Issue 15: Gunpowder Body

Sofía Carrillo

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26.08.2019

First Notes for a Proposal for the Decolonization of the Archive

Curator Sofía Carrillo reflects on the archive and the document from territories of displacement, «occurrence», and the politics of the activation of memory derived from approaches discussed in the conference «Archivos fuera de lugar» [Displaced archives].

First Notes for a Proposal for the Decolonization of the Archive

Held in Mexico City, Archivos fuera de lugar is an international conference dedicated to reflecting on the displacement of the archive and the document into the field of symbolic, discursive, and economic circulation linked to the contemporary art circuit and the contemporary cultural system. It was born as an inquiry into what happens in these fields when the archival boom [1] normalizes within the discursive or mainstream center, as well as a means of instigating interesting confrontations among us.
Associated since its beginning with the Ex Teresa Arte Actual [Ex Teresa Contemporary Art Museum] and the Centro de Documentación Ex Teresa [Ex Teresa Center for Documentation], Archivos fuera de lugar was also an exercise in creating alliances between individuals and institutions in order to review the material return of those memories and processes that transformed, fleetingly but forcefully, the field of art. It should be taken into account that the objectuality of these materials recuperates the narrative of a forgotten historiography of art, and that the consequences of its intervention into the memory and experience of the participants persist, replicate, contaminate, and continue to transform local discourses of art. These stories are, like the document, fragile, even when they have all the power to define their presence and break into the present.
To date, the conference has had two editions. The first meeting, Archivos fuera de lugar. Circuitos expositivos, digitales y comerciales del documento [Displaced Archives: The Document’s Demonstrative, Digital, and Commercial Circuits], met in September 2015 as an alliance between the Ex Teresa Arte Actual and Proyecto Juan Acha [2] to accommodate a discussion about what is known in Mexico as non-objectual art, as well as the new territories to which the archive and the document have been displaced. Non-objectuality became a term that, even now, is crucial for the meetings; it has allowed us to delineate for ourselves a transversal evaluation of the historiography of art based in an analysis of the object as an occurrence. [3] It has also generated an inquiry into memory and narratives of art, into the importance of materiality, loaded as it is with social, cultural, and aesthetic information. Rita Eder clarifies that non-objectual art consists of “proposals that affect materials, work tools, spaces and the spectators; that is, the entire circuit of production, distribution and consumption”. [4] The difference becomes tangible and preponderant thanks to this term, while keeping the question of the analysis of the diffuse border between the document and the work of art, and the transfer of the artistic between them, latent.
In the first meeting, we were interested in discussing the concept of custody. It was vital to articulate how, from the point of view of the institution and as subjects, we were asking ourselves about the limits between guarding and possessing a collection, recognizing that the means and actions of doing so should be initiatives for the activation of memory in which we no longer continue to encourage the extraction, deterritorialization, and imprisonment of these documents. But this question also led us to recognize from where it is that the discourses of art history are inscribed and what the value of the archive is, not only as a source of information but also as a material asset for institutions. After broadening the question of custody, other questions arose about the characteristics that institutions attribute to archives, the way in which individuals develop a conceptualization of those funds and collections, how the above conditions the assignment of thesaurus, its consequences both in the visibility and in the obliteration of memory, as well as in the quest for methodologies that activate the archive.
Placing such materials in an exhibition space—a common tactic for activating the archive—temporarily nullifies the epistemological burden of the arkheion [5] space and focuses attention on the document’s space-format, thus revealing the strategy of narrative reification [6]. Once it is understood that the document transgresses the boundaries of its container in this momentary way, it begins its journey through the voracious contemporary art system, becoming, in the broadest sense, an asset. We continuously observe that documents, memory, libraries, archives (if the artist indeed had the intent of cataloging) circulate as discursive assets between essays, digital repositories, exhibitions, and/or as commercial assets as elements valued for being part of the collections of institutions, galleries, and collectors.
If we reflect on the value of these documents and the importance of the stories they contain, the policies of the body implicit in the document’s testimony remain latent as does the assumed responsibility to partially apprehend that intangibility in a new body. Since the origins of performance, this transfer of memory and the manifestation of a new materiality is something that has been widely discussed; in this regard the theoretical, practical, and even ethical positions have inevitably impregnated discussions about the document and the activation of the archive of contemporary art. It is an extremely delicate task to convey the question of custody and commercialization when we consider the subjectivity implicit in these documents. By this I not only mean the career of artists and collectives, but also the intangibility that conceptually should be or would like to be transferred to a historiographical narrative.
The second meeting was held behind closed doors at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in September of 2017 and was the result of an alliance between the Centro de Documentación Ex Teresa and the Centro de Documentación Arkheia. Under the title Archivos fuera de lugar. Desbordes discursivos, expositivos y autorales del documento [Displaced Archive: The Discursive, Demonstrative, and Authorial Surplus of the Document], we sought to revise the field of the politics of memory through the lens of contemporary art as social activism. The proposal was exemplified through the conservation efforts, the transference, or the construction of narratives that emerge not from spaces of power, but from their use, where archive activism is defined as the space in which the body and affect are newly materialized as a collective form that constructs and bursts open memory. Constructing memory from the present and creating a vision towards the future out of dialogue instead of a unifying discourse—from a multiplicity of agents, from the members of a community who put in motion a system of relations, knowledge, and affects which renew the creative moment, in which memory exists only in its action.

The document allows us to evoke, discuss, and delineate that which wished to be obliterated; to remember the forgotten.

To delineate is to superimpose, but what is delineated from the document inevitably comes down to interpretation, to context, to the fragment. The interesting thing about performance archives is precisely this: they put those subjectivities that initially transgressed unifying and totalizing discourses back into play. They are a document, yes, but they scream their bias and their ephemeral and unattainable condition.

In The Archive and the Repertoire, [7] Diana Taylor begins by explaining the importance of performance as a medium for transference, in which the contextual information and knowledge of a society are maintained by virtue of repetition. What is interesting about her analysis is the moment she rejects the authoritative field of the archive as the means of safeguarding this type of memory and discourse that can only exist in terms of presence and action. The repertoire would then be the catalog of a body which takes the place of the arkheion. Here, historiography makes no sense; the rules of the body and its referents, affective, contextual, and in a constant state of construction-interpretation, are the territory in which linear temporality is replaced by reiteration, putting into play all times in one.

A strategy appears again after a process I could call transmigration, a process in which the experience and intangibility of performance is given a body and, with this new and fragile materiality derived from the document, is faced with a familiar territory (that of contemporary art), but with new codes of signification. The materialization of that which expected to fade away might appear to be a betrayal; however, even when these codes insert the document into a symbolic, economic, and cultural circuit, even when they are newly designated under new nomenclature, memory and experience are activated. I wonder if this turn toward materiality is one of the seeds of re-enactment, and the possibility of reassessment from this place the epistemological break. The action—and the other actions that are added to the one portrayed or narrated—and the subjective reading—which becomes multiple again—represent continuous irruptions into the document, even when the event fades.

The work of Voluspa Jarpa seems to me a rich example, which not only employs the archives of the CIA’s intervention in Latin America in subtle installations that occupy space with their scribbles and words, but also approximates the language, information, document, and erasure from the perspective of the body. During the second meeting of Archivos fuera de lugar, Voluspa presented a video in which she sits in front of an English teacher and the aforementioned archive for hours, speaking a foreign language. In this exercise in pronunciation and comprehension, appropriation is, above all, accomplished. In this case, appropriation is transference as much as it is a complement to a link that until then had been neglected. The word becomes hers and seals the wounds of a violated contextual body.
Another case is the documentation of works such as performances; a documentation where that which is intended to be transferred is narrated from a new subjectivity. Any conceptual strategy is an effort that barely allows us to approach the event. To generate this kind of record is no easy task; the expectation of narration, the desire for experience, the evocation with its temporal load—that punctum that Roland Barthes describes in Camera Lucida—are imposed. In the same way, the impossibility, the deviation, the bias, and the creative power of the person registering and interpreting the record are conditions that in and of themselves become the object of attraction and interest in a space where the documentary body is constituted from efforts to anchor the ephemerality of works based on process, whose transformation depends on fading, face-to-face memory. The very act of documentation, then, is a creative act, a performance in which new codes are transferred as a mode of knowledge.
In the face of these subjective conditions of creation, in a field of signification based on the exchange of value, the question of authorship becomes necessary and abundant. The reiteration and obsessive turn toward the creative individual remind us of that stubborn individuality which attempts to claim all knowledge as its own, which narrates the history of the world—its world—in the first person. But when memory is reactivated from subjectivity, when the body reactivates the fibers of perception linked to knowledge in action, everything becomes meaningful again, no matter if it parts from the archive, the emotion of a reading or a dance and ritual. Let us not forget that the body is always present and, when the document is moved into the exhibition space, when the document, once again, becomes object or action, our bodies move through and experience it.
Thus, the document not only enters the art system, but it becomes an occurrence again. The power of use as a preservation, the valorization of a community cataloging, indexing, or exhibiting the documents of its own memory, as Interference Archive proposes, nullifies the figure of the archon and questions the authoritarian system of the index, catalog, conservation, and thesaurus. All the participants, who adopt the role of volunteers, are usually members of a community close to the archive, to the activist movement, and to the community represented; it is from that place that they not only contribute presence and experience, but also bodies—in relation to others—to be put into use and keep memory active. It is the activists who define their own history, and authority, in this sense, is self-imposed.
If an epistemological project in which the construction of different orders and structures regarding the recognition of other modes of knowledge and definition is proposed—like that posed by decolonizing efforts—were to avoid the type of accumulating, classificatory, cataloging, selective, and invisibilizing project that occurs in vertically structured archives, we would have to imagine as well as recognize models of transmission of knowledge, memory, and definition in communal, affective, and corporeal processes. I think, of course, of performance, of oral tradition, of the emotional transmission of perceiving and constructing the world. However, recognizing the inescapable object in the residue of the archive could perhaps offer an explosive power in this new order as a carrier of information and cultural values that urges us to reconsider the symbolic world of objects.
A new way of imagining the figure of the arkheion would be to reassess the structure from the point of view of the document—the arkhé—itself, understanding the plurality of its voice, or, if one so desires, understanding it as the seabed on which layers and layers of sediment and voices are deposited as unrepeatable and subjective events which can be experienced again and again through the body. The transformation of an authoritative structure such as the archive can stem from the work of a community, from being a body that turns to its own repertoire, with which to deposit its affect in the exercise of sketching new pathways upon the document. From corporeal presence, which represents memory, catastrophe is inoculated into the structure of the archive, constructing this repository after the recognition of a collective repertoire in which memory and body contribute, together, the possibility of forming a new experience and milestone.

Notes

  1. When I refer to the archival “boom,” or the archival turn, it is necessary to understand the complex structure of the art system that today responds with policies of acquisition and donation, putting into circulation a narrative about artistic praxis by means of the document as it is seen in exhibitions and through the construction of historiographical discourses, the revalidation of the artist in the medium, and the materialization of ephemeral pieces that now form part of public and private art collections; in short, the consideration of the document and the archive as cultural and economic assets that redefine their function in the cultural field. Due to this phenomenon, a privatizing trend can be observed with regards to the document in the market and even a return to the privatization of discourses of the historiography of art⎯a situation that seems even more dangerous to me; however, the leakage of these materials into collective methodological fields, plural readings, cross-sectional reviews, word mobility, among others, is an example of a decolonial seed in the archive.

  2. The Proyecto Juan Acha [Juan Acha Project] houses the library and archive of Juan Acha, a Peruvian-Mexican theorist and cultural agent who transformed art criticism and theory in the 1970s in Mexico and much of Latin America. This archive was donated to UNAM in 2008 and is currently in the process of relocating within the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco [Tlatelolco University Cultural Center]. It is open for appointments. Furthermore, it involves a critical review of Acha’s legacy with respect to his ideas about restructuring the art system based on the idea of the art object as cultural object. The team is made up of Mahia Biblos, María Elena Blanco, and Joaquín Barriendos.

  3. See Gilles Deleuze, Lógica del Sentido. (Barcelona: Paidós, 2005), p. 183.

  4. Rita Eder, “El arte No-Objetual en México” in Memorias del Primer Coloquio Latinoamericano sobre Arte No-Objetual y Arte Urbano, ed. Manrique, Víctor Manuel. (Medellín, Colombia: Fondo editorial Museo de Antioquia, Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 2011), p. 121.

  5. Arkheion is Greek for “archive”.

  6. This is a very rich topic, so we reviewed it in both meetings. Firstly, I would like to emphasize the selective role the curator played with regards to the materials, and their resulting decontextualization with respect to the relationships with other documents, funds, and collections. The other side of the coin concerns their value and accessibility with respect to new modes of symbolic and cultural relationships. Their placement also responds to changing formats and structures, such as the internet, digital repositories, collective tools for assigning topics, thesauri, and the gathering of collective references such as some Wikipedia entries; however, the digital sphere is still a space of accumulation immersed in a series of legal discussions about authorship, use, and custody, which in turn will radically modify the field of information, the document, and digital repositories. Likewise, the deployment of these documents in the reconstruction of art objects that allow an experience to be experienced again and therefore updated constitutes an important revision of the re-make. On the other hand, they also become objects in the collection, entailing decisions about their cataloging as artistic objects and their artistic reproduction, among others. The issue, I repeat, is wide and complex, but you can review the participation of all the guests of the first and second meetings in the publications produced by the Taller de Ediciones Económicas under a peer license. It can be accessed at: http://www.t-e-e.org/index.php/archivo/

  7. Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire. Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. (Duke: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 326.

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