Text of Feature in Art Monthly September 2006. Version of text before print.
Within the collection of images and objects that constitutes Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane’s Folk Archive is a recurring emphasis on local festivals, rituals, and contests. Generally orientated around forms of performance, these annual events, often hundreds of years old, evoke the most obvious sense of ‘folk’ within this visual anthology: gurning, pipe-smoking, traditional wrestling, burning barrels, hobby horses, a straw bear, a green man, processions and seasonal rituals. These strangely exotic forms are somewhat hard to dissociate from the 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, – the cinematic apotheosis of an imagined fantasy of Britain’s folk imagery. However, these practices are collated here as forms that predate capitalist modernity, performed by and for those that the archive casts as ordinary. This nucleus of traditional fairs and ceremonies is evocative of notions of continuity, creative practice and social engagement that might cut through the alienating and normative fabric of contemporary Britain.
Although only making up a small proportion of Folk Archive, these activities contextualise the rest of the material as contemporary updates of traditional forms of social practice. The archive manages to hold forms of small-scale (non-corporate) commercial signage together with visual props and techniques of social protest – itself a diverse category that includes handmade banners, a Tony Blair scarecrow and fake parking tickets to embarrass and criticise the drivers of 4-wheel drive cars in London. There are also varied examples of impromptu public display – such as a face scrawled on the back of a dirty van – practical jokes, garden design, Christmas decorations, personal tributes and notices in public spaces, customised cars and bikes, art by prisoners including drawings and paintings, but also tattoos and their bricolaged technical means of production. The copious diversity of the archive also includes fancy dress, graffiti, websites, the Notting Hill Carnival and a church service held for clowns in Dalston, where the clowns have their own archive of their individual face make-up recorded on eggs.
Folk Archive has spent the past year and a half touring: beginning at Barbican’s Curve Gallery, it has travelled to Milton Keynes Gallery, Spacex in Exeter, Basel Kunsthalle, Aberystwyth Arts Centre and The Lowry, Salford. It has also been collated as a book – not merely a catalogue but a lasting, autonomous and intimate manifestation of the project, published in 2005 by Book Works. In their preface to the book, Deller & Kane give a brief account of their archive as a celebration of quotidian creativity in Britain and Northern Ireland. It is also framed as an attempt to consider what constitutes present day folk art – a kind of popular form of practice that can be opposed to the corporate and banal forms of representation embodied within the Millennium Dome.
That the activities represented in Folk Archive are described as art, albeit of a popular or folk variety, seems odd. It is incongruous with even the most casual acknowledgement that art is constituted through its institutions, discourses and histories. Things are sought out for the collection that were intended for public display, but not in a gallery, by authors who do not consider themselves artists. But to insist on this homogenisation of all creativity as art masks some of the problematic aspects of Folk Archive. Deller & Kane claim that they simply transpose the works from one form of public display to another, this being what they call the more traditional presentation of art in a gallery. This act of transposing is presented without any sense of how this might be problematic or even complex as a process. It seems to ignore wilfully any sense of representation as a contested discourse, and is obtuse in its negation of anthropological and ethnographic forms of investigation and debate, reflexive or not. This is combined with a slightly disconcerting affirmation of art as something neutral and ahistorical in its constitutive definitions.
That the opposition between art and documentary is an artificial one was a fundamental principle underlying the recent ‘Making History’ at Tate Liverpool and, to some extent, Documenta XI. Rather, art and documentary have mutually informed each practice for a century. Even so, Deller & Kane still could be seen as taking a somewhat leisurely approach to the representation of others. It is perhaps exploitative, both of the accepted propinquity of art and documentary, and of the subjects represented. Sarah James’s recent critique of ‘Making History’ (AM295) made clear a failure of the Tate Liverpool show to explore what she described as ‘the more difficult depths of documentary’. The same could be said of Folk Archive. Although the book does contain a short interpretative essay by Jeremy Millar, this is a problem compounded as well as illustrated by the absence of either a sustained and reflective account of their project, or any critical and reflexive formal mechanism within the display of the archive.
In contrast, Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974-75, addresses itself as a problematic form of representation through the use of two forms of signifier: text and image. It is also contextualised by Rosler’s own writing around her practice. She has argued that documentary photography belongs to the New Deal sense of progressive and liberal sensitivity in the United States, and she is critical of a justification for documentary that advocates a disengagement from a social cause. Documentary cannot precede or transcend activism. A similar impulse is present in Stephen Willats’ work from the early 70s, including The West London Social Resource Project, collated in the book Art and Social Function (1976 – reissued in 2000). He describes the book as a manual for artists wanting to intervene in the broader fabric of society. Willats positioned his projects as attempts to expand the concerns of art practice together with the social territory in which it functioned, and combined documentary tendencies with forms of sociological fieldwork. Intention, context and audience are not only addressed by Willats, but explicated in stifling detail.
Within Deller’s own practice, complex and varied forms of social engagement are the primary concerns of the work. Perhaps not activism, but certainly a set of intriguing and active engagements that explore documentary in relation to art and social responsibility. However, Rosler also problematises the everyday as a theme within documentary. The representation of the commonplace is only justifiable if adequately theorised. This is to counteract the possibility of such practices becoming purely exploitative – either ethically or commercially. Within and around Folk Archive is a sense of resistance to the historical and theoretical discourses that it might evoke. Such an escape from documentary accountability is taken further in Peter Fischli & David Weiss’s book Fotografias, 2005. This concedes no explanation for their collection of underexposed photographs of found paintings. Yet these images, found in locations from restaurants to ghost trains, are isolated and detached from their contexts to form a collected sense of gothic drama. The documentary status of this archive is fictionalised and fetishised beyond exploitation to the extent that these images are given a new life as haunting fragments of narrative. Yet the readability of their facture and materiality within the photographs are always visible reminders that the original images exist within social reality.
The distorted paintings of Fotografias evoke a set of intentions and preferences that distinguish it from the more conventional documentary feel of Folk Archive. Similarly, Neil Cummings & Marysia Lewandowska devised a framing device for Enthusiasm, 2005. Their archive of films, made by workers’ cooperatives in communist Poland, was screened within evocatively themed and theatrical environments. The conscious manipulation of presentation offered something more than an apparently transparent process of institutional re-presentation of the material. However, by taking a more straightforward approach, and by artificially homogenising the contents of Folk Archive, Deller & Kane risk aligning themselves with the wordless power of institutional authority. John Tagg, in The Burden of Representation, 1988, argues that photography, the principle medium of Folk Archive, is granted its authority by its relationships with institutional spaces. The power of photography is not the power of the camera, but of the apparatuses which deploy it. As authors of an artwork displayed in public spaces, and now owned by the British Council, Deller & Kane are implicated in this alignment. It is the artists who wield authority, with the legitimacy of state apparatuses, over those they represent.
Closely aligned to Tagg’s positions on photography, and similarly influenced by Marx, Barthes and Foucault, is Allan Sekula – known equally for his documentary practice and his critical writings. In his essay ‘Photography Between Labour and Capital’, 1986, he argues that archives by their very structure maintain a hidden connection between knowledge and power. Archives are not neutral, rather they appeal to institutions of modernity for their authority and embody the power inherent in accumulation, as well as the power inherent in the command of language. An artwork in an archival and documentary form must be interrupted by criticism if it is not to reinforce the naturalisation of the cultural: ‘Any discourse that appeals without scepticism to archival standards of truth might well be viewed with suspicion.’ That Folk Archive seems to not to interrupt itself, or be critically contextualised, is perhaps what is troubling about it.
Sekula also raises the problem of a refined sensibility, the look of a sophisticated viewer constructed in relation to a preceding inferior one. The images in the archive become objects of a secondary voyeurism, which preys upon, and claims superiority to, a more naïve and primary act of looking. Sekula’s solution to the taint of ‘intellectual and aesthetic arrogance’ that might permeate an archive such as this is that it must be read from below, from a position of solidarity with those who have suffered from the machineries of progress. It is this possibility of a form of solidarity, some kind of sense of shared participation, that characterises much of Deller’s own practice, but is less obvious in Folk Archive. In defence of Deller & Kane, Millar’s essay on Folk Archive suggests that the lack of methodological rigour gives the work both a freedom of representation, and a closeness to that being represented. While failing to acknowledge the inescapable authority invoked by archive, Millar recognises the presence of a simultaneous alternative within it.
Characterised by a disturbing ambivalence, there is an enabling tension that brings about a meditation on the act of recording and presenting this material. Folk Archive can operate exterior to either a social science context, social history display or mainstream form of entertainment; it also demonstrates a resistance to any easily satisfying relationship with textual, or theoretical, discourse. This is both what might be wrong with Folk Archive, and what is most essential to it. The challenge to relationships between theory and practice enacted here is discomforting but necessary in order to prevent one becoming a stagnant and tautological account of the other.
This collection is also subject to an interpretative metaphor in the form of the library. My own argument has been, after all, as much an account of books as of galleries. The model of the library here is borrowed from Walter Benjamin, whose short essay ‘Unpacking My Library’, 1931, reflected upon the reunion with his book collection after two years apart. He describes the chaotic mess of books spilling out from open crates, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order or rather that the order of the collection, held in place by the passion of the collector, is intuitive and irrational. Within the (private) library, it is not the objects of the collection that come to life in the collector but the collector who lives in them, disappearing in an edifice built from the archive. Benjamin reveals a personal, rather than purely institutional, aspect of representation in which it is the artists who inhabit the collection.
It is hard to reject outright the suggestion that Deller & Kane are engaging in a troubling form of exploitative fetishism, a romantic objectification of both people and practices, or positioning a sophisticated look in relation to a crude one. Yet they have put together a form of reflection on archival holdings and documentary practices. Theirs is a point of constitutive beginning, rather than a completed form of interpretation or representation. The illusion of transparency is reduced to personal and idiosyncratic preference, echoing Benjamin’s selfishly activated library in what, through the accountability of the library’s owner, he described in terms of an ethical and redemptive practice.