Working With Archives: An Artist’s Reflection

While pondering on the process of sequencing a visual narrative from archival materials that were captured during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the process of “working archivally” became a preoccupation of mine. Deeper consideration of the practice of artists whose work and creative processes are punctuated by “the archival” offers insight into the pedagogical and creative value of their work. In the ever-evolving spectrum of artistic practices and lexical terms that may be applied to contemporary art,  artists whose work and engagement with “the archival” appear at the intersection of a form of documentary practice and visual art.   Artists engaged with “the archival” are  interested in provoking the social, physical, philosophical, and psychic meaning of the archive while offering platforms for enlightenment to the viewer through the works they produce. Working “archivally” offers a conduit to creating works which engage formal, conceptual, and philosophical thought processes and visual languages at the intersection of the practice of history. Within this type of creative space,  histories are re (written),  new platforms for inquiry are enabled, and “official histories” are subverted through the visual language of art.  The bedrock of the creative space is also framed by the artists desire to investigate the psychology of the mechanics of social memory and historical consciousness as they pertain to archival imagery and the viewer. Deciphering the value and meaning of the document in the “historical present” offers an opportunity to deconstruct layers of mystery, agency, and knowledge while offering the possibility for new interpretations. Consideration of artists as “makers”, “users”, and “thinkers” of archives offers deeper insight into the artists complex and socially conscious practice.

Artists as “Archive Makers”

Artists who are engaged with the process of making archives, whose works in one way or another simulate “memory processes”.  The production of fictional archives by way of collecting and classifying things or through the use of narrative often provokes an opportunity to consider relative historical events and themes.

Artists as “Archive Users”

These artists and their works function as direct protagonists to “official histories” and existing narratives as they pertain to events and themes. These artists engage the practice of re(writing) histories through the use of a visual language that applies archival materials and found footage. The rejection of the symbolic role of the archive in favor of using real archives is crucial to their practice.  Works produced in this manner often have the ability to usurp and deconstruct powerful layers of agency, knowledge, and mystery held within “closed” archives while enabling valid narratives and discourse for interpretation.
The careful synthesis of form, conceptual components , and philosophy shape non-fictional historical content; an appeal to individual responsibility to social memory and historical consciousness is subtly provoked.

Artists Working as “Archive Thinkers”

Artists and works that fall into this category are not principally engaged in the construction of new archives or in the conducting of research into existing ones. Though they may in fact do both of the aforementioned, they are above all engaged in deconstructing the notion of “the archival” itself.  These artists and their works reflect on archives as things that are: never fixed in meaning or material, susceptible forms of agency and lexicons, invisible, closed, monumental, prone to appear and disappear, latent. The exploration of the archive at the intersection of concept and physical matter has a profound urgency given the dematerialization of archives through the process of digitization. The need to re-assess the material significance of the document drives the practice of these artists. The document is not only an original witness to an event in history, but bears a potent inscription beyond the perceivable physical form.  Material documents and physical archives contain and reflect layers of agency, knowledge, and messages; their meaning needs to be deciphered and explored in the  present day. Thus, artists engaged as “thinkers” question the currency and perception of documents and archives in the “historical present” rather than the “access” they have to meanings in the past. Works addressing the materiality of documents and archives provokes questions pertaining to how we see “official” constructions in society and how meanings attached to documents and archives are subject to change.

Gerhard Richter and the Atlas Project: A Perpetual Engagement with ‘the Archive’

In the panorama of postmodern arts practices, artists engaged with archival materials, spatial frameworks of archives, and philosophical questions pertaining to the archiving of memory may be collectively referred to as artists working with ‘the archival’. The practice of working with ‘the archival’ lends possibility to the conceptualization of the adverbial phrase ‘to work archivally’. Within the documentary media dialogue,  works rendered with an ‘archival’ counterpoint provoke the opportunity for a distinct discourse within the greater discipline of documentary. Eminent German visual artist Gerhard Richter (1932- ) has maintained an enigmatic and theoretically defined relationship with ‘the archival‘ since the inception of his vocational pursuits. Richter’s practitioning of ‘the archival’ incorporates a range of processes anchored in a constant perpetuation of relationships and works sprung from the creation, utilization, and intellectualization of archival materials. His work is further punctuated by a conscious exploration of archival content in the context of non-fiction documentary processes, engaging the relationship between ‘the archival’ to the complexities of enabling, subverting, and deconstructing of histories. Although Richter’s position within the practice of ‘the archival’ is noteworthy by virtue of his prolific stature and significant works produced, the very evolution of his own archive, the Atlas project, is worthy of discussion.

Richter’s Atlas project is among several structurally similar yet fundamentally unique projects undertaken by a number of European artists from the 1960s. These artists’ formal procedure of accumulating archival materials and producing autonomous archives has largely contributed to the visibility of ‘the archival’ as a documentary style within visual arts discourse. Richter’s particular engagement with ‘the archival’ began during childhood as part of an obsession with the process of memory, and later, the mechanics of how history is written, disseminated, and comprehended.  Richter’s  development of his own autonomous archive, although rooted in a explicitly conceptual art trend for its time, continues to serve as fertile ground for the conceptualization of a distinct and enduring method of practice.

Richter’s evolution as an artist was profoundly influenced by his memories of Germany’s fractured and controversial position during both World War II and the Cold War. Thus, Richter’s personal history, the shifting geopolitical position of Germany, and his obsessive fascination with the mechanics of individual memory are crucial considerations to the greater appreciation of the Atlas project. In its complex and perplexing totality the Atlas project is a functional archive, a work, and an archival record of Richter’s personal history as both an artist and individual. Thus, the referent of the acclaimed work is Richter himself.

The physical structure of the Atlas project comprises of an extensive series of  card panels articulated by archival photographs, newspaper clippings, drawings, and other ephemera. The themes and subject matter found in the Atlas  project are vast, and the panels and images are inventoried according to Richter’s compulsive tendency to archive.  The collection process began during the early 1960s and continues until the present day. The depth and psychic ordering of Richter’s inventory remains largely  abstruse, at the discretion of the artist. At present, more than 800 panels exist (783 are available for view on Richter’s website domain).

The Atlas project is enigmatic for several reasons. By itself, it may be perceived as a distinct work, constituted by a field of heterogeneous and discontinuous images extracted from history at the orchestration of one individual. The individual panels also evoke the consideration of the existence of works within a larger work. Despite the impression that the Atlas project may be perceived as a distinct work or the multiplicity of works within a work, its definitive and cogent value is that of an archive which serves as the primary catalyst to Richter’s work. The peculiar position of the Atlas project and the profundity of the works derived from it provoke the necessity for greater dialogue within the discipline of documentary to comprehend the  allotropy of ‘the archival’.

An example of a work drawn from the Atlas project is Richter’s 48 Portraits. The work is composed of a series of paintings which reflect a selection of intellectual father figures from the historical record. Analysis of the individuals included in 48 Portraits sparks a compulsion to consider the agency of cultural paternity and the inextricable links these individuals had to the historical disasters of National Socialism in Germany and Stalinism in Soviet Russia. The production, sequencing, installation, and  philosophy of the work is representative of only one manifestation of art among hundreds of works that have been drawn from the Atlas project.

For artists engaged with ‘the archival’, the exploration of non-fiction content at the intersection of visual language development and public dissemination is an intricate and delicate process.  Visual art punctuated by ‘the archival’ exercises unique forms of agency and media languages where the dynamic composition communicates as visual narrator of history. Richter’s artistic output and the Atlas project embody the aforementioned. New documents evolve from a compilation of collected documents in the form of art works, and a documentary style, engaged with ‘the archival’, is realized. Richter’s Atlas project may also be conceptualized as a ‘type’ of visual text where purposeful and arbitrary sequencing tactics, over a period of time, have rendered a language of equivocal memory.  In relation to deciphering the meaning of archival photographic images, Allan Sekula has argued that “archives establish a relation of abstract visual equivalence.”1 As source material, the Atlas project has provided Richter with a similar type of visual equivalence.

Of relevancy to the discussion on the Atlas project is the contemporary usage of the term ‘archive fever’. The term’s lexical currency in the field of visual arts discourse is  largely due to the appropriation of the title of Jacques Derrida’s seminal text Archive Fever (1995), further cemented by a recent and influential exhibit held by the International Center of Photography entitled Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008).2 Although Richter’s work was not featured within the framework of the exhibit, the Atlas project and the greater body of his artistic output invariably exist as the enigmatic referent to the ‘the archival’. Worthy of mention in the is the recent and posthumously published work by Jacques Derrida, Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography (2010) which featured the all too relevant prowess of Richter as editor.

It is likely that Richter’s perpetuating legacy as an artist will continue to build awareness of the particularities, range, and distinct nature of ‘the archival’ practice.  As the Atlas project and subsequent works derived from it continue to reflect a consistent synthesis of content, form, and style rooted in an archive, it must be concluded that for Richter, the philosophical investigation and deconstruction of all which embodies ‘the archival‘ takes precedence. The scale of Richter’s artistic production supported by the depth and scope of the Atlas project offer the viewer an indestructible alignment with personal perceptions of truth in the context of a perpetually growing reality.  In the field of documentary practice, much may be observed and learned from artists whose practitioning of ‘the archival’ have rendered such distinct and pedagogically charged visual languages.  Perhaps famed documentary theoretician Bill Nichols will one day consider incorporating the distinct voice of ‘the archival’ into his definitive modes of documentary practice.

[1] Allan Sekula, “Reading an Archive,” in Mining Photographs and Other Pictures, 1948-1968, ed. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh and Robert Wilkie (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983), 195.

[2] Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008) was curated by renowned scholar and curator Okwui Enwezor, and included an array of influential works engaged with ‘the archival’, produced by artists such as: Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Jef Geys, Harun Farocki, Walid Raad, and Glenn Ligon.