The Installation of the Real : A Panel Discussion on Documentary in the Gallery

Audiovisual documentary material is becoming increasingly prominent within the spaces of the art world. On February 23rd, a panel of artists, filmmakers, and curators—brought together and moderated by Brooklyn Rail Film section editors Leo Goldsmith and Rachael Rakes—discussed the opportunities and challenges presented by bringing media works into the established setting of the gallery and the museum.

The discussion, selections from which are below, found artists questioning the nature of their work and how it finds its place in the gallery. It also gives historical scope to the introduction of media works into this setting, and the need to reconsider the conditions of presentation for such work. Underlining the limitations of traditional gallery exhibition of time-based, audiovisual works, it points to the important role curators and artists must play in successfully showcasing the work.


Niels Van Tomme is a New York-based curator, researcher, and critic.

Elisabeth Subrin creates conceptually driven projects in film, video, photography and installation.

Neil Goldberg‘s video, photographic and sculptural work documents the spaces and cadences of the everyday and overlooked.

Rebecca Cleman is the Director of Distribution of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI).

Elisabeth Subrin and Neil Goldberg’s work


Elisabeth Subrin (ES) on Lost Tribes and Promised Lands

In the days following the September 11 attacks on New York, Subrin took a battered 16mm Bolex camera out into her neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shooting houses and storefronts (…) Nearly a decade later, with the same camera, she attempted to retrace her own steps.

Lost Tribes and Promised Lands, 2-channel video installation, 16mm to HD, (2010) salvaged wood, 6:00 loop. ELISABETH SUBRIN.

(Elisabeth Subrin appeared via Skype)

ES:  The recorded material is clearly non-fictional. But putting [the two sets of recordings] together is a constructed reality that is impossible to consider just as documentary footage. I think that whether a thing is fictional or non-fictional in a gallery is less an issue than if the work is appropriate for a gallery. In this case, I really wanted this eternal looping of time and a feeling of revisiting a place over and over, both parallel to each other. That was very different to a lot of other work I made.

There is so much fiction in the gallery right now. When I showed this piece, actually right in New York, I think it was the only non-fiction piece. The way it stuck out was very interesting.

When I created the piece, I questioned myself about whether it was actual or artificial. In a sense, I wanted to manipulate certain shots to articulate ideas that I wanted to convey. I also tried to stick to the rules of actually reproducing the same location, which was hard but I pretty much entirely committed to that.

The way it’s installed in the space is as a projection wrapped by a huge tilted arc that’s a recreation of the walls that wrap around construction sites. The idea was to create another level of questions about gentrification, and also to create a barrier to accessing the material immediately.

Neil Goldberg (NG):  I never really think of my work as documentary. What motivates me to show it in gallery context versus creating these single channel pieces, is something about creating an opportunity for people to engage with the work. In this context, it allows people to make choices of how they begin to interact with the work, how much time they spend with it. Beyond that, I think it creates a communication between the different components by dispersing them through space.

I have some kind of resentment about documentary and for that reason I haven’t watched a lot of it. When I’m watching a documentary, even experimental documentary, I feel that there’s a course that has been mapped for me. Maybe there’s ambiguity, opportunities for surprise, but I generally feel manipulated in a way. Obviously, any media, any type of work is a manipulation but I prefer the fiction. I prefer that in a gallery place, the work can be much more open, more overdetermined I guess, and the conclusions less pre-ordered.


I never synchronise footage so I like the idea that theoretically any combination of images you are seeing at a particular point in time is mathematically not going to occur any time soon.

Hallelujah Anyway No. 2, a single channel video  (1995-6), 1:30 min. NEIL GOLDBERG.

NG: [In Hallelujah Anyway No. 2], there are images of people opening their shops in the morning. A lot of times, I would get there too late, and I’d ask them to open their gates again. Does that make it not a documentary ?

Or the fact that for the piece She’s A Talker—[which features] 80 gay men combing their cats and saying “she’s a talker”—I didn’t sit waiting magically for them to say the phrase, which is evident in the piece. Is that documentary? I mean we are looking at their homes, we are seeing the particular clothes they wore, the haircut they chose, the way they engage with their cats. This is not acting, but there’s a camera on. Are they acting? I’ll leave it to you guys.


She’s a Talker, a single channel video (1993), 1:30 min. NEIL GOLDBERG.

Niels Van Tomme (NVT) is an independant curator with a film background. After being a film student, he worked on the reality TV show Big Brother, allowing him to explore many aspects of the current spectrum of the real.

As a curator, he talks about the omnipresence of the real and the observation of documentary images and practices. He also approaches the curatorial opportunities for presenting audiovisual materials in a gallery setting.

NVT:  Today, I was reading Harun Farocki and Hito Steyerl‘s collaborative publication A Magical Imitation of Reality.  Farocki makes the claim that TV shows are increasingly documentary in format. He says: “These reality TV shows are full of great documentary images, not because they have something to do with actual reality but because they offer allegories of a kind of neoliberal state of being.”

This aligns with what cultural theorist Mark Fisher has to say. His basic claim is that reality TV is kind of like the flexible product of capitalist realism. In a way, documentary images and certain metaphorical representations of the real have become the dominant mode of expression in popular culture. So why not in the gallery space as well?

But at the same time there’s an inverse movement that has taken place. In Europe, from the ‘70s to the late ‘90s, there was a vast television network producing and supporting more investigative experimental documentary practices. People like FHS, Chris Marker, and Peter Walkins were able to produce more experimental documentary work for TV. This shifted at the end of the 90s. There is no place for these experimental practices on TV anymore. Ever since then, the concept of reality TV has increased. Some of these people found a new outlet and a new way of making their work in gallery settings.

But more importantly, what’s going on now is that galleries, museums and the infrastructure of commissions through large scale exhibitions allow people to produce and finance new work. That’s why these documentary practices also become more omnipresent in the art world.

The second point is about the opportunity of showing audiovisual works or practices in a gallery setting. I like the idea that whenever you show moving images in a gallery space, you desacralize the notion of the white cube, which is the sacred space for art consumption, [one] that offers the perfect environment for contemplation and immersion in the piece. On the other hand, I also like how, when you bring a moving image in a gallery setting, you challenge the traditional film exhibition format as well.

I’d like to refer to Boris Groys who has written an essay called From Image to Image File – and Back, which is a reflection on the growing presence of digitized images in art institutions. He talks about how those digitized images not only transform the institutions where they are presented, but they also have the potential to transform the exhibition itself. He is mostly talking about digitized video art, which is, I think, the most standardized way to show moving images in a gallery setting. He says “digitization, which seems to allow the image to become independent of any kind of exhibition practice, turns the visual arts into performance arts.”

I think this is a very important aspect: the performative aspect of showing audiovisual images. I guess it has to do with the fact that when you show digitalized images, there are only originals, they are no copies anymore. Everything is original. So each time you show it, it’s the first screening. Every different exhibition becomes the original exhibition of the piece. That’s a performative aspect.

When we place audiovisual works in the exhibition place, we subvert the very expectations generally associated with these kinds of places. It provides an opportunity to abandon the traditional exhibition context of the media work, which is the idea of a black box presentation. It really allows you to push the presentation towards new spatial and temporal challenges and configurations.

Some exhibitions I have curated:

In 2007, at the American University Museum in Washington D.C., [I worked on] a show about spare time and a slower world. The interesting thing is that we proposed this show which was a very humble attempt to represent an entire country, Belgium, through its experience and slowing down of time. It only had five videos and one sound piece, and we got that enormous space on the top floor of the museum. We were really wondering what we could do. We basically painted a stroke of grey, which we thought symbolized the state of mind of Belgium, across the gallery space. We put the screens into this tiny grey space. It meant consequently that if people just wanted to run through the space they would not see anything of this exhibition, they would just see this grey stroke. To actually see the works, you had to make a conscious effort and sit or kneel down. The idea was, instead of providing the most ideal circumstances, to present it the most awkward way in order to play with this idea of the impossibility of presentation of these types of works.

Another show I curated, and which is currently travelling around the U.S., is called Where Do We Migrate To?.It was shown at The New School in New York. The idea here was something completely different. I wanted to combine all these different types of media into one space so that they could all interfere with one another. To have this kind of audiovisual landscape or audioscape where all the noises of all these different pieces will run through one another and will also, in a way, make a coherent poetic sense. It is a kind of experimental way of showing these works.

Where Do We Migrate To? exhibition design for the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at The New School. With Jiwon Lee.

Photo: Martin Seck.

I have one big question at the end of all of this: what kind of performative acts are needed for artists and curators to re-imagine documentary and audiovisual practices in the gallery setting?


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Rebecca Cleman (RB) : I work for Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), which primarily acts as a distributor of media arts for museums. I program, curate and provide the content—working with museums, usually having to come up with some kind of compromise based on the conditions that they are working with, and the artist’s requests and vision of their work in the setting. And it’s only got more complicated in this digital age.

This conversation is a perfect segue. I really do like the focus on documentary or the real, or journalism, or non-fiction. I think it’s nice to have that focus because I have this conversation in other contexts around experimental work or abstract work. I think talking about documentary content or the documentary tradition brings in some other aspects.

And as it happens, I went to the MoMA to see the Performing Histories show and wrote down some of the [wall] text that I want to read to you. It connects with what [Niels] said about the performative act:

“The act of critically looking at a document representing an historical event, of looking at the past from the vantage point of the present, is performative. The museum, as a place of memory through artefacts, is an ideal place to do so. Diverse connections might be drawn among the works in the exhibition, presented here in such a way that viewers might create their own itinerary throughout the exhibition.”

I do have some criticism about how I experienced the work that day. I don’t want to point fingers, it’s a busy museum. But I often have these conversations about experiencing works in the museum where there is that primary aspect of sound or image that is haphazardly treated in a way that had never been tolerated for a painting.

It’s a nice concept though that the gallery brings out the idea of a more democratic experience of the works. And at the same time I think it’s truly making the best out of a bad gallery setting, it’s a walk-through place, and not suited to the media works that are installed. There are a lot of sound issues. And the first thing I encountered was a sound piece with no sound. They were also some other works that had issues.

I don’t want to blame the curators, or the museums, but I think it is important for the artist to take advantage of that space—making the best of an unideal situation, and recognizing from the outset that there are always going to be compromises. Part of taking advantage of that space is recognizing its limitations.

I think I almost have an inverse relationship to the two contexts for looking at moving image work. I think the cinematic presentation ends up being more democratic, because I go inside and in that containment my mind wanders in ways I find very positive. Whereas when I go into a gallery, it has the promise of being democratic, and then everything is broken and the content isn’t working. I find that there hasn’t been a proper acknowledgement of its own limitations. I feel that it is a very stifling environment, that is an environment that actually doesn’t engage with the work. So the whole premise of performative art is now destroyed by not recognizing the limitations of that space.

NG : It goes to what kind of institutional expectations museums have around audiovisual work.

RB : What was said earlier about the white box breaking down the modernist white cube, I don’t know where that goes. I’m a little bit confused about it. The fact that nothing was really working creates this anarchy inside the museum. There’s the white box or there’s the black box, or there’s the open gallery. What is the solution? Because this conversation does happen a lot.

Audience’s question #1 : Could you give an example of a video work presented successfully in museum?

NVT : An interesting one that I saw recently was a Belgian artist’s feature film on Patrice Lumumba. How do you present a feature film at an exhibition space? They came up with a screening scheme where you could watch the film everyday at two different hours in the afternoon and the rest of the show was photography and document-based work.

I try to avoid showing films that are produced for a cinematic set-up, meaning that they are linear and have a clear beginning and ending. I prefer having my exhibition accompanied by a series of film screenings. On the other hand, it is not such a sacred thing to show moving images in the first place. I guess film is also an historical construct, how film is presented in a black box with seating and people looking at a screen. Initially film wasn’t necessarily screened in such a way. It was also more performative, more an interrupted kind of experience. Having two screenings a day of one hour and a half makes perfect sense to me.

Also I was in Vienna and there was this exhibition about spacecraft, and they basically showed entire loops of Michael Snow’s 3-1/2-hour film La Région Centrale (1971), followed by a 10-minute Charles and Ray Eames film. A loop. I was wondering: when do you start watching the film? It becomes kind of absurd. What does it mean to show a film in a way that doesn’t make any sense? Because I come from a film background, I really think about these things a lot. The piece is not showed in ideal circumstances.

RB : I’m actually happy that we had a panel discussion about micro cinemas here last time. I’ve actually been privileging the micro cinema experience a lot lately. I’m happy there’s actually kind of the same discussion here. The actual problem is: how do you get that kind of work into the art world and in museums?

The kind of media work I often see in the art world, if we are on this topic of engaging with history and documentary, quite frankly, isn’t as rigorous. That’s why i’m kind of focused on this Performing Histories show, because it declared a premise of being rigorous and critical and engaging. It is great that the museum has these kind of works and is acknowledging them. Thirty years ago, the museum wanted nothing to do with moving images. So that’s the issue for me. It’s not just about the art world, and the black box versus the white box, it’s also about getting the art world to recognize the tradition of cinema which is often overlapping, and also about creating a way to support these works, financially and also in terms of the setting.

NG : I think it’s a lack of historical perspective of video art. There’s a lot of unconsciously reinventing the wheel, and I think that’s just an historical circumstance of how people were trained as artists—having these tools, video cameras, democratized and available, without a sense of how have those tools been historically used.

RB : There’s a whole tradition of cinema not being referenced at all.

Audience’s question #2 : How do you feel about split screens?

NB :  I think that when you have a split screen in single-channel work, there is no breathing room. You are looking at a single image that happens to have a formal division between it. Whereas if you are looking at two things that are projected simultaneously next to each other, that introduces all kinds of possibilities of them breaking apart from each other, even if that’s not intended. It opens it up in space.

I could come up with some theoretical justifications of why I hate split screens, I’ll say unconscious split screens, without having a sense of what it is actually. My reaction to it is emotional. I think it goes to what everyone was saying about the use of space and the justification. Just because you have this big space and you put three video works in it, you wouldn’t just throw down three pieces of sculpture in a space. It feels like a wasted opportunity too.

NVT : In the 60s, with the advent of conceptual art, people were talking about the exhibition experience and installation as a montage of objects in space. Meaning that each time you show in an exhibition, it totally refigures the meaning of that particular piece because it depends not only of its placement in space, but also which object came before, which one comes after, with which objects it is in juxtaposition. So it has something to do with that as well. You think not only about the separate entity, which you have in a traditional film screening.

NG : It does create a kind of meta-work. For me it was such a learning experience to do this survey show at the Museum of the City of New York. Somehow seeing all that work together turned it in a new piece. It was a work unto itself, a meta-piece.

I think there’s something in the way certain video art emerged in the gallery context—Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, Marina Abramovi?—people documenting these performative moments in their studio. The way video practice started in the art world had a lot to do with artists performing the real. Somehow I think that set certain conditions.

RB : I like the history that you were outlining Neil, because EAI is so strange in terms of representing this history: it has both the art world relationship with performative acts, and it also has a history of people who wouldn’t identify themselves as artists who were working with video technology in the late 60s and 70s, but still as a kind of performative act of engaging history. They were using their portable cameras to record demonstrations or things they were seeing happening that they knew were not making it to the news, and then showing that footage to friends. It was about showing things that weren’t shown in the mass media. Obviously that was also happening in film, but there is a very specific history there that overlaps with artists seeing themselves on the camera for the first time. You have this instant access to the recording. I think that really goes back to this issue, specific maybe to the art, is its engagement with the real as performative act through the technology.


NVT:  I’m not really interested in aesthetics or in forms or beauty. So in a way, all of the art I look at are documents, or the way I look at all art is as documents. Documents that tell you something about something specific or about something ungraspable. Something that actually refers to a real thing. I always think of the beautiful term that New York-based artist Andrea Geyer uses: she calls her practice “poetic document making”, and I think it’s a very nice way of looking at artistic practice in general, where you provide an alternative of looking at documents, looking at representations of the real.

What I like about working in space is that if you screen a film in ideal circumstances, people are there from the beginning to the end, they can kind of see the exact flow of things. As a curator, what I like about working in a gallery space is that you completely construct  a cinematic sequence that makes sense for you. People come into the space and they are completely disrupted, and do whatever they want to do. I think that is where things are happening in a gallery setting that is opposed to the one of the cinematic setting. Not to put more value on one of the two, because I think they both have their own values.