This seminar offers a discussion of some of the key concepts which form the basis of the exhibition The Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia (MACBA, September 2008-January 2009) and continues the debate begun in the seminar The Metropolis in the Era of Photography (MACBA, February 2007).

The seminar is articulated as a look at some of the problems inherent in the debate about the status of the document during the 20th century, problems that, in some cases and in each era, have been reformulated in a singular way, due to which they are questions that remain open.

Documentary is a genre historically inseparable from the construction of discourses about realism in photography and film. Having said that, a more precise study foregrounds not only some of the ambiguities of the genre but also a radical difficulty in defining it. This seminar seeks to contribute to an understanding of the complexity of the category of documentary by studying debates about the genre during the 20th century. It is not so much a question of creating a history of documentary or of exhausting its possible definitions as of attempting to study how the genre has always been constituted in an ambivalent and polemical way in relation to certain specific historical conditions, by trying to delineate what it is in each case and how the historical subject of the documentary genre is constructed.

The program addresses issues like the processes of insertion of images in the public sphere via the printed page and an architectural conception of the image which results, in the first half of the century, in a new expository concept linked to methods of propaganda; the relation of the document to the discursive space of the archive and the library, and hence the epistemological status of the photographic image; the ethical and political problems of the document, namely the nature of the document and the archive as a space of knowledge/power and the relations between the subject and object of documentary representation; the nature of the document in relation to debates on realism, and hence its permanently problematical insertion in the dominant discourses of modern art.

Proceeding from the study of a few concrete examples, the objective of the seminar is to put forward a set of hypotheses on the meanings and mechanisms of the documentary in a historical cycle that gets under way with the culminating moment of the hegemony of the photograph in the illustrated press midway through the 20th century before arriving at the crisis of photographic realism in the digital era at the end of the century.

The seminar forms part of the PEI's Open Program, in the context of the course Modern (Photographic) Documents.


Friday, March 7: The document's discursive space

5.30 pm

6 pm
Robin Kelsey: Archival Dreams

7.30 pm
Benjamin Buchloh: The condition of the document in Modern Art

Debate with Robin Kelsey and Benjamin Buchloh

Saturday, March 8: Documentary Practices: ethics and politics

The Realist (anti-) Utopia

11 am
John Roberts: The debate about realism and the documentary

12.30 am
Maria Gough: The Fact Utopia

Debate with John Roberts and Maria Gough

The Documentary Subject

5 pm
Brian Winston: The end of the "naturalistic illusion"

6.30 pm
Michael Renov

Debate with Brian Winston and Michael Renov


Robin Kelsey is a Humanities professor specializing in the history of photography and American Art at Harvard University.

Benjamin Buchloh is an Art History professor at Harvard University, and co-editor of the magazine October.

Michael Renov is a professor of Critical Studies in the Department of Film and Televisión at UCLA.

Brian Winston is a director of documentary films and a journalist. He is currently the rector of External affaire at the University of Lincoln.

Maria Gough is a professor of Modern Art at Stanford University.

John Roberts is a critic who currently works as a researcher at the University of Wolverhampton. He is the author of The Art of Interruption: Realism, Photography and the Everyday.

Jordana Mendelson is a professor in NYU's department of Spanish and Portuguese, as well as the author of Documenting Spain: Artists, Exhibition Culture, and the Modern Nation 1929-1939.

Juan José Lahuerta is an Art History professor at Barcelona's Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura.

Introductions and moderation: Jordana Mendelson and Juan José Lahuerta

MACBA Public Programs
Tel. (+34) 412 14 13
programespublics [at] macba [dot] cat



Son[i]a #58. Jordana Mendelson