SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art, Montreal
October 2 to December 4, 2010
The mythographer Mircea Eliade once recalled an interesting belief about memory that is (or was) widespread in the world’s folk cultures.1 In the terrifying moment just before death, so the story goes, everything that has happened in a person’s life, “down to the minutest details,” flashes before his or her eyes. This sudden, sweeping apprehension is, in fact, a sign that death is swiftly approaching. Generalizing outward from this scrap of folklore, Eliade wonders whether the modern (and actually quite recent) cultural obsession with remembering – with recording and archiving everything, conserving every piece of evidence about former times and past lives – is a signal that our civilization is on the verge of extinction.
Be that as it may, the urgency that informs the archive (and every other industry in the vast contemporary enterprise of conservation and preservation) appears to arise from a profound anxiety about time’s inexorable carrying-off of all things into nonexistence. Though godless, Eliade contends, this conviction (hence, the archive) is nevertheless religious in character, inasmuch as it comes with many of the trappings of religion: a concept of mortal sin (forgetting, in this case), a notion of the demonic (the mass culture of distractions and entertainments that nourishes forgetfulness), and a scheme of salvation, in the form of being remembered, commemorated, after death.
The small, intense show called Vera Frenkel: Cartographie d’une pratique/Mapping a Practice, presented at Montreal’s sbc Gallery of Contemporary Art last autumn, celebrated the artist’s generation of archival raw materials throughout her ongoing career as an artist, and her deployment of the archive – the sacrament and prayer of the modern culture of anxiety – as a strategy in her work. Organized by Montreal lecturer and art theorist Sylvie Lacerte, the exhibition featured photographs, handwritten notes, scripts, printed catalogues, and other digital and analog resources of all kinds, many drawn from Vera Frenkel’s fonds at the Queen’s University Archive in Kingston, Ontario.
The texts and images on display were incubated during the creation of three works: String Games: Improvisations for Inter-City Video (Montreal–Toronto, 1974), a videographed performance; “. . . from the Transit Bar” (first iterated at documenta ix in 1992), a video installation; and once near water: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive (2008–09), a digital audio-video recording. I use the word “works” advisedly here: as Lacerte’s show suggests, one aspect of the making of each finished product was the field of strong gravitational energies around it – a space in which many things happened, and continue to happen, even after the documentation (the “work” in the narrow sense) is put on public view. These events include the composition and exchange of correspondence arising from the project, the writing and publication of articles, and the compiling of reflections (such as Stephen Schofield’s engaging meditation on String Games in the Montreal exhibition catalogue) written many years after the originative occasion. In this way, the archive – Vera Frenkel’s “work” in the more usual sense – comes into existence, bit by bit, over time.
We find the creative persona emerging from the 1974 activity testified to in this show – an imaginary being that may or may not be identical to the Vera Frenkel of history – playful and inquisitive and optimistic. The performance at the heart of String Games was high sport for several participants, and a high-spirited anthropological amusement as complex and resonant as any ritual devised by the ill-named “primitive” mind.
But by the time we reach “. . . from the Transit Bar,” made almost twenty years after String Games, shadows have fallen.
The archival impulse – the desire to save and spare evidence in an act of resistance to time’s consignment of everything to oblivion – is everywhere apparent: not only in the melancholy narratives of loss and displacement rolling by on video monitors, but also in the material salvaged from the fabrication of the piece and displayed here. These objects, ordinary in themselves – fragile drawings, visitors’ books, plans for the installation – draw their poignancy from the charged field in which they were created The archive as model and instrument is foregrounded most evidently in once near water. In the unidentified city of this fiction, the unnamed narrator has been bequeathed a collection of notes and images by a woman called Ruth. She was, the narrator tells us, an “anonymous archivist, passionate about destructive change in the city where she lives,” whose concern found expression in recording pictures of construction scaffolds. In the ordinary urban imaginary, of course, scaffolds simply denote progress, the new, the victory of city-building over decay. For Ruth, however, they are ambivalent signs that also commemorate urban trauma, “the erasure of places where we played, worked, loved, mourned and buried our dead.” But is Ruth’s scaffolding archive something direr than so many memoranda of loss? Could the archive itself be a kind of loss? Such was the position of philosopher Rebecca Comay when she observed, some years ago, “The archive is the very trauma it would resolve. The collection turns every gain or acquisition into a cipher of loss and dispossession. Striving towards a totality which is blocked by virtue of the interminability of the drive to accumulation, the archive undercuts every order it seeks to found. . . . The very hypertrophy of memory compounds the essential loss it would surmount.”2 Ruth seems to be of two minds on this matter. She clearly recognizes that her compilation, like every other archive and, indeed, construction itself, is as ultimately futile as Comay suggests. “In the long run,” Ruth writes, “given half a chance, water will win. . . . Where we walk today may be flooded tomorrow. Transience is all.” But this work of imagination, again like scaffolding, has its uses as “the interlocutor, the sweetener, the mediator, satisfying a longing for structure on the one hand and love of transience on the other.” In the end, the archive is worth making, and worth passing on to the narrator for safekeeping, because it keeps alive the unique project of memory that is so deeply inscribed in the mind of the modern West. Ruth’s notes end with a series of injunctions that sum up the practice (or piety) of the archive: “Do what you want with this: Reminisce. Advocate. Grieve. Write.”
“Cartographie d’une pratique/Mapping a Practice” is a reminder that, in all her work since the beginning but with special devotion over the last twenty years, Vera Frenkel has followed Ruth’s commandments to the letter. The result is a flourishing archival practice that satisfies the “longing for structure,” while faithfully honouring the artist’s “love of transience” that continues to insist on the pleasure, as well as the suffering, of the accumulated provisional and fugitive.
2 Rebecca Comay “Introduction,” in Rebecca Comay (ed.), Lost in the Archives: Alphabet City No. 8 (Toronto: Alphabet City Media, 2002), pp. 14, 15.
John Bentley Mays has been the visual arts and architecture critic for The Globe and Mail and a columnist for the National Post. He is the author of In the Jaws of the Black Dogs: A Memoir of Depression; Emerald City: Toronto Visited; and Power in the Blood: Land, Memory and a Southern Family, which was short-listed for the first Viacom Canada Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Award and named a 1997 Notable Book by The Globe and Mail. He is also the winner of a National Newspaper Award and four National Magazine Awards.