/ Archive Play: A Collaboration between Mirjami Schuppert, Hertta Kiiski and Niina Vatanen
The image archive is a statement in and of itself. Placing a photograph within a categorical context becomes an assertion of its deliberate presence, where an image becomes an item kept for its current or foreseen importance.
Yet simultaneously the photographic archive can leave an image between states. To be deliberately present does not necessarily mean an active existence, and frequently an archived collection remains unexhibited, perhaps undeveloped, and often unseen for the duration of its tenure.
In this sense the significance of archived images is indistinct. To be proffered but not openly shown, its potential is its most prominent aspect, otherwise often remaining in its obtained and inert state. An open archive exists for proactive viewers, there to a limited extent for those who seek it, and remaining in a state of pause until then.
Archive Play is a collaborative project between curator Mirjami Schuppert and artists Hertta Kiiski and Niina Vatanen, which faces the complexities and relationships of curation and production surrounding an image archive. Beginning with an amateur photographer’s collection that was donated to the Finnish Museum of Photography, Schuppert commissioned the two artists to produce new bodies of work using these donated images as an inspiration.
“I was interested in amateur, vernacular material, something that had been quite marginalised within the archive. Something where nothing had been done with the collection, and would probably be thrown away one day,” Schuppert said. Looking through the museum’s archive she found Helvi Ahonen’s work, a photographic hobbyist whose donated collection of photos and negatives was built over 40 years, but was of no real skill or status. “I think the images have value, but she wasn’t significant in any way. The photos could belong to anyone’s granny and that was the fascinating thing about it. Nowadays there is more interest in the vernacular and snapshots, but back then why would a museum even take such a collection?”
Schuppert worked on re-housing and cataloguing the images, mostly formed of everyday shots of domestic scenes with friends and family. The Finnish artists Hertta Kiiski and Niina Vatanen were selected through an open call; all three then worked together in exploring the archive, meeting once a week for several months to work through the collection.
This joint immersion became a necessary component of the project. With a curator-led basis, and within another’s past practice at that, the parameters could easily be overly restrictive. “It really involved dialogue between myself as a curator and the artists, and the artists and themselves,” says Schuppert. “I believe in that – not really saying in the beginning what to do. It’s often problematic in commissioning, as people can try to fix too much in advance. As a research project, but also as an artistic process, and curatorial process, it needs to have space to live and change.” In working individually but together, the realisation of Archive Play came to be a naturally collaborative process, responsive and complimentary not only to Helvi Ahonen’s collection, but also to each artist’s body of work placed within its different contexts.
Several culminations, alongside its parameters as part of Schuppert’s PhD research, provided a framework for progression in Archive Play. First exhibited in the project space of the Finnish Museum of Photography, the show then travelled to Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, to finish in the form of a book to be published in September. As the work travelled its changing geography and format provided new perspective – away from the collection’s geographical home, the show in Belfast gained a new kind of random frivolity; it found stronger footing in broad generation-based aspects of photography, and the art historical motifs used by the artists in their work. Then, as the book exists as an artwork in itself rather than as exhibition documentation, the geographic relationship of Archive Play becomes grounded within whoever holds the book in their hands.
These many practices were enriched and woven together further by a commissioned text from Finland-Swedish writer Monika Fagerholm. Rather than operating as a standard exhibition essay, it responds to Helvi Ahonen’s collection itself. With fragmented descriptions and embellished truths that are mostly unknowable to the project’s audience, the accompanying exhibition and book text The Yellowest Dress echoes the counter-factual[i] approach of both artists: working around the elements of the images rather than within any narrative connection.
Niina Vatanen’s Archival Studies/A Portrait of an Invisible Woman is based upon a playful exploration of the formal qualities of the collection. Splitting the focus between both the mistakes and compositions within the imagery, the artist enlarged and highlighted images of chemical corrosion and double exposures alongside overlaid compositional lines and angles.
The work is more comical than critical, playing with what is incidentally documented. “It’s humorous and playful, definitely. The composition studies are a bit like a mock-up of what’s taught in photography lessons, such as the golden ratio. In looking at the mistakes Niina’s work focused on a marginal aspect within a marginal collection; she was looking more at the photo itself than its content. Subject matter alone is quite often the historian’s approach to such a collection…instead both artists turned to play, not trying to take a historian’s approach but instead taking a playful attitude.”
As each image in Vatanen’s piece was made of the re-photographed negatives and photos, these mistakes become deliberate as part of the new work. The digitised reproductions were then shown alongside work made from exposed old photo papers that belonged to Schuppert’s father. Combining proximities and photographic processes gave Vatanen’s work footing across a spectrum of time and relationships. Aligning personal connections with detached categorisation, it in some way echoes the combination of separation and association that is felt in the viewing of old photographs.
Hertta Kiiski focused more keenly on the regenerative aspect of photography, drawing from the repeated images of flowers in Helvi’s collection and their ongoing permanence through imagery. Using the dual meaning of “present” as both a gift and time reference, Present (Thank You Helvi Ahonen) uses a glossy minimalist print of flowers, “wrapped” in a vase made of prints of the floral archived images. Whether it has been fabricated in “real life” or composed with software is hard to tell – this image has the flat smoothness of high processing. Beside the print, in its carpeted corner, is a tall stack of postcards for visitors to take home. It is of an image that differs, only on closer inspection, to the image on the wall.
The artificial fruition of these flowers through their repetition plays with the various timelines present in such a project. Helvi’s inclination to photograph the flowers, to allow them to live beyond their natural life, lead to something increasingly unreal in this responsive work.
To a wider extent Kiiski’s body of work draws upon the altruistic illusions of giving and receiving in art – of holding and donating image collections, and indeed, operating as an artist making work around such physical timelines. In giving away her collection Helvi Ahonen was allowing her work to be disseminated much more widely than would be possible otherwise; Kiiski’s postcards, meanwhile, operate under the same principle.[ii]
Drawing upon an archive raises further questions of altruism and mutualism. It is not so much about the relationships between people as between practices, or indeed, image to image. Making work around an unseen collection of archived images brings in the issue of reciprocation: whether the new work may contribute to the understanding of the old, and vice versa.
“If you commission someone to make a response then I suppose there is always a thought it would contribute to something of the archive, and the reading of it,” says Schuppert. “I think it should be a two-way relationship, so that the archive is giving something to the artist, but also the artist is giving something back to that collection. In the past 20 to 30 years critical theory has influenced archive theory – now it’s accepted that there is no one given reading of an archive, but many different takes on it.”
The subjectivity of the archive is heightened through unseen processes behind it; for example, when digitisation uses only a number of select images to represent a whole collection. From thousands of negatives Schuppert digitised 220, and does not claim to have made an objective selection by any means[iii]. Archive Play evokes a further question of individualism and mutualism that affects many archival collections – how does such a distillation process affect an archive, and what are the ongoing implications of creating such tiers of accessibility?
Perhaps this is an inevitable part of archive commissioning – where images more easily seen or shared, be it in an online archive or through its use in contemporary art, are changed or concentrated to some degree to the viewing of a wider and less active audience. By knowing and embracing this re-presentation, rather than by fetishizing what once may have been in a narrative sense, an archive can find a modern relevance in art beyond historicisation. Schuppert’s stance on archive commissioning is that “art shouldn’t be about looking into the past, but about looking into the future”. By taking on a playful, thoughtful and contemporaneous response, Archive Play positions its own timeline well.
– text by Dorothy Hunter
‘Achive Play’ was exhibited 3-26 July 2014 at Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast