Sunday, October 31, 2010

speak, memory: the archive between memory and forgetting

Yesterday morning, Egyptian artist Malak Helmy raised a question about the assumed urgency and need for creating archives and other forms of permanent memory. Helmy’s comment resonated with the story of Funes, the Memorius by Jorge Luis Borges, which Professor Victor Mayer-Schonberger cited in his book, delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Funes is a young boy, who acquired perfect memory due to a horseback riding accident. However, he simultaneously lost his ability to generalize and abstract as he was caught up in multiple narratives of history and infinite details of daily life. The artist's comment triggered a debate among the symposium participants about the purpose and consequences of creating comprehensive and perfect memory.

Ongoing research projects are producing an overwhelming body of knowledge. This might create equally hegemonic structures parallel to existing ones that researchers are attempting to escape. Much of the research done is in response to existing contentious narratives of history. Furthermore, the agendas of funders add another layer of partiality to the produced authored research as highlighted by Jesus Carrillo of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain and Heba Farid of Cultnet in Egypt. In addition to problems of trust between the public and the gatekeepers of archives and research projects, the insistence on the enlightening role of the archive seems simplistic, argues Negar Azmi, the senior editor of Bidoun magazine. For instance, the leaked images from Abu Ghraib prison failed to stop the torture; and the ongoing discussion on the Wikileaks in the US focuses more on patriotism rather than war crimes. Might the archive of cases of violence thus have a soothing effect on its users or is it a question of modes and contexts of dissemination?

Some of the symposium participants went to the extent of foreseeing a need to dismantle the archive in the future, returning the documents and memories back into the personal space. In some cases, we do not need to fill in the blanks and the lacks could be equally valuable to be able to live and act firmly in the present. Sean Dackery, the founder of the online pirate library AAAARG.ORG, even cites cases when writers wished that old writings that were out of print would disappear.

Still, many argued in favor of the empowering roles of archives. co-initiator Sebastian Lutgert compares the accessibility of the archive to the open city model, where governments abandon defensive mechanisms in the case of imminent capture to preserve their cities. In the case of the archive, the best way of preservation is to distribute copies of the material to a larger audience, making it accessible and usable. Monika Borgmann – the co-founder of the Umam Documentation and Research Project in Beirut – added that what the archive offers is an option of remembrance for those who wish to engage with certain events and periods.

The question thus becomes not about the usefulness of the archive, but rather about finding ways to present the documents in an impartial and unbiased way. Researchers should be left the room to form their own opinions rather than being presented with authored narratives as highlighted by Steve Urgola, the archivist of the American University in Cairo (AUC) libraries. It is within this impartiality that the true value of the archive lies.

Speak, memory might have opened up more questions than it resolved. However, the resulting contention might be necessary for people to reflect more critically on their practices as highlighted by the symposium curator Laura Caderera in her closing comments.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

speak, memory: On the personal and the intimate

Over the past two days, speak, memory presented numerous research projects by artists, anthropologists, researchers and historians, often questioning existing narratives of modernity or investigating specific areas of interest. During their visits to archives, private collections and urban markets, researchers are coming across an array of “intimate” material such as family photographs and personal diaries. A recurring concern for many practitioners is how to deal with such valuable material. Should it be digitized and made public online? Might it be altered by an artist and represented as part of an exhibition or research project? What responsibility does the artist-researcher or historian have towards the people represented in the images or diaries and the public, who might gain greater insights on a certain period through accessing such information?

Cairo-based artist, Paul Geday, sees it highly problematic to work with personal belongings and images one finds. There is always an ethical question of how much one might change in the original objects or display them in a certain context. The re-presentation of images and artifacts in different contexts gives them a new life of their own. Their interpretation is hence derived from the new collection and context in which they are repositioned, argues art historian Angela Harutyunyan. Award winning photographer, Susan Meiselas, acknowledges that despite the artists’ best intentions, they have little control over the interpretation and use of the material they publish, which resonates with the reluctance of photographer Yasmine Eid Sabbagh’s to publicize the images she obtained from the residents of the Burj al-Shamali refugee camp as we discussed yesterday. Although in the specific case of Sabbagh, the owners of the images allowed her to make them public for specific social and political reasons.

The work of Vasif Kortun, curator and founding director of Platform Garanti in Istanbul, has focused over the past decade on acquiring private collections and archives, digitizing them and making them accessible online. Nevertheless, he clearly objects to making the personal and intimate public.

However, personal belongings and artifacts can provide valuable information on the context and time in which the owner or writer of the diary lived. This is an argument greatly supported by historian and private collector Mahmoud Sabet. Steve Urgola, the archivist of the American University in Cairo (AUC), agrees. A single personal collection such as that of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi, which the AUC recently acquired, tells us about how cultural institutions and government ministries operated at the time through Fathi’s letters of correspondence with them.

Dr. Lucie Ryzova, a historian and co-founder of the Downtown History and Memory Center, bases her research on vernacular sources from popular culture, especially personal diaries and notebooks found on the second hand market of Al Azbakeyah and the used books section of the Cairo book fair. She argues that their presence on the market – a willful act of commercialization – allows researchers and artists to use and publicize them as their original owners have already placed them in the public domain. However, this assumes a perfect world with no leaks, where every artifact that makes its way into the market is bought from its original owner.

The views of Dr. Khaled Fahmy, Chair of the History Department of the American University in Cairo, fall somewhere in between. Through his research at the Egyptian National Archives over the past few decades, Dr. Fahmy came across Egyptian police records from the nineteenth century. One record narrated how a woman was beaten to death while interrogated by security forces. Her body was later dumped at the entrance of her family’s small house in the village. Her elderly mother insisted on an autopsy and was able to convict the responsible officers. Publishing such a personal story might guarantee Dr. Fahmy tenure. The records are over a hundred years old so due time has passed. However, Dr. Fahmy refused to publish them. He would cite them anonymously on occasions to convey an idea as in last night’s discussion or out of civic duty to console and give hope to contemporary families, who face similar injustice.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Speak, memory: On the authority of the archive

Speak, memory: on archives and other strategies of (re)activation of cultural memory

In response to a resurge of interest in documentation of cultural and artistic history of the Middle East over the past decade, the Townhouse gallery in Downtown Cairo is organizing an international symposium to instigate critical dialogue about the idea of the archive, its manifestations and problems among a group of local and international practitioners working in the field or interested in the topic. The symposium runs from 28-30 October 2010.

By the end of each day, we are offering our readers a group of personal reflections and impressions on the talks, discussions, and presentations of the day, as well as the questions they stimulated among us as participants in the symposium.

We hope these posts offer valuable insights to the readers, while reiterating that they are by no means meant to be comprehensive.

For more information about the symposium, program and participants, please visit

Speak, memory: On the authority of the archive

The secret collection of vintage eggs was only discovered when the policemen visited the deceased’s family to deliver the bad news. Each egg in the collection was carefully chosen by the tasteful thief –who had just passed away- and classified based on intricate information about its characteristics in relation to the rest of the collection. The egg thief story, which artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin recounted in their presentation yesterday evening, highlights the pathological impulse to collect and possess objects, images and narratives of all sorts.

More destabilizing to the idealized image of the devoted collector/researcher in search for specialist knowledge is John Fowles’ famous novel, The Collector, in which the main character -Frederick Clegg- moved from collecting butterflies to abducting women.

Although eccentric, the two stories help shed light on the value that people find in the acts of collecting, and the associations with authority and power when collections are formalized and made accessible to a larger group of people as archives. Most people collect things for personal pleasure and to maintain visual memories. However, the possibility of making a personal collection into a public or semi-public archive changes the way people see their collections as it offers room for new meanings, interpretations and forms of representation that inform public perception and memory.

Hassnaa, a resident of the Burj al-Shamali refugee camp in Southern Lebanon had an extensive collection of personal photographs from her youth with family members and friends. For years, these photos were kept in the privacy of her home. However, Hassnaa developed a close relationship with photographer and researcher Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh, who was working on a visual archive, based on the residents of the camp’s memory; and thus, invited her to look at hundreds of photographs she had grouped in stacks and to create digital copies of a selection. It was an unusual request from a woman at the camp to publicly show images from her youth when she was an unveiled woman. However, Sabbagh’s archive posited the possibility of offering a more wholesome representation of what life was like at the camp a few decades ago. Offering this visual evidence of a different social and cultural life was important in light of narrow perspectives through which Palestinians are represented in mass media as well as the great change in cultural values that the camp underwent due to the influence of various political, religious and economic forces operating in the camp.

Abou Fady, another resident of the camp gave Sabbagh two images to show side by side in her archive. The first was of his wife in her youth, a beautiful woman with long black hair. The second was a recent picture of her with her children. Sabbagh explains that it is difficult to identify her as the same person in the two images, which Sabbagh did not share with the speak, memory participants yesterday. In an interview with Sabbagh, Abou Fady explained how his wife was one of the few survivors of an Israeli attack on the camp with napalm gas in 1992. Therefore, Abou Fady’s gesture was a political one out of the belief in the power the archive might have as a political tool for resistance.

When Susan Meiselas started her research on the past 100 years of the history of the Kurdish community in Iraq, it was also out of belief in the power of the documentary visual image in destabilizing existing historical narratives and representations. Her narrative sought to be participatory. Most of the images are copies of personal photographs of Kurdish families, which she reproduced in their backyard. Many Kurdish families welcomed her into their homes and shared with her their memories, stories and family pictures. It seemed liberating for people to have a voice in their representation to the Western world and they willingly participated in her documentary endeavor.

It is possible that the authority of visual archives be overrated. However, archives are indeed referenced at various degrees by researchers. In their presentation of a forthcoming book -developed in response to the photographic archive at Belfast Exposed in Northern Ireland- Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin attested to the used value of archives. The two artists focused on parts of the photographs that were highlighted or bordered by previous researchers, areas onto which ink was purposefully spilt and areas that were totally removed from the images. The active censorship of the archive equally shows it as a valuable resource.

However, the responsibilities placed on the researchers and archivists remain immense between meeting the expectations of groups who contributed or are represented in the archive and meeting their own artistic interests. Sometimes despite all efforts, projects might backfire as the artists do not have full control on the material once it is published. For instance, Meiselas continues to wonder if the representation of the Kurds in her book Kurdistan in the Shadow of History might have played a role in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sabbagh has currently put a halt onto her research and does not share the images she has for fear of feeding into stereotypical representations and flattening the lives of Palestinian refugees. Other initiatives emphasize the idea of a curated artistic project over representation such as the Bidoun Library exhibition by Bidoun Projects. Through their latest issue of Bidoun magazine and notebooks in the gallery space, Bidoun conveys its reading of the library while leaving room for others to accept or reject that reading. Most research projects and archives in the cultural field mix the roles of curator and archivist often wearing more than one hat to best reflect the interests of their subjects as well as their curatorial views; the creative is mixed with the representational leaving room for interpretation and debate rather than giving a definite answer.