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Documenta Where an Artist of the 20th Century Can Happily Meet the Future

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Faces of Kuvia, Active Archives, 2012
Faces of Kuvia, Active Archives, 2012

Admittedly, I went back to Kassel on the 14th of September 2012 to give documenta – and myself – a second chance. After my first 2-day visit in August I was more than disappointed by – by many things, but first and foremost by the arrogant bearing of a curator who confronted her audience with an exhibition that in any cases could only be seen in part; whose plethora of art works resisted any criticism due to the lack of a concept or any curatorial guidelines they could be aligned with, thus celebrating the cult of subjectivity and arbitrariness which came across as rather anachronistic.

Still, I went back with a spark of hope to attend the workshop “Erkki Kurenniemi Online Archive” held in the Ständehaus and hosted by the Belgian association for art and media Constant. Knowing the work of this specific collective and also the context from which the documenta commission (with an arts organisation Kurator) to create a Kurenniemi online archive originated – namely that the documenta agent Joasia Krysa was working in the area of algorithmic culture – I was curious. Also, I was in upbeat mode that this event would get closer to the issues I am struggling with myself and the problems I’m turning over in my own art practice… and which I had sadly missed in large parts of the documenta exhibition.

Joasia Krysa has also been partly responsible as a curator for the Orangerie, the baroque building down by the park, where it was decided to intersperse the “astro-physical cabinet,” the technology museum normally housed in this building, with a number of art works, some of them dealing with algorithms, computing and experimental media use – and abuse. Amongst them was one large space dedicated to the work of Erkki Kurenniemi, the Finnish artist, who is in his 70s now, regarded as a pioneer of media culture and electronic music.

Documents turned into data turned into eternal artifical life – one day, in the future.

Besides Kurenniemi’s obsession with technology and his love of experimentation, he was obsessed with himself, pursuing the idea of an archive of the self. For decades, the artist has documented his life, in its most banal details as well as its most intense moments, in thousands upon thousands of photographs, endless video clips and 8mm film reels, hundreds of hours of audio recordings, notes in computer files and notebooks – with the aim of providing “the necessary materials for someone in the future to be able to reconstruct human life once computers are powerful and intelligent enough to perform the task, reflecting what Kurenniemi considers to be inevitable by 2048, and thus enacting the fantasy of artificial consciousness.”

After the artist suffered from a stroke in 2006, the material was handed over to the Central Art Archive of the Finnish National Gallery where it is in the process of being developed from a pile of documents into an archive proper. In parallel, Joasia Krysa, who currently works as Artistic Director of Århus Kunstbygning Centre for Contemporary Art in Denmark, is involved in the planning a large retrospective of Kurenniemi’s oeuvre with Kiasma in Helsinki. As part of their involvement with Kurenniemi, Kurator (of which Krysa is part) developed the idea to commission an online archive – a most obvious idea, given the source material – but in this case to treat the material in the spirit of its own construction. In the framework of documenta 13, they were able to commission the Brussels-based feminist collective Constant to approach the material and develop ideas towards an online archive.

For Constant the Kurenniemi archive is one project within their umbrella project Active Archives, an ongoing research project (since 2006) dedicated to the development of experimental online archives. According to their manifesto, Active Archives aims at

“creating a free software platform to connect practices of library, media library, publications on paper (as magazines, books, catalogues), productions of audio-visual objects, events, workshops, discursive productions, etc. Practices which can take place on line or in various geographical places, and which can be at various stages of visibility for reasons of rights of access or for reasons of research and privacy conditions. ... regular workshops will be organised to stimulate dialog between future users, developers and cultural workers and researchers”

One of the central aspects for the artist researchers is the development of a free-software-based infrastructure, on the basis of exchange and dialogue. They understand the web not simply as a means of distribution, but a space for (collaborative) writing, prototyping, and developing ideas. Taking this as a starting point, they go on to fundamentally reflect on the nature of what an archive in a networked environment could be, conceiving it as an “utopian space where knowledge is ‘free’ (unrestricted and available) and can be ‘re-discovered’ anew by making the archive an active practice.” This also includes the possibility of making the material available for new contexts and even transformations, including all the tricky legal and ethical aspects involved.

Furthermore, the task is to find an approach that specifically meets the nature of the material to be archived. In the case of Kurenniemi, the archivists’ questions were, how to make sense of all the documentation gathered by Kurenniemi, and to ask what knowledges could result from the active archive process. During the workshop in Kassel, Michael Murtaugh and Nicolas Malevé demonstrated some of the algorithmic experiments they had run with a subset of the Kurenniemi documents and engaged the participants by sharing their reflections, concepts and quite artistic prototypes.

The workshop can roughly be divided in three parts: the demonstration of Constant’s work by showing probes and experiments, the making available of original archival material to the audience to convey a better understanding of its quality and sheer amount of data, and a discussion between involved parties and the audience. Just to give an example of their experimental approach: the incredibly large amount of images shot and stored by Kurenniemi made the active archivists wonder how relevant a single image was, and instead of accessing every single image, asked if it would reveal something more telling to approach the mass of images by the use of various tools or filters. Such filters could for example be computer algorithms that “see” differently than a human would do and that would be able to “aggregate and separate, connect and disconnect, assemble and disassemble“ the photographs in new and surprising ways. The result of such reflections is, for instance, the calculation of “an average image” created through the aggregation of all images contained in a given folder of the Kurenniemi’s archive.

Another example based on similar assumptions is the application of an algorithm that filters and extracts all faces from a given selection of photographs.

The logbook kept by Michael Murtaugh and Nicolas Malevé contains traces of their interrogations, the output of scripts, algorithms and personal reflections and provides access to various other examples of their experiments.

Certainly this project has not (yet) solved many of the problems related to such a gigantic endeavour, and it is not to be misunderstood as “The Kurenniemi Online Archive,” but rather as “work towards an online archive.” Nevertheless, due to its sophisticated and highly artistic, dialogical and networked approach, the project triggered a most inspiring discussion.

Despite the main motivation I gathered, which was to rethink my idea of what an archive could be and should be altogether, what I found most striking about the ‘Online Archive: Erkki Kurenniemi (In 2048)’ was the appearance of a notion of art that I had largely missed in the rest of documenta – once reported to be ‘the’ international cutting edge art show. ‘Online Archive: Erkki Kurenniemi (In 2048)’ by Constant can indeed be considered to be an art project, and as such it represents a notion of art that understands the upheaval caused by digital, networked technology, art that confronts the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through computational processes, that is to say, art that is truly contemporary in the 21st century. And that Constant itself does not operate under the ‘art’ label only shows another aspect of this shift to the new millennium that they are embodying: the smart but modest ‘artist’ who is concerned with the world and its urgent problems rather than with himself. In that sense, even if we will witness the rebirth of Kurenniemi’s digital self in some unknown future, we will be able to clearly identify him as an artist from the past (and modernist legacy).

I’m glad I went back to this event which eventually balanced my negative feelings towards documenta a bit. However, I am pretty sure that my reading of the event is not the one of the chief curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who probably still thinks that Online Archive: Erkki Kurenniemi (In 2048)’ is about the artist Kurenniemi, while in fact Kurenniemi just gave occasion to present a notion of art that really breaks new ground. It is only at large scale events like documenta where such unexpected and unplanned ‘slips’ can happen in the ramifications of curatorial decisions. And that’s a good reason for still going there.

Seminar & workshop with Constant, and further contributions from Joasia Krysa, Geoff Cox, Tarek Atoui, Perttu Rastas and Magda Tyżlik-Carver.

Online Archive: Erkki Kurenniemi (In 2048) is commissioned by and dOCUMENTA (13) in partnership with Central Art Archive of the Finnish National Gallery and Contemporary Art Museum KIASMA, and supported by Arts Council England. The first phase of the ongoing work will be exhibited at Aarhus Kunstbygning as part of the exhibition “Systemics #1” (11 January 2013), and as part of this Constant will be running further workshops.

Dr. Cornelia Sollfrank, artist and researcher, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, Scotland

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