Session 5: Mass Murders and Documentary Requirements

  • Filmed Testimonies: From the Document to the Artwork

Ophélie Naessens

Many contemporary artists establish close links with history, appropriating images and archives, conducting investigations. Since the early nineties, some artists emerging in this movement with a singular posture; working from videotaped testimony. Behind the camera, they speak with individuals who lived closest major events of contemporary history. The historical dimension is an essential component of Esther ShalevGerz works, built around the gap between listening and speech, memory and forgetting, collective and individual memory. Through her videos and installations, men and women tell history. The artist listens and gives shape to the memory, making in dialogue History and individual story. Shalev Gerz handles documents, interviews witnesses, those who carry to others what they have experienced, and exhibits objects, those we get from hand to hand to write history.
This lecture will fix on the artistic uses of filmed testimony, through the study of artistic strategies at work in the reconstruction of the recorded real. Using three examples, we will examine this form of documentary practice in terms of its aesthetic, political and ethical issues.

The artist of Lithuanian origin leads from the early 2000s a largescale work from testimonies related to the Holocaust, including a video of objects found in Buchenwald (Menschendinge / The human side of things), crossword testimonies (Does Your Image Reflect me?), or mute testimonies (Last witnesses /Auschwitz 19452005). These examples will lead us to study how the artistic process induces the reinterpretation of the documents when they become components of the work, and to wonder about the potential of art to bring about a sensitive memory and reactivate common memory.
Ophelie Naessens has a PhD in Fine Arts from the University of Rennes 2. She defended in 2013 her thesis entitled The Portraits of Stories: The Living Word in artistic practices from the seventies to the present. Her current research and artistic practice explore the representation of a given speech through investigation processes and the creation of forums / listening spaces (videos, installations and performances). She is currently temporary assistant teaching and research in Fine Arts at the University of Rennes 2.


  • The Fabrication of the Archive-work with Rithy Panh

Soko Phay

Rithy Panh’s film, L’image Manquante (2013) reflects his reflexive approach in which History is put into question in regards to oblivion and collective murder. For years, the filmmaker has searched, in vain, this “true image” of the genocide, into the archives, with witnesses, over the town and the countryside. He doesn’t expect it any more, but he has chosen to create it, through figurines made with clay, reconstructed setting, photographies, or audiovisual archives, which all allow to see some scenes unexistant in any archives. What “I give to you now, say Rithy Panh, is not an image, nor the quest of the only one, but the image of the quest in itself: the one which is made possible by cinema”. L’Image manquante offers an alternative between a documentary approach based on the empirical reality of the world, and an artistic one based on a narrative History with images and texts. We will propose to analyze the epistemological shifting, through the complex relations between History, memory and creation which all make the experience of History sensitive.
Soko Phay is associate professor in History and Theory of arts at the university Paris 8 and in the EHESS. She has written several papers and directed collective books on the aesthetic of the mirror in the contemporary art and on the relations between arts and mass murders. Among her last publications: Cambodge, l’atelier de la mémoire (Editions Sonleuk Thmey, 2010), Cambodge, le génocide effacé, en collab. avec Pierre Bayard (Cécile Défaut, 2013), « Un génocide sans images ? La peinture de Vann Nath face à l’aveuglement », in Emmanuel Alloa et Stefan Kristensen (dir.), Témoignage et survivance, (MetisPresse, 2014).  She has also co-directed with Pierre Bayard a documentary Vann Nath, le peintre-mémoire (2013), produced by the Centre Bophana and the Labex Arts H2H.


  • A Necessary and Balanced Transgression

Jacques Delcuvellerie

The specific requisites of a theatrical art and the ones of a documentary art may appear incompatible. Regardless of the artistic quality of a documentary work, its fundamental validation – and otherwise its breaks through this field – lies in the authenticity of the elements of reality it exposes. One example among thousands: if, in the beautiful movie 5 Broken Cameras about the resistance of the Palestinian village of Bilin, it was proved that the deaths or the arrests were reenacted, simulated, a fatal doubt would pervade the all filmmaking. Theatre, unlike the other arts, draws its specific strength from producing physical reality on stage, in a space-time shared with the audience, but this reality is openly given as a kind of simulation (acting), a re-presentation.

The documentary which simulates the reality betrays its own vocation. The theatre which presents itself as “realistic” (in the sense of “as if it was real”) betrays its very artistic strength, so as it distorts its object. Just think to the “realistic” representations of genocides.

We do believe however that this fundamental contradiction – if it’s right understood – can open onto the exploration of some expressive aeras, in the border between two genres. A moving line where their own specificities are switched, blurred. The balanced transgression of the exclusions constitutive of them. The characteristics of this transgression, its forms and its orientation can be neither anticipated, nor fixed. Each new artistic project imposes it on itself while it discovers it. But it’s always deduced from a vision, a will or a desire which could be summarized such as: what does exactly one want the viewer to? This question brings another one: what shall we do, to oneself, to those who initiate this process for this vision may have an opportunity to happen?


Jacques Delcuvellerie is a French stage director, author, and pedagogue, based in Belgium. He is the creator and artistic director of the Groupov, a multinational collective of interdisciplinary artists. He published in 2012: Sur la Limite, vers la Fin (Repères sur le théâtre dans la société du spectacle à travers l’aventure du Groupov), Groupov/Alternatives théâtrales. He initiated, co-wrote and directed: Rwanda 94. Une tentative de reparation symbolique envers les morts à l’usage des vivants (Avignon 1999, created in 2000, international touring until 2005, published by Editions Théâtrales), Anathème (Avignon 2005), Un Uomo di Meno (Fare thee well Tovaritch Homo Sapiens) (Belgique – Théâtre National 2010). Last creation: L’Impossible Neutralité (Belgique – Festival de Liège 2015). Teaching at the Conservatoire Royal de Liège since 1976, he has directed many workshops in Belgique and abroad, and is member of the first edition of the Ecole des Maîtres, founded by Franco Quadri. He directed the 2002 session of this Ecole in Italy and in Liège. The works of the Groupov have led to several movies and documentaries.


  • An arrangement of doubts. An analysis of the Documentary Performance « Jan Karski (mon nom est une fiction) » (Jan Karski – My Name is Fiction)

Kathrin-Julie Zenker

What we call “dispositif” in French, can be compared to a machine which keeps working its different parts jointly but also separately. It’s a heterogeneous arrangement or composition that respects the independence of its different elements. In this way, the novel Jan Karski, written in 2009 by the French author Yannick Haenel, and the theatre creation Jan Karski (mon nom est une fiction), directed by Arthur Nauzyciel, can be defined as a “dispositif” or a “documentary arrangement” as they both offer a fragmentary approach of reality, which casts a fundamental doubt on the historical truth.
In our approach, the concept of “doubt” refers to T.W. Adorno and his idea of art as an auto-reflexive process. Without sanctifying the brutality of the German fascism as a matter that can’t be approached aesthetically at all, the philosopher considers the problem of representation in a dialectical perspective. Within his concept of the “non-identical”, Adorno highlights the incommensurable character of reality and considers that the artistic depicting of the world should first of all consist of its aesthetic and ethical questioning, rather than an attempt to providing answers.

In the same way and in concrete terms, Jan Karski (mon nom est une fiction) proposes three variations around the interpretation of Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski’s testimony. The spectator passes alternatively through a documentary and through a fictionally approach of the 1940’s. The relation between reality and its aesthetically interpretation is therefore exposed as a quite complex and fragile construction, that has to be searched and researched again as it is based on the fundamental doubt, questioning of the possible truth.
Kathrin-Julie Zenker, PhD in performing arts, is a German theatre director. She has been working in France since 2005, teaching theatre at the university of Nice Sophia Antipolis. After studying at the Institut National Supérieur des Arts de la Scène (INSAS) in Brussels and at the Ernst Busch National German theatre school in Berlin, where she worked respectively with the writer Jean-Marie Piemme and the director Manfred Karge, Kathrin-Julie Zenker produced several documentary performances. The work Le silence rouge (The red silence) focuses on the problem of physical violence within the RAF (Red army faction). Her more recent creation  Résistance(s) (Resistances) deals with the relation between fascism and mass medias. Kathrin-Julie Zenker’s research deals with the place of the actor in contemporary art and in a more philosophical perspective, with the confrontation of reality and aesthetics.



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