For billions of people — those whose lineages are tied to enslavement, genocide, war crimes, or even extramarital dalliances — documentation of personal histories is limited: births and deaths not certified, family trees missing limbs, wedding photos replaced by oral accounts of unions that may or may not have been recognized by governing powers. Archives, or the lack thereof, are impacted by imperialism. But lens-based artists, and emerging technology, stand to breathe new life into these narratives.
In the last few weeks, My Heritage, a genealogy website and app, has used artificial intelligence technology to animate more than 73 million family photos — creating short video clips seemingly bringing two-dimensional images to life. My grandfather is one of those who came to life via the app. When I showed my eighty-year-old father the video he exclaimed, “That’s my father! But, he looks so calm, so I know it’s not him.”
My parents were born in Trinidad during World War II, and my father’s father was part of the nearly half a million indentured laborers who left India in the second half of the 19th century to replace slave labor in the British colonies. I have but one photo of my grandfather’s family — because at the turn of the century, photography was a luxury reserved for a privileged class, not for those who worked in cane fields. I treasure this image — seven people dressed in a mix of Eastern and Western clothes, some with bare feet, some in shoes. This curling photo a rare artifact of my family’s fragmented stories — fragmented because of the Atlantic slave trade, because of colonialism, because of “outside” relationships. But technological advancements are filling in some of the gaps, even if my father quickly knew the 15-second clip is not actually a video of his father, and lost enthusiasm once the novelty wore off.
However, since I never knew my grandfather, this fake video (which I’ve watched dozens of times) emotionally satisfies my desire to know this part of my history. In this way, who my grandfather actually was, is shaped by what I want to see. Perceptions of the past are informed by conditions of the present.
New technology is at the forefront of how we reconsider the archive. And for artists like Trinidadian-born Rodell Warner, technology can further help us understand what has expired. The artist, who has shown work at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Gallery in Jamaica, is currently showing at TERN Gallery in the Bahamas, where he spoke to me by phone. “I want my digital interventions to point out the role imagination plays when filling out what has been lost,” he says.
Prompted by elders’ accounts of people and places that no longer exist, Warner initially turned to the archive looking for records about life in Trinidad. Often using images from the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean photographs which date between 1840 and1940, Warner’s work asks viewers to remember that the people in the photos lived complex lives. For his Augmented Archives series,Warner creates and lays digital visuals over archival images of the people and landscapes. “It’s like I put an asterisk on the human beings in the photos to prompt the viewer to imagine their internal lives — the parts of these people not acknowledged in these photographs, or by those taking them.”
During a year of quarantine, as our internal lives have become even more insulated, many creatives are turning to archives when subjects remain at a distance. Platforms such as Assembly are providing a space for lens-based artists who are engaging the past to explore current social and cultural issues. Assembly’s exhibition, Collaging Desire: Archival Interventions, Future Visions, features the work of American artists Alanna Fields and Pacifico Silano who, according to the exhibition statement, “mine queer photographic archives, recontextualizing their subjects in the present moment as a way to not only reflect on the past but also to imagine new futures.” By cutting, reframing, and layering, the artists both (in different ways) encourage a re-viewing of the past — highlighting new considerations, gazes, gestures that might have been overlooked, or unseen, when the images were taken.
Unlike me and the fake video of my grandfather, these artists often work with images of people who are unknown to them. But as Warner describes, “I feel I have personal connection even if I’m not directly related, because these people created and participated in a society that I’m part of. They shape me and the places I from.” In the same way the subjects in Fields and Silano’s work have molded and are part of their communities, my grandfather is a part of me.
In an increasingly divisive and isolating era, these artists remind us not only that we’re connected to one another, but we are also connected to our collective past and future. I understand that history is slippery and archives can’t capture all that was lost. But in looking to the past, artists are carving out space for historically under-represented narratives, as we all forge ahead.