MA History of Art

Documentary Reborn: Photography, Film and Video in Global Contemporary Art

Professor Julian Stallabrass

If, fifteen years ago, you had predicted that documentary work would come to make up a large and influential strand of contemporary art, the idea would have seemed absurd. It would have been said that documentary had surely had its day, perishing with the liberal politics that had nourished it; and along with it, naïve ideas about humanitarian reform and the ability of visual representation to capture reality. Yet documentary work, often of an explicitly political character, and made particularly in photography and video, is now increasingly common on the global biennial scene.There are three linked reasons behind this striking change: economic, technological and political.

  • Economically, the growth of the biennial scene is part of the general globalisation of contemporary art. As artists from many nations outside of the US and Western Europe came to prominence, they often brought with them distinct political positions and perspectives that were quite alien from those of the old art world centres.
  • Technologically, it has become much easier and cheaper to make high-quality photography and video, and the media landscape has been changed beyond recognition by mass participation through social media.
  • Politically, given the events of September 11, 2001 and the conflicts that followed, politics and its representation were pushed violently to the fore.

This course will explore that transformation, and the contrasting theoretical, political and economic accounts of its causes. It will examine the great variety of work made under the broad term ‘documentary’, and the political, aesthetic and rhetorical affinities of the term. It also considers the theories and history of documentary, from its first heyday in the 1930s through to the present.The rise of a documentary tendency in contemporary art has been accompanied by a theoretical reconsideration of the once-despised term: we will be reading theorists and historians including Ariella Azoulay, Judith Butler, TJ Demos, Georges Didi-Huberman, Susie Linfield, Jacques Rancière and Susan Sontag. We will be looking at the works of such artists as Ursula Biemann, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Edmund Clark, Haroun Farocki, Omer Fast, David Goldblatt, Alfredo Jaar, Silvia Kolbowski, An-My Le, Trinh T. Min-ha, Walid Ra’ad, Allan Sekula and Hito Steyerl.Throughout the course, we will look closely at critical and theoretical texts, as well as conducting a series of in-depth case studies, focusing on current exhibitions, artists’ lectures and visits to artists or curators. The course includes a study visit to a major biennial or photographic festival in the Autumn or Spring term, where possible. Students will be actively encouraged to develop their own research interests in the context of a seminar with a strong collaborative ethos.

Those best suited to this course will have a good background in the history and theories of one or more of the following: contemporary art, documentary, politics, the media, and globalisation. Applications are thus invited from a range of disciplines, and previous study of art history is not a prerequisite.

Please note: site visits in the UK and further afield are subject to Covid-19 guidelines.

Course Leader: Professor Julian Stallabrass

In the event that a course leader is on sabbatical, takes up a fellowship, or otherwise is not able to the teach the course, they will be replaced by another experienced course leader either for the autumn term, or in some cases, the academic year.

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