User Bar First

This is a debugging block

User Bar Second

This is a debugging block


This is a debugging block


This is a debugging block

Header First

This is a debugging block

Header Second

This is a debugging block

Preface First

This is a debugging block

Preface Second

This is a debugging block

Preface Third

This is a debugging block


This is a debugging block

Reality must be defended

Florian Schneider

Cinema addressed the unconscious, television modulated distance. Nowadays it is not just about working on the net but above all on working within and across networks. But how is it possible, especially in a medium that claims to document anything or everything, to rediscover or even reinvent documentary?

“We must engage with this society in the prevalent medium”: this slogan conveyed filmmaker Michael Mrakitsch’s decision, shared by many other filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s, to work against television on television rather than trying to make a living in some niche of the cineastic realm.

If we agree with Mrakitsch, it’s time to apply this principle. Political and aesthetic strategies shouldn't just duplicate or illustrate what is {italic}given{/italic}; instead, they must seek to confront new configurations of power and powerlessness that proliferate across networked environments. It might sound strange to drop the illusions of artistic freedom. This may seem disconcerting from a contemporary perspective, since documentary has migrated almost entirely out of television and back into even older media — the museum, theater, or more recently cinema. This is not a result of political or aesthetic considerations but, instead, one of the few survival strategies still available.

To rely on claims about the pervasiveness of the internet in almost every sphere of life has become hopelessly banal. However, it's much more promising to suggest using this medium as the terrain for debating questions about how social fictions are made — and, instead, sets out to defend the real. Far beyond questions of taste, gossip, and the notorious difficulty of addressing what unfolds on the net, there are many reasons why it is difficult to view the net as an appealing environment for critical debate, particularly in the era of so-called “social networking.”

For instance, networked reality is still perceived as “virtual” (with an unpleasant aftertaste of being somehow “unreal”), which is still seen as a threat to authenticity and originality. At the same time, networked services have enabled additional apparatuses that document, store, monitor, and record every possible movement. In this light — omnipresent documentation, on the one hand, and the deceptive appearance of second-order reality, on the other — documentary is fighting a losing battle on two fronts.
The rise of particular network services reduces myriad ways of looking at things to short-term, unambiguous necessities (“Like!”). With this, other ways to inhabit the net, or even to use it against the grain, are dissipating. The net increasingly becomes a sort of convenient transportation hub or a technology that is more or less “neutral.” Even in this latter view, at its very best, it is supposed to accept {italic}the given{/italic} at face value, in the literal sense of the Latin word data, meaning {italic}that which is given{/italic}.

It seems as if the room to play with the potentials of a new medium — freed from outmoded conventions of seeing and unburdened by the imperative to realize value — has vanished beyond our conceptual horizons. Walter Benjamin said of analog photpgraphy, “The illiterate of the future will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph.” In this sense, our challenge now is to learn once again how to see — both with new devices and despite them.

To make something visible one must leave something out. Visual production is always a more or less conscious process of reduction, which is never merely or strictly technical. Devices have nothing to do with it. Editing images, reducing quantity and complexity to {italic}given{/italic} data for straightforward consumption, filtering out disturbing elements and suppressing ambiguities: these illusions are fabricated, as if reality could be consumed.

As long as these processes were standardized and were generally accepted, we could participate in the great debates: Are we really seeing the same thing? Who benefits from what is shown to us? Doubt was the driving force of the analog — or so it would seem in retrospect.

But, paradoxically, standardization of image production was the necessary precondition for perception to become “individualized,” and for the “subjective” to give rise to subjectivity with all of its supposed shortcomings and flaws.

To discuss what was seen and its effects made sense only as long as unified standards applied — for recording and transmitting images, for resolution and aspect ratios, and above all for {italic}framing{/italic}.

Contrary to many claims made about the supposed power of images, their actual impact was never as potent as the standardized realities of factory society. Instead, it was the systematic over-estimation of that power that was most effective. Yet through this ambiguity of standardization, on the one hand, and individualization, on the other, perception could seem autonomous enough to produce (or at least enjoy) a certain degree of authenticity in what was seen.

In clear contrast to the age of television, the conditions under which images are now produced are constantly renegotiated on an ad-hoc basis. Encoding, decoding, compression, and distribution of data — let alone its reception and processing — are all done more or less in compliance with proliferating, overlapping, and conflicting technical standards. There is no clear ground for calling these disparate “technical” processes into question. The outcomes of these endless renegotiations cannot be predicted; as a result, they cannot be generalized, let alone refuted.

Authenticity no longer stems from a more or less autonomous rejection of the standardized, mainstream image. Instead, it is largely the accidental result of disparate factors — limited bandwidth, technical improvisation, and/or the time pressures dictated by the demand for “content.” It is no longer produced by an audience that can only listen and watch yet is entitled to criticize — and does so precisely to compensate for its own powerlessness. Instead, authenticity resides in the “honesty” of more or less raw images which at their best can awaken sympathy or malice.

Of course, television wasn't replaced by some digital cottage industry; instead, its scale has been supplanted and expanded upon dramatically and is sometimes called the “creative industries.” This deregulated image production, a sort of postmodern affect industry, and its cynicism about the digital are no longer concerned with details. What is at stake is the question of power: what does it mean to own an image? Who has the power and the means to exercise ownership?

Moreoever — and unlike the production of images in the fictional realm — documentary has always had to raise the question of ownership. Who does seeing belong to? And how does the image transform — even just quantitatively — the reality latent in a period time?

This is the significant distinction that marks documentary now. When realities are produced in networked environments, we must engage with them in a network mode. Only if we claim control of the contemporary means of production — the means to produce reality, in a sense — can we begin to make an image that need not apologize and is not compromised by its made nature, which does not inform on but, rather, {italic}forms{/italic} reality.

Conventional understandings of documentary would have it capture and “fix” reality in order to replay it later on. A particular moment or site is isolated, stored, and reconstructed as an event in ways that produce{CONFIRM} plausible forms of truth — all with a degree of permanence beyond the contingencies of time and space.

However, conventional approaches are doomed to failure in networked environments. When uncertainty is the precondition of any assertion and instability is the rule, we must rely on an opposite strategy to produce, invent, and develop truth.

We must do more than merely emphasize that everything is “intertwingled” somehow or other, with events following one from another with a certain degree of probability in some hazy automatic way.

It isn't enough to simply demand the triumph of “transparency” and “openness” without also questioning how realities need to be re-created again and again in new contexts. And it is scary to imagine ceding the empire of optical experience — and hence the anti-optical as well — to the imperatives of a handful of corporations and their proprietary code. {NEEDS WORK}

A crucial characteristic of networked environments is that image production no longer takes place in our heads, as sometimes claimed. Instead, a great deal of visual production is outsourced — in many ways, and at every level — to apparatuses that preempt even the most basic decisions involved in perception, cognition, and imagination.

Documentary must find new standpoints, both literally and figuratively. It must take a stand vis-à-vis a postindustrial production of fictions that increasingly possess, even own reality. Practices such as computer vision, automated image analysis, and pattern recognition permeate crucial areas of everyday life in the control society and subjecting them to sophisticated algorithms. Empirical perception, less and less the domain of our senses; instead, is taken over by cybernetic devices, which operate on the basis of their own assumptions and in the end produce tautologies.

Against this, reality must be defended. But merely capturing it isn't enough; instead, it must be broken free and become fugitive. But what could this mean? Where could documentary flee to? Ultimately, this cannot be a polite question about the “appropriate use” of technology but, rather, the opposite: How can we use technologies for things very different than their intended purposes?

The machinic legibility of images makes it possible to treat them like text, and to input and output them correspondingly. It becomes possible to interrogate images in new ways, not just according to the immanent relations of what they depict but formally — categorize, index, and tag them, to search and to find. In this way, networked environments give rise to an almost irresistible temptation to reduce the image to what is or can be made legible. Anything that might remain unreadable in any way is directly threatened with extinction — dismissed as incomprehensible and useless, ignored and discarded.

That however can scarcely be said to tell us anything about reality. Quite the contrary; after all, this is a really redundant undertaking. Visualizing data as a means of rendering the given visible and verifying what is anyway obvious leaves no scope for an exploration of reality that could call into question the rules by which this reality is produced, let alone assert a right to take production into one's own hands. However, an exploration of this kind is exactly what would constitute the importance of documentary: generating realities that free themselves from obsessions and possessions; that resist the ways in which all forms of living are captured by technical devices.

Today this kind of proposition is lurking below the noise threshold. Not the image's ground but its {italic}underground{/italic} is no longer to be found {italic}between{/italic} images, or {italic}in front of{/italic} or {italic}behind{/italic} images, but rather {italic}in their midst{/italic}: within or beyond the visible, in the static buzz of useless information. Just as the beauty of the documentary film once lay in its graininess, today this beauty is drunk on what is supposed to be the least significant bit.

But when images become illegible and the actual, existing information can't be compressed, truth is no longer the sum of probabilities. This noncompliant remainder with its generative multiplicity of meanings is the basis for a networked documentary that sets out to escape from an tautological, menu-driven "reality." Documentary that aims to produce surplus of reality confronts a paradoxical realization nowadays: communication "over the net" tends to consume reality's store rather than expanding it in the ways imagined (and partly practiced) in the techno-utopias of the 1990s.

Social exchange, in terms of individual creativity and shared affect, is subordinated to specious economic "laws" regardless of their ability to generate profits (or, indeed, epic loss). As a consequence, images of reality are diminished quantitatively — literally compressed — and their "processing" is reduced to the endless algorithmic exploitation of metadata in order to profile, monitor, and foreclose user generation.

The art of documentary is resistance to communication. It means rejecting the imperative that {italic}everything must be communicated{/italic} — and, instead, to work with breaks, ruptures, and incomprehensible elements. It means leaving behind the semantically homogenized space of "the net" and delving into the underground beneath the threshold of what is visible only because it is legible.

In the networked image of reality, change encompasses more than just perceptions of space understood, in general terms, as the shift from optics to semantics. It also encompasses the ways in which time is imagined, toward a framework within which events unfold simultaneously, in so-called "real time."

Traces of this transition, from similarity to simultaneity, can be observed at many levels — as numerous commentators have noted from particular perspectives. Immediate availability {AND EXCHANGEABILITY} is the sine qua non of both the production and distribution of images, to the point where the two are almost indistinguishable. Rather than past, present, and future, we are left with only real-time or "on-demand." The advance of network technologies has driven and been driven by the imperative that no time can be wasted, either in producing or consuming images. Delay, any delay, means loss; whereas, instantaneous availability is a profit — and much more than just saving time. Instantaneous availability short-circuits not just the legal discourses about images — their power, their ownership, and so on — and replaced it with the act of appropriation here and now.

In the digital simulacrum, linear time collapses into networked ubiquity; we no longer concern ourselves with whether or how an image resembles its ideal. Autonomic surveillance, carefully staged broadcasts, handheld serendipity: each has definitively become an act of taking possession, immediately and indefinitely.

Documentary must search for false time instead of real time: too early or too late, but never at the appropriate moment to capture an image and take possession of it. This inevitable failure, which goes hand in hand with false time, allows for insights that could never have been calculated or predicted. We can glimpse the underlying codes — human readable, not machine-readable — of networked reality. In doing so, we recognize the idiosyncrasies of images that cannot be possessed, are no one’s property, and therefore will be different every time they are viewed.

False time is a time that never pretends to be real. It is just as hard now to identify as it was to identify false cuts and continuities in their day. Determining the right moment is comparatively easy. But one of the great challenges of documentary is to decide what false time could mean and how to determine it.

False time and the noncompliant, illegible remainder aren't new approaches that became available only with the advent of digital information and communication technologies. On the contrary, one could easily demonstrate that documentary, in contrast to documentation, is marked by two key refusals: on the one hand, to be reduced to the legible, and, on the other, to conform to a flat notion of timeliness.

However, now, in defending the real, this remainder and false time play a pivotal role. These two features of documentary can disrupt the contemporary production of continuity. It provides the status quo with the legitimacy it so desperately needs in the age of networking: to justify its claim to the exclusive rights to reality.

Traditionally, continuity results from the fabrication of linear time and a consistent space. Ambiguities were eliminated, contradictions were reconciled, and the immediate was standardized in order to reduce what couldn't be understood to a comfortable selection of endlessly repeated facts. Cutting off all uncalculated or unpredictable outside influences was a necessary condition for a cinematic self — one that, by losing itself in such a protected environment, was constantly assured of its continued and contained existence. Continuity served as a kind of ideological workout in the fitness studio of the soul.

But what importance does continuity have now, in a seemingly ahistorical, networked, and converging media environment? Continuity is produced here in ways that are diametrically opposed to traditional methods of film and television. In networked environments, the perception of time and space is inverted.

Classical “continuity” established synthetic time and a consistent sense of space, so that the viewer considered them to be both plausible and seductive — and thereby made two worlds one. However, contemporary continuity is no longer a matter of mechanics and geometry. It doesn't present events in a logical sequence from an anthropomorphic perspective. Instead, the aim is to produce both the event and its representation simultaneously.

Networked continuity is based on immediate availability and exchangeability. It demands unified semantic spaces and an insistent real time with neither past nor future. However, a critical understanding of continuity must sidestep these homogenizations. In their place, we can envision a very different kind of continuity — one that consists of something more than incessant self-reassurance, one that struggles against the onslaught of repetition of the same. It would demand an engagement with history that is more than mere entertainment: one that proceeds through breaks and ruptures, standstills and sudden movement. The result: a past that resists any form of “coming to terms" with it, and a present seen as the beginning of the past rather than the end of the past.

Networked reality can only be recorded as asynchronous, heterogeneous data flows. There is no longer any synchronous time in the industrial sense, whose interdependencies demanded a "pulse" to implement and coordinate the assembly line, the mass media, and indeed the nation state. Motorized simultaneity drove material production and media. It was within {italic}this{/italic}scheme that the camera served as a “clock for seeing," as Roland Barthes noted.

In contrast, networked global economies exploit asychronicity. Rather than a binding, quartz-based time, there are only time-slices: the principle — applied explicitly in operating systems, for example — of the transient, discrete moments when actions are allowed on a constantly renegotiated, ad-hoc basis. This constant reprioritization is called multitasking. We cannot understand its effects; we can only accept them. Criticizing a milliseconds-long "phenomenon" on historical or ideological grounds is almost beyond comprehension.

The effects, which would otherwise run rampant, can only be mediated by realizing real time. However, in the too-early or too-late of false time, reality cannot be satisfied with the time-slice allocated to it. It will necessarily occupy a longer or shorter interval — and give rise to all sorts of endless discontinuities.

Ultimately, documentary need not fear the paradoxical illegibility and polyvalence of the real. Instead, documentary must revalue the heterogeneity of data flows — not only as an overwhelming chaos but also as a plenitude of almost mythical extent. This superabundance of political, social, and cultural scenes must be investigated and re-created.

None of this is new.

Each time the documentary has undergone a renewal, its reinvention has gone hand-in-hand with a radical change of milieu: from early landscape photography to portrait ateliers, from “living portraits” of traveling and fairground cinemas on to silent-film studios, then subsequently returning into the factory, heading off to war, and back into the natural world.

In the 1960s documentary, as camera and sound recording equipment became portable and broke free from the studio, filmmakers and video artists seized that opportunity. By moving into settings where they had little or no control over the noise threshold in any sense, they engaged with a lively, animate world, became aware of life in the public sphere, and reclaimed realities that had once existed independently of mediated images.

Now, we could lament how surveillance cameras monitor our streets, and how are public spaces are becoming "mere" collections of semipublic images on the net. This means that, for documentary, today’s street {italic}is{/italic}this networked environment. Not just "the net," but a much deeper investigation of what that milieu might mean.

It is just as risky and dangerous here, and the contrast to conventional modes of filmmaking could not be greater. We have no choice but to find new ways to see it.

Postscript First

This is a debugging block

Postscript Second

This is a debugging block

Postscript Third

This is a debugging block

Postscript Fourth

This is a debugging block