Documents Bureau Makes It Official
Playing With the Language of Bureaucracy
From an early age, our lives are documented, codified, and notarized (often in ways unbeknownst to us.) It starts at an early age when you receive that first certificate. Maybe it was for an outstanding achievement, perfect attendance, good citizenship, or school spirit. As early as preschool, you get report cards or your teachers give you forms to take home for your parents to sign. As a kid you just accept these things as a fact of life that comes as part of the package of being born into this world.
“We use language, not just to point at things or describe things, but we use language to get our way, to get things done, to state your beliefs.”
The Documents Bureau, a project by artist Georgina Valverde and her cohorts at the Society of Smallness, plays with notions of bureaucracy and transforms it into a medium of personal expression. At the Documents Bureau you can get a license “to defy gravity”, a permit to “document anything under the sun in photography and writing”, or a proclamation of “dessert day”. You go through a playful version of a familiar process of getting a number, waiting for that number to be called, sitting at a desk with an clerk behind a typewriter, and getting your document stamped and signed.
“This is a linguistic project,” says Georgina Valverde. “We use language, not just to point at things or describe things, but we use language to get our way, to get things done, to state your beliefs.”
The Documents Bureau typically happens in informal settings of art exhibitions, events, and festivals. With Chicago Art Department’s, “Learning Is A Lifestyle” project, the Documents Bureau created a workshop with a group of middle school students from Walsh Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. It was the first time they had done something specifically for young people in the formal context of an afterschool program.
How would the students respond to a conceptual, performance based art workshop? As Document Bureau clerks sat with small groups of students asking what document they wanted to create, you could see a range of reaction. One girl knows right away and rattles off a list of permits as if she had been waiting for someone to ask her, her entire life. A boy flashes an incredulous look that says, ‘You’re saying I can create a license to do whatever I want?” Another girl sinks into her chair with a shy, sheepish grin, embarrassed to even say. But in a few minutes every table was buzzing with discussion and bursts of laughter.
“Writing can be enjoyable when you have ideas to bounce off of. You don’t have to come up with everything yourself,” says Georgina. “We invite people to play.”
Play and an invitation to dip your toe in the absurd is embedded in the Documents Bureau experience. There is the use of old typewriters which provides its own entertainment for the students. After getting your document typed, there is an array of various stamps to legitimize them. There is the playful formality of the process as Georgina and her clerks review and sign each document before it is declared official.
Documents Bureau calls attention to something that is so pervasive but is often skimmed over and taken for granted. Certificates, licenses, permits, contracts, warrants, terms and conditions are the infrastructure of paperwork that define authority, legitimacy, permissions and promises. The 7th and 8th graders of Walsh Elementary are most likely unaware of how much of this infrastructure shapes their learning experience. One hopes that in creating your own “official” document you realize that all rules, standards, and requirements are just human creations and constructions.
The act of translating a simple personal wish into “official” language is a realization that words have actual power. “To me it feels like if something is a law, it’s something mandatory,” says Anastasia, a Walsh student. Her friend Giselle was one of those who could not decide what she wanted, but in the end she created a document that granted her 50 percent discounts on the purchase of all items so she could help her parents with health issues or her sisters’ college tuition. There was something about just being able to say that out loud and as Giselle says, “It’s official!”