Mad about Archiving
reflections on the Histories in the Present course
As a selected attendant of the Histories in the Present course, led by former ViCCA lecturer, Marko Karo and Helsinki-based contemporary artist & researcher, Minna Henrikkson, I acquired a newly found obsession to archiving in the fall of 2018. Following the first few weeks of informative sessions, consisting of: presentations, readings, screenings, local site visits and continuous discussions, the class culminated in a week-long trip to London, where our individual or joint research projects were meant to be carried out. A list of various archives across the board (that we were suggested to work with) was handed out in advance, whilst the arrangements of the visits and scheduling of the actual work was to be set out by us. As my research was focused on postmortem photography from the Victorian era, I had initially chosen the archives of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is one of the most prominent institutions in the field of art and design. Even though I spent most days at the National Art Library of the museum, with a few appointments to the Prints & Drawings Study Room, I still managed to attend the scheduled visits to other archives in the city, arranged by our lecturers. The experiences were diverse, just like our interests, but always valuable.
The V&A’s library is one of the best places I have ever been for the purpose of research. The interior just screams history, while the atmosphere is still welcoming and easy going. Their gigantic collection covers virtually every topic regarding arts, so needless to say, that without being granted access there, my work would not have turned out the way it did. Spending most of my time, along with two fellow researchers (both ViCCA students from the same course, with whom we named our trio the V&A peeps) at the National Art Library felt like being in the best bubble for academia. Simultaneously, that bubble being an integral part of a giant powerhouse (a term often used in pilates) called the city of London was even more mind-boggling. I felt like a character in a novel of Margaret Drabble, whose work, in the meanwhile, I was analytically studying for conceptual reasons. As I mentioned before, my research was looking at the traditions as well as the theoretical understanding of the postmortem from the late 19th century, and the memento mori from the 16th century, in order to provide context to an archive of dead bird street photographs that I have been collecting for the past few years. I have been long drawn to this kind of ‘grotesque’ imagery, finding joy in producing it, but never knowing how to work with it.
London, the European capital of stylish misfits and creative fugitives, seemed like the right spot to delve into this kind of a project without being treated as a total weirdo (which I most probably am). Pretending to possess all the knowledge around archiving, I observed the hundred-year-old photographic prints, as if it would be my daily routine. I started realizing my obsession with all this material when every book or exhibited photograph had become a potential contribution of sorts to my work. After having a personal discussion with another fellow course member about the problematic aspects of conducting such a short term research project, I have come to see my own attitude (and if I may say, my associate archival researchers’ as well) similar to a hunter’s. The first stage was about pursuing and gathering all the contacts, books, images, documents, audio-visual materials we possibly could (the chase); followed by the second phase, where the nitty-gritty systemizing and processing of all the information took place (preparation of the catch). The main assignment for the course was a group exhibition installed at two locations of Väre (the Main Foyer and V1 exhibition space), this became the final section where the artwork, as a kind of relic, reached its culmination as an object of external appreciation (display of the trophy).
Through constructing our own histories over these two months, between the borderlines of reality and the subjectiveness of past documentation, often idealizing the romantic nature of the antiquities (not referring to any specific time period) that we encountered, the outcomes will hopefully find their places, sooner or later, in the realm of the contemporary.
(text & photos by María Paloma Velázquez)