Activating the Archive

[Fall 2002]

by Jacques Doyon

This issue features the works of contemporary artists whose work involves the photographic archive. Because of its documentary aspect, photography was put to use in archives early and became an important component.

In fact, it was this aspect that long kept photography from being recognized by the art world. Paradoxically, today it is this very capacity that has earned it integration into the highest spheres of the market and the art institution, as demonstrated, among other things, by the current interest in Andreas Gursky’s works. The foundations of this evolution were put in perspective in the recent book by Olivier Lugon, Le style documentaire. d’Auguste Sander à Walker Evans. 1920–1945 (Éditions Macula).

The archive is a storehouse, an often selective accumulation, of the traces of an institutional or individual activity. We can envisage it as a “storehouse of knowledge and techniques,” the accumulated traces of a history, whose contents, as well as the parameters for its constitution, require reinterpretation and reactivation. This is where the artists brought together in these pages have made their contribution, following a good number of others, since the 1960s. The essay by Anne Bénichou offers a reading of this recent history.

Between art and Art, by Vid Ingelevics, highlights the criteria that rule when an archive is constituted. By simulating the techniques of the museum photographer, with large-format negatives bearing a great wealth of detail and covering a wide field, Ingelevics documents museums’ passageways and crossroads, security and surveillance installations, information and directional panels, and commercial activities. By archiving all that our eye normally erases during our visit, he reintegrates into the field of art that which the institution usually takes for pure technical documentation but which is in fact very revealing of how the museum operates. The text by Elizabeth Legge analyzes precisely the stakes in this simulation.

The series by Catherine Poncin, Du champ des hommes, territoires, proposes a sedimentary reading of the archive and of history of the town of Bobigny. The archaeological and geological metaphor that structures her visual layout evokes memory itself: a slow accumulation that too often obliterates what has gone before, and that forces us to dig to rediscover the buried strata. This work resulted from a commission intended to restore an identity for inhabitants of the town. Poncin can only reflect the anomie that befalls all small towns that become satellite suburbs. She can only extirpate the fragments of what could have been a history, or could eventually become one. She holds out this broken mirror on banners, on the streets of the town. Michèle Cohen Hadria untangles the knots of this excavation.

More than the others, Patrick Altman works with accumulation; he makes palpable the enormous mass of documents and objects on which the museum rests. Head photographer for the Musée du Québec, he draws from the refuse of his professional activity, looking in particular at the details of works. Some of his pieces involve up to a thousand photographs. The modes of presentation that he favours converge to problematize our relationship with the works by insisting on the conditions of perception, the intermediary of the photographic support as “imaginary museum,” detail as punctum. Addressing other museum collections or introducing images connected to his own history, Altman has constructed a work that opens the space for reception of the works by linking it to culture, memory, and personal accounts. Louise Déry relates the development of this work.

These works are significant examples of the expertise that contemporary artists working with the image can bring to issues of the photographic archive. It remains for this archive to be exposed to the public domain however, as Arthur Kroker reminded us in his article of the catalogue for the last Mois de la photo à Montréal, evoking the Bettmann Archives recently acquired by Bill Gates.