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
The-documents.org is a project by De Cleene De Cleene; design & development by atelier Haegeman Temmerman.
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.
In Six Stories from the End of Representation, James Elkins writes: ‘Astrophysicists are well practised in “cleaning up” photographic plates by adjusting colour and contrast, removing images of dust, correcting aberrations, restoring lost pixels, and balancing uneven background illumination. When it comes to blur, the usual strategy is to specify what counts as “smooth” and what counts as “pointlike,” and then refine the image until it exhibits the required pointlike properties’1. Still, some astronomic images keep a certain amount of blur (although it would be technically possible to delineate them). Elkins continues: ‘blur does not need to be a matter of distance from some hypothetical optimal clarity: it can be a functional scale, independent of the viewer’s notions of clarity and even of the image itself’2.
On the night of 22 November 2021, I join John Sussenbach in his backyard while he captures Neptune.
He invites me to join him and his wife for dinner. A prayer. Soup and bread. The images he makes, he explains, are complex from a temporal point of view. The light coming from Neptune has travelled for four hours before it reaches us. Moreover, these images are not photographs of a singular moment, but stacked frames of a video-recording. In doing so, he can, to some extent, eliminate the effects of a bad ‘seeing’: the negative effect atmospheric turbulence has on the light that reaches the telescope.
A bright dot is jumping around on his laptop’s screen. ‘That’s Neptune’, he says. With his index finger he follows the dot. ‘That’s the bad seeing. That’s the unrest.’
The next day I send him the photograph I took of him standing on his ladder, dangerously placed on the edge of the tarp covering his pool. ‘Nice to see the open star cluster Pleiades in your photograph’, he replies. He attaches the image he made that night: ‘If there would have been a clear storm on Neptune, it would have shown’.
Image by John Sussenbach. 22 November 2021 19.00 UT North up
C14 f/11 and ASC462MC camera plus ADC, Houten (NL)
Elkins, J. Six Stories from the End of Representation. Images in Painting, Photography, Astronomy, Microscopy, Particle Physics, and Quantum Mechanics, 1980-2000. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008, 59.