Seeing Documentary as Participatory Art. (Summary of work in progress)

This research takes as a starting point the illusion of completely ethical participation of subjects in documentary film. Experiments in the participation of human subjects in the production of a documentary film promised to address some issues relating to authorial projection and editorial control. This page is a journal/ scrapbook of various methods that have been used in film and contemporary art to attempt to address these issues.

Cinéma Vérité

The term Cinéma Vérité was coined by visual anthropologist Jean Rouch and philosopher Edgar Morin for the 1961 film Chronique d'un été. The film follows a group of young Parisians as they investigate their own lives and that of others using relatively new portable film and audio technology. Notably it also includes a 'feedback' session, where participants were screened the rushes of the film, and then filmed as they commented on them and discussed their feelings about how they were represented. This film was an early experiment in participation and a reaction to the elaborate artifice that was associated with American cinema.

This early experiment in participatory documentary was flawed, but set a precedent for other such experiments, and laid the groundwork for a genre of observational documentary filmmaking.

The Myth of Total Cinema

André Bazin wrote in 1967 (What is Cinema? Vol. 1) about the objective potential of cinema (film). From its inception it promised that it could faithfully represent reality, but that this dream is not realisable. Cinema has not yet been invented.*

Film is therefore a language, not a reflection of phenomenological experience. Editing decisions can directly shape the experience of the viewer (as happened in Chronique d'un été), and so the ultimate control lies with the filmmakers, often intentionally or not.

*Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Volume One. Translated by Hugh Grey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Excursions et Visites. Jeudi 14 Avril, 1921.

Flying Kites

One of the first known experiments with (what is now called) participatory art took place in 1921 in Paris, organised by Dada artists André Breton, Tristan Tzara and others. The event was titled: Excursions et Visites and was a type of absurd and nonsensical guided tour of Paris, beginning at the churchyard of Saint Julien le Pauvre. It was a failure, it rained, and nobody turned up (many of us artists can relate to this). The intention, however was to create a public artwork, where the 'audience' became more than spectators, but active participants in the work.

For these Dada artists, this was an assault on the cultural establishment of the time, exploding the relationship between artwork, artist and audience. Though mostly a failure, the event created an opportunity for public participation in artworks as avant-garde practice, "... a re-evaluation of everyday objects and experiences as a point of opposition to cultural hierarchy."*

*Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso, 2012.

Enough Mystifications

If there is a social preoccupation in today’s art, then it must take into account this very social reality: the viewer.
To the best of our abilities we want to free the viewer from his apathetic dependence that makes him passively accept, not only what one imposes on him as art, but a whole system of life . . .
We want to interest the viewer, to reduce his inhibitions, to relax him. We want to make him participate.
We want to place him in a situation that he triggers and transforms. We want him to be conscious of his participation.
We want him to aim towards an interaction with other viewers.
We want to develop in the viewer a strength of perception and action. A viewer conscious of his power of action, and tired of so many abuses and mystifications, will be able to make his own ‘revolution in art’.

*GRAV, ‘Assez des mystifications’, in Caramel (ed.), Groupe de recherche d’art visuel 1960–1968

Ethnofiction, metafiction, parafiction

Jean Rouch developed a method of visual ethnography using portable 16mm cameras and sound recording equipment. His aim was to somehow faithfully represent the cultures that he engaged with. He quickly realised that simple observation was flawed- the camera is always present, and (as was pointed out by participants in Chronique d'un été) the person in front of the camera will always be aware of this presence. His experimental solution was to embrace the position of the camera in the situation, and to hand some of the narrative control over to the subjects in the film, making them participants. Moi, un noir (1958) is an example of this. The film depicts migrant workers in Nigeria who recreate scenes from their own lives, under different names. The term ethnofiction is used to describe the film. This new form embraced the impossibility of objectivity in documentary, instead combining the points of view of the viewer, participant and filmmaker to deliver a subjective narrative that is perhaps as close to the truth as can be possible.

An earlier (and perhaps the first) ethnofiction was Les Maîtres Fous (1955). Styled more like a conventional ethnography, this film shows rituals of the Hauka movement in Niger, who are shown as being possessed by the spirits of former colonial masters. The beauty of this film for me is summed up by this reaction to it by Amy from The Movie Checklist youtube channel, who is horrified that she really cannot find a genre to attach to it (she does mention 'mocumentary' at one point...).

This is a key point for me. Rouch's ethnofictions deftly avoid conventional genre classifications. To approach watching Les Maîtres Fous or Moi, un noir as documentary or fiction, or mockumentary is to mis-read the message.

History, Demonstration, Participation

Perhaps the biggest challenge for documentary film is the recounting of historical narratives in a way that reflects the influence on these narrative by power and ideology. Artist Jeremy Deller recognised early in his career that perhaps the best way to tell a story about the past is to have it interpreted by others, perhaps those same others that might end up watching a documentary.

In his 2001 project, The Battle of Orgreave Deller recreated a battle between striking miners and police that took place in 1984, enlisting the help of many former miners who were present at the original battle. Similar to the original aims of Chronique d'un été, Deller gave up much of his control of the project to the participants. This documentary film was made about the project by Mike Figgis. In the selected clip, Deller explains his feelings about how the recreation is working:

...and here in a conversation with London College of Communication's Simon Hinde, Deller expands on his feelings about his work of art going out of control:

The great thing about this project, and the documentary, is that it does what so many works of contemporary art fail to do: it transcends the act and the work of art itself. As I write there are 106 comments on Youtube about the film, and for the most part they are comments on the political landscape in the late 80's in the UK, and about the contemporary implications of this event. This is art as a place for debate, the dream that Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin had for Chronique d'un été.

Ausländer raus!

All types participation do not seem to be equal. In The Battle of Orgreave a lot of the control was given up to the participants. They took ownership of the project, as they should- it was their story that was being re-told, and they all felt like it was important that the story was told from their perspective. This is close to what Jacques Rancière would call Genuine Participation; the invention of an unpredictable subject who momentarily occupies the town square or the factory. The key point here is that the ultimate power lies in the hands of the participant. In The Battle of Orgreave the power ultimately was handed over mid-way though the process. My understanding of The Battle of Orgreave and Deller's project comes from the film by Mike Figgis, whose sympathetic point of view brought us the project as a documentary. The separation here is between the work of participatory art (the project) and the documentation of that project (the film), which was not a work of participation.

Ausländer raus! was a 2001 project by Christoph Schlingensief. In response to the election of a
number of members of the ultra right-wing party Freedom for Austria to parliament, Schlingensief set up a 'concentration camp' made from shipping containers in the centre of Vienna for one week, and housed a number of asylum seekers inside. Video of the inside of the camp was streamed live on the internet, and visitors to the website could vote to have a pair of asylum seekers deported each day. A large banner on top of the containers read: Ausländer raus! (Foreigners out!).

The piece attracted huge attention, both on the square during the duration of the project, and also on national media. Most of all, it sparked debate, and in the film made by Paul Poet, Ausländer Raus! Schlingensiefs Container we see Schlingensief himself on a platform actively and often aggressively provoking the crowd with a loud-speaker.

If the aim of Ausländer raus! was to provoke a debate about the current political attitude towards immigrants in Europe, and to expose the latent xenophobia in ordinary people, then it succeeded. Passers-by rant and argue, the camp is raided by a band of ‘hippie’ liberators and attacked by firebombs. The experiment spiralled almost to the point of going out of control. If we take this as a positive attribute of a work of participatory art, then it worked. However the ‘asylum seekers’ themselves at the centre of the project have no voice in the film, or in the work itself it seems. As a work of politically provocative participatory art, or a social experiment where the objective was to prove that there are inequalities in a society it works. Schlingensief had a message that he wanted to deliver, and he was confident that the potential participants is his project would do his bidding (and they did).

If we contrast this to Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave we can see that Deller did not seem to have a prescribed message, rather the objective of the participatory element to his work was to write its own message. It comes down once again to power, in this case the power of the message, the voice: to whom does it belong? What message will it carry?

Flying Kites
‘The Ladder of Participation’, from the Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 1969

Everybody is in the Place

Power, then is at the centre of discourse around participatory art projects, just as it is with states. A work of art, or a documentary film that has a group of people as a subject or at the centre has two possible extremes- it can be a dictatorship, an oligarchy or a democracy. In most cases the artist dictates the terms of the work, they might work with a gallery, museum or commissioning body to decide the direction of a work, but it is generally accepted that the artist is the centre of the genesis of a project. The myth of the artist-genius seems to be just as relevant today as it was in the Renaissance or in Warhol’s Factory.

So what does it mean to relinquish control of an artwork to the very factors that it is comprised of? For the sake of example or argument we can rule out the human factor. In conversations with David Sylvester between 1962 and 1974, Francis Bacon often refers to his method of painting to be governed by ‘luck’ and ‘accident’.* He explains that he simply spends his time confidently lashing paint on to the canvas, beginning with one idea, and eventually something might happen. This can be read in a couple of different ways. One is that Francis Bacon was a creative genius, all he had to do was work away and eventually a very important work of art would emerge. The other is that he simply was not in full control of his process, that he certainly had a part to play, but other external factors, perhaps his environment, his state of mind, the weather or the company he was keeping were participating in the creation of the painting. If we re-introduce the human factor to a work of art, such as a documentary film about a group of people, and apply the idea that the artist/ director is ethically bound to hand over some or all of the control of the project to the participants/subjects. Now we are talking about microcosmic political decisions, but ultimately the question is about who (or what) has the power over the message. This is difficult, especially when dealing with a large amount of people. Experiments in communism (communism as in the act of living, working and making decisions communally) in the 1960’s and 1970’s have shown that it is productively cumbersome to have large groups making decisions. And perhaps when it comes to a creative work, the initial intentions and impact might become diluted. Rouch and Morin seemed to have realised this during the production of Chronique d'un été. The premise of the experiment is presented as intact, but in fact the film was heavily edited in order to deliver the message effectively and artfully.

*Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon. 1975.

A recent project by Jeremy Deller takes a fairly unique approach to this issue of a balance between the delivery of an effective and engaging message and the factor of unpredictability that comes with participation. Everybody is in the Place (2019) is a project about the history and contextual relevance of rave culture in the 1990’s UK. Deller begins this project in a fairly conventional manner by creating a (very interesting) didactic presentation. The unpredictability factor comes in as he presents his essayistic lecture to a group of secondary-school students at a school in inner-London. The lecture was filmed and this became a new version of events. His ideas, his research and his version of the history and impact of rave culture was mediated by a group of people, most of whom were not born at the time. In this project, Deller is actively seeking to have his own ideas and opinions challenged, and this becomes the ‘documentary’. If we were to use Armstein's Ladder of Participation above to categorise this approach, we might call it 'delegation of power'.