Saving artistic archives for the future

With artistic archives under increasing threat, the Speak Memory symposium sets out a new blueprint for collaboration that could help to safeguard the future of the past.

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For three days last month, around 120 people shunned the Cairo sunshine to sit in a darkened theatre for hours on end. The Speak Memory symposium on archival practices, organised by Laura Carderera of the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, attracted a polyglot mix of artists, curators, academics and independent researchers. Every morning they crammed into the tin-roofed Rawabet Theatre and presented their work to an audience composed primarily of their peers.

Speak Memory was not a public event per se. Most of the participants had come from other cities in the Middle East, others had travelled from Europe, the United States, Asia or South America. All of them spoke English and, to the organisers' surprise, none made use of the simultaneous translation service. As such, the symposium felt more like a workshop, and beyond that, a kind of experiment in collaborative working practices.

No surprise, then, that even as they challenged one another, the participants settled into some easygoing banter. They spoke in self-deprecating tones of being hoarders and hunter-gatherers, and of sharing a habit for collecting things: photographs, videos and the remnants of ephemeral artworks; books, magazines and exhibition catalogues; political posters, avant-garde manifestos and the papers of imprisoned dissidents; vintage paper and the documentation of belle époque architectural details; all of that, plus letters, invoices, receipts, notes on a photographer's chemical solutions, props, a Rolodex, pages upon pages of oral history transcripts and a few anecdotes lifted from 19th-century police records.

But if that makes Speak Memory sound like a convention for the socially awkward, it is worth noting that what was at stake was neither stamps nor coins nor petrified butterflies. Rather, it was the legacies of lost artistic movements.

One of the more reflective questions the symposium grappled with was, why hold a conference on archiving in Cairo now? Maybe it was a mark of the local art scene's maturity, or a sign of its conformity to some unspecified international standard.

To be sure, archives have been a hot topic in the art world for decades, to the extent that they constitute a medium in, and of, themselves. Sixteen years ago, Jacques Derrida's Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression equated access to the archive with political power. Six years ago, Hal Foster's An Archival Impulse described the archive as a site of utopian potential. Now, working with archives seems to suggest a more measured desire to make space between the state (which is largely indifferent to the kinds of materials presented during the symposium) and the market (which is more than happy to give those materials monetary value, and to take them off their current owners' hands). What fills out that space, and gives archival materials real value, is not so much the objects or images themselves, but rather the stories they tell.

Just as Lawrence Durrell coaxed all four books of The Alexandria Quartet from a collection of inanimate objects in his main character's desk drawer - an eye patch, a watch key, a pair of dispossessed wedding rings - most of the participants in Speak Memory are using their archive projects to produce narratives, as well as knowledge.

During one of the symposium's keynote lectures, for example, the Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas talked about travelling to Kurdistan in the late 1980s in the aftermath of the Anfal campaign. "Whatever I was showing in the present couldn't reveal enough about the past," she said. She met people who had buried their family photographs to keep them safe from harm. She visited them at home, sat with them in their backyards as they dug their images from the ground, and listened as they told her about each photograph. "I stopped taking my own pictures to make copies of theirs," she said.

In time, those copies became a book and a touring exhibition, entitled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, which pieces together a visual history of the Kurds in the wake of an attempt to annihilate them. In the Shadow of History has since yielded AKA Kurdistan, an online initiative that invites people to scan and send in their pictures, along with their stories. On the website now, for example, one finds a fascinating history of the Kurdish photographer Mahmud Effendi, who was forcefully enlisted into the Ottoman Army during the First World War, and then arrested by the British forces, who offered to teach him photography as a trade.

"The archive is always incomplete," Meiselas said. "It's never finished, only reactivated." While her work in Kurdistan was about reconstituting an archive that had been scattered, the curator Vasif Kortun presented another that was recently discovered wholly intact. Kortun is the director of the Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, and he introduced a project undertaken by Tayfun Serttas, one of Platforum's artists-in-residence.

Serttas is in the process of sorting through and digitising some 300,000 images by the late Armenian photographer Maryam Sahinyan, who ran her own studio, Foto Galatasaray, for 50 years. Her story is remarkable not only because she was a woman in a man's world and a member of a persecuted minority who remained in Istanbul all of her life, but also because she used a commercial business to develop a distinctly artistic style, and kept her photographs in meticulous order.

Kortun is in the midst of a major institutional revamp. By the end of this year, Platform will formally end its activities, and be folded into a new initiative called SALT Istanbul. Moving away from exhibition-making as the single most important function of contemporary art spaces, SALT is positioning itself as a library and research centre, with archives as its core area of concern.

But few of the projects presented during the symposium have such institutional heft. Most are independent or individual efforts facing serious questions about long-term sustainability, as well as dilemmas about ownership of the material, and authorship of the artworks that the archives have inspired.

One of the more compelling examples of the benefits of collective effort was Red Conceptualismos del Sur, or the Southern Conceptualists Network, presented by Miguel Lopez. Founded in 2007, the group consists of 55 researchers, from artists to psychoanalysts, working on artistic practices in South America that were repressed in times of dictatorship, state-sponsored violence, and civil strife. "Many of these critical experiences have been omitted and isolated," Lopez said, "if not directly erased by the effects of trauma and terror."

One of the group's more ambitious projects concerns the archive of the Uruguayan artist, poet and activist Clemente Padín, who agitated against long years of dictatorship, founded a magazine, was thrown in jail and established a network for mail art across the continent, solidifying anti-authoritarian sentiment. Working in collaboration with the artist, Red Conceptualismos del Sur is hoping to convert Padín's personal archive into a public documentation center in Montevideo.

If the Padín project works, it may one day look something like the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. Arguably the most professional outfit in attendance in Cairo, the archive holds a collection of some 30,000 primary and secondary resource materials, including the collections of individual artists and galleries. The staggering rise of contemporary Chinese art has become a kind of cautionary tale for art scenes outside the art world's traditional power centres in the US and Europe. But as the Asia Art Archive's director, Claire Hsu, pointed out, there are many more stories to tell besides skyrocketing prices at auction. One of the archive's current projects, Action Script, is gathering comprehensive documentation of contemporary performance art in Asia, a form that has largely eluded financial interest and therefore remains almost entirely unknown outside the territory. "Representations of contemporary art in Asia outside of Asia tend to be rather superficial," said Hsu.

"There's been a lot of talk about a cultural renaissance in the region," Carderera said. In the Middle East, increased activity in the field of contemporary artistic production has led to greater interest in the art-historical episodes that came before.

"Now, private collectors and museums are starting to buy archives," she said. The task of the symposium, then, was to prolong the moment until that happens, to keep the archives in play, to tell their stories, and then, maybe, to learn how to let them go - not as commodities to be bought and sold, but as narratives to be held in public trust, belonging to everyone and to no one.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review in Beirut.