On Documentary Impulse: the desire to encounter the real through making records (1) 記述的衝動:長路漫漫(一)

On Documentary Impulse: the desire to encounter the real through making records (1) 記述的衝動:長路漫漫(一)

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

發表於: 26 Mar 2022

Linda Lai’s Epilog for Our Manifestos II (2021) will be reproduced in Floating Teatime in 2 two parts. In part one, she visits several known artistic works as some of the evidence of our desire to remember, preserve, transmit and retrieve, which is the driving force for continuous innovation and reinvention of tools and technology, or, technics, i.e. tools that embody and advance our perceptual experiences.  In this context, videography is a unique form of mnemotechnics (Stiegler).  記述的衝動是批判和實驗地退後一步,思考既成特定類型的「紀錄片」以外的紀錄空間,重新審視已被成規綑綁而失去了歷史原動力的活動影像的「紀錄」的初衷。「據點一杯茶」將分兩次轉載《我們的錄像宣言2》(2021)的跋。這裡的第一部份,黎肖嫻引述不同的藝文創作為實例,指出我們要記住、保存、傳遞開去的衝動,推動著工藝技術的演進。不同的藝技不單打開了我們對「經驗」的重塑的新可能,更指向不同表述媒體自有其記述的技術上的構造和不可被取代之處。

**feature image: “A medieval depiction of the Ecumene (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver), constructed after the coordinates in Ptolemy’s Geography and using his second map projection. The translation into Latin and dissemination of Geography in Europe, in the beginning of the 15th century, marked the rebirth of scientific cartography, after more than a millennium of stagnation.” (Wikipedia) By Lord Nicolas the German (Donnus Nicholas Germanus), cartographer Johann the Blockcutter of Armsheim (Johannes Schnitzer or Johannes de Armssheim), engraver – Decorative Maps by Roderick Barron – ISBN 1851702989, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2342175 

Citation of the original essay: Lai, Linda C.H.. “The desire to encounter the real through making records.” In Our Manifestos II: Videography, Documentary Impulses, 326-339; Hong Kong: Floating Projects, 2021.

**Re-posted. The English version is an expanded version of the original essay, updated 28 March 2022.


On Documentary Impulse: the desire to encounter the real through making records / Linda C.H. Lai  (1)

From a media archaeological perspective, the invention and perfection of an artistic medium, and technological invention in general, is driven by desires that pre-exist its birth and naming. Humans in history have often been “dreaming” about what to come in long duration without being fully aware of its coming. Media archaeology is, therefore, not just about looking back, but looking in retrospect to trace future-oriented desires – a complex mix of scientific discovery, controlled experiments, everyday creativity and discovery of new resources as much as aspirations, fantasies, imagination, fabrication, folk knowledge, practical needs and problem-solving, common sense and hypothetical thinking.

From a media archaeological perspective, our documentary impulse has always been there, way before the “documentary film” became part of our everyday language.

Our documentary impulse is the desire to facilitate remembering by creating retrievable records and the “machines” that make it possible. Its history parallels the technological history of mnemonic practices. It is a rich history of desires, adventures and speculations of the fantastic, or what was formerly impossible. 


Desires, aspirations and impulses

Greek folklore remembers the story of Corinthian woman, Dibutade, who traced the shadow of her lover on the wall while bidding him farewell for a long journey. The story was the subject matter of various paintings in 18th century – such as David Allan’s Origin of Painting (1775), Joseph Benoit Suvee’s The Invention of Art of Drawing (1793), Jean Baptiste Regnault’s Origin of Painting (1785) and so on – all of which indicated media archaeological sensibilities, that is, acknowledging desires pre-exist the invention of a medium before its naming. Does Dibutade embody the “origins” of painting or photography? That is up for open discussion. In media archaeology, “origins” are productive points of polemic, or it pertains to the disputable power of discursive practices. To me, the hand-drawn “shadow” not only preserves Dibutade’s memory of her lover, but it is the absent lover’s surrogate, and his very presence, when she is alone.  

The impulse to preserve a copy or a document has also pushed technological invention over its limits in order to perfect mnemonic practices. We have the case of Thomas Wedgwood and Nicéphore Nièpce in the 19th century. For example, in the case of the latter, in 1816, at a time when the fixer for photographic development was not yet invented, he succeeded in using a small camera to capture images on paper treated with silver chloride. Despite the lack of sufficient preservation techniques, he still managed to save for us a precious view of Paris’s half sky with roof tops, and the exact window view of his room from where the photo was taken. Over a century later, Walter Benjamin’s “little history of photography” re-frames this episode in a larger context of the precarious nature of technical advancement. “Progress” is not a one-way forward journey; every moment an emphasis is placed on one kind of technical push, it is also the delay or setting aside of other possible strands of development. The fixer was an urgency when the need to make an image stay longer was essential to quantitative jumps in image reproduction, which subsequently made the perfection of paper for photo-printing necessary for circulation. If media archaeology were to benefit artists, it would be to revisit those aspects that had been side-lined or become expert’s concerns, to take up the many potentials of a lost grip. There is a difference between perfecting camera bodies and lenses that treat light in more complex ways and focusing on multiplication and circulation of the image object. History must not just be read, but read imaginatively.


Mnemonic technics, documentary technics

Maps. Cartography. Geographic representation and records for expansion.

It was said that the first maps ever made were of the stars in the sky, not land or the earth, found in 14,500 BC on the walls of the Lascaux caves, showing stars and star clusters. Indeed, early geographic maps (around 2000 BC) were made as cave-painting and rock carving, and sometimes on a mammoth tusk or animal bones. In order to record what was meant to be remembered, visual strategies developed, and symbols and signs were created to represent landscapes and events — all of which highlight communicative value. It remains a point of interest to me that in those remote epochs, earth and heaven could have been viewed as one and the same, either that they are one continuous body, or earth is the mirror of heaven and vice versa.

We also know that maps in ancient Babylon (1894 BC – 1000 AD) were made with surveying tools of great precision — and that is almost 500 years before Columbus’ voyages landed on an unknown continent, on one of the Bahamas islands, in 1492, and way before the term “cartography” was known (around 1840s). Here we see disparate but connected moments of efforts to perfect the symbolic languages and measuring technics in longue durée. An unnamed desire behind all this was also how to pass on information and knowledge from generation to generation with assured wholesomeness. 

Retrievability in earlier days (discussed above) concerned storage and preservation of knowledge; in the 20th century, retrievability was the backbone of all technological advancement starting with the popularization of computing, whereby the need to extract data became equally important to the problem of storage, as data size grew. What could be remembered and what needs to be remembered are problematized in many contemporary mnemonic practices. Tracking back in time, I could not have missed the birth of libraries, the new technics that went with its church-Vs-state possession, and the sprouting national archives in 19th century Europe, a time of unification and the augmentation of nation states ideologies, also a time of urgency to re-align one’s cultural identities. Luis Borges took us into an inspirational diversion with his literary-imaginary Tower of Babel — the vision of infinite self-multiplication of storage systems — with 410-page books, written with only 25 basic characters, filling the shelves, on 5 walls of multiple hexagon-shape rooms. Today, we live in a time when storage-retrievability “mutates” — the focus is on data, and the internal generative power of a grand close system in which data is the synonym for inspirations, potential, creativity, sustainability, learning, control, surveillance and population management, with the past, the present and what may come all in one place. The point of view that maps afford — that of being above and outside — is now the cybernetic “inside.”

Geography gradually became a recognized academic, scientific discipline, as navigation technology prospered, followed by the discovery of new natural resources and automation of machines. Then photography was born in the 18th century, which also coincided with a new wave of cross-continental traveling resulting from colonization and ecclesiastic agendas. Many things of varied modes of emergence came together to mark a new phase of documentary impulse. 

By the time the entire apparatus of cinema was born, voyagers and early anthropologists were already preserving records of their travel and awaiting new means. Although the bloom of travel literature did not peak until the 19th century, we also read on the internet about James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786), and way before him, Greek geographer Pausanias’s travel memoir in the 2nd century AD. And to the Asians, Marco Polo’s records of his extensive visits in Asia in 1271-1295 formed the well known Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo). As for China, it is believed that youji wenxue (travel literature) could be traced to as early as the Song Dynasty (960-1279). (Wikipedia: travel literature) Travel literature injected a new incentive – that of reportage and the desire of bridging the “civilized” West and the rest of the world. An often sidelined discourse is women’s travel literature in 18-19th century, such as the works of Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858), Marie Sophie von La Roche (1730-1807) and Mademe de Bourboulon (who visited Peking and Hong Kong), leaving with us a rich domain of travel literature that combines letter-writing, personal diaries and travelog. These activities anticipated the 20th-century flânerie and flâneurese of modernity.

Memoirs and travel diaries are meant to be evaluated for accuracy of facts and personal insight. But experimental literature, meant to challenge the conventions of literature, has its power in stretching the understanding of our documentary impulse. A lot of what we understand to be experimental literature affirms that the fictional is inventive realities. Language is not just the carrier of ideas, but thought itself; and writing activities are not at the service of meaningful content but they are the meanings. A challenge of established norms of writing itself is always directed towards a certain level of realities that awaits better articulations. And this is where I find a strong affinity between experimental literature and videography. What follows is, to me, in strong resonance with my thesis.


Calvino’s Kublai Khan’s map: “I want to know…”: Knowledge is future-oriented action

In Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities) (1972, 1974 English translation), Kublai Khan spreads out a map populated with city names unknown to him and says to Marco Polo, “You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these futures the favouring winds are driving us.” (1997:147) And the Khan expects Polo to “see signs” — that is, see more than the surface. We know that the fictional character Polo returns to the emperor with a series of reports that are at once enigmatic, tale-like, asserting ambiguities and yet rich in sight-and-sound details; they often contradict one another, and at times, they could have been about the same city. What Polo/Calvino presents to us is varied in reporting/writing strategies, an assemblage of rhetorical skills and references. Is he suggesting the impossibility to give a wholesome, comprehensive account? Is he showing that places all have a unique aura and they must be treated individually, each commanding a different descriptive method and narrative strategy? Or is he implying that reportage and descriptions, no matter how detailed and objective, should never substitute for physical presence in a place as an eye-witness? But reality is that Kublai Khan will not be there: and whether or not he is where Polo has been, he indeed “learns” something and the knowledge he gains hinges on Polo’s skilful accounts.

From a different perspective, the divergent thinking/writing “mapwork” manifested in Invisible Cities is a most reasonably objective strategy. Each place/city is a unique phenomenon, provoked and describable through the haptic perceptual “presence” of a speaking subject. A city could be experienced and remembered very differently were the traveler to enter by sea, by land or by air. Some cities impress a traveler predominantly with their soundscape, others the visual enigma or a mesmerizing spectacle. If one were to stay longer and observe from different moments of a day or a year, a very different affective response could be invoked. In some cases, one is forever looking for words for fairer, better descriptions — so much so that one would rather resolve to a more embracing metaphor or analogy. A synecdoche approach may work, too, if certain activities, a landmark, a person or a cultural artifact can be turned into the token of a place. On some occasions, one simply has to describe the people. Chance encounters may admit a visitor into the most uneventful moment of a city, or she dives into acute circumstances or unprecedented crises never be.

Perhaps… it doesn’t really matter whether these reports are received for the degree of Polo’s thoughtfulness. To Kublai Khan who cannot see the cities for him, Polo’s accounts are already powerfully affective, mesmerizing, persuasive and even informative – and even if the descriptions give fragmentary accounts rather than wholesome narratives. To a reader with a desire to know, she would couple the accounts with her imagination to visualize what is invisible in her mind’s eye. And why does Kublai Khan want to know? What exactly is it that he wants to know? The mission he entrusts with Polo is future-oriented. It is to enable him to dominate, control, and expand his kingdom. Knowledge underscores actions.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities has always been at the back of my mind before and through the entire process of the Manifesto 2 project themed “documentary impulse.” In a nutshell, our objectives are way beyond the confines of journalism and the documentary as contractual genres. Like Calvino, M2 artists stand by the language game; the question of objectivity is given a phenomenological renewal. The myth of the objective eye-witness assumed by banal accounts of the documentary is transformed into questions of epistemology, thus also power issues involved in knowledge ownership, as well as the defense for art and videography as a unique kind of truth procedures.


The Origin of Painting by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1785 (public domain)


黎肖嫻 | 「記述的衝動:長路漫漫。創作實體記錄,按摩多層次的實存」(1)






古希臘的傳誦中,有個叫Dibutade的哥林多 (Corinth) 女子,在愛人臨陣上戰場,雙雙苦苦道別之際,在牆上勾劃下了他的影子。這個傳頌,引來多個世紀以後好些的畫作,如 David Allan 1775年的 油畫 <Origin of Painting> 和 Joseph Benoit Suvee 1793年的 <The Invention of Art of Drawing>,都是哥林多的女子的再現,又有 Jean Baptiste Regnault 的1785年的繪畫 <Origin of Painting> 等等,都滿載考古的溯源的視野,把這個愛的行動收歸為往後繪畫和投影系統的體現,佐證著慾望先於發明的媒體考古的理念。對我來說,影子為女子「記住了」她的愛人,在自處的時候,那個影子就是愛人的化身、近乎是他的存在的本身。

記述的衝動令我想起 Thomas Wedgwood 和 Nicéphore Nièpce。19世紀初,即使在固定液尚未面世時,他們依然鍥而不捨的,用氯化銀 (silver chloride) 在紙張上留住只能短暫顯現的景象,讓我們至今仍能一睹當時的巴黎屋頂上的半空,以至想像Nièpce 拍攝那刻身處的房子的視野。



地圖。據說最早的圖展示的不是地而是天上的星,這樣的星圖早在公元前14,500 年已被發現於法國的Lascaux 洞穴裡 。地圖確實出現在不少以石洞壁畫或岩雕呈現,又或雕在象牙上,同時顯現了豐富的視覺元素的玩弄,以至各種標記自然地勢的符號的創造,去輔助理解。這些都是公元前兩千年左右已出現的。然後,我們知道,古巴比倫 (1894 BC – 1000 AD) 的地圖製造,已動用了準確的測量儀器。這一切,都在(1840年代)「地圖學」被正名前已在人類文明生活裡發揮重要記述功效,兼具創作性活動和相關科技的發明,又總離不開創造具一定客觀性的語言,而且都指向一代傳一代資訊和知識可以取回或不失傳的慾望。如今,我們知道「取回」(retrieval) – 對大量數據的存取 — 是二十世界電腦被廣泛應用的重要誘因之一。於是我又想到圖書館的形成,以至十九世紀歐洲促成國族統一大業的國家檔案庫的出現。

航海技術和事業的發達、地理的逐漸形成一門科學性的學科,以至後來陸上運輸因燃料和推動的科技的多樣化,以至殖民地的開發,攝影的出現等等,讓旅遊文學形成一種新的記述和創作的範疇,尤其在19世紀普及化。當然,早在1786年 James Boswell 的 Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides 之前,一位公元後第二世紀的希臘地理家 Pausanias已被譽為是旅遊回憶錄的先行者。而很多人曉得的 Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo),記述了馬可勃羅 1271-1295 年於亞洲的訪遊,比十五、十六世紀的所謂「發現新大陸」早出兩個世紀。中國的「遊記文學」先例,更早在宋朝 (960–1279) 被認定。(Wikipedia: travel literature)




伊塔羅·卡爾維諾 (Italo Calvino) 的《看不見的城市》(Le città invisibili / Invisible Cities) (1972 義, 1974英譯, 1993中譯) 裡,忽必烈 (Kublai Khan) 敞開一幅有關未來的烏托邦地圖,滿佈著他不懂得的城市的名字,便對馬可勃羅 (Marco Polo) 說:你去看看,四處遊歷吧,察看各種表象辨識其底蘊,回來告訴我順風吹向那裡,那個城市有我們的未來。(本文作者意譯)我們知道,卡爾維諾筆下的(虛構的)馬可勃羅的報告可圈可點。可以說,他的記錄策略多樣化,又暗示明示或許根本不能全然充分記錄,或可能不同地方各有其氣質而要求不同的描述方案。記錄者「親身」的現場體驗,不能盡被述說、報告、描述所取代?但對不能「親身」「處地」的忽必烈而言,他獲得知識與否,就全繫於馬可勃羅的報告技巧。我也想,卡爾維諾的擴散式思考/寫作法,其實是唯一客觀的書寫對策:每一個地方是一個「現象」,而個別的現象都在乎遊歷者的五官經驗在每個地方是如何不一樣的被觸發;例如從水路或陸路進入一個地方,印象和記憶會不一樣,都同樣客觀而不是幻覺。有些地方,你一踏足便不由得被它的聲音或人的某些活動震攝著。有些地方視覺上花姿招展,一眾事物大飽眼福,卻又明顯的別有他意。有些城市你觀察久了便就很想整體打個比喻,或找些有代表性的實物去形容。況且,同一個地方在不同時間也散發著不同的氣質和性格,也會出現某些閒常或單一短暫的狀況。



新聞攝影固然是「記述的衝動」給我們最直接的想像。也許有讀者知道新聞攝影記者Stuart Franklin 於2016年出版的The Documentary Impulse,探討記錄的各種心理需求,但發展下去,Franklin的重點趨向照片影像作為檔存的多向效用 – 作為報導的客觀佐證,作為治療,對社會性儀式的觀察,對改革改變的需求提出證據,以至對某個記憶的「不朽化」。這些前提下,為再現而重演重構就某些情況下有了需要。



Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography. (1931).” In Selected Writings volume 2 1927-1934; trans. Rodney Liverstone and others, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, 507-530. Cambridge (USA), London (UK): Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1999.

Calvino, Italo; William Weaver. Invisible Cities. London: Vintage, 1997.

Flinn, Margaret C.; Edmund Smyth, Charles Forsdick. The Social Architecture of French Cinema: 1929-1939. Liverpool University Press, 2014.

Franklin, Stuart. The Documentary Impulse. Phaidon, 2016.


Shell, Hanna Rose, and Gregg Mitman. “The Documentary Impulse.” Technology and Culture 58, no. 3 (2017): 846-855.


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