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Updated: Oct 21, 2022

toward alternative futures


In contemporary visual practice as in historical scholarship, the archive is a complex, rapidly changing and richly suggestive concept that prompts us to consider the structures and possibilities of human knowledge. Archivistics—the study of archives—examines the context, structure and form of document presentation: the possible ways in which remnants of the past may be preserved to maintain their relevance and usability for the present and future. As I have tried to show in my two earlier essays (at this point still unpublished), the past as it comes down to us in all its incomplete, fragmentary remnants is a vital resource.* Both in written and visual expression it allows a set of precedents and prompts through which we may interpret today, change the ways we see the world around us, and consider alternative futures.

Following on from my discussions of the post-Second and post-First World War eras in the earlier essays, here I want to consider a third critical moment—the post-Cold War era. It is symbolized by the breaching and eventual dismantling of the Berlin Wall beginning on 9 November 1989. The artist’s responses to the post-Cold War moment in Archive Box 110-989 (both historical and aesthetic) are discussed below in detail, I also consider the implications of this ‘thinking with the past’ and the kinds of knowledge that research-led visual practice makes. Rather than stress an opposition between ‘mainstream’ historical writing / archival research and ‘other’ histories made by visual artists I see creative engagement with the past as a spectrum of complementary possibilities that incorporates both. One example I have previously discussed is W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (Sebald 1998). Another outstanding instance of text-image combination is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (Hartman 2019) which uses early twentieth century photographs and sociological survey sources to reimagine the lives of young black African-American women.

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019)

* ‘ZEROISM: a lexicon of strategies’ (2021) and ‘GHOSTOLOGY: present pasts’ (2022)

The text-image combinations of the Box artist leans much more heavily towards visual practice of various kinds, especially collage. While there are few precedents for this kind of work among the most exemplary is the article / exhibition created jointly by history researcher Marina Carter and fine art printmaker Danny Flynn (Carter and Flynn 2017).

My central question is, then: what kind of visual investigative methodology, what kind of material artistic formation parallel and expand on the examples cited above, and how can these enable an artistic investigation of the ‘post-conflict’ moment following 1989? I have a strong sense that the post-Cold War era is misrepresented from a western perspective (though we should also question the categories of ‘west’ and ‘east’) and needs to be seen to a far greater extent from the point of view of those who lived in central and eastern Europe through this time. My accidental discovery of the Archive Box has proven especially enlightening as it begins to fill in a notable archival gap in existing accounts through its creative exploration of everyday life and accompanying mentalities (although see Pozniak 2014). When thinking about how to address this deficit this visual archive—which may itself be entirely or partly fictional, and which I might be tempted to invent if it did not already exist—is an especially engaging format. Not much is certain about the Box, except that it seems to have be centred loosely on the time and place I know well from personal experience (the 1990s, Kraków) and that it has one or more makers who may or may not have taken on fictional personas for the purposes of creating these archival materials.

Before speculating on the development of this actual / fictional archive, I first want to situate it in relation to both existing artistic response and public memory of ‘life under communism’. In the second part of this essay I discuss the critical transition from analogue to digital media which also took place in the early 1990s, and which radically changes the nature of archival and visual understandings of the past that have emerged in the early twenty-first century (Russell 2018; Verwoert 2007). Finally, I consider some of the models developed by artists engaged with the archive concept and consider these in relation to Archive Box 110-989. In this respect the makers of the Box appear to have been several decades ahead of their peers, especially in the documentation process of research led practice and creative making known as anarchiving (3ecologies 2022).

ARCHIVE: document / fiction

I begin by considering two kinds of response to the end of the Cold War. First, the practice of central and eastern European artists in the 1990s, many of whom used photographic documentation. Here I refer particularly to ‘After the Wall’, a survey exhibition of central and eastern European art at the Stockholm Moderna Museet in 1999. The After the Wall catalogue is an especially engaging collection of essays since it also acts in retrospect as a time capsule for the position and practice of artists from many of the post-Communist states in the 1990s. Second, I consider museum exhibitions and wider public memory as it has developed in the last thirty or so years, which often concentrate on material culture displayed as objects. In this case, I look at various museums I have visited in person, but I have also explored the relevant research literature and websites for evidence.

Considering the immediate responses of artists contemporary to the makers of Box 110+989, we might begin in March 1997, when Akos Szilagyi (b. Budapest 1950) stated his own position at a lecture in Budapest. Poet, editor and Russia specialist, Szilagyi reflected on the condition of central and eastern Europe in the wake of 1989. Like many others, his greatest hope was for normality, for an unspectacular, unheroic age in which the everyday could flourish (Szilagyi 1997):

Because to be normal is good. Because to be normal is promising. Because the future belongs to the normals. S/he who is normal is accountable. S/he is taken into account. S/he can be counted upon. S/he counts. S/he can be part of the normal world order of the global financial economy; s/he can take part in it. Normals of the world unite!

Szilagyi and his peers, for example Bojana Pejić (b. Belgrade 1948), understood the obstacles to normality far better than outside observers. For Pejić in her essay ‘The Dialectics of Normality’ (Pejić 1999, 17) the new society of the 1990s was far from normal, rather, new forms of non-normality were emerging in the last years of the century, but only came into focus gradually.

The moment that I am especially interested in, and that I want to explore both historically and in the Box artist’s creative practice, is exactly this moment of uncertainty from the late 1980s to the late 1990s (the moment from which I date the box. Precisely at this time attempts were being made to restructure understandings of the past, the social order and the infrastructure of the post-communist states. This seems to me an especially interesting moment from the perspective of 2022. The hope for an escape from the desperate, the extraordinary and the mythological may appear naïve with thirty years hindsight. As it turned out, the post-Cold War order of the 1990s—shock therapy economics, sharpening divisions between haves and have nots, internationalism dwindling to provocative national identities—was a precursor to our present. Nevertheless, it is important to be reminded of the possibilities held in view at the very close of the twentieth century.

At the same time, in the later 1980s and early 1990s, a parallel shift took place that changed how the post-Cold War era of the 1990s was later recalled and represented. I refer here to the shift from analogue to digital technologies previewed even in the early 1980s by the use of musical quotations or ‘sampling’. The effect of this shift, amplified and elaborated as digital technologies became more widely accessible, was a mass democratization of archival materials made publicly available via digital recording technologies and subsequently online archival resources (Voerwoert 2007, 7). While film historians and critics have documented the explosion of interest in archival-artistic practice since the 1990s (Russell 2018; Skoller 2005), the impact of these changes has registered less than might be imagined in relation to the post-Cold War states. This absence of reflection may be understood as a trace of western colonial thinking. It may also be that post-communist states are simply less interested in this kind of looking back. In either case, the processes at work in microcosm present in Berlin during the early 1990s—misrepresentation and appropriation of the past, rewriting of historical experiences, emergent western-centric discourses—in short, tensions between western and eastern understandings of the past—were subsequently amplified and elaborated across central and eastern Europe according to local conditions (Pejić 1999, 16-17).

In another essay in the After the Wall catalogue Piotr Piotrowski (b. Poznan, 1952-2015), an eminent critic of central and eastern European visual practice, notes the ideological partialities and blind spots in the western perspective of the time. For example, notions of multiculturalism as defined by reference to London or New York expressed a western cultural imperialism that made little sense in Vilnius or Sarajevo (Piotrowski 1999, 36-7; Czyżewski 2022). Equally, there has been a strong tendency to not register or recognise work outside the parameters of western ideological preconceptions.

Violeta Bubelytė, ’Nude 46’ (1990)

So, what were the concerns of central and eastern European artists in the wake of the Cold War, and by extension of the artist or artists who produced the Box? We might consider, for example Violeta Bubelytė (b. Vilnius 1956) whose sparse, surreal representations of her own body contemplate questions of nature and selfhood (Jurėnaitė 1999, 20). We might also suggest that Bubelytė was addressing the essence of change in the 1990s through a form of body documentation.

Iosif Király, ‘Indirect #1’ (c. 1990)

Another documentation project ‘Indirect’, by Romanian artist Iosif Király (b. Timișoara 1957), kept a photographic record of developments in his homeland from 1990 to 1999. While Bubelytė may be said to have maintained a record of inner states by observation of her own body, Király observed external changes with pictorial interventions that incorporated the growing crises of post-communist transition, extremities of sensation and tedium, and a range of subjective visual sensations. The effect is a ‘super-reality’ of metaphor and fuzzy flux (Balaci 1999, 81). Finally, Boris Mikhailov (b. Kharkiv 1938) worked on two series of photographs through the 1990s,

Boris Mikhailov, ‘At Dusk’ (1993)

both connected to his hometown Kharkiv, Ukraine. Like Király, Mikhailov documents the social and economic, psychological and spiritual transitions of the time. In common with Bubelytė he scrutinizes the self as observer of others, in the hostile and indifferent social conditions of city life, and in conflict with social structures, environments and authorities (Kuzma 1999, 127).

In attempting to locate and develop the ‘documentary fictions’ the anonymous Box archive, Bubelytė, Király and Mikhailov are especially suggestive. The supposed document of the photograph is transformed into a registration of inner states, external material conditions and the interface between them in artistic representation. As time capsules of experience, mood and temperament, these three, from the broad range on display in After the Wall, express both the post-Communist moment, and the wider processes of change and stasis in play as seen by protagonists of the time. Yet there are wider considerations I want to take into account: recent conceptual and historiographic approaches; the longer-term popular memory of ‘life under communism’ as it has developed between 1990 and today.

In a recent reassessment of the Cold War, historian Muriel Blaive has noted how historical writing and research even now remains predominantly ‘top down’, with little attention to the preoccupations of everyday experience.[1] Precisely the opposite point of view from the three artists discussed above. Furthermore, false west-east parallels are often drawn, frames of reference unquestioned, assumptions of opposition, polarity and moral equivalence indulged. The dichotomous ideological thinking of the Cold War, in other words, remains powerfully and misleadingly present (Blaive 2017 196-8; Saunders 1999). As a result, western models of ‘the experience of others’ have if anything become more powerful: confined to a restrictive understanding of good vs evil, to exaggerated notions of ‘typical’ experience popularized for instance in the widely seen German language film The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), or the satirical, triumphalist Hollywood version of the Cold War in Bridge of Spies (Stephen Spielberg 2015; Blaive 2017, 212). The realities of lives lived, of experiences and emotions contextualised but not determined by their ideological circumstances, is by contrast the subject of the 1989 Archive Box, and in this respect, the artist or artists who made the box have a great deal in common with the three artists discussed above. In the following section, I look more closely at some of the objects and images in the archive Box to better understand the nature of post-Cold War ‘reconstruction’.

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In seeking out models for the interpretation and representation of the post-Cold War era the first criteria appears to be the extent to which items chime with first-hand understandings. By this I mean not only the artists’ viewpoint, but the cumulative knowledge of experience within a community and the gradual understandings that emerge consensually through local conversations and accumulated observation. This ‘subjectivist’ analysis has a parallel in historical methodology as described by Alessandro Portelli in his influential analysis of the ‘Peculiarities of Oral History’ For Portelli historical knowledge is less a matter of ‘what actually happened’—which is in any case impossible to know—but instead concerns the factual truth of what is understood to have happened (Portelli 1981).

This point is echoed in a recent revisionist reading of the Cold War which argues the subjective ‘dreamworlds’ of imaginative expression carry the same evidential weight as ‘objective’ events. The purpose of such stories, as told by neighbours in everyday casual conversations, or by Violeta Bubelytė, or Boris Mikhailov, is to shape personal experience into relevant forms of meaning (Scott-Smith and Segal 2012, 1). From this perspective hopes, fears and desires motivate understanding, action and creative expression in a co-dependent system of connections that constitute a whole. Rather than dichotomy, the Cold War is better understood as a set of interlinked ‘dreamworlds’. Irrespective of ideology or subject position (‘West’ or ‘East’) there are always gaps between promise and experience, pressures to conform, shifting identities, varieties of feeling, exchanges and collaborations across the ‘iron curtain’. (Scott-Smith and Segal 2012, 2-3; 6). Thinking of the contents of the Box two categories are especially relevant in the making of the archive. First, ‘problematic things’, meaning the material culture of everyday objects not erased by 1989, but persistent as a part of everyday experience, or as reminders of an extinct way of living and thinking (Jampol 2012). Second, the physical infrastructure of town planning, housing complexes, and apartment blocks as well as the large-scale built and manufactured heritage of the Cold War (Cocroft 2017).

Taking the second case first, the 1989 Box also incorporates family history and personal experience of living in Osiedle Tysiąclecia (Millennium Estate) in the northern outskirts of Kraków. Not to make an autobiographical account, but to reflect on everyday realities rather than ideological coordinates. Hence several of the collage pieces in the archive box incorporate historical and recent photographic material of the district as well as the larger ‘new town’ development of Nowa Huta, adjacent to the estate on which the artist lived. This district incorporated the post-Second World War Lenin Steelworks, where 40 000 workers were employed at its peak during the 1970s.

110-989_collage6 c. 1985 (July 2022)

Hence in this piece the text (anachronistically and inexplicably from W.G. Sebald) and the two photographs (from the 1970s) are deliberately in juxtaposition, while the images themselves, obviously re-photographed, copied and displayed many times, over evoke a moment, question the nature of its representation and the limits of knowledge about the past.

It seems, then, that the artist’s experience of living in Osiedle Tysiąclecia was predominantly positive. Even today the district is green, spacious and friendly; the flats extremely well built, quiet and convenient for the local open-air outdoor market, transport, schools and shops. Yet all of this is apparently the opposite of Cold War and post-communist life as preserved and presented in the 2020s. Instead, state preservation policies and museum displays show us tourist traps such as Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, the aeronautical National Cold War Exhibition in Cosford, or the extensive underground bunkers and Baltic-facing fortifications established as early warning stations at Langelands Fort in Denmark (Cocroft 2017, 226-9).

COUNTER-ARCHIVE: re / visualized pasts

This revisionist history is also displayed in the many museums that claim to represent ‘everyday life under communism’. The DDR Museum in Berlin, for example, or the only remaining Lenin Museum (in Tampere, Finland) which was once popular with Soviet citizens, but which now tells a retrospective tale of ‘western’ victory. In Tampere, as elsewhere, simplifications and clichés of anti-modernity, failed consumerism and political oppression dominate. Material objects seem to support the idea that lives lived in such conditions were without meaning, purpose or worth. ‘Ostalgie’—the apparent longing for the lost certainties of the German Democratic Republic—is in this sense an entirely uncomprehending term that fails to grasp the values attached to lived experience and performed identities. Seeing household objects from the Box archive on display as relics of an antiquated, remote ice age in the Berlin DDR Museum gives a fleeting, shocked sense that the personal history to which the Box refers is merely a curious relic from a bygone age.

'New Life’ Polish kitchen scales c. 1970s (in our family kitchen to this day, also a very similar version in the DDR Museum, Berlin) (July 2022)

Though it is also worth noting that East Berliners were quick to adopt western consumer goods as soon as they became available (Jampol 2012, 201-2).

So, the question arises as to how this counter-archive, Box 110-989, might have been constituted and elaborated. What was the context, and what were the precedents that the artist might have had in mind? Not only by gathering ‘evidence [or visual expression] that contradicts mainstream opinion’ but also archival strategies that question the nature of what and how we know the past (Amand 2010, 22). In this section, then, I explore various counter- and alternative archival formations and approaches that the artists of artists who made Box 110-989 could have had in mind. These include the notion of ‘postproduction’, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucci’s film Dal pollo all’equitore (From the Pole to the Equator, 1990), as well as varied critical commentaries on the nature and uses of the archive in contemporary visual practice. Thinking too of later commentaries on this moment, I also consider Catherine Russell’s definition of ‘archivology’, and Hal Foster’s review of archival art in the 1990s. All of these approaches, whether they were consciously referred to or not, seem to have fed into the development of the box archive.

A common and central argument among these critics is that the reuse, recycling, appropriation and borrowing of archival materials in the post-analogue age mobilizes a transformation, expansion and rethinking of the past (Russell 2018, 1-2). As a creative methodology, the use of archival material, especially through visual media, gave a way to review and reimagine the twentieth century. This new creative work has a particular affinity to digital search functions, ‘as found’ footage, and surrealist strategies such as accident and recontextualization, so that (Russell, 2018, 9):

The author is not the producer: she is also a builder and a destroyer constructing new work out of old and making new ways of knowing out of the traces of past experiences. Images and sound are recordings that engage the senses, documents that are mysterious and secretive until their energies are released in flashes of recognition.

These developments within the post-analogue age of the 1990s and early 2000s can also be situated within a wider set of cultural and aesthetic technology-related changes.

The ‘archival impulse’ is strongly renewed by the emergent digital-analogue split and the parallel need to investigate alternative memory, counter-knowledge as well as the complications of authenticity and authorship with renewed urgency (Foster 2017, 32). So, since the 1990s visual arts practice has become increasingly connected to the archival in three particular ways. First, by drawing on and producing informal sources to underscore the hybrid complexity of that which is found, factual, fictive, constructed, private and public simultaneously. Second, by constructing a complex of texts, images and objects, a matrix of citation and juxtaposition, to describe the hybrid nature of such materials. Third, by the use of mutation procedures, transformations that disconnect, distance and reconnect, to enable new understandings. For instance, via the staging of spaces such as the laboratory, storage container construction workspace (Foster 2017, 35). One example of this approach is Thomas Hirschhorn’s 1998 ‘Altar’ to Otto Freundlich.

Thomas Hirschhorn, ‘I love Otto Freundlich. Souvenir from the Otto Freundlich Altar’

(Ballpoint pen, felt-tip pen, cut out & pasted paper on cardboard, 1998)

‘Postproduction’ is a complementary term which also refers to the reinterpretation, recontextualization, and remaking of whole and fragmentary existing works (Bourriaud 2002, 13-14). A key aspect that links all of these interpretive frameworks is the increasingly unstable distinction between production, consumption, creation and copy. This leads to an invention and elaboration of protocols to generate original routes of interpretation and meaning-making via recycling. These new methodologies in turn become a self-sustaining artistic practice. Dal pollo all’equitore, made in the later 1980s, was among the first films to experiment explicitly in this way, with movie archive materials, with the intention of re-reading the past for relevant present-day purposes.

Dal pollo all’equitore (From the Pole to the Equator).

(dir. Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucci, 1990)

Such long-discarded footage in this case was used to make a powerful critique of early twentieth century colonial thinking, as seen in the re-coloured and rephotographed frame above. The material qualities of celluloid became especially important as an analogue of remembering procedures whereby the past could only be accessed in a damaged and perished form, filled with scratches, faded and decomposing. Yet such sources remain powerfully hypnotic, even ‘magnetic’: they pull in the world around them, changing how they are understood, allowing us to make new interpretations of the past for the purposes of the present (Skoller 2005, 17-18; Cocker 2009, 13-14). The archival impulse expresses a wish to explore and measure that which remains, that which is associated with a decayed knowledge of the past as expressed in both private and public memory. For both critics and artists this impulse is increasingly seen not merely as a site of excavation, trauma or melancholy, but of creative construction.

The key quality of images from the past—still as well as moving—is, then, connected to our ability to let them reflect on the situation we find ourselves in today. Thinking especially of the history of stills photography, its long tradition also incorporates fragments as refigured visual composites and cut-ups: as collage. In this way a cityscape, a piece of machinery or a building may be framed to resemble a portrait with historical resonances. This ability of the photographic to reflect both present and past seems to be inherent from the moment of its nineteenth century origins. Among the earliest uses of photography in the mid-nineteenth century for instance were identity images for indentured labourers and police mug shots of Irish political agitators (Carter and Flynn 2017; Edge 2014). The same photographic effect—of allowing present-past reflection—is in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose typological portraits of blast furnaces also carry an aspect of personal identification as well as documenting both criminal and crime scene (Wiblin 2014, 234). Likewise, the photographic ghostology of ‘life under communism’ is critical to the Box archive.

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In my view, the conceptualization and making of the archive box, takes into account aspects of the artist’s personal experience living in Poland through the 1990s and 2000s, evidence of the late communist and early post-communist period as seen by others who also experience the transition, as well as misunderstandings and ideological distortions in public memory. While the artist might also have pursued these themes via drawing and painting, she or he decided on a more mixed media and collage-based approach to incorporate more direct visual evidence from photography, This strategy at the same time also questions the nature of such evidence. Researching this essay and learning more about the artistic and critical interventions related to archival visual practices I am persuaded that the artist also incorporated varied making strategies connected to post-analogue film and photographic making strategies. In the final section of this essay I explore more directly this process-based approach of documenting and ‘evidence of making’ through the concept of ‘anarchiving’. For the remainder of this section I want to describe in more detail some of my early archive box entries, groupings and making strategies.

Box 110-989. The box was discovered abandoned by a garbage disposal area in the Osiedle Tysiąclecia housing estate on the outskirts of Kraków in June 2022 without any evidence of its origins. According to internal evidence within the box—the date of the materials used in the making of the collage pieces in particular—the box and its contents date from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s. Below some of the entries are described, each individual item presented below represents a larger group of pieces.

Archive Box 110-989 (date unknown) (May-June 2022)

110-989_00message (date unknown) (? 1970s-80s)

A single sheet of paper with a few lines of typewritten lettering spread across its surface. This item, unique within the archive as a whole, remains entirely enigmatic and unknowable. Is it a coded message? a playful sound poem? a child’s clumsy attempt to operate an obsolete machine? In my view this is perhaps the most important single item in the archive box since it stands for an unfathomable, enigmatic set of conditions, a past that is beyond our reach, and yet, which suggests creativity, the urge to communicate and describe and document. Within it is the human impulse to reach others, an urge that can never be fully achieved. Final there is the fact of this object’s survival, which is the ongoing presence of the past in our present.

110-989_02/04/06/08/10 incorporate archival photos of Osiedle Tysiąclecia and adjacent districts.

110-989_02collage (c. 1985) [June 2022]

A set of five sheets incorporating photographs taken in the initial years of development during the later 1960s and early 1970s. These photographs, as the illustration above suggests, were originally documentary shots made to display civic pride and community spirit, but they also appear degraded and grainy from reproduction and reuse, they are marked by wear and tear, scratches distortions and tape marks as well photocopy print lines. It appears that the pictures used for this sequence were re-photographed, adjusted and printed as photocopies before being photographed again in the picture you see above. They were also part of a public street display in Nowa Huta from June 2022. For the purposes of the box archive, they were mounted on sheets of card that also show signs of their making. Each of these cards also has an uncredited quotation. I take these pieces to be ‘ghostological’ statements evoking fantasy, otherworldly psychological states and intensely imagined alternative realities. They trace the distance between a distorted, lost time and the fantastic inner world of imagination that may accompany and be fed by it.

110-989_01/03/05/07/09 deploy a contrasting set of strategies and materials.

110-989_09collage (c. 1985) [July 2022]

For this third set of pieces, it seems the artist wanted to use more juxtaposition, layering and fragmentation to generate an alternative ‘otherworldliness’ of the past. In contrast with the previous set of image-text pieces, here the artist intervenes more directly to manipulate and distort found images, incorporating an imaginary typography or alphabet of unknown as well as imagined letters and words. These pieces also seem to allude to an idealised, unrealised futurism. As composites, these pictures evoke a jumble of idealistic, propagandistic, disrupted and distorted sense states. Each might be seen as a snapshot of emotions and thoughts in part taken from external life, from an inner landscape of the imagination, or from no decipherable point of origin.

ANARCHIVE: process / display

Before discussing further the procedures of making, presentation and display that are involved in the box archive, I want to consider the ethical and aesthetic issues that world, I imagine, have emerged in the making process. These are not necessarily novel difficulties, but in the post-analogue / digital era of the early twenty-first century, as Hal Foster notes, there is a recontextualization of knowledge as well as a strengthening of particular themes (Foster 2017). In what follows then, I will consider some of the most relevant interpretations of archival art that may help us interpret the contents of the Box, and also consider relevant material and historiographic questions.

One point of departure here is Emma Cocker’s consideration of the ethics of archival borrowing. For Cocker the fragment is the salient archival unit since there is no possibility of creating a coherent ‘objective’ or complete interpretation of the past. Moreover, as with the work of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucci, the critical intervention is through found material: through borrowing, reframing and interpreting which aims to rescue and recuperate in light of current concerns (Cocker 2009, 99-100). Such procedures involve too an ethics of appropriation and borrowing which may be understood as an act of resistance to provoke new critical forms of subjectivity as well as apprehension of unknown possible futures for both artist and audience. These methodologies advance by shifting attention to the processes, traces and remnants of making, by situating archival materials as much in the present of observation as in their past subject (Cocker 2009, 92-3). This is anarchiving.

Thinking of the specific materials available and used for the making of the archive box the artist incorporated a mix of archival photographic, typographic, and digitally manipulated ‘found’ material. Of particular interest were the wide range of still photographs because of the particular and complex ways in which any such image both refers to and fail to access the past. This ‘ghostological’ aspect of photography and the emotional spaces they open cannot but evoke inner imaginative landscapes, dreams and hauntings (Wray 2014, 121):

The camera can then be regarded as a kind of magical repository box, whose film (or digital censor) can be used to catch traces of this ‘spectral aura’, and so explore the haunted ‘space of our primary perception, of our dreams and our passions’; enriching our conception of architecture and our emotional relationship to it.

What photographs reveal in their frozen moment of time is the inherent strangeness of the world around us as well as our own place within it.

Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip (1973)

(detail of a photograph by Charles Van Schaick)

The possibilities of such images are especially apparent in the early phase of mass photography during the first decades of the twentieth century and notable for example in the text, image and manipulated photographic archival work of Michael Lesy, best known for Wisconsin Death Trip. Bruce Conner uses a related montage strategy and opens up a similarly troubling emotional landscape in A Movie (1958) (Lesy 1973; Conner 2010).

While Lesy concentrates on the strangeness of the human figure in photographic representation, wider landscapes are available in the misrecognitions, slippages of meaning or half-seen glimpses within lived, built environment. Such misapprehensions are compounded within the photograph by the collision of planes, perspectives and horizon lines, by the confusion of door, mirror and window. The photograph, and by extension the more heavily fragmented and manipulated space of the collage tend to create visual confusions and misalignments between reality, memory and imagination (Wray 2014, 107-9). For the purposes of the Box archive, the artists or artists appear to have been especially interested in what happens when the photographic image itself is fragmented. Hence, there is an echo in this late twentieth century version of anarchiving of the breaking and reassembling strategies of the early twentieth century (cubism, montage, collage, dada). It is no coincidence that these early twentieth century avant-garde approaches correspond with the increasing presence of photographic reproductions in mass media. Early Dadaist experiments, for example the work of Hannah Hoch, have a powerful political edge because the fragment of reality contained within montage disassembles and remakes reality metonymically. It is this subversive element that was developed and more fully articulated after the Second World War by among others Guy Debord, Brian Gysin and William Burroughs (Boon 2010, 156-8).

To my mind, this lineage matters in the construction of the Archive Box. Implicit in the work of collage and montage is a much more radical deconstruction, in which no permanent reality is present, but rather an infinite flux of combination and permutation becomes possible. Stressing the process rather than the product of collage and montage—anarchiving—reveals the temporary arrangement of existing reality configurations, so that many alternative, potential patterns become available. As well as the power of juxtaposition, combination and selection of fragmentary elements, there are two further aspects of montage and collage relevant to the making of the Box Archive. First, the combined action of breaking by fragmentation and copy, which transfers part of the power from the original to the new assembly—a literal disassembly and reconfiguration of reality. Second, the material exploration which accompanies all such procedures. In the case of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucci for example, working with decaying, fragile film stock means close engagement and examination of its surfaces and chemical qualities. Their process, optical step printing, involves rephotographing movies frame by frame, often many photographs of the same frame, to slow down the picture, and to steady and restore the images caught in highly unstable celluloid (Skoller 2005, 16-17).

Transparenze (‘Transparencies’) (Gianikian and Ricci Lucci, 1998)

In Transparenze (1998), Gianikian and Ricci Lucci filmed themselves at work in what they refer to as a process of ‘readymade manipulation’. The term has a much wider application. In the case of any collage practice a scale of cutting into, experimental positioning and reassemblage can be constituted by a single action or by hundreds of repeated moves (Boon 2010, 144-6).

This lineage in turn lets us view the development of visual culture from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century in a new light: as a movement from traditional forms towards dematerialization, with montage and collage as the methods by which such changes were made available (Boon 2010, 156). A related and similarly relevant set of issues—ethical, aesthetic, historiographic—is raised by Christian Boltanski’s consideration of the self and investigation into the possibilities and limits of self-documentation.

Christian Boltanski, Personnes (Monumenta, Grand Palais, Paris, 2010)

Boltanski (b. Paris, 1944-2021) was known later in his career for such pieces as Personnes (2010). The title suggests the individual as both ‘nobody’ and ‘person’; the work itself questions what it might mean to quantify a life, whether any archival practice can find the space between voided absence and overloaded entropy (Jones 2015). From early works such as Attempt at Reconstruction of Objects that Belong to Christain Boltanski between 1948 and 1954 (1970-1) Boltanski also uses assemblage (a kind of three dimensional montage) in order to express the artifice and forgery of archival production, for instance by submitting patently non authentic objects. Likewise, The Impossible Life of Christian Boltanski (2001) supposedly displays real documents—letters, notes, polaroids—which, it becomes apparent, are equally inadequate as the summary of a life (Campbell 2018, 17). In the making of the Box archive, the oblique, partial documentation of a past life (or lives) as well as the radical reworking of realities through fragmentation is also present.

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In this final section, I consider some of the more direct precedents for the making of the archive Box related to presentation and display.

One version of an archive that is literally a box and that is closely connected thematically to Box 110-989 is Nedko Solakov’s Top Secret (1989), which incorporates acrylic, drawing ink, oil, photographs, graphite, bronze, wood, and as the artist puts it ‘a shameful secret’.

Nedko Solakov, Top Secret (1989-90)

The work contains 179 library index cards in a wooden box with two draws. The cards were created ‘in real time’ between December 1989 and February 1990, and detail the artist’s collaboration with the Bulgarian state security agency, which ended in 1983. The piece was notorious at the time it was first made and shown as an act of self-disclosure of otherwise confidential information in state files. In doing so the artist gave an account of events through responses to actual documents and his own creative interpretations (Sokalov 1990).

Sokalov’s artificial reality catches one aspect of the moment in which he worked, and proved ultimately a liberating act that allowed him to expand the materials and conceptual framework of his practice (Tateshots 2022). By contrast, a group of artists in another small nation (Lebanon) developed their explorations of autobiographical, collective, human and manmade histories to recover neglected stories and traces of the past. In Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s ongoing Unconformities project this means a literal drilling down into the past to extract earth core samples revealing both subterranean conditions and imaginative underworlds in Athens, Paris, Beirut and Tripoli (Moore 2022). In the case of Walid Raad these are more personal encounters with environments as well as expressions of peculiarity, fickleness, documents and objects that express the complex, contradictory entanglements of art, politics and the natural world. For example, between 1989 and 2004 Raad worked as ‘The Atlas Group’ producing a series of audio, visual and literary documents related to Beirut. These were sometimes attributed to imaginary creators such as ‘Dr Fadl Fakhouri’, who is the purported author and artist of ‘Notebook Volume 57’

The Atlas Group, ‘Notebook volume 57’ (c. 1992)

I mention these various literary and metaphorical stagings of the archive because during my research they gave me recent precedents to help situate the earlier conceptualization and display strategy for Archive Box 110-989. For example, like Solakov the artist or artists who made an actual container that will contain a range of visual, written and hybrid pieces. Unlike ‘Top Secret’, this box appears to have be more of an interactive exhibit, where audience members select and arrange materials outside the box on a tabletop or floor according to their own preferences. The Unconformities project and the work of the Atlas group suggest too that there are oblique storytelling strategies at work, related especially to place. Christian Boltanski’s distinguished meditations also raises relevant questions about what it means to document a self.

Of course, none of these could help decide finally how to present the box to modern-day audiences, although they did assist me in understanding more clearly the range and complexity of issues involved. At present my thinking on exhibition strategy is as follows. As each piece is roughly (not exactly) A4 size, the entire contents of the archive could easily be photocopied and replicated. This would avoid wear and tear on the originals, but more importantly add another layer of meaning to the contents of the archive. In both original and copy form the constituent parts of the box and the setup for its public display are:

1/ a viewing booth—like a library study carrel—an enclosed space in which the box is viewed;

2/ a large table within the viewing booth on which the archive box is placed and contents examined;

3/ an instruction sheet suggesting how viewers might look at the archive, and stating rules of use;

4/ in addition to the image-based content the archive box will contain this essay outlining the origins and themes of the archive;

5/ single viewers, as in any real archive reading room, will be invited into the space one at a time to inspect, arrange and comment on the archive in a visitors book;

6/ as this setup is small and portable it can be in any public space that gives permission, and it should in my view not be identified as a ‘work of art’ but rather as an archive display area.

In other words, there is no set content organization. Viewers are invited and welcome to view pieces individually, to make grid patterns or other arrangements of the content according to preference. In the arrangements I have come to with a local library in the district I am satisfied that these conditions have been met, and that the archive Box will be suitably displayed


To finish I want to acknowledge the inability of inquiry to explain, the limits of logic and language in visual expression. I have tried above to balance the ‘doing’ aspect of my practice against various kinds of inquiry and research, but I am aware that often ‘doing’ takes precedence and ‘explaining’ follows. As Phyllida Barlow puts it ‘I don’t go to the studio to think, “I’m now going to inquire”’. I go into the studio sometimes with a longing to do something that’s specific, that is an actual form.’ (Barlow 2013, 98) So in developing my fictional archive not all of the influences fit neatly or logically; the smooth lines of analytical explanation are not always sufficient to account for what is made. In particular, and much to my surprise, the futurist and minimalist Los Angeles of Reyner Banham and Ed Ruscha has been in my mind throughout my time working on the archive box and thinking about the processes and possibilities of the archive in relation to my own visual practice (Williams 2021; Jacobs 2014). Low density, hard to read, dispersed landscapes are perhaps the connection between Los Angeles and post-communist Osiedle Tysiąclecia. In both places too there is the promise of a future never realised. And throughout images of these places, including in my own imaginary archive, there is a sense that the past, invisible and unreachable as it might seem, still shadows our now. As Jeffrey Skoller puts it ‘what in past events continues to inhere in the dynamics of the present invisibly, but no less crucially, remains a spectral presence—apparition like—within the dynamic of the present’ (Skoller 2005, xvi). The procedures of freezing, breaking apart and reassembling these landscapes, it seems to me, enable a new form of seeing and a new way of understanding, both in our present, and in possible futures.

Appendix 1. A further item was found in the vicinity of the Archive Box. This seems to be a response to the content, or a creative interpretation of the archive. The two images that make up the background are photographs taken respectively in Kraków and Los Angeles. The text in red appears to incorporate fragments from elsewhere in the archive Box. I have no explanation for this.

Additional item found in the vicinity of the Box.

Provenance and date unknown.


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[1] Blaive also points out that ‘Cold War’ is a western term not widely used in central-eastern Europe. Her oral history interviewees (in a town on the then Austrian-Czechoslovak border) instead used the term ‘life under communism’. Hence my use of the phrase throughout this essay (Blaive 2017, 195).

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