Archival Narratives - Marjolaine Ryley
(Notes from a talk given at the one-day seminar event 'Interacting With the Archive: Creative Approaches'.)
Slides: IMAGES FROM ALBUMS
Practice as Research
Since September 2005 I have been working on a Research Development Fellowship - the project is loosely titled "The Last Picture Show". This fellowship has been based between Sunderland University and PARC (The Photography and the Archive Research Centre).
For this talk I would like to show how my research and practice have developed since starting the fellowship. I will show the ways in which through practice-based research in particular and the practical outputs from the fellowship, I have been able to investigate some of my initial research questions. While finding answers to some questions, inevitably, many more have arisen as new areas have opened up.
Before I talk about my research project I would like to read you a quote. This comes from a book I recently acquired called Figuring It Out: the Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists by Colin Renfrew it seems to be an acknowledgment of the contribution made by practice-based research.
"Today I would claim, the visual arts have transformed themselves into what might be described as a vast unco-ordinated yet somehow enormously effective research programme that looks critically at what we are and how we know what we are - at the foundations of knowledge and perception, and of the structures that modern societies have chosen to construct upon those foundations"... "The world of the visual arts today is made up of tens of thousands of individuals, most of them doing their own thing. Among them are creative thinkers and workers who are nibbling away, all the time, at what we think we know about the world, at our assumptions, at our preconceptions."
I think this idea that we are all nibbling away on our own is really apt - but working together and sharing knowledge and understanding is inevitably so much more rewarding.
Working at PARC gave a research context that was extremely useful, and being able to discuss ideas, partake in seminar events and talk through my research has been and still is an extremely valuable experience and I am grateful for this ongoing dialogue.
The Last Picture Show - Posing Research Questions
My fellowship raises a number of questions centring on the idea of how family photographs may 'become' public archives and the many possibilities that arise from questioning the forms that these archives might take: sometimes finding the right questions is as important as discovering the answers and my initial task was to define, what I wanted to know and why:
Looking at my own family photographic archive became an important point of access and engagement for the fellowship.
Slides: IMAGES FROM - THE APARTMENT / unedited
Before I go onto to the specifics of my research questions I want to give you some background to my practice and how I began working with family photography; for the first part of this talk I'll show a selection of images in rough chronological order. These are edited from about two thousand images taken over a twelve-year period. I have included some examples of the contact sheets I initially edited from.
Twelve Years of My Family Photographs - A Brief History
I began photographing the apartment in Brussels in 1993 during my photographic BA studies. Boredom, a sense of malaise and mild claustrophobia were emotions that I inevitably felt during visits to my maternal grandmothers apartment in Belgium. Mediating the experience made it more bearable and it became a cathartic process. These 'family snaps' began to shift in nature as my studies continued. A critical dimension was added as I began to understand more about the nature of family photography and the many fictions it creates. The shift from the 'family snap' to making the imagery that became the core of my artistic practice took several years and was consolidated during my MA studies. Out of this body of work several series have emerged, exhibited as 'Noon', 'Passage' ,'Avenue' and most recently 'Residence Astral'. Finding ways to bring together all of the work made over this extensive period as opposed to the sometimes, limiting 'selection' process of gallery based shows was of interest to me.
Looking at twelve years worth of photographs taken in the same location has both a calming effect upon me; the reassurance of repetition and consistency, yet also the ability to produce a 'sinister' feeling. Things are the same yet subtly different. The unstoppable passage of time creeps into view. During this time the apartment has seen many changes. A fire meant the need for redecoration and a massive 'clearing' out of many possessions. My grandmother nearly succumbed to smoke inhalation but is now living in her apartment again and it is as if 'nothing' has changed. The apartment and its interior landscape form the backdrop to the many dramas enacted by the family members. The space is psychologically charged and filled with a sense of both comfort and yet a stifling oppression. The most recent images in my ever-expanding collection show a magnified view, exploring the mother / daughter / grandmother relationship and women's roles in relation to the space of 'home'. All this has lead to the desire to undertake more in-depth research into the fascinating arena of the family archive.
Here are the initial questions I posed as I began the fellowship:
Is the way photographs are collected and stored changing forever as the digital age takes an ever-firmer grip on traditional 'snap-shot' photography? The magic of discovering a box full of dusty, faded old photographs under a deceased relatives bed has a magic and poignancy to it that has changed little with the passage of time. But how will we examine a legacy left 'on-line' a personal collection out there in the 'ether'. Squabbles over 'who gets to keep the pictures' could be a thing of the past however the tangible objects we so love to hold may soon disappear altogether. Is the family gathered around the slide projector in order to view an obsessive grandfather's travels through China a thing of the past? Is this indeed the last picture show?
The were the specified in more detail:
What are the most appropriate methods for showing an extensive archive of family photographs for dissemination and public output?
How has the nature of the family album shifted from the private 'album' to a widespread use of the Internet, PC data storage and TV image replay?
How will private databases work for succeeding generations? Will they be explored differently at the time of a death in the family compared with the traditional 'shoebox' method? Can databases ever replace the serendipity of the 'shoe box' examination?
How important is the physicality of the image and how does the potential loss of a 'spiritual' relationship to the person photographed ('she touched it - now I'm touching it') diminish through digital means
When an artist photographs their family does the work produced still function as a 'family album' or does their critical knowledge render this 'construct' obsolete?
Can a photographic archive such as mine mirror relevant social and political issues that have wider significance? For example I believe my work gives a glimpse of the shifting experience of 'home' for the women in my family?
What is the significance of the photographic 'editing' process in creating an archive (should an archive by definition include everything!) and if edited how does this further mediation affect the way information is communicated?
Can the use of text help in creating a collaborative approach to an archive of family photography through giving the participating family members a voice? What is the most appropriate method for combining images and text in this context? I am interested in using my mothers writing with the imagery and exploring the outcome of this.
What are the conceptual and theoretical differences in 'presenting' an archive when using different models: photographic slides, c-prints, a website or the traditional 'shoebox' filing system?
How do archives come about? The 'incidental' in contrast with the 'specific' and the motivations behind these different collections.
Through creating a series of outputs including Field Study 7 Residence Astral a colour publication, an exhibition and a website, as well as taking part in events like today, which offer important opportunities for dialogue, some of these questions are becoming clearer.
I want now to focus on the relationship of the family album to the archive and to look a little at photography's role within the archive.
Photography and the Archive
In Art & Photography David Campany has devoted a section to Memories and Archives. Here he explores the link between the archive and the photograph:
"From it's very beginnings photography lent itself to the logics of the archive. The nineteenth-century systems and templates established for ordering data, acquiring knowledge and assembling histories found in it a highly adaptable form of information. More than that, the ways in which photography has been developed and deployed as a technology have been largely dictated by archival purposes. It is a medium of the particular but it is also a medium of collation, comparison, repetition and distribution. It has become central to the archives of the sciences, the legal system, education, medicine, commerce, industry, art history, entertainment, news and the domestic family."
Photography relies however on context to give it meaning so in a sense it can be seen to have historically been used in the service of the 'official' archive.
Artists and the Language of the Archive
The structures and the language of the archive has been taken up and used in recent decades by a significant number of artists - the archival itself with its images and methodologies has become a relevant subjects for artists. David Campany goes on to say:
"The systems inherent in archives corresponded with the conceptual interest in bureaucratic forms, seriality and the everyday. The usually hidden structure that gives the archive its authority was made visible and visual in artworks that borrowed its formal procedures in pursuit of deconstructive investigation of the social forms of knowledge. Art could be a space to examine the meanings and implications of the archival."
Photography because of its use within archives was a logical choice for many artists. Campany goes on to say that there are three main approaches that artists have taken. The first is the researching, collating and re-presenting of images. 'Atlas' by Gerhard Richter is a good example of this, Joachim Schmid's 'Archiv', Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel's 'Evidence'or Tacita Dean's 'Floh'.
The second strategy involves the recreation of the archival image in ways that critique the construction of official knowledge; this can be seen in the work of Carrie Mae Weems, David Levnithal, Yinka Shonibare.
The third approach has been the exploration of the overlapping and interweaving of collective history and personal memory, Christian Boltanski, Mari Mahr, Allan Sekula, Fiona Tan. It is this third position that I feel the greatest affinity with.
I'm interested in the possibility that an archive like mine that is currently a personal family archive, may with time, become a historical document, showing a particular bourgeois way of life and the generational shifts that followed.
Slide: V&A IMAGE OF WOMAN ON A BICYCLE
Family Archives - Personal History / Historical Document
The significant number of family albums held in the V&A archives, suggests their recognised importance. It is these personal albums that now allow us fascinating insights into the family lives of the Victorian & Edwardian eras. Originally these albums were collected because of their value as records of fashions of the day. These albums are also social documents, whose meanings shift with the passage of time and the conflicts of history. In the V&A Archive many family albums are stored and catalogued. Each album starts with the caption:
Ownership and Use
"This family photograph album contains single and group portraits and depictions of sports and pastimes that would have amused family, friends and visitors. It is a personal keepsake and a document of a wealthy family of the 1880s. Many Victorian and Edwardian family photograph albums such as these were acquired by the V&A in the 1950s and 60s to show examples of the dress of that period."
"Throughout most of the 19 th century women had few legal rights to property, money, children or even, after marriage their own bodies. However there were great changes in attitudes during the last decades of the century. The traditional role of women was questioned and some women openly defied convention. They educated themselves by reading widely and took up what were seen as unladylike activities such as smoking and cycling. The free movement of the bicycle was seen as a symbol of equality and personal freedom."
The family album in this instance has become a social and historical document with one particular image now symbolic of an entire political movement.
Exploring the link between the archive and the album cont. (The grid as a symbol of structure and narrative)
Slides: SHOW IMAGES FROM ALBUMS
The white album, the beach snapshot album.
One recurring characteristic of the family album is the use of multiple images and the gridding structure.
In Each Wild Idea - Vernacular Photographies, GeoffreyBachen believes the grid structure is crucial to the 'family' album:
"Frequently a number of daguerreotype, ambro type, and tintype portraits would be gathered in one frame, declaring themselves to be all part of the same familial genealogy. Organised into geometric grids (rectangles squares, ovals,) these often ornate sculptures stress the potential connections between one image and the next. Beyond all this the gridding of photographs provides them with the unmistakable structure of narrative, with the declared capacity to tell a story, always a weakness of individual photographs."
I believe this use of the grid within the family album links with uses of display and categorization often used in the traditional intuitional archives of government and state. The family album can be seen as an extension of the controls of the dominant authorities. It seems that the primary function of the albums here is to present the family as structured, together, financially solvent and to create 'an institutionalised' credibility.
David Campany sees the use of the grid by artists in relation to the archival in a slightly different way:
"It is also an anti-hierarchical form that flattens time and de-narratives images. Rather than offering anything concrete, the grid of photographs offers raw material to the viewer as potential meaning, in a manner akin to the archive itself."
As artists began choosing the family as a subject mater for investigation these initial structures were often utilised with a final critique in mind. Inevitably artists began using the language of the domestic and the album to challenge the patriarchal authority of the family.
"The photograph makes a promise of history it cannot keep. There is certainly a sense in which the disarticulated fragments to which so may post war artists have been drawn can be read as a metaphor for the unruly processes of memory and the traumatising of historical continuity. Indeed there are strong parallels between photography's emphasis on incidental details and the involuntary memory fragments that are the raw materials of psychoanalysis. It is a matter of putting the parts together and inserting them into language: a task that is left to the viewer of the photo fragments."
So the grid offers the possibility of narrative, the suggestion of narrative but the viewer is left to piece this together, to fill in the gaps and insert meaning. I have always been drawn to working with grids and I think this offer of both structure and ambiguity is the reason why.
Field Study 7 - Between the Archive & the Album
Slides: SHOW ACTUAL FIELD STUDY LAYOUTS AT THIS POINT
So how have I worked with my own archival material? In producing Field Study 7 Residence Astral & I have used the format of the publication. This particular publication already has its own existing context and has previously been used by other artists who have investigated ideas of archive.
One appeal of this format was the fact I could reference to the family album in a number of ways, such as length of field study and the use of the grid structure that references the layout of many family albums. Also I decided to include text inclusion of text, both my own writing and my mother's.
Family albums often include textual often written by female family members. I also used scanned fabrics, to evoke colour and texture, a letter and other 'archival' materials.
I would like to read you an extract from Mother-Food a piece I used written by my mother while in the apartment to illustrate the ways that text and images throughout field study begin to narrate the many stories behind the doors of Residence Astral:
"I feel drawn to the waffles, brown paper bag beckoning. It's not as bad as it used to be. I remember times when being in my mother's house induced an unbearable state of unrest, a desperate need for recognition. Sneaking in the kitchen, gobbling up half finished packets of 'waffles', 'galettes', 'chocolate pralines'. The thing is, in those days, you couldn't find those treats in England. They belonged to the land of childhood and possessed magical properties. Eating a Belgian waffle was a way of being reinstated into the right order of things, the way to redemption. After all, you ate the body of Christ at Mass. However to try and heal my Belgian soul, seemed to result in generating more guilt. My body, longing for true mother food, rejected my excesses, giving me a migraine lasting for the rest of my visit.
Food in my childhood held a very important place in life's priorities, it was also imbued with the power to kill, destroy my sense of self. Food could give and take life the way the ambivalent mother could. It could make you fat, which meant self-hatred, unlovable, exile. Belgian 'pralines', 'crevettes', 'gauffres' held the secret of finding my way back to my roots. The smell of rabbit marinated in red wine, black pudding, became the trigger for memories leading to forgotten stories. Growing up in "Le Pays de Cocagne" the land of plenty, shopping with my mother would have been a feast for the senses, looking at shop windows, contemplating larger then life displays of gourmet condiments, something out of a painting by Bruegel, a banquet at the village feast. You said thanks to God before eating, prayed so you'd never go without, yet the food I ate was cooked by mother. Eating my mother's food held the promise of both heaven and hell.
I remember my mother in the kitchen, wearing a flowery apron that matched her permed curly hair. A cloud of tension all around her, her smile, too good to be true. She always complained about the kitchen that it was "too small and dark" and that it was; "badly designed by an architect who didn't have the woman behind the stove in mind when he created our house". An open air terrace, leading to a secluded garden seemed to take over the kitchen, a constant invitation to the inhabitants to escape from life's drudgery, which my mother seemed to cultivate. A housewife in the fifties, my mother tried to achieve impossible ideals. My father expected his dinner on the table, and her life consisted of endless chores. Her lack of joy in performing them tainted our pleasure in receiving her nourishment with a sense of malaise and feelings of guilt. Not eating was a sin highly punishable by God, it was God himself speaking as she uttered her dreadful words; "children, you are lucky we are not at war, one day, God will punish you, you will be hungry". Sometimes, her mind followed a different track, she said that "we were driving her mad" and threatened to walk off and never return. Although I did not believe her words, her outbursts made me sad and scared. The truth was, you could never be sure."
Using my mother's writing creates the impression of a kind of oral history, (written archive), that adds to the existing photographic archive. Clearly I am not attempting to construct an official archive but am using and borrowing from the established 'family archive/album'. Residence Astral uses ideas of archive & the family album but is distinct fro my own private and extensive archive. It is an artist's piece exploring the meanings and implications of the family album as archive.
My hope for 'Residence Astral' is that as well as allowing a glimpse into the personal private interior of Genevieve Tirlocq and her family this work also gives a particular view of a bourgeois family and the changes they have undergone.
This offers further written evidence. In the letter included in Field Study we have an example of one generation discussing the choices of the next. And in a way going full circle - I have become more conservative in my aspirations. My mother always claims I once said to her that furniture was something I aspired too!
Experiencing Residence Astral and my mother's family through difference gave me a perspective that allowed for the making of this work. Engaging my grandmother with this work by showing her photographs talking to her and listening to her stories, has meant she can see her life from a different perspective and she feels it is important, that it was worth recording and documenting. in the same essay Geoffrey Bachen goes on to say of the album
"And when we do touch, by turning an albums page, for example, we put the photograph back into motion, both literally in an arc through space and in a more abstract cinematic sense as well."
"By appearing on a number of separate pages, these photographs exploit the temporal and spatial possibilities inherent in a book format, playing with small systematic differences between poses to suggest the illusion of animation, an illusion that our hand has just symbolically provided."
So the album format interspersed with grids both narratives and de-narratives, suggests the passing of time and the fact time has stood still. Residence Astral sits between the personal scrapbook and the social document.
Digital Data - Archives on Line
The advent of digital technology has revolutionised the accessibility of many archives both public and private. The very nature of the collapse between public and private has meant that personal family archives are now available on line and have contributed to the way family life has changed. Whether for good or ill is debatable. Even grieving is now connected to the Internet with sites like mydeathspace.com - a site where you see a global map of all the my space users who have died. One artist - Eliot Malkin suggests in this piece cemetery 2.0 that the Internet may be where we go to pay our last respects.
Don Slater - 'Domestic Photography & Digital Culture' (in The Photographic Image in Digital Culture) writes: "Perhaps the future family will only exist in its snapshots, which are themselves integrated into the digital workflow that destroyed it."
This destruction seems unlikely - in fact our fear of new media is nothing new. All new media were once met with fear and anxiety; it is true that technological change brings change inevitably brings change to our communities. The ephemeral nature of digital technology has surprisingly allowed for an interaction and between dispersed families and the development of new communities that many thought would be impossible.
From New Media 1740 -1915, Scissoring and Scrapbooks: Ninetieth Century Reading, Remaking and Recirculating. Ellen Gruber Garvey discusses the benefits of families creating scrapbooks and albums together:
"As they gather to pull apart mainstream culture and re-make it for their own uses, they create their own cultural nexus, a knot of threads leading into and out of the family."
I think we see this behaviour in the modern day blog, which as family activity may be unifying rather than alienating. People are becoming the author's of their own lives, describing their families and sharing even very private information. No doubt there is a good deal of catharsis in this process. The material itself is not as important as the act itself. And all the time new archives of these families and their histories are being created all be it in a different form.
"One could participate in authorship without writing a line, in other words, writing is understood as a process of re circulation, in which information is sorted and stockpiled until it can acquire value by being inserted into a new context. As often appears to be true on webpages, the origin of the material is less important than the new form it takes re-sorted and made available in new ways"
The Urge to Archive
Exploring the next stage of the fellowship, www.thelastpictureshow.org, will offer new challenges, bringing together images from my archive, the work of other artists, my collection of albums, writings and a be a forum for discussion and dialogue.
One thing that has I have been able to clarify through my in my work is how important recapturing, recording and remembering is. The archive in its many forms offers a plethora of ways to do this and is undoubtedly of key importance. Digitization offers new possibilities for access and engagement but needs to be treated cautiously with respect for the objects themselves, and with acknowledgement that the experience of interacting with archives is important and that digitisation itself is a cultural process.
To finish I would like to read a quote by W.G. Sebald from Austerlitz, a fascinating work of true fiction that uses photography, memory, history and the archive to uncover the past.
"Everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is as it were draining itself in that the history of countless places and objects, which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described, never passed on"
Objects including photographs on their own have no power of memory they need us to give them context and meaning. Through remembering, collecting, recording, documenting, and archiving the things around us that are important we may be preserving future historical documents, personal albums or given time perhaps both.