A NEW(S) STAND: UNFOLDING LAYERS OF MEANING – archival praxis, between observation, projection and imagination

In this installment of ‘from the archive’, Swiss artist Giorgia Piffaretti focuses on the subject of ‘personal archive’. Starting from her own archive, she recognizes potential in everyday objects and situations. To activate this potential, she has developed a method, based on the observation of a newsstand at the border between Italy and Switzerland. Persisting in a digital era, Piffaretti has examined its archival features, for the way it provides access to the world through its papers and magazines.

editor’s preface

The word ‘archive’ used to refer to both a collection of records and the place where they are kept, but today this relationship is no longer evident, due to online accessibility. Concurrently, records are no longer to be found exclusively in official institutions, and the power of the archive has been transformed.1For the understanding of this transformation, Foucault has played an important role in the debate on archives, first of all by redefining the notion of archive. Instead of the idea of an accumulation of texts, and institutions preserving them, Foucault has explained that: “The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (145). “It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (146). By consequence, the archive enables its own transformation. Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge (London/New York: Routledge, 2002 – translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith from L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969). Moving beyond conventional understandings of the archive, Derrida’s essay “Archive Fever” (1995) has played an important role in the debate as well, for his deconstruction of the relationship between archive and authority, explaining first of all that the meaning of ‘archive’ comes from the Greek arkheion: “the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons…” (9). Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, Diacritics 25.2 (Summer 1995), pp: 9-63. For the way Derrida’s insights have been elaborated in the context of film archives, see for example Jaimie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (London: Routledge, 2014). See also: “’(Not) Working for the Clampdown’: LINK TV Project – Pratello TV (Bologna 1992)”, Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 4.3 (October 2018)We can now see a growing interest in personal archives.3See among other: Catherine Hobbs, “The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals”, Archivaria 52 (2001): 126-135; Rick Prelinger, “Archives and Access in the 21st Century”, Cinema Journal 46.3 (2007) pp. 114-118; Richard J. Cox, Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations (Duluth, MI: Litwin Books, 2008); Paul Ashmore, Ruth Craggs, and Hannah Neate, “Working-with: Talking and Sorting in Personal Archives”, Journal of Historical Geography 38 (2012): 8189; Efrén Cuevas, “Home Movies as Personal Archives in Autobiographical Documentaries”, Studies in Documentary Film 7.1 (2013): 17-29; Marc Antoine Kaeser, “Biography, Science Studies and the Historiography of Archaeological Research: Managing Personal Archives”, Complutum, 24.2 (2013): 101-108; Svicero, 2013; Thais Jeronimo Svicero, “The Personal Archives and Their Importance as Documentary and Cultural heritage”, Revista História e Cultura, Franca-SP 2.1 (2013): 221-237; Jennifer Douglas, “Getting Personal: Personal Archives in Archival Programs and Curricula”, Education for Information 33 (2017): 89–105; Jennifer Douglas, “A Call to Rethink Archival Creation: Exploring Types of Creation in Personal Archives”, Arch Sci 18 (2018): 29–49. Beyond the preservation of personal collections, this extends to artistic engagement with collections,2Exemplary is Natalie Edwards’ reading of Sophie Calle’s exhibition “Prenez soin de vous” that took place at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (2008); she shows how Calle has created a collection based on her own biography, which serves as a feminist intervention in an official heritage premise. Natalie Edwards, “Accumulation and Archives: Sophie Calle’s Prenez soin de vous”, Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature 38.2 (2014). the way artists gather material to create their work, or make their collections into works.4The British Journal of Photography, for example, published a series of conversations with artists under the title “Personal Archives” (2017) – ‘words by’ among other Gemma Padley and Simon Bainbridge. See also: Francesco Federici, and Cosetta Saba, Cinema and Art as Archive: Form, Medium, Memory (Milano: Mimesis, 2014), 12. Giorgia Piffaretti moves on by not only collecting material to work with, but also by using this material in order to reflect upon archival issues as such. Like other artists in this field, Piffaretti shows an interest in the physical features of collected material, and traces left on it that carry latent meaning.5Cf. Derrida, Archive Fever, 10. It means renewed attention for the organization of an archive that in a digital context tends to become invisible. Since archival technology does not simply record but also produce an event,6Derrida, Archive Fever, 17 the question is how physical aspects can be made visible and be elaborated into a praxis that combines digital and analogue techniques.

 

The starting point is recognizing a potential in the unspectacular and in everyday experiences.

 

Questioning the familiar way of seeing

The relation between inside-outside, the exchange between subjective perception and the external world, is an essential drive for my artistic practice. It steers the desire to investigate the hidden side of the visible, and play with the invisible, but nonetheless imaginable. The starting point is recognizing a potential in the unspectacular and in everyday experiences, by questioning the “familiarity” of what is observed. To that end, I often work with my personal archive, to reconsider the meaning of familiar elements as images, objects or anecdotes. A process of defamiliarization and recontextualization happens by investigating how these elements could occupy a place in a larger context. Through a constant process of positioning and repositioning, of alternating distance and closeness to an object, an oscillating movement between the familiar and the no-longer familiar takes place. From that movement, a space in between emerges as a malleable terrain which allows to draw new connections and to discover new layers of meaning.

My archival praxis is an interrogation of the rules of preservation and a proposal to include other subjects into an archive.

 

The role of the personal archive

In the past, I avoided presenting images that did not belong to a finished project, as they did not yet reach a final form that would legitimate their sharing. However, I was continuously gathering and rearranging material, coming back to specific images or video sequences. Some of them would hang in my atelier for a long time, as a reminder of an insight (unformulated thought) or a hidden layer that triggers my attention. In the last years I started to take this interest seriously, seeing that practice as a potential that might reveal and develop something different. In that way I gradually abandoned the idea of legitimation by a final form, embracing the attempt to be more playful, and to observe how my material assumes meaning through the specific context in which it is displayed. Under this aspect the archive becomes a context that allows singular elements to resonate with each other  creating the possibility to establish new relations between them, resulting in an evolving process. Working with my personal archive, I have noticed a recurrent interest in observing traces, elements that refer to a specific moment in time and space, which may offer an entrance point to interpretation or a different understanding of yet other elements or works. It became clear that the motivation for me to keep on developing a personal archival praxis, is to create an alternative, subjective way of documenting and processing the world, interrogating the rules of preservation, or the legitimacy of other subjects to be included into an archive.

What is the difference between an institutional archive and a personal archive? What does the institution want to preserve? What kind of information does the institution provide? The question of archival power is directly related to the question of position, perspective and intention. With a personal archive there’s the freedom to individually select elements, establishing criteria that aren’t subjected to already defined intentions and existing ways of looking. It allows to redefine the scale and the context of collected “records”, in which singular aspects are pointed out, observed and “understood”, in relation to other elements. I imagine this archive as a sort of micro-world that reacts to and creates a bond with the surrounding world. By taking a personal and human scale I attempt to tackle the phenomenological question of how we create meaning through our subjective observation of the world.

 

I imagine this archive as a sort of micro-world that reacts to the surrounding world.

 

Point of reference: the newsstand of Gaggiolo
Right at the border between Switzerland and Italy, in Gaggiolo on the Italian side, there’s a newsstand. I know it since I was a child, when I started visiting it routinely to buy Italian magazines. This ritual became more and more sporadic since I moved away from Ticino, the Swiss-Italian canton where I was born and raised. Last year, with more distance, I started to notice its peculiarity. Besides its closeness to the border, and the elliptical futuristic design from the 1950s, this newsstand seems to have remained the same forever, while at the same time all the newspapers and magazines are daily renewed, and the composition of their display is built up again and again.

I started to see it as a live installation that is being composed and disassembled every day, preserving its image, but updating its content. From that moment on, a process of observation and interaction began, questioning the familiarity of my previous mode of perceiving it. In that way, I asked permission to film at the newsstand and I began to collect material related to it.

While gathering information, I also developed new interpretations of this place and its potential functioning, letting my imagination create metaphorical images of it, and build connections with my personal archive.

Through this process of observing and positioning myself from time to time in order to gain new insights, the newsstand has become a device to grasp the surrounding world: a point of reference (and a meeting point) that allows me to unfold different layers of meaning around it.

Depending on a specific way of looking at it, the newsstand has assumed a set of functions for me: a REFERENCE POINT, to orientate oneself in time and space; an OBSERVATORY for social, political and economic dynamics; a daily renewed ARCHIVE, which creates an access to the world through papers and magazines, a NARRATIVE GENERATOR, through the display structure, which frames text and images, and the collection of anecdotes or stories generated by daily chatting.

 

I started to “project” meaning on the newsstand, transforming it into a conceptual device with different functions.

first draft of the newsstand as a device with multiple functions

research material related to the newsstand as an archive

The newsstand as archive

The project started with two components: on one side my memories of this place and on the other side the feeling of time put on hold while the content is simultaneously renewed every day.

Having worked with the functioning of memory and with remembering before, the first idea was to develop an autobiographical project through my own memories in relationship to a new perception or potential relevance of the newsstand. Differently than expected, I was struggling to remember specific or peculiar episodes related to the newsstand, realizing that my memory rather consists of an “accumulation” of memories of travelling the route from my parent’s house to the newsstand and back, which creates an approximate image, or routine image of the newsstand. That brought me to approach my relation to it through a reverse process, by trying to recreate the list of magazines I bought in different periods, from my childhood until now. The newsstand became in that way a personal reference point, mirroring my interests in different periods of time.

My approach thus moved away from memory as the main subject of investigation, no longer merely focused on discrepancies between memory and the present, or the impossibility to recall a past and to relate to it. Instead, memory became a vehicle to activate a space in between the newsstand and myself, a starting point to draw new connections. Triggered by the potential functions of the newsstand, I started to visit it in different occasions during a period of a year, observing from time to time new aspects. By doing so, various encounters took place, which in some cases caused dérives into the surrounding area.

The film recordings I have made, next to notes, photographs and drawings, have created an archive in itself. Intentional sequences, dialogues with the couple that run the place, and my encounters got stored in my hard drives, next to older images of the newsstand, scans of magazines and administrative lists, rumors, stories of visitors and more.

At a certain moment in the process, however, this collection created confusion. What was beyond my actions and recordings, if my intention wasn’t to develop a documentary portrayal of this place? This moment became the trigger to become more radical in putting forward the relation I was developing with this place while rediscovering it. Instead of merely observing the place and being there, I started to consciously “project” meaning on the newsstand, transforming it into a device with different functions, while playing with the possible outcomes produced by each of these functions.

The material gathered became the necessary starting point to oscillate between what can be observed and imagined. For example, administrative lists of magazines, with profane names, became suddenly lists of desires, polygon windows became a way to edit sequences of images, somehow like a timeline with frames in an editing program, which started to show unexpected relations between the elements of the newsstand as archive, and in my archive of recorded images.

In that context, filming occupies for me an important role, since it reflects and steers the process of researching. Instead of an execution of a task or a representation of an idea, it is first of all a direct consequence of observation. The framing is the result of focusing on a certain aspect in a specific moment that is analyzed afterwards in the process of archiving and editing. Rather than being focused on the aim of the final production, filming is a record of a situation allowing unexpected elements to become relevant or creating the conditions for new encounters. In that sense, filming is an archival praxis, an action to develop a certain understanding over time, which needs to go through a specific process of distanciation and reconnection. For me, a film, and even a single film image, is like an archive.

There is no hierarchy in the material itself. Looking through my own archive of recordings, I gain an experience of the process, discovering my intentions and positions, and imagining dimensions of the recorded images: a way of thinking through framing and reviewing. This invites the spectator to engage with this development of unfolding layers of meaning, taking part in the thinking process and reconsidering the initial perception towards what is observed.

There is no hierarchy in the material itself. Looking through my own archive of recordings, I gain an experience of the process, discovering my intentions and positions, and imagining dimensions of the recorded images: a way of thinking through framing and reviewing. This invites the spectator to engage with this development of unfolding layers of meaning, taking part in the thinking process and reconsidering the initial perception towards what is observed.

 

A possible meaning beyond the immediately observable creates an awareness of one’s place in a specific context.

artist’s postface

Being confronted with the impression of unlimited access to information and knowledge, as instigated by online databases and linked digital archives, one easily gets an overwhelming feeling of being swept away by the incredible amount of data. Where to place them in regard to oneself? How to orientate? In that circumstance, I want to create a new access to the world through the development of a personal archival praxis. I ask myself how the gaze and the experience of the everyday can inform us. How can that experiential layer, which necessarily exists in a specific context and environment, offer the support for more complex thoughts on what is not immediately visible, and how can the meaning of what we see change if enlightened from a different angle?                                

The motivation to develop this project, to reflect on the relevance of personal archives, lies for me in modifying the starting point from where I can begin to understand my position in the world. A realization about something that was considered unspectacular (because familiar), may allow for a shift of understanding and therefore the possibility to write alternative histories. Through that, my intention is to encourage and stimulate spectators to question their familiar way of seeing, and to realize how this seeing is rooted in the relations we create with our surroundings. The drive towards a possible meaning beyond what we immediately observe creates a wider awareness of one’s place in a specific context, stimulating one’s imagination and therefore one‘s subjective gaze.     

I think it is crucial to practice this questioning by starting from the everyday, which is our condition. I believe this is especially relevant in a moment when internet facilitates the access to virtually any type of information and to different sources. Indeed, this can become easily overwhelming due to the seemingly infinite amount of information to be processed; and it can easily affect the acceptance of pre-conceptualized meaning. My invitation is instead to “pile up“ information in order to build up a knowledge or an awareness, starting from one‘s experience, and recognizing the experience itself as a fundament of the learning process. This follows my reflection on the personal archive, and the proposal to invert the source of information, from an institutional organization to a personal starting point, which is an invitation to question what is given and taken for granted and a claim for freedom to imagine. While artists have always used archives in a subjective, playful and autobiographical way for their art works, the difference for me lies in examining the archival material itself, how it has been brought here, into the presence, how it is arranged and presented. Through the space in between my personal records and the newsstand as archive, archival praxis itself becomes visible, as a living archive that activates ideas and stories. Rather than using found footage as raw material to create an image or narrative, there is a projection of ideas from, on and into the archive. Archival praxis becomes a way of thinking, through observation, projection and imagination.

the newsstand as observatory: border crossing

 

 

 

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. For the understanding of this transformation, Foucault has played an important role in the debate on archives, first of all by redefining the notion of archive. Instead of the idea of an accumulation of texts, and institutions preserving them, Foucault has explained that: “The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (145). “It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements” (146). By consequence, the archive enables its own transformation. Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge (London/New York: Routledge, 2002 – translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith from L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969). Moving beyond conventional understandings of the archive, Derrida’s essay “Archive Fever” (1995) has played an important role in the debate as well, for his deconstruction of the relationship between archive and authority, explaining first of all that the meaning of ‘archive’ comes from the Greek arkheion: “the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons…” (9). Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, Diacritics 25.2 (Summer 1995), pp: 9-63. For the way Derrida’s insights have been elaborated in the context of film archives, see for example Jaimie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History (London: Routledge, 2014). See also: “’(Not) Working for the Clampdown’: LINK TV Project – Pratello TV (Bologna 1992)”, Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 4.3 (October 2018)
2. Exemplary is Natalie Edwards’ reading of Sophie Calle’s exhibition “Prenez soin de vous” that took place at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (2008); she shows how Calle has created a collection based on her own biography, which serves as a feminist intervention in an official heritage premise. Natalie Edwards, “Accumulation and Archives: Sophie Calle’s Prenez soin de vous”, Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature 38.2 (2014).
3. See among other: Catherine Hobbs, “The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals”, Archivaria 52 (2001): 126-135; Rick Prelinger, “Archives and Access in the 21st Century”, Cinema Journal 46.3 (2007) pp. 114-118; Richard J. Cox, Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling: Readings, Reflections and Ruminations (Duluth, MI: Litwin Books, 2008); Paul Ashmore, Ruth Craggs, and Hannah Neate, “Working-with: Talking and Sorting in Personal Archives”, Journal of Historical Geography 38 (2012): 8189; Efrén Cuevas, “Home Movies as Personal Archives in Autobiographical Documentaries”, Studies in Documentary Film 7.1 (2013): 17-29; Marc Antoine Kaeser, “Biography, Science Studies and the Historiography of Archaeological Research: Managing Personal Archives”, Complutum, 24.2 (2013): 101-108; Svicero, 2013; Thais Jeronimo Svicero, “The Personal Archives and Their Importance as Documentary and Cultural heritage”, Revista História e Cultura, Franca-SP 2.1 (2013): 221-237; Jennifer Douglas, “Getting Personal: Personal Archives in Archival Programs and Curricula”, Education for Information 33 (2017): 89–105; Jennifer Douglas, “A Call to Rethink Archival Creation: Exploring Types of Creation in Personal Archives”, Arch Sci 18 (2018): 29–49.
4. The British Journal of Photography, for example, published a series of conversations with artists under the title “Personal Archives” (2017) – ‘words by’ among other Gemma Padley and Simon Bainbridge. See also: Francesco Federici, and Cosetta Saba, Cinema and Art as Archive: Form, Medium, Memory (Milano: Mimesis, 2014), 12.
5. Cf. Derrida, Archive Fever, 10.
6. Derrida, Archive Fever, 17

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