6. GRAIN and responses to Archives

GRAIN Arts Organisation and Responses to Archives

GRAIN is an independent arts organisation based in the West Midlands that collaborates with national and international partners to support/grow opportunities for artists, photographers and curators. GRAIN commissions  new work , offers residencies  with the Library of Birmingham and other partners and collaborates in research projects such as Photography and the Archive  which was site-specific and responsive to material housed in the Library of Birmingham Photography Collection. Participants in Photography and the archive took Bournville Village as a starting point and catalyst for new work exploring the application of Documentary Photography in relationship to the archive. I spent a few years living in Birmingham not far from Bournville Village and the mention of it brought back the smell of chocolate that often used to waft over our estate.

I enjoyed exploring the varied projects and artists involved but will confine myself to mention of just a few of them before writing in more detail on one in particular for Exercise 2.2.

Sophy Rickett & Bettina von Zwehl :Album 31

In 2012  Photographers Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl were commissioned by GRAIN to respond to the photographic collection of Sir Benjamin Stone   which is housed in Birmingham Library. Sir Benjamin Stone  (1838-1914) was a Birmingham industrialist and politician.  He was also a skilled amateur photographer and collector of photographs. He recorded the sights and personalities of the Palace of Westminster and “made it his business to photograph every MP, servants of the Houses of Parliament and many of those who visited” Some of which are held at the National Portrait Gallery In 1897 he announced the formation of the National Photographic Record Association (BPRA) whose aim was,  ‘to record the ancient buildings, folk customs and other ‘survivals’ of historical interest for the future’  and create a national memory bank. The NPRA deposited 5883 photographs at the British Museum between 1897 and 1910, of which 1532 were by  Sir Benjamin, and all these photographs were eventually transferred to the V&A.

The Collection in the Library of Birmingham was presented to the Library by  his trustees in 1921. Stone amassed 50 albums of photographs, classified to reflect his interests, but Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl concentrated on Album 31 (labelled “Sundry Photographs”) which contained photographs Stone wanted to keep but that didn’t fit into any of his other albums. Rickett and von Zwehl produced a new series of album pages (10) using motifs they had identified as characteristic of Stone’s own album, such as oval frames around images within pages.  The source imagery came from their own archives – outboxes and abandoned projects that had not previously ‘seen the light of day’. They combined colour and black and white as Stone had been interested in the permanence of different print processes.  The collaboration produced some beautiful pages, re-contextualising the artists’ own images and including extracts of text which was a mix of personal reflections and diary entries.  the new album pages were exhibited at the Library in 2015 and there is a review here by Oliver McCall (31 August 2015) and information on the Grain site here. I felt quite entranced by the pages I’ve been able to access which, to me, have a delicacy and translucency about them which mirrors the pages of Stone’s album whilst presenting different and contemporary work.

Broomberg & Chanarin : Spirit is a Bone

These photographers explored the Library archives over a period of two years, making connections with these, their own work and their own concerns.  They drew attention to both access to and the structure of the archive and certainly connected with the Sir Benjamin Stone Collection and Stone’s need to document, collect, control and own. This included his Album no. 50 “Types and Races of Mankind” that ‘includes what might be called non-consensual images”.

From Broomberg & Chanarin’s  website   you can download a PDF of a conversation between themselves and Eval Weizman,  that also includes photographs taken by Sir Benjamin Stone (amongst others). They explain to Weizman that they encountered an impasse when they began to engage with the Library archives. Material is stored in hermetically sealed vaults and controlled by air-conditioning apparatus that sucks out oxygen and replicates high altitude conditions. Staff must undergo medical clearance before being allowed to enter as extended exposure can cause shortness of breath and dizziness. As members of the public Broomberg & Chanarin werere unable to roam freely because of these restrictions so, ‘…. Were reliant on the knowledge, memory and catalogues built up by generations of staff to access material …. It always seems to come down to a question of access: who is controlling the archive, who is compiling it and using it, and to what ends’.

They refer to Sekula’s essay on the archive and its connection

……. with the operations of power that regulate the social body, placing the development of photography in the context of the emergence of policing and technologies of surveillance …. It’s difficult to extricate the final result of these archives from the intentions of their maker or makers; yet their very preservation leaves them subject for constant revision. These collections, far from being inert documents tucked away in dusty boxes in forgotten rooms, harbour an insidious power. In some ways we’re still facing the same impasse we felt when we began this project – there’s a loaded sense of responsibility in the use and creation of archives such as this, and there’s a sense that it’s unstable ground; that it could backfire.

Weizman reflects during the discussion that, as a tool, it can be used in many ways and so is out of control of its makers and can be used against the people that made it, ‘… different questions can always be posed and those questions will be different at every historical conjecture, with a different political constellation around that question. Once a photograph has been used in a particular way, and returned to the archive it has the potential to be read again, ‘its potential will always be in excess of the particular history that produced it.

The title of the work is a quote from Hegel’s essay the Phenomenology of the Spirit” where he contrast physiognomy with the science of phrenology (cf Sekula again). As I would have expected from looking at their previous work Broomberg & Chanarin subvert and challenge the archive. They obviously accessed material from it because they’re utilising it although perhaps they requested for it to be brought from those ‘protected’ vaults. Additionally, as a response to the archive (and referencing Sir Benjamin Stone) they went on to use a potentially oppressive recognition system for their work Spirit is a Bone. They created a series of portraits- a taxonomy of portraits in contemporary Russia – using a facial recognition system machine developed in Moscow for public security and border control surveillance.  The results resemble a digital life mask – a 3D facsimile that can be rotated and scrutinised and the low resolution and fragmented portraits are presented according to profession.

Interim thoughts

As mentioned at the beginning, I spent some time delving into GRAIN’s projects, particularly those responding to archives. I felt inspired by the many different ways in which the artists produced new work – work that connected in some way, whether by design, structure or content, and yet was completely fresh. I think the two projects I’ve written about here relate to re-contextualisation, subversion and de-construction of archives. Bloomberg & Chagrin particularly point to the way in which the structure of archives can both protect and deflect access. In my next post on the connected exercise I’ll look at another function of archives.