Document Practices

Nick Thurston asks how we can think about document practices as artistic gestures

Malraux's Shoes by Dennis Adams
Malraux's Shoes (2012) by Dennis Adams video, 42min © Dennis Adams

How can we think about acts of recovering, re-publishing and making documents accessible as artistic gestures? What happens when documents that have already been published are made public again?
For Hate Library, an installation presented at transmediale 2018, Nick Thurston took publicly available social media and web forum discussions between members of far-right groups from around Europe and transferred them in to a public space of exhibition. With reference to Harun Farocki's political film tradition, Lisa Gitelman's sociology of documents, Eyal Weizman's forensic aesthetic, methods of file sharing and leaking, and his own practice, Thurston examines how documents can become matters of public concern through their "social life"—through re-publishing, sharing, and discussing them.

Across the arts, documentary modes of making orbit around the question of fidelity, a question that is still so often misunderstood as a one-way promise. At the heart of that question is the paradox of representation—that by definition, a representation both is and is not the worldly thing it has been called upon to re-present—multiplied by the force of desire for some degree of access to the reality of whatever thing or moment the artefact documents. For all those who peg the value of documentary realisms on their effective capacity to relay the truth of what they capture as content, this inevitable infidelity defines the tragic irony of the mode. Yet for others, this necessary gap between reality and representation—the very paradox that keeps the question of fidelity open—is the mode's unique strength. It is the productive dialectic that means every documentary gesture is not just about the worldly thing or moment it proposes as its content, but is always about the inter-effective role of culture in the world. What every documentary actually documents is the maker's subjective attempt to access a specific bit or bits of worldly reality. 

Harun Farocki is my favorite example of this, not least because his work also demonstrates how the productive dialectic is completed when the movement of that paradox is turned back around on itself. Once a documentary work is out in the world, as a functioning representation, it is circulated as a cultural gesture and becomes its own reality with its own present truth, thus completing the loop. By binding the question of fidelity in a perpetual loop, the documentary keeps that question open. Farocki's genuine political intent is also a great reminder of how, whenever working in the documentary mode, one has to think and make with-and-against that paradox, not just about it nor just in spite of it. In the act of presenting her attempt to access reality, the documentarian is also saying something for herself, as her authorial self, in ways that get complicatedly re-mediated but that she nonetheless has to take authorial responsibility for. 

Discussions like this are common in fields like political cinema. They are less common in fields that center on the form of social expression and record that bequeathed the root term, document. The following question sounds so nearly tautological that it usually hides in plain sight during literary discussions: What kinds of documentary artistic potential can textual or inscriptive documents have?

In 2014, Lisa Gitelman published a brilliant book called Paper Knowledge. In it, she tries to theorize the broad category of everyday writing and writerly work, the sort Jacques Derrida called “extra-literary”1 and Bruno Latour has called “inscriptions”2; but she does so in terms of their mediated form, the document, that everyday social form that “'mobilize[s] inscriptions.”3 She sets out to “follow” the socio-political life and effects of specific gestures in what Michel de Certeau famously called the “scriptural economy”4 as they are mobilized in the general form of the document. For Gitelman, the document is the form in which such inscriptions demonstrably know and show their content, in which they document something specific: “The meaning of documents thus inheres symbolically, materially, and graphically, according to the contexts in which documents make sense as visible signs and/as material objects.”5

The “knowing and showing” quality of documents is, for Gitelman, contextually- and materially-specific in ways that are equally dependent on the inscriptions they carry and the readerships they engage with.6 By pinpointing this inherent capacity of the document to know-show differently in different situations, she doubles down on the document's potential to be both its own real thing as an artifact and a representation of its author's attempt to access some aspect of reality they deemed it necessary to record. Thinking through Gitelman's work, in answer to the near-tautology I posed above, we could further say that documents have the inherent capacity to be their own form of social documentary, to speak as and for themselves in the documentary mode.7

This latent potential, for inscriptive documents to always-already be a documentary in waiting, is what the form uniquely intensifies relative to the mode. Mobilizing that latency is one way of beginning to conceptualize what this kind of documentarian's gesture entails and what artistic potential it might channel. Yet the attractive simplicity of just mobilizing potential might be deceptive if, like Gitelman, we believe that any inherent potential is only accorded significance by “the contexts in which documents make sense as visible signs and/as material objects.” The inscriptive document as a documentary type bonds content and form then makes their co-effective significative-ness a hostage of context.

All documents propose that the tandem authority of the inscription (content) and its material register (form) be understood as a fundamentally public concern (contextual specificity). By “public concern” I mean three things: First, that the document shifts the private act of writing and its leftovers into some kind of public domain. Second, that the document asks its readership(s) to care about what it knows and shows. Third, that documents mean different things in different public spheres, so we have to concern ourselves as readers with questions about who they were meant for and where we find them. 

Being concerned with how, why, where and for who documents are circulated—their social lives—is crucial to their interpretation; and their circulation is a matter of accessibility. To become accessible, documents have to first be stored; to circulate, they have to first be reproduced. Although documents have the inherent potential to be their own documentary type, at least one person has to care enough about what specific documents know and show for their storage and reproduction to be undertaken. It is only when someone puts the inherent potential of documents to work—to become a public concern they need a social life—that the documentary loop can be completed. Mobilizing documents for this purpose involves both documentary reproduction and the production of social documentary; but it also requires a documentarian who is happy to make the accessing of documents their gesture (getting access, then giving access). This requires stopping short, intentionally, of the more typical gesture of building explanations or secondary representations of them.8

Taking up the pursuit of documents' social lives so as to define them and build on them is what critical analysts have been doing for millennia. Taking up the pursuit of documents' social lives by just propagating access to them, by connecting readerships with them rather than building readings on them, is something else. It is simpler and commonly done for lots of reasons other than art (think of the Panama Papers, for example), but remains under-thought as an artistic gesture, which is one reason for this essay. However, none of what I have said so far gets at why anyone would do this nor why any readership would want the same old thing reproduced.

To develop an answer to this two-sided question of why, I want to introduce what Matthew G. Kirschenbaum called the “forensic imagination” in his 2009 book Mechanisms, and Eyal Weizman has steadily unfolded and activated under the rubric of the “forensic aesthetic”.9 In his new book, Forensic Architecture, Weizman finesses a distinction between physical evidence and witness testimony as two different forms of accounting for the past.10 Both are forms of recovery. Both are retroactive, in the sense that they are put to work on the past. Both press the remnant to account for its socio-political resonances. It is common for archivists and other historians who use archives to premise their research on the quality of their documents as material evidence. However, I want to explore the consequences of thinking forensically in the other direction about the kind of mobilized inscriptions outlined above, as if the documents themselves (and the content, form, and contexts they triangulate) were instances of testimony, as if they were witness accounts of their own social lives.

Testimonies are linguistic expressions about or from the past, which are called up in a present moment to account for the past. They have to be found or solicited then cited to make the shift from being mere expressions of memory to evidence. How any expressed memory can count for more or less than others depends on the form in which it is recorded and the context of its recording—who the speaker is, the conditions in which they spoke and the veracity of the transcript. The thing about written testimonies is that the recording document is the expression, you “say it” for the record. Digging up and circulating documents asks the impossible: it asks the past to account for itself in the present. Re-mobilized documents testify to the problematic way in which they connect the present and the past via the contexts in which they were or will be produced, received, reproduced then secondarily received.

The gesture of making documents accessible does less than explain. It is an evocative recovery. In the absence of explanation, in the remove, we find the readerly space that Maurice Blanchot attributed to “l'espace litérraire” in his extraordinary 1955 essay collection of the same name.11 The document testifies to its own potential as an on-going public concern when it is reproduced and allowed to account for itself as a form of social documentary, one connecting present to past via contexts (plural). This form of social documentary offers us access to the original document maker's subjective attempt to access a specific bit or bits of worldly reality and to the latter documentarian's attempt to do the same. It also allows us to continually read anew the tension between those two gestures precisely because it is not fixed down and is encouraged to keep (re)moving, to be duplicated and circulated, to remain accessible as a representation of itself, to testify to its own awkward status as a present thing that is and is not its former self. 

If my opening definition of the paradox of representation is correct, how can the tail-end of my last sentence make sense? The kind of documentary gesture I am sketching out needs to go beyond not only explanatory practices but also quotational practices. When we forward an email conversation to someone outside its chain there is a significant degree of difference to what we would have been offering its new reader had we instead summarized its content (explanation) or copied and pasted sections (quotation) for them. What I find useful about the forensic aesthetic, as Weizman has theorized it, is that it takes that degree of difference seriously and tries to account for it, rather than flatly resigning to the idea that all recovery is partial and therefore all mere quotation. The (counter-)forensic method becomes an aesthetic when you embrace and explore the recovered thing's inadequacy as a representation of its own role in the past, then invite a critical reading. 

This gives us leverage and relief when considering the practice of propagating access to documents as a documentary gesture. The forensic aesthetic permits us to embrace the reproduced document's inadequacy as a representation of its original's social life and resonances without giving up on the reproduction's potential to say something about that life and those resonances. In fact, it is precisely this “failing” that makes the reproduction productive: rather than collapsing under the question of fidelity as a tragic irony, documentary reproduction expands the social life and resonances of the document, it makes them available to be read again yet differently, again and again, without the regulatory benchmark of a correct interpretation. The reproduction's infidelity forces us to confront the differences between that and this, then and now, original and duplicate; and re-phrases those differences in the positive distinction between has been and could become. Documentary reproduction testifies to the original while expanding its social life and effects as a matter of public concern. 

This is different from the post-conceptual gestures that have defined, in various and often interesting ways, contemporary documentary poetics. It is not the procedural, allegorical act of ventriloquism pushed in complicated directions by poets like Vanessa Place or Rachel Zolf, which we could call “quotational practices” after Patrick Greaney's 2013 book of the same name.12 Nor is it the lyrical collage of found language spliced into connections by poets like Maggie O'Sullivan or Susan Howe, which we could call “archeopoetic” after Mandy Bloomfield's 2016 book of the same name.13 I am not even sure that the documentary type I am describing can be properly called “literary”, if we take “literarity” to define a certain category of writing that is intentionally composed as literature.14

Instead, what I have tried to identify is a documentary realism for mobilized inscriptions that may not involve any act of writing (paratextual additions, at most) nor even any act of re-writing. Using somebody else's documents wholesale begins with an act of depropriation, but if you do not overwrite the original author's name or function then it cannot be an act of appropriation. I am not describing anything new—for example, the history of grey literatures is long even if the term is relatively recent—but the technical horizons for propagating documents have been radically stretched by digital networked technology. Now such practices are more likely to involve a scanner than a pen. They involve re-printing, cloning, and pirating whenever necessary. They undertake the common act of file-sharing, in both its analogue and digital senses, but with a primarily speculative purpose (rather than a primarily programmatic one) because they stop short of explication. 

It may be more helpful to think about this kind of documentary as a highly sensitive mode of extra-literary practice. It is a practice that folds recovery and access into acts of re-publishing to explore the changes between then and now in a specific document's resonances within the “scriptural economy”. It also invites new readers to expand those differences without telling those readers what it all means. For want of a better name, I have started to label these undertakings document practices

In 2016, Nicholas Thoburn published a disarmingly original book called, ironically, Anti-Book. It is a kind of anti-medium media study, one that intervenes sharply in the discourse that used to be called the sociology of literature. In it, he theorizes the “experimental conditions” of what he calls “communist publishing”15. His foci are the ways in which different approaches to publishing can embrace, rather than repress, the potential for productive interferences between the form, content, and contexts (of production and distribution) of its outcome—the publication. Very crudely put, interferences keep things open and being radically open is the condition Thoburn names “communist”. 

Thoburn's argument is probably best grasped if we remind ourselves that “to make public” is all that the verb “to publish” really means. Understood as such, when coupled with Thoburn's political interest, publishing can be understood as a way of giving form to cultural expressions. This is publishing as an organizational form. The acts and outcomes of communist publishing make radical openings public, they form openings in the public sphere and make those openings a public concern. This matters if, like Thoburn and I, you believe that, “the particular political qualities of texts are only grasped when approached in relation to the media forms that carry them, codetermine their meaning, collide with them, or leave them aside in pursuit of effects of an extratextual nature.”16

How can this help us to think about document practices? Well, it gives us one way of asking and answering a more precise follow-on question: If publishing is the process of giving expressive textual gestures public form—the primary way of organizing the public form of texts in the “scriptural economy”—then what can re-publishing documents do? Crucially, I think, it gives us a model of reproduction-as-production, one which produces a re-organization of the ways in which the same old form and content engage or interfere with their various contexts of production, reproduction, dissemination and reception. Reproduction-as-production is the kernel or compositional maxim for a documentary mode that testifies to these re-organizations through its reproduced form, from captured thumb marks to encoded metadata to the history of interpretations each duplicate carries with it. 

Again, I am not describing anything new, nor anything that is necessarily artful. In one direction, overtly political acts of file-sharing like Wikileaks come to mind; in another direction, the long global histories of Tamizdat networks would be an example. However, we now use inscriptive media that also save, store and circulate everything we write in various digital formats that are all called “documents”. The quantity and depth of these documentary chains on “public” networks like the Internet are extraordinary, as is their instability and rate of change. Much has been said about modes of reading that prefigure or respond to these conditions, be those modes distracted, shallow or automated17. But sometimes pausing that flow and employing counter-intuitive modes of reading, like close reading, and even IRL discussion, can help us to understand the social lives and effects of these liquid documents.

Hate Library, installation by Nick Thurston at transmediale 2018. Luca Girardini, transmediale, CC BY-SA 4.0

That was one of the simple premises for Hate Library, a project I developed with the founding director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, Matthew Feldman, and a team of researchers including Maik Fielitz, which was commissioned by and first presented at Galeria Foksal in Warsaw 2017, then exhibited at transmediale face value in 201818. Hate Library is an exhibition and working public reference library that explores the language of far-right political groups and parties across contemporary Europe, focussing on their use of online forums and social media as recruitment and collaboration tools. The exhibition combines wallpapers, books, and collage in a sculptural installation set-up for reading, understanding, and dialogue.
The inter-related components on display are all drawn from unedited streams of public and semi-public exchanges between far-right and right-wing fringe communities. Hate Library repeats offline who said what, where, when and how by using simple data-gathering and print-on-demand processes. Through screen-captures, downloads and exporting, then compiling and tiling, these—once liquid—document some of those groups' stances. They also collectively present a social documentary of the vexing growth of transnational cooperation between nationalist groups. By bringing together official channels and membership discussions, they also juxtapose the often confusing overlaps between public and online activist political discourses and between practices of political self-imaging in a changing Europe.

The source material reproduced in Hate Library remains publicly available to Internet users anywhere in the world and is traceable via the metadata about its collection left on show. As an installation, Hate Library mixes allegory and literalism by presenting textual documents as documentary artworks within a symbolic and social stage for reading, understanding, and dialogue. As an example of how document practices can work—at a time when tactical media activism is helping to confuse truth and post-truth, responsibility and liability, engagement and disengagement, public and private spheres—Hate Library might also remind us of Gitelman's first principle: that the know-show potential of documents is contextually- and materially-specific, so reading the same old form-content combinations again yet differently might open up new horizons.

  • 1. Jacques Derrida and Derek Attridge (1989), “This Strange Institution Called Literature: An interview with Jacques Derrida”, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, in Acts of Literature (London: Routledge, 1992), 33-75.
  • 2. Bruno Latour, “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” in Knowledge and Society – Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, vol. 6, ed. Elizabeth Long, Henrika Kuklick (Greenwich: Jai Press, 1986), 1-40.
  • 3. Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 6
  • 4. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 131-153.
  • 5. Gitelman, Paper Knowledge, 12.
  • 6. Gitelman, Paper Knowledge, 13.
  • 7. Gitelman, Paper Knowledge, 61.
  • 8. Of course, selection is an act of re-contextualization and, like dissemination, it always stems from some subjective intent. But there is a huge degree of difference between (i) duplicating then relaying something and (ii) reframing its content or transforming its form. My argument is that we need documentary practices that can account for these degrees of difference.
  • 9. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 249-259. Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, Mengele's Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012).
  • 10. Eyal Weizman, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (New York: Zone Books, 2017), 80-84.
  • 11. Maurice Blanchot, L'Espace littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1955).
  • 12. For example: Vanessa Place, Tragodía I: Statement of Facts (Los Angeles: Insert Blanc Press, 2010). Rachel Zolf, Human Resources (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007). Patrick Greaney, Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Of course, these examples just mark two extremes in the field of documentary poetics and only hint at the recent proliferation of practices under that banner.
  • 13. For example: Maggie O'Sullivan, Murmur: Tasks of Mourning (London: Veer Books, 2011). Susan Howe, Tom Tit Tot (Portland: Yale Union, 2013). Mandy Bloomfield, Archaeopoetics: Word, Image, History (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016).
  • 14. Derrida, “This Strange Institution Called Literature: An interview with Jacques Derrida”, 44-47.
  • 15. Nicholas Thoburn, Anti-Book: On the Art and Politics of Radical Publishing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 13.
  • 16. Thoburn, Anti-Book, 298.
  • 17. A wealth of interesting work has been published on the matter of how our modes of attention are changing with digital networked technology, including: Katherine N. Hayles, "How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine", in ADE Bulletin, no.10 (Modern Language Association of America, 2010); Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012); Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
  • 18. The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right aims to disseminate its Research Fellows' expert analyses of the rise of radical right extremism to publics around the world. Their online resources can be accessed for free at


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