Multiple perspectives for the archives
How can contemporary artists contribute to museological research? Through what kinds of questions and actions may they collaborate with historians, archivists and museologists? How can we combine archival material and artworks in order to enlarge museum’s perspectives? Organised by Marta Jecu at the Collège d’études mondiales of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, the Symposium La volonté des archives gathered researchers from different fields and countries to a discussion that was in itself one sort of answer to those questions. The event happened in Paris on November 19th 2018 and was part of Marta Jecu’s Project Exodus Station, which “is a research and curatorial project that aims to explore the role contemporary art can have for the discipline of new museology. Contemporary artists are invited to research in the archives of museums and reference questions of representation. The aim is to research not particularly on the collected items themselves, but rather on the way in which they have been politicised, valued, stored – as visible from their (mainly) visual documentation in the archives. The project aims also to develop methodologies of research of these visual archives, but also methodologies of display of critical and analytic information – developed with the means of contemporary art”. (http://exodusstations.com/about/).
Exodus Stations’ fourth edition was held at the Quai Branly Museum by the Portuguese artist Catarina Simão, who has an ongoing research about the Makonde art and its presence within European museums. Going towards the general Project’s goals mentioned above, the edition of 2018, from which the Symposium was a result, focused mainly on archival practices in the museological context – and not so much in Archives as institutions or other possible concepts. The event was strongly connected to the themes of the African Diaspora, the Post Colonialist Studies and the presence of African art collections in the so-called Western countries.
Before writing about the content of the event, however, it is important to mention a quite delicate question that came up at its very beginning: the language issue of international conferences in France. Despite the presence of international invited speakers from many non-French-speaking countries, a presentation was made in French, without any prior notice about the language of the event nor translation, not to the speakers neither to the audience. The decision of having an unannounced presentation in French was pointed out as a problem, even though some of the participants claimed that by being in France one should be allowed to speak French, besides the necessity for an international conference to be open to several languages. At this point, came to the table the argument that this line of thinking could be considered even colonialist and provincial (since the opening to languages other than English was not a real possibility for the speakers and participants coming from other countries, that do not have French neither English as their mother tongue). Since the event’s discussions involved themes such as colonialism, international cooperation and counterhegemonic narratives, the language situation is not irrelevant. The Symposium, however, continued with no further complication since the other presentations were held in English and some participants volunteered to translate questions and answers when necessary, even if they did not all agree on the nationalist versus the internationalist perspective. In addition to the language issue, it is also necessary to notice that in spite of all the discussions on racism, black art and colonialism, there were no black speakers at the event – neither in the audience.
Apart from the problems highlighted above, the Symposium La Volonté des Archives did still rise several meaningful discussions. Even though the concept of archive was not previously defined, most of the speeches approached archival practices directly related to museum collections. The discussions were also about how can museums gather, register, manage and communicate the knowledge generated by museological and artistic research, including a diverse range of topics such as databases, labelling, museography and publications (catalogues, for instance).
An example of the richness of the talks are the speeches of Christine Barthe and Catarina Simão. Both of them spoke of photography at the Quai Branly Museum, from two different perspectives: on one hand, photographies as artifacts at the museum’s Photography Collection; on the other, as representations of collection’s items (objects or artworks) in the institutional archive or in exhibition’s catalogues. About the photographs that are also artifacts, the potential of those images as research sources is directly linked with how they are stored, which information about their authorship and previous ownership is registered or not, which criteria are used to organize them. It is crutial that museological institutions, as much as Archives, understand and assume that all of those technical tasks that may seem neutral at a first look are actually the expressions of ideological and ethical codes, and can have strong impacts on the production of knowledge based on their collections. Before commenting on Simão’s work, which considers a museological communication tool (the exhibition catalogue), we would like to give one more look on the internal procedures, through the study of a north american museum.
Focusing on an angle slightly different from Barthe’s one, Christian Kravagna talked about the very formation of a collection, exploring how the same kind of object can enter different museums under opposed political meanings. He presented what he calls “The Museum of Liberation” – the Hampton University Museum, and highlighted the difference between gathering and showing an African collection inside a Black community environment and outside of it, as it is in most European museums and other “Western” collections. Kravagna also pointed out to the strong presence of African and American African artists and former university students in the exhibitions, and their donations to the museum collection. One example of the latter is the Kikuyu collection of 50 objects, donated by the father of the first Kenyan student of the Hampton University. It consisted in a rare case of self-representation in a Western context, due to the facts that an insider selected what was to be seen about his own culture and that he did donate not only the pieces, but also documentation about them – which can be considered as valuable archival material.
From the backstage to the main scene, and back to the Portuguese artist speech: Simão approached the exhibition catalogue as, also, one kind of archive. The curatorial process involved in exhibiting one part of a museum’s collection at a specific space and under a certain theme has to be adapted and revisited in the making of the exhibition’s catalogue – which often comprehend even more restrict choices. The artist explored how this selected group of pictures that represent the objects is visually organized in the publications and, once again, not only the aesthetical, but also the ethical and political institutional choices embedded in the catalogue.
Also about a public side of the museums, Sarah Frioux-Salgas and Helene Poussette focused most of their communications on exhibitions and educational activities. A main question raised by them was about how to display archival material linked with artworks and museum objects in order to stimulate critical thinking and to enlarge the perspectives both of the museums and its visitors. We consider worth emphasizing two aspects of this discussion: firstly, the fact that the role of rethinking narratives and throwing light on usually hidden questions should not be exclusively left for artists in external projects. In other words, museums need to take their part of the responsibility and embody critical thinking and awareness throug the processes of collecting, storing, preserving, researching and exhibiting. As a complement for this first point, the presentations showed concrete situations of cooperation between museum professionals, researchers and artists, where artworks or performances and archival documents or informations were brought together.
Frioux-Salgas’ work was, as Kravagna’s and Simão’s, directly linked with the theme of the African Diaspora and Post Colonial Studies. She brought light to three Pan-Africanist exhibitions at the Quai Branly Museum in 2009, and pointed out to the challenge of showing to a large public a history that is often unknown, mistold or exotized. The notion of archive in this case consisted once again in the registered informations about objects and artworks, resulted from research. As a historian who works as an archivist inside a museum, Frioux-Salgas conceived exhibitions where this sort of archival information and material joined the exhibited items in order to clarify the historical and social contexts of each one of them, avoiding the exotizing discourse.
Poussette, on the other hand, showed an example that was not only about mistold histories, but even about the ones which were not told at all. The History Unfolds project, held between 2016 and 2017 at the Swedish History Museum, had artists invited to create artworks inspired by the museums collections and researche. It included exhibitions, events, an educational programme and a publication. Those were outcomes of the cooperation between museum researchers and contemporary artists, and they explored several information attached to the museum collections that had never been told before. One of the project’s goals was, besides generating knowledge and communicating it to the internal and external public, also including the new information in the museum’s database. This way, archives were not only a source of research, but a destination of researches results as well, making them more lively and improving the activities of all the museum’s sectors.
This idea of a lively archive, or of the archive as some sort of “living being”, was suggested by Cristina Baldacci, who approached the controversial theme of re-enacting history, a term that can be associated to representations, through performance or drama theatre, of artworks or historical facts. Her hypothesis is that archives can be brought to life through artistic practice – which is somehow in dialogue with the Swedish project mentioned above. In order to address questions as those from the pairs politics x poetics, history x storytelling, she presented two artists: the Romanian dancer and actress Alexandra Pirici and Filipa Cesar, a filmmaker from Guinea-Bissau. Cesar’s research, according to Baldacci, is “on the imaginary of liberation from colonialism in Guinea-Bissau, through film footage and sound recordings stored in forgotten and damaged archives”. As for Pirici’s work, the concept of archive is much more fluid, since her proposal is to recreate, through choreographies and performances, historical monuments and events. The idea of creating “immaterial” collections with gestures inside museums or in public spaces adds a different perspective from those explored in the Symposium’s speeches presented so far.
Also a little far from actions centered on only one museum collection, but back into the exhibition’s environment, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez spoke about the project Show me your archive and I will tell you who is in power, that consisted in an exhibition and a lectures program at the Kiosk gallery in Ghent, Belgium, in 2017. Centered on the feminist struggle history, the work of Petrešin-Bachelez was, as most of her colleague’s in the Symposium, committed to a Post Colonial approach and antiracist perspective. Using a strategy that was similar to the one showed by Poussette’s, the exhibition gathered archival material and contemporary artworks in order to throw new lights on issues as gender, race and class. The provocative title gave by the curator can be connected to all of the presentations of the Symposium and to the global theme of the Exodus Station Project: through different perspectives and strategies, all of the participants’ speeches converged into recognizing how powerful tools can the archives be, and how important it is to critically work with them.
Among all of those practical approaches, one of the speakers brought to light a much more theoretical perspective. Coming from the Lusófona University, José Gomes Pinto is a philosopher whose research themes include aesthetics, technology, sociology and arts, among other fields. He contributed with a transdisciplinary point of view, since he established connexions between philosophers – such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Alfred North and Boris Groys – and intellectuals from the literary field – such as Ezra Pound and James Joyce. His paper was called “The Contingency of the Absolute”, where he did “try to demonstrate how archives function as a technology of modern times, from a historical and technological point of view”.
At this point, it is already quite clear that the possible approaches to the topic of the archives are several and can generate fruitful discussions when put in contact with one another. Through international and interdisciplinar cooperation, Post Colonial studies, Area studies and many other fields of research can benefit even from archive materials that were firstly supposed to reinforce hegemonic narratives. Researchers and artists can join forces to discover new perspectives, work on new narratives and question old standards.
History Unfolds, a reflection: http://historiska.se/utstallningar/history-unfolds-a-reflection/
Show me your archive and I will tell you who is in power: http://www.kioskgallery.be/showmeyourarchive
FRASER, Marie; DUBÉ-MOREAU, Florence-Agathe. Performer la collection: comment le re-enactment performe-t-il ce qu’il récrée? In: Erudit 20, issue 28-29, 2016-2017, 20/09/2017. Avaiable at: https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/im/2016-n28-29-im03201/1041088ar/abstract/
KRAVAGNA, Christian. The museum of liberation – an excursion into the early history of reconquest. [Translation by Jane Yagar]. In: Wie weiter mits Humboldts Erbe? Ethnographische Sammlungen neu danken. Avaiable at: https://blog.uni-koeln.de/gssc-humboldt/en/the-museum-of-liberation/