From the Editor(s)
Welcome to the last issue of the Current Express. As the “subscription” is now coming to an end, the final edition of the project becomes a place to reflect. The Current Express, a temporary outlet and a cultural product of this time will itself become an item of the archives. So after all the previous issues where the hectic doing has taken the lead, it feels like a great moment to talk. Hence, the final edition, titled From the Readers, is an issue wholly dedicated to conversation.
For this last editorial, the emphasis is on the (s) in the title. One of the most interesting aspects of the project from the editor’s and curator’s point of view has certainly been the contacts that working on the archive have both allowed and produced. Though brief, these interactions have provided much insight on what can be produced out of the archive, but also the affirmed the hypothesis that whatever lies in the archive, does not arise from it without investigative agents. For this purpose, the Express has been an experiment in seeking to produce modes of exhibiting, discussing, representing and dissecting the archive.
PS. The last issue will be followed by a “Colophon”, a final note on the project.
What Is so Current about the Archive?
A Conversation with Nima Esmailpour and Viviana Checchia.
The following “curatorial talk” was orchestrated in early August 2015 over Skype and Google Docs, over three continents.
Nima Esmailpour is a visual artist and researcher, currently conducting his PhD in art history at the Concordia University in Montreal.
Viviana Checchia is a curator, critic, and PhD candidate at Loughborough University (UK). She is the Co-Founder and Chief Curator of Vessel in Italy, a non-profit arts organization. This year she was appointed as the Public Engagement Curator at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow.
MS: Viviana and Nima, first of all, it’s great to have this exchange with you. So thanks for agreeing to do this. I’m thinking I would want to hear two kinds of things from you. The first part is related to the overall themes and questions, some of which I was proposing in the first issue From the Archives (during which we corresponded a bit) as well as questions about the curatorial and the archive specifically in today’s context. The other part is about a kind of reader’s evaluation of the whole run of The Current Express as a kind of iteration in the CURATE ARCHIVE initiative. So, I’m laying out some questions for you next.
While The Current Express is about the Iranian contemporary context, I was thinking it could also be interesting to talk about some of its central concepts in general too. At least, lately, I’ve been noticing quite a lot of projects by museums, organizations and institutions moving into the media space and the digital world, so there’s a kind a expansion of the curatorial occurring in that way too. At the same time, there are complaints that we are “curating” everything, as things are itemized and popularized according to what’s “pinteresting”. Still, both the museums, the curators and reality-tv celebrities are somehow there, in the same space. How would you view this development?
NE: I see this development as a shift towards formation of a “vectorialist class” (informational entrepreneurs) — a term borrowed from MacKenzie Wark, which could be considered as an updated version of Gilles Deleuze’s “the societies of control”. There are interesting and efficient ways in which the process of control remains invisible and indispensable in the structure of organization. There are vast shapeless empire of ideas, emotions, services, images, and objects that can be assorted, and operated by the individual users of smartphones and DIY feedback-base networked programs. The role of curator and her sovereignty follows the same model.
VC: Firstly, curating to me is a discipline, which I highly value. So, in discussing the expansion of the curatorial into “curating everything”, some types of fast production or very superficial formats of putting products out there are not for me. I am not disturbed by them, but I am also not curious of them. On the other hand, there is a way to produce experiments in the curatorial that really add something to discourse, or the inquiry of the discipline. But we should also pay attention to the process itself rather than only the outcome. I also support the notion that the curatorial engages in the production of knowledge.
MS: Another question I have, is about the globalization of the curatorial, as well as cultural practices in or related to the Internet. I’m thinking how much of the general critical discourse has talked about the historically very “Western” modes of exhibiting, historiography and the art markets and the need to equally see and hear modernities in the periphery as well. With that in mind, it would seem that today the technological tools for communicating and possibly having a global voice are available to anyone. (And I mean, we are now having this conversation, which is kind of entirely “technological”.) So, in essence, as collections, archives, works, and even markets can be found online, also the curator can be anyone, anywhere. Yet, I think we are quite unwilling to give the same prestige for these efforts as we place on the standardized forms of exhibitions for instance?
NE: In her “Kurator: Proposal for an Experimental, Permutation Software Application Capable of Curating Exhibition”, Joasia Krysa introduces Gordon Pask’s cybernetic art machine that could turn music into light. Comparing the role of curator to the act of machine she proposes curating as an activity characterized by participation, interactivity and feedback that functions in a particular way to produce meaning and transmit knowledge. The Kurator project is a free open-source software licensed under GPL (General Public License) that enables anyone to engage technically in the curatorial practice. This project critically reflects on the socio-technological condition in which the generative knowledge emerges and proliferates. Hardt and Negri argue that technological communication has leaded to deterritorialization of (immaterial) production which is no longer dependent on proximity and centralization. The access to technological means may suggest a shift in the necessity of presence and possibility of exposure while renders new realities to the local that provokes decentralization at the global level. It’s the pre-requirement of a globalized art world to invent alternative discourses for the further involvement of the periphery subject. The interplay between the local and global has followed various patterns. For instance, auction houses run by international business investors may influence the artistic production at the local level, and render “official” historiographies according to their own hegemonic interests.
VC: In today’s art world, I would say large-scale exhibition formats and biennials can be seen as a rather VIP club. My own research relates to the local production of knowledge versus the global production, which in this case remains more exclusive, although the access to the biennials is supposedly global. And there are of course many things that affect this condition, starting simply from geography, time …all the way to epistemology of this. While the art world is seemingly open to everyone, the markets for art still need to maintain their circles in order to survive. I don’t want to sound bitter in my opinion, but this seems to be the reality. As an example, I come from the south of Italy, which as a region is not really at the center of the attention. But then, in theory and reality, the discourse happening there should be as important as the “global” discussion. However, the grander discussion of contemporary art follows a much more homogenized form, and while that discourse might be global, it does not really include the current margins.
MS: A third more general question comes back to the idea of the archive in this era. In the first issue I called the acts of archiving today “stealthy manoeuvres” because somehow all this content keeps accumulating almost accidentally. In the first issue, artist Nader Koochaki answered my similar question with concerns about the Internet providing this archive of “rubbish” that we now anxiously sometimes work with, but which can also become a reductive site of practice. While I somewhat agree, I also wonder if we are still transitioning towards really grasping what all this enables, or not? I mean, I’m not sure if I want to see an exhibition about “Tweets”, but then again someone could turn also that particular topic into a wonderfully studied critical case?
NE: There are always methods and mechanisms involved in the process of registration, accumulation, and classification that makes transformation possible and presentation visible in the archive. The archives cannot be described in its totality, as Foucault suggests. That’s why accumulation of information in our age seems as “rubbish”, a metaphor which is also associated with recycling. It is through a process of examination of that seemingly homogenous mass the “new” information can be generated. The way tweets emerge in fragments and recede in time, the archive may suddenly appear by making links between statements and events. Not all the information are useful; a “digital debris” will be left behind; a “performative chaos” in which actors/curators, consumers/audience, Spam/Artwork and service workers/artists are indistinguishable. (See Hito Steyerl’s “Digital Debris: Spam and Scam, 2011) While online communication brings a ubiquitous access to almost “everything”, our experience would be still limited to time and space that demands effort. The utopic project of living life as an aesthetic project overturns these limits inclusively. In a time where the terrain of telecommunication and computation has haunted the domain of language, information, and ultimately knowledge, one can assimilate artistic expression to digital labor. (See also Mohammad Salemy’s “Exit and Exile: Telecomputation and Emerging Art form the Iranian Diaspora”, 2013) Anton Vidkole and Pelin Tan have depicted the consequent anxiety in a three-channel video installation, entitled “2084: a science fiction show”, screened in Montreal Biennial last year. The piece demonstrates the transformation of language and communication among all earthly organic species, as well as it depicts artists’ takeover, forming an artist-run state following artists-led insurrections and its subsequent fall due to transformation of every spheres of life into art. A screen shows artists’ persuasive arguments in a series of documentary style interviews, cornered with another screen showing performers wearing animal masks in suits while reading out their political statements in a time-worn Cold War style auditorium. In the third screen a donkey and a plant having a text conversation, interrupted by provocative commercial or fraudulent spam messages.
VC: In some way, I think we can see the current emphasis on the archive as a kind of romantic trend. Archives are declared as sites, open to all, to present, to perform, to do… everything. I come from a conservation background and one of my earliest jobs was at a museum archive in Naples, where I would go through objects like tapestries, for this vast digitalization project. At the time, I have to say the work did not have much glamour or passion for me, but now, something like that, working with institutions, collections and “digital archives” as a job description seems quite current. Sometimes I feel it’s funny that the archives are now so celebrated. We hear about “opening up the collection for everyone” and the numbers of images and datasets that are made available for public. There is a lot of quantity, maybe instead of quality. But having said that, of course archives are still very valuable. Even in my work currently at the CCA in Glasgow it’s wonderful to have the archives here as a tool. And thinking about curating the archive, it’s definitely a discipline still under construction, but certainly there is a difference how a curator approaches the archive than the archivist; there are connections to be found and new knowledge to be produced. So I still feel the discussion is relevant we can think of its impacts and potential.
MS: My second set of questions are actually more free-form and related specifically to the Express. And, I also want to share some of my experiences in the project. I think my “thesis” with the project was originally that we can somehow create and produce so much in today’s world, so that the curatorial dealing with the archive can resemble an editorial process of news. And, like it is with actual news as well, the continuous speed and rhythm of publishing, the “deadlines” and trying to engage more “subscribers” becomes a big part of it. In general, I think the project has been successful in somehow proving its premise of “What is interesting and current, is interesting and current everywhere” as many of the people I’ve engaged with this project have attested the same thing (also related to seeing Iran for instance, without the Iran of the regular news). And with that, it’s also been interesting to try and think of linkages, images and ephemera that really come from the current context. However, something I didn’t see so much in the beginning of the project, was the understanding of how news, or the contemporary moment, really can only grasp certain things. That you deal with a lot of topics but it will be always a glimpse from the surface, you streamline for speed, because it is the dynamics of news, always producing new issues, always curating new content… Any thoughts on that?
NE: You would probably hesitate to click on the link bearing the title 10 Things the Mainstream Media isn’t Telling You About … Not because you are loyal to the mainstream media; the reason is that this kind of links almost invariably end up being a spam, and engages the web surfer in a non-consensual interaction. Being a “subscriber” also implies embodying the inattentive crowd used for “click marketing” and “paid searches”. It’s interesting to see how the mainstream media has deviated towards such dynamics in recent years. For instance Aljazeera’s AJ+, a freelancer style video reportage, became the second largest news video producer on Facebook. That’s why interestingly Ten Very Surprising Things about Iran is not spam, especially amid the current Iran-US deal. It seems there is an urgent need of media to “fix the image” and retrieve public opinion. The urgency in re-presentation is also a current concern of art. Contemporaneity of art is not a historical category, however it resonates a sort of urgency and temporality in the recent artistic production. Thierry Geoffroy (aka Colonel) was right by saying that “the emergency will replace the contemporary”.
MS: What this also brings up is perhaps the variety of potential strategies for working with the archive. In creating The Current Express as a kind of Instant News from the Archive! outlet, the focus has been on trying to achieve certain topical coverage in the MOP CAP’s artist directory. But I think one interesting aspect of the archive is of course its relationship with time and speed. With this kind of relationship, I can imagine an entirely different kind of temporal theme that allows deeper engagement. On the other hand, all of this production (meaning the archive at hand) is still rather contemporary and recent, so whatever the original meaning of the works and topics found in the archive, may also change rapidly in time. Nima, we also discussed this before as you kind of have a double role here, and because your works appear in the archive, but today you’re working with the curatorial and the researcher’s side as well. And Viviana, you on the other hand have worked recently with the context of the archive, can you describe your experiences a bit?
NE: The fragmentary and serial format of the Current Express has enabled a mode of display that deploys the archive both as form and its medium: while it offers instances and/or instants from the archive, the curatorial project has utilized the archival (indexical/topical) method as its aesthetic principle. I traversed both as an artist from the archive and a researcher throughout the project. I have also experienced this passage within the last five years in a topographical sense. My artwork that appeared in the project was produced in 2010, at the time I was involved closely with the context while living in Tehran. A year later I moved to London, where probably the electronic archival repository exist in the MOP CAP’s office. This (geographical) shift simply motivated by the theoretical concerns, has rendered a new set of relations with my background. I’m currently working on a thesis proposal with the tentative title Radical Possibilities, Future Strategies: A Critical Study of Theory and Practice in Iranian Contemporary Art. In the process I learnt that the work of researcher requires skills in categorization, evaluation, and selection of the sources and case study materials. To address the archive with regard to time and speed, one should think of how online communication had a huge impact on the archival research, which is primarily dependent on the availability of the archival material and firsthand sources on the web. However, connectivity as a general condition of today’s research practice, can totally dismantle the idea of classical archive: the archive exists, it only needs to get connected.
VC: As an example of working with the archive, and a bit longer timeframe… in 2014 I curated the Young Artist of the Year (YAYA exhibition Suspended Accounts for A. M. Qattan Foundation, as part of the second Qalandiya International biennial. The theme of the biennial was “Archives, Lived and Shared”, relating of course, to the role of archives as the keepers of Palestine’s history and present. In this project, we were looking theoretically and practically at the use of archives and the concept of self-historization. In terms of the timeframe, I became attached to the production in February 2014, and began meeting with artists around May. The exhibition opened in November, so in the months in between we utilized several online platforms both for meetings as well as for sharing materials, working together and inviting others who would share their experiences of working with the archive, as well as the history of such similar practices in other contexts. But what I also learned was — and this also relating to what we discussed about biennials earlier — that to simply even engage in the discourse on the archive in the global sense, and having it as the biennial’s main theme was also challenging in the local context where organizations at the same time needed to run their normal operations, but suddenly the participation in the biennial format would require them to enter this big production style with 100 days exhibiting, as well as making a relevant contribution to the global general discussion around the archive.
MS: As to somehow conclude this talk, from my point of view, I think some hidden modernities related to the Iranian cultural sphere were revealed by the project. For instance, I enjoyed the talk about Weather and Sports (title for issue 3) vis-à-vis any cultural practices, because they sort of take things on such a conceptual but thematically extremely generally popular context. And I think these kind of connotations always bring up blind spots in the usual “art talk”. But I did worry about the presentation of certain topics, as news items, as merely interesting things — whereas in reality many things, as we know, are complex and complicated. My rationale in this was that there is still a normality within criticality, I mean even inside complex situations people create and practice through the experience of contemporaneity that is basically, life or the reality? But how would you view this balancing between the outside view, the view through the archive, and the view through perhaps the reality?
NE: The study of Iranian modern and contemporary art has long been practiced under the official historical categories (pre/post-Revolution) and geographical divisions (inside/outside Iran). There are two strands of modernity involved in the project, that is societal modernization and cultural modernity. The main challenge in historiography of the “alternative modernities” is that these two tales does not necessarily meet at the same place, or time. However, the newly emerging art system can be distinguished as a social system, without necessarily being recognized as an interesting thing within society. This does not mean that social concepts such as Weather or Sport is not an interesting topic in art.
VC: I was critical earlier about the speed of production in curatorial projects. But I don’t think acceleration itself is a problem per se, it’s more related to the context. I mean, there is a difference between the potential audience for a written production, such as the Current Express, and exhibition that is targeted for everyone, which obviously cannot be produced extremely fast or without explanations. I would assume the readership of the Express already has certain interests and they are pretty “aware” of the themes, so it’s more about creating exchange in this particular context.
From the Readers
For its last edition of the Current Express features a selection of works collected throughout the project that simply feel current and interesting at this particular moment, going beyond the epithet of the Iranian contemporary art. As the previous editions of the project have discussed various themes, titles and captions, here the focus falls on the momentariness of browsing, searching and collecting, the joy of encountering and working with the archive. The selection features works from Negar Jahanbakhsh, Mohsen Fouladpour, Koushna Navabi, Abdolreza Aminlari, Maryam Amini, Ala Deghan, Mehdi Farhadian, Tara Behbahani and Claudia Parwaneh Djabbari.