Erika Balsom is a senior lecturer in Film Studies and Liberal Arts at King's College London. Her book After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation, was published by Columbia University Press in 2017. She is the author of Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (2013), the co-editor of Documentary Across Disciplines (2016), and a frequent contributor to magazines such as Artforum, frieze, and Sight and Sound. Her scholarly work has appeared in journals including Cinema Journal, Screen, and Grey Room. In 2017, she was the international curator in residence at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, New Zealand. In 2018, she was awarded a Leverhulme Prize and the Katherine Singer Kovacs essay award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
At least since Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002, documentary practices have been a prominent feature of contemporary art. This presentation will identify and diagnose a key tendency in recent theorizations of documentary to emerge from this arena: the denigration of surface appearance. Werner Herzog has influentially claimed that cinéma véritéoffers “a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants”, and opposes this to the “deeper strata” of “poetic, ecstatic truth” that “can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization”. I will explore how such positions emerged from the postmodern critique of representation in the 1990s to become central to the conceptualization of the so-called “documentary turn” of contemporary art, in order to question the continuing viability of these arguments today, in our era of “alternative facts”. What if capturing the surfaces of physical reality was not conceived as a superficial act, devoid of creativity, but as an ethics of attunement, able to reconnect us to a sense of a shared world?