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 printed in offset 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 gathers documents and provides them with a short textual description, explanation, or digression, written by multiple authors. Regularly, new files will be added, and old files will be altered. 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 files gathered on this website are all documents – if they weren’t before publication, they now are. That is what this website, irreversibly, does. It is a zoo turning an antelope into an ‘antelope’.
Navigating the website can be done in different ways. There are links in the textual descriptions leading to other documents; there is a collection of all files published; at the right, the sidebar allows users to filter and arrange files based on themes, authors, types, etc. You can hit ‘random’. As the visitor makes his/her/their way through the collection, the-documents.org tracks the entries that have been viewed. It documents the path through the website. Your path can be saved digitally, printed at home, or ordered as a book. As such, the time spent on the-documents.org turns into a new document.
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Contact: info [@] the-documents.org
De Cleene De Cleene is Michiel De Cleene and Arnout De Cleene. Together they form a research group that focusses on novel ways of approaching the everyday, by artistic means and from a cultural and critical perspective.
contact: info [@] decleenedecleene.be
This project was made possible with the support of the Flemish Government and KASK, the School of Arts of HOGENT and Howest.
Briet, S. Qu’est-ce que la documentation? Paris: Edit, 1951.
Gitelman, L. Paper Knowledge. Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2014.
Oxford English Dictionary Online. Accessed on 13.05.2021.
During the 1950s, as part of the communist reconstruction, a large coal/gas power plant was built close to the village of Inota, Hungary. This is the place where I grew up. It operated until about 1994. In the run-up to the final shutdown of the operation they gradually lowered its output. By this time the coal mines in the neighboring city had shut down as well due to the diminishing yield of the low-quality brown coal they had mined for the purpose of fueling the power plant. This resulted in mass unemployment and general decline in the area. The small lake in the photo is an artificial reservoir that collected all the water from the nearby streams. The substantial flow of one of those rivers powered about 11 water-driven flour mills; I know this on account of my grandmother, who would often pick up bags of flour for bread.
The ruin in the photograph once was a pumping facility that drove the water from the lake to the power plant about 3 kilometres away. In the years following the systemic change of Hungary and its celebrated evolution towards a western-type capitalism in ‘89-’90, the rules of ownership and the perception of public and private property were somewhat elusive. The lack of state control resulted in a transfer of public property to private hands on a monumental scale throughout the whole country, and – by extension – the Eastern Bloc. At the time some of the village dwellers of Inota, driven by the force of a major change and the prospect of a new, prosperous future of capitalist entrepreneurship, gathered to disassemble the water-pumping facility along the artificial lake. Slowly, day by day, under the mist of this elusive moment, they carried away carriageful after carriageful of bricks, disassembled from the facade of the building. It was perhaps a way of taking revenge, but certainly also claiming the moment’s opportunity. The bricks made their way into the walls of the new-built family homes of some of the villagers. The former water pumping facility became a sort of material reservoir for the construction of a new future. The transformation from a water reservoir to a material (and ideological) one and its subsequent exhaustion, left a ruin that has remained untouched for the last 30 years. The bricks that were difficult to reach were left in place, thus forming a curtain around the upper part of the building just above the pillars. Freed from all perimeter walls, the leftover structure appeared as a pavilion-like, open floor plan.
The cliffs at the sides of the valley on the photo served as the location for the film My Way Home (Így Jöttem, 1965) by the iconic Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó, about a 17-year-old boy who falls prisoner to the Russian army and forms a friendship with one of the foes. The film is said to display all the main themes of the director: the psychological presence of landscape, the randomness of violence and the arbitrary nature of power.
In the distance a formation of meadows can be seen in the photograph. Those meadows make up 16 acres of land that were given to my grandfather and subsequently inherited by my mother. It was a reparation for having been stripped of their wealth by the Soviet establishment in the 1950s. The worth of the land is a couple thousand euros as of today. It is part of the largest consistent nature reserve area of the EU.
While standing on the cliffs and looking south-eastward, the power plant can be seen. The orientation of the photograph is approximately north facing.
Turning southwards one can see the stone cellar, about a kilometre away, where my grandfather’s adolescent sister had spent more than a year, while two German SS officers occupied their family home. During the advancement of the Red Army, a Russian soldier, entering the cellar, attempted to take advantage of her. The soldier’s superior intervened and shot him in the head without hesitation. My parents store potatoes and apples in the cellar to keep them from rotting in the summer and freezing in the winter. It is easy to say when a potato or an apple comes from the cellar; it has an unmistakable, musty taste.
Márk Redele pursues projects that fundamentally relate to architecture and its practice but rarely look like architecture. www.markredele.com