Documentary Uncertainty

book review:
T.J. Demos. The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis.

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-8223-5340-9.

Yto Barrada, Le Détroit, avenue d'Espagne, Tangier (2000). From A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project (1998-2004). Courtesy of the artist.

Yto Barrada, Le Détroit, avenue d’Espagne, Tangier (2000). From A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project (1998-2004). Courtesy of the artist.

Within a structure that resembles an itinerary, with an introduction as check in and section headings outlining three different potential departure plans, T.J. Demos sets out, in The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis, to chart the relationship between art, documentary, and a post-1989 global economy that has idealized a world-wide unity of trade, communication, and mobility even as it vilified certain categories of global citizenry by denying access to territorial and human rights. Words have their history and, from the outset, Demos provides a concise genealogy of the terminology of migration, specifically: exile, diaspora, nomad, and statelessness.

The differences in human experience between modernity’s exile (largely in relation to the two world wars), romantic nomadism of cultural cosmopolitanism during the 1980s and 90s, and the precarious existence of refugees from conflict zones are the consequences of very distinct historical conditions. Demos writes of the “contradictory experiences of displacement” (17) and proposes case studies of works by artists who “have invented critical documentary strategies and new modelings of affect…with which to negotiate the increased movements of life across the globe” (xiv). At the same time, he offers an aesthetic reading in the realm of the ethical rather than the political, a realm much harder to describe but with a potentially wider range of vision. Throughout the text he gains inspiration from such diverse theorists as Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière, Achille Mbembe, Édouard Glissant, architectural historian Eyal Weizman, and urban geographers David Harvey and Neil Smith.


Steve McQueen, still from Gravesend (2007). Courtesy of the artist and the Marian Goodman Gallery.

In “Departure A: Moving Images of Globalization,” Demos looks at the possibility of infiltrating art with political meanings and features the moving images of Steve McQueen, the Otolith Group, and Hito Steyerl as strategies not to communicate a political message but, as Jacques Rancière theorizes, to intervene “in the very organization of communicable form” (92). If McQueen offers a somatic experience over an informational one, while the Otolith Group suggests through a palimpsest of image archives that the future is not an inevitable product of history, and Steyerl’s “documentary uncertainty” (83) defies narrative’s authorial and authoritative boundaries, then these works of art, Demos argues, present paradigms “to imagine new ways to reinvent the world” (94).[1] Not that The Migrant Image avoids politics but that its intense investigation, like the work of Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri in the final section, establishes an indeterminant relation between aesthetics and politics (232), thereby complicating the discussion through an interrogative approach (243-4).

Steve McQueen, stills from Gravesend (2007). Courtesy of the artist and the Marian Goodman Gallery.

Steve McQueen, still from Gravesend (2007). Courtesy of the artist and the Marian Goodman Gallery.

Underlying his case studies – and here Demos has his nose to the ground selecting some of the most innovative artists producing critical aesthetics today – is a long history of documentary. What is the truth-value of documentary? Can information alone change perception? What kind of images counter the enormous impact mainstream media has on public perception? There has been a long-standing disagreement whether lens-based mediums hold a privileged position in relation to reality or bear witness through a mediated vision like any other artistic medium. The Migrant Image takes as its point of departure the kinds of questions first posed by Abigail Solomon-Godeau more than two decades ago when she wrote of the autonomy of the subject in relation to the freeze-frame iconography of photography and film; in other words: documentary’s tendency to lock its subject into victim status, fixing the subject into a language system over which s/he has no control.

This is the “double act of subjugation”[2] that Demos clarifies in “Departure B: Life Full of Holes” when he counters the usual interpretive oversights applied towards the photographs of Ahlam Shibli of the precarious existence of the Palestinian Bedouins, who like the Roma often form a communal resistance against their lack of legal status. Shibli and Emily Jacir (also presented in this section) defy the traditional notion that lens-based mediums are “transparent to social and political reality, as if the image faithfully reflects the subjective conditions of the represented, rendering impossible any other view” (140). Instead their works intimate the volatile discrepancy between what we as viewers think we know and the complexity of existence that lies beyond the ability of any documentation to reveal.

Both Palestinian artists, Jacir uses tactics of substitution and shifting pronouns to express the “unhealable rift” (107) of exile while Shibli uses “elisions, lacuna, and fragmentations” (137) to complicate her representational structure. They apprehend the strength of critical aesthetics that simultaneously reveal the fragility and contingent nature of its task: to acknowledge a complex reality through a notational form. T.J. Demos is at his argumentative best in this second section melding description, context, and theory in balanced proportion. His meticulous research, his thorough knowledge of the history of documentary, his complex understanding of theories of subjectivity, affect, and the politics of displacement work to his advantage in forming a new perspective on the redefinition of documentary taking place in art today.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (2001-3) detail (Munir). Photo: Bill Orcutt. Copyright: Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (2001-3) detail (Munir). Photo: Bill Orcutt. Copyright: Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (2001-3) detail (Munir). Photo: Bill Orcutt. Copyright: Emily Jacir.

Noting Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002 as a paradigm shift in exhibition practice and theoretical emphasis that upended the usual hierarchy of mediums and exposed the ideology of globalization, Demos suggests these new documentary practices “channel postcolonial experience against the forces of a triumphalist globalism” (35). The Migrant Image also takes shape from a series of research workshops the author organized from 2008-09 to investigate representation of, within, and about “Zones of Conflict” and from his own work as a curator in Uneven Geographies: Art and Globalization (co-curated in 2010 with Alex Farquharson). Given this detail, a reader may suddenly realize why Demos anticipates within the text objections that may occur outside it, having actively participated in creating forums for the philosophical and political issues the art engages.

Too much contextual detail can be a hindrance: the quirkiness, splendor, confusion, or wonder of the artworks as events is sometimes lost to the particularities of interpretation! One can’t help but feel the need to review one’s Agamben and Rancière in order to feel a reciprocal relationship with Demos’ intellect. If only the descriptive translations of the artworks would let the reader come to some conclusions on her own! Demos is too often “out of the gate and running” long before the reader settles into a mode of receptive engagement. Even so, rarely is a text as insightful of the existential conditions of displacement and so attuned to Glissant’s aesthetics of opacity as The Migrant Image. It calls for a companion Documentary Reader that selects those essays most formative in the history of documentary but also to the inspiration of critical aesthetics resisting the uneven geographies of contemporary globalization.

Rabih Mroué, Inhabitants of Images (2009). Courtesy of the artist.

Rabih Mroué, Inhabitants of Images (2009). Courtesy of the artist.

In the case of artists emerging from the aftermath (a nebulous after-image) of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 – Lamia Joreige, Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué, and Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – this is especially trenchant in making sense not only of trauma but also of the destruction of the public and historical record. The contentious debate surrounding much of the work featured in “Departure C: Zones of Conflict” has focused on the indeterminate blend of fact with fiction in the reconstruction of memory. While significant, this binary is also a subterfuge in these artists’ tactics of (un)silencing: whether through the subjects in their films or through their own presentations, they perform as an act of affirmation in spite of continuing conflict and recurring trauma.

Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Wonder Beirute: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer (1998-2006). Courtesy of the artists.

Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Wonder Beirut: The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer (1998-2006). Courtesy of the artists.

To establish presence is an act of necessity: in defiance of the unknown fate of the kidnapped and disappeared, in refusal of an illusory return to the past, and in resistance to being written out of the public record. For Hadjithomas and Joreige, in particular, there lingers a latent image on the undeveloped surface of film – this, in my view, is the migrant image, the possibility that some truth remains to be revealed in some other manner and some other place. Its very indeterminancy indicates the conditions of its making – that the migratory experience is by its nature precarious and cannot be fixed in time and space yet intimates obliquely its point of origin and its trajectory.

Kathleen MacQueen, May 23, 2013

[1] Demos continues a discussion of migratory aesthetics presented earlier by theorist Mieke Bal in an exhibition and catalog 2Move: Video, Art, and Migration (2005) (though this contribution is missing from his extensive and informative bibliography), in which she theorizes the possibility of an aesthetic language that might better address the current phenomena of global migration – moving images that make use of time displacement, incoherent cuts, and visual tactics of rupture and uncertainty – “as film is a tool for making visible that which is there for everyone to see, but which remains unseen, because it does not have a form that stands out.” See Mieke Bal, “Migratory Aesthetics: Double Movement,” Exit #32 – Exodus (2008): 150-161.

[2] Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 197.

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