Supplementary plates: The V.I. Fonds distribution project

Artist Statement

Supplementary plates: the V.I Fonds distribution project developed in response to the challenge of creating a system of categorization for an existing archive of one hundred digital images. On the surface, the photographic archive in question presented a baffling incoherence, despite a few obvious thematic strands linking small sets of images. Among the obvious categories were: aerial photographs of highway intersections, passport photos, images of Asian photographers in various comically distended poses, press photos of Stephen Harper, and action shots of figure skaters. There were other, seemingly related images, but it was often impossible to define a satisfying and convincing category that could contain them. For instance, while there appeared to be a number of architectural images depicting the interior spaces of museums and art galleries, there were disconnections between photographs of artwork in which the space itself was incidental; photos emphasizing the patterns of spectatorship in these spaces (and which, accordingly, feature crowds); and photographs of largely empty rooms (populated only by solitary security guards) that take as their subject the neglected corners and portals that help to define and organize the spaces. The archival images also varied widely in quality: there were fine-art photographs evidently shot on large-format film; various species of black-and-white historical images from the nineteenth century; low-resolution journalistic images apparently pulled from the Internet; and poorly-shot digital snapshots of uninteresting social situations. Taken as is, this archive was unsatisfying — it was thin, imbalanced and finite, riddled with non-sequiturs and incomplete series (surely the handful of highway intersections taken from Google Earth could not constitute an exhaustive typology). It was somehow soulless.

Steeped in the polemics of Jacques Derrida¹ and Pierre Nora², I perceived the destructive aspects of modern archivization at work, those aspects which deprive an archive’s contents of their original context; transform material photographs into degraded, insubstantial digital approximations; privilege multiplicity over individual specificity, and history over memory. Without knowledge of the images’ provenances and the archival motivations behind their co-mingling, I realized that by merely organizing them into batches, I could not hope to restore their meaning or significance. Thus, I set about trying to accomplish three things in an attempt to find some purpose for this sad, little archive: the restoration of materiality, context, and function to its constituent parts, at the expense of the whole.

To accomplish these, I had to liberate the materials from their archival raison d’être, which was their assembly by our professor, Vid Ingelevics. Against standard archival practice, I had to reject the integrity of his personal fonds, that unit of archival organization that classifies stored objects according to the person who originally brought them together. While the fonds can, in some circumstances, offer a biographical insight into the meaning of an archive, I found that this particular fonds, composed of such disparate and ephemeral images, advanced little claim to organic unity or to an indispensible psychological profile of a person. To give it meaning, I had to disperse this fonds, to scatter it to the winds.

In the initial stages of struggling with the categorization of images, I realized that while assigning numerous keywords to an image was easy, determining which keywords were most relevant to an image was difficult. In a digital database, an image can be assigned to any number of categories, each with equal weighting. However, it occurred to me that in a physical archive in which only one copy of an item exists, the item resides in only one place, and while it can be inscribed with any amount of data about its form, content, provenance, etc., its singular placement demands that an important decision about its primary subject must be made. If I restored materiality to the image, by printing it on lustrous photo paper, I would be forced (or, allowed) to assign it a definitive primary subject where its only physical incarnation could be located.

Having transformed the ephemeral pixels into matter, I could then adopt a well-known system of primary classification, such as the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress System, and assign each image a single place within it. This adoption of such a well-worn, nineteenth-century mode of classification should be perceived as a rather nostalgic gesture, one that yearns for a time before post-modernity, for the analogue, for the certitude that an object is what it appears to be — and can be found where it belongs.

Beyond allowing me to simplify my organizational endeavour, the use of a pre-existing system of classification creates the opportunity to restore a modicum of context and function to these images. This is because an active repository of systematically classified materials already exists, in which the images could find a useful home: the school library. I decided that it would be most appropriate to house the images in the institution of the library, which, unlike a traditional archive, actually strives for maximum accessibility — there is no conflicting imperative of physical preservation which attempts to limit access. (The archive, when silent, is still fulfilling its mandate of preservation, whereas a library without researchers is somehow a failure.) And the library is full of books on every subject, including the subjects I have identified in the photos of the Vid Ingelevics (V.I.) Fonds; thus, it stands to reason that, with a measure of playfulness, I might include these paper images as visual supplements to the contents of circulating books. As “supplementary image plates” inserted into library books, the images gain a new context and may serve either an illustrative or a critical function. Armed with a brief, dryly didactic (and truthful, if obvious) caption, and separated from their recipient book by a sealed coin envelope stating that they are on “temporary loan from the V.I. Fonds,” they are unlikely either to enlighten or to misinform; what some may accomplish is to problematize the relationship between an author’s text and its accompanying illustrations, causing the reader to think critically not just about the meaning of this quaint inclusion, but also about the published images that might already be in the book. When inserted into photo books, the V.I. Fonds images may also challenge the notion of authorship in (documentary) photography; more precisely, with their informative captions based only upon their primary subject classification, the images create a tension between subjective authorship and objective documentation in the photos in the recipient book.

Perhaps the most satisfying example of this is the insertion of a photograph of a service station into a book listed under the subject “service stations.” The book is entitled Twenty-six gasoline stations, and the V.I. Fonds contributed to it an image of a twenty-seventh gasoline station. By determining the photo’s primary subject to be “service stations,” and by placing it in a like-classified tome, the supplementary plate added to the library’s documentary imagery of gas stations; this placement occurred without concern for the fact that Twenty-six gasoline stations is also a deadpan artistic work by the photographer Edward Ruscha, or that it might be considered sacrilege to add an extra station as photographed by another celebrated artist, Stephen Shore. In all the image-book pairings, the images can absorb meaning and context from their recipient books, and in turn can produce varied, unpredictable effects through their juxtaposition with similarly categorized books. Thus, the V.I. Fonds images, dispersed into the active world of the library, are made capable of both giving and receiving, and are liberated from the cold dormancy of a strictly archival existence.

Summary of process

Supplementary plates is essentially a process-driven work, one that combines a highly iterative process of categorization with an element of ongoing performance: the intervention in a library to give a digital archive materiality, context, and function. For this reason, in the foregoing artist statement, it has been necessary to include some description of the ways in which process served to motivate me and shape my artistic goals. Here I summarize some specific issues that arose during the execution of the work, and examine the how their (attempted) resolutions affected the finished result.

One key trajectory in this project was my adoption, and then rejection, of the concept of the fonds as an archival organizing principle. Initially, I was attracted to the biographical intimacy of the fonds, with its way of foregrounding the individual responsible for a section of the archive, with the implication that it is a window into a life. In my blog, I noted: “The researcher, originally intrigued by an academic theme or subject, finds that he cannot help but ask of the fonds: whose life does this represent? Therein lies some of the mystery of an archive.” Thus, my initial attempts at resolving this project centered on answering this fundamental question — or, more accurately, on inventing its answer. At the time, I was prepared to “set aside … the possibility (likelihood?) that the ‘100 Images’ archive was compiled strictly for the purposes of this assignment.” I contemplated producing a narrative film or slide-slow in which a speaker would recount a fictional catastrophe that led to the existence of this odd archive, and then posit an unorthodox, possibly humorous, system of categorization in an attempt to re-construct the identity of the person who left this mysterious fonds behind. I also applied my filmmaking sensibilities to the project, wanting to invent an authoritative interpretation of this archive’s existence and to make alternative interpretations difficult or impossible. Admittedly, this approach was rather tongue-in-cheek. For instance, I noted that the film would invite “outside researchers to visit the archive and examine [its] materials, with the caveat that they must submit to all the kafka-esque access obstacles set forth by the institutional bureaucracy.” In stipulating this, it was my intention to give the V.I. Fonds a seemingly prisonlike air of impenetrability and authority, in keeping with Eric Ketelaar’s description of some archives.³ However, I grew unhappy with this approach — the whimsical fictionalization of genuine documentary material — and, aware that the truth behind this fonds’ existence was either unknowable or trivial, I decided to switch my emphasis away from the fonds towards producing the materialized, functional (but dispersed) archive described above. To be sure, the fonds concept did survive as a vestigial trace, in that each envelope noted that the image contained within was on temporary loan from the “V.I. Fonds.” Furthermore, in acknowledgement of the magnetic attraction that may indeed exist between materials from a single fonds, I also printed a loan due date and an email address for the “Fonds Administrator” on the envelopes, allowing for the remote possibility that the V.I. materials might one day return home.

As I decided on a library intervention strategy, various new issues emerged. I grappled with the correct method of assigning subjects to photos and then, photos to books. Generally speaking, my methodology came to involve deciding on a photo’s subject by a strictly visual examination (thus eliminating the influence of a photo’s digital filename, which sometimes provided information about the photo’s authorship), and then searching for this subject in the library catalogue and finding an appropriate book for placement. In practice, it was sometimes not possible to determine the correct, Library-recognized keyword in one attempt (for instance, the Library classifies the images of woodpiles as “fuelwood,” whereas I had initially searched for “firewood”), so I would try searching several keywords and then choosing the book that most closely suited the subject. During my project presentation, several colleagues questioned whether my system of classification by “primary subject” was biased, arbitrary or unsystematic. Indeed, in hindsight, it is clear that while some subjects are the most obvious ones for a given image (for instance, it is non-controversial to assert that “figure skating” is the primary subject for a photo of figure skaters), other assigned subjects are little more than Barthian puncta that I identified in the photos based on my own idiosyncratic tendencies and curiosities. To partially address this issue, I would sometimes split up series of related images between two subjects when it was unclear which subject was most appropriate: hence, the aerial photos of highways are divided into the library subjects “express highways” and “aerial photography.”

Alongside these archival-type concerns arose a number of problems dealing with the ethics of a whimsical intervention into a public space that is used by serious researchers who depend on the peer-reviewed authority of the materials contained therein. I was also concerned with the privacy and personality rights of the individuals depicted in the photographs, and at one point considered censoring them. Lastly, I was afraid that some images might be perceived as threatening if found, loosely inserted in a book, by an unsuspecting patron — for instance, the two photos depicting the horrible events of 9/11. Would these be wrongly construed as a threat or premonition? Overall, my fears about unpredictable reactions and institutional consequences led me to stipulate that the captions accompanying the photos be clear, truthful and politically/emotionally benign as a reassurance to all who would find them. Fear also led me to proceed surreptitiously, taking pains to remain anonymous; for this reason, I refrained from checking the recipient books out of the library, even though I had originally intended to scan their covers in colour to produce a visual counter-archive depicting the new contexts into which the scattered archival images were inserted.

Though it evolved considerably from an abstract concept to a material realization, the Supplementary plates project engaged with a number of issues central to archiving and, in my view, offers one of many valid strategies in resolving the problem of how to categorize and make meaningful a small, but diverse and mysterious photographic archive.

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¹ Derrida’s work, Archive Fever (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), is interpreted at length by Dragan Kujundzic in “Archigraphia: On the Future of Testimony and the Archive to Come”, Discourse 24 (Winter-Spring 2003) 166-188.

² Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Representations 26 (Spring, 1989) 7-25.

³ Eric Ketelaar, “The Panoptical Archive”, Archives, Documentation and Institutions of Social Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 207) 144-50.

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