The Archive: A Path Towards the Future

Tessa Maria Guazon

The future as an event

The proposition for the forthcoming biennial is for the archive to become a path towards the future. While the archive is typically regarded as documenting and surveilling the past, it is implied in a system of flow that generates complex structures of time and subsequent narratives. The idea makes for the argument that the future is indeed shrouded in the archive. This manner of framing the archive considers the biennial exhibition and its archive component as transversal sources that generate narratives. Perhaps the inherent task is to wrestle with the complexities of the archive, revitalising it in the process. 

The archive component will respond to several themes in the biennial’s curatorial brief. It considers the future in retrospect, akin to the movement of time in architect Wang Dahong’s novel Phantasmagoria. Through the activation of the museum corridor as a site, the archives will be transformed into a platform for an event, to become a “medium for investigating the eventfulness of [an] event, of its boundaries, and [its] structures.” The exhibition and the museum are not the only events that intersect each other; conceptions of the future and its “imitations of [this] anticipated future” are likewise regarded as ‘eventful events.’ How do the museum, the biennial exhibition, and its corollary components frame or structure this eventfulness or eventful temporality? 

Philosopher and artist Alexander Kluge and curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist reflected on the future on the very first day of the year 2017. The atmosphere conjured in that conversation may very well capture this moment’s anxieties, with the world is just waking up from a year of pandemic stupor. The journal’s editors that published the conversation point to the fact that “art cannot solve the problems of 2017” but that “it can start solving the problems of 2036.” It argued for a “futurist realism,” a movement of art towards a “rational archaeology and a realistic anticipation.” This futurism is a “vision of the coming decades as a series of problems to be solved.”

The archive is proposed as a modality for thinking about futurity, shifting our focus towards a more urgent and compelling future thinking. The biennial’s archive component can be framed  as futurity and as a specific approach  to contemporary art. It is positioned as a lens to contemplate a more dystopic present than any future we have by far imagined. The archive further shifts the focus towards modalities for thinking futurity to complement the biennial’s emphasis on the movement of Asian Futurism. The emphasis is not on futurism premised on regional geopolitics but introspective and visionary arguments on the future. 

The themes I aim to explore are modalities that attempt to decipher or locate the future in the archives. These are notions of the ‘otherworldly’ and the ways visions of the future are transmitted through local cosmologies. Otherworldly visions can be situated between the familiar (graspable and known) and strange (which cannot be explained through logic or reason). Located in this in-between space, the otherworldly can be a cipher to discern the future. The other theme considers unrealized projects, whether in architecture, art, or exhibition-making. These would be visions that were planned for, through various phases of iteration or stages of completion, or in most cases, never realized. They may be articulations of the future located in the past, but their salient presence locates us in an intervening time-space continuum. Possible narratives or further manifestations of what we may call ‘future realist’ visions can activate ‘future realist’ visions. 

The archive as a modality in contemporary art: Works by artists from the Philippines

Contemporary art has engaged the archives in various ways, whether as material, process, or modality. The archive and its operations are now regarded as integral to the milieu of contemporary art. Philosopher and art critic Boris Groys (2016) underlined two ways of archiving: archiving the object without an aura and archiving an aura without an object. These archival modalities inform works by Filipino artists Catalina Africa, Mark Salvatus, and Alvin Zafra. Africa is concerned with the documentation of the artistic process and is deeply interested in materiality and its expressions of archival quality. Salvatus, on the other hand has consistently explored the interfaces between various archives. He has an extensive personal archive on Mount Banahaw in Quezon Province, Luzon Island, encompassing his filial history alongside local and global records. Zafra is invested in the deployment of vision or the act of seeing as a form of documentation and a strategy of placement. The latter is contingent on the substantial changes to the environment, whether the city or visions of the built environment conjured in painting. In their practices, as well as those of artists of their generation, the archive shifts between “administrative (actual archives) and psychic systems (memory or the mind’s filing systems).” These slippages point to narratives that concern the archives themselves and those generated by artistic modalities that can be described as archival. These result in speculative forms, new fictions, and novel ways to document contemporary art, increasingly becoming ephemeral, participatory, or collaborative. This expansion implies new means of documenting, preserving, and cataloging works of art.

Catalina Africa will put together artworks from her 2018 exhibition Time Moving in All Directions in a newly configured installation. She traverses the timeline of her artistic practice, an act she describes as a parallel ‘space exploration.’ This articulation is hinged on materiality, which she employs as a tool to chart an inner cosmos or an inner world. Mark Salvatus revisits his ongoing project, Human Conditioned from 2017, presented in a four-channel video projection installation. Human Conditioned references bodies, landscapes, architecture, and digital technology. It explores the retroactive and speculative sphere that is cyberspace. By stitching images from a website repository, Salvatus expands on local histories and uprisings through traces of narratives and actions. The project speaks to a future that paves a road that leads to what he posits as an ‘ideal revolution.’ Alvin Zafra takes on a more straightforward approach to documentation. His works will show blurred images of cityscapes through a technique of scratching images on sandpaper. The inherent obsolescence informs this manner of working the surface that receives the image of the material world. It likewise conveys the artist’s desire to bridge the gap between the actual object and its figuration. These art practices activate a manner of archiving, activating the archive as a tool for examination, introspection, and forward-thinking. Thus, contemporary art may very well be the ‘wonder houses’ referred to in the curatorial brief, which is comparable to what Kluge and Obrist (2017) mentioned as imaginary gardens. These spaces encapsulate a function relegated to art; that which is “enclosed against the world [yet] also contains the world.”

Generating a vision of the future

The archive component will be positioned in the interstitial space that melds future and past. It will concern itself with documents and explore the narratives and modalities these documents and forms generate. In this sense, the archive is seen to “enable the rewriting of the institutional narrative” (in this case, those of the museum and the biennial), allowing dialogues with communities surrounding the institution to unfold and transpire well beyond the biennial itself. The archive is envisioned as a process that lives on and a device that allows the surfacing of other narratives, especially those that lead to the future.