Ctrl+P (No.12)
A revised inventory of Curating Degree Zero Archive
Persistent Visions | Erika Tan
Vivan Sundaram: Re-take of Amrita

While planning the Asia Art Archive’s 10th anniversary programme, I spent some time in our library going through materials related to archive-themed exhibitions, and artists whose practices are informed by archives and archiving. It seemed like a timely opportunity to contribute to this column.

Indeed, at the time of writing this piece, several exhibitions are taking place across Europe that feature archives and archival practices, almost as if in a chorus. Lost and Found: Queerying the Archive (Bildmuseet, Umea University, Sweden, January-April 2010) “question[s] normative history and generate[s] new narratives based on private memories and experiences beyond gender and sexuality norms”; Critique of Archival Reason (Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, February-March 2010) scrutinizes “recent exhibition practice within artistic research that has tended to use the display of archives as a key tactic”; A History of Irritated Material (Raven Row, London, February-May 2010) looks into art's relation to politics and the archive; and Archive Generation (Milan, Italy, March-April 2010) “explores the ways in which artists have appropriated, interpreted, reconfigured, and interrogated archival structures and materials”.

The Italian curator Roberto Pinto charts the concerns dominant to contemporary art practice into four categories: 'the body', 'memory', 'spectacle' and 'the archive'. Seminal exhibitions on art and archiving such as Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art (1998) and Interarchive: Archival Practices and Sites in the Contemporary Art Field (2002) show that this ‘archive fever’ (to borrow Jacques Derrida's term) has been an enduring one.

Ctrl+P (No.12)

Ctrl+P [www.ctrlp-artjournal.org] is an online art journal that was created as a response to the lack of critical art writing in the Philippines - as the title suggests, readers can literally copy and print the articles. In 2008, they devoted a special feature to the relationships of archive, identity and placemaking. They took the placemaking of the city of Edmonton (the capital of Alberta, Canada), which had undergone a profound transformation due to its new-found wealth from the rapid development of the oil industry in northern Alberta. Filipino artist Judy Freya Sibayan initiated the feature in Ctrl+P after her residency and experiences in the city.

Sibayan is a proponent of self-archiving and community archives, as opposed to governmental and authoritative record-keeping. Conceived as an open-archive-in-progress, the exhibition The Community Archives: Documenting Artists Collectively, Openly (TCA) encouraged that “a community does the archiving and the archives are that of a community”. The artist’s idea was to create an archive of local contemporary artists and present it in an exhibition format (read: an artwork), with the audience as proactive creators of the (art) archive and the artwork, by bringing objects or documents to the gallery and contributing to the exhibit.

A revised inventory of Curating Degree Zero Archive

‘Curating Degree Zero Archive' is “an [ongoing] archive, touring exhibition and web-resource exploring critical and experimental approaches to curating contemporary art”. Initiated in 1998 as a symposium and an accompanying book by Barnaby Drabble and Dorothee Richter in Zurich, it grew into the form of an archive in 2003 and has since toured the world to exhibit the materials (http://www.curatingdegreezero.org/).

‘Curating Degree Zero Archive’ is presented in a new way in each location it travels to. The project toured to Seoul in December 2006, where it was hosted by Insa Art Space (IAS) and reinterpreted by artists Sasa(44) and Meena Park - they re-organised and set up the display of the Archive at IAS, as well as completely updating the Archive's inventory.

It is worth mentioning IAS’s efforts in both archiving contemporary art and exploring the notion of the archive between 2005 and 2008 (in May 2009, IAS was integrated with Arko Art Center of the Arts Council Korea.) In addition to proactively compiling archives on Korean artists and moving images during that time, IAS Archive, positioning itself “as a future-oriented archive”, also took on multi-disciplinary approaches to experimental projects and collaborations, in an effort to keep the collection as a living archive. Nurri Kim’s Space Between: Archive, Memory, Repository (2007) and Hong Woo-hyeong’s Surviving the Future - In Her Library (2007) are examples of this.

Persistent Visions | Erika Tan

Persistent Visions is a silent, 24-minute, three-channel video work by Erika Tan, a Singaporean artist based in the UK. The work is the culmination of Tan’s research at the Moving Image Archive of The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) in Bristol. The work was initially commissioned in 2005 by the UK-based, moving images projects agency Picture This (in collaboration with The BECM) as part of Ghosting, a series of research-based commissions on the themes of archive, memory and ethnography.

The work consists of a stream of images from amateur film footage donated from individuals in the Bristol area. The images stretch across a 50-year time frame (from the 1930s to the ‘70s) although not in chronological order. They are visual representations of various former colonies of Britain – the locations jump from one to another. Instead of using the inbuilt, weighted indexical system deliberated by the Moving Image Archive, artist Tan gradually produced her own set of classifications for what she saw and was interested in when selecting the images. She also included materials that were “in a void of ambiguity,” which gave room for differing interpretations as members of the audience came in with their own interpretive frameworks.

The video installation provides multitudinous, open-ended narratives of colonial life and experience. In Tan’s words, the work was “made as a counter-point to the ways in which the material [footage collected] is normatively viewed and used – to take it away from the servicing of narrated histories, supportive of textual accounts, illustrative of specific ideologies, or indeed even as representative of the work of individual filmmakers[…] Persistent Visions is about the desire to create an interpretive space, activate personalized readings, allow for the failure of comprehension and to compromise and make difficult, total consumption.” (p.15)

Vivan Sundaram: Re-take of Amrita

In the 1980s, the renowned Indian artist Vivan Sundaram was invited to work on the script of Kumar Shahani’s proposed feature film (1985) about Sundaram’s aunt, the eminent painter Amrita Sher-Gil. After working on the project, Vivan Sundaram picked up the family archive of photographs, and decided to use it for his own work.

In 1995, he displayed the entire Sher-Gil archive as a work of art - an installation - with the intention of blurring the boundaries between artwork and documentation. In 2001, a re-take of the collection of Sher-Gil’s family photos resulted in Sundaram producing 38 digital photomontages - with his family members re-cast into new roles that elaborated a fictional narrative. Their relationships, personas and desires were re-told.

This series of work examines the different layers of autobiography as a genre of history writing. The original photos were taken by Sundaram’s grandfather, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870-1954), who was an aristocrat, an intellectual and a talented photographer. He took numerous portraits over a 60-year period, and his family was his beloved subject. It was during the sojourning of the family in Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s (the period when Amrita Sher-Gil started to become a promising artist), that, in Sundaram’s mind, Umrao Singh created the “most vivid photographs, intimate photographs that constitute a clear shift from a colonial perception of the Indian subject to one of an individuated bourgeois family” (p.7)

Sundaram’s sheer latitude in re-interpreting photographic documents has been not limited to the private domain. In an earlier exhibition Memorial: An Installation with Photographs and Sculpture (1993), newspaper photographs (from the public domain) were converted into photo-objects - with nails punched into them - to air his political views. When we consider that Sundaram, together with his wife the renowned art historian Geeta Kapur, has been engaging in collecting and organizing the slides, artist files and materials offered by Indian artists since the 1960s, his dual practices in constructing and de-constructing archives and histories are enthrallingly radical.


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