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What constitutes a ‘document’ and how does it function?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymological origin is the Latin ‘documentum’, meaning ‘lesson, proof, instance, specimen’. As a verb, it is ‘to prove or support (something) by documentary evidence’, and ‘to provide with documents’. The online version of the OED includes a draft addition, whereby a document (as a noun) is ‘a collection of data in digital form that is considered a single item and typically has a unique filename by which it can be stored, retrieved, or transmitted (as a file, a spreadsheet, or a graphic)’. The current use of the noun ‘document’ is defined as ‘something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc.’ (emphasis added).
Both ‘something’ and that first ‘etc.’ leave ample room for discussion. A document doubts whether it functions as something unique, or as something reproducible. A passport is a document, but a flyer equally so. Moreover, there is a circular reasoning: to document is ‘to provide with documents’. Defining (the functioning of) a document most likely involves ideas of communication, information, evidence, inscriptions, and implies notions of objectivity and neutrality – but the document is neither reducible to one of them, nor is it equal to their sum. It is hard to pinpoint it, as it disperses into and is affected by other fields: it is intrinsically tied to the history of media and to important currents in literature, photography and art; it is linked to epistemic and power structures. However ubiquitous it is, as an often tangible thing in our environment, and as a concept, a document deranges.
the-documents.org continuously gathers documents and provides them with a short textual description, explanation,
or digression, written by multiple authors. In Paper Knowledge, Lisa Gitelman paraphrases ‘documentalist’ Suzanne Briet, stating that ‘an antelope running wild would not be a document, but an antelope taken into a zoo would be one, presumably because it would then be framed – or reframed – as an example, specimen, or instance’. The gathered files are all documents – if they weren’t before publication, they now are. That is what the-documents.org, irreversibly, does. It is a zoo turning an antelope into an ‘antelope’.
As you made your way through the collection,
the-documents.org tracked the entries you viewed.
It documented your path through the website.
As such, the time spent on the-documents.org turned
into this – a new document.
This document was compiled by ____ on 17.10.2023 15:21, printed on ____ and contains 18 documents on _ pages.
the-documents.org is a project created and edited by De Cleene De Cleene; design & development by atelier Haegeman Temmerman.
the-documents.org has been online since 23.05.2021.
Photographing the house and the clearing it stood in proved difficult. During summer, the nettles and brambles slowed down the pace. Some plants stung the elbows. The clearing only became visible when the sun fell through the opening in the canopy. On cloudy days the clearing disappeared.
‘As the order of institutions follows its course, or as huts give way to villages and then to cities and finally to cosmopolitan academies, the forests move further and further away from the center of the clearing. At the center one eventually forgets that one is dwelling in a clearing. […] Yet however wide the circle may get through the inertia of civic expansion, it presumably retains an edge of opacity where history meets the earth, where the human abode reaches its limits.’
Pogue Harrison, R. ‘The Ecology of Finitude’, in: id., Forests. Chicago, 1992, 245.
During the preparation of a seminar, I reread Pierre Bayard’s Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? (2008). On the inside of the back cover, there’s an inscription: it appears I wrote down a license plate number – something I have the habit of doing when a situation seems suspicious.
In Qui à tué Roger Ackroyd?, Bayard analyzes Agatha Christie’s famous detective novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). The literary critic disagrees with detective Hercule Poirot’s conclusion: Ackroyd’s murderer is not the narrator, James Sheppard, as Poirot would have it. It’s a delirious interpretation, ‘consistant à rechercher minutieusement des indices, à interpréter des faits et à organiser nos déductions en une construction d’ensemble harmonieuse’.
The car with license plate number XHD 558 is unknown to me. I can’t recall what I saw that urged me to write it down, nor the time or location when I saw it.
Bayard, P. Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? Paris: Minuit, 2008.
The architect’s photographic archive contains seven images that can be labelled as panoramic pictures. However, they only appear as such when the photographs are viewed in the archive, as strips of negatives. In order to see the panoramic construct, the viewer needs to be presented with two consecutive negatives.
There are two kinds of panorama in the archive: the kind that can only be attributed to a kind of laziness or a need for efficiency on behalf of the architect, and another that originates from frugality.
The former type of panorama is created when the architect is documenting the situation as it is: it is compulsory to document the context of the building or lot, as part of a building application. He simply pivots from left to right, capturing the first and second photograph consecutively. On the filmstrip a panorama appears.
The other kind of panoramic picture only appears at the end of the film role. The last negative on the film has been exposed (the twenty-fourth or thirty-sixth), after which he exerts force onto the lever to move the film forward anyway. Some films are known to have, by accident, a twenty-fifth or a thirty-seventh negative. The plastic between the sprocket holes tears and the film does not advance enough. The result differs fundamentally from the other kind of panorama: there is no separation, no void between the negatives. Rather, there is a slight overlap. A thin, vertical strip of film that has been exposed twice, suggesting contiguity that might not be there. The two exposures might be from altogether different sites, creating a new situation.
Based on De Cleene, M. & De Cleene, A. The Situation as it Is. A Photonovel in Three Movements. Gent: APE, 2022
Depending on the perspective one chooses to look at the address, the house is adorned or not. The perspective from the main road is an image made in August 2020, the website (Google Maps) says. Our car is in front of the garage. It must be the end of August. We drive home from the hospital with the newborn, who doesn’t stop crying. Maybe I tightened the belts in the car seat too much. Arriving at our house, we see the slogans and decorations friends have hung at our front door. On the sill of the neighbour’s first floor window, there’s a brick that must have fallen from the second floor facade.
Due to strict regulations during the COVID-19-pandemic, the yearly vehicle inspection had to be scheduled by appointment. Getting ready to drive to the DMV, the car wouldn’t start. It had rained heavily, the preceding days. The day before the DMV-appointment, water had come running into the car on pushing the pedals. My socks were wet.
I called the DMV to say I needed to cancel the appointment and make a new one (but that the car, besides not being able to drive, was perfectly fine, vehicle-inspection-wise).
Later that day, we got the engine up and running again, using jumper cables and a second car, so we would be able to drive to meet the midwife the next day.
Renault Clio. Instructieboekje. 2012. PDF-file
The GPS-plotter displays the ship near Keyhaven Lake, indefinitely. The sea appears calm, the horizon is level from one perspective.
A mostly empty book designed to collect cigar bands. The bands are glued to the paper at their left side, so the information on the backside, explaining the image and referring to the series it belongs to and the number of different labels the series contains, can be looked up. The book has complete and incomplete series on Christopher Columbus (complete), tanks (incomplete), the origins of civilization (complete), Ancient cultures (incomplete), fashion (complete), South-American sculptures (complete), Ancient columns (incomplete), Nobel Prize Winners (incomplete), an unclarified series of seven men, most of whom are ‘prof.’ or ‘dr.’(complete / incomplete), design plates (incomplete), famous Belgians (complete / incomplete), statesmen (incomplete) and football players (incomplete). The first page in the book is used to present two series. The left column presents the Egyptian dynasty (incomplete). The middle and right column present a series of bands by the brand Jubilé on the history of energy in telling scenes and pieces of machinery.
Middle column, top to bottom:
Right column, top to bottom:
The series is incomplete.2
The scene shows a man standing at a desk, sticking out his hand to an officer in a window that reads, in mirror writing: Customs.
On eBay a complete series is advertised (15 EUR), with a lo-res picture of the whole collection, including the five bands missing in my grandfather’s collection. The information on the back, however, is not given. It leads to a highly speculative history of energy.
A man in a gown watching a T-shaped object.
A child in a cellar, sitting on a stool at a table with gray objects.
A soldier kneeling beside a child, in front of a train, and in front of a boat.
A low table with a giant cartwheel of sorts and a box.
A vertical object with what seems to be a bell on top.
At the end of the day, riding home after work, I find a text on my hand:
‘Diapers’, I recall, and stop at the shop to buy them. Sweat, dust, and manic hand rubbing have rendered parts of the writing illegible. ‘C’ is for Carl, whose newborn I need to visit as soon as possible. Sometimes, I can’t remember what the initial stands for. I don’t have any friends with names beginning with a K (who have newborns I need to visit).
The right hand writes, the left hand serves as the canvas. The back of the right hand, folded around the pen, is blank and tells the always already written on back of the left hand, whose palm never holds a pen, what to register. Right: an author. Left: a poem, sunken into the pores.
Back home, I trace ‘Desk’ again, as not to forget to clean it tomorrow.
I recognized it in a flash, the late Jurassic-early Cretaceous herbivore looming dangerously over the road I was cycling on. I thought of Some Windy Trees.1
A utility pole (425638, 07/99, 07/2002, COBRA), electrical wires, a hawthorn (Crataegus) and an old man’s beard (Clematis vitalba). A symbiosis.
Delbrouck, V. Some Windy Trees. Loupoigne: Wilderness, 2013.
A half a day’s walk from the Fuente Dé teleférico, there are less and less traces of passers-by. The path to Sotres suddenly runs through a lusher green. The fence between two pastures keeps the sheep from crossing and coincides with the border between two regions. A hole in the fence would change the landscape’s hue.
December, 1947. Rapid snowmelt coincides with torrential precipitation. At the bottom of the Thur valley, in Wildenstein, the water gathers.
Cathedral glass, or Flemish glass, lets light through, but distorts visibility. It can show something or someone is present behind it, but not in detail. Often used in front doors, it marks the opaque edge between the private and the public sphere, laying bare their presence, without disclosing their contents.
A blue hand, or a spider (Cyriopagopus lividus), traces the cracks that testify to the fact that the jammed door had to be closed with force. The hinges need oiling. Cobalt blue tarantulas are said to be extremely defensive.
A year ago, mid-August, just before sunrise, the mostly unlit office buildings line the road that leads to the underground parking. I turn off the ignition. I’m in F36. The walls are painted pink. Looking for the exit, I take the escalator and get stuck in an empty shopping mall. The music is playing but all the shops are closed off with steel shutters. So are the exits. I’m out of place. In keeping early customers out, the mall is keeping haphazard visitors in. I’m back in the parking lot. The elevator is broken. I take the stairs and walk by a homeless man, sleeping. There’s shit on the floor. I open the door that leads out of the stairwell. It slams shut behind me. There’s no doorknob. I find myself on a dark floor between mall and parking lot. People are sleeping; some are awake. Heads turn toward me. I start walking slightly uphill towards where I think I might find an exit, or an entrance. The scale of the architecture has shifted from car (F36) and customer (the closed mall) to truck. I find myself amidst the supply-chain. It takes five minutes, maybe fifteen, maybe more to get out and see the office buildings towering over me in the first light of day.
A cigar box, standing at the back of a shelf next to the heating installation, with in it silex-like stones with what seem to be traces of prehistoric usage.
In the garage, there were papers (the archive of O. Clemminck) and objects (stones, tiles) left to us by a man who had worked at the city archive. He was an acclaimed expert on our village’s history.1
A recent study by professor Philippe Crombé at Ghent University states that during the last Ice Age, in the region where I grew up, there was once a great lake, with, at the shores, proven presence of prehistoric man. As a kid, we dug up shells with a toothbrush, and set a perimeter with plastic tape. The former presence of a tavern where my parents now live, and the restaurant which still serves seafood at the other side of the road, prevented accurate dating.
In 2020, the print versions of the Flemish telephone books ‘Gouden Gids’ and ‘Witte Gids’ (The Golden Guide and The White Guide), were published for the last time. From that year onwards, the directory could only be accessed and consulted online. The effect of the production of print telephone directories on the environment is considered to be enormous. As yearly updated, ubiquitous books, they were publications that soon turned superfluous. They led to piles of waste.
From the beginning of the 21st century on, both the print version and the online version had been available. This was a period of medium transition. During the last two decades, the print directory increasingly referred to the websites of the companies listed. To search for e.g. someone to inspect the heating installation, it was possible to find such a company’s website via the print directory, and consult the inspector’s services and price online, bypassing search engines such as Google and its complex algorithms. The telephone directory had a thematic and alphabetical order, combined with the possibility to buy additional advertising space.
‘ORIGINAL. Rire de tout ce qui est original, le haïr, le bafouer, et l’exterminer si l’on peut.’
[‘ORIGINAL. Laugh with everything that’s original, hate it, scold it, exterminate it if you can.’]
Flaubert. Bouvard et Pécuchet (présenté par Raymond Queneau). Paris: Livre de poche, 1959 (with p. 232-233: dried leaf of a ginkgo tree, and p. 324-325: dried leaf of a birch tree), p. 429 [2,00 EUR, Librairie Vic-sur-Cère, August 2021].
Ten years ago, in November, I drove up to Frisia – the northernmost province of The Netherlands. I was there to document the remains of air watchtowers: a network of 276 towers that were built in the fifties and sixties to warn the troops and population of possible aerial danger coming from the Soviet Union. It was very windy. The camera shook heavily. The poplars surrounding the concrete tower leaned heavily to one side.
I drove up to the seaside, a few kilometers farther. The wind was still strong when I reached the grassy dike that overlooked the kite-filled beach. I exposed the last piece of film left on the roll. Strong gusts of wind blew landwards.
Months later I didn’t bother to blow off the dust that had settled on the film before scanning it. A photograph without use, with low resolution, made for the sake of the archive’s completeness.
The dust on the film appears to be carried landwards, by the same gust of wind lifting the kites.
It’s 21:49 on Tuesday May 4th 2021. I’m sifting through the folders of a back-up drive. When I reach Archief2A/2017/wigny donder, the subfolder contains 103 items (97 DNG-files, 1 JPEG-file and 5 PSD-files). The photographs are all very similar. They show the silhouette of the same tree and hills, the red light of the telecommunications mast on the left and the orange glow of the street’s sodium lights. The thunderstorm moves from right to left. _44A3920 is the only exposure (10 seconds) that recorded lightning bolts.
I looked up heat lightning, also known as silent lightning, summer lightning, or dry lightning, which is simply cloud-to-ground lightning that occurs very far away, with thunder that dissipates before it reaches the observer. On YouTube I watched: Top 10 Dangerous Lightning Strikes Thunder recorded on Camera (HIGH VOLTAGE!!) followed by Lightning Strikes at the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open. It’s 22:07, I am doubtful at first but become convinced I can hear thunder afar.