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.  

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