Questions about the nature, extent and definition of documentary continue to have relevance today and underpin the work of many contemporary artists. This can be viewed as part of a wider concern with the ‘writing’ of history, concepts of the ‘real’, memory and evidence, and with forms such as archives, diaries and family albums. The proliferation of works that undermine the status of the document – including those that restage history, reconstruct the past or feature (false) archives – reflects the increasing distrust of fixed concepts of ‘fact’ and ‘history’.
Gillian Wearing has often cited the influence of television documentaries on her work. In 10–16 1997 she mimics the ‘talking heads’ format and privileging of personal testimony that characterises documentaries such as 7Up 1963 and its sequels. In Wearing’s film, however, adults lip-synch to the words of children. Through this apparently simple but disconcerting device, Wearing disrupts the conventions of documentary and our trust in such forms. Jeremy Deller, meanwhile, confronts our relationship to history, signalling that the way in which events are framed depends on those in power. By staging a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave 2001– a notorious clash between police and miners during the 1984–5 miners’ strike – he transforms the way the event had previously been treated and understood.
Willie Doherty’s works address the politics of surveillance, as well as questioning conventional media representations of Northern Ireland that perpetuate stereotypes about the region and its history. Isaac Julien’s video installation Paradise Omeros 2002 presents a view of history as dramatised personal memory. Julien’s work fuses divergent approaches to history, memory and imagination as well as to filmic construction.
Documentary continues to be an area where new forms or structures are created. In turn these inspire and transform the approaches and language employed by artists, who adapt them to their own ends. Though apparently neutral and transparent, documentary is nevertheless a form of mediation – one of the principal ways in which we codify and construct reality.