What Can Archives Reveal? A Fascinating Look Inside Mexican Prison Records and Scientific Files | KCET
What Can Archives Reveal? A Fascinating Look Inside Mexican Prison Records and Scientific Files
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In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center: 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.
A stuffed deer poses as if sniffing the corner of a room, backed by closed cabinets and sealed jars. What was dead, skinned, and stuffed, preserved and categorized, seems to have come back to life. The process of archiving is frozen in time, with pieces of Styrofoam, paper, and plastic below the deer’s feet hinting at the animal’s escape. In effect, the image activates a curiosity towards what is hidden in the sealed jars and closed cabinets. “Gato Domestico,” photograph by the Venezuelan artist Ángela Bonadies, is part of the 2006-2010 series “Las personas y las cosas/People & Things,” which presents various portraits of archives including boxes of reels, rows of plants, stored paintings, and how the message of the archive is molded according to personal process.
At large, Bonadies’ work demonstrates how the folding and unfolding of history is perceived through archives, architecture, memory, and language. She uses photography as performance, intervention, and language, often connecting to issues facing contemporary Venezuela and its history.
Bonadies is in her second and final month of a research residency at 18th Street Arts Center, in preparation for a later commission to be featured in a joint exhibition between 18th Street and LACMA. "A Universal History of Infamy" is curated by LACMA's Rita González and José Luis Blondet with Pilar Tompkins Rivas of the Vincent Price Art Museum, and is a project of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an initiative of the Getty with arts institutions across Southern California. “A Universal History of Infamy,” which takes its name from Jorge Luis Borges’ 1935 collection of short stories (known for moving between the fiction and the nonfiction sphere of real crime tales), will center on alternative Latin American and Latino art practices. 18th Street Arts Center is hosting eight Latin American visiting artists in residence through this initiative in 2016.
In “Las personas y las cosas,” the artist recognized that archives and their messages are dormant unless activated through attentive observation. By photographing the collections of an entomologist, a botanist, the archive of the National Cinematheque of Venezuela, trophies of a marathon runner, and many more private and public collections, Bonadies represents both individual and collective memories. The photographs highlight how the process of preserving and organizing objects can amplify or hide the objects’ historical significance. The physical space of the National Cinematheque, the site of many of the photos in “Las personas y las cosas,” is divided into three sections colloquially known as “Heaven”, “Earth,” and “Hell,” holding classics of world cinema since the 1960s. Film reels in the “Heaven” section were in a perfect state when found and were recuperated and digitized, making the materials accessible in the contemporary world through reproductions and distributions via the archive’s film store. What is placed in the “Earth” level has yet to be restored, making it vulnerable and at risk of being lost forever. The ephemeral nature of these film reels becomes apparent considering the contents are only accessible via analog technologies, such as film projectors, which are becoming more rare as digital platforms take over. The images found in the “Hell” level are those reels that cannot be restored to something that resembles their original state, making the material itself evidence of time’s ability to decay.
What is prioritized for preservation, and what is allowed to decay, is a debate that reflects the current state of Venezuela. Bonadies says, “There are issues of wills and personal initiatives against, so to speak, [those] of a government that serves to belittle memory in order to rewrite it from scratch." This hierarchy of categories represents a worldview about what deserves to be archived. “When things are classified, there is an entire ideology surrounding the classification of those things, and additionally what is selected for preservation and what is selected not to be preserved or kept,” she says. Exposing the process of archiving also exposes the process of constructing history. Institutionalized accounts of history tend to prioritize events that are monumental, overshadowing everyday life; a process of fabricating history that links what is considered “truth” to fiction in that not all facts are presented. Bonadies challenges the objectivity of the historical narrative by presenting its subjective characteristics.
The project itself, a collection of images, also put Bonadies in the position of the archivist in charge of deciding how to present and relate the images she has created. Viewers of the exhibition or publication see images of the film library placed in relationship to a botanical nursery, placed in relationship to a blood bank, to a CD collection, and so on. In developing the project, Bonadies drew from “The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences” by French philosopher Michel Foucault. The book proposes an alternative model to thinking through the roots and relationships between different sciences, and introduces the concept of “heterotopia,” describing spaces that have different meanings and relationships beyond what is physically visible. “Foucault talks about how an archive can become a form that is closer to what he called ‘heterotopia.’ Heterotopia as in many possibilities of ordering... an order that isn’t exclusive but inclusive and that permits many readings.” Placing different archives together allowed Bonadies to demonstrate the possibilities of reading these collections outside the grand narrative of official history, effectively breaking its linear nature and presenting what she describes instead as “smaller, different histories, or of everyday life.”
Bonadies explores her relationship to another archive in the project “Palacio Negro/Black Palace,” while also unraveling the history and architecture of a site. This photo series explores El Palacio Negro de Lecumberri (The Black Palace of Lecumberri), in Mexico City. The structure acted as a prison from 1900 to 1976, and now as a national archive since 1980. In “Palacio Negro/Black Palace,” Bonadies documents herself interacting with Mexico’s national archive: specifically, images of what the site once was, images that are now part of the archive housed there. Bonadies presents 18 images in a sequence of lightboxes, preserving their original presentation formats when possible. Containing both archival images of the prison and new images of the current building, the lightboxes expose the remodeled architecture of the palace that allows each part of the building to take on a new role. The Panopticon — the central part of prison, a cylindrical structure that allowed the inmates to be surveilled — is now a ruin that holds cleaning equipment. The building was remodeled so that now the central structure is a grand hall, where light enters through the top, like the Pantheon in Rome. Through this gesture, Bonadies says, “the architecture has wiped clean the darkness of the Black Palace of Lecumberri, of the tortures, etc. In some way it’s illuminated it.” As she explains Foucault’s perspective, this disuse and repurposing of the prison reflects how the punishment formerly sited with the body has now been relocated to the soul. Besides literally bringing to light images from the building’s past, Bonadies also created new images that she says show “themes that persist.” These include photographs of a woman sweeping the building in present day, displayed alongside images of women sweeping the prison decades before. These layers of time, superimposed, suggest questions regarding gender that saturated the past and are still unresolved today.
Focusing on the architecture of the Black Palace is very much connected to the history of the artist, having first chosen to study architecture when she was a student at Central University of Venezuela. “I’ve become interested in the objects and spaces that surround people and all the texts that are generated from that relationship. It’s a type of theater, and the objects and architecture are transformed into characters through photography,” Bonadies says. She believes that taking a photograph of a building is also conducting an interview with a building, manifesting its energy as in “Palacio Negro/Black Palace.” Some of her photographs resist dialogue, such as one that presents a gloved hand holding a film strip. The film negative and its images are reversed, making an image positive, and the gloved hand takes on an X-ray quality. This situates the depicted event within a negative-film world, against the notion that a film-negative must be developed into a positive image in order to reach a representation that faithfully materializes what the photographer saw through his or her eyes. Details that are often overlooked in the positive-film world are amplified here, pointing to the construction of visual representations, like photographs, and challenging their relationship to truth. In “Palacio Negro/ Black Palace,” the past and present have a conversation through an architectural space that demonstrates how narratives of history don’t have to fit linear representations. Bonadies mimics the process of photography as a tool of representation to call attention to its construction, once again pointing to the historical fictions of the real world.
The National Archives of Mexico carries historical artifacts from different disciplines. The location of the national archive has been criticized as an inadequate space for archive work. The building’s unevenness to the street and its close proximity to the Grand Canal drain puts it at great risk for flooding and fungi, all putting evidence of the past in severe danger. Interest in the vulnerabilities endangering existing archives is scarce in Bonadies’ home country of Venezuela. Deteriorating infrastructures are slowly disappearing, with the government's knowledge. The result may be that residues of the past vanish and a new history is constructed from the present, which will deny the past and its meaning to future generations.
During her residency, Bonadies has spent her time visiting and investigating different historical sites. As of now, the sites of her Los Angeles exploration have been museums, libraries, archives, historic neighborhoods, and the creations of renowned architects, such as the Eames House. Regarding her first impression of Los Angeles, Bonadies says, “What seems more interesting is the feeling that no one finishes seeing the city because I feel it is made up of many cities and many villages, or these fantastic things are always happening... in that sense it is a city of nooks.” Describing Los Angeles as a labyrinth fits with the Borgesian theme of the upcoming LACMA exhibition and Bonadies’ residency at 18th Street Arts Center. Wandering the halls of LACMA, where her work will be exhibited, Bonadies again makes a connection to the writings of Borges. “Not only is LACMA a new and referential space, it is also an encyclopedic museum and Borges was a deeply encyclopedic character,” she says. She describes how the horizontalism of themes across LACMA’s permanent and temporary exhibitions mimic how an encyclopedia is structured, but in the physical space of the galleries.
Before beginning the residency, Bonadies completed an exhibition at Venezuelan gallery Abra Caracas, called “West Side.” She describes the project “as a photographic review of the artist’s own archive” where “photography takes second place.” Bonadies explains that the title for the exhibition, “West Side,” also “started from the idea that it related to the side where the sun hides, the side of shadows, the losses, the mournings... which is precisely related to the current breakdown of Venezuela... the sensation that it is a country that is somehow broken.” The images in “West Side” are interventions that the artist created within a book about a Venezuelan modern painter, Armando Barrios. She photographed these interventions, which she describes as “a critical revision of modernity.” Barrios was an important painter to intervene with, not only in terms of dissecting and critiquing Western notions of modernity, but also because some of his works, such as murals found at the Central University of Venezuela, represent the worst of the deterioration allowed and caused by the Venezuelan state.
“West Side” hints at the sun’s ability to conceal its own light. Having resided near the coast in different parts of the world, but never on this coast, Bonadies is impressed with the quality of light found in the West side of Los Angeles, specifically on the coast of Santa Monica. The theme of light, and what it can reveal, points to a vitality that Bonadies explores in her work with archives and in her broader practice. These processes are active in her residency at 18th Street Arts Center.
Top image: Ángela Bonadies, s/t from the series "Historia universal del derrumbe/A Universal History of Collapse." Work in progress. Size variable. Digital print. | Courtesy of the artist
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