My earliest encounter with a photographic archive was flipping through a family album that contained images of several typical family occasions — weddings, engagement parties, trips to the Soviet Union and an abundance of studio portraits. The photos were neatly, almost obsessively, organized, categorized and labeled. I remember asking my mother if real life, back then, was also in black and white like the images we were looking at, or in color as we experience our lives today. I see my question in retrospect less as a whimsical wondering of a child, and more as a manifestation of the authority of images — and the archive — over the construction of the past in the consciousness, and even more broadly, our perception of this past, as well as that of the present moment.
It was a long time before I would actually make the connection between those images and the notion of the archive, which has been depicted in Egyptian films and TV series as a site of banishment for government employees, who would be sent “down there” to the land where time stands still as a terrible punishment for their unforgivable mistakes. In the 1990s spy series Al-Soqoot fi Be’r Sabe (Falling into Sabaa Well), for instance, a top official in the Supply Ministry who is suspected of being an informant for Israeli intelligence, providing them with sensitive classified information, is penalized by being sent to the archive, rendering him a useless source. I still wonder how gaining access to the ministry’s archive would be a punishment for a spy.
In a parallel universe, while this was happening on TV screens, the very concept of the archive was being contested, negotiated and even reinvented in academic scholarship and cultural production, with the awareness that no real democratization could take place without expanding access to archives, as well as the definition of archive and what qualifies as one. It had become clear for countless historians and artists that political power was dependent on the control of archive, and consequently of the historical narrative and collective memory.
This led to alternative models of historiography, such as “people’s history,” “history from below,” and “subaltern studies,” carving a domain for contesting official narratives taught in schools, perpetuated by mainstream media and asserted by a neoliberal cultural machine. Historians such as Ranajit Guha in India, Howard Zinn in the United States and Khaled Fahmy in Egypt have been committed to excavating the archive and expanding its boundaries, searching within it for alternative narratives and complementing it with documents that remained traditionally out of its scope.
Comparably, art has long been a sphere for critiquing and manipulating archives, not only for the sake of filling gaps, but also for disturbing its monotonal melody, challenging the illusion of its completeness and destabilizing its authority. While historians are at least theoretically compelled to contest one fact with another fact, and provide evidence for the alternative narratives they are proposing, the nature of an artwork as affective (potentially impacting moods and emotions) rather than merely factual provides a different level of freedom for artists in proposing their narratives.
The appropriation of archives in art is, therefore, not confined to official documents or factual records. The expansive nature of the archive available for artists to appropriate today is partially due to the vast technological developments — particularly digital technology and the internet — that heralded a shift in traditional processes of documentation, collection and archiving. The archive has grown from official records and historical documents kept in physical repositories to encompass family albums, home videos, personal collections and digital files on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, mobile phones, digital cameras, computer hard drives and file-sharing programs, resulting in a “vast, shapeless empire of images,” as Nigerian writer and curator Okwui Enwezor calls it in his 2008 book Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art.
Artists started appropriating this growing empire as early as the 1930s. The abundance of still and moving images had irreversibly altered our relationship to imagery, which gradually started mediating our access to what was traditionally distinguished as reality and eventually blurring it to the extent that images were no longer a signifier of a transcendent truth, but rather an integral part of it. In Jayce Salloum and Elia Suleiman’s film Introduction to the End of an Argument (1990), for instance, footage extracted from Hollywood, Israeli and European films are woven together with newsreels, TV reports and archival footage to critique the colonial production of the image of “the Arab,” and the construction of both Israel and the Palestinian struggle in the culture industry of the West. Appropriating these images indicated a way of relating to a world in which reality has become not only mediated but constructed by images.
Because appropriating archives in works of art implies treating the traces of the past as malleable raw material for manipulating and recycling dominant historical narratives, the practice is recognized for its critical subversive potential. In The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011), for example, Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephan used VHS tapes of the films Egyptian film star Soad Hosni acted in to create an imaginary narrative of her life, expose how her iconic image has been constructed in the collective memory, and reveal how she has been consistently objectified and exploited through a frame constructed by and for a male gaze.
Personal archives, images, recordings and objects — whether ones that belong to the artist or that have been acquired or collected — have also been appropriated in artworks to counter official historical narratives and provide a multiplicity of alternative and complementary historical accounts from below. Ahmad Ghossein’s My Father is Still a Communist (2011), for example, is based on cassette tapes recorded by a woman in southern Lebanon for her husband who was working in the Gulf in the 1970s, and Amgad Naguib’s recent exhibition at the Townhouse gallery, The Past is Always an Invented Land, was comprised of an “un-curated mass of things” that he has collected over the years, according to the exhibition’s curatorial text.
But because archive-based art essentially reuses physical traces, the extent to which much of it truly and fundamentally threatens the ubiquitous power of the archive is questionable. While it provides a much-needed counter memory and plays an essential role in analyzing historical discourse, questioning problematic representations and attracting the spectator’s attention to illusions of credibility and completeness, it simultaneously asserts the power of the archive by positioning itself in relation to it, dwelling within its aesthetic, and reacting to its narratives.
I wonder if, for example, Suleiman’s appropriation and subversion of images of Palestine produced by Hollywood and the news industry in Introduction to the End of the Image is as powerful as the subjective, authentic and frivolous construction of the Palestinian struggle in his fictional trilogy (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention and The Time that Remains, 1996-2009). While the earlier film depicts more realistically the power dynamics inherent in the construction of the struggle, the fictional works produce a counter-narrative from the perspective of a colonized subject, independently of the dominant narrative produced and imposed by a complex set of political and economic interests.
Having relied heavily on archives in my own work as a filmmaker, mostly in the form of aural popular culture archives including folktales, radio programs and prime-time political talk shows, I have experienced firsthand both the subversive potential and the endless possibilities of appropriating archival material in an artwork. At the same time, I have also come to realize the stifling limitations of constantly starting with that which already exists, and how this can slowly restrain the ability to imagine images, sounds and words beyond the physical traces of the past, killing the possibilities of developing new or alternative languages, whatever they might be.
Appropriating archival material essentially means starting from words that have already been written, images that have already been taken and sounds that have already been produced. But what about all those moments that have not been documented, moments of which no physical trace is left behind? What about fleeting sounds, smells and tastes? What is lost once an experience has been reduced to objects, documents and photographic representations? Can we retrieve the immaterial, invisible, intangible, untraceable, possibly insignificant moments and sensations that constitute an experience in its wholeness and magnitude?
Any attempt to counter archival power, in my opinion, requires a thorough understanding of the archive’s limitations, and of how it derives power from its materiality and consequent alleged factuality. A true subversion requires a shift in dealing with the notion of truth itself. The existence of a trace, which is the building unit of any archive, presupposes the existence of whatever it is that had produced it, thus forcing us to accept that something must have happened. This assumption that an archive holds evidence for what actually happened is what differentiates it from other spaces that contribute to constructing historical discourse, such as fiction or the library, and is precisely what I believe needs to be destabilized more in art.
Archive-based art gets stuck in the same principle that forms the archival power it is seeking to disrupt, because even if archive-based artworks and the archive are completely opposed, they are still arguing over the same battlefield: the archive itself. By relinquishing its advantage as a vehicle for affect rather than facts, for sensible intensity rather than material evidence, archive-based art distances itself from its potential to fight an image with another image, to counter alleged truth with fiction and to rewrite history without the constraints of any pre-existing document, and therefore change the archive-imposed rules of the game.
The scope of the imagination of artworks based primarily on the archive — while still significantly huge — remains confined to the archive it is seeking to deconstruct, simply because they partially fill the endless gaps while staying within its topological sphere, endlessly indenting, manipulating and twisting its figure without truly subverting its mode of rationality or disturbing its homogeneity, signaling a surrender to the archive, and a declaration of its victory over all other languages.