Sunday, July 25, 2010

You give me fever?

I would like to consider a selection of contemporary artists who utilize archives and history in their work as a method of reconstituting the meaning of history, past, place, identity, exhibitry and authorship. Since there are many interesting artists working with history and archives I will concentrate on a couple and continue with more in my future reviews.

I had the opportunity to see the exhibition “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” in the spring of 2008 at the International Center of Photography in New York City. A piece from the “Archive Fever” show titled Intervista (1998) by Anri Sala is a twenty-five minute documentary video which takes place in Tirana, Albania, several years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Returning home from his art studies in Paris, Sala finds a reel of processed 16mm film while helping his parents move into a new house. He takes the film back to Paris and restores it.

The footage is situated in communist Albania and shows his mother, Valdet, at about the age of thirty meeting Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxa and delivering a speech followed by an interview for the Communist Youth Alliance. Sala is unable to understand what his mother is saying in the interview because the audio reel is missing. With Valdet having very little memory of the interview, Sala must search for other sources of information to uncover the mysteriously missing audio. Sala questions the film interviewer and several political officials that were present at Valdet’s interview, but he is still unable to get any worthwhile information. In a final attempt, Sala takes the film reel to a school for the deaf and a team of people agree to work with him on deciphering his mother’s words by reading her lips. The film continues with the newly translated audio subtitled over the original footage and interspersed with conversations of Sala and his mom in the present day watching the restored film.

The film exists in the present while also living as a historical document of communist Albania and revealing his mother’s forgotten past. She goes through stages of denial, embarrassment and eventual acceptance of the historical footage, which implicates her as a youth party member saying the predictable slogans of the Communist Albanian era.

Another piece in the “Archive Fever” exhibition by artist Lamia Joreige titled Objects of War (2000-2006) consists of various video testimonials from Lebanese citizens living in Lebanon during the fifteen year Lebanese War. Joreige has each of the interviewers choose a personal object that reminds them of the war and then describe their memories associated with the object and of that time.

Both the object and the testimonial of the individual act as evidence. The collection of videos seemingly attempts to paint a picture of a collective experience of those living through the Lebanese War. However, while each account is true to the individual recounting it, the intention of the archive is not to provide a statement of truth. Rather, its purpose is to show a diversity of discourses and testaments of what happened during the war. This highlights the question of how accurate history can be with devastating events such as war when personal experiences can be so wide ranging.

The title of the ICP exhibition “Archive Fever” was appropriated from a paper delivered by French philosopher Jacques Derrida at a conference at the Freud House in London in 1994. In the paper Derrida traces the etymology of the word “archive” to its Greek origin, “arkhe,” to illustrate the power structure of the archive. Here, documents are collected and sorted into an ideal system and put into a repository, which are presided over by an authority. The documents are seemingly publicly accessible yet sheltered away. Those entrusted to watch over the documents yield the power to interpret them as they please.

The “fever” of the archive Derrida refers to is not so much an obsession with using the archive as it is with presiding over it and looking for an absolute beginning. The search is infinitesimal and Derrida relates the repetition in archiving to the Freudian death drive. He states that archive fever (mal d’archive) is a desire to return to the origin, the most archaic place that preceded our birth. In a sense, looking for a way to obsessively memorialize or restage something/oneself is a means of moving toward an earlier stage of life. Derrida theorizes that this tendency of archive fever would also cross over into computer information technology, especially email.

The relationship between the title of the exhibition and Derrida’s theoretical paper suggests parallels with artists attempting to undermine the authoritative power of the archive and make information democratically accessible to the public. With grand hopes of emancipating a forgotten past, the pieces are still trapped within the art institution that houses them, another kind of archivist. The pieces might also be considered to invoke nostalgia and an aestheticizing of the past (and illustrate archive fever itself?). Regardless, I think that the attempts to produce an alternate archive, as shown with Intervista and Objects of War, make poetic and powerful attempts to shake up and redefine history.

Intervista and Objects of War are examples of alternative historical displays that I believe are contemporary and engaging compared to many historical site-seeing exhibits that I have seen in my travels. While art exhibits like “Archive Fever” may not be taken totally seriously as places to learn about history, I think that we are seeing increasingly blurred lines within historical exhibits. Many exhibits are taking the form of becoming more interactive, creating immersive environments, and using art and performance to engage their audiences. Historical exhibits have often used art such as sculptures to mark a place of importance and provide a monument to memorialize an event. This kind of exhibitry seems slightly outmoded to me and I think there will be an increasing trend toward more interactive installations and video based exhibits.

- Melissa Boyajian

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dulwich OnView: Not Dull

Is it possible that something interesting might come from a place called Dulwich? One suspects that the people who reside in this area of South London try extra hard at dinner parties to appear lively and witty given the name of their place of residence. It’s a bit like hailing from the town of Hicksville on Long Island. Hicksville at least has Billy Joel--he grew up there. What does Dulwich have? Apparently, Dulwich has . . . a Picture Gallery. Actually, they have England’s oldest public art gallery (it was founded in 1811). And, judging from Dulwich OnView, the community’s website that is dedicated to “celebrating people and culture in and around Dulwich,” they have a healthy measure of civic pride and quite a few interesting things to say.

Winner of the 2010 Museums and the Web “small” award, Dulwich OnView is a combination fan site, visitors’ guide, local historical journal, and community bulletin board. Organized and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers “who love Dulwich Picture Gallery and the local community,” the site provides news and reviews on arts events, local history, food and drink, health and fitness, and, of course, the Picture Gallery. Subjects of recent posts include a brief explication of a seventeenth-century painting, an ab workout in “Kevin’s Fitness Tips,” background information on the winner of an art competition, and an interview with Robin Hardy, director of the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. In this last piece, Humanities and Media student Daniel Pateman, who enjoys red wine and David Bowie according to his bio, not only provides a transcript of his interview with Hardy but also describes the local cinema’s “Wickerman Sing-Along”--an event that sounds almost too strange to be true.

Living in a town that (un-ironically) bills itself as “America’s most perfect village,” I can certainly understand civic pride. Like Dulwich, my town (Cooperstown, New York) is best known for a museum--actually, we have three--and residents are justifiably proud of the amount of “culture” in their small upstate New York hamlet. We do not have a Cooperstown OnView, however, and reviewing Dulwich’s website made me wonder if this was, in fact, just what we needed. We certainly don’t need any more self-promotion. Such a website, however, might actually serve a more useful function than bolstering local pride and attracting tourists. Even in a place with only 2,000 year-round residents, communication can be a problem. When I moved here two years ago, I often complained that I had no idea what was going on around town. There seemed to be an insiders’ network that knew about things like the Pumpkin, Garlic, Apple, and Harvest Festivals. Reading local newspapers helped, and the Chamber of Commerce’s website was occasionally useful, but in general I found out about local goings-on, if at all, through word-of-mouth. By my second year, I could at least guess when and where most things were going to happen, but I still occasionally felt clueless.

Then something happened that, in my estimation, transformed the nature of communication in my small town. Many of the local institutions started to appear on Facebook, and suddenly I knew exactly when the next exhibit opening was happening. I knew when the baby lambs had arrived at The Farmers’ Museum. I knew when the farmers’ market was opening. I knew when and where the creative writing workshop would be. I was an insider. Facebook, more than almost anything else, had made me feel a part of my community. As a late adopter and self-ascribed Facebook skeptic, it was hard for me to admit it, but I liked how social media had changed my life.

Connecting this train of thought back to Dulwich OnView raises two questions for me: first, I wonder if Dulwich OnView bestows the same kind of insider status on Dulwich’s denizens that local institutions’ Facebook pages did for me, and, second, with the advent of Facebook (and Twitter, Foursquare, etc.) and the proliferation of personal blogging sites (Wordpress, Blogspot) has such a website become unnecessary? Anyone can volunteer to contribute to the site, so it feels inclusive--although the posting of articles does not appear to be instantaneous and there is definitely an editorial process in place. Judging by the range of contributors, they have not had trouble recruiting. The stories that volunteers write are decidedly local and are likely of interest mostly to people who live in and around Dulwich. In that sense, then, the site performs the same function as a Facebook page. However, it is superior to Facebook in that it has its own appealing design and allows for more in-depth content. Dulwich OnView reflects the place in a way that the boilerplate design of Facebook cannot. On the other hand, Dulwich OnView lacks the dialogue that one typically sees on social media sites--even though it does have a comment function.

The key difference between institutional Facebook pages and Dulwich OnView, however, is that the website is volunteer-run. It is, as DOV author Ingrid [no last name given] writes, “community driven, not museum driven.” Ingrid, who has worked in the education department of the Picture Gallery for fourteen years, argues moreover that the website is “more about [Dulwich Picture Gallery] within the community than [Dulwich Picture Gallery] itself.” Ultimately, the website is like a community newspaper, just cooler and without the annoying editorials from disgruntled townsfolk.

~ Will Walker

Monday, July 12, 2010

Imaging and Imagining Ourselves There: Flickr’s “Looking into the Past”

Most of us are familiar with Flickr, an online open source platform for sharing, tagging and talking about user-generated digital photos. Around 5,000 images get uploaded every minute, lending credence to the notion that many of us are operating in a techno-blur of obsessive documentation and display of our lives, our people, our surroundings.

Just like everyday life, these images blend the profound with the trivial, the ubiquitous with the obscure. Go to Flickr and you will have the opportunity to peruse photos organized into a dizzying array of categories, some as seemingly inane as “Empty Chairs” or “air conditioners,” or for all the Wallace and Gromit fans out there, “cheese.” But Flickr also encourages communities of photographers who share an interest in things like “urban decay in the U.S. South” to meet up in cyberspace. It amplifies and draws attention to things like Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, an urban regeneration initiative on Detroit’s east side that recycles discarded stuff to create a vibrant, creative space out of the dilapidation and decay of abandoned urban spaces.

So, is Flickr just a catch-all of contemporary imagery? An everyman’s archive that makes curators thankful that, in the past, it was a lot more difficult to document and preserve images and the results are a little more, umm, discerning? For people interested in preserving, exhibiting and connecting with the past from a public and democratic perspective, the site offers some interesting lessons even as it archives and displays photos that resonate with history.

In a recent article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Cristina Garduño Freeman makes the compelling argument that photosharing on Flickr reflects a new kind of “intangible heritage;” more than public archives of images, the photo galleries and the conversations that come out of them augur a new sort of public space. She writes, “Part of what makes participating on Flickr meaningful is the social interactions and negotiations that occur through the exchange and sharing of photographs.” (Cristina Garduño Freeman, “Photosharing on Flickr: intangible heritage and emergent publics” IJHS Volume 16, No. 4-5, July-September 2010, pp352-368.)

If you think about it from that perspective, Flickr makes it possible to create and sustain conversations through images about the personal, social and public meaning of places that matter to us. Lots of people are doing this through the “Looking into the Past” group, created by Flickr user Jason Powell over two years ago. Photographers all over the world are taking historic images and overlaying them onto contemporary spaces. Streetscapes, buildings, family gatherings in the backyard--to name just a few subjects--are undergoing visual transformations that mash up the past and the present. The results are visually arresting and really fun to look at. While many of the images are manipulated using scanners or photo-editing software, others are old-school versions in which the photographer simply holds the historic image in a way that positions it as an overlay of the present scene. Either way, each image is a ticket to time-travel, a disconcerting glimpse of past meeting present.

There is a lot of play here between people and places, an oddly compelling photographic effort to mess with time. Some of the images (like this one of the Historic Ebey House on Whidby Island, Island County, WA) situate contemporary subjects within a historic image, while others place people from the past within contemporary settings. Here, tea drinkers in Kew Gardens circa 1920 are seated within today’s park.

So, what’s so exciting about DIY montage? The project is intriguing for several reasons. For those making the photos, it encourages close observation, invites an awareness of the relationships between past and present, and allows one to dwell for a moment or two in that space that is neither here nor there, not quite now, not exactly then. “Looking into the Past” engages a sense of place and a sense of time that is unique, that draws on our senses and that captivates our imagination. The photographer and those who look at the images catch a fleeting glimpse of our place in time as one that is simultaneously ephemeral and lasting.

The conversations and discussions that emerge are compelling. It is interesting to see the sharing of technical expertise about how to make these photos in the discussion pages of the “Looking into the Past” pool. From advice as simple as “Don't go out on a windy day. It is IMPOSSIBLE to hold up a print if it's windy,” to specific and detailed suggestions on photo-editing strategies, the best of the Web 2.0 knowledge commons is at work. People share ideas, insights and tricks. They also compliment each other and make one another visible in the process. The discussions are not all technical. Here and there, people who live in the same vicinity talk about the state of urban preservation or the uncanny lack of change in a particular place. Photographers who return to the scene of a train crash or protest spur conversations about those historic events.

Finally, for those of us who are interested in how people interact with the past in the course of their everyday lives, this project is a kind of twenty-first century coda to Thelen and Rosenzweig’s The Presence of the Past. It lets us see and understand how the past matters to the thousands of people posting images in the “Looking into the Past” gallery. The results are similar – lots of personal and family images, hundreds of storefronts, well-traveled routes in one’s hometown, sites of personal and private meaning. There are a few politicized images, like a 4-image composite of a street scene in Vancouver where police charged a demonstration of unemployed people, but most of the images are scenic, architectural, or deeply personal. In case we were wondering, as global citizens, we care an awful lot about the past, but most of us reserve enthusiasm for “our” past.

More than anything, “Looking into the Past” makes me want to dig out my camera and scour historic images and then seek out their contemporary counterparts in space. It makes me want to play with time and place, and to imagine different histories in the process. Pretty exciting!

~ Margo Shea

Ed. note: The image at the top of this post is of Eden Place, Birmingham, England.

Monday, July 5, 2010

More faux pirates than you can shake a saber at

A week ago I put on my boots and my puffy white shirt and sailed up to the NorCal Pirate Festival, a pirate-themed event at the docks on Mare Island in Vallejo California. There were vendors selling piratey wares, musicians playing sea shanties, games of all kinds, and more pirates than I’d ever seen! Perhaps more pirates than the world has ever seen: the festival unofficially broken the Guinness record for the largest pirate gathering in history.

Amidst all the revelry, I spied a tent with some well-dressed looking folks who didn’t look like pirates to me. Curious, I struck up a conversation with a man who introduced himself as William Fairfax - not a pirate! He explained that I was in the Bahamas and I’d stumbled upon the Governor’s House at Nassau harbor on the island of New Providence, a British colony. The year was 1781. He introduced me to the honorable Governor Woodes Rogers who told me the story behind their camp.

According to the Governor, in the 1780s Nassau looked not unlike our 2010 Festival: a haven for all manner of pirates. These were the real pirates of the Caribbean. Many of them had once been legal privateers, and some upheld a code to only plunder ships with foreign flags, but nevertheless they were thieves and British merchants were losing most of their ships’ cargos to pirates. Something had to be done.

And that was where Governor Rogers’ plan came in. An ex-privateer himself, Rogers won the favor of pirate governor Benjamin Hornigold and together the two led a pirate recovery program.

It was refreshing to see the other side of the law represented at the Pirate Festival and I told Governor Rogers this. He nodded and said that he’d wanted to “even things out a bit” and this was his way of adding an educational dimension to the festivities. He lamented the lack of historical accuracy in popular pirate movies featuring sea monsters and zombies. “History is more interesting and fantastical than fantasy,” he said. “It’s some pretty strange stuff.”

At this point, Rogers asked me if I would like to renounce my piracy and sign a pardon. I figured that it sounded better than being hanged and he even said I could keep my booty, so it seemed like a pretty good deal. The governor signed and stamped my pardon and I was no longer pirate. A good thing too because Mr. Fairfax informed me that another lady pirate, Anne Bonny, was due to be “given a fair trial and hanged” that very day.

~ Margaret Middleton