This post is by Laurel Ahnert, a Moving Image Studies doctoral student.
This past August I had the good fortune to present a paper at this year’s annual Visible Evidence conference in Stockholm, Sweden. For those of you who may not know, Visible Evidence is the foremost international conference on documentary film and visual culture. Started in 1993 by Jane Gaines and Michael Renov, the conference celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year. In some ways, documentary studies has made great leaps since the early 1990s, in other ways we seem to be returning to the same issues that have haunted documentary since its beginning.
Reflecting on the past twenty years in her keynote address, Gaines bookended the tenure of the conference with two major national events that have challenged the status of the evidentiary: the Rodney King video and Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. She challenged us to rethink our investments in evidentiary images and technology, arguing that much of the early scholarship on the King video maintained a veiled form of empiricism, reacting against the theoretical excesses of the 1970s and 80s. While simultaneously recognizing the power of juridical discourse to undermine the image during the trial of four LAPD officers, many documentary scholars nevertheless held on to the notion that the video held a privileged relation to the real. Now, when “evidentiary catastrophes” proliferate, she argues that we are beholden to the “evidentiary industrial control complex” in the form of multi-national surveillance apparatus and the emergence of “big data.” This development throws into question the status of ‘evidence’ as such: evidence of what? Controlled by whom? Used to what end? Arguably, these questions provide the subtext for much of the scholarly work that was presented at the conference.
Joining Gaines as keynote speakers were Bill Nichols, Leshu Torchin, and Laura Rascaroli. Their papers highlighted the key themes of the conference, sharing with Gaines concerns for the status of evidentiary objects in the 21st century. The key thematic concerns include the continued blurring of the lines between fact and fiction in documentary, the changing status of human rights media with the emergence of international social media platforms, new “minoritarian” cinematic forms that appropriate and challenge established documentary conventions, interactive archives and the new configurations of space and time they enable, and the continuing desire to render visible those invisible dimensions of human experience.
From my vantage point, it appears that documentary studies is responding to the complications posed by digitality and interactivity through a turn toward aesthetics, ethics, and affect. Panel titles such as “The Aesthetics and the Politics of Shame” and “Theorizing Affect, Performing Emotion” reflect this shift. Papers addressing issues of embodiment, performance, and performativity were abundant. These papers asked, in the age of the digital, does the body remain an index of the real? In other words, does the body provide visible evidence, and if so, what kind of visible evidence does the body provide? Collectively, they also pointed to a need to think about the status and orientation of ourselves, the documentary viewers and scholars, and not simply the status of “the Other” on screen.