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Issue 129

Editorial: Documentation

As viewers, we often experience artworks through documents: by reading art magazines, by studying art history or by browsing the Internet. Websites like Contemporary Art Daily, for example, allow us to scroll through endless feeds of installation shots from selected galleries all over the world. Similarly, artist monographs allow writers and historians to write about artists without directly experiencing their work. When artworks are reduced to images that we may encounter for little more than a fraction of a second, this changes our reading of them, and provides a different context. This situation favours those practices that best communicate their significance and value through and as images, and privileges artists and institutions that are most adept at publicizing their work and exhibitions. To continue this line of thought, it is increasingly the case that these conditions in turn shape how art is made and exhibited, emphasizing its visual legibility and transmissibility.

Yet there are other ways of thinking about documentation: not just in terms of documentation of artworks, but also in terms of documentation in artworks. Many artists use documents as objects
within their work. Or, they may address documentation as concept and practice; the transmission of experiences or ideas. In this issue, Barbara Clausen considers the restaging of historical performance art pieces and challenges the distinction between the live and the mediated event. And Jayne Wilkinson discusses the photographs of James Bridle, who sourced satellite images of American drone strikes in
Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and then disseminated them on Instagram. Wilkinson argues that these images become documentary through their presentation and recirculation, often subsequently used by journalists covering these events. In both of these essays, the writers allude to the “liveness” of the document, an idea that is latent throughout this issue and which has resonance in society at large. Much like documents of original performance art pieces can function as scores for their re-enactment, other kinds of documents, from photographs to popular recordings, also function as scores, mediating and shaping the conduct of daily life.

Overreliance on documentation can reduce practices that are complex, messy and indeterminate into familiar and limiting frames of reference, but the document can also expand and challenge how
we see the world, opening up new possible horizons, as many of the writers and artists in this issue describe. Or the document might be negated altogether. In her artist project, Jennifer Rose Sciarrino
evokes the possibility of evading visibility – and thus documentation – by presenting us with an invisibility cloak: a form that by both concealing and revealing, works as a perspective-shifting device that brings unseen spaces into view.

But more than anything else, this issue’s focus on documentation is about asking what it means to be present to the artwork and to be present for others, and how documents mediate those relationships.
These questions are especially urgent in a world where speed of communication and access to information enable a dispersal of presence across space and time, with profound interpersonal, ethical and political consequences. Far from its earlier conceptions as mere record-keeper, the document now has unprecedented power to act upon the world, bringing voices from other times and places into the present, creating empathy and identification, and establishing value. Documentation shapes
the very form of our complex, contemporary present – a present that often seems to be not just here and now, but everywhere at once.

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