This paper discusses three media forms enabled by the popularization of digital technologies for recording, visualization, and dissemination in the 21st century, i.e., data visualization, vlog, and drone imagery, in terms of nonfiction media practices that have recently been made to engage with the fundamental changes and impacts of COVID-19 on various scales. They are not constrained within the established aesthetic, technological, and institutional assumptions of documentary film to varying degrees. Despite their divergences from traditional documentary film, I argue that the three media forms expand the boundaries of documentary cinema by pursuing its aspirations to show us life in a crisis, to offer information, knowledge, and perspective on its reality, and to evoke people’s awareness and emotions at a time when standardized documentary productions were suspended.
Jihoon Kim (chungang.academia.edu/JKIM) is associate professor of cinema and media studies at Chung-ang University, and currently a visiting scholar in the Film and Media Studies program at Columbia University. He is the author of Documentary’s Expanded Fields: New Media and the Twenty-First-Century Documentary (forthcoming in Oxford University Press, Feb 2022) and Between Film, Video, and the Digital: Hybrid Moving Images in the Post-media Age (Bloomsbury, 2018/16). He is also finalizing Post-verité Turns: Korean Documentary Cinema in the 21st Century, the first-ever English-written scholarly monograph on the Korean nonfiction film and video in the private and independent sectors since the 1980s.
From the non-stop, real-time documentation of the Syrian uprising and civil war derived a format of conflict communication in which visibility and violence are dramatically intertwined. Characteristically blurry and narrowly focused photos and videos were credited by global media networks with immediacy and authenticity, and yielded a concept of ‘citizen journalism’ that no longer defined a mode of image production but served an aesthetic of ‘cruel images’. This emerging visual hegemony propelled processes of anonymisation and victimisation. A decade into the conflict, we face a disjunction between a seeming overrepresentation of the Syrian subject and a genuine inability to see that subject.
Increasingly, citizen journalists are turning to formal practices within visual culture and its networks of dissemination to articulate their claims through documentary means. Instead of displaying violence and suffering, the film installation – door open – (2019) by the Syrian-British collective ZouZou Group, for instance, exposes the dreadful conditions of its creation by manifesting the effects of warfare on the formal language of its production. Like a seismograph, this work registers a state of historical, social, political, cultural, and individual crisis through the very form it takes (or does not take).
Such documentary practices bring to the fore the operations of the image frame which, in Judith Butler’s words, ‘conducts the dehumanizing norm, that restricts what is perceivable and, indeed, what can be.’ As a technique for producing (in)visibility and (in)dignity, the frame delineates the conditions and intentions of image production and reception. Ten years into the Syrian conflict, at a critical point to end armed struggle and yet not to surrender the battle over narrative, this paper configures spectatorship as a practice of critical sensitivity toward the image frame, bearing the potential to defy processes of victimisation and to (re)instate the right to dignified representation.
Lisa Deml is a Midlands4Cities funded doctoral researcher at Birmingham City University. She holds degrees in Art History and Philosophy from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich. Initially trained as a journalist, she subsequently worked for public cultural institutions and non-profit organisations internationally, including Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), Berlin, Haus der Kunst, Munich, and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. Her research interests focus on visual articulations of citizenship and artistic strategies to foster transnational solidarity and resistance, particularly in the framework of documentary practices and visual culture in the Middle East and North Africa.
Considering the proliferation of ubiquitous image-based surveillance technologies, this paper will discuss intersections between facial recognition technology and documentary cinema. As Catherine Zimmer observes, “the visual technologies associated with cinema are intimately connected with surveillance practice and the production of knowledge through visibility” (428). Surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition, emerge not only from the history of photographic science, but also from a longer legacy of evidencing and classifying human bodies through the medium of documentary.
Drawing attention to contested histories of visuality that shape ways in which racialized bodies are read and categorized as documentary evidence, this paper will analyse imaging practices in American Artist’s single-channel HD video installation, 2015 (2019). Interweaving both re-enactment and coded documentary footage, 2015 adopts the point of view of a surveillance camera positioned on the hood of a police car cruising through Brooklyn’s side streets and motorways. Equipped with a predictive policing technology which “forecasts” crime and randomly identifies pedestrians through the scan of a facial recognition device, the work’s critical, interrogative strategy addresses the evidentiary claims of analytic surveillance technologies, constructing an experimental documentary text that ruminates on meanings, values, and essential “truths” assigned to racialized bodies in surveillance society. By assessing how facial recognition technologies are programmed to recognize some bodies as human, while reading others as “threat,” I aim to challenge the assumed “documentary” (read evidentiary) authenticity of facial recognition software. Relatedly, I will situate and conceptualize American Artist’s practice as an example of emergent activist political intervention that interrogates the underlying assumption of documentary objectivity and image-based computer vision systems, thus subverting the racial logics of artificial intelligence algorithms that remain entangled with documentary coded formats.
Camille Crichlow is a writer, researcher and first-year PhD student at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. Her research interrogates visual typographies of race and the construction of the normative and non-normative contours of the body as they relate to themes of legibility and recognition in today’s surveillance culture. Informed by an emergent body of critical scholarship on racialized biases reproduced in machine learning and artificial intelligence, her work aims to connect nineteenth century colonial regimes of biometric racial governance to twenty-first century assumptions through which the black face is rendered both hypervisible and undetectable in contemporary fields of facial recognition technology.
Antonio Somaini is Professor in Film, Media, and Visual Culture Theory at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Among his main publications, the volumes La Glass House de Serguei Eisenstein. Cinématisme et architecture de verre (B2, 2017), Cultura visuale. Immagini, sguardi, media, dispositivi (with A. Pinotti, Einaudi 2016) and Ejzenštejn. Il cinema, le arti, il montaggio (Einaudi 2011). He is the editor of the collective volumes La haute et la basse définition des images. Photographie, cinéma, art contemporain, culture visuelle (with F. Casetti, Mimésis 2021), Pandemic Media. Notes Toward an Inventory (with Ph. D. Keidl, L. Melamed and V. Hediger, Meson 2020), and of translations in English, French and Italian of texts by Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, László Moholy-Nagy and Dziga Vertov. In 2020 he has been the chief curator of the exhibition Time Machine: Cinematic Temporalities (catalogue Skira 2020, website www.timemachineexhibition.com). He is currently working on a book on the impact of machine learning technologies on contemporary visual culture and contemporary artistic practices.