Reality vs Representations: Our Cultural Playground

RESEARCH ON CULTURAL HERITAGE AND THE PLATFORM “ARCHIVING-GAPS”

French curator Patricia Couvet explores novel artistic research initiatives that dwell on creative spaces that exist outside of Western canons. In their documentation, new contexts of authenticity are revealed: ones that persist despite globalising and homogenous histories and survive through alterity and local experience.

As a young French curator coming from the Eastern part of France (Strasbourg), currently living in Germany and having lived in Belgium previously, I have been surrounded by figures and institutions which collectively represent the benefits of a so-called open, democratic culture. French society lies upon the emotional attachment to its heritage. France promotes itself as the political idea of a cultural exception (“l’exception culturelle française”). This stipulates that the state fosters culture as a specific human activity and acknowledges its non-trade value. A whole system of values that seals the production of culture. It goes from dubbing every foreign movie to a proud policy of cultural heritage that makes the recent blaze of Notre-Dame Cathedral the (inter)national tragedy of a centralised country. 

Cultural heritage is an ensemble of sensitive practices. It aims to shape a timeless, commodified space within some objects, artefacts, sounds, and images that have been judged worth being preserved, or forgotten, by various authorities. These elements navigate from the past into the present and toward the future. They shape a mental pattern of “stratified deposits.”[1] What sensitive influence do such elements have on us, as individuals but also as groups? How can we distinguish the cultural constructions from the personal memories attached to an object? By alluding to ‘a reflective nostalgia’, we can work at the intersection of memory studies and heritage studies.[2] In this way, another approach to the construction of a collective memory is addressed, which refers to personal and local experiences instead of a rationalisation of ideas conveyed through representations. 

Cultural heritage is in part shaped by the feeling of homesickness and nostalgia that has intensified due to 20th-century displacement. Nostalgia invokes a sense of personal belonging to a place and the memories attached to it, as well as the feeling of being uprooted from the Homeland that one had to leave for various reasons. And because of this, modern nostalgia is a relatively new concept that relates to an imagined past time. It alludes to the success of memory policies that are crystallised in the remains of a culture’s heritage and addresses the personal feeling toward a collective memory. Cultural heritage refocuses attention onto one event or one person to shape a counter-memory to the 19th and 20th-century disillusionment with imperialism, communism, and capitalism. 

Cultural heritage is also an economic process guided forward by political interests and neoliberal tendencies in the art market. For example, if we take a recent case, the Romanian cultural art scene was enlightened in 2019 by its Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The main exhibition of this milestone was Brâncuși at BOZAR in Brussels. The larger part of this collection has been preserved at Centre Pompidou in Paris. As I learned during one of my visits to the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest (MNAC), showing a Brâncuși show at MNAC is almost impossible due to the cost of insurance. Western European art history seems ubiquitous, as it follows a one-way global model of representations. In addition, it may also be that a common cultural art heritage is not accessible to everyone. 

The Kiss (1910), sculpture by Constantin Brâncuș. Romanian stamp issued in 1967, as part of the 10th anniversary of the death of Constantin Brâncuși. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shifting the Dichotomy: Learning From Each Other

A seemingly linear history of Europe has been established in Europe based on the instrumentalisation of a common nostalgia but also on economic division. Western Europe and very few other countries are part of the central cultural stage. An illustration of this paradigm is the “House of European History”, which opened in 2017 in Brussels. In this museum, you stroll through a collection of artefacts equipped with an iPad that explains the caption in front of every object you pass by. The museum’s website states that: 

We aim to become the leading museum of transnational phenomena which have shaped our continent. By interpreting history from a European perspective, it [the museum] connects and compares shared experiences and their diverse interpretations. It aims to initiate learning on transnational perspectives across Europe.[3]

However, those educated in Western European society are unlikely to learn anything new. History is depicted in the already familiar restrictive dualities, such as “totalitarianism” and “democracy”, the “reconstruction of a divided continent”, “European memory shared and divided”. From an Eastern European perspective, for instance, the international celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall still casts a divisive shadow. The centre is the democratic area that embodies the only solution to progress, whereas the periphery is the primitive one not only facing the difficulties of a communist past but also awaiting enlightenment. 

My research lies at the overlapping possibilities for current artists and alternative cultural places to create other perspectives on cultural heritage, whilst promoting the past, present, and future of gender equality, the decolonisation of ideas, as well as the dislocation of capitalism and the delocalisation of knowledge. The project “Archiving-gaps” is an online platform that aims to record exhibitions, publications, and talks organised during this investigation. It explores the study of heritage as a discontinuity process navigating between local references to decentralise a hegemonic conception of cultural heritage in Europe. 

Cultural Archives as an Artistic Practice: Creating Alternatives

The following paragraphs seek to present the artists engaged in the first exhibition organised in conjunction with the online platform. The online display entitled “The Reconstitutions Hide but the Archives Reveal” is the result of a collaboration with six artists who are working with archives in order to question and understand the role of such collections of artefacts for current socio-cultural struggles. Using archives as an artistic practice, the selected artists also question the document’s context of production and reproduction. 

Archives represent raw matter which precedes the visible layers of interpretation, with the potential to reveal facts. After all, the archive is—in its broadest sense—embodied through collected pieces of information from cultural or political institutions. The archive, as a bureaucratic entity, gathers the tools of official representations through the means of newspapers, post, exhibition photography, and communication scripts, among other visual or written components. I would like to use the example of Belgian artist Ada Somín, who is part of the “Archiving Gaps” project. As a philosopher and historian, her work on colonial archives deals with the actual representation of Congo’s colonisation in Belgium. The Congo was colonised by Belgium between 1908 and 1960, although this process did not have the official status of state colonisation at first because King Leopold II had used it as his private property from 1884-5 to 1908. Somín’s work brings together institutional archives (sounds, texts, pictures) of monuments present in public spaces and parks in Brussels; the equestrian monument dedicated to Leopold II at Place du Trône or the “Monument to the Fallen of the Belgian Colonial Effort” in Parc du Cinquantenaire. By gathering archival artefacts and assembling them in the form of collages, she creates what Rancière called a meditative image (“l’image pensive”).[4] As viewers, we end up questioning the normalisation of those representations in the Belgian landscape and are invited to think about possible alternatives for historical narrations, to gather all Leopold II busts from Belgium inside the Royal Domain, or propose a new monument in Tervuren, the graves of the seven men and women who died during the World Fair of 1897 located next to the brand new Royal Museum for Central Africa.

Ada Somín, Leopold Suspendu, 2020, courtesy Ada Somín

At the same time, we need to take into consideration the emergence of the personal archives of the artists—attempts at self-archiving artworks, sketches, contracts, letters. During my visit to Ukraine in 2019, I asked people to talk about their relationship with heritage. Most of them argued that living in the present is the most important thing because of our innate inability to predict what the future entails. This active position is in line with the daily deconstruction of historical mythologies and the process of unveiling multiple local and national narratives. As part of the “Method Fund” initiative, the platform “Creating Ruins” is focused on recording essays and documenting events that draw on Ukrainian cultural histories from the perspective of various artists, curators, and researchers. ‘Method Fund’ represents an independent nonprofit organisation founded in 2018 to support and develop art and culture in Ukraine by initiating scientific, educational, and exhibition projects. The self-educational and experimental methodology promoted by “Method Fund” is echoed here in the multiple and alternative visions of the past which overlap as non-authoritarian positions. The usage of the verb ‘create’ acknowledges the possibility of reimagining a historical object’s significance. Given the distance in time, there is the potential to create alterities, moments of differentiation in the present time, rather than a repetition of past narratives.

The idea to appropriate archives transnationally represents a method through which national storytelling is challenged. Another compelling example is provided by Nikolay Karabinovych, a Ukrainian artist who is interested in the notion of culture as personal histories that are related to musical archives. His project “Ugly Tape from Balkan” is the asymmetric mirror of the better-known “Awesome Tapes From Africa.” In a practice that implies collecting and researching in the style of an ethnomusicologist, Karabinovych is foremost concerned with the Guslar practice. A Guslar is a traditional singer from the Balkans performing storytelling through music based on one or two gusle, a stringed instrument. The Guslar practice doesn’t belong to a determined national area in the Balkans. In time, it has transmitted through oral stories from middle-age epic tales to contemporary world changes. At the same time, the project “Ugly Tape from Balkan” deliberately assumes the possibility of appropriating the archives to create a sort of ornament of sound textures and contexts. As is often the case, Karabinovych explores the polysemic voices of local zones influenced by multiple layers of history. The result is an endless DJ-set where Guslar storytelling becomes dramatically morbid. Making the parallel between the heroism of Guslar music and the ambiguity of contemporary noise music, Karabinovych creates a living archive. It carries on the transmission of Guslar music only changing the format to modern dance music and the storytelling to an ironic tempo. 

Nikolay Karabinovych, Ugly Tape from Balkan, 2017, courtesy Nikolay Karabinovych

Besides this, archiving implies an active selection process that depends on the story or the narrative and factual components that the protagonists seek to emphasise. Contemporary artists can create new archives, considering that art history archives have to be (re)written in order to include newly produced forms of knowledge. Samuel Arnaud’s photographs take digital images that are accessible on the web (travels or ethnographic, documentaries as well as their updated version in the form of ‘vlogs’ and Google browsing that leads to unexpected navigation…) or reproduced directly by himself in European museums to give new visibility to ritual practices. The artist transmits visual representations as well as interpretations, thus providing multiple readings to the selected output. When we consider aspects of accelerated over-production of images, his work questions the overall role of the photograph. Arnaud overlaps various technologies in his practice and turns digital research into books. The images are not exploited for their capacity to represent a new digital era but to disseminate the information exponentially: a post-Internet practice. It serves an almost iconographic purpose, that of combining technologies and extending the photograph by using an open-source principle to reflect upon a globalised heritage. To what extent can we consider that our globalised world produces a common heritage? Will this help us consider a non-hierarchical reflection on heritage that decentralises Western knowledge? The project “Rituals 2020” shows similarities that spiritual practices share between various societies in order to reduce oppositions between cult practices. Arnaud’s visual research represents another view on immaterial cultural heritage which is often considered exotic, folkloric, or national. 

Samuel Arnaud, from the series Rituals 2020, courtesy Samuel Arnaud

The commonality in this curatorial project is the appropriation artists resort to when it comes to cultural archives that originate from local or national areas. The Ukrainian visual artist, performer, and movie maker Natasha Tzeliuba recounts her experience as an artist coming back to an area in Zaporijia, an industrial city in Ukraine with her film “My Kosmos” (2019). Her work documents and generates artistic archives on forgotten places of the globalised world. “My mother never tells her friends that I am doing performance, she says that I am an artist. Her friends ask her to show them her daughter’s paintings and my mom doesn’t know what to say…” The stroll guides us through the almost empty places of her childhood area named after the USSR’s satellites symbols of progress and a better future. The term cosmos also refers to other, multiple spaces and the ideas they convey. In the space of personal memory, past and future meet in non-hierarchical constellations. From this conception, the artist confronts herself with sporadic memories that happened at different stages of her life. The experience and knowledge that artists can transpose in artworks is an endless source for overcoming the missed visibility of post-peripheries. The past sheds light on creative spaces outside Western canons and reveals different contexts for multiple forms of contemporary art, outside the narration of the West. The meaning of cosmos depends on the perspective of the world we are giving to this space. Here, Tzeliuba creates the conditions to document and record other constellations of knowledge.

Natasha Tzeliuba, My Cosmos, 10min55, 2019

The same process of decentralising a cultural history is present in Sergey Shabohin’s research about the UNOVIS group (which included Malevich and Chagall, among other 40 artists) and the Vitebsk School, now located in Belarus. Few documents have been collected about the school by local authorities and the still existing artworks are mostly preserved in Western institutions. The building where the school used to exist had been itself in very bad condition for a long time. However, in 2020, the Vitebsk School heritage was celebrated with a year-long programme of cultural events, just before the violent episodes of repression that took place in Belarus. The series of collected documents and transformed images, “We are all stern consumers of the cultural revolution”, represents an attempt to preserve Vitebsk’s school heritage and question its legacy. Here, Shabohin advocates for a postcolonial kind of modernism. On the one hand, the avant-garde has been appropriated by the Western institution as one of the major movements in art history. I cannot ignore the carnivorous appetite of the French cultural policy while thinking about my first encounter with the painted dome of the Opera Garnier in Paris made by Chagall on the order of the French ministry of culture in 1965. There is inconspicuous inequality in the preservation of heritage in Europe and, through the injection of funds, most central or eastern European countries can afford to legitimise the appropriation of their heritage. On the other hand, there is standardisation in this appropriation which Shabohin associates with consumption. We have become used to design images of the Vitebsk heritage; their legacy has been commodified as another product of consumption. Beyond the East vs. West dichotomy, we share the same globalised world view that instrumentalises cultural heritage for the socio-cultural profit of national policies and the accumulation of private capital alike. 

  • Sergey Shabohin, We are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions. 1920s Drawings vs. 2010s Ads, 2013, courtesy Sergey Shabohin
  • Sergey Shabohin, We are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions. 1920s Drawings vs. 2010s Ads, 2013, courtesy Sergey Shabohin

Archives are collected as much as they are invoked today. It means that there is a real potential to appropriately present facts artistically that inform changes in civil society. I cannot finish this brief text without mentioning Shabohin’s current project entitled “Social Marble”. While Shabohin starts his reflection from the practice of cleaning Belarusian marble, he reveals the historical turn of the current protests in Belarus. During my studies, one of my university teachers told me that history is not about digging into the past, but rather writing about the passage of time. I believe Social Marble”is an inspiring example to conclude this essay. The project shapes the new disposition of an ongoing present which will be inscribed in the new historical page to come. It also acknowledges the position of the artistic research to create a protocol for the archives’ production as a strategy.

Conclusion: Archiving the Missing Gaps

Although the 20th-century crisis is largely responsible for creating national representations around heritage as a common societal good, we are part of a new generation that challenges the idea of the never again on a global perspective. More than restoring and remapping useless models, it is important to create alternatives that enable us to carve out new forms of representation. It means shifting from an old dichotomy between West and East through the shared experience of transnational collaborations. More complex transnational networks of artistic exchanges can be developed with a precise emphasis placed on shared experiences. In this sense, peripheries are not mere geographical ideas or forms of marginality. Peripheries can exist in every project which is trying to change mentalities and representations along with providing answers to the needs of our society in terms of cultural understanding. Local experience teaches us that being part of the centre isn’t the only issue, in as much as being part of the centre isn’t the ultimate goal. 

Here, the question lies along the lines of: What can we do as artists, curators, and citizens? Destroying these representations of old power relations is one path to act for decolonising the public space. In a recent article, French author, curator, and film producer Olivier Marboeuf mentions the process of knowledge-transmission of the “body-vehicle”[5], asking us to examine the perspective from which we talk about decolonial gestures. I believe, taking this position serves to create new spaces for critique, naming the gaps left by global or local histories and fostering the multiplicity of voices in heritage studies. The artistic research and practices described by this essay also seek to give some examples that claim to introduce new narratives in the study of heritage. Archives are materialised documents but these archives are also activated and are part of other processes working with the past.

‘Archiving-gaps’ is only one step among many others that are happening both synchronously and at various other speeds. It is, rather, a call for further development of ideas and collaborations guided by continual research on how such connections come into existence. It doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive or objective but hopefully it will prove successful in stimulating novel forms of understanding concerning cultural heritage and its archiving as a social and cultural phenomenon, as well as new possible engagements with various local contexts. The next outcome of ‘Archiving-gaps’ will be a physical publication that will engage in more proactive efforts, the reflection on the format, and the proximity to the artworks while using another system of dissemination.

Visit the “Archiving-gaps” platform here.

[1] Because cultural heritage is shaping a common ground (“as the kind of shared basis to which individual agents might be blind, but by which they are nevertheless crucially governed”), I refer to Antonio Gramsci in order to demystify the common sense as “critical and coherent but disjointed and episodic—although it does seem to possess a certain logic, as well as an inherent bundle of historical layers.” 

[2] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, 2001.

[3] House of European history website, https://historia-europa.ep.eu/en/mission-vision.

[4] “A thoughtful image is then an image that conceals unthinking thought, a thought that is not assignable to the intention of the one who produces it and that has an effect on the person who sees it without being bound to it. to a specific object”, Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé, La Fabrique éditions, 2016, p.115.

[5] “[…] the body-vehicle that I borrow assumes its illegitimacy. It is a body that until now has never had the right to speak very loudly. For many reasons, it was never the right time for it; this body was never welcome, there were always good reasons to find it too noisy, too talkative, too vague, inaudible and untimely.” in Decolonial Variation, A conversation between Olivier Marboeuf and Joachim Ben Yakoub (May 2019), https://oliviermarboeuf.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/variations_decoloniales_eng_def.pdf

Patricia Couvet is a curator based in Berlin and Brussels. With a background in cultural history, her work relies on the entanglement of human and social sciences with the curatorial. Her practice seeks to create transnational collaborations while experimenting on the format of the curatorial realm (exhibitions, publications, online platforms, performative formats).

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