Books

How Artists Strive to Make Sense of the Archive in the “Middle East”

The ambitious volume Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East in many ways responds to the post-1990s archive fever, but from a specific geographic locale.

Cover: Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2015), edited by Anthony Downey (image courtesy and copyright Ibraaz)

Alain Resnais’s 1956 film Toute la Memoire Du Monde cinematically renders the architectonics and anatomy of one of the largest repositories of human memory — the Bibliothèque Nationale — as a monstrous prison where memory is captive. As the camera pans, intersections of vertical and horizontal dolly shots uncover the ways in which the abstract galaxy of every text ever published in France is catalogued, classified, stored, and rendered concrete in the hands of “paper-crunching pseudo-insects, irreparably different from true insects in that each is bound to its own distinct concern” — as the voiceover tells us. Resnais’s depiction of the Bibliothèque Nationale betrays a modernist belief in the totality of the archive, but at the point of the disintegration of this belief, when it is faced with the unattainability of this totality. This latter realization makes it possible for Resnais to demystify the archive and regard it as an apparatus with a concrete anatomy and specifically defined procedures.

The past four decades have seen resurgences of the archival impulse. This impulse peaks in the mid-1990s when history is declared dead and its custodian, the historian, is deconstructed as one among many authoritative guardians of a discipline that laid claims to safeguarding historical truth. The post-historical archive, or what I will herein refer to as the “archive discourse” — a set of theoretical elaborations offered by Foucault and Derrida and made popular in the 1990s and early 2000s — conceives the archive as a spatial rather than temporal apparatus. Its function is to collapse historical time into fragmented and compartmentalized spheres of “knowledge production,” to replace history with the fetishism of memory, and substitute the former guardians of the archive with “curators,” who assemble, dissemble, and reassemble documented fragments of the past in an effort to transform hierarchy into heterogeneity.

The ambitious volume Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, edited by Anthony Downey, in many ways responds to the post-1990s archive fever, but from a specific geographic locale. If history is dead, and truth is a metaphysical concept, then the archive discourse cannot provide historical depth. Instead, it can expand geographically and constitute yet another platform for the incessant global circulation and exchange of goods, thoughts, ideas, knowledge, and experience. And in a region geopolitically defined as the “Middle East,” centralized archives, collections, and libraries are sometimes under threat. In this context, decentralized efforts of various NGO-type organizations and singular artistic gestures are endowed by the new operators of the archive discourse with the potential to construct alternative means of accumulation, circulation, and interpretation of historical records. As Downey states, the artistic archivism represented by numerous artists’ projects — from Walid Raad’s much-celebrated The Atlas Group and Akram Zaatari’s Arab Image Foundation, to Mariam Ghani’s “What we left Unfinished” (2013-2015), Burak Arikan’s laborious maps, and Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s aural archives, to others — “engages in a series of ruminative gestures that give rise to non-definitive narratives and tentative forms of suppositional knowledge.”

Both the editorial introduction and the tone of many of the entries in the volume presume negation of the archive, which is constituted in gestures such as “the withdrawal of meaning,” “undoing narratives,” creating “dissonances,” “gaps,” “caesura,” and so on, as both an aesthetic strategy and ethical currency. If the archive can be spoken of today, it is through its very disappearance or its constitution as fleeting fragments that can no longer cohere.

Mariam Ghani, from the ongoing project “What we left unfinished” (2013–2015); images photographed by the artist in the Afghan Films archive in June 2013 (courtesy Mariam Ghani and Ibraaz)

The essays and the artists’ projects collected in the volume were originally commissioned by and published in Ibraaz, an online platform on art and visual culture of the Middle East, supported by the Kamal Lazar Foundation. Thus, the book itself becomes an archive of Ibraaz’s online platforms, reflecting the dilemmas publishers and authors face today: does digital publishing guarantee durability? Are online journals, books, and platforms taken as seriously as printed matter? Does online content have the capacity to garner attention when the virtual sphere is flooded with art-related scholarly essays, reviews, and roundtables?

The essays are occasionally punctured by meta-theoretical discussions on the nature of the archive and what constitutes one in a post-Foucauldian, post-Derridian, and post-statist world where exercises of power (and of knowledge) are dispersed and decentralized. Following this thread, the volume contains presentations of archival, and at times counter-archival, artistic work in particular contexts — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon.

To provide a provisional guide for the reader I have divided the volume into thematic clusters and grouped the contributions under these categories: the artist as archivist; ethics of preservation; politics of the archive; and theories of the archive.

The artist as archivist appears in many guises — through artist projects and discussions of artistic-archival practices by critics and artists functioning as critics. The main heroes of the latter category are the expected guests whose practices has been grounded in the “archival turn” of the 1990s and early 2000s — Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, Emily Jacir, and Jananne Al-Ani.

The ethics of preservation is driven by the desire to piece together the disappearing fragments of material and visual culture that once signified the “modern project,” that is the effort to preserve historical memory through the collection and care of objects and use these objects to educate the public. Mariam Ghani’s artistic project on the Afghan Film Archive, “What We Left Unfinished,” (2014–) is exemplary of these ethics. Her work engages with the archive of film reels that capture and store the imagined state as envisioned by Afghan leftists in a context where the nation state appears as a ruin, in the conditions of the disintegration of the old “enlightened” bourgeoisie, and in the face of the barbarity of war.

Anxiety over the loss of the archive’s materiality in the age of digital reproducibility that offers endless decontextualized circulation is echoed in Lucie Ryzova’s survey of the conditions of photographic collections and archives in the Middle East and North Africa. Ryzova’s impassioned critique — indeed, one might even say “crusade” given its fervor — is directed at a class of collectors who believe they stand above ignorant masses who have no awareness of the value of their national cultural heritage. According to Ryzova, these collectors, both public and private, fail to face the ontological distinction between the analog original that functions as a material object and the digital copy that is a mere image or representation. Ryzova complains that the local, self-fashioned collectors fail to acknowledge photographs as material objects embedded in social and cultural contexts and fail to acknowledge the proper value of photographs for academic research.

The politics of the archive are characterized by the desire to not only interpret the archive, but also to intervene in its very constitution, via offering a critique of how the archive is shaped via ideology, and imbued with the politics of representation and taxonomization. Rona Sela’s essay about the Israeli national photographic archives that encapsulate a nationalist ideology, critiques its representation of Palestinians. Laila Shereen Sakr’s “counter-collection” of digital content in the Arab world related to the recent uprisings, attempts to document and make visible ephemeral social media content — from Facebook posts to tweets. Joshua Craze’s compelling contribution on CIA reports questions the style of writing of administrative reports in response to the abstract logic of bureaucracy. Analyzing the massive trove of documents that constitute CIA materials related to the suspected Al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah’s detention and torture, Craze argues that the logic of this archive can be discerned from what is covered up and made to disappear through the procedure of redaction. In the administrative and bureaucratic world of reports that linguistically abstract lived experience and abstract power, the subject disappears in the web of its duties and functions (a Foucauldian dream come true).

Left: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, “Postcards of War,” from the project “Wonder Beirut, the Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer,” (1997-2006), as featured within Dissonant Archives (courtesy the artists and Ibraaz); right: excerpt from “Contingency, Dissonance and Performativity: Critical Archives and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Art,” by Anthony Downey, from Dissonant Archives, (courtesy Ibraaz)

Theories of the archive, or archival meta-reflections, are offered by Ariella Azoulay, Pad.ma, and Shaheen Merali. Azoulay reads “archive fever” ­— the desire to trick the guardians of the archive, the archons — as immanent to the logic of the archive rather than externally imposed, and as that which makes archives inherently public. Pad.ma’s erudite “April Theses” outline propositions for archives present and those to come: without messianic redemption, outward looking, affective, and pregnant with futurity.

If Dissonant Archives is replete with ghosts, these are not so much the ghosts of the archive itself, but the ghosts of the archive discourse. These ghosts are activated in the context of the Middle East, in the face of the barbarity of war, destruction, and looting, but they are activated largely in the name of culture, heritage, and appreciation, rather than politics and historicity. And, as with most projects of mapping and constructing platforms, Dissonant Archives, with its ambition of constituting a survey of archival practices geographically defined, flattens the historical depth of particular narratives under the regime of this archive discourse.

Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, edited by Anthony Downey, was published by I.B. Taurus in London in August, 2015.

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