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Portada libro FACTOGRAFÍA

Víctor del Río, Factografía. Vanguardia y comunicación de masas,
Madrid, Abada Editores, 2010.
ISBN: 987-84-96775-78-7

[Factography. Avant-Garde and Mass Communication]


If we set out to tell the story of the 20th century in images we would find many photographs that are already part of an ineluctable iconographic heritage, something we all recognize as part of the visual chronicle of our time. Among those images we would undoubtedly find the Stalin regime’s retouched photos of certain scenes documenting the revolutionary process. Archives whose documentary character should have guaranteed an objective base for the narration of history were defiled to eliminate certain uncomfortable protagonists or to improve the appearance of the Bolshevik leaders. The case of Trotsky’s extirpation from alongside Lenin in some of his meetings is the best known but the list of characters erased from historical photos is much longer and is not limited to the Soviets. It affects other totalitarian regimes throughout the 20th century.(1) Such images would have to be shown in pairs, alternating the original and the retouched version in a sort of “find the differences” game. That game brings a comic character to the exercise of recognition, although it becomes grotesque if we consider the underlying situation, which mirrors the correction and transformation of confessions signed by tortured prisoners to fit an official version of the facts. The same process that mutilated bodies was applied to images, which thus echo the violence embodied in the totalitarian fantasy.

The construction of official truth has a high price and generates its own images. The history of the manipulation of images thus marks a permanent reversal of the presumption of truth we attribute to them. And we may well wonder whether, beyond these obvious cases, our current information systems are actually operating any differently than these crude distortions. Our comparative reading of different communications media would seem to guarantee greater contrast, but we find ourselves with an underlying suspicion of the testimonial aspect with which events are presented to us.

Nowadays, we have access to alternative contra-information systems—amateur journalism in private blogs on Internet, and databases with oral narrations by people who experienced critical situations in conflict areas. The diversity and polyphony of these new information flows seem to reinterpret traditional ways of telling stories. Miguel de Unamuno’s concept of “intra-history” takes on a new meaning here with the accumulation of anonymous narratives. But all of this is equally based on the mechanical registration of those stories, the representation of events through technical recording and broadcasting media. This constitutes a new way of writing facts, that is, a new “factography” that is specific to our time.

The subject of this book is the description of the manner in which certain avant-garde artists see the possibilities of mass media as a new field for experimentation that allows them to reinterpret their social function. As the title indicates, relations will be drawn between the 20th century’s historical avant-garde and a cultural state based on mass media. But this initial premise raises certain questions. Which avant-garde are we referring to? What do me mean by “mass media”? And, what type of relations are we establishing between those two terms?

When discussing the avant-garde, we will distinguish the general historical concept from its concrete manifestation in “isms,” alternating between the most abstract and general level and the most concrete—manifestations localized in history and subject to the peculiarities of a case study. We will approach the general notion of the avant-garde with the assumption that the only thing all early 20th-century “isms” may have shared was their propensity to probe the limits of art. The search for those limits obviously leads one to question the very notion of art and to draw significantly closer to everyday or real life. This could be the basis for a theory that would define the avant-garde as a project for approaching the practice of living, as opposed to “art for art’s sake,” or the esthetic distancing that characterizes art from other times. Following this argument, it is hardly surprising that 20th-century art drew so close to other activities that it was sometimes indistinguishable from them, especially once industry launched the massive production of images, defining its place in the mass media. But in our approach to this subject we will refer to a historical case study that is much riskier, though no less paradigmatic of art’s current directions.

We will begin with an episode that took place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s: a series of projects marked by an exemplary use of the new creative possibilities offered by technology for recording image and sound—specifically, photography and film. These projects from the end of the constructivist movement were by artists, writers and theoreticians grouped around the Leftist Arts Front who defined what came to be called “productivism”—figures such as Alexander Rodchenko, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein,  Boris Arvatov, Viktor Shklovsky and Sergei Tretyakov. Their heated debates generated some of the most important concepts in our current system of media representation. A well-known example is the series of debates about film cutting, and that same milieu saw the birth of documentary film as we know it today. Those artists and filmmakers, along with the theoreticians and writers, set the groundwork for reflection on these subjects that continues today.

While alluding to this specific episode in the art’s history risks making it a metonym for the notion of the avant-garde, the case of factography is paradigmatic of a generalized aspiration by art from the last 100 years in both its theoretical make-up and its works. This aspiration is embodied in the effort to know and transform everyday reality.

The mass media to which we will be referring are both the reflection and origin of those experiments, once they become generalized, institutionally accepted and understood by power and leading economic interests as a peculiar part of the market and politics. What was new in the 20th century was the construction of a public sphere totally mediated by such mass-media formulas. Those concepts affect the permeable separation between propaganda and information, indoctrination and education.

The questions debated by the Russians foreshadowed ethical paradoxes surrounding documentary images and chronicles that seek to faithfully reflect reality. The catch-22 in which the desire for truth becomes ensnared is rooted in the fact that this “reality” is no more than an imaginary creation, a technical representation. The Soviet artists coined a very revealing neologism for this at a time when art and literature was changing its orientation in order to begin using photography and film as the bases for production. That term was “factography,” a concept associated with documentaries, exhibitions and journalism that considers not only how images and sounds are recorded with new technology, but also how history is narrated using those resources. The grand narrative of humanity as told through innumerable stories is an area of interest to both art and mass media.

Factography will be the thread of this story, describing a path that could be seen as a zoom-out of history: from the details of the Soviet experience to the more general state of mass media in the age of globalization. The latter subject will be a final note that marks the arrival of a historical phenomenon whose complex development must be meticulously dealt with. In that same sense, our story moves from East to West, following a Western path of reception and reinterpretation of a phenomenon apparently distant in time and space. The direction of this journey and the broadening of our field of vision may help us understand the link between isolated minority events and those occurring on a global scale. An important part of this research seeks to show how information on the concept of factography has moved back and forth among art historians and theoreticians. Figures such as Walter Benjamin were to prove indispensable as the Russians’ teachings became part and parcel of a new way of understanding the artist’s work. And artistic questions were rapidly applied to others of a more general character that affected new ways of understanding reality through media.

The objective of the present work will be to trace a path through a largely forgotten concept that, nevertheless, has an enormous capacity to influence the history of art from after World War II. When we speak of the history of contemporary art, we are referring to both its character as a story and its successive practices. Some of the latter, especially conceptual art, reveal a not-always-recognized connection to factography, which also makes the latter an explanatory model for more recent manifestations. The objective of this research therefore includes a historiographic basis in its dialog with those who have described the nature of art in the last century. But beyond those internal avatars of the art world, it seeks to examine the nature of representation in our time, that is, how we construct our world through the media.

more info: http://www.abadaeditores.com/


  Licencia de Creative CommonsVíctor del Río 2010