Document/ary: Letter from the Editor

Maggie Wander

My colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz and I founded this journal for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: providing a space outside the gatekeeping and privileged (and white, heteropatriarchal) standards of academic publishing, which often marginalizes emerging and independent scholars and artists; honing our editing skills and providing a workshop-like space for other writers; creating a free and accessible product that circulates beyond/outside the academy; and continually exploring and articulating what “visual studies” even is.

Refract’s editorial board is constantly striving to fulfill these goals, with a mixed bag of successes and shortfalls. But what I have been thinking most about while putting together this latest volume is that last item: What is visual studies? And what is Refract’s role in this still-burgeoning field?

Earlier this year, the editorial board revisited some canonical texts in the earliest formations of what has become visual studies—such as the now-classic (dare I say infamous) “Visual Culture Questionnaire” from the 1996 issue of October. We did not have a specific agenda in rereading these texts; we simply wanted to see what resonated with us now that we are four volumes deep into this project. What struck us most about the debate over visual studies was a sense of anxiety about its disciplinary identity. How is it different from a “new art history” or “cultural studies”? Where does it fit into the university curriculum? What are the stakes of naming, creating, and defining disciplines in the first place?

As we discussed the angst that seemed to characterize those debates, I realized that this question of disciplinary belonging was never really of concern to Refract’s founders or to its subsequent editors. Many of us on the editorial board found this aspect of the debate to be an unproductive, even reductive, instance of the “turf policing,” as Mieke Bal and others have called it, that runs rampant in academe. Rather, the editorial board and I found that what most resonated for us were the discussions of methodology rather than of disciplinary boundaries and institutional belonging. How is visual studies put into practice? How do scholars/practitioners of visual studies collect their “data,” use their “archives,” and “read” their objects of analysis?

As Bal stated in her polemical essay “Visual Essentialism and the Object of Visual Culture,” objects “are active participants in the performance of analysis in that they enable reflection and speculation, and they can contradict projections and wrong-headed interpretations (if the analyst lets them!) and thus constitute a theoretical object within philosophical relevance.” Michael Ann Holly similarly argued for this kind of approach in her response to the October questionnaire, saying that “the ‘work of art’ itself (of course the range of what counts here has been enormously expanded into any visual representation) has as much a role to play in the production of the circulation of meanings as does the critic or historian who tries to get it to speak.”

With this in mind, Refract considers artists, filmmakers, poets, performers, and creative practitioners of all kinds to be doing the work that we might call visual studies. In this volume— and all those that came before—original, creative work is integrated into the table of contents, not as illustrations of someone else’s argument but as intellectual, theorizing projects in their own right.

Alongside these projects, the scholarly essays included in Refract’s volumes over the years are also putting visual studies into practice, if not definitively naming it as such. From unpacking the role of cosmetics in sixteenth-century British imperialism, to framing trans selfies on social media as decolonial acts, our contributors co-produce their analyses in the kind of performative praxis that Bal called for. Further, they fulfill what Sara Blaylock, in our second volume, identified as imperatives for the field: they “[offer] a different way of seeing and engaging with the world” and are “social justice minded in both historical and contemporary subjects.”

As editors, we are always looking for artists and writers who enact the kinds of methodologies that characterize, to us, a visual studies approach. This is the reasoning behind our annual feature, “Voices of Visual Studies,” for which we invite scholars who we believe are doing important work with/around/alongside artistic production. The quote from Blaylock comes from her contribution as our “Voice” in volume 2, while James Elkins preceded her in our inaugural volume. Those two featured voices were both white scholars whose doctoral training was in the fields of art history and visual studies, respectively. But some of the most critical, insightful, and inspirational work that might be called visual studies is happening in (or between) other disciplines and by people of color. So, for the third volume’s “Voice,” we invited Professor Katerina Teaiwa to reflect on the role of images and artistic work in her own scholarship on the colonial history of Banaba.

In the present volume, we again feature interdisciplinary, social justice–oriented work by a woman of color. Catherine Sue Ramírez’s essay, “Visualizing Precarity and Security: Mona Hatoum’s Drowning Sorrows and Guadalupe Maravilla’s Walk on Water,” considers the condition of “precarity” as it exists in the contemporary world. Deftly weaving in some of today’s most pressing social and political issues, Ramírez considers how visual culture allows us to really see and understand precarity while providing avenues for healing. One of the most exciting parts of this guest feature is her pedagogical practice. Like Teaiwa, Ramírez mobilizes the visual as a form of teaching. In many ways, I consider Refract to also be a kind of object that serves a pedagogical function (a “document,” you might say, as outlined in this volume’s introduction), and within its pages one can see the multitudinous forms that a visual studies approach can take.

My deepest gratitude to Catherine Sue Ramírez, Dark Laboratory, and Amalia Mesa-Bains for accepting our invitation to contribute to the current volume. My appreciation also goes to the other contributors, whose passion and hard work have made this volume so strong. On behalf of the editorial board, I would like to thank the department of History of Art and Visual Culture, the Arts Division, the Graduate Student Association, and the Student Fee Advisory Committee at the University of California, Santa Cruz for their financial support. We are especially grateful to Ruby Lipsenthal for all her help (and patience) while we continually figure out how all this works. Thanks also to Professors Alexis Boylan, Vilashini Cooppan, Derek Conrad Murray, Kyle Parry, and Kailani Polzak for serving on our advisory board. Thank you to the team at eScholarship for answering our (many) questions, to all the peer reviewers for your time, and to Paula Dragosh for copyediting. My personal thanks to my friends and colleagues on Refract’s editorial board: Spencer Armada, Rachel Bonner, Susanna Collinson, Katie Ligmond, Kelsey McFaul, Stacy Schwartz, Matthew Simmons, Madison Treece, and Elia Vargas, as well as former editorial board members who helped lay the groundwork for this incredible project.

The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting: Afterlife and Memorialization of Imagery Surrounding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Madeleine Bazil

Given that truth commissions are heavily intertwined with the social politics of societal memory and the historical perception of events, the imagery surrounding these hearings therefore plays a role worth examining throughout this memorialization process. This essay investigates how imagery from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings has experienced an afterlife in the subsequent decades, and how this afterlife may differ from the images’ original values and purpose. This body of work examines the extended life of these images beyond that of straightforward media representation of the event—looking at how these archival elements have been reappropriated and incorporated into fine-art bodies of work by artists and documentarians working in photography, such as Sue Williamson, Jo Ratcliffe, Berni Searle, Penny Siopis, and others, in order to respond to the TRC by participating in and driving conversations surrounding the commission’s ambiguities, contradictions, and inadequacies. Through a semiotic analysis of the imagery itself, and analysis of the contextual placement and dissemination of the imagery in both its original and subsequent usages, this research therefore seeks to holistically understand the role of visual media in South Africa’s era of transitional justice and reckoning.

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Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds—real and imagined. Madeleine holds an MA Hons (First Class) in English literature from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is a master’s candidate of Documentary Arts at the University of Cape Town, where her current research and practice investigate the role of the archive in post-traumatic documentary film. 

Amalia Mesa-Bains and the Archive: An Interview with the Artist

Amalia Mesa-Bains and Madison Treece

The following is an interview between editorial board member Madison Treeceand celebrated Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains. Treece has worked as Mesa-Bains’s archivist since 2017. For this issue on “document/ary,” Treece asked Mesa-Bains about the function of the archive as document, its contributions to Chicanx art history, and its more personal implications. The interview took place on March 9, 2021, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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AMALIA MESA-BAINS is an educator, artist, and cultural critic. As an author and lecturer on Chicano art, her work has enhanced understanding of multiculturalism and reflected major cultural and demographic shifts in the United States. She has worked to define a Chicano and Latino aesthetic in the US and Latin America, and has pioneered the documentation and interpretation of long-standing Chicano traditions in Mexican American art. Her artworks have been exhibited and collected in both national and international venues. Mesa-Bains has served on the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Board of Directors for Galería de la Raza and Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens. She has received special achievement awards from the Association of American Cultures, the Association of Hispanic Artists, San Francisco State University Alumni, the Stanford University Ernesto Galarza Award, and the University of Texas at Austin Americo Paredes Award and is a recipient of a distinguished MacArthur Fellowship. She founded and developed the Visual and Public Art program at California State University at Monterey Bay and is currently Professor Emerita at the university.

MADISON TREECE (she/her) is a PhD candidate in visual studies in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work focuses on contemporary Chicanx art and visual culture with an emphasis on borderlands, landscape, and the politics of migration. Madison holds an MA in art history and museum studies from Tufts University and a BA in art history from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Document/ary: Introduction

Refract’s fourth volume explores the entanglements between the document and the documentary as sources of information and forms of visual culture. Derived from the Latin docere (to instruct, to teach), the document can be a pedagogical tool, a disciplinary measure, or a literary and legal form that ascribes value to people and property and gives shape to cultural beliefs called laws. And yet, the document defies boundaries—it is at once literary, sociological, scientific, and historical while also being a material object with affective qualities.

By tracing the history of how the term document, in the English language, became more and more associated with ideas of truth, evidence, and imperial power, this introduction serves as a cognitive exercise in troubling the ontological barrier between the object (the document, a documentation) and its viewer/audience. Considering the significance (even overdetermination) of the visual in considerations of the “document/ary,” this volume shows how the division between object and subject becomes a fantasy of embodied sensuality. Further, by attending to how the document/ary, as both concept and material object, conditions and is conditioned by social and epistemological needs, this volume considers the role between document/ary’s aesthetic/rhetorical and social/political dimensions.

As a material object, the document/ary has a distinct history. While it is possible to retroactively read many cultural forms as being a “document” or “documentary,” it is important to recognize how the English term itself first manifests as a tool of (colonial) bureaucracy in the Western world. The dividing line between document and its suffix -ary indicates etymologically a span of some four hundred years: from the point where the former entered the English language in the fifteenth century until it was joined by its adjectival form in the nineteenth. In its fifteenth-century usage, document has two primary meanings, the first teaching and/or warning, the second a manifestation of evidence or proof. By the eighteenth century, the document had taken on an association with written evidence and other inscribed objects, such as tombstones and coins. The line here between document as a noun and verb is thin—the document as an object itself documents, just as “to document” produces an object that we, in turn, call a document.

Many of the contributors to this volume play with the slippage between the act of documenting (preserving, cataloguing) and the object, or more specifically the archive, that results. Madison Treece’s interview with Amalia Mesa-Bains explores the Chicana artist, scholar, and educator’s unique relationship to the archive and considers how the practice of documenting and collecting has shaped her artistic practice. This wide-ranging interview covers the importance of documentation in shaping history, determining what is held on to, and how this informs the burgeoning field of Chicanx art history (which is also the subject of Catherine S. Ramírez’s special feature; see this volume’s letter from the editor).

Sharing her own practice of collecting, Silvia De Giorgi’s “Memory Matter(s)” is a short essay that engages a multimodal method for documenting, archiving, and memorializing bygone domestic life in her grandparent’s rural home in the Italian province of South Tyrol, initiated by the conditions of social distancing. In “A Catalog of American Things,” Marisa J. Futernick similarly plays with the idea of creating an archive by humorously and horrifyingly cataloging various “things” that might be typified as “American.” Designed as an ever-expanding document of images and exploring the notion of encyclopedic knowledge, the work juxtaposes phrases such as “Manifest Destiny” and “same-day delivery” with photographs that highlight the shallowness of the authoritative words that seek to give meaning to America itself. Elpitha Tsoutsounakis also creates her own archive in “Ground Maps of an Unknown Prospect,” a series of prints depicting topographical maps of a prospective mining site in the Colorado Plateau. Overlapping the maps are large patches of color applied with pigment the artist created from Ochre samples she collected herself at the site. Unknown Prospect complicates cartography’s documentary function by materializing the agentic quality of Ochre—deemed “waste” by the US Geological Survey—through the corporeal and relational experience of collecting, cataloging, archiving, and transforming the mineral.

Like Mesa-Bains, De Giorgi, Futernick, and Tsoutsounakis, many other contributors are interested in the active construction of archives (collections of documents in various forms) as a way to preserve and document present and past experiences. Turning to Enlightenment-era art salons as a kind of archive, Delanie Linden’s “Denis Diderot’s ‘Salons’ as Art Conservation in Eighteenth-Century France” explores Diderot’s “Salons” as a way to preserve works of art through ekphrasis. By analyzing the reactions to natural disasters in and around Europe in the eighteenth century, Linden considers the role of public anxiety in the preservation of artworks during this period. Stella Gatto’s essay “Synthesizing a Dual-Definition of Façade in the Western Palaces of Yuanming Yuan: Art, Politics, and Place-Making in the Garden of Perfect Brightness” examines how the documentation of this eighteenth-century garden changes in response to its shifting historical and political contexts. Gatto utilizes the idea of the façade to explore the illusory nature of the Western Palaces, both through the architecture itself and in its representations in print and photography.

The Refract team also interviewed Erick Msumanje and Alexis Hithe about the film, Volta Volta (2017), included in this issue. Msumanje’s short film explores the ways in which the Black body moves through “ritual spaces” and “ritual exchanges” and how it functions as a “container” that carries collective memory. While the first half of the film shows people engaged in mundane, everyday activities, the second half switches to a pitch-black, “digital” space. Incorporating documentary practices, the film ultimately subverts the genre of documentary and its voyeurism because the camera captures moments of people looking directly back at the viewer with a sense of knowing. Moreover, the artist statement was written by Msumanje’s collaborator, Alexis Hithe. Hithe wrote the statement after viewing Volta Volta for the first time, and this exchange of authorship challenges the notion of individuality and isolation that is inherent in the artist statement, reflecting instead the “collectivity of the Black creative spirit.”

The above contributions demonstrate the way document/ary is at once a thing and a practice. This reflects how scholarship on the historical formation of the document as a concept has identified a purported closing of what we call here the experiential gap—or encountering an object’s re-presentation rather than the object itself. What is clear from the term’s etymology is that, as both a noun and a verb, the/a document aims to instruct and manifest, either by standing in for an absent authority or by otherwise attempting to close an experiential gap by reproducing the phenomenon of observing an object in the world. One of the animating questions of this volume, then, is how this experiential gap is figured historically and in contemporary creative practice, and to what extent do certain aesthetic and discursive practices close, or claim to close, it?

Take, for example, Lisa Gitelman’s 2014 Paper Knowledge, which maintains that documents are “material objects intended as evidence and processed or framed” such that they are recognizable as a genre of object intended to be taken as such, standing in (if on somewhat shaky ground) for firsthand experience. This discursive process of framing inaugurates a relationality between object-cum-document and viewer/reader, simultaneously producing both visibility and knowledge. Gitelman writes:    

Documents help define and are mutually defined by the know-show function, since documenting is an epistemic practice: the kind of knowing that is all wrapped up with showing, and showing wrapped with knowing.

In this formulation, the document does more than manifest content amenable to epistemological capture. It also inextricably links, on the level of form, visuality and the production of knowledge. Seeing (including reading) is believing, or at least establishes the conditions for belief in secular, discoverable truths.

Many contributors to this volume grapple with the relationship between the documentary and authoritative truth. Rachel Klipa, for instance, reviews the exhibition An My-Lê: On Contested Terrain at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Klipa reflects on the disorientation that resulted from the display of what seemed to be documentary landscape photography in Vietnam and the United States. On closer examination, the images were fictional reenactments that challenge the militarist and nationalist foundations of an American psyche. Sayward Schoonmaker’s Authoritative Forms, a participatory poem-object, takes seriously the role of materiality—in this case the materiality of paper—in producing the conceptual and physical forms that manifest and convey authority. The piece invites viewers to engage with the poem by manipulating it materially, turning what seems like an exercise in locating authority into an experience of materiality as “pure means, now cleaved from the authoritative telos of an original or final meaning.

The relation between visuality and knowability that Klipa and Schoonmaker complicate through their work relies on a prior historical shift in Europe, in the latter half of the seventeenth century, in the understanding of where truth (itself a slippery, problematic notion) is located. As the literary critic and historian of science Tita Chico shows in The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment, the basis of empiricism and experimental knowledge coincides with a modulation of “truth” away from its aristocratic, religious, and scholastic antecedent, and the concomitant transformation of what constitutes an object of knowledge. Chico writes:

In the Scholastic tradition, object and objective referred to the presentation of an intelligible entity, universal essence, or “species” to consciousness; the objective state of an entity’s essence was the mental mode in which the essence existed in the knowing mind. Understanding the world was a matter of mental labour.

Experiment, which came to mean “discovery” among seventeenth-century European natural philosophers, occasioned an externalization of the object of knowledge and of the processes of knowledge production. “To underscore the transformation,” Chico states, “object and objective, which earlier understood the knowability of things as a feature of the mind, now indicated an independence from that same mind.” For “truth” to be disaggregated from status and from intellection, objects in the natural world had to contain or bear observable information. For an object to be the source of truth and for this truth to travel between persons, especially to those not present at the moment of “discovery,” transmission required forms that purported to document (and thereby reproduce) the experiential relation to the object such that truth’s grounding in the object is preserved while also “protect[ing] the discovered from being disbelieved.” We consider this an early instantiation of one form and function of the documentary, crucial for the document/ary’s evidentiary function and serving as a key conduit for closing the experiential gap between present observer and others.

This epistemological premise—on the one hand, that the truth of an object inheres in that object and, on the other, that visibility and knowability are co-constitutive—is what Gitelman calls the “know-show” function. This requires readers/viewers to buy into the notion that the experiential gap is indeed closed, or sufficiently closed, such that truths “discovered” about and in the world can be accurately and objectively conveyed to those not present. Otherwise, simply conveying those truths would constitute a reversal of the empirical shift privileging discovery over authority. The projects in this volume, such as Schoonmaker’s Authoritative Forms, expose this epistemological premise and encourage us to think more critically about the “truth” of documentary evidence.

As Chico, Gitelman, John Guillory, and others have written, the document’s evidentiary function is rhetorical, or rather, the “evidentiary” is itself rhetorical. As Gitelman notes, Guillory’s capacious work in “The Memo and Modernity” holds that the implication of the “self-evidence” of the document is “intrinsically rhetorical.” Taking a slightly different tack, Chico shows how the rhetorical, or literary, figuration of both the “observer” and the “observed particular” precedes any textual relationship through which instruction can take place. Rather than simply taking for granted the epistemic conceit that suggests documents can manifest particular truths about the world, the generic categories of truth, particularity, and observation have to be recognizable and successfully deployed. Thus the document does more than provide access to information. Instead, it constitutes a key part of the ideological circuit through which information becomes legible and meaningful. This ideological function, then, reveals the way knowledge, sociality, and power collude to meet particular historical needs.

Indeed, many contributions to this volume explore the role of the document/ary in identity formation—especially racial, gender, and national identities. Dark Laboratory’s curatorial essay, “I’m New Here: Black and Indigenous Media Ecologies,” reflects on the born-digital photography exhibition by the same name. Curators Tao Leigh Goffe and Tatiana Esh bring together photographic essays by artists Abigail Hadeed, Nadia Huggins, Kai Minosh Pyle, Allison Arteaga, steve núñez, Melia Delsol, and Dóra Papp that critique racial capitalism as it intersects with climate crises while also exploring and celebrating Black and Indigenous ecologies beyond replicating the violence of the colonial archive. Margaret Allen Crocker’s “Documenting Gender’s Signs: Site, Performance, and the US-Mexico Border in Contemporary Art” examines performance and documentation in the work of Ana Teresa Fernández and M. Jenea Sanchez, both women artists whose work critically engages with the US-Mexico border. Crocker argues that gender is a central framework for understanding the intersection between location and identity at the border, while documentation is the form that makes these artists’ gendered labor visible. Similarly concerned with gender, Lesdi C. Goussen Robleto’s “The Somatic and Textural Language of Patricia Belli: Recrafting Social and Political Bodies in 1990s Nicaragua” examines Belli’s tactile textile assemblages as explorations of alternative feminisms and points of resistance to the imbalanced relationship between Nicaragua and the United States in the aftermath of the twentieth-century Central American Crisis. Goussen Robleto contextualizes Belli’s works within the MESóTICA series of exhibitions, which she reads as creating a liminal and experimental space empowering the female/marginalized body against heteropatriarchal violence and asserting Indigenous modes of cultural transmission.

Other contributions are specifically focused on ideas of nationalism: for instance,  “Olympic-Scale Subversion: Poster Art, Architecture, Performance, and the Afterlives of Mexico 1968” by J. Nathan Goldbergdiscusses how the Mexican state attempted to create a national identity as the host for the upcoming Olympic Games and the backlash of students against the violence of the state that eventually resulted in the Tlatelolco massacre. Goldberg discusses the way the state attempted to co-opt Spanish and Indigenous themes and intersperse them with cosmopolitan imagery to present a modern image to the international stage, even as the government was violently suppressing dissidents and labor unions. Paula Muhr’s contribution also looks at the way government power uses certain types of documents and imagery. “Tito/Tata: Fiction and Factuality in Documentary Photographs of the Father Figure in Communist Yugoslavia” is a collection of photographs collected from the artist’s family photo album and “Yugonostalgia” websites. Her work juxtaposes imagery of the Communist leader Tito with her father as a commentary on the ways authoritarians attempt to be the “father” of their subjects. This collection demonstrates how a nation can be infantilized and a national myth can be created in the microcosm of the home. 

In “The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting: Afterlife and Memorialization of Imagery Surrounding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Madeleine Bazil explores the TRC’s multiple proliferating afterlives as they emerge in the work of four South African visual artists. While official media images from the hearings attempt to solidify one official narrative about the truth of apartheid, Bazil draws out the ways these artists repurpose and reinterpret archival imagery to elicit embodied semiotic responses that deepen conversations about the TRC’s contradictions, nuances, and perceived failings. Finding official archives to be lacking, Nastia Volynova’s “Thinking of Water as Material Witness: An Attempt to Fill the Voids in the Archive of the Moscow Canal (1932–37)” considers the research challenges posed by Soviet archives and proposes that attention to the material qualities of water may offer an alternative methodology. By analyzing the Moscow Canal’s structure and flow, and recognizing its capacity to preserve human and infrastructural remains, Volynova gestures toward a more complete record of the exploitation that characterized the canal’s construction in the 1930s.

The contributions by Goldberg, Muhr, Bazil, and Volynova focus on the role of the document/ary in the twentieth century. However, as this introduction outlines, the role of the document in the service of (national, imperial) power is rooted in a much longer history. For example, the eighteenth-century turn to the evidentiary function of the document aligns with the contemporary needs of the British Colonial Empire, which required an instrument to record, convey, administer, and establish hierarchies over lands, peoples, life-forms, and other “discoveries” (scientific and otherwise) outside the metropole. Documents allowed for the possession of lands; even those places that only a few eighteenth-century Europeans would ever see with their own eyes became not only real and mappable but also potential property. For instance, Captain James Cook’s charts documented the coastlines of Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, but as Paul Carter writes, “The chief discovery of the Endeavour was its discovery of nothing or, rather, of the non-existence of a great southern continent.” As such, Cook’s documentary practices “preserved the trace of encountering” land, closing the experiential gap between the uncertain space of the imagined “Great Southern Continent” and the actuality of his voyage.

As settler colonialism became more entrenched into the nineteenth century, legal documents alongside the work of surveyors overwrote Indigenous lands into property. At the same time, early photographic technologies were fast advancing, providing another level of authority and assumed truth value to the meaning of “document.” As many of the contributions in this volume demonstrate, the camera is a key player in the contemporary usage of “document/ary,” in both its photographic and cinematic forms. The first use of the word documentary in relation to film is from a review by John Grierson of Moana (1926), a film directed by Robert Flaherty about life in a Sāmoan village. Grierson introduced the term as part of the phrase “documentary value” and provided an oft-cited definition of documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality.” It is no coincidence that a film about Indigenous peoples of the South Pacific was the first to be labeled a documentary. Just as the document plays a crucial role in colonial practices, the documentary film evolved out of colonial genres of image-making, such as the travelogue and the expedition film, with the resultant magic-lantern lectures. As Michael Chanan notes in The Politics of Documentary, “The documentary instinct for the ‘seizure of physical reality’ turns out to carry ideological implications . . . since the leading film-producing countries were nations with colonial empires . . . their films reflected the attitudes that made up the colonial rationale.”

In this spirit, Refract aims to allow artistic projects to fully participate in these conversations not only

There is undoubtedly a deep technological and historical connection between the documentary and the camera, and this volume is an effort to illuminate their (intertwined) roots in colonialism, as “new technologies absorb the political and ideological contexts in which they are developed.” Conceptually, the camera’s privileged relationship to the real is founded on two pillars: indexicality, meaning that in a film camera light refracts off an object and exposes the negative, producing a physical trace; and iconicity, in that the image looks like the thing itself. In fact, early photographs were less concerned with the fidelity of representation, as the technology was not yet reliable enough to consistently capture what Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen term an “acceptable” image—well exposed, focused, rich in detail. One early practitioner, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, for example, writes on the subject in 1857:

Far from holding up the mirror to nature . . . it holds up that which, however beautiful, ingenious and valuable in powers of reflection, is yet subject to certain distortions and deficiencies for which there is no remedy. The science therefore which has developed the resources of photography, has but more glaringly betrayed its defects. For the more perfect you render an imperfect machine the more must its imperfections come to light.Long exposure times meant that any movement of the camera or subjects within its frame resulted in blurring, even though indexicality was still at play. In fact, the removal of movement—when “photography became associated with the immobilization of movement, the elimination of change from its subject matter”—had to occur before cinema could reintroduce movement and duration through the frame.

As the pieces by Klipa, De Giorgi, and others show, many of this volume’s contributions experiment with (documentary) photography, truth, and memory. Other contributors expand on this by playing with the form of a documentary film. “Neustadt a.d. Aisch,” by Marla Elisabeth Heid, uses three-channel video to document her conversations with her mother and grandmother after learning her grandfather was a member of the SS in Nazi Germany. Devoting a channel each to her mother and her grandmother, and asking the viewer to choose between their audio tracks, Heid seeks ways to come to terms with the past through the documentation of personal and familial expressions of silence, shame, and forgotten memory. Grandmother’s Garden, by Amy Reid, uses the materiality of film to examine the production of quilts as they intertwine with the politics and histories of their makers in the United States. Reid layers documentary practices—treating the quilts themselves as documents to be read—in order to question the truth claims of the documentary film. Moving between 16 mm and video, Grandmother’s Garden unfolds across multiple archives and geographies, stitching together a picture of women’s labor. And finally, Ncomi Nzimande’s short film Jozi Rhapsody documents contemporary life in Johannesburg through a narrative of personal and spiritual transformation in a city of deep layers and constant movement. Drawing on South African traditions of documentary film and playing with conventions like a black-and-white palette and amateur actors, Jozi Rhapsody argues for the ability of the urban documentary to center and claim the truth of African realities.

The foundational slippage between the indexical and representational qualities of the camera informs what Hito Steyerl calls “documentary uncertainty,” what might otherwise be called an “experiential gap.” Steyerl writes:

We are faced with the first paradox: the documentary form, which is supposed to transmit knowledge in a clear and transparent way, has to be investigated using conceptual tools, which are neither clear nor transparent themselves. The more real documentary seems to get, the more we are at a loss conceptually. The more secured the knowledge that documentary articulations seem to offer, the less can be safely said about them—all terms used to describe them turn out to be dubious, debatable and risky.

Steyerl draws on the example of the cell-phone footage broadcast live from the invasion of Iraq in 2003 where, due to the lack of resolution, there was nothing much recognizable as the “world out there.” Yet, as Steyerl concludes, “Those CNN images still vividly and acutely express the uncertainty, which governs not only contemporary documentary image production, but also the contemporary world as such. They are perfectly true documents of that general uncertainty, so to speak. They reflect the precarious nature of contemporary lives as well as the uneasiness of any representation.” In other words, since the advent of the technical image, the document need not be intelligible—indeed, the closer it gets to the “real,” the less intelligible it may appear to the human eye. Just as Lady Eastlake wrote over a hundred years ago, “the more perfect you render an imperfect machine the more must its imperfections come to light.”

Not only is the desire for an index that can close the epistemic and experiential gap politically and ethically charged, the need to close this gap is also affectively charged. We might refer to one illumination of this affective relation in W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. The novel depicts, among other things, Austerlitz’s attempts to verify how his mother manifests in the visual archive of the Holocaust. This attempt to stabilize and verify some aspect of the visual record of the Holocaust is driven by the understandable desire to hold before him some image, and thus be given a chance to experience the presence, of his lost mother and her social world.

I imagined seeing her walking down the street in a summer dress and lightweight gabardine coat, said Austerlitz: among a group of ghetto residents out for a stroll, she alone seemed to make straight for me, coming closer with every step, until at last I thought I could sense her stepping out of the frame and passing over into me.As in other places in the novel, and like its printed images of the film stills and photographs of varying resolutions (some to the point of pixelated abstraction), what is made visible is the problem of indexicality and of proximity. What we see here is the profound affective relation between the documentary and the viewer, and how that affective relation is part of the circuit purporting to close the experiential and epistemological gaps. What begins as a cognitive exercise in imagining the object of an image existing to be viewed by the viewer becomes a fantasy of embodied sensuality, not only imagining that the documented scene is there to be viewed but that such viewing might fracture the ontological barrier between viewer/viewed, dissolving the framing division between levels and transporting one to the other such that no experiential gap persists. And though this is partly a function of the way documents produce forms of visuality, it is clear that even the indexical is rhetorical, itself in need of framing and interpretation to produce what we wish it to attest.

Memory Matter(s)

Silvia De Giorgi

This essay serves as brief insight into an ongoing art project, centered on the documentation of my grandparents’ house. The aim of the project is to formalize an art-based methodology to explore the histories of a familiar place that no longer exists in its original setting. The location, my grandparents’ house in the Sarntal Valley, in the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy, was accessed and documented through a collaborative recollection of memories linked to artifacts that characterized the physical site. In this work, drawing, mapmaking, and photography are used as tools to examine the relationships between place, object, and memory, and help reconstruct an image of a site now lost in time. The research I conducted for the investigation draws on the interdisciplinary approaches and themes present in the study of contemporary archaeology.

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SILVIA DE GIORGI is an Italian photographer and artist who lives and works between Oslo and Bolzano, Italy. She graduated from the University of the Arts London with an MA in visual arts (Camberwell College of Arts, 2017), and an MA in drawing (Wimbledon College of Arts, 2019). In her projects, she interrogates the varied relationships between people, places, and landscapes. Her work is concerned with notions of time and memory and is frequently influenced by archaeological research practices. She was among the winners of the Passepartout Photo Prize 2021, the Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Awards 2020, and the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2019. She can be found online at:

Denis Diderot’s “Salons” as Art Conservation in Eighteenth-Century France

Delanie Linden

Within existing literature, scholars have most often examined Denis Diderot’s Salons in the contexts of art exhibitions and discourse. While the art world is an apt place to examine his works, this essay intends to broaden the scope of historical inquiry by situating his writing in the context of natural disasters. By approaching his Salons from outside the artistic milieu, I do not intend to imply that the circumstances of the eighteenth-century Parisian art world did not play a major role in Diderot’s work. It did, perhaps first and foremost. I am merely offering the idea that art criticism in France—and especially Diderot’s Salons—developed alongside a cultural consciousness of material durability. Writing about art offered a supplementary type of sustainability. It could conserve not only a literary description of the artwork but also the author’s distinctive experience of it. Diderot’s Salons make for an interesting case study, because his descriptions of art on display at the salon exhibitions are lengthier than any other art critical text written at the time and may lend insight, more broadly, into the power of writing as a tool for art conservation.

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DELANIE LINDEN is a PhD candidate in art history at MIT. She researches the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art and has long been fascinated by the historical intersections of art, science, and colonialism. Her dissertation, “Other Colors: Chroma, Chemistry, and the Orient,” examines the relationship between imported colorant technologies and textiles and French Orientalist painting techniques during a period of French innovations in colorant chemistry between c. 1770 to 1858. She argues that the broader world of color—from colorant chemistry and global trade to textile production and color theory—permits a more expansive view of color’s meaning and reception in early nineteenth-century French painting. Linden holds a BA in art history and neuroscience from the University of Michigan and an MA in art history from SMU. She has worked as a curatorial intern at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the DeGolyer Library, and has spent many years training and teaching oil painting and portraiture. She intends to become a professor of art history.


Neustadt a.d. Aisch

Marla Elisabeth Heid

The historical reappraisal of the German past is a continuous process. The concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an integral part of the society, especially considering the political climate drifting slowly but steadily toward right-wing belief. However, there is a noticeable difference in approaching the past on the collective level or the individual level. While the collective is constituted and established in the public sphere, the individual is operating within the private realm. The work depicts the process of uncovering unexpected facts within the family. The three-channel audio-visual installation conceptualizes the revelation of an uncomfortable truth inside a family in two separate conversations, held between the wife and granddaughter, and the daughter and granddaughter of the deceased family member. Both conversations are captured in alternating audio tracks over the same visual.

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MARLA ELISABETH HEID is a PhD candidate at the University of Fine Arts in Vienna, working in curation and production. She is also enrolled in the post-master’s course Of Public Interest at the Royal Institute of Arts, Stockholm, where she critically engages with artistic value in public spaces. She received an MA in Art and Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London, after studying art theory in Berlin and Beijing. She is cofounder of the exhibition project Kunstbüro Hohmann und Heid in Berlin.

The Somatic and Textural Language of Patricia Belli: Recrafting Social and Political Bodies in 1990s Nicaragua

Lesdi C. Goussen Robleto

“The Somatic and Textural Language of Patricia Belli: Recrafting Social and Political Bodies in 1990s Nicaragua” looks at early textile assemblages by the contemporary Nicaraguan artist Patricia Belli. Opening with the seminal exhibition MESóTICA II: Centroamérica/re-generación—which took place in Costa Rica in 1996—the essay positions Belli as part of an emerging generation of experimental artists who were working in the aftermath of the Central American Crisis. Contextualized within this period, I argue that Belli’s textile assemblages from the early 1990s emerge as affective containers of personal and collective memories endured by the region. By reworking secondhand clothes imported from the United States, Belli recrafts garments into visceral containers that evoke disfigured and mutilated bodies. Thinking beyond normative constructions of the body—and in particular, feminized bodies—Belli’s textile assemblages emerge as subversive constructions that privilege unruly and undisciplined bodies. Through these textile inquiries, I explore how the artist forges a system of sensitive communication that emerges as a medium for healing—evidenced through the recurrent appearance of lesions, scars, and fractures. Looking at her work alongside other feminist practices taking place regionally, this essay also explores emerging feminist artist networks that are rooted in somatic languages that challenge normative modes of knowledge-production and communication.

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LESDI CAROLINA GOUSSEN ROBLETO is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art Department, at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research looks at contemporary feminist practices in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a focus on experimental, mixed-media practices in Central America. Her dissertation “(Un)mending Bodies: Patricia Belli and Feminist Artistic Praxis in Central America, 1986-2000s,” centers on the work of the contemporary Nicaraguan artist, Patricia Belli (b. 1964) against the backdrop of postwar Nicaragua. Tending to fiber and craft-based materialities in the artist’s oeuvre, the dissertation considers feminist re-articulations of media specificity that forge a dialogue around questions related to gender, sexuality, and the conditions of the body, at the nexus of social and political transition in the region. 

Review of An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain

Rachel Klipa

This is an exhibition review of An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain, which took place at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from May 14, 2020, to January 18, 2021. The exhibition was a comprehensive survey of the photographer An-My Lê’s work, which addressed the complexity and politicization of the American landscape and the people found within it. This review explores the difficulty of interpreting Lê’s work and the inability to come away with clear answers about the contradictions that the American landscape and its inhabitants embody.

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RACHEL KLIPA is a Pittsburgh-based arts administrator, curator, and writer.

Tito/Tata: Fiction and Factuality in Documentary Photographs of the Father Figure in Communist Yugoslavia

Paula Muhr

The photographic series Tito/Tata and the accompanying essay examine the construction of the father figure in the public and private sphere in communist Yugoslavia. Through combined textual analysis of and artistic intervention on found documentary photographs of her own father as well as the country’s president, Josip Broz Tito, Paula Muhr explores the fictional potential of the purportedly neutral visual historical documents. She foregrounds the “optical unconscious” content of the documentary images, thus disclosing their role in the construction and the perpetuation of the country’s collective fantasy of the omnipotent yet benevolent patriarchal figure.

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PAULA MUHR is a Serbian-born, Berlin-based visual artist and researcher. She studied visual arts with a focus on photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig, Germany. In 2021, she completed her PhD at the Institute of Art and Visual History, Humboldt University in Berlin. Her PhD thesis is entitled “From Photography to fMRI: Epistemic Functions of Images in Medical Research on Hysteria.” The focus of her academic research, which is at the intersection of image studies, STS and history of science, is on examining knowledge-producing roles of various types of images in the context of natural sciences. In parallel, through her research-based artistic practice, Muhr examines socio-cultural strategies of constructing sexuality, gender, desire, and normality. Her work has been shown internationally, i.e. at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rijeka (Croatia), Fotogalerie Wien, Kunsthalle Leipzig, Fotogalleriet Format Malmö, Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes Tenerife, Centre national de l’audiovisuel Luxembourg, MAMAC Liege (Belgium), Einstein Forum Potsdam, and Shenzhen Fine Art Institute (China).