Jottings on documentation in social practice art

  • All documentation is subjective and filtered by the perception, attention and preoccupations of the person doing the documenting. Even something like surveillance camera footage is affected by the placement of the camera. Court recorders are trained to be objective but in art the subjectivity of the artist is crucial.
  • Nevertheless there is a need in participatory arts  projects for  recording that is as objective as possible, for example for reports  to funders, critical evaluations. Francois Matarasso draws attention  to this need ‘when an artist’s practice  involves work with other people, for purposes and within judgement frameworks determined by yet others, notably those who pay for it.’ (Matarasso 2013: 2)
  • We can try to achieve this by having a range of people documenting and a range of documentary methods.
  • Some forms of documentation can affect the situation, I wrote a bit about this here. In that case the documentation is arguably an integral element of the work, not ‘just’ recording it but also changing it.
  • We must  obtain permission for recording people as good ethical practice.
  • In Tiree in Your Words we used a number of documentary forms
    • At the box opening event
      • the words on the cards themselves
      • the organisation of the words into age-groups
      • photography by both artists and by other people
      • video footage
      • tweets from the event
      • art work (inspired by our own words)
      • word lists, word clouds
      • notes from memory
      • a voice recorder was available but wasn’t used
      • whiteboard to record ideas for using the words and feedback on the project (though this was particularly interpreted as feedback on the event)
    • After the event
      • video interview with our collaborators
    • At other social events
      • photography by both artists
      • note-taking
    • Throughout
      • note-taking
      • email
      • blogging
      • the island newsletter
      • posters
  • Our stated intention was always to collect the Tiree Words to be available to the community – to form a resource for use in future art projects by anyone who has an idea for one. Those potential projects would also become forms of documentation, though they would probably not include the cards we collected, with people’s actual writing – just the words and phrases –  an abstraction.
  • About half way through the course we had a video class with artist Imi Maufe. Her practice includes ‘interactions’ where she invites, for example, drawings from participants and then collates them in her very distinctive style.  The printed books and collections she produces are not intended to emulate objective documentation, they are very much the result of her creative and curatorial process.
  • In his chapter on documentation, Pablo Helguera cites Jürgen Habermas in arguing that an artist, ’embedded in the action’, is therefore ‘a subject of the action’ and their documentation cannot be relied on. He says that documentation for socially engaged art must be verifiable if the work is to be ‘more than a work of fiction’, and calls for documentary ‘co-production’: ‘multiple witness accounts, different modes of documentation’, ‘ a public record of the evolution of the project in real time’. ‘If … documents are presented as artworks then they may be scrutinized as a video installation or conceptual photograph but not as the social experience they may have intended to communicate.’ (Helguera, 2011, 74-6). By this argument Imi Maufe’s books would not be a valid record of a social interaction to the extent that they are a symbolic representation. This seems too simplistic to me. Helguera seems to give more credence to what sounds like a pseudo-s0cial-scientific style of documentation (which by its nature is still bound to be a secondhand experience), yet documentation like  that of Imi Maufe may be equally true and actual, precisely because of the subjective, creative quality she brings to it. In same kind of way that a poem can be as true as a mathematical proof.

Helguera, P. (2011), Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books.
Matarasso, F (2013), Creative Progression: Reflections on quality in participatory arts, UNESCO Observatory Multi-Disciplinary Journal in the Arts, 3:3, 1-15.