Documentation Debt

At Mars College, where I’ve been studying and living for the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking about the term “Documentation Debt” and how it applies to artists.

In the business world, Documentation Debt is when you skip documenting things to save time, money, or effort. Over time, this neglect accumulates and becomes harder to fix, similar to monetary debt with compounded interest. The more time passes, the more the lack of documentation becomes a problem.

For artists, you are in Documentation Debt when you have shot the documentation of your work but haven’t actually published it on your website, or otherwise. It’s more likely with video than photos, since video needs editing, sound synchronizing, and titling. The files sit there on your hard drive, collecting digital dust.

I often say to my students: the documentation is the artwork. An overstatement, yes, but most people see the documentation rather than the physical work itself. Website views are cheap; museum shows are not.

Future applications: grants, residencies, shows all hinge on having solid documentation. We have to document our projects all the time and make them look aesthetically compelling as well as tell the story of what it is. It does baffle me that documentation is often not considered proper a line item in a project proposal budget. Artists have to pay expert photographers (often other artists) to set up a post-show studio shoot.

I have had to shoot my own documentation, work out trade deals with other videographers, do post-shoot color correction, sound mixing and other attempts to make something look semi-professional and save money. And, I’m not an expert. Documentation is just expensive and a pain to manage.

A case of Documentation Debt happened recently with an artwork that I did in Slovenia in 2022 called River Glitch as part of PIF Camp. I conceptualized and built this installation in a week, setting up eight of my dispersed sensor-sound players (Datapods) on the Soça River. We had a videographer onsite to help out and while they shot footage, I also rushed around and shot video on my phone just in case. Before my audience of 40 other artists came to see it, a surprise heavy rainstorm pummeled the river installation.

I panicked, and packed up, and trudged for a kilometer in the rain, drenched while the other event attendees were huddled under a rooftop silk-screening t-shirts. I was crushed as I had planned for an engaging installation event for my colleagues to see that afternoon. No one saw it but the journalist and the videographer.

The video footage that the videographer shot was sadly, unusable. Some sort of filter was on that made it look like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. My own phone footage was at 1920×1080 instead of 4K, and though I got enough coverage, there was by no means any planned shot list and the footage felt haphazard. I felt defeated and unmotivated to put together a video for the project.

The clips were on my drive as-was for many months, through 2022 and into 2023. I knew that the audio would be difficult to re-edit and would require studio recordings, and the footage would have to be cleaned up.

In October of 2023, I had just finished a successful project, called Poet Trees, which I had also shot loads of footage from. Now I was in some serious documentation debt. Two sound installations were now undocumented, save for some images on the my website.

I gave myself the goal of finishing it up over the holiday season. I buckled down and got videos of both of these works edited, titled and complete. It was onerous and took a long time, and the dark nights of December were perfect for this. There were some problems with my documentation — some shots needed stabilizing for example, but once I got these down, I had cleared my Documentation Debt for a little while, at least. Phew.

In the end, I was pretty happy with River Glitch. It’s a conceptually complex and strong piece and the footage worked out pretty well and the sound design felt strong.

Documentation Debt is a useful term for planning. Now I think before I shoot documentation, what will be my timeline for finishing it? Can I do in-progress works that are not expertly-edited? Can I show these to colleagues as I progress towards final installations and documentation? All of these questions rattle around my head as I plan for the documentation stage of the artwork.

Final video edit is here!