Authored by the Ethnographic Terminalia Curatorial Collective (in alphabetical order: Craig Campbell, Kate Hennessy, Fiona P. McDonald, Trudi Lynn Smith, Stephanie Takaragawa) and guest curator Thomas Ross Miller.
Ethnographic Terminalia is a curatorial collective grounded in a commitment to pushing the boundaries of anthropological scholarship and contemporary art through the creation of interdisciplinary exhibitions. Since 2009, Ethnographic Terminalia has curated group exhibitions in North American cities, demonstrating how contemporary artists, anthropologists, and institutions are engaging with ethnographic methodologies and art. In this article, the Ethnographic Terminalia curatorial collective presents a selection of works from the 2014 exhibition the Bureau of Memories: Archives & Ephemera, at Hierarchy Gallery in Washington, D.C. Organized by the collective in partnership with guest curator Tom Miller to produce an exhibition that resonated with D.C. as a symbolic center of American power and memory, the Bureau of Memories was constituted as an imaginary organization charged with a set of ambiguous and opaque functions related to history and memory.
The intent of the exhibition was to draw on the archive’s unnerving, uncanny, queer, and ephemeral spectres in an effort to re-imagine and reposition archives as both sites and concepts that have the capacity to produce and contest historical memory, generate significant blind spots, fuel fantasies, and foster tenuous and indeterminate indices to the past. Ephemera in this case is repossessed from archival practice where it functions as kind of vestigial category of intentionally archived matter that was never intended to be archived. We use it to reposition the anarchival at the very center of archival practice with the goal of setting the apparent or imagined stability of the archive in permanent tension. Oblivion and forgetting, as well as those things that cannot and perhaps should not be retained and remembered are revealed to live in the archive as wild parasites wreaking all sorts of disruption on archive’s order.
The examples that follow are reflections on six works presented in the Bureau of Memories. They are heterogeneous readings of the works as the collective experienced them and that now also exist as part of the Ethnographic Terminalia archive. In the spirit of collaboration and acknowledging subjectivities, a different member of the collective has written each example. Overall, the reflections are presented here as insight into the dynamic ways in which artists and anthropologists are pushing boundaries and defining new frontiers for considering and speaking about archival matters. In such frontiers, we locate an emergent recognition of ephemerality’s persistent challenge to the archive.
Six Examples from the Bureau of Memories.
Example 1: Grayson Cooke. Agx. 2014.
Grayson Cooke’s AgX (Fig. 1 and Fig. 1b) is a video installation with an ambient soundtrack. Two films (shown sequentially) reveal time-lapse macro-photography of photographic negatives being chemically destroyed. The negatives were mined from Cooke’s personal archive, a binder found at his parents house that documented early forays into photography, years before. Explicitly mixing art and science, Cooke’s project explores the effect of chemistry on negatives: AgX is the chemical shorthand for silver halides, the light sensitive compounds that constitute celluloid images. Photography, by definition is the chemical fixing of an electromagnetic radiation or light onto a substrate (like celluloid film or glass plates) through the activation of silver halides crystals (or more recently image sensors). Cooke’s immersive installation is an unfixing of photography and archives
Installed in the front gallery of Hierarchy, this work is what Ann Cvetkovich might call an impossible archive, an archive that acknowledges vulnerability and ruptures (Cvetkovich 2012:153). Standing in front of the large projection, the viewer is immersed in the filming of chemical decomposition: Shrinking fluttering people, places, and events decompose and peel off of the emulsion to disappear, only to be reborn the next time the image loops. Abstract images newly appear through the macro effect of the lens filming redox reaction, ion exchange, and electron transfer. Cooke mixes these views with the edited work of sound artist Rafael Anton Irisarri and conjures up the delicate, ephemeral moment between memory and forgetting. Paul Bowles addresses this form of vulnerability in his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, asking, “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that” (Bowles 1977:238).
But the work is not only evocative of the emotion of memory and forgetting, it is an impressive response to ongoing debates around obsolete and emerging technologies, and to a widening set of practices around photography. As artists and anthropologists ride the currents of a materiality wave, AgX shows us that the boundaries of photography are actually much more open than we might have previously thought. The work is a serious play with photography as electromagnetic radiation, as silver halides, and as chemical reactions. The stability and truth associated with photographic and archival practice slowly peels away to expose the vulnerability of memory and preservation of the personal archive.
Example 2: Petrina Ng. Heirloom Facsimile. 2010-2013.
Fig. 1 - Grayson Cook, Agx. In the front box of Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014. Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith.
Fig. 2 - Petrina Ng, Heirloom Facsimile. Installation view
Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014.
Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith.
A number of years ago, Toronto-based artist Petrina Ng’s grandmother, living in England, faxed a three-page document issued by a governmental body called the Hong Kong Administration Unit to her son-in-law, Ng’s father, in Canada. Mr. Ng subsequently scanned the fax into a digital file and emailed it to his son and daughter. Otherwise unsure what to do with this now heavily pixilated digital document, Petrina Ng employed her art practice to unpack the way information is transmitted, archived, and monumentalized within her family archive of stories and objects.
The content of the original document provided readers with cautionary medical information on the causes of cancer and suggested numerous lifestyle changes to avoid the disease. The information is presented from an Eastern perspective of medicine, largely seen as foreign and often suspect through the lens of Western medicine. The text begins with an introduction scribed in Chinese characters and without reason immediately code-switches to an error-filled English translation for a compelling request to share the document—and the information it contains—with those the reader cares about.
Turning to a more analog and embodied way of interpreting the text and sharing it onward beyond the family archive, Ng began to explore the absurdity of permanence, preservation, and the archive, and the way legacy objects are made, through the act of monumentalizing the document as an ambitious triptych work entitled, Heirloom Facsimile (Figs. 2 and 3). Picking up a needle and thread, Ng translated the document’s digital pixels into a large-scale embroidered canvas using cross-stitch techniques she had learned from her mother. Stitching the Chinese characters and English font, as well as the additional marks and artifacts the document acquired from processes of faxing and scanning, Ng’s work illuminates how the integrity of information shifts when translated between mediums. From letter, to fax, to digital file, to textile, the final form of Heirloom Facsimile activates the work with legibility as a tapestry for telling a story. This material form not only shares the document’s content, albeit hindered in legibility at times due to multiple reproductions, Ng’s work also creates new value (cultural, aesthetic, economic) in this archival document.
Examining Ng’s work through the lens of anthropology brings to mind what one might call the ‘social life of information’ (not to be confused with the work of John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid (2000) concerning big data) or the ‘social life of knowledge’ within the archive. The way information and knowledge moves between contexts and mediums can shift its values and interpretations. By considering both the material and immaterial dimensions of Heirloom Facsimile, this work is more than a storied object as Igor Kopytoff (1988) argued in favor of ideas around the biography of objects (both the document itself and the work of art), and integrally applies Arjun Appadurai’s (1988) foundational and critical arguments for the social life of things. Here, the thing is the tangible and intangible/material and immaterial information that is mobilized, archived, transferred, and translated across generations within one family. Subverting the legacy of digital information, Ng creates a more tangible heirloom from the document previously faxed and digitized, while simultaneously questioning the legitimacy of the monumentality and the legitimacy of information by shifting the way we experience, value, and question the archival document.
Fig. 3 - Petrina Ng, Heirloom Facsimile, page 1 detail, 2010-13.
Photo credit: Jay Shuster. Image courtesy of the artist.
On June 20, 1972, three days after the Watergate break-in, U.S. President Richard Nixon discussed the case with his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. Through a concealed switch installed in the Oval Office, Nixon operated a Sony 800B tape recorder hidden in the floor below. His secretary, Rose Mary Woods, later transcribed the tapes in her office using a Uher 5000 tape recorder for playback. But when the tapes were subpoenaed, there was a mysterious 18 ½ minute gap where the crucial conversation should have been. While the sounds and magnetic marks imprinted on the tape are consistent with a series of manual erasures, the words have never been recovered because of machine noise overwritten onto the erased portion of the tape.
At the heart of Raul Ortega Ayala’s assemblage of audio, visualization, transcriptions, and traces is a 3D-printed rendering of the spectrogram analysis of the notorious gap (Figs. 4 and 5). This object physically manifests the cover-up of the cover-up, revealing the microgeography of the secret code of history. (To hear the 18 1/2 minute gap, click here: http://nixontapeaudio.org/watergate/342-016a_gap.mp3)
In conversation with the artist, the collective filled the gap of analysis:
TRM: Why did you decide to render the erased audio as a 3D printed object?
ROA: I wanted to give that particular absence a presence and somehow manage to give it a form that made the absence meaningful.
The data is sculpted by Ayala into a mute, pyramid-like object whose topography conceals as much as it reveals. Its terraced slope shows that in the first and third sections of the gap, noise from a faulty regulator in Woods’ Uher 5000 combined with a 60-cycle ground hum from a weakly shielded power supply in her office to produce a sustained loud buzz. In the middle section the hum is much softer, leading audio forensic experts to conclude that this part was erased at a different location in the White House. Occasional faint speechlike sounds, nearly imperceptible, are at once traces of official acts, crime-scene evidence, the means by which the obstruction of justice was committed, and the McGuffin that helped set off a constitutional crisis.
Example 3: Raul Ortega Ayala. 18 and a half minutes. 2014
Fig. 4 - Raul Ortega Ayala, 18 and a half minutes. Installation view Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014.
Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith.
Fig. 5 - Raul Ortega Ayala, 18 and a half minutes. Detail view
Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014.
Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith.
TRM: The absence of the original content gives the gap its specific historical weight. Your work gives this absence a reconstituted presence, albeit in a different form. What becomes then of the absence? Is it still an absence, or is it obliterated in the act of being presenced?
ROA: I feel this absence is meaningful precisely because the content isn’t there and by making it present and tangible you point out its relevance. It’s an absence that says a lot by being present.
Carl Sagan famously stated, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The 18 ½ minute gap reverses this trope; here, evidence of absence is not absence of evidence. There is little doubt the erasures were deliberate, yet in the absence of recoverable original content uncertainty remains at the heart of the case. The archival palimpsest is a masked figure of redaction haunting history, both an absent presence and a present absence. Overwritten in the act of erasure, its layers of traces obscure the meaning of historical gestures. While more recent attempts at digital audio reconstruction have remained inconclusive, Ayala’s 3D rendering conjures the spectral form of the cover-up into tangibility.
Example 4: Amber Lincoln. History Felt. 2014.
Fig. 6 - Amber Lincoln, History Felt Installation view
Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014.
Photo credit: Aynur Kadir.
A herd of reindeer is wandering the icy tundra of the Alaskan Peninsula. Steam blasts from their nostrils; their hearts pound in anticipation of flight. An Inupiat herder shepherds the animals through the landscape. He processes reindeer meat and hides to support his family. He performs a reindeer butchering ceremony, while his children watch and learn. Government officials tally the animals. Their routes are mapped. Records are filed. Decades pass. Fishing becomes more profitable than herding, and the Inupiat herder exchanges the tundra for saltwater. A government official formally withdraws support for reindeer herding on the Alaskan Peninsula. Memos are sent. Reindeer, untethered, disperse. They join the wild caribou; they are no longer counted.
I imagine these moments as I piece together fragments of information installed as elements of anthropologist Amber Lincoln’s History Felt (Figs. 6 and 7) archive. Letters, maps, census reports, permits, and tallies dredged from the US National Archive are presented for the viewer at a rough wooden desk in the Bureau of Memories. Thick, silvery reindeer hides spill off of the table and line the chair, warming me as I explore Lincoln’s archive. The documents are marked by the shadow of reindeer antlers mounted above the desk. I hold a silky, dessicated reindeer leg and hoof in my hand. I try to connect it to the living animal. This is the ephemera of Lincoln’s archive.
I piece together this history of reindeer herding on the Alaskan Peninsula, and learn that it was introduced at the turn of the 20th century as a government program aimed at ‘improving’ the welfare of Alaskan Natives. It was withdrawn in the 1940s, and retreated into memory and archival record. While I hold these documents in my hands, encircled by reindeer hide, I listen through headphones to oral narratives recorded by Lincoln from 2012 to 2013. Alaskan Native community members tell stories of migration, of a winter when people were starving, and of conflicts between their Inupiat and Alutiit ancestors. One person describes a reindeer butchering ceremony; another the necessity of commercial fishing for survival. The stories both contradict and reinforce information on the archival pieces in front of me on the table.
Lincoln’s installation is intended to reproduce the sensory experience of connecting elements of a fragmented history. Vision, sound, and touch affect the viewer’s subjective construction of a narrative of this time and place. This experience is emotive, and uncanny. As with many contemporary explorations at the intersections of art and anthropology, the results are open ended, fragmentary, and fundamentally committed to process over finished product (Schneider and Wright 2013). The viewer activates the reindeer archive, but at the same time, the history it draws on is obliterated as each viewer imagines it anew. As history is felt, it is forgotten. The souls of the animals that once animated the hides and hooves and antlers are gone. Their breath, which once exploded into the cold air, has dissipated, ephemeral. So, too, are the people who lived at this time, negotiating the herds and the colonizing government administration. Yet their stories are traced in their descendants, whose voices expose absences and truths in the official record.
Fig. 7 - Amber Lincoln, History Felt Installation view
Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014.
Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith.
Example 5: Kwame Phillips and Debra Spitulnik Vidali. Kabusha Radio Remix/Your Questions Answered by Pioneering Zambian Talk Show Host, David Yumba (1923-1990). 2014.
Fig. 8 - Kwame Phillips and Debra Spitulnik Vidali, Kabusha Radio Remix/Your Questions Answered by Pioneering Zambian Talk Show Host, David Yumba (1923-1990).
Installation view, Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014. Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith.
Sound utterances are, by their nature, ephemeral. Analog and digital methods of recording may preserve their content but their situational context--Ranciere’s “mise en scene of words” (Ranciere 2014:44)--can never be restored. Kwame Phillips and Debra Spitulnik Vidali’s “Kabusha Radio Remix/Your Questions Answered by Pioneering Zambian Talk Show Host, David Yumba (1923-1990)” constructs its own archive. The radio host Yumba’s recordings, transcripts, and letters construct new relationships with novel sets of speakers and listeners, thus drawing attention to the possibilities of archives as troves of memory and knowledge-making. Central to the installation is a reengineered 60-minute Kabusha “radio program” produced by Phillips and Vidali that mimics its original format. This version, however, juxtaposes Yumba’s recorded responses as answers to present-day Bemba archive workers inquiries about politics and technicalities of archives, as well as “anonymous” letter writers about current Zambian politics.
In the gallery, this work invited the viewer/listener to be seated at a sturdy, pockmarked, but beautifully wrought antique wooden desk that supported framed pictures and wire baskets. The conflation of history as memory was poetically fashioned through the period artifacts on the desk. Recordings of Yumba’s voice are preserved on an audiocassette, looped and played continuously as the viewer/listener sifts through the physical documents of transcripts and letters. Paper and pen are made available for the viewer to use to construct their own letters, thoughts, and transmissions in response to the recordings and ephemera. The nature of Yumba’s original radio show may have drawn scant attention from the Western museum visitor, but within the context of the Bureau of Memories capitalizes on that discrepancy. Artifacts and objects are deployed along with the audio; a stratigraphy through which the viewer/listener can mine her/his journey in this archive to decode the multitude of messages, both contemporary and historic. Here each iteration creating a new archive that is complicit in creating a new utterance and erasures, while contemplating the original form. Such novel utterances are evidenced through Vidali’s “Bemba Online Project: A Digital Bemba Language Archive” (https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/bemba/). Bemba’s importance to Zambian culture and community is evidenced by the popularity of his 20 year-long radio show. Here the archive as palimpsest draws on a cache of nostalgia and authenticity as forms and forces of legitimization in a tautological cycle, while incorporating and cannibalizing new material to continue its relevance.
Archives typically act as assertions of authority thus producing and enforcing encoded pasts. Archives are not neutral, but rather are political spaces that flatten the landscape into encapsulated moments of concentrated ideology. Its relevance is contingent on the authority of the perceived authenticity (read: relevance) of its contents. The archive, by its nature, can only exist as incomplete utterance; its success requires the absence of memory.
Example 6: Alejandro Luperca Morales. Port Meridiem/Post Mortem. 2014.
Fig. 9 - Alejandro Luperca Morales, Port Meridiem/Post Mortem. Installation view Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014. Photo credit: Trudi Lynn Smith.
Alejandro Luperca Morales' "Port Meridiem/Post Mortem" was mounted at the Bureau of Memories exhibition as a grid of four by six inch color prints comprised of six rows and eight columns for a total of forty-eight images. The prints themselves are immediately recognizable as reproductions of newspaper photographs. The tactility of the original newsprint is almost perceptible, possibly enhanced by the texture of the fine-quality paper on which the images were re-printed; the simulation is impressive. I found the reproduction compelling and engrossing, clearly the surface of the images is critical to the artwork that they do. Their success in reproducing the mundane experience of a newsprint image is crucial to their effect of estrangement: the crux of the work is that each image has been painstakingly manipulated.
Morales has collected images documenting the catastrophic drug wars that were published in the popular Juárez, Mexico newspaper Post Meridiem. These images depict scenes in the aftermath of horrific violence. They prominently feature sites where bodies of victims are strewn out in public: roadways and sidewalks, fences, walls, signs of business and ordinary life in the familiarity of the Mexican built environment. The manipulation evident in the images is achieved by a process of erasing what Morales describes in his artist statement as: "the raw and brutal images of dismembered bodies have been removed with manual processes using rubber erasers directly on the paper substrate." The removal of the surface reveals raw paper and sometimes even evidence of print matter from the opposite side of the newspaper page. The materiality of the image, landing briefly in the pages of a mainstream publication, establishes the core element of the artist’s stated project: violence and popular media.
Fig. 10 - Alejandro Luperca Morales, Port Meridiem/Post Mortem. Detail Hierarchy Gallery, Ethnographic Terminalia 2014.
Image courtesy the artist
The language of trace, absence, invisibility, and disappearance are tied up in the horror-show popular media images of what is now simplistically characterized as "narco-violence." Morales presents not only a powerful statement with all the elements of cultural critique, but his work (mounted flat on a white wall in a relentlessly even grid) is both evocative of the position of being a spectator of calamity and generative of novel appreciation. The work jumps from the now banal experience of media-snuff that sometimes is just more news and horror, and at other times seems to catch us off-guard like a negative epiphany. It evokes that space of encounter, increasingly rarefied in the USA anyway, between the body of the spectator—all eyes and nerves, interest and intellect pulling in a thousand different directions—and the rough tactility of newsprint, leaving its own mark of ink on fingers.
The erasure of the surface plane of the image might be seen as a gesture towards redemption or even an act of censorship. I don't see it this way, though. There is an amplification of the catastrophe in this move. Especially, in scenes of onlookers and grieving families. The appropriation of the news-images might be a vindication of sorts that wrestles the everyday back into the scene. Women hugging one another in casual clothing, hooded police standing nonchalantly, one woman in particular, weak-kneed and supported by others. The ordinary wake of the event is seen here without the distraction of the grim scene itself. It is too simple to call this an act of erasure. The project unlocks the catastrophe through a complex sense of emergence.
The works presented in this discussion provide insight into some of the ways in which artists and ethnographers are bringing institutional and personal archives together into the gallery space. Collectively all of the works in the exhibition build the case for new approaches to discussing the archives and archival research balanced against the pragmatics of contemporary political, social, cultural, and personal struggles (28 works were presented; see: http://ethnographicterminalia.org/2014-washington-dc/2014-artists). We are cautious not to enact a withdrawal of archival authority at a time when archives are becoming more and more essential in the struggles of disenfranchised peoples (i.e. First Nations land claims in Canada), victims of political violence (i.e. Guatemalan Police archives), and vernacular history projects (i.e Afro-Cuban performance oral histories). As Marc Augé said: “To praise oblivion is not to revile memory.”
Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Bowles, Paul. The Sheltering Sky. The Ecco Press, 1977 (1949).
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press, 2012.
Kopytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Ranciere, Jacques. Figures of HIstory. Polity Press, 2014.
Schneider, Arnd, and Wright, Chris (eds). Anthropology and Art Practice. Bloomsbury Press, 2013.
(in alphabetical order):
Craig Campbell is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin. He is actively involved in producing works that span the range of expository writing, art exhibition, and curation. These function as companion works to a thematic interest in archives, photography, documents, and the anxious territory of actuality. Craig Campbell’s ethnographic, historical, and regional interests include: Siberia, Central Siberia, Indigenous Siberians, Evenki, Evenkiia, Reindeer hunting and herding, Travel and mobility, Socialist colonialism, early forms of Sovietization, and the circumpolar North. His second book Agitating Images was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2014.
Kate Hennessy is an Assistant Professor specializing in Media at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT). She is a cultural anthropologist with a PhD from the University of British Columbia (Anthropology). As the director of the Making Culture Lab at SIAT, her research explores the role of digital technology in the documentation and safeguarding of cultural heritage, and the mediation of culture, history, objects, and subjects in new forms. Her video and multimedia works investigate documentary methodologies to address Indigenous and settler histories of place and space.
Fiona P. McDonald
Fiona P. McDonald is a Researcher and Anthropologist with New Knowledge Organization Ltd, a non-profit research think-tank based in NYC. She completed her PhD (2014) in the Department of Anthropology (Material Culture & Visual Anthropology) at University College London. Her current research is a visual and material ethnography that builds upon her graduate studies in Art History (Canada) and Māori Material Culture (Aotearoa New Zealand) to consider the social specificity of the aesthetic transformation(s) of woollen trade blankets in contemporary art, craft, and customary Indigenous regalia.
Thomas Ross Miller
Thomas Ross Miller is Professor of Liberal Arts at Berkeley College, director at independent Curatorial Consulting in Brooklyn, and Adjunct Instructor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His interdisciplinary and multimedia work incorporates sound, shamanism, visual representation, museum studies, ethnomusicology, and the history of anthropology. A National Endowment for the Arts individual artist award winner, his past positions include Senior Scientific Assistant for Asian and African Ethnographic Collections at the American Museum of Natural History, where he served on the advisory board of the Margaret Mead Film Festival.
Trudi Lynn Smith
Trudi Lynn Smith is an artist and visual anthropologist who studies practices of photography. She currently holds a position as the 2014-15 Artist-in-Residence at the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society at University of Victoria and teaches in the School of Environmental Studies. She received her interdisciplinary PhD in Anthropology and Visual Art from University of Victoria in 2010. In writing, artworks, and performances, she explores the photograph as event, following fleeting moments and shifting visualities in archives and on the ground, accounting for the fundamental impermanence of life.
Stephanie Takaragawa is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Chapman University (Orange, CA). She received a PhD from Temple University (2006) in the Anthropology of Visual Communication emphasizing visual and media representations cross-culturally through art, performance and museum exhibitions. Her current research looks at representations of Japanese-American internment discourses at the interpretive centers now built at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California and Heart Mountain in Cody, Wyoming. Stephanie’s areas of interest are in the anthropology of visual communication, museum studies, the intersection of art and anthropology and race and ethnic studies in the United States.
Fig. 1b - Grayson Cook, Agx. Photo credit: Grayson Cook.