BAW JOURNAL: ›Readings From Below‹, the exhibition you curated for Berlin Art Week at Times Art Center Berlin, takes the concept of the archive as its starting point. And that is a rather broad field. What can we expect to see there?
ARIANE BEYN: The concept of the archive is more of a starting point for the exhibition that isn’t necessarily visually reflected in the specific works. Here the archive was more of a back-of-mind concept. I wasn’t so much interested in making a themed exhibition of it and having artists display archives, but in asking about methods. I wanted to ask how artists today actually deal with the present. And this is where the concept of the archive comes into play for me—as a way referencing the present by availing oneself of every available source. Anything that is currently available, so to speak, can be used and is also used by artists. That is, in a broader sense, the potential of an archive: that you can invoke things that are dormant and update them in your own work. Doing so can establish interesting links between past, present, and future, for example, that can cause prevailing notions of the present to falter. When we think of archives, the first thing that comes to mind is often the abundance of material, official collections, indexing, and categorisation, or even the gaps and chasms that they sometime reveal. The works I put together for ›Readings From Below do not for the most part start with the big picture, but from a detail or an artistic gesture, and suggest more complex connections from there.
Can you give an example of a work from the exhibition?
Christine Sun Kim and Thomas Mader have been working with sign language, especially with American Sign Language, or ASL for short, for a long time. In an animation projected onto the concrete wall of the exhibition space, they take up certain types of signs, initial signs, which are used to designate many official things—state, law or rule, for example. They are composed of fingerspelling of its equivalent in the locally dominant oral language and a kind of stamping movement with the fist. But they also represent the balance of power between sign languages and the dominant spoken languages. A completely different example would be ›Everyday’s the Seventies‹, a film installation by Trinh Thi Nguyen for which she interviewed the owner of a well-known record shop in Hong Kong—a man fascinated by the music and culture of 1970s Vietnam, which was still strongly influenced by the French colonialism of the time, the country of his youth from which he had to flee to Hong Kong. In her installation, Nguyen interweaves his story with the official, historical footage of that time and then again with Hong Kong films from the 1980s and 1990s, thus showing the history of those who fled from Vietnam to Hong Kong from different perspectives.
What does it man to read an archive ›from below‹, as the title ›Readings From Below‹ suggests?
The title is taken from the 1983 text ›Reading an Archive‹ by the American artist and critic Allan Sekula. Sekula was very interested in archives, especially photo archives. He argued along with Walter Benjamin in favour of reading the archive from below, which is to say reading the archive in a way that brings out the repressed, the suppressed—as Sekula understood it: that which is suppressed by capitalism. »Readings« in the context of the exhibition should also stand for different ways of reading, for the ways in which artists tell stories, which artistic language they use and who gets the word in their work.
Speaking of Sekula back in the 1980s—I could think of other examples from that time that had a specific relationship with the archive. Are there actually ›archive waves‹, certain trends that interpret the concept in different ways?
Of course, none of this is new—and naturally artists have always been concerned with found things and with the dynamics between present and past and future. The proliferation of the Internet in the late 1990s provided many new impulses concerning questions of open access and copyright. The same can be said of the political upheavals following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern Europe. In the second half of the 1990s, the concept of the archive was once again very present in art—the curator Okwui Enwezor worked a lot with it back then and theorist and art historian Hal Foster published a text entitled ›The Archival Impulse‹ in 2004. Today, archive theory is closely interwoven with postcolonial theory or media archaeology. These are tied to extremely interesting and timely questions about what a public collection should include and what constitutes an archival document today. For this exhibition, I was also interested in looking at the various ways that artists deal with available information in a digitalised world. What paths can art take that differ from other kinds of information processing?
You wrote text about the exhibition that uses a very nice pair of terms: ›experience poor‹ vs. ›information rich‹. Is this a helpful distinction in this respect?
That’s from Alexander Kluge. And yes, the distinction does indeed make tangible a crucial contrast of the digital present: between mass available information on the one hand and the problems of accessing it in concrete experience on the other. For the exhibition I was looking for small gestures. I think this fits in well with a present that is marked by sustainability issues and a pandemic. The aim was to nevertheless enable a specific experience with relatively little material or excerpt-like insights. And some new works were created for the exhibition, even though only the Berlin-based artists could be there.
Speaking of the present in times of a pandemic, what is your take on this not-exactly-easy time for art institutions in general?
The Times Art Center Berlin might be an interesting example in this regard: it was established by the Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou, China. It is not an offshoot of the museum, but rather a Kunstverein or art association registered here that is involved locally and puts up its own programme. At the same time it also is very closely networked with the Asian art scenes in particular. I visited some self-organised archives in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the course of my research for the exhibition. We be showing three of them in November in cooperation with the Arsenal, in a film programme screened as part of the ›Archive außer sich‹ series. I found it very interesting to see how they work there. For me, these archives are also a good example of what even very small institutions can actually achieve today: thinking locally while being internationally active, plugged into the local community and yet digitally networked. In other words, this same kind of constant multi-track approach that we have just begun to implement here as a matter of course and are now having to learn faster as a result of the crisis. There are people there who have been working this way for years.
Questions by Dominikus Müller.