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Tom Viaene

Coordinator Trigger
04 feb. 2021 • 6 min


ncertainty is palpable and hued. You can hear it, see it, and feel it, and the body is its site. Mathew Kneebone, one of the last contributors to deliver his visual artifact for Trigger’s second issue, was staring at apocalyptic blood-red skies where he lives in San Francisco when he clicked ‘send’. Whether deliberately or not, his visual artifact recounts the difficulty of describing the incorporeal and subjective nature of a colour whose ethereal qualities can only be manifested through technical disturbances, primarily by way of electrical or other anomalies.

Just before the pandemic hit hard, we sent out an open call that regarded uncertainty as a compelling steppingstone for speculation and imagination. To be sure, even on a more philosophical level, as Eric Weiner stated in The Atlantic (2020), ‘the ability to tolerate uncertainty can bring great rewards’. But in hindsight and given the unpredictability of Covid-19 and its unequally distributed impacts, the call sounds somewhat complacent, even more so considering that certain people’s lives are more exposed to uncertainty than others in modern space in both violent and forgetful ways. Different uncertainties have different causes, but during the lockdowns, the pandemic laid bare not only the vulnerability of extremely fragmented global chains of production but also many interrelated systemic injustices. Whether all this will mean the end of globalisation as we know it or the beginning of a real public debate on the forces of oppression remains to be seen. It seems that the only certitude left, as Fred Ritchin modestly puts it in this issue, is ‘an acknowledgment of the uncertainties that encourage the reconsideration of our own perspectives’. Among many other things, uncertainty breeds forms of resistance. A sense of alternative futures outside the current neoliberal order or a growing modesty concerning one’s own privileges in that systemic order are qualities and values that run throughout this issue. Since the German sociologist Ulrich Beck framed the global society as a risk society, we know that responses to global hazards can go in politically and ideologically opposite directions. The same goes for radical imaginations of our futures.

Perhaps uncertainty and documentary are seldom regarded as on the same page. However, in this issue, FOMU, Trigger and The School of Speculative Documentary explore the possibilities that arise when uncertainty is considered as at the centre of documentary practice. We do this openly, not as an excuse for inadequate research or poor execution but rather as a form of humility towards both reader and subject. Documentary is based on conjecture rather than knowledge, but it’s only when we embrace this as the genre’s essence – instead of cloaking it in authorial and authoritative strategies – that decentralised, de-formatted and polycentric documentaries appear on the horizon. We therefore aim to explore uncertainty as an unequalled productive force. This issue of Trigger regards uncertainty and the speculative as the soil for a kind of rhizomatic structure that pushes the idea of documentation to another level of experimentation, doubt and questioning of form and content.

Representation has been a political battlefield for some time now. Whether one speaks of the observer effect in science, the reader effect in literary theory or the role of the spectator in the documentary, one has to find ways of avoiding the destructive forces of an overt relativism. The document itself has turned epistemological, politically contested and ambiguous given that the relationships between object and subject, reality and representation and truth and fiction have also become cloudier and messier. Several contributions in this issue lure us into the old belief that there’s a clear boundary between the descriptive and the narrative, fiction and personal history and memory and story only to contest and dissolve these boundaries along the way. All this constitutes a refusal to fall into the trap of the visual storytelling paradigm as a possible strategy for dealing with the waning of objective truths. The speculative documentary is, in the end, not about denying or confirming facts – it’s about making new connections between facts ever present. Only then can alternative representations make what remains hidden or invisible more visible in different ways, as Dutch philosopher Thijs Lijster once stated.

Without claiming to be exhaustive, this issue gathers proposals that look for the document’s new uncertain potentials: documentary tales as life-giving fictions, the anti-documentary as care aesthetics, the dialectical documentary, the documentary as the creative practice of chronopolitics, the ‘dirty pictures’ documentary, the documentary as allegory, the documentary as pre-enactment and more. We have opted not to strive for a stringent classification of these proposals reflected in a neat table of contents but rather just to stay true to the polycentricity of its design. ‘We are not points on a line; rather, we are the centre of circles’, John Berger – a master of recognising the real value of the fictive in our time – scribbled near the end of his life in Confabulations (2016).

As well as a naive certainty, the speculative refuses a certain naivety: just as there’s no pure truth, there’s no pure fiction. Even if histories are long past, it’s possible in the present to see different aspects of what’s happened. Documents are not representations of absolute facts. The observer becomes a reader of photographs. Through a different ‘intra-action’ (Eva van den Boogaard appropriating Karen Barad) between the observer and the observed, documents co-constitute historical interpretations of realities that still haunt us today. This issue of Trigger brings to the fore representations of the Mau Mau in Kenya, various Congolese populations’ cultural relations to ‘Nature’ through a film and photobook sponsored by King Leopold III on the eve of Congo’s independence and May ’68 as a media event, thus confronting us with our own unwillingness to admit our violent, colonising and patriarchal pasts and the role that the more classic documentary or regular media have played in them.

Historical and archival documents play specific imaginary roles in speculative art practices. Our futures and our pasts are both much-contested terrains, and photography’s own imperial ‘past’ all the more so. Whatever the veils that have been sustained to this day, through framing nature and the other as curiosities to be colonised and consumed, documentary’s historical role in supporting the creation of a Eurocentric symbolic order is central to a lot of critical research in radical curatorial studies and culture studies (See studies by Ariella Azoulay, Mark Sealy and Christina Sharpe). What becomes clear is that when future, past and present are kept separate, something seems wrong.

Maybe the figure of the whistleblower, central in Hoda Afshar’s Trigger contribution, functions as witness to our uncertain times and the ways documentary might function in them. To use Wim Vandekerkhove’s words in this issue on that matter, the documentaries ‘speak truth but hesitates to be seen as a speaker of truth, hesitates to step onto the pedestal and make a statue of themselves’.

Uncertainty is unequally distributed. We hope this issue can offer some way of realising that at least in speculative documentary, uncertainty is a mutual thing that author, subject and reader share on a more level playing field.

Tom Viaene is coordinating Trigger, FOMU’s publication platform. He is also a lecturer at Sint Lucas Antwerpen School of Arts and the Royal Conservatory of Brussels where he teaches cultural theory, philosophy, social practices, and aesthetic perspectives.

  • Uncertainty