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.

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