This is the second in a 3-part text with extracts from the longer essay “Chaos of memories- Surviving archives and the ruins of history according to the found photo foundation” in Order and Collapse: The lives of archives published by Art& Theory April 2016
keywords: photographic collections, aby warburg, iconology of the interval, experimental taxonomies, photobookzines, found photo foundation, msdm, paula roush
For the exhibition Dear Aby Warburg: What can be done with images? Dealing with Photographic Material (2012) , the found photo foundation was exhibited as an experimental archive. As the title of the exhibition suggested, this and the other works installed across the vast museum explored the many configurations of the use of photographic collections in contemporary art, and its many transmutations since Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1924-1929).
The homage to art-historian Aby Warburg (1866 – 1929) as precursor to current art archival practices is unpacked by the exhibition’s curator Eva Schmidt, in the accompanying research publication. The montage of reproduced photographs from divergent sources, the use of variable, nonsystematic ordering parameters, and the extremely provisional display strategies are some of the Mnemosyne Atlas’ characteristics that reappear in contemporary works in the exhibition, for example, translated into Abigail Reynolds’ interest for a spatial staging of printed photographic material in The British Countryside in Pictures (2011) and Simon Wachsmuth’s hybrid combinations of photography with painting in Voids (2008-2010), to name just a few of the works exhibited side by side with the processes of photographic collection, accumulation and archiving used in the found photo foundation.
The genesis of the photographic collections in the exhibition can be connected to the paradigm of time identified by George Didi-Huberman in Warburg’s method of photo reproduction and montage developed in the Atlas. Warburg’s ‘iconology of the interval’ results from thinking about time itself as a montage of heterogeneous elements, and memory as an editing process that separates fragments, produces holes in the historical timeline and field intervals. It is then a question of selection, of movement between storage (the archive) and presentation (the atlas), as theorist Ludwig Seyfarth wrote: ‘The artists of the exhibition Dear Aby Warburg are collectors of images; their artistic individuality consists less in a style or gesture than in the specific manner in which they…also physically open up new spaces for thinking between the images- something begun with Warburg when he started to pin photos to canvasses.”
The found photo foundation’s contribution to Dear Aby… consisted in the recreation of a grass-roots archive, inspired by two queer and feminist archives I visited in London: The Hall-Carpenter Archives, an archive of boxes of material relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activism in the UK, most of the material dated from after the publication of the Wolfenden report in 1957 and the Feminist Library, an archive collection of Women’s Liberation Movement literature, particularly second-wave materials dating from the late 1960s to the 1990s. These are the kind of places where the boundaries between archives and everyday life are blurred, and is possible to find photo prints, slides, home-made zines, underground alternative press and other subcultural objects, sometimes in piles and disordered accumulations. Ann Cvetkovich suggests we should turn to these vernacular archives for inspiration on how to proactively document our (in)visible lives and to queer official archives instead of resigning ourselves to a critique of the archive that posits it solely as the site of (our) historical absence.
Supported by the means of production that enabled the found photo foundation to materialise itself in a wealthy public museum, I ordered ready-made metallic shelving units and archival cardboard boxes sourced from commercial providers. Inside were placed not just thefound photo foundation’’s raw material (its collection of found photographs, family albums, commercial photography, postcards, historical photobooks, printed ephemera, photo surveys, and photo instructional materials) but also the visual re-presentation and re-appropriation of this material in projects based in and around the collection since 2007.
I had been interested in editorial authoring of found photos, and the role and status of the editor as author when appropriating ready-made printed matter. When I started lecturing in photography in London, I took the opportunity to run several workshops on indie publishing, the photobook and artists strategies with archives. I brought in the fpfoundation’s collection and the photographic material was for the first time catalogued using informal archiving methods, provisional taxonomies, temporary groupings and series. Several photobookzines were then produced. I use this term to describe short-run, self-published, cheaply produced books, where the photographs are edited according to one selected topic, have an austere appearance of minimal design and layout often with one single photo per page and little textual narrative except for the indicative colophon.
An example of a work entirely sourced from thefound photo foundation’’s photos is Andreas Obexer’s photobookzine Discipline (2010), using portuguese found photographs from police and maritime academies. Other conceptual investigative methods of appropriation included the combination of a Spanish family album and reenactment in Sara Soupdemots’ Never let me go (2011), a photobook that resulted from a photo-therapy process realised with her grand aunt in the initial phase of alzheimer disease. These and many other photobookzines produced during the workshops along with the photo collections were shipped to the museum in Siegen where I came to organize them, with a cataloguing system that addressed the material characteristics of the photo objects whilst allowing a hands-on experience of the archive.
The taxonomies developed for Siegen included provisional references to fictive documents, queer affects, collage history and the contested space of the archive itself. The archiving order ignored the principle of provenance 15 generally used in institutional archives, opting instead for the introduction of chaos into the grid arrangement of the boxes. The viewers, invited to browse woudn’t know what to except from labels such as: dust, excessive, embodied researcher, evidence, hairs, fictional identity, fingerprints, hannah höch / til brugman, instructions on how to survive the archive, lusciously tactile, matt and stupid, messiness, passing, photo re-enactment, prints in suitcase, strokable. Elucidating the use of experimental taxonomies, Tanja Verlak pointed out in the exhibition’s publication: ‘Thefound photo foundation’ can be read as an artistic experiment of twisting the document value of an archive beyond its proverbial linearity of causes and consequences. As the connection to the real is often lost, the project is above all a platform of invented spaces that suggests taxonomical methods of artistic research deep into generations and the unknown.’16
In addition to the provisionality of taxonomies, another strategy to keep the archive open has been the foregrounding of participatory tools. A workshop for Siegen-based artists-educators that were invited to bring their personal images archives for remix, was a critical opportunity to reflect on ethical as well as aesthetical aspects of working with collections of images. Quoting Eva Schmidt, again: ’How can photographic images thought lost – due to a lack of place or name– be re-found and made to speak to us again? The significance of a photographic image does not lie in the image itself; the decisive aspects are its context and actualization as material object. (…) Thefound photo foundation’’s work consists in tracking down photos that have become homeless (…) and invite others to ‘adopt’ these ‘orphans’ in their own configurations.’ 17
The inclusion of studio trestle tables next to the shelved boxes opened up the fpfoundation’s play with historical material, a temporal process of editing and montage so crucial to an understanding of Warburg’s strategies: from individual ‘signature’ to collaborative authorship, from working with a personal family album to the appropriation of orphan photographs, from the absence of writing to the collage of text and image, from the incorporation of an ‘original’ print to the reproduction of images using a photocopy machine.