Lebanese Archive

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Panel Discussion and Q&A

Conversation #1, Four Corners Gallery
Chaired by Ania Dabrowska Artist

5 Conversations Room

Audience: This is a question for Laura about the Archive Map.  It is apparent that you’ve avoided private archives and you preferred the use of public archives. Could you elaborate on why?

Laura Caderera:  Archive Map as I said was an initiative where I’ve commissioned from researchers to write a chapter on Egypt, Syria, Iraq and on Lebanon.  When I met with them to discuss the scope of the project, of course a lot of them have built a relationship of trust with private collectors to access their material, whether it’d be descendents of gallery owners or the son of a well known artist, and they were a little bit uncomfortable about putting that material up there.   In some cases, the family was open to them publishing it, but there has been a lot of talk of how archives are being commercialised, sold and how valuable they are actually.

As part of the symposium we invited as well an initiative called the Southern Conceptualisms Network.  It’s a network of researchers and curators from Latin America.  They were set up in 2002 I think, as a response to fact that a lot of privately owned archives were being sold and exported out of the country and placed in the Eastern Universities in the U.S.A.  They were upset that they were not staying in their country of origin.  These researchers built this network, managed to raise some money and they developed a lot of projects that were activating those archives.  They digitised the material, they got an infrastructural support of the Reina Sophia Museum in Spain to raise that money and then they’ve organised exhibitions about it.  When I started working on this project I had a lot of conversations with them and they were saying: “Be careful because there is a lot of interest in the Middle East and you have a responsibility if you publish this report and you are going to put this material up there”, so we were nervous about doing that.

But also, another reason is that sometimes there was a kind of defeatism, people were saying, “Oh, there is nothing.  Nothing has been documented, there is nothing around.”  But actually, talking to these PhD students and researchers, they were saying, “There is a lot of material in the National Archives.  In Cairo, Syria, Lebanon there is a lot of material that is publically available but some people can’t be bothered to go and check it because they think that anything that there is in public institutions might be chaotic.”  You might go and it’s closed, you really have to spend time and have tea and coffee with one of the guys that takes care of the archive, and then you will have to spend time there because it’s not like you have a fantastic catalogue online where you can do all your searches.  So, in a way, just having the list of public archives and material publicly available is huge, it’s already at the very least a statement which says that you cannot say that archival material doesn’t exist.

The researches were incredibly generous because not only did they share their contacts if they had a specific person to contact in an institution, they also put their entire bibliography of all the books that they found, journals.  As you know, it is not an easy material to come across.  What was also interesting was to do an analysis of what material there actually was in the country and was abroad.
I studied at Columbia as well and I remember finding material on Spain in the Butler Library, which I never would have found in Spain.  It’s incredible, just amazing that I just went to the Butler Library and just found it all.  It was easy to find there because everything is in a proper catalogue and a database.  This was the reason why.

One of the things we discussed, and for me there was a huge momentum after the symposium as so many things happened, the revolution happened, that this was not a priority, but these researchers have a network out there, they are saying, “let’s try to raise money to try to help these private collectors to digitise and organise their material, so it can still stay with them”.  For example, following this model that the Southern Concetpualists Network used with the Reina Sofia providing the infrastructural support, they managed to raise money.  Now Spain doesn’t have any money but at the time they were lucky, so they digitised some of the material in the aritsts’ archives so the material could stay with the artists or the family but you could actually eventually access it in the Reina Sofia and in the library there.  They are building this archive called the Universal Archive.

Audience:  It seems to me that there are two factors in what make an archive and what doesn’t but it seems there is a time threshold.  If you look at contemporary photos in London no one is saying there is an archive here unless they are probably of a certain age.  The things that seem to mark an archive as more important are a disaster and a country.   For example in Lebanon the Civil War, before the Civil War no one thought of their pictures and the archives until they got burnt in the Civil War.  In Egypt now all these people they consider all these videos taken in the street as archive even though it is contemporary but you don’t see videos taken in London as archive.  Is it a lesson learnt, that we need to look at everything as an archive regardless of whether there is a disaster or not?  Is this something that we need to look at?

Laura Caderera: This is very interesting because in a way, when I said when some of the artists were upset about the notion of the “Cultural Renaissance”, after 9/11 there was more funding and everybody was looking at the Middle East saying: “Oh, there is a boom, the art market, …” They were saying, “Actually, all of these things happened before”.  Maybe there were some years when there was more prosperity and there wasn’t that much political turmoil, but it doesn’t mean that the exhibitions that were going on were not relevant.  I think that’s a very valid point.

Audience:  The Middle East is a very sexy topic at the moment but this interest should be also invested in the countries that are not yet in war but might be one day? 

Ania Dabrowska: You’ve touched on a really interesting point for me.  This question, “at which point does a collection, any collection, become an archive” is something that I’ve been asking myself ever since I have this collection in my studio.  I’d like to ask the guests for their opinion.

What turns a bag, two bags, a room full of negatives or other material into an archive?  Is it a form in which it is contained, is it ownership, is it context as our audience was suggesting – a war or other danger, or is it about some kind of powers invested in it? May be they are very different kinds of power invested in an archive and in a collection?

Christiane Monarchi:  I would say that the collection starts very personal and is amassed through donations from other people.  I see resonance with this archive.  Starting as a collection of professional work then also containing other people family albums, it then becomes larger.  It is no longer a personal choice, it becomes ‘collective’ and that is very different from ‘a collection’.   There is a bit more of documentary responsibility to parcel out different fragments and to make sense of them all.  I think that’s a very interesting question to which I’m going to add another: is the collection or archiving here finished?  Is it still growing? If so, how does it still grow?

Diab Alkarssifi: When I first started collecting photos I didn’t have any problem collecting them.  My main concern was just to have them. Having amassed such a huge collection now, and since a lot of friends have found out about the archive, they send between 10-15 pictures through email daily. And I have a lot of friends.

One of my friends who came to the opening of this exhibition last week, she liked it so much that she decided to give me all of her pictures she collected of her family in Syria.  Now I’m thinking about expanding my archive out of Baalbek and making it national, maybe even going as far as Syria.

Ania Dabrowska:  Diab, your archive already contains photographs from the whole Middle East region.

Diab Alkarssifi:  And I’m not planning on stopping. (room laughs) My archive started with the first photo I got and I will not stop until I die.

Ania Dabrowska: What do you think, Laura?

Laura Caderera: It’s such a difficult question.  I’m still struggling with it.

Ania Dabrowska: Perhaps it’s an open-ended one, one that changes with time as well.

Audience:  Perhaps I’ve got something to add to that.  The difficulty with an archive is about what we do with it in the West, because this is what we are talking about actually.  We are taking these archives from the history of their countries and placing them in the West and we deal with them in a certain way.

The way you decided to deal with them here Ania, is to completely de-contextualise them in a way.  There is no context given in the room, there is nothing at all about the history of the region, the trouble in the region, etc, etc.  My question is why this de-contextualisation and what are the implications of these types of de-contextualisations?

Ania Dabrowska: The answer to your question is somewhere in the title of this work for me, that is in the drifting through an archival collection like this.  When I say ‘drifting’ it is about acknowledging my own incompetence and lack of knowledge of the context, of the specific cultural, political, personal histories that built this whole collection.  I had to accept from the very start that I’m approaching this collection as a stranger.

Interestingly, this question of connection between the Middle East and the West, the past and the presence or future, is constantly shifting for me.  It could be looked at in both ways: on one hand this archive has arrived here, or this collection arrived here, to me, to London because of Diab leaving his home country and immigrating here, starting his life and building his life here.  On the other hand this archive is rather beautifully split physically in space:  some of it still remains in a room in Baalbek and some of them is here.  As an idea it belongs to two places simultaneously and at the same time, but physically, as a collection, it is split.

Because of the working processes that we started together and conversations that led to Diab deciding to let me do whatever I want to do with these pictures investing his trust in my work, I had realised that this archive has to be given due context, it had to be given due dating, captioning and documentation and to be placed somewhere within the history from which it was taken.

I couldn’t do it all by myself and would not even be interested in doing it all by myself as an artist.  What I was interested in really was playing, with all the pleasures and the consequences of playing.  Sometimes you can go into dangerous and shifty grounds whilst playing, hence my decision to do all these different layers and outputs that this project entails and seeking to collaborate with people who really are experts in the archiving processes.  That’s how the Arab Image Foundation came onboard.  I sought this collaboration out knowing that by working with them on preserving the collection, I will find a perfect long term custodian for Diab’s collection and also liberate myself as an artist from an obligation to always contextualise this material historically, in a documentary way when I use it in my work.

The resolution that I refer to in the title of this work is a signal of this “empty” beginning, a lack of context that I sensed when I first approached this collection.  I didn’t know for example, that the guy with a little apron in a badly fitting suite with glasses is in fact a Lebanese Freemason in some dark meeting somewhere, which is of course covered in its own mystery.   The resolution is also about an agreement and an understanding between us, that is between Diab as an owner of the collection and the author of many of the photographs and me as an author of a second generation of work created with it.

As such, between my artistic interventions, the book, the website and the online archive, I trust that all needs of this archive will be satisfied in different ways.

Diab, you are the author of maybe 30%, maybe more, of this material and you own a lot of anonymous photographs by other people. You met me, but you could have met another artist, so what does it mean for you to work with someone who does art?

Diab Alkarssifi: When I speak about a picture, to me it is something that is more explanatory and more descriptive that anything you could write.  The truth is more real in the images and I see no fiction there.

I’m very comfortable and relaxed with Ania and that’s a reason I handed over my archive to her.  I’ve been entrusted with many pictures from a lot of people. Ania was able to look after the archive in all honesty a lot more than me and I’ve decided that life has to be a little more realistic.

Ania Dabrowska:  That doesn’t put any pressure on me at all.  (room laughs)  Let’s take a next question from the audience.

Audience:  As somebody who works with memory, people’s memories and stories, in a way that doesn’t have a visual element to it, initially when I was collecting oral histories I was actually using photographs as the springboard to people’s memories, what I find really interesting here is that there is a lot of visual history that’s being shown.

Even though you are talking about reality or truth in a photograph, the truth I think just lies within the piece of paper.  There are a lot of questions about what the situation is, what it’s actually describing.  I don’t know how important that contextualisation is.  There is an image that people need to see and that’s important.  Whether it is because it shifts a stereotype or adds a bit of knowledge, maybe it shifts the stereotype in the West but in Lebanon or in Syria or in Egypt, what it might be doing is showing something that people might have forgotten about or may be they were there and didn’t realise that there was an image of them in that situation.

There seems to be a lot of triggers in this work and I find this really interesting that there is so much unknown in it and yet there is a lot of exposure happening at the same time.  There are these opposites contained here.

What also strikes me very strongly, and it’s been obvious this evening, is how many photographs have been taken as we speak.  What does it mean in terms of archiving? What is amazing I think that archive is never going to be the same again.  There are millions of photographs being taken constantly.

I was in Venice recently and I couldn’t believe the amount of photographs being taken.  Far more time was being taken looking onto a screen than was spent looking at what was actually around people.  Somehow, in that context the archive becomes even more important because now we over-record so much but it also opens a question of what is happening to all this material. Doesn’t it blow the idea of the archive totally?

Ania Dabrowska: Are you saying that with the democratisation of technology we are witnessing the value of an image being re-fragmented?

Audience:  I think that ‘democratisation’ is a very odd word to use.

Ania Dabrowska: That is a word that makes me cringe as well, but I’m using it deliberately here as we all can agree about what it signals.
Audience:  I think we need consider the notion of ‘democratisation’ politically because it is a very easy notion to throw at people, to make them feel they have freedom, but in fact it’s blinding them to what else is going on very often.

But there was the other issue as well, of the archive itself, at what point does an archive exist.  I think it exists before people even look at it.  I think what’s happened is that there is a point at which it gets exposed.  At the same way when I was working with the elderly people and collecting their memories; their memories existed before I started asking them about it and their photographs existed.  I think it is about the point in which we start considering them to be important and ask them to share them with us.  This is the turning point that matters I think.

Ania Dabrowska:  There are a lot of dimensions here: the political, the cultural and the personal.  Taking into consideration the ideas of familiarity and exoticism, what has been happening lately in photography and art contexts?  Do you think that there has been a real proliferation of works emerging directly from archives in recent years or do you think this interest has been quite steady in the worlds of photography and fine art?

Laura Caderera:  I’m not an authority on this, but I guess my observation is that particular artists have been interested in using archives for a long time so I don’t know if there has been an acceleration of this really.

Globally, when I was living in Cairo and Istanbul, yes, there has been a kind of proliferation of artists’ projects involving archives, in the way they responded to what was happening.  I mean the researches and curators were unhappy with the scholarship that existed and they wanted to re-visit and re-write it.  They were several elements that contributed to it and there was definitely and acceleration of this interest.

At the same time I guess this is organic.  The researchers, curators, artists, they all hang out together and then a PhD student will have this material, or an artist would find some other material, a curator would write about it, so yes, there was a momentum and a proliferation. I don’t think it is going to stop.  I think it will continue in the same way in the West, although I don’t like this idea of delineating between Western and non-Western art.

Christiane Monarchie: I think it does need a little bit of time.  If I think of some of the recent projects that I’ve seen, for example about the Thatcher years, photographers looking back at the 80s or before the Berlin Wall came down or in particular the anniversary of the Beatles, or whatever it is when someone thinks of it as a milestone and you look back.

In all of these examples it is about a particular time period that has an end, that has crystallised so you can go and reinvestigate the work that was done in that period.  It is the same as us looking at family albums; when someone is turning let’s say 40, so there is an occasion to look at their baby pictures.  It is a familiar thing to look back at the time that has finished and then to make a body of work out of it, or a book, or an art exhibition out of it, even if at the time we didn’t necessarily considered it remarkable.

For example, I’m thinking about the Thatcher years, Anna Fox did a big series about working life in Britain and around London.  Now it looks almost like a costume drama with all the shoulder pads and funny hair, white stilettos, offices wear etc. because it is removed in time and aspect.  We can look at it as a project because it’s about time that is finished.

If we look now at the time of the 90s or something that is quite fresh, when we don’t quite know yet if it is finished or if it is still slotting over into the now, than I think may be we need more time.

Two decades in the past is may be when an artistic project can make you think:  “oh wow, this is a particular body of work that is culturally interesting time-wise”.

Audience:  To respond to this, in Japan, Japanese photographers took 10 to 15 years before they could make any work about Hiroshima.  There wasn’t anything straight after it happened.  It took a lot of time for them to start looking at it and being able to remove from it the Hiroshima association.

Audience:  I’m also very interested in the power of the archive, in the unlocking of hidden history.  It is a focus of a project I’m involved in with my colleague Gabriel that focuses on the Ottoman City and Multiculturalism.  I actually come from Lebanon.

One of the things that happened is when the Arab Image Foundation started connecting all these images from the Middle East, one of the examples that come to my mind is when they published a book of the artist Van Leo, an Armenian who has had a studio in Cairo and did a very interesting work around identity and masquerade, probably in the 1940s and 50s.

The work reminds me so much of Cindy Sherman. One example like that can show you how by unlocking this archive it can really help to change perception, especially of the Middle East.  It is often considered to be a cultural desert when there is so much there.  The Arab Image Foundation’s work has been exemplary in the bringing to the surface people who have been completely ignored for decades.

Laura Caderera: That is not strictly true. Van Leo is an amazing photographer, a lot of my Egyptian friends would say to me: “Just look at these pictures, look how women were dressed back then”, or whatever… people would have a discussion about that. They certainly liked to show those pictures and it definitely showed another image of the past. In this case it wasn’t necessarily the Arab Image Foundation that has ‘brought him back’.

Audience:  One other thing connecting some of the work you’ve done is how do you make archives speak.  I would be interested to hear about different strategies. One of the things in the Ottoman Empire was, to make mosaics of loads of different communities, often living side by side within one city and in peace over many years.  It is something that can be brought to a surface through a visual archive.
Obviously with the archives, you have to make them speak and they are a different ways to unlock their information. What were the most interesting strategies you’ve come across to achieve that?

Laura Caderera:  When we started working on this project I think one of the best things that came out of it was that we brought together a lot of academics and artists. They both got incredibly excited about working together because the researchers and the academics have all this material and the artists were egger to do something with it.  One of those PhD students said: “Oh, finally someone has a real interest and we can make it speak visually”.

I’m sure you know for example, in Istanbul there is an organisation called SALT, they are housed in one of the buildings where the Ottoman Bank used to be. They have pretty outstanding archive and they are doing a lot of research projects and exhibitions with the material, publications as well. They have photographic collections of archaeologists, documented sites, connections to Armenia studio photography, and studio photographers from Istanbul. Whether this would be a traditional exhibition in terms of just showing the material or engaging with the artists, they are interested in it. So in that way, the symposium was a really good strategy to connect academics and artists and to develop projects.

Christiane Monarchi: Can I add to it?  There was a picture in my presentation of the Geoff Charles archive in Wales and I should have put an installation view in the Diffusion Festival the curators decided to have them mounted, printed on placards, on big square things inside this Tramshed with no titles.

They were made universally accessible visually and allowed the fiction to come in with the fact.  You can dig and find out what they are.  I’ve put a caption underneath the image in my presentation because they are very precise, but there were no captions in the show.  You were confronted with images of people in the masks, people with animals, people standing and looking at something. There was a playfulness of letting an intervention happen that made it universally open and fresh. Young people were interested. When they normally see captions, they think, “Oh, boring history”, but it was really fascinating to watch people go, “Oh, what is that, how cool!” I think it is a welcome opening for fact and fiction to be together.

Ania Dabrowska:  This connects really nicely to the earlier question about de-contextualisation of the archive in Drift/Resolution here.  The familiarity and strangeness are able to exist simultaneously and people can find the specifics of background information if they want.  By stripping an image from this textual baggage that comes with the names, the dates, the where and how, I’m opening these ideas of truth and fiction you speak of Christiane.  This is precisely what I’m interested in, just opening it.

This is in no way connected to questioning or discussing the photographic ‘truth’.  I know we are all way beyond discussions about truth or objectivity in photography, we’ve been there and we’ve done it, thankfully.

Taking it out of our photographic and artistic context, as a kid growing up in communist Poland, and each of you as well I am sure, we were all bombarded with particular histories and propagandas and mind bending ideas of what we were supposed to believe in.  Perhaps by stripping archival images of all kind of captioning and dating mechanisms, I at least want to say: “enough”. We can of course go back to archival materials and consider this or that truth but in its official form it is fiction.  If not an artistic fiction, it is a form of a historical fiction, or personal Diab’s fiction.

Looking back into the past but also looking into the future, I’d like to thank you all for joining us here.

Ania Dabrowska Artist and Chair
Introduction: About Lebanese Archive project.

Michelle Woodward Photography Editor, Jadaliyya Magazine, Beirut
Some Thoughts on Archives and Artists in the Middle East

Christiane Monarchi Editor, Photomonitor
Photography and Archive

Laura Carderera
Independent Curator & Arts Manager
A Perspective on Archives

Diab Alkarssifi Collection Owner
What I learnt about photography through collecting. 

Conversation chaired by:
Ania Dabrowska, Artist