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.

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