JUMANA EMIL ABBOUD, The Diver, 2004–05, still from a four-minute video with audio narration. Courtesy the artist.

An Epidemic of Archive Fever

United Arab Emirates

Toward the end of the third and final day of the Sharjah Art Foundation-organized March Meeting (March 13–16), Sebastian Lütgert of the online film and video database Pad.ma cautioned: “It is possible that 2010 will be remembered as the year of the archive. And that is fabulous but also terrible, because then next year everyone will have decided to think about something else.”

It was pure coincidence that the idea of “the archive” in its numerous incarnations, from institutional repositories of historical documents to online databases or personal collections, became the de facto theme of the 2010 March Meeting. But it was not random.

The Meeting gathered 100-odd art professionals from the West Asian art community at Sharjah’s Qanat al-Qasba, a lavish mixed-use development of restaurants, cultural spaces and retail stores. In many of the more than 40 presentations given over the course of three days by artists, curators and nonprofit directors, participants expressed interest in assembling, exploring or repurposing archives, as part of what could be interpreted as a collective, regional need to reconnect with cultural and political histories that have become marginalized, suppressed or forgotten.

The urgency to form institutional archives, whether physical or digital, photographic or document-based, that can adequately preserve cultural history coincides with a growth in the past two decades of initiatives and independent nonprofits in “the region”—an oft-repeated, inclusive phrase that, judging from the March Meeting’s participants, spans Morocco to Bangladesh, Lagos to Istanbul and diasporas around the globe. Recent periods of relative political stability in many countries (compared with the devastating fallout in the 20th century after the retreat of colonial powers) have allowed historians, artists and curators to reexamine modern histories and to establish functioning and publicly accessible research centers.

March Meeting attendees heard from Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme about plans for the Beirut festival Home Works 5 in late April and the launch of a new Home Works Academy in late 2010. Antonia Carver, director of Bidoun Projects, a spin-off of the New York-based Bidoun magazine, spoke about her efforts to gather together a library of books and sources about art on the region, a large selection of which was on display at the Art Dubai art fair several days later. Mia Jankowicz of Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective talked about her initial conceptions of the nonprofit center’s future library. Bayan al-Barak Kanoo and Maha al-Sahaf of al-Riwaq Art Space in Bahrain spoke of their transition from a commercial gallery into a nonprofit space (with a new building) and their new institutional mandate to mobilize contemporary art production on the island. Mirene Arsanios, who leads the research-based collective 98 Weeks in Beirut, cited the absence of scholarly materials on Lebanese modernism, and detailed her current projects on utopian modernist structures, including the futuristic beach pavilion Chalet Raja Saab (1950–52), built by Ferdinand Dagher, as well as her efforts to collect modernist art and poetry magazines. On the third day, Laura Carderera from Cairo’s nonprofit Townhouse Gallery announced her plans—formulated in advance of March Meeting, she insisted—to hold a seminar on regional archival initiatives to address the lack of documentation of local art scenes and cultural history.

The regional interest in exploring the past is part of an international art community engagement in “the archive.” Critic Hal Foster wrote notably about the tendency in his 2004 essay “An Archival Impulse,” and curator Okwui Enwezor took on the topic for the thematic show “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” at New York’s International Center for Photography in 2008. Enwezor’s exhibition featured works by artists including Tacita Dean, Christian Boltanski, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Glenn Ligon and Vivan Sundaram, as well as two artists from Beirut, Lamia Joreige and Walid Raad. For artists, the archive can be either something to build, as in the collections of photographs on a single theme accumulated by Feldmann, or something to transform, as in Raad’s presentations of historical images related to the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.

Artists presenting at March Meeting were also dredging up lost histories. Jumana Emil Abboud, whose video The Diver (2004) was included in the 2009 Venice Biennale, described how her interest in Armenian legends from Beirut inspired her to explore myths about Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Hrayr Eulmessekian explained how his research project on the Ottoman Empire and the killing—he objected to the word “genocide”—of Armenians led him to scrutinize the backgrounds of family photographs. Photographer and filmmaker Jananne al-Alni discussed her research into photographic archives as a basis for her new landscape films and photographs of the desert in Jordan. And the Mumbai-based collective CAMP, comprised of Hakimuddin Lilyawala, Ashok Sukumaran, Shaina Anand and Nida Ghouse, updated the audience on their project, first shown at the 2008 Sharjah Biennial, on the sea-trade between Somalia and Sharjah, which led them through local shipping records and then to the Indian city of Salaya, in Gujarat, where the boats were built.

The culmination of the March Meeting was the keynote address, given by Okwui Enwezor, who in recognition of all the ways that the archive had been discussed, first reprised material from his “Archive Fever” curatorial essay to supplement his lecture on the cultural archives and traditions mined by the artist-filmmaker Fiona Tan. Enwezor spoke about Tan’s two-channel Disorient (2009), which juxtaposes images of a shop of arch-Oriental objects (red-tasseled Chinese lanterns, Persian rugs, stuffed animals) with contemporary images of the cities visited by Marco Polo, accompanied by a recitation of his 13th-century accounts of them. In Enwezor’s reading, Tan’s film is both mnemonic and allegorical, speaking to how the past exists in the present. Distinguishing between traditions, which are generally fixed or “set in aspic,” Enwezor noted how the archive is not simply a passive, nonselective gathering of documents but an active process of constructing history—one that often runs counter to tradition.

As foreshadowed by Lütgert at the Meeting’s conclusion, talk of the “archive” spread to Art Dubai (March 17–20) the following day. There, in conversation with ArtAsiaPacific, artist Hassan Khan, who was curating a small show for Bidoun Projects at the art fair, railed against the regional institutions that were trying to claim ownership over cultural histories by acquiring historical documents and becoming research centers as a way of gaining legitimacy and securing funding. When I suggested that someone has to do it, Khan replied that in Egypt, with its massive bureaucracy, the state was already storing cultural records, even if they are not accessible to the public.

Khan later repeated his claims during the question-and-answer session following a Global Art Forum talk led by Hans Ulrich Obrist with artists Hala Elkoussy, Raqs Media Collective and curator Bassam el-Barroni. Taking the intellectual high road, Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media reminded the audience that we should be wary of the “sovereignty” of historians, or those who want to make the truth static or fixed. But Sengupta also noted that, since the 20th century did much to forget history with disastrous consequences, in the 21st century there is a need to reexplore how history is created. 

The year of the archive continued in Beirut, where on April 24, for Home Works 5 (April 21–May 1), Pad.ma held the workshop and colloquium “Don’t Wait for the Archive.” Artists and researchers showed off the potential of the web-based Pad.ma for filmmakers to upload and annotate their raw footage, which is then searchable by frame or textual annotation. The form of Pad.ma’s archive is innovative and user-friendly, and puts a functioning digital archive within the reach of individuals and small-budget organizations. But as Pad.ma themselves stated in their collective statement “10 Theses on the Archive”: “The archive is the beginning, not the end,” and that the point of the archive is not merely to interpret it, as historians have done, but “to feel it.” It was evident in Sharjah and Beirut that artists and enterprising researchers have known this for some time, already heeding another of Pad.ma’s theses: “Don’t wait for a state archive, or wait to be archived.”