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.