Thursday, 25 July 2013

Materials for Alternative Histories: Between Artists and Institutions

In some ways my first blog article, at the end of what is being coined the beginning of the archive project, tries to express a response or a hope to continue some of the conversations started in the blog so far and beyond that to reflect on the various talks and discussion the miracle project has thrown up. I am writing looking back over the project guided only by my personal interests in a similar way to researching the archive itself where, like the artists engaged in the exhibition at the CCA on its contents, I was invited to try and live in the chaos of the archive and to find a route through it, almost randomly, following interests where they appear as the blog seems to show my fellow researchers have also done.

Giving up?

As part of a series of talks called Giving Up The Archive Dominic Paterson introduced the project as an attempt to stay with the ‘chaos of memories’ rather than to be in possession of a body of documents. The title of the archive day held in London last month suggests this opposition to the idea of ownership that in many ways could be seen as part of what an archive is. Jacques Derrida describes the archive as both a location and a commandment, being from a Greek word used to describe the house of residence for archons who guard the documents, which, in turn, allows them to make commandments. Later on in the day Gerald Byrne also talked about ‘the capacity of text to lay claims on the world’ in relation to playboy among other things and his interest in antagonizing texts and introducing an element of instability into institutions. These associations of location and ownership that Cedric’s previous blog description also hits on so well seem a long way from the denial of ownership that the title Giving Up seems to evoke. How can giving up be reconciled with a sense that this research is just a beginning? Maybe by doing what the archive project seems to try and do which is to remember the term commencement, a double and contradictory meaning for archive, one of a ‘series of cleavages’ Derrida notes in Archive Fever. It is in commencement, this hope for and projection into the future that the archive works against itself as it remains open despite its other impulse to order and gather everything together into a unity with clear boundaries. This contradiction at the heart of archive reminds me of another that Slavoj Žižek sees in the term politics which can be split into ‘polis’, policing of boundaries and the action of ‘politics proper’, to represent missing voices. Where the archive is open, looking backwards is linked to future possibilities and in this way it seems to me to have similar politics to a manifesto which makes strategic use of the past to compel new forms in the future.

Materials for Alternative Histories

As this part of the title possibly predicts, the project has tried to acknowledge dissent from its opening chapter hopefully in a nod to the politics of missing voices. The first step in that came with Ross Sinclair’s artist interview series that could be seen to run counter to the institutional story that Cedric writes of as ‘locating the Third Eye at the heart of the Miracle story’. When Sinclair spoke of his research, which set out to work against the neat unity of sound bites through a long, loosely edited interview approach, he acknowledged a deconstruction from within described by Douglas Gordon’s process of turning the interview round to face him with the proposal that the interviews themselves were a form of self-portrait. Taking this on board Sinclair’s self conception seems to be tied up with a particular conception of an artistic community.  If it is a self-portrait I would argue it could be placed in and extend the category of social sculpture that Nick traces back to Joseph Beuys in his article on the blurred distinctions between art and society that existed in the early days of the Third Eye. What Sinclair and archive volunteer, Annie Crabtree, do in the selection of material presented at the archive conference is chart the path of the word ‘Glasgow Miracle’ from what it is implicitly associated with now – commercial and professional success within an artworld elite, a list of names and prizewinners, back to its mythical origin in the story of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s short visit to Glasgow that is extended by the persistence of a community of generosity. In a nutshell what the international curator meets in Glasgow is a sea of artists keen not to aggressively self promote but to take him round and show him other peoples work. In this light the interviews seem to be more like an anti self-portrait, telling the story of a refusal to self represent from so many different angles, that it is finally impossible to trace its origin back to any individual. It also seems close to the Social Sculpture that Sarah Lowndes book offered initially as another alternative history. By speaking as a we rather than an I this portrait begins to sound a bit like a manifesto, the missing voice of the Glasgow miracle that is not only a loud shout but an extended listening exercise that wants to do more than search for an extractable miracle formula.

What Sinclair describes in one way is similar to what artist Marysia Lewandowska sees in the world of intellectual property and copy right as a necessary paradigm shift that would involve a leap of faith; from a culture of permission to one of acknowledgement. The permission paradigm seems neatly encapsulated in her description of a recent collaborative project that looked to document one chapter in conceptual artist Michael Asher’s long engagement with institutional critique, to be what Bryne might term the unstable element. The documentation process involved engagement with two archives in order to trace a conversation between artist and a particular museum. What she was faced with however was a withdrawal of permission not from the museum archive but from Asher’s own archive. Lewandonska sees this as a fundamental part of the day-to-day practice of archives: to guard the borders and not let the public location become a ground for personal quests. In a panel discussion afterwards Francis Mckee diagnoses this as a kind of entropy in institutions towards management systems with the ideal situation for the smooth running of an institution being one without those unstable elements called people. Lewandonska’s personal quest ended with the production of the work Undoing Property a one sided correspondence that documents a failure of permission and takes its form from imitation of a library book – something Lewandonska poignantly states could soon be a thing of the past.

Do we have a model for a shift from property and permission to something more radical? Libraries could be seen as a half step in their interesting interpretation of this term location. Artifacts in a library both have a place and continuously risk loosing it by sending trails out into the world. This risk is built into the function of a library just as commencement is a part of the word archive. The risk in acknowledging this side of archives is to its own form and survival. The benefit is in becoming another model for a new paradigm: a place of radical generosity that has room for alternative futures.

The content of this article is indebted to artists Dominic Paterson, Gerald Byrne, Ross Sinclair, Douglas Gordon, Joseph Beuys, Marysia Lewandonska, Michael Asher and archivists Cedric Tai, Nick Thomas, Annie Crabtree, Carrie Skinner and Francis Mckee. As well as library books by Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Žižek and Sarah Lowndes.  

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

What matter location?

In one of my previous posts I was interested in finding out how much the Third Eye Centre was trying to reach out to other countries. Tom McGrath stated that "As far as possible, within the scope of its budget, the centre will try to bring creative people to Glasgow from other parts of the world, so that everyone in the city, but particularly the artists, can have a direct experience of what is happening elsewhere."

This is a photo of some of the original folder labels containing outreach to other countries and international artists.
Correspondence from Bridget Brown, Exhibitions Officer courtesy of the CCA/Third Eye Centre Archives
Third page of correspondence from Bridget Brown, Exhibitions Officer courtesy of the CCA/Third Eye Centre Archives
This represents a series of proposals that would have set a very high standard for organizations working internationally, but it only exists as a unfinished project in an archive, a letter from one woman to another. Two years later, the Iran that Bridget Brown is addressing no longer exists.

These folders with international ambitions stick out, as I am one of many graduate students who would have stayed in Glasgow longer if the UK visa situation had not changed. The concept of location becomes more apparently strategic as it means that establishing oneself here, or not here, will look different as it will inherently be different. Will this affect the decisions of students who are considering whether to come to study here or not, will this create a new generation of de-centralized Glasgow-based artists?

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The culture of searching or locating has continually changed throughout this project. What was once one box after another resurfacing out of the Mitchell Library and out of private homes is now a group effort of precise cataloging, and the careful choice of key words to aid retrieval.

The etymology of "locate" is to establish oneself in a place, or to settle. There is an attempt to locate the Third Eye Centre at the core of a story, the Glasgow Miracle, but there is also a real need to establish the archive itself as something that can provide a service for the future which requires that it itself must be established, practically institutionalised.

What is it about the way the public can locate something that creates a feeling of ownership? One of the largest uses of archives in Scotland is to locate one's genealogy, and in turn it connects people to a place they never even grew up in. There are about 5 million Scots in Scotland and about 30 million scots scattered across the globe. People will travel thousands of miles to search an archive for a name and it gives hope that feeling connected to a particular culture can also be backed up by something tangible.

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Location is also pertinent to the concept of accessibility. David Buri, the Academic Liaison Librarian at the Glasgow School of Art recently sat down with the archive volunteers and described how the history of making something easy to locate is rife with politics, especially because the usual way to begin organising an archive is to defer to the most authoritative institution. But what we're finding is that the only way to really go is to create bespoke navigation that will bring up the most appropriate results. It's not about efficiency, it's about being realistic about what the archive can and can't provide. He gave great anecdotes including one in particular about Glasgow University having a well thought out Scottish literature section contrasting the Library of Congress considering to demolish Scottish literature as a genre to be subsumed into the English literature section.

In 2007 Liz Lochhead had an impassioned response: "It just seems crazy that they have assumed English means British. It is a huge piece of cultural imperialism. It must be out of ignorance, which is appalling in this day and age... The point is America is the most culturally powerful country in the world and it is hugely damaging not just to Scots but to Welsh and Northern Irish writers... Can they claim Mark Twain is an English author? Of course not."

He then transitioned to describing the difficulty of making something "easy to find" which is a very strange concept involving imagining not only how people search, but what would be useful for them to stumble upon, where just noticing the presence of a particular topic could create a far more worthwhile journey.

The way I have thought of creating blog posts is to randomly select a box and to use that scrap of information to gather how much more there is to know about Glasgow. It feels a little bit like I'm a secret shopper that is meant to test the system that's in place. It's not necessarily bad or good when you are that person that helps a library realise that a book is missing. Of course it's bad for you because now you have the disappointment of knowing that at one time you could've had the information at your fingertips, but it's good because up until that point no one knew that it was even missing.

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What this archive may want to embark upon is a thorough interactive investigation into what is missing by bringing together a diverse range of participants, (thankfully there is probably more than enough locals who just by memory can create a bigger picture). But beyond those who were once involved with the Third Eye Centre, what is also necessary is this concept of ownership for everyone else. It's a great start to suggest the possibility of establishing 'alternative histories', but just as the archive volunteers are creating a unique set of search terms and metadata, we need to be able to feel like we can approach the archive on our own terms. Then location of the user doesn't matter, nor the location of the materials. What matters is that a curiosity-based culture of accessibility creates a fulfilling level of engagement. Learning how to create access for others is unique skill set, but also having an actually accessible archive helps others to dream about what other access one can gain (that doesn't require being of a certain social class to know how to navigate all of it). It creates demands such as governmental transparency, it demands a nuanced understanding of history, and it demands that we never take ourselves too seriously as we will be humbled recognising the forward-thinking long-term ambitions of those in the past.

I get a sense that Glasgow is very supportive of artists creating their own forms of research and this sense of empowerment is something that I will take with me wherever I go from here.