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Superconversations Day 5: Manuel Correa responds to Harun Farocki, "On the Documentary"


From Stage Business to Camera Business

…here we’re talking about controlled uncertainties—comparable not to the real but rather to the feigned stumble, to the actor’s deliberate slip of the tongue. Documentarians want the effect of imperfection but without a demonstration of their clumsiness.

Case One: Belief
We are watching an anonymous Youtube video. We follow the jittery movement of what we suspect to be an older cell phone camera. The ineptitude of the operator does not impede his ability to follow the action. However, the camera always seems to frame the action slightly late: The title of the video on The Telegraph’s website contextualizes our experience "Syrian ‘hero boy’ appears to brave sniper fire to rescue terrified girl in dramatic video. The video depicts a scene in which a young boy puts his own life in danger in the middle of a shootout in order to save the life of a young girl. While playing dead, the boy manages to eventually save her from the gunfire. The camera operator and the other men stand near the camera and scream in alarm in reaction to the scene. The camera is clumsy and out of focus, forcing us to decipher the action though through a weave of large pixels. It has a candid and yet amateur feel.

This video, we learn later, was directed and staged in Malta by the Norwegian director Lars Klevberg. Not surprisingly, the heroism of the anonymous boy captures many hearts: not only does the video go viral on social media, it is considered by international news agencies to be real footage captured in the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Through our willing suspension of disbelief, the imagery becomes a mnemonic device, enabling us to recall the Syrian struggle even though our conception of the event is subject to Klevberg’s prevarication.

Harun Farocki’s On the Documentary notes how a white coat in a German TV commercial is used as a way to establish credibility, that of the character, and therefore the advertisement. He also notes that during the commercial, the camera isn’t fixed on a tripod, while its swaying denotes the spontaneity of the unfolding events.

Case Two: Disbelief
Multiple digital cinema cameras are fixed on tripods, the footage is well exposed, steady, and the footage seems to have undergone basic color correction. The blue skies in the background compliments the orange toga of our to-be-decapitated character in the foreground. He kneels down. Clad in black, his executioner stands confident. The cameras are obviously staged for an editor. When the first videos of ISIS’s decapitations go online, audiences refuse to believe them. They cannot believe the authenticity of the desert, as many claim it to be green screened. The same is true about the authenticity of the clothes worn by people depicted in the video. The camera, being still, forces us to suspect that they are staged. The grammatical structure of classic Hollywood films according to which most films are cut stipulates that the less prevalent an authorial hand, the more successful the film will be in creating a sense of disbelief: a drama that overtly admits to being staged and rehearsed is a rarity. Farocki’s reference to “the feigned stumble, to the actor’s deliberate slip of the tongue” is evident in continuity filmmaking.

Only after the turn of the twentieth century did theorists finally coin the idea of “stage business”, an acting convention, that allows thespians to perform their roles without direct address to the audience, generating the bits and pieces of performance that add up to fabricate credibility in the eyes of the viewers. For instance, an actor picks a cup of coffee and drinks a sip, whilst actively listening to another performer confiding a story, a performative element that although not part of the plot development, nevertheless promulgates the idea that the performance is no performance at all. Cinema was quick to adopt these conventions in order to encourage its viewers in the labor of forgetting their immediate surroundings and their relationship with the filmmaker. So, in essence, “the feigned stumble….” is just another form of stage business.

To summarize, unprecedented exposure to heavily manipulated images has consistently taken a toll on the operational abilities of classical cinema conventions, and, while Harun Farocki takes great pride in his ability to predict and follow an unfolding series of events with his camera, videos like Klevberg’s demonstrate that believability today might particularly be found in candidness alone. Staged business is transformed into the camera business or a series of non-conductive camera movements that are used to forge documentary credibility for the footage. Today, “amateur” photographers and filmmakers might be taking unprecedented, and supposedly unbiased stands for newspapers who find them online, but the vast majority of images we encounter are suspected of being heavily manipulated.

On the other hand, it is well known that since the 1990s, cognitive psychology has been developing memory implantation, a technique used to investigate human memory, by which false memories of events are successfully inserted in the minds of those participating in such experiments. Whilst some of the earlier studies of these techniques involved narratives, in most studies, like the famous scene from Blade Runner they were replaced with photographic images. these newer techniques prove how relatively easy it is to distort a subject’s memories of past events.

If our memories are pliable, can image makers, by gaining our trust, help change the way we perceive history? And, what are the ultimate implications of this for politics in the age of cybernetics in which archival manipulation is not only made easier but has been an integral part of the operational logic of the Internet?

Manuel Correa is an artist and filmmaker from Colombia. He is the director of the upcoming documentary #artoffline


Your points on “stage business” are well-taken Manuel. These days the simulations of stage craft are as much a part of one’s ontological realization as they are a histrionic method. Perhaps this has ever been. The way in which technological apparatus show us this second nature on a regular basis amounts to the machine being father to the man.


This quote from Farocki and the Klevberg short as well, reminded me of what might seem to be the opposite - the Interrotron devised by Errol Morris as an attempt to produce the documentary of the “true first person”. For him, the purpose was not simply to document fact per se, but to intervene in a pre-existing regime of truth, while here Farocki and Klevberg use imperfectional effects to produce truth with no referent. Yet for all three, the lack of a tripod and the natural hand-held style produces a truth effect, all the same: if documentary is the film genre par excellence dedicated to “truth”, the task of the critical documentarian is questioning the deployment of truth without failing to be faithful to it, either.


I think the idea of “truth” is very important for a documentary. It is construed and interpreted in many different ways, for instance, when you have a static interview subject, like in #artoffline, you get the credibility of the subject, but that rarely suffices. Having multiple authority figures disagreeing immediately undermines the subject’s authority, which will be drawn into question by the audience. The problem to this of course, is that the very idea of “truth” specially on a subjectively constructed piece is very important in order to gain the credibility of an audience. That is the key, gain credibility to enacting “truth”, ultimately tho, the issue this poses however steps out of the documentary. Once all our images are online and manipulable digitally, it is inevitable that those who control the archives (large tech organizations) will be able to edit history and construct it according to their desires. I remember Martin Zellerhoff once told me that while working as an editor for an online newspaper in Berlin, he was trying to find photographs of an eagle in the German Parliament. He says he is aware that the eagle was changed 20 years ago, but the pictures of the original one have been mysteriously deleted from the digital archives (effectively deleted from the future: eternal relegation to an unrecoverable past.). So, yes, images, narratives are being deployed to manicure our memory, and the problem remains: what can our “truth” and “credibility” mean for art and politics at large?


@ManuelCorrea I think today not only the possibility of finding truth is completely out of the door, but that also the collective desire for finding truth which precede the search and its identification is also slowly eroding. In this regard, I think reading a science fiction short which I think is by Simon Critchley can be helpful:

Wars came and went in the Middle East, huge populations were displaced and innocent civilians were killed. Business as usual. The pieces moved slightly on the global chessboard and then moved again. We stopped caring, particularly after the big broadcast networks began to fold – CNN was first. We knew less and less about world, particularly after all those attacks on BBC journalists. But life was just fine here. There is still no two-state or one-state solution in Israel and settlements are still being built. After the attacks on Iran following their nuclear tests, the Ayatollahs even took out a new fatwa on Salman Rushdie and one on Bono too, after he was involved in that hit musical about the Iranian Revolution. But I think they both still go to parties.


I think that while a search for “truth” is Eroding and perhaps a romantic endeavour, the idea of truth remains important mostly through its momentum in the practice of art. While Noys’ fiction is poignant, the journalists of BBC will immediately be replaced with (potentially free) citizen journalists. Do we need citizen surgeons? Or citizen lawyers?

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@ManuelCorrea: Critchley only dramatizes a ternd that has already begun. I can go on but one of the characteristics of our post cybernetic life is that present which is always the required ground for any kind of sensual, cognitive or affectual agency like the documentary footage in your piece, is always experienced with a delay. In effect today we have almost entirely lost the ability to have any kind of present tense since events are either forthcoming or already archived.


@dadabase I agree, and this is latent in contemporary art. On one hand, ever since relational aesthetics it became apparent that the so called avant garde, by becoming immediately institutionalized, ossified quickly into its own historization. On the other hand, the change in our conception of historical events, or past ideas is frightening, but not new: America , for instance, has used Hollywood historically for tasks such as creating a negative image of Mexico during their war, only to redeem them via Zorro during the aftermath, thus enacting Roosevelt’s good neighbor policies.

@tommcglynn Perhaps the second nature technological apparatuses such as cameras show us might be perhaps understood as a form of bio-mimicry: The camera jitters as we would if we were in the scene. We are uncertain of what is going on, so we always blink a bit much, and get to the action late. What do you think might be the ultimate implications of one’s ontological realization through these simulations?

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In his autobiographical novel “My Struggle”, Karl Ove Knausgaard describes (our) instinct to immediately conceal the dead. In hospitals, the rooms where the dead are kept are most always on sub ground floor, and these rooms are made inaccessible to the majority of the hospital staff by secret passageways and elevators, and even if you stumble upon this room, the dead are covered and out of view. When the dead are brought out of the hospital, this happens through secret gates in the back, and in cars with tinted windows. Confronting a real dead body, when we know that we are facing real death, is uncomfortable. Seeing an image of another father and daughter shot to death on the streets of Kabul, however, has little in common. These images are desired; we pay money to have access to images of the dead, documentary or fictional. Knausgaard asks: does this mean that there are two types of death?

The dead that we encounter through filtered searches or willful browsing on CNN, as DADABASE points out, are always experienced with a temporal delay. (We) can maintain a safe distance to it because its not aligned with a temporality that is total or casual; it never demands a real participation, and so the secrecy and darkness surrounding real dead is not necessary and can be replaced by global and perpetual illumination and transparency without causing public hysteria. Is it possible to reverse this characteristic? What type of process or change could ordain an image of a dead body with the same urgency and discomfort that a relative who suddenly dies on the living room floor during Sunday dinner immediately attains?

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Basically the photo or filmic fiction allows us to objectify the narrative of the real and the ideal for what it is, a fiction. Film has more of a phenomenological illusion than still photos as it blinks constantly as well, we just don’t register those blinks consciously. Video complicates the situation by making the document more seamless technically by bit-sculpting, yet still is watched in an ideal rectangle. Everyone knows this already of course, but most often thinking in terms of discrete object relations and their causality which they project onto the photo-fiction. In a sense we have become human projectors trapped in the platonic dialectic between shadow and light and stuck in the neo-platonic morality dialectic of deception vs. truth. A psychic feedback can occur that is either maintained continuously by the subject in order to align with customary (often repressive) reason or is reasoned for its inherent incompossibility. The latter route is delineated by Deleuze and Guattari in their evocation of schizoanalysis and its relation to desiring machines.


Shock in the presence of immediate death somewhat inoculates one from fully experiencing the rift between the idealization of personhood and the body as object. The immediate transformation of anybody (including those close to us) to just a body calls forth and speaks to the DNA of material life itself which is ostensibly eternal, undifferentiated. Picturing the dead, whether in the flesh or in images always seems to be abstract, since it is incommensurate with the paradox of the body/spirit we keep, ideally intact, to insure the immortality of our DNA.


@tommcglynn Ironically, the other person in photographic theory that somewhat engages with theatrical techniques such as Stage Business (he probably has never used the term himself) would be Michael Fried and his “Anti-theatricality”. I will claim, however, that he has failed to synchronize his Diderotian maxims to a post Lumiere society. Yet, never the less, Diderot’s ideas on theater and the directed appearance of absorption are keen and still valid: The idea of subjects involved in actions that we cant fully decode, once updated, can provide us with non-priviledged points of view, " psychic feedback can occur that is either maintained continuously by the subject in order to align with customary (often repressive) reason or is reasoned for its inherent incompossibility", that is, if not conflated with the teleological decoding of art that Fried engages on.


It seems to me that the lynch pin in this conversation on documentary film making is the issue of truth. No one here is interested in defending the idea of truth, and there seems to be doubt whether even the general public who are the audience for these films and news stories are confident in their veracity. Both supposed sides in this situation are ready to dispense with the notion of truth, in news media, and documentary filmmaking, yet still this is the premise of every debate on the relevance and utility of these forms. Are we perhaps mourning this breach of trust, and pining for a return of truth to our media culture? Or, are we just now realizing that with or without that trust we once had, truth may have been impossible to achieve. How can we have a conversation about journalism, and documentary film practice, that neither requires the presence or absence of “truth?”


Yes, on the linchpin of the discussion as the question of truth. Obviously, a giant topic we can’t even begin to broach. But I think the journalist/documentarian’s ethical responsibility towards the truth is a narrow enough topic that we can begin to get some traction on it.

In documentaries in general there is an uneasy slipperiness between “truth” and “the appearance of truth.” This difference is the fundamental instance of the difference between the world of sensations and things in themselves, in a more philosophical context.

So there’s been a variety of ways to deal with the need for a category like truth, but without a natural basis. One strand of thought stresses the construction of truth as a practice of contestation: here’s Eyal Weizman on forensics:

EW: what is very productive in the field of forensics is that the truth is produced through conflict. In the courtroom you have the prosecution and the defense, and each side presents and argues over the same evidence. This is very different than “truth-production” based in a scientific lab, which is sometimes disinterested and neutral. Of course, you should be faithful to the facts, but in the courtroom, the truth is under assault. The nature of contemporary violence is that it is both against people and against the truth, or against any evidence that violence has taken place at all. It’s to kill and deny simultaneously. This situation is very evident in the drone campaign in the tribal areas of Pakistan— areas where the state neither confirms nor denies the existence or non-existence of this campaign. While increasing its own capacity to see into and know a territory, the state restricts the capacity to see and know for others. So when you enter into a situation like that, there is no neutrality! There is no neutrality between a colonizer and the colonized or between a killer and the killed. In situations like this, where information is so hard to get, you must be politically passionate about the truth—it’s a field in which the truth is a weapon.

I have only recently begun to admire the work of journalists, and the traditional pedagogy of journalistic ethics, which instilled values of critical distance and empathy. I think those norms are disappearing, not just with Fox et al, but also with the rise of more socially responsive, technologically facilitated news platforms like Vice. Given the gradual erosion of the traditional platforms, grey eminences like the NYT, which once guaranteed truth (even if they are still doing fine, they are certainly being rethought as particular interest groups, different only in degree and not in kind) as with other matters of fact, we now see more and more news platforms which feed into facebook-style smart feeds, which give you what you want to see: think Vice, or more egregiously (and excitingly), Buzzfeed.

This all this, “truth as a weapon,” is related to Colbert’s truthiness. So, what do we make of this elision of the distinction between rhetoric (which is instrumental, achieving predetermined goals) and philosophy (which is normally posited as disinterested)?


@dxb @josephstrohan, truth is usually produced in the collision between the desire for truth and the unknown. Half truth is what we get in the absence of either component.

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I think the problem with the erosion of such “ethics” relies heavily in the capacity of these new digital entities to go largely unchecked: In effect, it is not so much about distorting events or narratives as much as it is about a very notorious lack or rigor and analysis. While these digital platforms might have a bigger visibility than than their physical iterations, the content analysis is arguably on decay. This however is not entirely new or unwanted. What is unwanted however is the extent of the capacity of large cybernetic organizations to edit archives: When in physical newspapers you have broad circulation of physical copies, the “de-materialization” (files are also material in some sense) and effective centralization of the files in controlled archives can allow for grooming-at-will. History is permanently constructed in the future, looking to the past, and if the past is being edited at whim, then the future will change as well. That is far more problematic than editing the public perception of a particular current even, as we see with Klevberg. Deleting is in effect more powerful than addition.

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Late to this, but seeing as Manuel’s response tackles some of the issues I have with my research, I think I’ll give it a shot.

First, I don’t think any device that mediates, mediates without it inscribing/modifying the ‘original’ materials. I come to this from media theory, of course, so this perspective is heavily influenced by the recent debates regarding the materiality of the objects of inscription (see Kittler, Ernst, etc) and from a notion that has bothered me since I have started studying Communication, which is the issue of “journalistic truth” the first instance of applied relativism I encountered at my faculty. According to this notion, there is no truth for journalism, but there is a “journalistic truth”, a kind of mapping of the events that are reported, written, etc, so as to preserve the “truth” of the event in question. What I gather from this ultimately dull annotation to an otherwise even duller subject matter is that “truth” can be mapped somewhat. In my faculty, at least, journalism gives no method whatsoever as to how to do this, semiotics, on the other hand, does.

Now, what I want to take away from this is two things: 1) media, be it film, tv, radio, code, whatever, are always already constructed by the apparatus of inscription first and then by an agent (intentionally or not intentionally) 2) constructed as they are, media can be manipulated. But I use the term “manipulation” as it is used in semiotics, where it denotes a construction and generation of effects without a negative connotation.

I think that understood like this, we can regain the notion that a film is constructed and manipulated (staged, as it were) without falling into a kind of skepticism about the object in question. One of the principal notions of semiotics is the primacy of meaning, so if it means something, it does not matter wether it is true or not. To map meaning with truth, now that is the real task.

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Also this.

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@inconstantloop What do you mean “to map meaning with truth”? Sorry, do you mean to map meaning onto truth, or to map meaning truthfully, or are those the same? In general, mapping raises interesting epistemological problems (I am just thinking of cartography, rather than in the more general sense of functors); the old idea that maps represent territory, that they are effectively mimetic, I think is less adequate than one that stresses their functionality, which is constantly tested by navigating according to the map. I have a soft spot for Nathan For You (Me?).

@ManuelCorrea If the problem is that centralizing bodies without oversight or conscience can organize dematerialized files more easily to exert power, is a renewed and improved code (!) of ethics an adequate response? Like I said earlier, I’m always amazed by how rigorous journalistic ethics courses are, but I think they’ve mostly been designed for a print era and haven’t updated to new realities of circulation.