Art from Archives

‘Art from Archives’

 Shaping Canberra, Humanities Research Centre, ANU, 17-20 September 2013

This is the age of the archive. It is the age when newly discovered collections of idiosyncratic or vernacular oddities are brought to light virtually every week; it is the age of the dataset; it is the age of the digitization and dissemination of vast, previously subterranean, institutional archives in massive labour-intensive projects of scanning and metadata matching; it is an age when those same institutions develop interfaces on their websites to encourage visitors to add their own metadata to the archive; it is the age when institutions, desperate to hit the KPIs of the their funding masters, hire ‘creatives‘ — what an odious term — to do funky things with their archival images in order to attract a younger audience.

Paradoxically, to be contemporary now is to be archival. Archives are everywhere, and in art archival strategies are ubiquitous. To quote from the back cover of the recent ‘Documents of Contemporary Art’ anthology The Archive:

Among art’s most significant developments worldwide since the 1960s has been a turn to the archive — the nexus of images, objects, documents and traces through which we recall and revisit individual and shared memories and histories. … the archive has become central in visual culture’s investigations of history, memory, testimony and identity.

But I want to spend some time sketching out how I think the notion of archive is operating at the moment in Australia, but particularly in Canberra. During the last thirty years more and more contemporary artists have been using archival strategies. They usually work in one of two modes.

The first  mode is to create your own archive. This takes the normal personal declarations of the artist and sublimates them within an archival structure. Instead of composing a work or moulding a form, the artist simply nominates and then assembles a collection of found objects or images in a rudimentary taxonomic structure. Examples of this mode could be the work of David Wills who, for instance, produced a very moving work about grandmotherly love and growing up. Called B3 he brought  thirty-three different Bananas in Pajamas from op shops. All had been knitted from the same Women’s Weekly pattern by different loving grandmothers, and all had eventually been abandoned by their recipients. Wills’ website, Turnstile, is an interactive interlocking database of his own continual process of collecting and archiving through the camera, which the viewer jumps around in via hyperlinked metadata. Another example could be Patrick Pound who collects snapshots from junk shops and places them into idiosyncratic categories.  His po-faced taxonomy draws attention to the profound individuality and uniqueness of the relationship between the anonymous photographer and subject found in each image. A third example could be Maureen Burns, who cruises Ebay and downloads and reprints the photographs people have posted selling items of mid twentieth century design. This becomes a comment on history, design, taste and domesticity. In these cases the art’s meaning or content becomes potential, rather than stated. It  is up to the viewer to navigate the archival structure, do their own aesthetic research amongst the idiosyncratic taxonomies the artist has folded into the collection, and find their own meaning. And in these cases also, the artist’s work borrows some of the prestige of the archive as a complete, autonomous, and somehow authentically ‘natural’ structure which automatically generates meaning independent of overt authorial intention.

The second mode of archival work is to work within an existing archive. There are two distinct approaches within this mode. Some artists  ‘mine’ or ‘sift’ archives to reclaim lost memories or reconnect severed filaments of time. An example of this may be my own 1996 work 1963: News and Information, from where I cropped small samples of material texture and details of body language out of an archive of government propaganda photographs held in the Australian Archives. (When I did this work in 1996 I used the same archive which the National Archives of Australia has subsequently mined for their exhibition Faces of Australia.) Other artists ‘interrogate’ the archive to ask questions of the historical assumptions that underpin its structure. An example of this might be Fiona Macdonald’s 1993 work Universally Respected, where she wove together two archival photographs of white colonists and black labourers in a process of photographic miscegenation.

The mining or sifting approach sees the archive as a positive, generative presence, a material heritage which needs to be refined, distilled or concentrated in order to have its signal to noise ration enhanced, or to tune into the different frequencies which are hidden within it. The second approach, the interrogative approach, takes a more critical stance to the authority of the archive, it sees the archive as a negative presence, a subterranean power that in its very structure reproduces old politics in the present. Yet in both these approaches to working with existing archives, the generative approach or the interrogative approach, the archive remains an almost occult presence. It has its own power, its own personality, its own presence. Far from being inert or passive, it seems to have an almost autonomous agency to conceal or reveal, to generate spectres or exhale miasmic atmospheres.

The most popular photographic archive in Australia by far is the Justice and Police Museum archive of 130,000 police photographs. It has spawned exhibitions at the Justice and Police Museum itself; history books by Peter Doyle; a mens clothing range by Ralph Lauren;  the production design of documentaries like Utopia Girls; and, not least, inspiration for artists. For over ten years the Sydney artist Ross Gibson and Kate Richards have made works based on the collection under the general title of ‘Life After Wartime’, this has included performances with a live soundtrack and generated haikus performed at the Opera House, as well as various computer coded interactive installations and site specific projections in the windows of an old house at the Rocks

Writing in 1999 Gibson acknowledged that he felt a kind of occult power coming from the archive:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [1]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images.

Indigenous Australians have always had the strongest stake in our photographic archives. As early as 1986 Tracey Moffat was entering into direct and explicit dialogue with J. W. Lindt’s photographs in her series Some Lads, where her sexy dancers playfully appropriated and parodied the stiff colonial gaze built into Lindt’s studio tableaus.

However as aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide, but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Rather than just creating a feeling of active dialogue with past photographs, these new forms of indigenous reuse attempted to use photography to create a two-way corridor through time, a sense of New Age channelling back to the actual subjects of the photographs. For instance, in a meditation on the archive of nineteenth-century anthropological photographs left behind by the Northern Territory policeman Paul Foelsche, the indigenous photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in to the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[2]

But, rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo-compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[3]

King-Smith held spiritualist beliefs which she enacted in her photographs. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[4] Her work animistically gave the archival photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[5]

A new age spirituality also permeates the recent work of the indigenous artist Christian Thompson. As part of a large ARC project returning digital copies of nineteenth century ethnographic portraits back to the communities from which they came, he was invited to work on the collection of nineteenth century photographs held in one of the most famous anthropological archives in the world, the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. The curator of photographs at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Christopher Morton, puts the original photographs as artefacts, as distinct from their reproducibility as images, on the same continuum as the actual remains — the skulls or bones — of aborigines. He says:

But in the case of archives – and in particular photographs – those ancestors held in the images remain in the storerooms of remote institutions even after copies have been returned or shared online.The reproducibility of the photographic image means that the surface information it holds can easily be shared, especially in the digital age. But the images of ancestors, as ethnographic studies around the world now show us, are more than the chemical traces of light on a surface – they have a direct and spiritual connection to the person photographed, and so hold significant spiritual and emotional qualities. It is this creative tension, between the archive as a permanent ancestral resting place, and yet as a reproducible, re-codable, and dynamic historical resource, that lies at the heart of Thompson’s concept of the exhibition space as a spiritual zone. (Catalogue essay to We Bury our Own)

For his part Christian Thompson saw his role as an artist in shamanistic terms:

I wanted to generate an aura around this series, a meditative space that was focused on freeing oneself of hurt, employing crystals and other votive objects that emit frequencies that can heal, ward off negative energies, psychic attack, geopathic stress and electro magnetic fields, and, importantly, transmit ideas. …. I asked the photographs in the Pitt Rivers Museum to be catalysts and waited patiently to see what ideas and images would surface in the work, I think with surprising results. Perhaps this is what art is able to do, perform a ‘spiritual repatriation’ rather than a physical one, fragment the historical narrative and traverse time and place to establish a new realm in the cosmos, set something free, allow it to embody the past and be intrinsically connected to the present?

Another example in this mode of intergenerational animism is the drawings which Vernon Ah Kee exhibited last year based on the Tindale collection of aboriginal portraits taken in the 1930s. For many years this archive has been a genealogical resource for aboriginal people trying to stitch back together the torn connections to their sibling, parents and grandparents, but in Transforming Tindale Ah Kee re-drew the photographic portraits of his own family members. Through the loving ministrations of his soft pencil graphite the images were humanized, transformed from ‘ethnographic samples’ or ‘genealogical evidence’ to ‘human portrait’.

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality as Leah King Smith or Christian Thompson, or direct family connection as Vernon Ah Kee, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past.

Most recently Brook Andrew has worked in the personal archive mode, curating an exhibition for the MCA called Taboo, where racist imagery from around the world was gathered together into a cabinet of curiosities. However earlier, in the mid 1990s, Andrew had made some of the most iconographic imagery re-using archival photographs. In a series of works from the mid 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as , I Split Your Gaze (1997), Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998) and Sexy and Dangerous (1996) Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticised for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

The iconicity of these archival art works is beginning to feedback into the historical archive itself. For instance, in May this year Sotheby’s put an ad in the paper advertising their upcoming auction of six albums of ethnographic photographs by Kerry and King. Out of all the images they could have chosen from the albums for the ad they chose the same one Brook Andrew had chosen 17 years before. Perhaps, like Andrew, they were attracted to the sexiness of the man; but I think also that the fame that Andrew’s appropriation had given to this man, and his posthumous conscription to the identity debates of contemporary Australia, had changed the value and valency of the original photograph as historical document in a kind of reverse historicism.

These transcultural uses of the archive by contemporary indigenous artists, who put themselves in the front line of contemporary debates around Australian identity and historical obligation, may seem a long way from the genteel streets of Canberra. But nonetheless I think the strong shadows they cast  help to illuminate the way we all relate to the photographic archive, even on a day-to-day level.

Canberra is an archival city. Not only in the sense that it houses some of the nation’s biggest archives, but that an archival presence continually pinpricks our civic space. Perhaps back in some utopian Old World, Europeans like me may have walked down urban precincts with their mixture of old and new buildings and felt a chthonic connection to time and place. But now we need memory markers, picture boards that remind us of what buildings or precincts once looked like. This attempt to create a collective sense of place and time is now no longer performative, but archival. Archival photographs are found, reproduced and irrupted into our streets on sign boards, to be more or less ignored by passers by. Thus, marginalised urban precincts, seen in need of a relevance injection, are embellished with evidence from the archive which hopefully reminds people that they are walking through a lieux de mémoire with a rich and rounded history.

Similarly, in acts of national commemoration the archive is replacing other modes of memorialization, such as symbol, prayer or song. Since the the Vietnam Memorial of 1992, many other memorials such as the Nurses Memorial, the Airforce memorial and Reconciliation and Federation place, have followed its lead in reproducing the momentary slice of time of the photograph within various ageless, either vitreous or lithic, surfaces. Lately, also, Canberra’s national memorial architecture is increasingly becoming a screen for the projection of archival photographs. Charles Bean had always put a library of photographs at the heart of his conception for the future Australian War Memorial, but I doubt that even he could have imagined the outside walls of the Memorial becoming a screen for the projection of Archival photographs in the lead-up to the Dawn Service, as happened this year.

For these reasons it perhaps was inevitable that photographs should feature  in the ACT Bushfire Memorial. Because of my interest in re-using archival photographs I was invited to submit a proposal to design the proposed Memorial, I realized I had no chance of getting the gig until I teamed up with Tess Horwitz and Tony Steele; their public-art smarts combined with my photographic credentials meant we had an unbeatable proposal. We held two sausage sizzle days where victims of the fire came in to meet the artists and look at our maquette, as well as inscribe a brick and show me the snaps they had taken on the day of the fires and in the aftermath leading to their recovery. I got a scan of the photos I liked, and got them to fill out a sheet giving me copyright permission and relevant metadata. One of the textural themes of the Memorial was the humble house brick, so I cut out brick-sized details from my scans and laid them out vertically into five glass columns. The palette ran from earthy and fiery tones at the bottom, up to images of people and incidents at eye level, and then up to the greens and blues of regeneration towards the sky. Captions giving the photographer’s name and a short title were placed in the ‘mortar’ between the images. I still think that this memorial is rather unique because, rather than choosing one image to be iconically embody the whole experience of the event being memorialized, as in the Vietnam Memorial, or doing an impressionistic collage of different elements, as in the Nurses or Air Force memorials, individually tagged and identifiable photographs, albeit details of them, are presented in a grid which retains their individual specificity. I think this approach worked because the victims were all fairly homogenous — middle class suburbanites with cameras — and the event was concentrated and coherent in its narrative meaning — ‘fire comes, community suffers but regenerates’ — with only some minor counter-narratives — of the financial culpability of various governments — around the edges. This approach may not have worked in memorials to more complex disasters, or addressing more heterogenous constituencies.

I’ll finish by talking a little bit about a small installation I have in the show which is opening tonight. In my head I divide the history of Canberra into two periods. There is the utopian period from its foundation to self-government, where Canberra was used by the Commonwealth Government as a model of an ideal Australian polity, and a kind of ideal template for a future Australian city. During this utopian period, which in my imagination peaks in the 1960s,  Canberra was tolerated as a noble experiment by most Australians. Then there is the distopian period from self-government till now, where Canberra is regarded by Australians and governments alike as parasitical, perverse, pretentious, indulgent and ‘out of touch’. In both these Canberras there are no actual people. In the distopian Canberra of today the people who live here are despised as a vitiated, degenerated, foppish sub-category of the real Australian. They are people of literally no account. As Clive Palmer said last week:‘In Canberra they have the best roads, but nobody to drive on them’. However the utopian Canberra was also devoid of actual people, the few people that appear in the photographs are national cyphers, actors in a political fantasy, like the schematic figures that occur in architectural drawings.

So I’ve collected tourist brochures and NCDC publications from the utopian period of Canberra, making my own archive. Using an ‘Office Works’ aesthetic I have covered up the generic photographs with coloured sheets of A4 paper, obscuring the various civic vistas of national potentiality but revealing hapless pedestrians or passers by accidentally caught in the photographer’s camera, thereby pulling them out of their unwitting role as national cyphers, an perhaps returning to them their individuality as people.

My work is cool and ironic, it is a million miles from the fervent spiritual juju of indigenous artists. It is affectionate, rather than interrogative. But nonetheless I think that on some level we are all engaged with the same occultish power of the archive.

Martyn Jolly


[1] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, 1999, p30.

[2] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear, Sydney, 1997, p9, p14.

[3] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[4] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[5] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 1999, p117.

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