The Archive as Medium
Ari Akkermans

Edited by: Matt Hanson

The relationship between historical images and the political imagination is not simply a correlation between image and reality, or even between image and proposition. As we break down the concepts to their minimal units and common denominators, all kinds of contradictions arise that transform images not only into the result of a certain political imaginary (or another), but also into one of its building blocks. In his research project, “Image Diplomacy”, Vladislav Shapovalov, a Russian visual artist and researcher, acts as a kind of mediator between different processes of transfer, presentation, representation and reception of historical images surrounding the key political imaginary of the 20th century – the cultural politics of the Cold War. “Historical images” in itself is a very loaded term, and could be easily made to encompass every representational image since the introduction of the reenactment of battles in the history of painting (starting in the 15th century). but the term “historical images” is more often confined to photography – the preferred format of political propaganda. 

Following Shapovalov (from his public talk at Garage in Moscow, 2017), I will move away from these object-and-image based conceptualizations of image history, towards a tripartite model of the political imaginary, defined as the system of circulation images, based on three elements: exhibition strategies, photographic media and films. The project “Image Diplomacy” and its open-ended image/imaginary system is based on archives left behind in different European countries after the end of the Soviet Union, underlying a curious story: Shortly after the founding of the USSR, the “All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries” (VOKS), was created in Moscow in 1925 in order to coordinate cultural contacts between Soviet artists and peers in other countries (it first focused on Western, capitalist countries, but then later also embraced the Third World and the non-aligned countries that were instrumental in the spread of the Soviet message). The scope of activities was very broad, including cultural exchanges between musicians, cinematographers, artists, scientists, athletes, etc. 

However, “Image Diplomacy” is specifically interested in traveling exhibition strategies (a format that was only nascent at the time and somewhat modeled after the World Expos), for which the VOKS created a network of archives in many countries based around local ‘friendship societies’ (according to historian Svetlana Chervonnaya, there existed 47 such societies in 1957). These societies were basically propaganda outlets tasked with presenting a positive image of the USSR through cultural activities, apparently independent of the party but closely monitored by VOKS and often accused of spying on Western interests (see a declassified working paper from the CIA, released internally also in 1957, detailing the activities of these organizations from an American perspective). These societies organized exhibitions, screened films (an innovative key aspect of Soviet propaganda) and sponsored artists’ travels. The exhibitions were conceived in a generic format, and according to Shapovalov, they were “small, portable, prefabricated”. 

The photographic images were packed into folders, including diagrams of exhibitions that could be  set up anywhere easily, requiring minimum expertise. The topics of the imagery portrayed carefully staged everyday life in the Soviet Union, with a focus on domestic life, but also other subtly politicized aspects of the socialist experiment: the role of science and architecture or the abstract and limited emancipation of Soviet feminism. But the narrative mechanism deployed is everything but casual, for there’s a carefully engineered construction here of a certain type of (hyper)realism – which existed across the arts in the Soviet Union – counterintuitive to America’s doctrine of the epic and the spectacular. Eventually, this realism was to become the dominant aesthetic of the Third World. 

There were other aspects of Soviet geopolitics at stake in the race for images, that through Shapovalov’s minimal interventions, highlight the spectacular ambitions of Soviet cultural diplomacy: An image of  Earth from outer space (we have to remember here that at this specific point the race for images is a chapter in the space race, which is also a chapter in the arms race) presents an absolute notion of representation beyond the national and cultural, and identifies what the artist calls “a competition for universalist representation”. The image of the globe is a global image indeed, therefore it preemptively encompasses all (possible) imaginaries, past and present, and is not merely a snapshot of Soviet history but the totality of human history. If we agree with Hannah Arendt, that  Earth is the very essence of the human condition, the project of socialism aimed at transcending the human condition, often at the expense of destroying it, or at least, radically changing it. The price of this change of course was terrifying, and millions died in  labor camps as a result of this experiment. 

Texts from earlier Cosmism, promoting trans-humanism and the colonization of other planets, were particularly popular among early Soviet intellectuals and scientists. Russian artists Pavel Pepperstein and Arseny Zhilaev, who have worked – albeit in very different styles – most extensively on the archives of Cosmism, would tell us not only about the irrational, messianic and somewhat Christological aspect of the movement, but also about its deep impact in early Soviet science, and subsequently literature. The relationship between collapsing metaphysical systems (in the Western world) and political apocalypses has been a feature of modern history rather than a bug, and it appears to be the only constant indeed – the end of this Roman republic has dragged for too long. Nevertheless, these moments of catastrophe have always come hand in hand with rigid historical structures, which, as they implode internally, are protected by a hard shell on the outside. The fate of Soviet propaganda is well known, as is the end of the socialist experiment, but its images have lived lives of their own. 

In one of the most interesting speculative reconstructions of archival material by Shapovalov, “I Left My Heart in Rhodesia” (2017), the artist reenacts an exhibition for which there’s no documentary evidence that it ever took place: In 1958, a letter arrived in Moscow from the Photographic Association of Northern Rhodesia, requesting that a Soviet photographic exhibition be sent to their country. The installation follows the exhibition proposal and reenacts what never took place. The photographs are selected from the network of archives spread throughout Europe, and – according to the exhibition text – they render the Soviet Union a multinational, resource-rich universe, in a vast multi-ethnic iconography out of which Russians are absent, presenting thus the Soviet space as identical with political space in general. While this is a preconditioned imaginary of the Soviet reality, it points at the conditioning of reality in general at the heart of VOKS’ work and that codified reality as a reaction to propaganda rather than propaganda as a reaction to the political. 

This type of material – multiethnic, heavily industrialized, reliant on science and progress and ultimately infallible, wasn’t the exclusive domain of photographic exhibitions; it dominated the Soviet media landscape for half a century and was massively consumed, whether it was out of curiosity or political affinity. As someone growing up in Latin America, I myself was vastly exposed to the magazine Sputnik, published in many languages, a kind of Soviet Reader’s Digest, to which my parents were subscribed (the magazines had subscription cards anyone could use, addressed to embassies and friendship societies), and I read avidly as a child during the years of Perestroika. In Latin America, during this period (and earlier), it was commonplace among intellectuals to adopt non-aligning views and to have studied in the Soviet Union, and Russian language courses were inexpensive and widely available through cultural institutes or partnerships at state universities. In my childhood memories: There was a film screening every week at the Russian cultural center, before which the International was sung. 

The Cold War was, in Latin America, not merely a cultural influence, but a political battlefield that split factions along the lines of Socialist Internationalism and American Neoliberalism, often in combination with armed conflict. To my knowledge, this was also the case in the Middle East, where non-aligned countries such as Iraq and Syria were largely shaped in their interactions with the West by Soviet interests; visual culture of the time, in particular the spread of socialist realism and its adaptation to local tropes (most “official” artists of the generation, endorsed by the regimes, had been trained in the Soviet Union), was the consequence of continued cultural exchange of the kind promoted by VOKS. The last photographic exhibitions of that kind documented by Shapovalov took place in Bogota as late as the end of the 1980s, organized by the Central Bank in the country’s largest library, and were well attended by groups of school students who toured the historical downtown in groups, visiting cultural landmarks. 

I still remember the first book I stole from my father’s bookshelves as a teenager: Oparin’s “The Origin of Life” on biochemical evolution and the chemical history of stars, published in Spanish in 1955 by the official publisher, “Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga” (Editions in Foreign Languages), available at almost no cost. But when the Soviet Union collapsed it happened rather fast, and in the transition from a global power with unlimited reach (only comparable to the United States) to a newly formed national state, many of these official ties to associations and networks of organizations were abandoned overnight, leaving behind countless archives. This is where Shapovalov’s practice intervenes in the material (rather than the images themselves), after having found intact exhibition folders in former Soviet associations in Milan (where he lives and works), comprising the tripartite structure we described at the beginning: exhibition strategies, photographic media and films. In the absence of a power structure to hold them, these archives are neither active, nor dead. They are in a suspended state. 

The fate of Soviet archives has been peculiar not only because of their sheer quantity but also because of their disposable nature. The Archivo LaFuente, a private collection in Cantabria (Spain) spanning modern and contemporary art from Europe, Latin America and the former USSR, for example, organized a major photography exhibition, “The Soviet Century” (2018), based on some 800 holdings, photographs but also prints, books, postcards and the like, among them works by superstars such as Rodchenko or El Lissitzky. Their holdings have been drawn from many private collections, archives and individuals, with a careful process of selection. The image archives of the former friendship societies are nevertheless, of a different kind – largely unused, massive waste destined to be discarded, in the same way that my father threw away decades of Sputnik magazines during a house move after the paper began to rot in basement storage and it became impractical to keep dozens of boxes of unread magazines without an audience – only a few survived among my high school books. 

Shapovalov insists on what gave a title to his Moscow talk: Archives that were never meant to be kept. In their suspended state, these archives ceased being historical images alone, and through becoming latent – they might suddenly awake again anytime, unexpectedly – they have transformed into cultural objects in the same way that the video tapes that can no longer be played because the technology to do so fell out of use, are kept in museums under glass vitrines as if dealing with precious archaeological artefacts. The material, according to the artists, is exiled from history and exists outside of historical time. This only proves the correlation between images and the concreteness of lived time, so that systems of images can only become activated (and therefore semantically meaningful) in a correlation between structures of power, temporal continuity and cultural meaning, no matter how remote the referent. The irrelevance of the subject matter in an operational semantics leads us to think more seriously about the exhaustion of photographic images caused by the implosion of historical images. 

As the Greek photographer John Stathatos argues: “Of course, despite their fluidity, photographs are as vulnerable to exhaustion as any other visual medium – more so, perhaps, given the seemingly ceaseless flood of photographic images we are deluged by daily. This is another source of anguish to purveyors of traditional political imagery, since, compelled as they are to address the widest possible audience, they must necessarily adopt the most direct visual vocabulary available; inevitably, such images rapidly degenerate into cliché, draining them of meaning and defeating their very purpose.” It is then possible for images to collapse as units, once they are removed from cycles of visual significance. Shapovalov returns to the idea of the exhibition as a fundamental unit, arguing, for example, that “Image Diplomacy” has three iterations (Moscow, Bolzano and Istanbul, of which I have seen two) and has expanded and acquired different layers of latency, as ‘an archive that wants to travel, seeking the gaze’. 

Before elaborating on the problem of images in the context of the image and exhibition systems hereby presented, it is necessary to clarify that the format of the exhibition as propaganda isn’t exclusive to the USSR and it might have been pioneered by the colonial museum, founded in the course of the 19th century. Traveling exhibitions, such as the celebrated American expressionism show that traveled to Moscow and Paris (and profoundly influenced the artistic circles in Moscow), MOMA’s photography exhibition, “The Family of Man” (often referenced by Shapovalov), or traveling exhibitions of classical archaeology, have been a feature of Western political life, and can be read also in the context of propaganda. The key difference here is that they cannot be studied retrospectively, in a suspended state and removed from their systems of power and meaning, as if dissecting a frog in a laboratory, for the creature is still very much alive. From the Soviet experiment, we learn about the ambivalence and inconsistency of the historical image. 

Because these exhibitions at the heart of “Image Diplomacy” were not dealing with artifacts (also photography could be understood in this manner, given a certain context, for example archaeological photography or the work of Man Ray) but with easily reproducible, and disposable material, they have pioneered a new chapter in the anti-historical history of photographic images, as it is evident in Shapovalov’s central film, “Image Diplomacy” (2017, screened in Istanbul separately during the AVTO exhibition, and at SALT Beyoglu), where artistic intervention goes from purely speculative reconstruction into the reconfiguration of historical space; collecting documentary and photographic material scattered in dormant archives from different parts of Europe, the film attempts to poke a window into Soviet Cold War exhibition diplomacy, and breaks away from the predictive cycle of socialist realism into contingency – it is not possible to completely pin down images to a framework, insofar as they have been torn off from their own meaning-systems. They’re unpredictable. 

Baudrillard writes, in one of his most famous essays, something extremely poignant about the relationship of images to referents: “I would like to conjure up the perversity of the relation between the image and its referent, the supposed real; the virtual and irreversible confusion of the sphere of images and the sphere of reality whose nature we are less and less able to grasp. […] Above all, it is the reference principle of images that must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically and chronologically anterior to themselves. None of this is true. As simulacra, images precede the real to the extent that they invert the casual and logical order of the real and its reproduction.”[1] Here, we reach an unavoidable conclusion from the context and experiential time of “Image Diplomacy”: Images are more referred to each other, in an infinite closed loop, than they refer to the real world with its Cartesian versions of correlation between mind and object, and this is what an image-system is. 

What questions do these images ask when they look at us? This a question proposed by Shapovalov (throughout the project and in his talk), that considers not only the suspended state of the imagery but the potential of these statecraft images, to construct concrete political situations, rather than opinions alone. The archival state of abeyance, turns out to be, at least from the perspective of the artist (what exactly does an artist do here and who is he speaking to?) an advantage, since it is possible to examine image systems outside of historical continuity, and therefore, free from agency. How often are we able to confront memory free from representation and the history of ideas? It is not only that the answer is never, but also that it is not possible. There is an alienated relationship between image and observer, and only in the reenactment of the image as a monad in the fundamental unit of the exhibition, we gain access to truth-making. The countless folders of photographs and exhibition instructions have even less access to us than we have to them. 

To the extent that the reenactment is always the reenactment of something that never existed before – to reenact something for the first time, how is this to be done? – the archive itself becomes not only a concrete object, scattered folders with photographs, but a medium in itself, except that the feedback loop is broken once we’ve removed the causality of history, and we are left with nothing concrete, but more and more torn off images: “For us the medium, the image medium, has imposed itself between the real and the imaginary, upsetting the balance between the two, with a kind of fatality which has its own logic. I call this a fatal process in the sense that there is a definitive immanence of the image, without any possible transcendent meaning, without any possible dialectic of history — fatal also in the sense not merely of an exponential, linear unfolding of images and messages but of an exponential enfolding of the medium around itself. The fatality lies in this endless enwrapping of images (literally: without end, without destination) which leaves images no other destiny than images.”[2] 




[1] Jean Baudrillard, “The Evil Demon of Images”, Power Institute Publications No. 3, 2017, pp. 13.

[2] Ibid. 23.