Memory and Geography
It’s been almost two decades since Edward Said delivered a keynote lecture titled “Palestine: Memory, Invention and Space”[i] where he noted a burgeoning interest he perceived in two broad areas of the humanities and the social sciences—namely memory and geography. The paper, a meditation on geopolitics, was about how both memory and geography were being seen no longer as sources or contexts, but as continuous acts of invention for political ends. Said’s paper elaborated how nations keep inventing their pasts and their notions of land as a way to legitimize newer regimes of power over history, society, and space. His observations seem ever more pertinent today when we are witnesses to how collective memory, especially around national claims and geographically defined identities in most parts of the world, is up for grabs, regardless of what history might tell us otherwise.
It is interesting that what Said so perceptively captured in his paper about the widespread prominence of memory and geography both as method and as motif coincided rather well with the widespread attention of the same in spaces of contemporary art in the decade that followed, that is in the 2000s. Two related, though not identical, subjects found a resurgence alongside memory and geography across the arts, namely that of the archive and cartography. Both archives and cartography became leitmotifs for a number of artists, curators, and institutions alike, and oftentimes served as methods (such as by way of “archiving” and “mapping” projects) particularly in contexts where colonial histories and post-colonial discourse were of importance. The cartographic reference, of course, also melded into the art world’s reflections on nuances of cultural locations amidst the seemingly homogenizing globalized world. The examples here could be many: take any of the innumerable artworks that were made siting maps or proposing other imaginations of the archive. Take curations such as the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003 where Bonami wanted viewers to explore the Biennale like a “global map,” or Okwui Enwezor’s Archive Fever in New York in 2008. Take the plethora of regional survey exhibitions representing South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China, among others, in various museums around the world where maps and archives were indeed recurring motifs.
It is no mere coincidence that there was such a widespread reference to archives and maps in the field of contemporary art. This could be attributed to how much memory, geography, the archive, and cartography became battlegrounds for knowledge and power in the rapidly transforming environment of digital media and the Internet. This was after all the time when Google Maps and Facebook had emerged around 2005, and then the financial crash in 2008, and innumerable instances that etched an irrevocable image of a connected world no matter how asymmetrical the flow of ideas, goods, information, and people might be.
However, as much as Said’s analytical insight about memory and geography in 1998 might have seemed like a prognosis of a deepening and more pervasive form of control and surveillance,[ii] perhaps we might well read the new maps and archives doing exactly the opposite. Perhaps we can read Said’s paper as marking the end of an era of what archives and maps used to be under a colonial paradigm, and pointing towards a new era of the archival and cartographic imagination. While there has remained an understanding that memory and geography became even more effective as tools pliable for those in power, the turn of the millennia dispersed those tools in the most unprecedented manner in modern history. We saw ourselves arriving at a discursive threshold where both memory and geography would start assuming a commodity status, and at the same time bearing a sense of the commons so much so as to never be the same again.
The issue that comes to mind then is that, while we have this era that is best defined by globalization, globalization has most often been described in terms of a cartographic imagination. We have heard often of the local vis-à-vis the global; national vis-à-vis the transnational; the Global North vis-à-vis Global South, among other vectors of comparison. However, how would we gauge the ramifications of globalization over memory and the archive? What happens to the archive with globalization? Is it merely an expansion of the archive to become more inclusive (or exclusive) towards certain histories? Is it about the end of history? Or, perhaps a continuation of the colonizing apparatus, except now in version 2.0? Or could the archive have become something else altogether?
Accumulations and Sediments
A quick recap: we are all too familiar with how in the second half of 20th century, with various nations and republics claiming sovereignty from colonial rule, there was a widespread (re)building of state institutions in several parts of the world for decades on end. Indonesia, Philippines, India/Pakistan, Cambodia, and Vietnam to name some. This would translate into new infrastructural projects, new museums being established and existing ones being refurbished, archives getting declassified and opening out to publics. Traditions were being “revived,” and new practices in pedagogy and art-making were being experimented with. The archive and the map served important functions that were paramount in laying down the footprints and etching out the contours around the identity of new states and their subjects. Within a couple of decades, we also know well that post-colonial studies and subaltern studies posed some of the most powerful critiques of the very same archives, leading towards entirely new propositions for what an archive means. Questions like how must the archive and history be rethought in cultures where the textual document does not prevail. Those critiques, revisions, and counter-archives, coupled with the spread of the Internet and digital media in the recent decades, eventually produced an enormous swell that seemed like a new resurgence of archives. Except this time, it was with much more expanded and flexible definitions than might have ever been encountered before. And with the proliferation of new mediums and devices for data capture and dissemination that followed, entirely new sensoria of information and its accessibility have been planted. It is common now to come across the view that the Internet itself is an archive of archives. Interestingly enough, these vast and deep deposits of old documents, of ongoing digitized information and newly generated data all co-exist today, and are often sedimented in and across age-old institutions, new-age servers, clouds, and personal hard drives. The archive as an idea has also sedimented into the most common parlance today with how flexibly we use the term for any collection of data, objects, embodied or disembodied memory, and tangible and intangible items. Anything from a grand-uncle being referred to as an archive of stories, a community being regarded as an archive of the land it has inhabited, and a film being discussed as an archive of the city seems quite at home. And by no means do I write this out of criticism. All of this is only to say that these accumulations, deposits, and sedimentations are far from settled and inert. The tremors, seepages, and eruptions between them are all too palpable today as they find expression in joys and anxieties about knowledge itself. We overhear sides being taken on whether knowledge is better gained from published books or from online peer-to-peer platforms. We wonder what classifications are still operative when so many disciplines and categories seem to cross into each other and share concerns. Or, how can knowledge better disseminate via institutions in the age of World Wide Web. From the slow build-up of archives in pre-industrialized world to the gradual scaling and speeding up of infrastructure since the Industrial Revolution up to today’s hyper-acceleration of information, the very infrastructures of knowledge and its dissemination are said to have undergone a change comparable to what had happened with Gutenberg press between 12th- and 13th-century Europe.
It is with some of these thoughts and questions that I began revisiting the history of 20th-century art practice. What would artists’ archives from various parts of the world broadly tell us about the nature of the flows, deposits, and eruptions of knowledge and their archival forms of their time? One realizes that just as colonial and post-colonial states were building their institutions and archives, a number of artists were also preoccupied with forms of archiving, running parallel. Having visited, worked with, and digitized a few such artist archives with my colleagues at Asia Art Archive, it is fascinating to see the kinds of material and documents artists brought together and preserved over the last several decades. It is all the more fascinating to see how that material would get classified and processed by those artists. Collections would range from bureaucratic looking files and folders, to photographs organized by colors and shapes in them, to quirky time capsules. There is something ubiquitous in this obsessive retentional drive that so many modern artists possessed, even though the nature of materials would vary from place to place and context to context. Having come across a number of such collections in various parts of Asia, my contention has been that artists who emerged around the time of and after the second half of 20th century in various parts of the world almost foresaw the coming of the information age that we live in today. If you visit the personal archive of an artist who was active in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, it is likely that you would find an abundance of scrapbooks, ephemera, photo-documentation, postcards, and letters that they kept. At least we can say so for those who had the wherewithal to store them. These collections unequivocally chart out myriad itineraries of ideas and images that circulated in the world. They also follow very different classifications and tagging, some of which are beginning to make a lot more sense today than they might have before we got accustomed to search engines.
Given this, what if we momentarily shifted our gaze away from the catalogue raisonné of artworks to such private practices of artists that rarely made it into art history as a form in themselves? For a moment, what if we treat these artists’ collections not as a site for providing evidence and clues about what went into the making of an artwork or about contexts in which the artist practiced? Instead, I would propose we see those archives as sites that have a potential to tell a different story of the flows, accumulations, and sedimentations of memory, history, and places. The question that these collections would then ask us is, how can we see artist archives as a site for the complete re-imagination of history and of the archive itself?
It is in this light that the life and practice of late artist Ha Bik Chuen (1925-2009) becomes an interesting portal. Ha was well known as a painter, sculptor, and print-maker based in Hong Kong and active since the late 1950s. Alongside his art-making and exhibitions, Ha maintained a private practice where he photographed exhibitions, people, and spaces over several years and amassed published and unpublished material that circulated around him. Ha preserved these in the form of contact sheets, albums, boxes, and collage books, offering an insight into very specific flows and collisions of information and images that channeled past him in the analogue era of the colonial port-city of Hong Kong. His entire collection had been stored in his Hong Kong studio in To Kwa Wan since his passing in 2009, until its relocation to Fo Tan in 2016 as part of a project led by Asia Art Archive.[iii] A glimpse of Ha’s studio would remind anyone of Ilya Kabakov’s story of the man who threw away nothing. It would also make one realize the very many things that were happening underneath the topsoil of what art history would make visible and the limits of an older knowledge system that would keep the archive underneath. Something of those sediments beneath seems to be surfacing today and the environment around changing with it.
Algorithms and Geology
In the year 2013, it was recorded that carbon dioxide passed the signature threshold of four hundred parts per million in the atmosphere for the first time since the Pliocene era about three to five million years ago. Although the gas is not visible to us, it is regarded to have set in motion an environmental change of catastrophic proportions. This change took place in the wake of another change of perhaps equally significant proportions, i.e., the coming of the Age of Big Data. There is little concealed about the fact that it is big data that now tells us the pulse of the planet as much as it plays a role in shaping everyday life for billions of people. In 2012, Google reported an average of 110 billion searches per month worldwide. By the end of 2014, an estimated three billion people around the world were online and had uploaded one trillion photographs in that year alone. In the words of Nicholas Mirzoeff, the global photography archive increased by some 25% in 2014. [iv] With enough data processing and storage capacity already established, a new regime of real-time “computation” is in place along with predictive analysis both of planetary behavior as much as of human behavior.
Going back to memory and geography where this paper had started off, with big data and the current status of the Anthropocene, both memory and geography are increasingly being felt to release themselves from human control now. On the one hand is a fear in society of not being in control of the scale of data being generated around it, and on the other a growing realization that cities are submerging under rising waters. With machines becoming more and more autonomous, there is almost a panic that both nature and machines are equal threats to humanity now. This temperament stands in sharp contrast to the long prevailing ideals of Enlightenment and the firm belief in humanity’s conquest and containment of nature for well over three centuries. Geological forces on the one hand and algorithms on the other are producing a condition today where the eyes that are seeing and the ears that are hearing are not just of human beings. Likewise, the maps being drawn and the memories recorded and accessed are no longer only by human beings either. Practically every field is being impacted by the rise of this stratum of big data and the simultaneous rise in temperatures. Geology and machinic intelligence could not have been more closely intertwined. The archive’s sediments could not be more firmly embedded in planetary ones.
These were among the few points of departure for me when working on an Infra-Curatorial project titled “Striated Light” in the 11th Shanghai Biennale. Titled “Why Not Ask Again?,” the Biennale was curated by Raqs Media Collective and ran over a period of almost three months after its opening on November 9, 2016. The Biennale attempted a revisiting of some of the most basic questions about what it is to inhabit the contemporary moment when relationships between the human, nature, and machines are being realigned in ways that beckon a rethinking of all our concepts. The curatorial propositions that the Biennale made were also at the level of exploring new concepts and premises that bring different practices and knowledges together today, and this was done keeping in mind a complete avoidance of thematic categories in the exhibition. One of these premises in the Biennale was the “Infra-Curatorial Platform.” Seven individuals from different fields and different parts of the world were invited to present ways in which they would stage the infra[v] structures of their practices and inquiries. And to explore this, a new imagination for curatorial thinking was being asked of each one, which would preoccupy itself less with (re)presenting developed works and ideas and more with what kind of networks come together between methods, forms and archives. Basically, what would the scaffoldings for new infrastructures, knowledges, and practices look like in the rapidly changing parameters of world-making? The proposals were invited to bring together the thinking process behind their own practices into an emergent force that curatorial practice could express.
In response to these propositions emerged the Infra-Curatorial project that Raqs invited me to bring around my own practice of archiving. “Striated Light”[vi] redeployed Ha’s personal archive to draw out over 3,000 digitized contact sheets as a way to explore the changing optic of the archive in the 21st century. The passage of light that ran through a hand-held camera, into the dark room, then locked onto the surface of contact prints, stored in dark boxes in a studio space in Hong Kong, re-illuminated some four decades after with scanners, enlarged on high tech computer monitors and reprinted onto new undulating surfaces 40 feet wide, resembling thumbnails on our personal computers, and re-circulating in further unpredictable environments and forms, is the journey of the archive as it comes into our age. Ours is the age of pulsating screens and virality of thoughts, where the substratum of the analogue beneath the digital erupts to form new striations that might not lend themselves as much to genealogies as to topographies and geological formations. Time stretches, scatters, and pixelates the archive rather than perhaps inscribing itself upon it. The familiar is likely to be rendered unfamiliar and uncanny, and we may find ourselves more at home with the unfamiliar that the archive throws up.
I am reminded of late Svetlana Boym’s “Notes for an Off-Modern Manifesto” where she wrote:
It turns our attention to the surfaces, rims and thresholds. From my ten years of travels I have accumulated hundreds of photographs of windows, doors, facades, back yards, fences, arches and sunsets in different cities all stored in plastic bags under my desk. I re-photograph the old snapshots with my digital camera and the sun of the other time and the other place cast new shadows upon their once glossy surfaces with stains of the lemon tea and fingerprints of indifferent friends. I try not to use the preprogrammed special effects of Photoshop; not because I believe in authenticity of craftsmanship, but because I equally distrust the conspiratorial belief in the universal simulation. I wish to learn from my own mistakes, let myself err. I carry the pictures into new physical environments, inhabit them again, occasionally deviating from the rules of light exposure and focus.
At the same time I look for the ready-mades in the outside world, “natural” collages and ambiguous double exposures. My most misleading images are often “straight photographs.” Nobody takes them for what they are, for we are burdened with an afterimage of suspicion.[vii]
In conclusion, coming back full circle to Said’s essay, the burgeoning interest in memory and geography that it identified was one among several calls of an epistemic shift in the technologies and paradigms through which memory and geography functioned under colonialism. If the archive and maps were the technological base for the way we understood memory and geography in an older era, data and rising tides gush out in their stead like a torrent through the floodgates.
Sabih Ahmed is an art historian and currently a Senior Researcher at Asia Art Archive (AAA). With AAA, he has led various research initiatives pertaining to modern and contemporary art in India that include digitisation projects of artist archives, creating digital bibliographies of vernacular art writing, and organizing conferences and workshops. Sabih is based in New Delhi where he has been a Visiting Faculty in Ambedkar University's School of Culture and Creative Expression. Currently Ahmed is also working as a member of the curatorial collegiate of the 11th Shanghai Biennale (2016). His recent writings have been published in volumes such as the Sarai Reader and Marg.
i “Landscape Perspectives in Palestine,” held in the Birzeit University in the West Bank in 1998, subsequently published two years later in the form of an essay titled “Invention, Memory, and Place.”
ii One that was firmly established under the colonial apparatus and then becoming only more sophisticated in the course of the 20th century.
iii The Ha Bik Chuen archive came to light in 2013 when the Ha family invited Asia Art Archive to do a pilot project to map, assess, and selectively digitize the collection in stored in his studio. Led by Researcher Michelle Wong, the project has unfolded into various iterations of archival, artistic, and exhibitionary platforms since the pilot. Among the collection are over 100,000 photographs, 3,500 contact sheets, exhibition ephemera, and periodicals collected by Ha from 1960s onward. For more information, visit http://www.aaa-a.org/programs/excessive-enthusiasm-activating-the-ha-bik-chuen-archive/
iv Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, Pelican Books, London, 2015.
v “Infra” as in that which lies beneath, such as infra-red light that remains invisible under normal light conditions.
vi Striated Light drew from Ha Bik Chuen’s archive digitized by Asia Art Archive. The structure that became the armature and form for the project was designed in conversation with the 11th Shanghai Biennale architects Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, with assistance in design from Aarushi Surana.
vii Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgic Technology: Notes for an Off-Modern Manifesto,” in The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, New York, 2001. Also available on http://www.svetlanaboym.com/manifesto.htm