UC SANTA CRUZ, May 16-19, 2019


Poetics and Politics of Documentary is a practice-led research symposium exploring the interconnections between art and knowledge as they are expressed in documentary practices, broadly conceived.

The symposium represents an opportunity for media makers working within the broad sweep of documentary practice to critically reflect on our own work—to come together to think out loud about what it is that we do, how we do it, and why it matters. As was the case at previous conferences, our gathering also provides an invaluable context for documentary-based research that both troubles and reinvigorates the discrepant categories of scholarly “theory” and cultural “practice.”  Documentary practices are material, time-based, embodied, relational, routinized, performative, specific, unstable, happening and happened. Practice is a doing. At its most utopian, practice is an act of resistance to the impulse in documentary for ontological determinism or positivist recognition—its reduction to craft, to now-ness, to the indexical, to the real, to a set of conventions or imperatives, or to a set of modes or iron-clad truisms. The symposium invites participants whose work frames, historicizes, or embodies questions about the various possible relations of thinking to making in documentary research.

We have set as the theme of this year’s symposium: Against Story. Even a cursory look at the current field of non-fiction media funding and exhibition reveals a widespread requirement for the identification of ‘characters’ and the delineation of ‘story.’ What does this demand facilitate and what does it foreclose? What are the political implications of this trend? What are the poetic or aesthetic consequences?  The sub-title of this symposium is meant to suggest two stances: a counterposition but also an intimate proximity. Our title is clearly offered as a provocation: an invitation to critical thought and invested discussion. As such, the symposium is in solidarity with other recent (and ongoing) publications and events that critically engage with contemporary documentary cultures in an effort to both broaden and deepen our field and modes of inquiry. 

Our keynote presenters this year are Kirsten Johnson and Lana Lin, two practitioners who help us reimagine how we might do things with documentary. Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow’s  “Beyond Story” is an important call to arms and we are thrilled that they will be bringing their manifesto, in conversation with Rick Prelinger and Sindhu Thirumalaisamy, to the symposium. We are also featuring a preview screening of a new film by Sarah Christman, Swarm Season, and numerous works-in-progress presentations from an amazing array of makers/scholars.

This year we have strayed slightly from the tradition of a single stream of presentations all held in one room. We are conducting three break out panels, simultaneous presentations. We did this for several reasons—to integrate media work more forcefully into the flow of conversation (rather than sequestering media work to a separate theater) and to accommodate the high number of compelling proposals that we received.

The Poetics and Politics Symposium, a biennial conference, is entering its eighth year. The inaugural symposium, held at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland was designed to both showcase and theorize non-fiction work that exists at the nexus of theory and practice; image, sound and word. With Brian Winston and Trinh T Minh-ha serving as keynote speakers, the conference provided an invaluable context for an accelerating trend in media studies — research that is constituted by documentary media production in conversation with theoretical scholarship; or, better yet, research that embodies modes of both practice and theory and, by virtue of being so constituted, troubles and reinvigorates both. The second iteration of Poetics and Politics took place in Santa Cruz (2015) with Kevin Jerome Everson as keynote. The third iteration took place at Sussex (2017) with John Greyson as keynote.