History and memory: the contemporary artist as archivist

Deborah Schultz, Reader in Art History, Regent’s University London, schultzd@regents.ac.uk

Sian Vaughan, Reader in Research Practice, Birmingham City University, sian.vaughan@bcu.ac.uk

How is the past remembered? And how is the past represented in the present? In recent years, the representation of memory has become a prevalent point of discussion across disciplines, addressed extensively within the public and the private domain, in politics as well as in relation to questions of identity and belonging.

While specific events are often the focus, artists also examine the processes of remembering, memorialising and forgetting. Within this wider framework of history and memory, archives have become of particular interest in highlighting the structures that shape material remains of the past in the present. From Fiona Tan to Dayanita Singh, Goshka Macuga, Rosângela Rennó, Walid Raad, Thomas Ruff, and many more, numerous contemporary artists investigate archives as a means of rethinking the past in the present.

Taking as its starting points several significant essays from the first decade of the 21st century – Hal Foster, ‘The Archival Impulse’ and Mark Godfrey, ‘The Artist as Historian’ as well as Ewa Domanska, ‘Material Presence of the Past’ – this session addresses more recent theories on the artist as archivist. How have artists in the last decade explored new ways of thinking about archives? What kinds of practices and strategies are artists using to do so? And what theories are most productive in discussing their work?

Speakers & Abstracts


When the dust settles: What was the archival turn?

Sara Callahan (Stockholm University)

The archive has been one of the most persistent buzz-words in the international art world since the turn of the twenty-first century. Some claim that it is used with such abandon that its usefulness is questionable at best, while others view the archive as an indication of an important theoretical framework, necessary to make sense of some of the most important artworks of the turn of the twenty-first century. After more than two decades now is a good time to take stock and consider what the archival turn in contemporary art was, and where it is heading.

This paper considers the archive art phenomenon through the lens of its historical roots and its potential for the future. The discussion is anchored in the recently published book Art + Archive: Understanding the archival turn in contemporary art (Manchester University Press 2022). The book’s author will outline her study’s main findings, but will focus on the current moment.  How well does archival theory and its terminology fare when addressing the most pressing concerns of the third decade of the 20th century: from post-critique to environmental destruction and climate change, from new materialism to the effects of AI and other recent technologies?

Research, Revolution and Re-enactment in Spectacles without Objects (2016) by The International Institute for Important Items

Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie (Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop)

This paper reframes the relationship between research, revolution and re-enactment in the practice of (art) history through Spectacles without Objects (2016) by The International Institute for Important Items (The I.I.I.I). In Spectacles, which comprises a film, vinyl record, written play, and site-specific performances, The I.I.I.I expand the notion of re-enactment to all activities undertaken by the (art) historian, whose relationship to the historical event is necessarily personal, theatrical and speculative. In Spectacles The I.I.I.I return to the material ephemera of The Saint Simonians — a proto-socialist commune fractured by its radical feminist branch — to revive proto-feminist solutions to the neoliberal debates resurfaced by #metoo, as well as to the dejectedness of the contemporary European Left. In doing so, just as Julia Kristeva defined revolt as ‘“research” […] in the sense of return, displacement or contestation’, The I.I.I.I approach art historical research, at its essence, as a process of re- enactment, return and critique. The re-searching body is staged as a site of permanent revolt in Spectacles, as an an-archive of potential histories and ideas arrived before their time. Indeed, driven by genealogical memory traces and personal desires, The I.I.I.I’s research is necessarily artistic as it seeks to reconstruct the political potential of feminist debates held within the felt, rather than written, historical archive. As such, The I.I.I.I mark a new, speculative turn in Art History: the art historian as artist.

From ruined memories to archival ruins: the recovered echoes of the colonial past in Filipa César’s Spell Reel

Márcia Oliveira (CEHUM, Universidade do Minho, Portugal)

Filipa César’s work Spell Reel (2017) can be described as a process-film, for it stems from a collective project around the remains of the archive of the National Institute of Cinema and Audio-visual of Guine-Bissau, Luta Ca Caba Inda (‘the struggle is not over yet’, in Creole). The film weaves together several elements: images and fragments of film from the INCA archive (only fragments of the footage shot in the 1970s and 80s survived due to lack of conservation), commented by directors Sana Na N’Hada and Flora Gomes, that in a certain way, ‘read’ these recorded images; images of the viewing of archive footage taken in various regions of Guinea Bissau and in Europe - a kind of ‘transnational itinerant cinema’ as the artist and filmmaker describes it; comments by the population to these images during these viewing sessions  organized by César and testimonies from those who participated in the birth of Guinean cinema after the country’s independence from colonial Portuguese rule. Thus, Speel Reel constructs a complex mosaic of memories and materials that presents us with an affective and effective reconstruction of History. In this paper, I propose to analyse this film departing from René Green’s reflection on the essay SurvivalRumination on Archival Lacunae, and to explore how the porosity between genres (documentary, narrative, experimental) but also the critical articulation between archive, history, and memory, exposes coloniality as being an actual presence in contemporary western societies and not just a shadow from their past.

Hauntology and Brazilian Contemporary Montage

Danielle Stewart (University of Warwick)

In 2014, the Brazilian bank Itaú opened a cultural centre on São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista, the country’s financial heart. While such cultural centres are commonplace in Brazil and have become widely-recognized as sites of patronage for contemporary artists, Itaú Cultural distinguished itself as the repository for former bank president Olavo Setúbal’s collection of Brasiliana—over 12 thousand items of Brazilian art and material culture which Setúbal believed “told the story of Brazil.” Collection highlights included prints created to illustrate the travelogues of German nineteenth-century explorers Spix and Martius and engravings of drawings by French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret. While the Itaú Brasiliana Collection archive performed a service by making these works of visual culture available to the public for free, the narrative on display at the Instituto Itaú Cultural prioritized white, male, European authorship, relegating the country’s native and Afro-descended populations to the role of exotic subject. In recent years, the Brasiliana Collection’s elisions and larger cultural dialogues surrounding representation have given rise to a new generation of Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian artists who use historical imagery to reconstruct Brazilian history through montage. By extracting, manipulating, and re-configuring iconic images of Brazil’s past artists Rosana Paulino, Denilson Baniwa, Gê Viana, and Laíza Ferreira, demonstrate how prejudicial histories are constructed, reconstructed, and repaired. Their works introduce alternative approaches to the archive by grappling with the hauntological return of the colonial to the present. Perhaps most importantly, the artists also embrace exterior displays of their work, literally and figuratively bringing the archive out into the street.

Photography and Memory: the ‘unsayable’ in the work of Dayanita Singh

Georgina Bexon (Independent Scholar)

Dayanita Singh (b.1961, New Delhi) recently stated that she has been profoundly influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ (1903-8), in particular his notion of the ‘unsayable space’, that the impressions and sensations created by art cannot be expressed through language. Singh expands on this idea by posing the specific question: ‘Can photography exist in the unsayable space?’

This paper poses a possible response to this question within the context of a body of Singh’s work spanning a period of eight years, from her seminal File Room (2013) to Corbu Pillar (2021). The work comprises a series of ‘mobile museums’ – ever-shifting displays of archival photographs that can be re-sequenced by artist or viewer, thus propounding numerous narrative possibilities. Singh’s incisive images of recent Indian history, in each iteration, memorialise the past and formulate multiple intersections of identity, heritage and cultural memory.

Singh operates as artistic mediator, often rendering records in situ, her enduring fascination with dusty filing rooms, piles of faded documents and tattered parchments constructing a requiem to paper and decay.The enquiry is informed and enlivened for being viewed through the lens of the momentous pace of societal change in India, a nation where the conceptual spaces of history have been subjugated to the swift advance of the digitisation of information and knowledge, casting an eerie spotlight on Singh’s ‘wordless’ images. 

At the core of this investigation, Singh’s ‘museum’ work is probed with reference to recent theoretical and critical concepts, in particular John Tagg’s ‘visual regimes’ and Dan Weiskopf’s study of practices of representation and taxonomy in everyday life.

Turning into Memory: e-flux Announcements between Artist Project and Archive

Camilla Salvaneschi (Università Iuav di Venezia)

In 1999 New York-based artist Anton Vidokle launched e-flux, an email service that keeps its subscribers informed about contemporary art exhibitions, publications and events. The “e-flux announcements” paid for by the sender, soon became a proper business distinct from the eponymous independent artist-run project. They were conceived as an editorial strategy, a way of practicing a criticism of subtraction, selecting only one show per day. This ‘a priori’ selection, based also on the price, was the first step taken by Vidokle, together with artist Julieta Aranda (who joined in 2003), in developing what would later become one of the most extensive archives of the contemporary art world over the past two decades.

Grounding its analysis on theoretical reflections by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as well as Wolfgang Ernst’s theories of the online archive and its temporality, the paper aims to analyse e-flux as both a “work of art” and an archive in which Vidokle and Aranda simultaneously participate as curators and actors in the very same register they are constructing, undermining the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion.

The investigation will focus on the archival practices of the artists. While considering a number of key projects launched by e-flux during its two decades of existence, it will argue that their activity should not be reduced to the announcements’ database alone, but that the majority of their undertakings are attempts at documenting both past and present, and at continuously generating new archives within the archive.



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