Friday, 12 November 2010

Reading group discussion post

Stuart Hall Library reading group discussion post

Thursday 11th November 2010

Archive Fever: photography between history and the monument. By Okwui Enwezor

Thanks to everyone that attended last night's reading group session, it was a fascinating discussion and it was great to hear everyone's input. For those unable to attend, an audio recording of the discussion is now available here.

We would like to continue these discussions online giving those who were unable to attend a chance to add their thoughts to the discussion or respond to some of the ideas discussed last night. For those that were able to attend we hope that you make use of this blog to expand on these discussions.

Key questions for discussion

This month's text is the introductory chapter to the exhibition catalogue Archive Fever: uses of the document in contemporary art. It was publised in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, curated by Okwui Enwezor and held at the International Center for Photography, New York from January 18 to May 4 2008. Archive Fever presented works by contemporary artists who use archival documents to rethink the meaning of identity, history, memory, and loss. A review of this original exhibition can be found here.

Artists include: Christian Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Harun Farocki, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Jef Geys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Craigie Horsfield, Lamia Joreige, Sherrie Levine, Zoe Leonard, Ilan Liebermann, Glenn Ligon, Robert Morris, Walid Raad*, Thomas Ruff, Anri Sala, Fazal Sheikh, Lorna Simpson, Eyal Sivan, Vivan Sundaram, Andrei Ujica, Gediminais, Nomeda Urbonas, and Andy Warhol.

* Walid Raad has a show on at the Whitechapel Gallery, Miraculous Beginnings, from October until 2 January 2011.

  • What did you think of the text?

  • Can an archive like Iniva's, which documents the work of new and emerging artists, be categorised as 'counter-archive' to, for example the archive, the Tate?

  • Can your own personal archive (of photos, letters, Facebook account, etc) be described as a 'counter archive'? Does it leave traces and evidence of you as person beyond the memories of others?

  • Uses of the archive as tools of social and political control: p.13 Enwezor refers to Alphonse Bertillon's police archives in Paris, & his images of the 'criminal type', and Francis Galton's use of photography in his eugenics project - using images to wield power. This relates directly to Autograph's WEB Du Bois exhibition at Rivington Place, in which Du Bois is emphasising 'the human' in black people, using some of Galton's methods of 'types', but for the opposite reasons.

Summary of discussion

Below is a summary of points raised during the reading group discussion:

  • The idea of the archive is positioned as objective, a collection of statements rather than judgements but is this true? Important to question who has created or controls the 'archive'.

  • Exploring comparisons between photography and the archive. Is a photograph an archive/archival document? How are archives used as a form of social control in shaping the understanding of history and contemporary thinking?

  • As photography and all forms of information are subject to manipulation how far can photography be considered an archive. What is the relationship beween memory and archive? Do archives lie?

  • Is everything worthy of being archived? Does the act of archiving an object or piece of information legitimise and validate its worth?

  • Is the book itself an archive/document of the exhibition?

Leave your comments

To take part in the discussion please leave your thoughts and response in the comments below. We welcome all opinions and discussions, please feel free to respond to any of the key points as well as elaborating on your own thoughts and ideas.

Next Meeting

Our next reading group meeting will take place Thursday 9th December. We will be reading Vidal, Carlos. 'Globalization or endless fragmentation? Through the shadow of contradictions,' in Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher (eds.) Over here: International perspectives on art and culture. MIT Press, 2004.

To reserve your place please contact us

We are also keen to hear your thoughts on possible outcomes of the reading group. If you are interested in writing papers, taking part in a library symposium, or have any other ideas regarding possible outcomes then please let us know.


  1. Just listened to your audio recording on the 'Archive Fever' discussion which will teach me to be early next time. What I mean by this is that I missed you announcing the discussion was being recorded!

    I did find it useful in terms of reflecting on the range of perspectives Enwezor brought to bear on the subject. I also found Sonia's definition on the archive's function - being to 'make things last forever' a revelation as I hadn't had my head in that space before. It certainly has got me thinking. Guess I'v caught the fever!

    Having had a little space away from the last meeting and listening again this morning I would like to comment by way of returning to the idea of work [photography] as statement.
    I'm reading this in terms of the photograph existing as a potential floating signifier until its statement is judged by a third party or where it can be positioned or fits best?

    For me, the overarching issue therefore, is to question the status of such reinforcement of meaning? We can do this by raising questions such as - Is there an empirical narrative of archive? If so, those whom it serves may well consider themselves the "Lords of Language". Who is the third party? The statement itself is the second while we suppose the artist or the photographer must be the first? Is this a question of authorship?

    As a counterpoint, the idea of the archive as a form - constituted from its dispirit elements/statements to be read retrospectively does render any reading titillating close to imposing some sort of joined-up order. Can we be conscious of its existence outside the desire of bringing meaning[s] to its presence?

    Anyone got other views?
    I have Derrida's book in my 'wish list'.
    Hope it doesn't make me ill!
    PS. The "Lords of Language" is a term I'v borrowed from the Irish Historian and writer Declan Kiberd's book "Inventing Ireland."

  2. Sonia Hope said...
    As someone engaged in research who tries to be alert to the seductions of theory I very much enjoyed, then had to put some critical distance, between myself and Enwezor’s text.

    Enwezor’s critical approach, using Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge & Derrida’s Archive Fever as part of his framework, finds him taking on the role of archivist in his text. Having just finished an archives & records management course this week, I now understand the work of the archivist as being motivated by a ‘feverish’ (but pragmatic) desire to control as well as preserve historical and cultural memory. I agree with John that Enwezor is close to ‘imposing some sort of joined-up order’ in his analysis. I find that the work is to a certain extent subsumed under the weight of the theory in Enwezor’s text.

    I am suspicious of photography as a medium, particularly now we are in the endlessly manipulatable technologies of the digital age. Images can indeed be perceived as ‘floating signifiers’; they are ‘tricky’. Photographers, to me (like other artists?) are authors with intent, but without full control of the meanings & interpretations of their work. Photography also concerns me, particularly in relation to the ‘human’. In common with many photography shows, Archive Fever included many images of anonymous people, for example Robert Morris’ Untitled [image of the Bergen-Belsen dead woman, original image, p.32]. What are the ethics involved in this type of art, if any? Are processes of dehumanisation/re-humanisation taking place? I am suspicious of art that reduces people to nameless bodies. I enjoyed the works that included text (& narrative) the most: Anri Sala’s Intervista [p.165-168] and Fazal Sheikh’s The Victor Weeps: Afghanistan [p.135-139].