The work we are developing with the first year students in response to the camerawork photographic archives now hosted at the London South Bank University (see photographic index blog for description and updates) is an extremely relevant project for contemporary research on the meaning of archives for current artistic and curatorial practices. The twenty boxes, containing photopanels of cockpit gallery’s national touring exhibitions, function as historic documents at two complementary levels.
On one level, as a photographic archive that is representative of a strong vein of politically and socially engaged photographic practices developed in the 1980s London circle of conceptual photographic enquiry associated with the Camerawork and the Cockpit gallery; and on another level, as evidence of another parallel practice emerging side by side, that of the touring exhibition, questioning institutional practices of exhibition making and searching for alternative ways to circulate the work of photographers to community spaces beyond the gallery or the museum.
(not so) large scale archives
In the essay The archive everywhere included in the book The Manifesta decade- debates on contemporary art exhibitions and biennials in post wall europe, curator Barbara Vanderlinden argues that the problem with the history of biennials and other large-scale perennial exhibitions is the one of “remembrance and the material conditions of archivization “ and the only way to avoid this forgetfulness and erasure of histories from happening with exhibitions is “to bring together and study the material traces of these irreducibly ephemeral events”.
Shifting the focus from large-scale and ambitious international events curated by the Manifesta guest curators since the late 1990s to small and low-cost exhibitions such as the ones organised by camerawork gallery in the early1980s, it is worth noting the same concern for finding a viable way of preserving not only the artists work but also the ways of displaying it, the exhibition practices themselves, which are even harder to condense in a box.
In the case of camerawork’s touring exhibition archives, what we have are the residues of a mobile, low-tech, do-it-yourself approach to exhibition making, in which each exhibition was pre-packed into a A1 box ready to circulate (the boxes were sent by train into the community centres, libraries and schools that requested them), with instructions for its installation. The photos themselves, already captioned and laminated into panels ready to hang, were supplemented by additional interpretative materials such text panels with the photographer’s statement, placing the work into the context of their investigative practice.
What I found most satisfying in Barbara’s text is when she states “ The documents of an exhibition should not be thought of as a dead mass of deactivated records or a closed history no longer of use. Even though they are the vestiges of past activities, exhibition archives can remain active resources for curators, artists, students and researchers involved in exhibition projects to come.”
And the reason this resonated with me has to do with all that has already happened since we started working with the contents of the box GS [Girls: Subcultures], the one we chose to inaugurate our long-term process of digitisation and reinterpretation of the archives. The box’s content- the touring exhibition The visible girls, by Anita Corbin is now online at flickr: visible girls, Anita has come to LSBU to talk about her project and she has worked with the students in a studio session, with them proposing contemporary subcultures for her camera (see flickr:subcultures). And finally, they are now engaged in their own research on youth cultures, which will result in new work for an upcoming exhibition.
Quoting Derrida’s observations in Archive Fever: “ The question of the archive is not a question of the past. It is not the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal. An archivable concept of the archive. It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive, if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come; not tomorrow, but in times to come. Later on, or perhaps never.”