker, and a prolific editor collagist writer, an organizer. The page can on the left, was Jennings first substantial attempt at using the filmic method of montage as a literary one. It’s an addition of a little art magazine called the London bulletin from July 1938. And in it, Jennings is contribution is a series of buttressed quotations, a stream of text excerpts from other writers. They’re effectively long quotations cited at the bottom of each entry, and typeset as plain text. The quotations are organized chronologically by publication date, and his header note explains his purpose. These excerpts are meant to document the experiences of humans during the arrival of the Machine Age. It’s a purely quotation of practice, and running as a linear body text page after page. Each quotation works like a segment of footage spliced into a film. In fact, Jennings called each quotation, an image. Now the method of sampling used here culminated in a book called pandemonium. It was put together by Jennings his longtime collaborator, Charles mache, after Jennings died. Based on the extensive preparatory papers and research notes that Jennings left. The book is made up of 372 entries, each of which is just a quotation, you can see a sample spread on the right here. All of these entries are organized chronologically, and that chronology is divided into four sections or chapters. There are image plates that intervene with the text rather than just illustrate it. But in its form, the book is a fairly straight print publication. What’s less straightforward, are three reading aids embedded in the paratext, two of which invite the reader to re compose different sequences from the content. One is a traditional subject name index. And the other is a list of so called theme sequences, which is something I’ll explain in a minute. Although it was published in 1985, in many ways, pandemonium is the oldest example I’m looking at. Because Jennings died in 1950. It’s really serving me as a deductive example, one that shows pinkprint cultural norms pushed to their limit in a mass market publication, and one that’s primarily structured by other documents, but invokes them without showing them. This is a method of montaging in the fashion of documentary literature, which is one form in the long tradition of quotation writing that comes from script Toria. What this generates is a documentary epic. It’s built from quotations treated as images, spliced into invented correspondences, through the act of montage. All of which starts with a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost and ends with a quotation from William Morris is a dream of john ball. So this isn’t an overtly poetic, overtly romantic critique of dehumanization during the Industrial Revolution. One that sets up a romantic distinction between the science of history with a capital Hage, and the power of multiple lived perspectives to testify to human experience in the name of art as a different way of marking history’s plural.
Nick Thurston 29:54
What’s formerly interesting is that it’s paratext invites three readings, the first string Through following page order and therefore chronology as you might watch a film, the second extract dively, the names and subjects in the index, and third, thematically through 15 listed theme sequences. Now these theme sequences are listed just after the final entry, and each list proposes a different topical remix of the content. These theme sequences have titles like industrial man, and earth and creation, and each one sites between 14 and 40 entries from the main body, listed by the number and title. Now these might be small gestures. And pandemonium doesn’t show documents per se. But it does show how the formal structure of the book as itself a document can be prismatic. It can internally refract its content and structure. It can redirect but also pluraleyes connections between its content through the montaging of quotations, and the prismatic formal use of alternative reading devices. The book as a document unsettles the history of documents. It’s Polly Boucle employee linear. It offers lots of lines through the content, but they are lines or predetermine sequences. And that’s a key difference between quotation or practices like pandemonium, and my next example, which reproduces its source documents. Now, of course, in community archiving practices in familiar record keeping in private processes of scrapbooking, even commonplace books and communal Ledger’s, the montaging of documents within a book as container has a long history. But in documentary print publishing practices, you have to reshare the content through the form of the printed edition, which is something that takes on a social life, one that you can’t control, and in that sense, involves a different kind of risk. It becomes generative of a more than private audience, it generates a public. So public works have a different kind of social life from those kept private. Now, pandemonium does take that risk, but I think this next example doubles down on it in several ways. It makes and declares a shift from the single editorship to collaboration. It makes and declares a shift from quotation to reproduction. It makes and declares a shift from rigid linear structures to a multi directional tethering of content to content relations. And it makes and declares a rejection of reader reference tools that would ease interpretation. It’s a shift from the poly vocal pleura linear model offered by Jennings, to a constellation of hybrid content. It’s a move from linear evidence equalized in plain text, to an experience of being disoriented and meshed in the various things that these documents can be offered as evidence all. Now I’m guessing this example is more familiar. So I’m, I’m just going to describe it very quickly. What you can see are the front cover and a page sample from the first edition of The Black Book. Its construction is attributed to Middleton Harris and three co editors. because much of the material comes from an archive of African American culture, developed by an organization that Harris founded in 1964. What’s come to be known since the black books first publication in 1974, is that the book’s commissioning editor, Toni Morrison, was also a driving force in composing it, and in generating a wider context of reception for the material. The books dimensions are those of a photo book or catalog, and it runs to 198 pages. There’s a simple stylesheet for the layout of those pages. They have a three column structure, and a rigid page header, featuring the title as a logo form alongside the page numeral. But the main body moves without explanation between running text in those columns, and reproduced documents, photographs, advertisements, newspaper articles, sheet musics, all kinds of things photographically reproduced. So the run of the plain text content operates much more like a newspaper than a modern book, meaning the entries can cut into each other. This isn’t a simple montage of images arranged back to back. This is something more complicated, more speculative, which hybridizes its content.
Nick Thurston 34:49
And no we’re in the book is there a reference index for the sources of the material reproduced, or for those bits of newly authored plain text? Both pandemonium in the black book compose together multi perspectival traces of the past. very crudely put, the difference between them at the level of documentary aesthetics is that pandemonium offers its evidence in plural linear ways and be a quotation reading AIDS. Whereas the black book and mashes the reader in its evidence, by refusing to explain its framing methods, and evoking the power of indexical reproduction. For me, this kind of documentary book publishing is a really important precedent for what I’m calling document practices. For a start, they’re not cleanly literary, nor simply authored. Plus, they’re self reflexively composed through an awareness of their media form, the book as itself a document, or even a meta document. Now another trope of talking about documentary is to point out the document comes from the Latin doorset, as in to teach or to show. And in her book paper knowledge, Lisa gaitan does a great job of warning against the temptation to neatly conclude that a documents job is to document as in teach its teaching, or warnings important because documents can’t simply teach their own lessons. To explain this problem, gutterman proposes the concept of the no show function, as in k n o w show, as we know from knowledge. Now, this formulation of the no show function was a real spark for my own project. I think it’s a brilliant theory for understanding the document, as what she calls an epistemic object. very crudely put guidons point is that documents exist as such to record something to be evidence that something is known. The knowledge only becomes operative, if it’s shown as in shared. So the function of the document is to no and show. But of course, showing is always a social act. So the context of that showing the effects what its knowledge stands as evidence for documents, by definition is self evident of something. But what that something means is contextually dependent, and can also therefore change with a recontextualization. documents have to be mobilized, and that’s why their social life matters. Now the first sub set of examples started to exercise this no show quality of documents, but my second subset really intensifies it, because, through moving image, they make literal or literally figure the process of mobilizing documents as evidence for something. Both of these coming examples feature embedded documents, but they do it in different ways in two different effects. My first of these examples is a six minute HD video work by on yeka eaglais. It was triggered by it were spending time in the archive of the British colonial Film Unit, which was an ethnographic arm of the British Empire. In boys video is called her name in my mouth, and it was released in 2017. In it, she uses 16 millimeter footage from the British colonial Film Archive shot in pre independence Nigeria, between 1933 and 55. It’s the kind of footage from the empire that would have been farmed out as propaganda to new sources and the like. Now in English film, that footage is sampled, often looped or played back repeatedly. And it’s intercut with sequences of equal performing to camera in a photo studio type setting. Her performance is a response to some of the movements and dress she sees in the footage. Crucially, for me, the work also features a second level of archival response. We watch a great identifying opening, then taking us through an official report document. This is the official account of an event in Nigeria in November 1929 known as the women’s wall or the album women’s protest. In fact, it’s the report from the inquest that follow the very brutal response to that uprising.
Nick Thurston 39:40
The camera is positioned rostrum style during this situation, per the conventions of archival recording. An egg weighs hands and fingers guide the viewer as reader through the document, like a living molecule. Once we’re guided into the body of the document, the frame jumps in closeups TV documentary style, and we get a succession of very partial clips that change too quickly and cropped too tightly for us to really read the text with any degree of context. This is a brilliant, complicated and powerful work that you can watch in full screen definition on Vimeo. The sound design is just as important as the other aspects. The sounds built from a combination of recorded singing ambient music and the diegetic noise of the actions equal makes the camera like robbing Dutch wax cloth or opening the folder containing the report. The work is all about embodied experience, about a way of thinking feeling away through a critical proximity to the material. And it asks for a kind of multi sensory reading. I’m just going to play you a three minute excerpt to illustrate what I mean. There’s sound on this so hopefully you’ll hear
Nick Thurston 41:04
[untranslated audio]. So from the photo printed on a T shirt from the photo printed on a T shirt, to the 16 millimeter archive footage to the inquest report, what we have a documents reproduced in multiple ways. These reproductions as traces are then forked across media. So they can be mobilized in embodied ways that literally rub them against each other. What segway seems to be doing is to take a sort of a set of documentary film tropes normally used to narrate the meaning of documents, and adapt them to instead complicate the meanings of those documents and to put herself right at the center of that complication. Now what we see in the next example, also misuses tropes of documentary film, but turns them away from the body away from the self portrait and towards the kind of portraiture that is rendered by surveillance. Formally, this work as a kind of conceptual clarity that is registered mechanically Through a riff on the cinematic convention of the end credit, it’s an ongoing project by Steve McQueen called end credits, and it was begun in 2012. The visual content of the work is just a single continuous scanning shot that lasts for six hours. What rolls through the frame a high resolution flatbed scans of sheets of paper, buttress, then to end at Jennings’s quotations, so the movement is digitally simulated, but it feels like watching a kind of blown up microfiche reel, or really strange credit sequence At the end of a movie.
Nick Thurston 45:39
The sheets take about 15 seconds to roll through the frame. At a 16:9 projection ratio, you see about half a page at any one time. That means each line of standard body text is on screen for about seven seconds, which is to say it’s out there for long enough to be read. This video mobilizes the textual document so as to make it unavoidably legible monu mentalizing it through a register of cinema and turning its experiential endlessness into a kind of allegory for the topic of its content. What I’m showing you now is an install shot of this work on show at the Whitney in New York. At the end of this vast empty room stands a huge CinemaScope projection wall, behind which through the formal windows, you can see the outside world, the very social fabric under critique. This next photo is from the same showing. Now it’s a shame I can’t play with little clip. Because what you can’t see in the photos is the second dimension of the work its sound, the sound plays asynchronously alongside the projection. So both are always playing, but they’re timings that are independent of each other. The sound remains the unfinished aspect of this project. It’s currently over 40 hours long, and it features individual voiceover artists or pairs of voiceover artists reading up the documents scrolling on the screen, in the style of something like a prepared testimony, or scripted public speech. The content of these documents the history allegorized is every page in sequence from the FBI surveillance files on an African American man called Paul Robeson senior who was a popular singer, but also a socialist and an intellectual. These documents were privately stored as reference material within the FBI organization, but were laterally published in response to a Freedom of Information request. You can still download them all as PDFs from the FBI digital vault online. These documents have lots of layers. The pro forma structure underneath which is mostly printed the data entry by the FBI agent which is handwritten or typed the marginalia added in for correction by archivists, the rubber stamps and date markings that registered the documents history of receipt and storage. And then the redactions throughout which blackout content. All of those layers are flattened into a single image by the scanning process, which carries forward the visual noise of the original copying process and of its digital remediation. Throughout the footage has been turned into a hard contrast black on white file. And this removes the yellow tone of the paper, as if to clarify the allegory by intensifying the impression of a binary conflict, a black and white matter of fact, both big way and McQueen’s work complicate the portrayals of real people in history. By complicating the status of the documentary evidence used to underwrite those portrayals. Both are formally challenging, yet they position their audiences at different distances equally exposes herself playing with and to the problematic power of the documentary image to incite empathy. In its sheer unwatchable, relentless scale. McQueen’s work keeps us at a spectatorial distance in that troubling way that post conceptual allegory can. But both works also trade on the doubled legibility of textual documents reproduced as images that those documents become both graphic and graph authentic, that their linguistic content is mediated in a form that encodes the context of their social history. In both works, the no show function of the document is the foreground issue, undercutting documentary portraiture in both cases, the bind between Knowing and showing is foregrounded through time based gestures that are formal and performative and remediated as image sequences. sequences may dissonant by the sound design, and by the presence or non presence of other visual content. With all of that said, the two videos use textual documents in an obviously different way, one embeds them among other content, including documentary content. The other just is its documents and nothing else in image or sound.
Nick Thurston 50:35
Now, given the hypothesis of my project, this difference is really significant. Because it dredges up the classic problem of exactly how documents are mobilized in documentary aesthetics. We can call this the problem of facticity leaning back onto guy Tillman, but also outwards to advisement and his theorization of for rensis. Or Allison James and her work on the documentary imagination. documents are facts in a slightly brutish sense. They’re materially specific things that record something else, something that they’re evidence of. But beyond that quality of being self evident, figuring out why they exist, or what that something else means requires interpretation. documents are not self sufficient beyond their own thingness. They are themselves a mediator reform or an intermediary, one between the moment of their production and the context of interpretation. So any truth that a document my evidence depends upon what it’s made to represent within a bigger symbolic schema and the representational structure it’s mobilized in be that in the name of art, or the law or whatever else. In the Queen’s work, that biggest symbolic schema is art, and the representational structure for contextualize ation and interpretation is primarily determined by the other documents from the same FBI file. Of course, there are lots of implicit cues in the cinematic form of the work and it’s exhibitionist staging. But n credits doesn’t embed or couch its documents in a kind of narrative framing that is typical of mainstream documentary. And nor does it intercut those documents with other content in the way that’s typical of experimental documentary. Instead, it’s a kind of wholesale reproduction. It uses the medium of digital video to network, a folder of documents, making them legible again in public in a way that recontextualizes whatever they might make might be evidence for, precisely because they are now graphic and graphic in an aesthetic sense. So we’ve watched the mound up as a pile of indexed evidence waiting to be put to use. Now, you could be annoyed that I just described the simple act of sequential scanning as a gesture that networks a folder of documents. And you might be right. In the case of n credits, that might be a bit of a stretch, because the network it creates is a closed circuit of representation. It settles its own bigger picture, if you like. But this stretch to an actual networking of documents is the one that I think my final subset of examples manages to make. And it’s this stretch that I’m hypothesizing might constitute a break from documentary norms. So just to recap what I said at the start, I’ve started to notice an intensification of practices that make aesthetic use of textual documents as documents in ways that I’m not sure we can usefully call documentary. These last two examples, I’m going to show you a both instances of counter practice in the sense that they work with and against lots of coordinates. Were start, they both work through art, but primarily not as art, let alone for art’s sake in any Neo modernist sense. Both have primarily fluid digital forms and work as usable tools. Both make public or publish a structure, a simple platform architecture for finding published documents, cataloging them, and for republishing documents. They network readers and documents enabling unlimited communities of readership, readers who can also become librarians and publishers. In doing so, they also enable documents to be endlessly recontextualized through the network, legally or illegally. My first example from subset three looks a lot like the documentary publishing in subset one, returning us to paper and the Codex But it has none of the same literary intention we saw in Jennings or Middleton’s work. This is a project by Paul Sue Ellis called Steve Harvey and Matt. It was launched in 2018. And its premise is pretty simple to recover and republish a body of web assets about climate change that were originally published by the Environmental Protection Agency online between 1997 and 2017. These assets started to be purged in April 2017. Under governmental order
Nick Thurston 55:37
through a Freedom of Information request, so well, it’s got access to the emails and spreadsheets that detail this purge, a staff are instructed to take down references to climate change, and replace them with a stock note about President Trump’s executive order on energy independence. Now there are three media channels to sue Ellis’s work. The first is a 734 page print on demand book containing all of those emails and spreadsheets. Organized by correspondence chain, you can see a page sample on screen. The main body text is obviously a PDF export from an Email Archive. And because these documents are born digital, they’re reproduced as original copies, simple exports from web to print, such that they appear indexical. That movement from web to print is actually a kind of back and forth in this project. And the design for the books cover spread does a good job of signaling that back and forth. As you can see now on screen laid flat as it’s designed. The cover spread looks like a computer screen. It shows multilayered content and desktop icons that signposted to other channels of the work, which are a downloadable zip folder, and a live stream broadcast. There are two online anchors for this project. The one you can see on the left, which is a GitHub page that embeds the project in an ecosystem for community development. And the one you can see on the right, which is a bespoke web page at EPA dot archive dot work. This second page is the live stream. It’s broadcast reshares, the 1964 epa.gov links that were purged, it shares on one at a time in a random order every few seconds. Now this project takes its title from the opening line of the first email in the disclose correspondence. Hence it’s weird DIRECT address. But Steve Harvey and Matt is also a proof of concept for the digital system behind it. assistants who LS calls archive dot work. All three channels have Steve Harvey and Matt offer open additions. The printed part is print on demand so the content can be updated and there’s no stock limit. Likewise, the file and link content can be revised at any time. This cross platform architecture creates what Sue Ellis calls a counter publishing system that could accommodate any similar archive of politically threatened public information or what Sue Ellis calls urgent archives. Now my final example, is an open ended collaborative project by Valerie gratiana muscle mass and Tomislav medic. Again, at the back end, it’s a Sims it’s a system for publishing and sharing. And the front end I’m showing you is the first application of that system. This first proof of concept is called pirate care syllabus, and it was launched with a workshop in 2019. From that workshop, the online syllabus you can see on screen was generated. You can find it at syllabus dot pirate dot care. This project tries to map connect and support certain forms of activism, mostly self organized on the ground groupings, who innovate strategies of collective care to redress social and justices. More specifically, these are practices of care that are forced to work in the gray areas of the law or outside of it altogether, hence the reference to piracy. Now the syllabus creates an index for these groups. Each group is registered as a topic. And then within their topic area online. Each group can co develop a set of learning resources to share their expertise, organized as a set of sessions, all of the teaching resources and their further reference material published by a group The topic area is stored by a synchronized library on the shadow service Memory of the World. This ensures that all of the Republic material is robustly stored and stable accessible.
Nick Thurston 1:00:14
So pirate care syllabus is the first application of this triadic structure that can be infinitely found, and via which new content can be forked. Each syllabus has topics and within each topic, there are teaching sessions. You don’t need to be able to code to use the system and the pirate care team maintain the structure. There could be an infinite number of Scylla by now what runs the back end system is a software called sand points developed by Mars and medwakh, who also co founded Memory of the World sand points this development software is a public tool for radical republishing and librarianship. It’s also one of the limit case examples that my research has stretched towards. Pirate care was initially commissioned as a cultural project. It was the basis for the exhibition learning from disobedience in react in 2020, which you can see on screen. It’s also been adapted into contemporary art exhibitions at venues including the Kunsthalle Vienna, we’re in the conditions of exhibition are treated like a public forum. So the pirate care team use these exhibitions as a chance to extend the discursive ambition of the project. They post new discussions of workshops moving back and forth between the online and the offline, all in an effort to expand the legibility of the documents they’re accruing. So that those documents in their librarians, the activist groups can show what they know. Now all three of the people behind pirate care still work in the arts in different ways. One relevant example would be the DIY bookscan is by Mars and medak, which you can see now on screen in an exhibition from 2014. What pirate care seems to do is work through the context of art as a space in which speculative making and speculative publics can be realized, as if the form of art is little more than a transitional object. This phrase transitional object is one borrowed from Donald Winnicott by Carlos guerra to describe the political inadequacy of contemporary art. Now, noticing this tendency for radical publishing practices to make things as art or using the context of art as a zone of permission that publishing practices can transition through was the basis of my hunch behind this new book project. In the first sub set of examples I showed you, we saw some of the legacies of montage and documentary print publishing, linear in Jennings’s case, hybrid and constellation in the black book, both of Polly perspectival, but both examples will compose with a poetics of locked form. In the second subset, we saw a transmedial movement, with documents and documents reproduced indexical. In equals work, these are embedded in a narrative frame. In McQueen’s work, they form a monumental allegory. I think the intentions for an effect of this final subset are significantly different. Here, the unit of aesthetic intention is not one edit of some sort of documents, as we saw in subset one. No is the intention to splice excerpts of documents with other content. As we saw an Igway’s work. Nor is the intention to create one particular configuration of the documents as we got in McQueen’s work in Sue Ellis’s archive.work, and even more so in the case of pirate care, and its back end software standpoints. The unit of intention is the network, the networking of people to documents and storage systems and sharing systems. That network generates access through its open form. The effect of the intention is to propagate access to documents cross contextually and to enable readers to become publishers and librarians of document collections. Now if we remember that the realism registered by all documentary art forms, is the reality of the documentarians attempt to access the world, then we could say that these extreme document practices enable anyone to become a documentarian. That’s fine. But that leaves me wondering, as a critic, how we should talk about the work of these people who make the back end systems. That bit isn’t yet clear. And I’ll leave it All right, thank you. I’ll stop sharing.
Nick Montfort 1:05:06
Thanks so much, Nick, this is great. And while I wait for the clapping hands to turn into questioning hands in the zoom participant list here, I’ll offer a question myself. So I’m fascinated with the teaching role of the document. And also with its monolithic nature that Steve McQueen, I think most expressively and conceptually put forth in that project that you show documentation of at the at the Whitney. I mean, in that case, it’s a monolith in the 2001 style, not just a monolith in the unitary style. Do you think there’s a tension between I mean, one thing we can say is that texts of various sorts are, to some extent, all documents, it seems. And yet, they’re also all parts of a discourse. And the discourse perspective, gives us an idea of response and fluidity, we hopefully will have a discourse now that we’re in the q&a section. The the document perspective, gives us the lecture style teaching, it’s, you know, it’s and the and it foregrounds the fixity and the materiality and the unity and the encapsulation of a text. What do you see about this? duality of discourse and document? How does how does your perspective on these texts as documents inform your perspective on them as discourses or parts of discourses?
Nick Thurston 1:07:10
It’s a really great question. I mean, I think there’s two sides of it. One’s about legibility. And the other is about actually their connectedness rather than a kind of binary separation. So the connectedness, for me come through those kinds of philosophical traditions that were inflected by, like, you know, the sociology of literature and stuff like that. So there’s people like Michel Disa too the idea of the scriptural economy, right? Where there would be everyday practices of writing registrations of inscription. And they would circulate in all manner of forms, for me are kind of ecology of the script total. And I basically quite invested in that, I think, is my confession. The second side about legibility is a really interesting one. And that’s what I think makes these aesthetically really interesting that they offer up a doubled legibility. They call up their media form, all that visual noise that tells us it’s a document. So in the McQueen case, that’s the redactions, the pro forma underneath that structures the page, etc. They call up all of that aesthetic information to tell us it’s something materially specific, but they also have the chance to operate at kind of lexical level, right? Such that I think, you know, the idea that I’m starting to find useful to link these two things is the idea of the diagrammatic. Actually, this doubled legibility. So that diagrammatic idea could come from two places. On the one hand, in terms of semantics, it could come from Jonah Drucker, the idea that like formats are significant. And in the other way, it would come from like medieval archaeology, the kind of Berlin school and that sort of thing, the idea that machines generate processes that encourage connection. Right? So I think that’s the end is for me, that the text is document thing is about legibility. And this question of legibility is a doubled. One, it’s graphic and graphic, it’s image and semantic content. And that’s the unique aesthetic quality. And I’m, I think I’m starting to understand it through the idea of the diagrammatic. But it’s, you know, I’m still working on it.
Nick Montfort 1:09:23
Alright, one or more of srishti, JJ, Abby, Emily, and, and Allie have a question. So let’s find out what that is.
Abby Sun 1:09:36
Hello, hello. You can see us all here. The question is from me, I’m Abby. Thank you so much for the talk. I have kind of two questions. And the first one is shorter, and it concerns your use of the word misuse in terms of misusing docking As they’re intended to within documentary practice, but it seems to me that documentary as a form has been slippery, as the way that you’ve termed it since the beginning of its history. So I’m curious to hear you talk about your choice to use this word misuse, like, what is it in opposition to? And if it is, you know, a form of drawing attention to a lot of these kind of more grassroots and distributed ways of using documents as an all of your subsets, then, you know, what is the implication of the word misuse? Because also all of these subset examples that you’ve indicated have been published have been circulated? Okay. And then my second question, which is sort of related to that, concerns, how you’re thinking about the social and historical conditions in which all of these documents are being produced and how you are reproducing them within your own work. And the reason why I asked this is because it even seems to me and subset one when we have the Humphrey Jennings quotation book versus the Toni Morrison edited, black book as examples. You know, the reason for the linearity of the Humphrey Jennings book stems from the fact that it is, I don’t know, a book of quotations on one person, whereas I didn’t explain what the black book is exactly on other than, you know, what it comprises of in terms of its format. But I assume from the title of black book that it’s supposed to be a, you know, some sort of survey perhaps, or reconstitution of, you know, first of all, I guess my question is, what is the black book, but you know, there are reasons I’m extrapolating for why it would be collaborative and multifocal. Because it’s trying to represent I assume blackness in America, as opposed to the words of one person. So I’m curious about how you’re thinking about that when you’re writing about all these different works. Thank you. I was very long.
Nick Thurston 1:12:15
There were two great questions. And I love a question coming from communal dinner table, which is a very nice way of doing it. I’ll take the first one first. And then the second one, if that’s all right, so, so to the first, the first one is really about mobilization, right? documents have to be mobilized to mean anything. And so the thing is, documents are always made for a purpose. We don’t just kind of make documents for no reason, there’s always a sort of reason that they’re there to evidence something. And whatever that initial purpose is established, that document establishes that documents norm if you like, right, that’s the should be purpose. So a misuse would be the mobilisation of that document, the remobilization of that document for some other purpose. It’s literally like a counter move, if you like. So that’s what I mean by misuse. Okay. And by mobilization, what I’m talking about here is the fact that, okay, each document is evidence of something, but figuring out what that evidence means requires contextualization. Right? And that’s the mobilization part like it has to be put to something Something has to be done with it has to be brought into a context of interpretation. Okay, so that’s, I hope that makes sense. But that would be my answer to your first question. The second one is a really great one. I can’t do it justice in this moment, because it’s an extraordinary book, if you ever get a chance to, to handle it in the library or anything like that it’s really worth doing, you can still get cheap copies, actually the first edition online, but it’s, it was a collectively edited project that assembles some newly authored content, but mostly reorganizes elements from an archive with no explained order. That will be the simplest way of putting it. And in refusing to explain its order, it establishes a very poetic kind of counter critique of normal ideas about history, about white time and about all kinds of things. So the black book is this extraordinary thing that looks somewhere between a scrapbook and almost like a fancy at length. The material ranges from like I say, I have all kinds of stuff, a lot of which is very, it’s like that conference one as reader. And precisely because you get this book, you get this very short introduction from Bill Cosby, weirdly. And then you get this extraordinary back jacket text on the first edition. And that bat jacket text is actually bite Toni Morrison, but she’s not noted as such there. But that’s all you get, there’s no kind of reader aid at all. So you’re sort of invited into this kind of constellation of content. And, and your reading is not secured. Right. And the kind of vulnerability that asks for is, I think, really extraordinary. It’s really an investment, and enmeshment in that constellation. And I think that’s a, that’s something that’s very different from what’s achieved by the kind of back to back montage, you have clearly cited content, where you get all that control mechanism that makes it a kind of safe experience. So like I said, I can only give you if I had it to hand my kids are upstairs asleep, otherwise, I got doesn’t get the book to show you. But But yeah, that it’s an extraordinary book and do seek seek out a copy if you get a chance really worth looking at.
Nick Montfort 1:15:56
Thank you for joining us at this equinoctial time. I mean, I have another question. While we’re while we wait to see if there’s a yellow virtual hand that arises. I’m just curious. So we still have physical bookstores. And oddly enough, we still even have like a DVD and blu ray sections in those bookstores. Here in the United States. Also, we have Barnes and Noble, for instance. And you’ve shown us these great and amazing examples of book based documentary. But if I go into the DVD and blu ray section of these bookstores, I’ll find a subsection they’re called documentary. And so my question is, why don’t we have such a section? There’s true crime, poetry. nonfiction fiction? Why don’t we have a documentary section in the in the book part of the bookstore?
Nick Thurston 1:17:04
Yeah, it’s a really good question. I think it’s in part about classification standards, as they come to modern books setting, I’m sure from library cultures and stuff like that. It’s also about the historic divisions within, let’s say, literature, you know, we’ve got kind of fiction, drama, poetry and the other stuff.
Nick Montfort 1:17:26
So we don’t have we also don’t have non poetry. nonfiction, but not non poetry, right?
Nick Thurston 1:17:34
But it’s a basics about the slipperiness of documentary. I mean, I mean, what is it? Because if it could be said to be a kind of some sort of autonomous, ah, what would be saying sort of genre, then then I guess, you know, you could make a subsection in a bookstore.
Nick Montfort 1:17:56
But it seems like it’s a very marginal practice, unlike documentary filmmaking, which, you know, we recognize what that is, we have festivals for that, there’s, you know, you can go to the New York art books fair, and there will be there will be documentary books there, for instance, but you have to look around for these for whatever, you know, queer archive worked by pulso Ls or, or, you know, the projects of the sort that that you mentioned, or even even the black book, which is, you know, like, like, very well selling and popular project. But it’s, it stands out as something very unusual, right?
Nick Thurston 1:18:42
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, totally. And I would describe those kinds of print documentary works as extra literary, in the sense that they clearly have like a literary reflexive consciousness, but then not obeying norms of like, genre or anything else. They’re stepping outside of the literary space and doing something else in this pocket of documentary practice. So this idea of the extra literary will be where I would situate them if you have to, but of course, it is, in itself a kind of negative category, like a non category. But that’s that’s how I think about this. I think there’s definitely an upsurge in gatherings of these kinds of documentary literature’s through print on demand cultures. Right? Well, right. Well, you might move quite quickly from the kinds of software’s in which you could compile this kind of thing to a PDF that could be rendered printed and sold. Sure.
Nick Montfort 1:19:41
And many of these are art projects. They’re not they’re not contained within literature. So
Nick Thurston 1:19:49
but I think I think what’s interesting about the extra literary category is it is it it can encompass the kind of, you know, the folk, it can encompass all kinds of things. The complete into it from the fan to the you know, so yes, there are certainly art projects and those are the ones I’m looking to because I’m interested in this question as a critic, but but but I would say that one of the things that’s most exciting is about this kind of non space of the extra literary is that it’s porous. Right, and it’s not governed, you know, so so like,
Nick Montfort 1:20:23
Sure, yeah, I work with, you know, counterpath Press, which, at times, Stiles itself as a publisher of literature and non literature.
Nick Thurston 1:20:33
Yeah, they’ve been involved with that. There’s really great sort of translations of Henry Becker and stuff, right? So you know, there’s a really good example in documentary poetics, which, of course, is a thing of sub genre thing, documentary poetry. Yes.
Nick Montfort 1:20:47
And appropriating your idea from on the subcontract. Actually, they also published a book a day, where they got Mechanical Turk workers to all just respond to one of Donald Trump’s tweets. But they did this on an on a daily basis, so that they actually like this one tweet per day, but just creating a book full of, you know, responses by people who has enlisted and paid to do this. So Well, I mean, I mean, we can go I can, I can talk with Nick, you know, all night, but he needs to go to sleep. Let me ask if there’s a final question, because we don’t, I haven’t seen any of those yellow hands. So I think we might, we might release our guest to do our medic respite, in that case, but let’s first of all, let’s first of all, thank him very much. This was this is very stimulating, and we have some evidence of our of ourselves through this portal. Thanks. So this is great. I think it’s going to give us things to discourse about in coming days and weeks. And we very much hope that you’ll be able to manifest in your material person at MIT before way too long. But we do appreciate this conversation and your presentation. Thanks again.
Nick Thurston 1:22:23
I’m really grateful. Thanks, guys. And thanks for having me.