Scott Magelssen, associate professor of drama at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Performance Studies, is the author of Simming: Participatory Performance and the Making of Meaning (2014).
Document, along with the adjective documentary, originates in the Latin documentum (“example”) and, like doctor and docent, is rooted in the verb docēre, “to teach.” The Anglo-French document made its way into English in the late Middle Ages. We often regard the term these days as referring to something committed to paper or, more recently, to a digital file (a “doc”) but broadly think of a document as anything that can be considered evidence. In Suzanne Briet’s famous example from her treatise Qu'est-ce que la documentation? (What Is Documentation?, 1951), even an antelope becomes a “document” when captured and displayed in a zoo for study.
In the realm of history and heritage, a document offers evidence that something happened, that it happened in a certain way and involved certain people. As Michel de Certeau put it in The Writing of History (1975), “Historical research grasps every document as the symptom of whatever produced it.”1 But when we look at artistic responses to the past, the strict correspondence between document and evidence unravels. The adjective documentary, modifying a piece of narrative art that we categorize as “nonfiction,” becomes a noun in its own right. The documentary film evidences a historical or cultural phenomenon. Documentaries make truth, and they change us in big and small ways. In our house, we’ve changed the way we eat ever since, quite by accident, we viewed the documentaries King Corn (2007) and Food, Inc. (2008), adjacent in our Netflix queue, in the same week. The fictional film Zero Dark Thirty (2012), based on the real events of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was passed over by the Oscars because of aggressive lobbying critical of its depictions of torture as an enhanced interrogation technique.
“Documentaries,” however, comprise all sorts of art and performance in heritage and cultural attractions. In 2010 Hotel Modern’s Kamp, staged in an enormous scale model of Auschwitz populated by three thousand puppets at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, documented the death camp for audiences. Visitors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, document the lives of people during those same events with their own bodies as they vicariously play out the story assigned in their passports at the outset of their visit. Other attractions have picked up on this latter form of embodied documentary. Those who participate in the Caminata Nocturna at an eco park in Mexico simulate an illegal US-Mexico border crossing to document the lives of the thousands of undocumented workers who do it each year for real. In 2010 forty-five actors from the Reykjavík City Theatre documented their country’s near economic collapse with a staged reading of the entire 2,250-page Icelandic government report on the financial crisis. Meanwhile, Colm Toíbín’s play based on his novella The Testament of Mary (2012) gives us the mother of Jesus in the last years of her life. Mary does not believe many of the stories about her son, and she irritates his followers with her ambivalence about endorsing their version of events for the record.
The mid- and late twentieth century saw renewed efforts at accuracy at heritage sites, with the positivist understanding that by researching the documents enough we could “get the past right.” This coincided with social history’s movement to uncover and tell the stories of those underrepresented in traditional histories, the problem in this case being that these populations didn’t leave documents as traditionally understood. For the last couple of centuries, history as a discipline has had strategies for dealing with these gaps. Roland Barthes coined the term reality effect, in an eponymous essay, to describe narrative structures imposed by the present that filled the interstices between that which we can reasonably say we know about past events.2 Barthes offers the imaginative account of the last hours of Charlotte Corday before her execution in Jules Michelet’s book Women of the French Revolution (1855). Georg Büchner was at work at a similar project earlier in that century when he interwove backroom imaginings with verbatim public speeches by Danton and Robespierre in his play Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death, 1835) to make sense of the Reign of Terror—in a manner that anticipated the works of theater of testimony playwrights like Emily Mann (Execution of Justice, 1986), Anna Deavere Smith (Fires in the Mirror, 1992, and Twilight, 1994) and Moises Kaufman (Gross Indecency, 1997, and The Laramie Project, 2000). Perhaps closest to Büchner, David Hare’s Stuff Happens (2004) mixes verbatim public speeches and backroom imaginings to make sense of the reign of the “war on terror” that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As artists, performers, audiences, and participants permit themselves to depart from, play with, and interrogate the documentary record, newer discourses reimagine what “accuracy” means as a performative and/or historiographic goal. Scholars in concord with these approaches include Diana Taylor (The Archive and the Repertoire, 2003), Rebecca Schneider (Performing Remains, 2011), and Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd (Performing Heritage, 2012). The playwright Suzan-Lori Parks reminds us that where there are silences in the historical record, theater can be an “incubator for the creation of historical events,” adding, “as in the case of artificial insemination, the baby is no less human.”3
The drive to document the past with performing arts like film, theater, and dance, or visual arts like photography, or to challenge existing documents with these same practices, will no doubt continue as long as there is a past—and a present from which to remember, interrogate, and bear witness to it. Certain questions should remain at the forefront as we assess these practices: we need not question the degree to which the documentary adequately or successfully achieves “accuracy” but rather we should ask who is being remembered and how is it being done. Who stands to gain by the documentary practices? What interests are at stake? How are audiences’ and participants’ own memories and values activated and/or challenged, and how do these memories and values inform the documentary practice? And to what extent will artistic practices in the present become new legitimate documents for the record?
Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 11. ↩
Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect” (1968), in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1986), 141–48. ↩
Suzan-Lori Parks, “Possession” (1994), in The America Play and Other Works (New York: Theater Communications Group, 1995), 5. ↩
Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2012.
Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 2010.
Alan Rickman, My Name is Rachel Corrie, 2005.
Colm Toíbín, The Testament of Mary, 2013.
Emily Mann, Execution of Justice, 1986.
Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror, 1992, and Twilight, 1994.
Moisés Kaufman, Gross Indecency, 1997, and The Laramie Project, 2000.
David Hare, Stuff Happens, 2004.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC.
Caminata Nocturna, Parque EcoAlberto, Mexico.