The Power of Aesthetics

I went to the workshop hosted by the performance/film creators Berlin at the Walker a few days ago. It was mostly a presentation of their projects with permission for us to interrupt at any time to ask questions and go off on different tangents. 

The question of documentary vs art came up. One man was very invested in distinguishing between 'normal' or 'real' documentary and what he considered Berlin's film Bonanza to be- a work of art that used non-fiction subjects. He mostly saw the difference in the way they edited, what they chose to include or not, how they carved away information to create a piece of art versus showing all of the important information. Essentially he was getting at the fact that they weren't objective (and were perhaps even manipulative), and he thought of documentary work as objective. They were more concerned with the making of art than the presentation of facts.

Here's what my barely-repressed post-modern soul wanted to shout: documentaries are always subjective! There are always choices being made- in the framing, in the editing, in the very first steps of figuring out who to talk to, where to film, how much to pursue, what questions to ask. There are always agendas being forwarded, specific views being presented, material being manipulated. And these choices are integrally tied to aesthetics.

We have a specific aesthetic, a certain process, a set of familiar questions and a style of presentation that we have learned to view as 'factual', as 'real documentary', as an 'objective presentation of Truth'. But what we have made invisible is that that is only one aesthetic, one approach, and that is is as heavily laden with agendas and choices and subjectivity as anything else.  Let's remember post-modernism 101: objectivity does not exist. 

This distinction between 'art' and 'fact presentation' is denying the reality and power of aesthetics- a lie that only art is concerned with aesthetcs and documentary is concerned with content. Part of what makes a documentary powerful is its aesthetic- the aesthetic that allows it to pass itself off as Truth. The style and design that signify expertise, emotional distance. The design that does its best to make invisible the will of the documentarian, the choices being made. Aesthetics drive documentaries as much as they drive fiction, or art, or performance that is aware of and playing with it's aesthetic choices. Which is why it's a stronger decision to acknowledge those choices in the work- and the best documentaries and performances do.


Choices and questions

Yeah, exactly. I'm all about acknowledging choices and taking responsibilty for them. I also think the more broadly you can think about what you're doing, the better the work will be. So with regard to mein Herren Berlin...

Why was this not something that was just as well served by showing in on one screen in a theater that accomodated more bodies? Was there a point to the five screens and tableau that actually served the purpose of the work beyond small aesthetic reinforcement?

Hours of discussion turned up no promising leads on this end.

Charles Campbell

Charles!! YOU WIN. First

Charles!! YOU WIN. First non-MKT commenter.  Thanks!

I have to agree the format seemed unnecessary.  The best thing I can say for it was that I felt like I was sititng in an old-fashioned history museum, which could have been interesting (although it wasn't, at least not for me).


I think their workshop was called something about the art of invisibility.  I felt the film was weakened by the attempted absence of the narrator/maker.  Did they address their interest in invisibility much during the workshop?  I just wonder what impact they intend for it to have.  Still trying to get into this one....

we're reading aesthetics all the time

 I'm reminded of this line from an Ani DiFranco song: "Because we know the difference between the font of '20% More' and the font of "Teriyaki."


I've always hated that line because I don't get it.