Research programme

Since its launch in 2016, the graduate research training group has explored documentary practices as a central component of contemporary media cultures. In the second phase of funding – 2021-2025 – the aim is to develop a concept of Dokumentwerden (‘becoming a document’), covering the practices and technical innovations that create and transform the field of what is documentable. On the one hand, the research organized in the group takes account of a tendency, driven by digital technology, to comprehensively inscribe documentary practices into everyday life. On the other hand, it problematizes current politically motivated rejections of every truth backed by documentary evidence.

The research programme is guided by the hypothesis that the specific authority of documentary practices becomes describable if we examine the operations which, in the framework of different institutions and practices, arrange elements of visual, textual and audio media in specific ways, in order to control the readability, the expressive value, the distribution logics and the power effects of what is documented. Contrary to an influential theoretical tradition, the research programme explicitly does not limit its perspective to the visual mode of documentary practice, nor does it privilege a particular medium (e.g. film). Image, text and sound can enter into a range of different relations of mutual authentication to produce a documentary effect. Processes and styles of documentary practice are also deployed when academic disciplines (often in the context of quite specific institutional requirements) study the production and classification of ‘human facts’ (emotions, behaviours, social connections). They raise questions about the truth or objectivity of what is documented, about the function of forms and protocols or standards that regulate the documentary reference, and about the relationship between different documentary modes, the techniques of archiving, access to the documents and the circulation of documents.

In both theoretical and media history terms, the intensity of documentary recording is supported by reflexive knowledge, which allows observation of the forms and programmes of documentary recording. In the period studied by the research group, figures and programmes of documentary excess repeatedly come into contact with those of documentary privation. One of the basic assumptions of the research programme is that this dialectic is constitutive of the history and theory of documentary practices. Since the cultural establishment of analogue technology media in the second half of the 19th century, if not before (that is, long before the threshold of the present digitally based regime of recording and control), powerful utopias or dystopias of documentary practice have been evolving, promising a complete transformation of reality into audiovisual data. Conversely, various forms of blocking and withdrawal of this excess can be observed for the different media of documentary reference: documentary excess is inseparable from the experience of privation. Any claim to a highly ‘realistic’ representation is pervaded by elements and effects of an unavoidable or deliberately produced ‘derealization’.

In its second phase of funding, the graduate research training group will continue to develop this approach, seeking to construct a theory of ubiquitous documentation and to identify the qualities that differentiate it from other – mainly digital – ubiquities. The aim is to explore the performative leeway allowed by the thematization, appropriation and negotiation of these documentary modes in literature, theatre, film and fine art. One important point is that, in the age of social media and the resulting opportunities for comprehensive and instantaneous self-documentation, amateur practices play an ever-greater role, ranging from extremely standardized forms to experimental ones. Another is that there has been more and more research in recent years on sensor networks, which situate documentary practices “in the environment” and examine their functions for contemporary, virtualized life-worlds.

What is largely missing so far in research in media and cultural studies is a systematic engagement not only with the digitally induced change in documentary forms, but with the development towards a comprehensive, platform-based ecologization of documentary practices. This is one of the areas where the graduate research training group wants to make a contribution. In technical terms, this depends firstly on a widely distributed image technology (specifically: the level of dissemination of mobile phone cameras), and secondly on the permeation of everyday environments with digital sensors, which transform what can be experienced by the senses into distributable digital data and allow comprehensive  utilization by technical networks. The documentary processes based on this fusion of data-gathering operations with contemporary life-worlds are situated in an area for which media studies reserves the term infrastructure.

Areas of work

The interdisciplinary study of documentary operations occurs in the following four work areas (WA): “The formal history and theorization of documentary practices”, “Visual and textual cultures of documentary practice”, “Self-documentation and cultures of affect” and “(Techno-)politics and aesthetics of documentary practice”.

WA 1 | The formal history and theorization of documentary practices

Within the first phase of funding, WA 1 successfully established itself as the necessary site of an overarching exchange focused on terms, concepts, and historical caesuras. The emphasis on basic theory in this work area has important functions for the other areas. Current debates on documentary practices from research in media studies, literature, theatre studies and art history, as well as from the history of science and the field of digital cultures, can be brought together here and used to help construct a new theory of documentary practice. Against this background, WA 1 explores how characteristic, historically recurring operations of documentary practice and modes of Dokumentwerden (becoming a document) can be systematically described and assigned to particular cross-disciplinary strands of tradition. In the context of the group’s research activities, the dialectic of excess and privation, which defines the documentary impulse and the differentiation of its media practices, has proven to be more ambivalent than initially supposed. This is especially apparent in developments where excess undermines documentary claims to authority (“That’s how it was”) instead of just consolidating them, and privation has restorative effects – e.g. when, in the context of populist strategies, people’s right to ‘their own truth’ is asserted, and documentary evidence is either fundamentally disputed or used to promote political fictions.

WA 2 | Visual and textual cultures of documentary practice

WA 2 takes as its starting point a fundamental observation: on the one hand, documentation is dependent on media technologies, but on the other hand, it is bound to specific poetics and aesthetics, which guide the use of particular media. This automatically draws attention to networks of relationships within the poetics and aesthetics of media, which can be examined in terms of their configurations by photo, layout, voice, text and (motion) picture, and can therefore be understood as hybrids and collages of text, visuality and sound. WA 2 continues this perspective, successfully tried and tested in the first phase of funding, but expands it in several respects. Under the new title, “Visual and textual cultures of documentary practice”, the focus shifts to the analysis of media technology instruments and practices, and of production processes and infrastructures which are involved in the creation, distribution and archiving of literary, audio and film artefacts, and in the attribution of documentary qualities. Instead of reductively linking documentary practices to new technologies in the dominant media, WA 2 conceives documentary practices as an intertwining of discourses, institutions and practices in writing, image and sound, which are analysed in terms of their documentary signal effect. An important focus of attention is therefore the constant renegotiation of documentary signatures, which extend into matters of cultural policy, education, ecology and technology, and must first be identified as such.

WA 3 | Self-documentation and cultures of affect

WA 3 centres on self-documentation as a specific form of documentary practice, and as a special characteristic of the media culture of affect. The underlying dynamic of excess and privation within documentary practices becomes tangible from the interlinking of self-documentation, documentary gestures, and the emergence of new counter-documentary forms. To examine them, this WA combines the historiography and theory of self-documentation with media theories of the affective, and with analyses of cultures of affect in gender and queer theory. The concept of the documentary gesture is of central importance for this WA, because it makes it possible to conceptualize the proliferation of documentary practices both synchronically and diachronically across a wide range of cultural spaces and areas of society, and situates documentary practices in what is simultaneously a communicative transmission and a physical appropriation. The projects within this work area are intended to explore the tension between environmental, potentially self-reinforcing cultures of affect, and the often singular counter-documentations in blogs, photographs or performances. In line with the interest in media history which is also pursued in the other work areas, one of the aims of WA 3 in the second phase is to look more closely at the historical apriori of the more recent experiments in the areas of popular online self-documentation, video and performance art, and documentary theatre.

WA 4 | (Techno-)politics and aesthetics of documentary practice

WA 4 deals with the digital dynamic of escalation of documentary practices, which are linked with a comprehensive datafication of everyday life and the life-world. The starting point for the investigations is the media technology processes and infrastructures of a multi-sensor observation of the environment, which not only applies to automatically recorded features of the environment, but also uses sensors to document human actions and behaviour. Against this background, WA 4 is particularly interested in the critical potential of mass-circulating digital images and sounds, shared on social media, which are created in political conflict zones and thus allow independent investigations free from state influence, which would otherwise remain unobservable.

Starting from forensic applications – prominently represented by investigative projects such as Forensic Architecture or Bellingcat – the objective in the second phase of funding is to examine more closely the process, divided between different human and non-human actors, by which digitally circulating material becomes a document, and to conceptualize this using documentary theory. To achieve this, we need to examine the production of documentary chains of reference in terms of infrastructure and media logistics. The goal is to make transparent the chain of translations by which sensor systems generated by media technology can be converted into gestures, narratives and dramatic exaggerations, which make it possible to analyse documentary practice as a rhetorical practice. Starting from forensic applications, a concept of politics emerges which is tied to entities and capacities for the production of statements which are not identifiable in a given field of knowledge or experience. Instead, the possibility of these statements is linked with the rearrangement of the field of experience, and favours the development of new forms of political judgement.