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Understanding the archival turn in contemporary art
Author: Sara Callahan

Art + archive: Understanding the archival turn in contemporary art examines the meaning and function of the notion of the archive in art writing and artistic practices c. 1995–2015. The book takes on one of the most persistent buzzwords in the international artworld, adding nuance and context to a much-discussed but under-analysed topic.

The study’s first part outlines key texts about archive art, the interdisciplinary theories these build on, and the specific meaning the archive comes to have when it is brought into the artworld. The second part examines the archive art phenomenon in relation to materiality, research, critique, curating and temporality. Instead of approaching the archive as an already defined conceptual tool for analysing art, the book rethinks the so-called archival turn, showing how the archive is used to point to, theorise and make sense of a number of different conditions and concerns deemed to be urgent and important at the turn of the twenty-first century. These include the far-reaching implications of technological changes; the prevalence of different forms of critique of normative structures; changes to the view of the art object; and the increasing academicisation of artistic practices. This book shows that the archive is adaptable and elastic, but that it is also loaded with a great deal of theoretical baggage. It clarifies why, how and with what consequences the archive is referenced and mobilised by contemporary artists and art writers.

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A must-have accessory of the moment?
Sara Callahan

The introduction sets up the premises and aims of the book. Modified views of history and knowledge meant that archives were gradually becoming of more interest in different disciplines in the second half of the twentieth century. No longer viewed as a neutral site housing historical documents, the archive instead became a concept and structure that needed to be scrutinised and critiqued in its own right. The introduction situates the surge in archival references in art writing and artistic practice within this broader historical and theoretical context, and formulates the book’s main questions: why is archival terminology used with such frequency in art discourse in the years around the turn of the twenty-first century, and what does this pervasive referencing indicate? These questions feed into the book’s overarching aim of analysing the function and meaning of the concept of the archive in contemporary art c. 1995–2015. The introduction ends with an outline of the book’s structure and summaries of each of its eight chapters.

in Art + Archive
Sara Callahan

Chapter 1 provides a chronological outline of the most important books, articles and other publications that define and promote archive art as a sub-genre of contemporary art from the mid-1990s to c. 2015. The outline is followed by a discussion of points of commonality between the different texts. This discussion is organised around ten thematic headings that include the political and critical associations of archive art; the most common theories and texts referenced; notions of the unreliable archive; the relationship between archive and photography; the archival notion as a curatorial connective idea; the contrast between archive as a material and metaphor; as well as intertextual and self-reflexive aspects of the archive. Many of the discussions in subsequent chapters are elaborations of issues identified and briefly outlined here.

in Art + Archive
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Sara Callahan

Although there is no such thing as a coherent ‘archive theory’, several key texts and conceptualisations are frequently enlisted in discussions of archives at the turn of the twenty-first century (by Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Pierre Nora, Jorge Luis Borges, Wolfgang Ernst and others). The chapter outlines the most frequently referenced theorisations of the archive and suggests several socio-historical reasons why the archive became so important during the last decades of the twentieth century. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent opening up of the old Stasi archives, the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the discussion of the role of archival practices in implementing the country’s racial politics as well the use of archival practices to heal the nation, all brought the archive to the forefront. Postcolonial and feminist scholars interested in forms of archival exclusion also contributed in making the archive a point of interest at this time. And in addition to these factors, the shift to digital technology resulted in renewed attention to the technological basis of history writing in general, and of archives in particular. The chapter argues that the meshing of such historical events and the broad cluster of theories about archives contributed to an increasing visibility and interest in both physical archives and the archive as a concept.

in Art + Archive
Sara Callahan

This chapter analyses what happens when archival theories migrate to an art context, and considers the specific conditions that make the term stick. It shows how the archive functions as a productive short cut to theorise a changed notion of art, and the complex function of art institutions, documents and discursive systems in post-war art. The increasingly theoretical understanding of the archive in the second half of the twentieth century – as both material and structure, both concrete place and abstract law – is shown to share a great deal with the institutional theory of art outlined by Arthur Danto in the mid-1960s. By considering these jointly, comparing vocabulary, use of concepts, epistemological structures and notions of temporality, the chapter makes clear that these different theoretical clusters lock into one another in numerous ways and that elements of archive theory reinforced elements of the institutional theory of art and vice versa.

By examining one recent reference to Ed Ruscha’s work – Michael Maranda’s 2009 remake of Twentysix Gasoline Stations – the chapter points to the archival function of such returns.

in Art + Archive
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Sara Callahan

Chapter 4 reads the interest in the archive among artists and art writers in light of the persistent tension between the materiality and immateriality of the archive. Much artistic practice at the turn of the twenty-first century engages with the specifically material connotations of the archive, in ways that mobilise nineteenth-century Romantic views of the archival document as containing traces of the past. This chapter argues that it is no coincidence that the timing of the archival turn in art coincided with the shift from analogue to digital media. The interest in archives is related to the sense that the indexicality – material trace – of analogue photography, established in theories of photography (Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes), was perceived to be under threat from the advent of digital media. The phenomenon of archive art is thus shown to be tied to another pervasive trend among artists in the same time period: artistic engagement with obsolete or soon-to-be obsolete technology. Artworks such as Zoe Leonard’s Analogue (1998–2007) and Joachim Koester’s Message from Andrée (2005) anchor the discussion in specific artistic practices, where these material associations between archive and analogue media are processed.

in Art + Archive
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Sara Callahan

Art and research are connected in three distinct ways in the years surrounding the turn of the twenty-first century. Artists are compared to researchers in terms of the methodology they use and the themes they investigate, and artworks visually resemble research activities or research results. During this period there is also a significant increase in studio-based PhD programmes, which means that artists literally become academic researchers, incorporating their practices within the broader university system. The chapter consider the overt and implied assumptions involved in comparing the artist to a researcher. Artists’ use of text and their interest in marginal and mystical figures are analysed through specific works by Tacita Dean, Simon Starling and Joachim Koester. They are shown to mobilise a notion of historical research in part driven by chance, serendipity and a kind of mystical connection to historical figures or events, while also continuously pointing out that they are themselves unreliable narrators or that the facts they deal with are uncertain. The chapter ends with a discussion of artworks that use the index and footnote as forms of academic research and referentiality.

in Art + Archive
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Sara Callahan

Chapter 6 argues that the concept of the archive lines up with what before the archival turn in art had been known as institutional critique. By way of several artwork examples such as Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum (1992), George Adéagbo’s La Colonisation belge en Afrique (2000), Santu Mofokeng’s Black Photo Album / Look at Me 1890–1950 (1997) and Emily Jacir’s ex libris (2010–12), the notion of the archive is shown to nuance the idea that a structure or an institution is defined as much by what is excluded as by what is included therein. Not only does the institutional definition of art make critique of the institution an urgent and complex focus for artists, but the concept of the archive ties institutional critique to broader practices of questioning historical, gendered and ethnic exclusions. Historical and political events add further complexity and urgency to the connection between critique and the archive, seen for instance in the ending of apartheid in South Africa and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there. The chapter shows that archive art practices at the turn of the twenty-first century tend to avoid head-on attack on the structures they critique, and instead engage in strategic destabilisation and undermining, where the sense of uncertainty is an integral part of the critical endeavour.

in Art + Archive
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Sara Callahan

The role of the curator has gradually shifted from someone concerned with conservation and care of objects, to a creative force behind thematic exhibitions. The curator thus becomes an auteur in his/her own right. The surge in archival references at the turn of the twenty-first century coincided in large part with the escalation of thematic exhibitions created by well-known curators. Additionally, many of the texts that launched and developed the idea of an archival moment in art practice were written by curators, and the very notion of the archive was theorised as a connective framework that, like curating, brings disparate parts into a whole. This chapter discusses the connection between the notion of curating and the notion of the archive, and considers both how the archival artist is often viewed as a curator, and how the curator is described as being more like an artist. The practice of restaging historical exhibitions and exhibiting well-known curators’ archival material is considered part of the archive art phenomenon and indicative of a desire to historicise and grant authority to curatorial practice. Critical and pragmatic concerns are also shown to be behind various curatorial practices – by artists and curators – as these often purport to exhibit previously hidden or under-represented material.

in Art + Archive
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Sara Callahan

Chapter 8 ties the art historical discussion of a shift in the artwork’s relationship to art history (Arthur Danto, Hans Belting) to considerations of presentism (François Hartog). The institutional understanding of art entails a lack of grounding in a teleological art history, since the artwork’s identity as art is now considered to be grounded in a set of networks in the present. The terminology of the ‘contemporary’ and ‘contemporaneity’ (Boris Groys, David Joselit, Dan Karlholm, Terry Smith, Christine Ross) as well as the terminology of ‘turns’ are shown to be enmeshed with the notion of the archive in significant ways. Although presentism would at first glance seem contrary to the archive art phenomenon, with its interest in, almost obsession with, history, the book’s final chapter shows how notions such as presentism and ‘history’ can be productively used for analysing the kind of interest in history that is associated with archive art. The chapter gets back to the practice of returning to works from the 1960s and 1970s by artists in the 1990s and early 2000s that has been discussed in previous chapters, and considers the temporal implications of such artworks.

in Art + Archive