2. An Anti-Archival Impulse
Published: 11.06.2012
in the series What Can Photography Do?
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In this post, I want to continue the reflection on how photography can today serve as a contributing motor for social change by turning our attention to the photographic archive. I would like to focus on a concrete example, the long-term project Theory of Justice initiated by the artist Peter Friedl in 1992. This work is composed from the artist’s vast collection of newspaper and magazine clippings. A specific selection of black-and-white photographs was published as an artist’s book in 2006. Others have been exhibited on various occasions in specifically designed showcases. In the context of Theory of Justice, Friedl insists on his preference for the term “collection” instead of “archive.” From an aesthetic point of view, a photographic archive is “nonsense,” he argues, “unless you are digging for mythological information.” As such, Friedl is part of a larger group of contemporary artists whose work is marked by an anti-archival impulse.

Peter Friedl, Theory of Justice, 1992-. Installation view, Sala Rekalde, Bilbao (2010). © Peter Friedl

Photographic archives all over the world have increasingly become institutionalized: the previously established idea that the archive be granted a potentially ‘eternal sleep’ in the place that preserves it, waiting to be more or less randomly discovered by its researchers, is a norm that no longer holds. Photographic archives are meant to be profitable: their consultants are now seen as clients to whom copyright-protected merchandise can be sold in order to fund the institution. Consequently, power relationships with regard to the distribution of information from such archives have shifted: if you don’t pay, you don’t publish the photo. And even if you are ready to pay, publication may be prohibited if the copyright holder considers the content of your text inappropriate.

As a result, both artists and researchers are increasingly shifting their focus and drift their attention to photographic materials that are more randomly available, and can be used and distributed more freely. Peter Friedl’s personal collection is a key example of how significant photographic materials can be found outside of the commercialized institutional context. This way, he not only points at the limits of the neoliberal valorisation model. But also does he avoid the risk that photographic materials become subservient to hegemonic forces of power in society. As Allan Sekula has argued, this was often the case during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the point where photography became the dangerous ally of racial stereotyping and the emblematic tool of criminal jurisprudence.

Sekula proposes a reading of the photographic archive “from below,” in full solidarity with “those displaced, deformed, silenced or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress.” Following the example of Walker Evans, Sekula also makes a strong plea for artists to make “combative and antiarchival” sequences of photographic work. He argues that Evans made his photographs within a logic of resistance to the early twentieth-century institutionalised photographic archive model. This model tended to relegate the individual photographer to the status of a detail worker (for example, endlessly producing reproductions of paintings), thus providing fragmentary images for an apparatus beyond his or her control. That this type of photographic archive could indeed get seriously out of control has been powerfully illustrated by Sally Stein, in her study of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, demonstrating how photographs were employed to incriminate others to the police by handing over pictures to the authorities as proof-material for their illegal status.

When Sekula speaks of Evans’s photographic sequences as anti-archival gestures, he means by this that they point to that which risks remaining invisible when we only privy ourselves to the archival “bureaucratic handling of visual documents”: namely, on one hand, the sheer disregard or, on the other hand, the victimisation of those depicted by it. In order to avoid both of these problematic viewing mechanisms, he believes, like Evans, in the artistic format of mute, poetic photographic sequences. Friedl’s Theory of Justice appears to do just this as well: it radically goes against the bureaucratic handling of photographic materials and presents mute photographic sequences: we only know that Friedl determined the order of their display on the basis of the chronology of the events depicted in them instead of on their actual date of publication.

Theory of Justice is an unfinished project: Friedl is always on the lookout for more materials. As such, his artistic attitude of systemic resistance appears accompanied by an implicit suggestion: the claim that, although there is an enormous amount of photographs at our disposal today, there is also always, at the same time, somewhere, a body of photographs that remains inaccessible. Although they may well already exist somewhere, someplace, they have thus far remained hidden from us. In this sense, we can think of the photographs that will eventually become added to the project as the ‘optical unconscious’ — to employ a term from Walter Benjamin — of the era we live in. They point at that which has not been properly photographically archived (or not that we currently know of), and which escapes any strategies of valorisation or functionalised visibility.

Peter Friedl, Theory of Justice, 1992-. Installation view, Sala Rekalde, Bilbao (2010). © Peter Friedl.

Theory of Justice thus inherently carries the ambition to keep alive the collective, imaginary memory of potentially yet to be revealed photographs. In an even stronger reading, the sequence also seems to suggest that the future knowledge of these pictures will potentially change our opinion and understanding of the specific situation from which they emerge. As an anti-archival artwork, Theory of Justice is for us a lesson in humbleness in regard to our expectations of the photographic archive proper. It asks us not to forget that there is a limit to how much we can accept as conclusive knowledge, and it reminds us to remain skeptical when an archival photograph is presented to us as keyhole through which we are to spy the truth of historical events. “In fact,” Friedl says, “my collection is shrinking rather than growing.”

4 comment(s)
Jan-Erik Lundström
Posted 15.06.2012 at 13:17

The contested territories of the archive, addressed in Hilde van Gerler’s recent posting, which considers some of the challenges to hegemonic or stereotyped readings of contents of archives, while suggesting a number of practices articulated as ”anti-archival” in their attempts at building other structures than hegemonised or hegemonising archives, is indeed a central issue in contemporary photographic culture. One reason being, I would suggest, the way it links the hermeneutic processing of photographic meaning with a more recent engagement with photographic communication as a speech-act, a vernacular dialogue, an exchange of notes, messages, events, or thoughts. To follow up on this challenging and timely topic I offer an unsystematic list of responses along these thematics below. Thus:

- The archive turns upon conditions of context, upon processes of contextualization/de-contextualization. Yes, the archive can never escape that particular process of suspension and sedimentation that occurs as an archival item or entry settles as archival “fact”, comes to inhabit the archive, comes to materialize its structure. Nonetheless, the archive is as well a site of production, where context is managed and articulated, meanings. And that is also how it can transform or alter worlds.
- The archive lives by its users. An archive exiting the arena of its possible users is no longer an archive. The archive is an archive only insofar as its content is accessed, circulated, orchestrated, defined. Users define the archive, whether they agree with the archive or not.
- What matters is always, as well, a precise reading of the medium, of the properties involved. Friedl’s Theory of Justice is, crucially, made up of photographs of newspaper clippings. This change of medium is a change of meaning, context, function, and position. And needs to be recognised. Just like every use of the archive changes the archive. As such, the gesture of Fried has to do with content, with a particular re-conceptualization and re-reading of a particular selection of images, a re-reading that occurs in exactly the intervals between established and accustomed meaning and potential (or evacuated) meaning.
- The position of the photograph in the system, in the archive, never predetermines its influence. The archived institutionalized image offers the same potential as the free-floating image in the live network archive of the Internet. The potential of meaning is neither unveiled nor realized or produced through attending to structural identities (which is not a matter of de-emphasizing structure). But from putting the image into use, into spin, from unsettling and destabilizing, from undermining and revising, through the uses of photographs. Like the archive, a photograph is mute or dead if not put to use.
- No meaning is final. Each use of the image – in the archive, outside of the archive – redefines the image, and, thus, the archive, the system, visual culture… Not even the institutionalized archive or its powerful owner can completely control the outcome of photographic communication.
- Ownership, control, of archives and archival meaning call for both anti-archival and counter-archival practices, the latter of which Theory of Justice eloquently articulates.
- No aesthetic position is a guarantee. Each photograph is a discursive intervention; it is not possible to pose photography as a disinterested or “other” discourse. Choices are made according to the quest at hand – a discreet poetics or a verbose dialectics, the panorama or the fragment, serial or monolithic, catholic or fractured… Or all or none or some of the above.

Hilde Van Gelder
Posted 22.06.2012 at 16:08

When Jan-Erik writes that “Not even the institutionalized archive or its powerful owner can completely control the outcome of photographic communication,” I read these lines as a strong message of hope. In my response to the comments on Part 1, Ariella Azoulay’s installation at the Paris Triennale - including drawings from photographs - was brought up. It is a clear example of how photographs will continue to speak to us and generate impact even when we are forbidden to render them public. These drawings are traces of traces of histories that we have not yet fully come to terms with.

Jörg Scheller
Posted 16.06.2012 at 16:49

The question “How can art bring about social change?” has a long and complicated history. Actually, today it is almost impossible to pose this question whithout referring to that history which stretches from Giorgio Vasari's first attempts to valorize the Tuscany, to the medieval buzz of the Romantic era, to the hopes of the Futurists that the avant-garde could be become a motor for all-encompassing sociopolitical transformation. Often, a notion of art prevailed which proceeded from the assumption that art should be defined with regard to its non-artistic impact. Art is then requested “to serve”, as Hilde has put it.

But can there be a stable, reliable relation between a specific artwork-as-servant and a task such as “social change”? Is there an “essential” link for instance between the style of Walker Evans' photographs and the political “message” they allegedly espouse? We somehow doubt it. In our opinion, it would be more appropriate to focus on the discoursive context in which a photograph is being placed, rather than equating a specific aesthetic or style such as “mute, poetic photographic sequences” with a certain semantic quality, that is, a certain critical potential, as Hilde has argued with regard to Walker Evans.

As for Peter Friedl, it would be salient to distinguish between his “anti-archival impulse” as the expectations connected with and projected onto Theory of Justice on the one hand, and the trans-subjective properties of the artwork on the other hand side. Does Theory of Justice really “inherently“ carry „the ambition to keep alive the collective, imaginary memory of potentially yet to be revealed photographs“? Again, we doubt it. As far as we understand, the artwork comprises decontextualized press clippings, it does not reveal and mediate hitherto invisible or neglected aspects of social life as it was the case with Walker Evans. Of course there are “limits to conclusive knowledge” and the “archival photograph”; however, isn't this already common sense in the academic and artistic community? Does it have to be illustrated by an “anti-archival artwork”? Only against the backdrop of an “external” discoursive curtain, the silhouette of the “anti-archival impulse” becomes visible. Actually this is precisely what Allan Secula has frequently stressed: the “content” of the photograph is not the photograph but its discoursive and ideological framework.

Moreover, the terms “collection” and “archive” are not so incommensurable as it may seem with regard to Friedl's somewhat rigid distinction. “Collection” frequently refers to the possessions of this or that individual―assemblies of items which can either be shared or not be shared; shown or not be shown. “Collection Peggy Guggenheim”, “Collection François Pinault“, “Collection Harald Falckenberg”, and so on. In this respect, the term “collection” rather recalls memories of those princely collections which were opened up for the general public only in the course of modernization. The term “archive”, on the other hand, should no longer be reserved for restricted, institutionalized areas or the commercial sector of stock-photography which has anyway already been complemented by archives based on the creative commons-principle. Foucault and Derrida have long extended, dynamized, problematized, and even blurred the notion of the archive beyond recognition. Last but not least, it is evident that any allegedly “anti-archival photograph” can easily be turned into an “archival photograph” when the respective ideological climate changes―this is precisely what has happened or is still happening with the photographs of Walker Evans.

(with Sofia Bempeza and Martin Walther)

Hilde Van Gelder
Posted 22.06.2012 at 16:27

The discursive context in which photographs become embedded, is indeed decisive. In Friedl’s work this context is provided by the entirety of artworks and texts that he produces. This is a matter of artistic methodology: at all times, the totality of Friedl’s artistic production should be kept in mind when looking at a single one of his installations. Allan Sekula has called this “a larger montage principle” that is always operative within his entire body of work as well, and which exceeds any montage principle internal to one work only (or even to one of his books). As with Sekula, the observer of Friedl’s works can allow for that larger montage to emerge and, from there, to understand his radically neutral approach as one marked by the greatest possible, egalitarian social engagement that art can take. Seen from that perspective, the radically mute photographs included in 'Theory of Justice' bring about an ethical call for human responsibility. The silence of the images is productive: it prevents both victimization, on one hand, and disregard, on the other, of the people encountered in them.

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