Research Programme

The graduate research group deals with the different media forms of documentary practice – in particular, the audio-visual, textual and digital forms – as well as the media-related, artistic and literary caesura within the history of documentary practice since the invention of photography. Its research programme is guided by the following thesis: viz. that the specific authority of the documentary form can be described by way of investigation of the operations that – within the framework of various institutions and practices and in the manner particular to each of them – arrange visual, textual and audio media elements, in order to orient the readability, expressive value, distributive logics, and power effects of that which is documented.

As against an influential theoretical tradition, the research programme does not limit its perspective to the visual mode of documentary practice and likewise does not privilege a particular medium (for instance, the cinematic). Picture, text and sound can enter into many different reciprocal relations of authentication, in order to produce a documentary effect. The documentary procedure and style are, above all, employed when sciences (often in the context of highly specific institutional requirements) are dealing with the production and classification of “human facts” (affects, modes of behaviour, social connections). They raise questions about the truth and/or objectivity of what is documented and about the function of formulas and protocols and/or standards that regulate the documentary relation, as well as about the relationship of various documentary modes, archiving techniques and access to documents.

The point of departure for the requestioning and reconceptualisation of documentary practice that is supposed to take place within the framework of the graduate research group is a paradox (among other things, a methodological one), which is supposed to be developed on various levels of the research programme and passing by way of diverse media constellations: Both from a theoretical perspective and from the perspective of media history, the intensity of documentation is accompanied by a reflective knowledge that allows the forms and agenda of the process of documentation to be observed yet again.
In the investigative period covered by the research group, figures and programmatics of documentary excess are constantly encountering figures and programmatics of documentary privation. One of the basic assumptions of the research programme is that this dialectic is, as a whole, constitutive for the history and theory of documentary practice. Thus, at the latest since the cultural establishment of analog technology media in the second half of the 19th century (and hence long before the rise of the current digitally-based regime of recording and control), powerful documentary utopias and dystopias are to be found, which invoke the possibility of a total audio-visual datafication of reality. On the other hand, a variety of forms of blocking and retraction of this excess can be observed for the various media of documentary reference: Documentary excess is inseparable from the experience of a certain privation. The claim to the maximum “realism” of a representation is pervaded by the moments and effects of an unavoidable or intentionally-created de-realisation.

Hence, the research programme of the group is devoted to the complex processes by way of which certain media and/or combinations of media, and the texts, pictures and sounds generated by them, are ascribed or denied a documentary quality. Particular weight is given to the specific passages connecting documentary practice to its respective other (fiction, pseudo-documentary, etc.), as they are, above all, to be grasped in the fields of literary knowledge production and highly dynamic cinematic documentation.
The ubiquitous availability of new portable digital media, which have brought about the current conjuncture of the documentary form, will be examined with respect to how they are transforming practices of self-documentation and giving rise to new “cultures of affect”. They will also be examined with regard to how they are disrupting the usual routines of attribution of documentary authorship (in the field of art, as well as in those of mass media news broadcasts and entertainment). Finally, we will also investigate the political impact of the contemporary dynamic of digital escalation of documentary practice. The focus in this connection is the relation of tension between new media-based control regimes and “counter-documentary” diversions or appropriations of the new documentary apparatuses.

Work Areas

On the backdrop of the dialectic of documentary excess and privation, the research programme examines fundamental displacements and reorientations of documentary practices and operations. In the present situation of the media, these oscillate between the extreme poles of hyper-real media rituals (e.g. reality TV or re-enactments) and the retraction of documentary certainties and self-evidence in both artistic media experiments and also pop-cultural ones. Investigation is divided into four work areas.

WA 1 | Formal History and Theorisation of Documentary Practice

WA 1 unfolds the dialectic of excess and privation, firstly, by way of reference to the reflexive knowledge that has been accumulated, in particular, in the context of the theory and history of epistemic and clinical, hence institutionally-shaped, record-keeping systems and of documentary film and its theorisation. It also, however, examines such knowledge as it has been accumulated in both the theoretical and the immanent self-reflection of meta-documentary art. Hence, the aim in this WA is not merely to describe anew the history of documentary genres – of the written record or of documentary film or of the evolving documentary concept in 20th and 21st century art. The focus is rather on the salient moments of an excessive documentary intensification, as, for instance, have put their stamp on “direct” cinema. By way of these moments, we examine the processes of exchange and of conversion between documentary and fiction-generating operations, the productive manipulation of each and every documentary position-taking, and the margins for experimentation with complexes of picture and sound, document and fiction, language and montage. These margins for experimentation have been systematically explored in documentary and meta-documentary art since the 1920s/1930s and, yet again, since the 1960s.

WA 2 | Media-Poetics of Documentary Practice

The starting point for this WA is an observation that is fundamental for both aesthetic and popular-cultural contexts: namely, that documentation is, on the one hand, dependent on media technologies and, on the other, is tied to specific poetics that guide the use of each respective media technology. Even borderline cases – inasmuch as they aim at direct “inscription of reality”, appearing to reject all poetics and trying to render the employment of technology invisible – can still be described in accordance with certain poetological categories and as the effect of media-technological operations. Moreover, media-technological assumptions are immanent to all documentary poetics, and these assumptions continue to accompany them even when they find application independently of the respective media of reference that originally constituted them. These sorts of media-poetic networks of relationships in literature and film (in cinema and television or on video and DVD) will be examined, taking into account the respective media-technological initial presuppositions and considering their poetic reordering. Reference to the inter-mediality of literature and of cinema is of particular interest here: of literature, as layout-text, photo-text, and audio-text or voice-text; and of cinema, as hybrid and collage of text, visuality and sound.

WA 3 | Self-Documentation and Cultures of Affect

The focus of WA 3 is self-documentation as a specific form of documentary practice and a particular characteristic of a media culture of affect. The intertwining of self-documentation, documentary gestures, and the emergence of new counter-documentary forms makes palpable the fundamental dynamic of excess and privation in documentary practice. In order to investigate this dynamic, historiography and theory of self-documentation are joined in this WA with media theories of the affective and both gender- and queer-theoretical analyses of the culture of affect. The aim is to make a contribution to differentiated depictions of the relationship among technological medium, documentary form, and the media culture of affect, as well as the gender and sexual identification of the self. The concept of documentary gesture is of central importance for this WA: since it allows us to think the proliferation of documentary practices, both synchronically and diachronically, across cultural spaces and societal domains; and it situates the documentary form amidst the processes of what is both a communicative transmission and a bodily appropriation. Not every gesture can be described as documentary. For it is only the coupling of a documentary operation in a given media and institutional framework with the deictic function of the gestural that generates the wide variety of observable documentary gestures: for instance, the gender-coded “selfie culture” in the field of digital photography, but also the verbal self-chronicling that is made possible by analog technology media.

WA 4 | (Techno-)Politics of Documentary Practice

WA 4 deals with the contemporary dynamic of digital escalation of documentary practice and inquires into, on the one hand, its media technological presuppositions and, on the other, its political impact. The spectrum of phenomena of interest ranges from popular-cultural forms to all-encompassing scenarios of a “new surveillance” and the dystopia of an excessive total datafication of social living conditions on the basis of algorithmically-operating data-collection systems. On the other hand, the focus is on practices and (artistic) interventions that, as strategic moments of withholding, aim to interrupt the serialised repeat loops of quasi-automatic self-documentation of individuals and social groups and to use digital platforms to design new forms of subjectification or to develop design logics that do not succumb to the identification and control imperatives of social media, but instead either disrupt them or, in the sense of a redistribution of documentary expressive competence, appropriate them otherwise. (Contemporary events like the Arab Spring or the recent movements of refugees and migrants have, for example, been documented by a multiplicity of voices “from below” and directly smuggled into the visual culture of the present – for instance, by way of video networks.) Hence, the political dimension at which WA 4 aims is anchored in new documentary technologies themselves: in their fundamental protocols, algorithms and standards, as well as in technologically-implemented restrictions on access. At the same time, however, the debates and conflicts are to be taken into account that oppose a hegemonic treatment of neo-documentarism and its counter-hegemonic potential for new forms of empowerment and rendering visible.