The art archive considered as a new contemporary genre. This is the statement – that appears provocative, but comes out from a solid historical and aesthetic research – by Cristina Baldacci on the occasion of her speech delivered during the tenth Festival of the Mind in Sarzana (2013).
For ten years now, Baldacci, both as an university historian and a critic, writing for newspapers and magazines, has brought forward a research on the topic of the roles, meaning and forms that the archive has assumed in contemporary art practice. A year after the Venice Biennale curated by Massimiliano Gioni, which saw her the protagonist of a dialogue-interview with the Curator, published by the Venice Biennale itself with the title “Dream to know everything”, the practice of criticism and contemporary art seems increasingly driven not only by a live “encyclopedic desire”, but also by a renewed awareness of the importance of the archive as a device of knowledge and memory.
Deianira Amico: Let me start this interview by asking how you managed to rise to the top as a researcher; when do you think the theme of the archive has become important in art?
Cristina Baldacci: The “archival impulse” – as the American critic Hal Foster called it in one of his famous essay of 2004 – that is so widespread today, has deep roots that lead us back to the twentieth century and in reverse to the encyclopedias Enlightenment, to scientific taxonomies and trees of knowledge of the seventeenth century, to the theaters of memory and the Wunderkammer, to the cosmologies and intuitive medieval compendia of knowledge. The interest in the archive is manifested in the visual field especially with the early twentieth-century avant-garde and the Bilderatlas by Aby Warburg, the largest archive of images in the form of atlas, in which visual culture and contemporary art practice, owe much. In a particular historical period as that, between the two world wars, the artists anticipated the danger of a possible memory leak. This is the know-how of encyclopedic projects, such as by August Sander, author of an archive-atlas of photographic portraits of men of the twentieth century, classified by trade, and Hannah Höch, in 1933, that collects and assembles a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that represent the life at the time of the Weimar Republic. The gaze of the German artist focuses, in particular, on the multiethnic humanity, borderline, which, shortly thereafter was to be excluded and persecuted by the Nazis. Another important historical moment for the archives is to be placed in the sixties and seventies, when, with the advent of new technologies, a process called “dematerialization” of the art was found and spread conceptual and procedural skills. It then became important to document actions, gestures, ideas that had often been short-lived or remained solely at the project idea. The exhibition When Attitudes Become Form (1969) by Harald Szeemann was the first attempt to catalogue the new language of art. Among the archival projects of those years, the Atlas of Gerhard Richter is typical: a visual atlas that consists of more than 8,000 photographs, which, from 1962 onwards, appears not only as a collection of iconographic models, used by Richter for his paintings, as well as a mapping of thought and, at the same time, a mapping of the artist’s life.
D.A: Which are the aesthetic and social factors that motivate, in your opinion, this renewed interest in the archives?
C.B.: The turning point is the beginning of digitalization, that has produced a kind of do-it-by-yourself archival euphoria: nowadays we all try to store ourselves and our personal experiences through social networks, with a constellation of photos, thoughts, “tweets”. Despite somewhere there is track of everything, we still fear the danger of a loss of memory, that today depends on the speed of changing of the media for storing and reading data. The digital age has challenged the old systems of memory storage and knowledge and at the same time, it has produced an experimental euphoria to contemporary artists in action, and has enacted the archive device as critical and subversive of the traditional logic of cataloguing and transmission of knowledge.
D.A: Is there in the artist, as well as the use of the archive as an aesthetic device, a need to store contemporary art in order to protect and promote their own work?
C.B.: Considering the role of the market, this is certainly a need that is felt in the contemporary art system. It has become more complicated and hierarchical and artists are aware that they must become more and more skilled managers and archivists themselves. Richter, once again, is exemplary in this regard: in addition to using the archive as an art form, he has always been careful in storing not only his works, but also what he said, his interviews, which were then collected and published under his supervision. This desire for control over the entire production – and therefore also on the market – is also expressed in the commitment to follow closely the catalogue raisonné of his work, very accurate, which exists on paper in several volumes, but also online.
D.A: The first time I came across your name in an academy context was for the IUAV’s project “Make Exhibitions to Make History” – a programmatic title. Can you share with the readers the purpose for which this project was born and the state of the art today?
C.B: “Making Exhibitions for Making History” is a research group born at IUAV, thanks to Angela Vettese, Marco De Michelis and Francesca Castellani, with the aim of studying the Venice Biennale. The ongoing commitment in studying a fundamental exhibition such as the Biennale, as it is a periodical show that has been going on for over a century, is to tell the story of contemporary art. To date, in its archive, the ASAC, the memory of languages and the trends of the twentieth century is gathered, with the aim to establish a new art-historical method: make a story through the history of art exhibitions. The study-day “Starting from Venice”, held at the IUAV in 2009, was born with the idea that, to start from Venice, there was the possibility to enlarge the field of investigation to other major international exhibitions, including the new biennials and Documenta.
D.A: As a teacher, do you think that the teaching of contemporary art has a good response in Italian universities?
C.B: I was given the thesis of Richter in 2002-2003, and at the time it was one of the few, if not the first of the Department of Arts of the University of Milan, to have as an object of research the work of a living artist. The Department of Arts and Design at IUAV, which is another university that I know well, since its inception has come closer to the model of the Anglo-Saxon universities, where they form both theorists, or artists, calling to teach international visiting professors and operators of the system of contemporary art. Unlike universities or art schools abroad, where the contemporary field of research and study of contemporary art has been present for a long time, our ministerial programs devote too little space for it. This does not mean that the Italian universities do not teach a good historical method, but it is also important for anyone to study the present. Enthusiasm, curiosity and interest do the rest.
Milan, June 25th, 2014
This post is also available in: Italian