Katrina Sluis
Curator and Associate Professor School of Art & Design at ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences.

Fragments of the chapters ‘ Documentation in an age of photographic hyper circulation’ and ‘The invisible art of documenting art’, in the book Documentation as Art. Expanded Digital Practices. Ed. Routledge (2022).

Documentation in an age of photographic hyper circulation 

What is captured in the act of photographic documentation? this has always been something of a troubling question, particularly when documenting art. Two forms of mediation – the artwork on the one hand, the photograph on the other – collide and produce a visual record in the form of a negative or digital image file. In this meeting between artwork and camera the artwork's iconicity is emphasized whilst the photograph is rendered transparent, delegated to the role of invisible carrier or container of visual information. With respect to the art museum, this relationship has been historically and culturally charged: as a reproductive technology, photography has always been something of a second-class citizen, possessing a mindless automatism and banal literalism operating in tension with modernist narratives of authorship and artistic exceptionalism. For this reason, the camera was initially embraced as a conservation tool for accurate recording and reproduction, while its descriptive banality ensure is exclusion from the canon of art. For photography to be put to work in the museum as an aesthetic medium or as a document, a certain level of denial had to take place: the multiple social scientific popular and aesthetic categories of photography had to be contained and bracketed out. This has led the art museum to adopt a set of conflicting positions with respect to photographic documentation. On the one hand, the camera is positioned as an objective recording device with the capacity to freeze time, producing a stable and accurate representation of a performance, exhibition or artwork. On the other hand, once accessioned to the museum collection, photography is understood as a creative medium expressing the subjectivity of the photographer-auteur1.

The complexities surrounding photography's dual role as a technology of visual representation and technology of reproduction have not diminished in the 21st century computational culture. With the convergence of camera on phone, screen and network photography has become a ubiquitous cultural practice, whilst the documentation of art has accelerated beyond the paradigm of conservation to the practice of everyday life. In today's museums, photography is simultaneously a method for disseminating artworks, an artistic medium, an instrument of preservation, education, marketing and a popular social activity. Rather than sourcing reproductions from the gift shop, visitors record artworks under their own volition – as backdrop, memento mori, evidence, performance or visual speech. This has generated further anxieties about the role and value of photographic reproduction, linked to a longer crisis of 'the digital' in the art museum and how it is modelled and understood culturally2. Beyond the walled garden of institutional websites, images of exhibitions, museum collections and visitor selfies mingle together on Instagram, Twitter feeds, TikTok on Google Image Search results. Operating as networked images, artworks escape the semiotic confines of the white cube, perhaps mutating into a meme, a GeoCities background, a custom RedBubble mouse mat or the spectacular backdrop to an influencer campaign. In turn, gallery audiences have unwittingly become the focus of concerns about the impact of unauthorised documentation, its bearing on the art experience, forms of spectatorship and even the safety of artworks displayed3. What results, as Boris Groys suggests, is the possibility that the artwork's photographic documentation gets higher engagement than the original itself4, as it becomes transformed into a trackable side of clicks, likes and attention that eclipses established institutional metrics such as football.

The older problem of the artwork's authenticity and aura has therefore been further complicated by the ambiguities of contemporary hypercirculation with its attendant rhetoric of 'engagement', 'participation' an 'access'. Initial concerns about unregulated cameras in the museum have given way to ability to embrace of selfie taking audiences insofar as they facilitate the performance indicators and engagement narratives of communications teams. From this perspective, the circulation of visitor photography can be used as concrete evidence of a museum's contemporary relevance and its capacity to generate consumer desire, particularly at the time of reduced public funding. Art's marketeers now encourage museum leaders to 'capitalise on trends' in order to grow their museum's 'value' through 'Instagrammable, digitally attractive shows' where visitors can 'enhance their online visibility amid the beautiful background of museum art' by targeting the 'it' factor for that demographic5. In turn, the remote of online audience is positioned as an increasingly significant consumer of museum documentation, reflected in the comment of one museum professional who concedes, 'while a visitor might come to the Royal Academy in London once a year, an Instagram follower engages with us every day'6.

Whilst there is a growing body of newspaper articles, inflammatory tweets an art criticism addressing the curation of spectacular art designed to be instagrammable, less attention has been given to artwork which complicate, intervene or reflexively exploit this emerging circuits of reproduction circulation and ratification. In the broadcast model of social, media the artist and curator have become potential 'channels' for documentation – transmitting snapshots of encounters with objects, studios, collectors, celebrities and sales. On the one hand, the artist risks becoming embroiled in this visual economy, potentially reduced to the status of a content provider of jpegs and marketable content7. On the other, it offers a context in which the shifting cultural value of the art object and its networked reproduction might be critiqued or destabilised. How can the socio-technical aspects of mediation be privileged rather than obscured in the meeting of artwork camera and Internet? How are the documentation practices of audiences being harnessed by artists towards subversive or artistic ends? What happens when the media of documentation has become entangled with the artwork itself?

The invisible art of documenting art

As Ofri Cnaani argues elsewhere in this volume (Chapter 7), Odeon documentation has the capacity to produce an imperfect and incomplete poetic counter visual to the gigapixel spectacle of Commercial Art platforms such as Google Arts and Culture or the professional exhibition photography circulated by Contemporary Art Daily. Social media platforms offer an environment where, through hashtags and geotagging, the audience's photographic labor becomes connected to other networked documentations, offering an unstable and expanding record of an artwork's transit through time and space. From this perspective, the singular documentary viewpoint is eclipsed by one which is diffused, multiple and fragmented – as each visitor creates their own visual interpretation around documentation framed by their social context under cameraphone settings. Meditation happens not just spell photographic capture, but at multiple sites of its distribution – raising questions how such documentations accelerate, aggregate, connect an invite forms of sociality, as well as how the impact on the interpretation of the artwork itself.

The ambiguous relationship between artwork and networked image has become the subject of works by a number of contemporary artists, among them Cristina Garrido, who investigates the mutating an unstable cloud of images generated by and for art audiences online. Garrido positions the photographer – whether casual visitor or commission professional – as an active participant in the construction of the artwork's afterlife, part of a wider socio-technical assemblage of bodies, software and screens which sit between artworks and viewers. Her works depict the ways various recording technologies are mobilised in processes of cultural legitimation, and how this in turn imprints itself on art production, asking what is valorized captured and disregarded. This includes the economic, aesthetic and social organisation of contemporary exhibition photography, which she explores in her 2019 project The (Invisible) Art of Documenting Art. In the film an accompanied publication, Garrido presents are series of interviews she undertook with professional art photographers she positions as highly skilled yet invisible agents whose creative labour translates cultural spectacle to jpg , in an increasingly automated documentation pipeline from gallery to screen. Her interlocutors reflect on the practical and philosophical problems their practice presents: mediation is far from straightforward, bound by rules and conventions and involving a significant amount of styling, post-producing and technical know-how. In privileging the perspectives of these workers, the artwork draws attention to the museum as a manufacturer of images and the photographic document as a carefully constructed mythology, reflecting the ways in which the medium continues to be mobilised by museums and galleries, to serve narratives of 'objectivity trustworthiness and aesthetic value'8.

The (Invisible) Art of Documenting Art (2019)

In a further project, The Social Life of ' Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)' (2016)9 Garrido considers the proliferation of audience documentation, inviting us to experience Pierre Huyghe's sculpture Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt) (2012) exclusively through the camera phones of its visitors. The aggregated snapshots depict the work’s initial debut at dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012, to its subsequent travels to Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Hayward Gallery in London LACMA in Los Angeles, and MoMA in New York, where it was ultimately acquired and accessioned to MoMA's permanent collection. The popularity of Hughe's work on social media is perhaps unsurprising: it takes the form of a reclining nude in the tradition of classical sculpture, whose head has been replaced by a beehive which is home to a living colony. Experiencing the work is unpredictable and involves an element of risk for both bees and audience, which host museums creating bespoke installation solutions to ensure camera-wielding visitors kept their distance. In an interview with MoMA's beekeeper, Andrew Coté, he observes 'they are probably the most photographed colony of bees history of the world, with hundreds if not thousands of people from all over the world photographing them seven days a week' 10.

Having tracked and collected images of the work circulating under the hashtag #pierrehuyghe, garrido assembled over 600 into a stop motion animation which percents the sculpture multiple viewpoints over a period from 2012 to 2015. In emphasising the geographical transit of Huyghe's sculpture and its social life on Instagram, Garrido offers a radically different perspective to the official documentation generated by its institutional hosts or even its popular MoMA livestream. Huyghe's creation instead rendered liquid and unstable, stuttering as it scales up and down radically contracting under the pressure of a simulated camera vignette or over enthusiastic crop. Annotated and re-grammed, is fanatically shifts from turn to grayscale, before being diffracted by the nostalgic haze of an Instagram filter. Uniform beekeepers flit past, fog descends, the bee colony heaves and mutates, tourists seek caffeine, clouds loom and descend, vegetation encroaches. Paving stones rise up, unknown figures visit, one wears a comically large bird's head. Accelerating through time and space at six snapshots per second, Huyghe's sculpture finds temporary refugee under a canopy of a European weeping beeches, enjoys a stint amongst a landscape of brutalist architecture, and finds sanctuary amongst the puddles of a museum forecourt.

The Social Life of ‘Untilled (Liegender Frauenakt)’ (2016)

In Garrido's work, three years of the artwork speeds by, compressed into two minutes and four seconds, disorienting an absorbing. The transparency of the photographic apparatus and the singularity of the photographer is obliterated, and in its place emerges a kind of 'platform seeing,11  where it becomes possible to experience 684 parallel documentations of the same artwork. In this fragmented, mutating aggregation there is a turn from an iconic representation of an artwork in a discrete time and place, to an affective understanding of the artwork’s experience, its temporality, its life as a camera-prop and its capacity to bear witness to its audience. From this perspective, one might speculate whether Garrido's collected documentations are more truthful or faithful to the artist’s own sensibility. In a 2013 interview with the Art Newspaper,Huyghe observed: ‘ [e]xhibitions revolver more and more around the need to address a target public… I don't want to exhibit something to someone anymore. I want to do the reverse: I want to exhibit someone to something’12 for Huyghe and Garrido, visitors are actively involved in the production of the artwork, which is conceptualized not in terms of a passive object but a process or event unfolding over time.


1. For an extended analysis of the art museum’s relationship to photography and reproduction, see Michelle Henning, “ With and Without Walls: Photographic Reproduction and the Art Museum” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 577-602; Alexandra Moschovi, A Gust of Photo-Philia: Photography in the Art Museum (Leuven University Press, 2020).

2. Claire Bishop, "Digital Divide," Artforum (September 2012), 434-432; Victoria Walsh, Andrew Dewdney, on Emily Pringle, Modeling Cultural Value in the New Media Cultures of Networked Participation (London: RCA/ AHRC, 2014).

3. This is underscored by Mark Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, who recently commented: ‘If I could ban people from taking selfies are all three or four art fairs, I would. It's demeaning to artists. None of them want their work just to be the backdrop to a selfie’.  In the same article, curator Alexei Glass-Cantor observes ‘People step back and don't pay attention… They put themselves at the art at risk,’ (Georgina Adam, ‘ Art Takes Second Place as Selfies Steal the Shows,’ The Art Newspaper (1 June 2016), http//www.theartnewspaper.com/2016/06/01/art-takes-second-p`lace-as-selfies-steal-the-shows).

4. Boris Groys, In the Flow (London: Verso Books, 2016).

5 “How to Capitalize on Trends to Grow Your Museum’s Value,” ACME Technologies (blog) (2 May 2019), https://www.acmeticketing.com/how-to-capitalize-on-trends-to-grow-your-museums-value/.

6. Ellen Gamerman, “The Top Selfie-Worthy Museum Shows of 2017,” Wall Street Journal (Online) (9 January 2017), https://www.wsj.com/articles/art-shows-that-shine-in-selfies-1483977882.

7. Dena Yago, “Content Industrial Complex,” E-Flux Journal, no. 89 (March, 2018) and Chapter 9, this volume.

8. Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert and Elena Stylianou, “Editorial: Photography, Artists and Museums,” Photographies 7, no. 2 (2014): 117-30, https://doi.org/10.1080/17540763.2014.943053.

9. The work is viewable online at https://vimeo/173522372.

10. Margaret Ewing, ‘Close-up on Pierre Huyghe’s Untilled and Q&A with Beekeper Andrew Coté, Inside/ Out, A MoMA/ MoMA PS1 Blong (17 July 2015), http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2015/07/17/close-up-onpierre-huyghes-untilled-and-a-qa-with-beekeper-andrew-cote/.

11. Andrian MacKenzie and Manna Munster, “Platform Seeing: Image Ensembles and their Invisualities,” Theory Culture & Society, 36, no.5 (2019) 3-22. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0263276419847508-.

12. Julia Michalska, “Pierre Huyghe Creates a Buzz in Paris,” The Art Newspaper (Online), no. 249 (September, 2013).