In my dissertation, Bodies of Evidence: Portraits of Post-Feminine Performance, I used the idea of Brechtian gestus to explore the performative aspects of documentary and portrait photography in relationship to three types of non-normative, “post-feminine” bodies (the female serial killer, the pre-operative transgendered man, and the elderly woman).
Drawing on that work, I developed an interest in the “forensic,” specifically how medico-legal contexts and vocabularies obscure the constructed, argumentative nature of scientific evidence in favor of asserting an indexical felicity between physical matter and its representation. The impact of this forensic imagination appears in the technological apparatuses of forensic media used to capture, analyze, and report data within the context of the legal system as well as in the narrative constructs of primetime fiction and non-fiction television programming, which illustrate the transformation of such data from raw fact to legal theory to embodied reality. While philosophically antithetical to narrative — to paraphrase the words of CSI‘s Gil Grissom, “People lie. Evidence doesn’t.” —the forensic imagination in practice imbues the scientific method with the power of story, dramatizing the ways in which both fictions and facts are social constructions.
The emergence of the forensic imagination in popular culture takes place at the same time as a resurgence of documentary media and performance. At its core, the documentary genre demonstrates inherent tensions between construction and revelation, subjectivity and objectivity; and yet, wide discrepancies remain amongst documentary artists and audiences over which techniques, topics, and transformations can be considered authentically dramatic, truthfully embellished, or ethically heightened. Much like forensic media, documentary media have the power to transform material evidence, to make it speak in the voice of “real” people, even as these records of historical figures and everyday individuals are “made flesh” or dramatized in ways that can obscure or illuminate the social construction of reality.
My current book project, Acting On Insider Information: Informant Dramaturgy and the Ethics of Documentary Theatre Practice, offers a terrain of the ethical dramaturgical practices demanded by community-based, personal narrative, and documentary performance work. This research addresses the recent explosion of interest in non-fiction media and storytelling, particularly in academic circles as part of outreach/community engagement programs, from traditional modes of creation and communion (story slams, oral history, long form storytelling, staged readings/adaptation of non-fiction work or memoirs) to innovations facilitated by new technology (blogging, podcasting, Instagram/Twitter based activism, collaborative story construction, and performance ethnography).