Archival impulses
by Marinella Paderni, May 2012

When Celeste Network invited me to curate the first edition of a new prize dedicated to photography and video, it was natural for me to identify as a dominant theme ‘archive fever’ and contemporary photography’s interest in history and the construction of collective memory. Characterizing the prize with a combination of theme and specific language, enhances the contest compared with others, because it serves the dual purpose of investigating the current artistic scene, as well as reflecting on new expressive possibilities in contemporary photography and video.

We know that the memory industry is in its own way forgetful; collective memory today is more and more instantaneous, short-lived, at times finding it hard even to remember what has just passed. We are all veterans of the recent collapse of utopias and great ideological narratives, immersed in an endless and forgetful present driven by our media age. We live in this timeless condition, inventing paradoxically new technologies to ‘store’ memories, to build networks of shared memory, to eternalize and store every bit of experience, transforming all this human material in new forms of storytelling: open stories in the process of being written, made not to reach a definitive historicization. Art reacts to this unusual form of phenomenology by activating ‘counter-memory’ practices and inventing new devices of storytelling through the exploration and potential inherent in archives.

Archives have become readymades of time. Through archival documents we perceive the relationship between time and history, reality and representation, between an event and its future. In capturing the spark of time filed in an image, a photograph or a video, we are able to fix the past in an eternal, suspended present as well as offer a glimpse of a possible future.

This reflection on the active nature of time is what makes photography and video so relevant today. Artists that explore the use of archives and the production of collective memory are asking themselves what are photographic or film images able to remember or forget, and for whom or for what purpose. In this way, artists rethink their authority over the technology of memory and reflect on the authorship of images in a season in which new technologies have disrupted their historical significance.

368 projects were submitted to ‘beyondmemory’, showing just how urgent and meaningful the phenomenon of ‘archive fever’ is in our culture today. The 10 finalists, selected by members of the jury, Giovanna Calvenzi, Daniele De Luigi and George Tatge, are representative of different lines of research on the subject and forms which photography and video practice have taken compared with other languages such as new media.

An interesting phenomenon which emerges from this selection is the inter-relationship between still-image photography and moving-image video or film, ending once and for all any limit between the two languages. Of the 10 finalist projects, 3 are photographic projects by Claudio Gobbi, Marta Primavera and Greg Sand; 6 are video projects by Patrizia Bonardi, Dave Farnham, Emily Martinez, Kavit Mody, Caterina Pecchioli and Enrique Ramirez; and 1 project is by Fotoromanzo Italiano, dedicated to the now obsolete ‘picture story’ device revisited as a hybrid of different languages.

Walter Benjamin wrote that the historical content index in images shows that they are understood only at particular times in their history. In the works of Kavit Mody, Marta Primavera and Caterina Pecchioli the past is "observed with new eyes," described in an open, dynamic time horizon regarding today’s issues, finally revealing it’s hidden character of differing intelligibilities in a wider process of construction of memory. Especially in Mody’s and Pecchioli’s work the narration of history – in Mody the tragic nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Pecchioli the popular figure of a person considered ‘different’ in the memory of her fellow citizens  - isn’t left only to the image, but is supported by word and narrative voices of those who recount events through the practice of remembrance. In Primavera’s work it is the legacy of visual cultural history which needs to be investigated, begging the question: how do images of the past affect the creation of the future?

Being contemporary in our century and ‘now’, but also in the figures, texts and documents of the past, characterizes the research of Fotoromanzo Italiano and Claudio Gobbi. The history of a territory and nation, the cultural anthropology of landscape, the political reflection on the state of today and the nature of photography in general, are interwoven into forms of counter-narrative realities which meditate on the present having explored the ruins of history.

The conflictual character of the present, situated between the ‘not yet’ of the future and the ‘no more’ of the past, is sublimated in the works of Enrique Ramirez, Greg Sand and Dave Farnham. The point of departure for all of them is autobiographical memory and personal experience. In Ramirez’s work it is inexorably intertwined with the political history of his country Chile and with collective repression, while Sand’s work becomes a place of exploration and verification of identity over time through the genre of photographic portraiture. In Farnham’s work the presence of collective memory is shifted into sport and its tele-vision: sport is a cathartic moment of collective social expression of instincts, significant as it enables understanding of the dynamic relationship between individuals and their historical identity.

Even in Patrizia Bonardi’s video individual memory is the fulcrum of an experience of self through time. Her search for a literal fusion with earth denotes the current need to find in nature’s memory a rapprochement with what is human and a distancing from what is artificial. Emily Martinez’s reflection is diametrically opposed to Bonardi’s, she observes in the post-human character of our time, the ways in which network media build our memory processes. In Martinez’s collage of heteroclite, digital images, the artist questions the perception and narration of history, how new technologies incarnate our collective memory, and our ability to process cognitive and emotional responses.

by Daniele De Luigi, May 2012

The theme of memory is deeply and inextricably connected to the conceptual nature of photography, well before the invention of the medium. The views and shades of meaning through which the theme may be described are many, but for this award, organized by Celeste Network and the curator Marinella Paderni, one viewpoint in particular was chosen. The theme contains strong stimuli and relevance for today's artists, attentive to international trends: the role of video-photographic images in the perception of history and collective memory. A theme which reflects the inherent duality of the photograph itself: on the one hand a tool to continue observing reality which produces images and memory, on the other, images and objects which memory preserves and regenerates. Where the two roles of photography meet, I believe, lies the central idea of ‘beyondmemory’.

This is a topic of great interest and complexity, which lends itself to the opening up of a wide variety of techniques, modes of expression, but also of artistic practices, from traditional to more innovative ones. The work of the jury, composed of Giovanna Calvenzi, George Tatge and myself, which has selected 10 finalists from among 368 projects submitted from around the world, has been challenging and difficult, but also exciting. The intrinsic artistic value and originality of each project has been evaluated, but so too its relevance to the given theme. Precisely because memory is always somehow related to photography, it was important for the jury to focus on the special significance of the relationship between collective memory and imagination in this context. This prompted us to focus on works in which artists were able to offer reflections on the common history of a community, be it a city, a nation or a humanity, in many cases by appropriating existing iconographic material. The use of archival footage ranged from family photographs to historical documentation to images taken from internet. The process of re-assigning significance was made with an interesting array of formal devices: re-presenting and manipulating images, assembly and collage, to digital video, photographs and juxtapositions with new soundtracks. Where private memories dominated projects, although of great interest, the jury found them to be too personal. Instead, the jury preferred to favor projects in which personal experiences made connections with commonly shared habits or rituals, in this way enriching and expanding the proposed theme of ‘beyondmemory.’

The shortlist which emerged from the jury’s decisions includes photographs and videos from North and South America, Europe and Asia. The range of projects reflects, as far as it was possible for the jury to gauge, a combination of reasons, sensitivities and visions through which the proposed theme could be interpreted. At the same time, it seems to the jury that all the selected projects constitute an effective demonstration of the vitality of photography and video today, and the resources which these media can still boast to unfold new perspectives on our world and our history.

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