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<nettime> Active Archives: Where an Artist of the 20th Century Can Happi
Cornelia Sollfrank on Sun, 9 Dec 2012 11:36:09 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Active Archives: Where an Artist of the 20th Century Can Happily Meet the Future

dear nettimers,

it's been a while, but I thought you might probably enjoy this read.
it is a short review of an event I attended at documenta13. it's
about the online archive in progress of the work of Finnish media art
pioneer Errki Kurenniemi published in the German weekly newspaper Der
Freitag, partner of The Guardian:

"Where an Artist of the 20th Century Can Happily Meet the Future"


Admittedly, I went back to Kassel on the 14th of September 2012 to
give documenta â and myself â a second chance. After my first
2-day visit in August I was more than disappointed by â by many
things, but first and foremost by the arrogant bearing of a curator
who confronted her audience with an exhibition that in any cases
could only be seen in part; whose plethora of art works resisted any
criticism due to the lack of a concept or any curatorial guidelines
they could be aligned with, thus celebrating the cult of subjectivity
and arbitrariness which came across as rather anachronistic.

Still, I went back with a spark of hope to attend the workshop
âErkki Kurenniemi Online Archiveâ held in the StÃndehaus and
hosted by the Belgian association for art and media Constant. Knowing
the work of this specific collective and also the context from which
the documenta commission (with an arts organisation Kurator) to create
a Kurenniemi online archive originated â namely that the documenta
agent Joasia Krysa was working in the area of algorithmic culture â
I was curious. Also, I was in upbeat mode that this event would get
closer to the issues I am struggling with myself and the problems
Iâm turning over in my own art practiceâ and which I had sadly
missed in large parts of the documenta exhibition.

Joasia Krysa has also been partly responsible as a curator for the
Orangerie, the baroque building down by the park, where it was decided
to intersperse the âastro-physical cabinet,â the technology museum
normally housed in this building, with a number of art works, some of
them dealing with algorithms, computing and experimental media use â
and abuse. Amongst them was one large space dedicated to the work of
Erkki Kurenniemi, the Finnish artist, who is in his 70s now, regarded
as a pioneer of media culture and electronic music.

Documents turned into data turned into eternal artifical life â one
day, in the future.

Besides Kurenniemiâs obsession with technology and his love of
experimentation, he was obsessed with himself, pursuing the idea of an
archive of the self. For decades, the artist has documented his life,
in its most banal details as well as its most intense moments, in
thousands upon thousands of photographs, endless video clips and 8mm
film reels, hundreds of hours of audio recordings, notes in computer
files and notebooks â with the aim of providing âthe necessary
materials for someone in the future to be able to reconstruct human
life once computers are powerful and intelligent enough to perform
the task, reflecting what Kurenniemi considers to be inevitable by
2048, and thus enacting the fantasy of artificial consciousness.â

After the artist suffered from a stroke in 2006, the material was
handed over to the Central Art Archive of the Finnish National
Gallery where it is in the process of being developed from a pile
of documents into an archive proper. In parallel, Joasia Krysa, who
currently works as Artistic Director of Ãrhus Kunstbygning Centre
for Contemporary Art in Denmark, is involved in the planning a large
retrospective of Kurenniemiâs oeuvre with Kiasma in Helsinki. As
part of their involvement with Kurenniemi, Kurator (of which Krysa is
part) developed the idea to commission an online archive â a most
obvious idea, given the source material â but in this case to treat
the material in the spirit of its own construction. In the framework
of documenta 13, they were able to commission the Brussels-based
feminist collective Constant to approach the material and develop
ideas towards an online archive.

For Constant the Kurenniemi archive is one project within their
umbrella project Active Archives, an ongoing research project (since
2006) dedicated to the development of experimental online archives.
According to their manifesto, Active Archives aims at

âcreating a free software platform to connect practices of
library, media library, publications on paper (as magazines, books,
catalogues), productions of audio-visual objects, events, workshops,
discursive productions, etc. Practices which can take place on line or
in various geographical places, and which can be at various stages of
visibility for reasons of rights of access or for reasons of research
and privacy conditions. ... regular workshops will be organised to
stimulate dialog between future users, developers and cultural workers
and researchersâ

One of the central aspects for the artist researchers is the
development of a free-software-based infrastructure, on the basis of
exchange and dialogue. They understand the web not simply as a means
of distribution, but a space for (collaborative) writing, prototyping,
and developing ideas. Taking this as a starting point, they go on to
fundamentally reflect on the nature of what an archive in a networked
environment could be, conceiving it as an âutopian space where
knowledge is âfreeâ (unrestricted and available) and can be
âre-discoveredâ anew by making the archive an active practice.â
This also includes the possibility of making the material available
for new contexts and even transformations, including all the tricky
legal and ethical aspects involved.

Furthermore, the task is to find an approach that specifically meets
the nature of the material to be archived. In the case of Kurenniemi,
the archivistsâ questions were, how to make sense of all the
documentation gathered by Kurenniemi, and to ask what knowledges
could result from the active archive process. During the workshop in
Kassel, Michael Murtaugh and Nicolas Malevà demonstrated some of the
algorithmic experiments they had run with a subset of the Kurenniemi
documents and engaged the participants by sharing their reflections,
concepts and quite artistic prototypes.

The workshop can roughly be divided in three parts: the demonstration
of Constantâs work by showing probes and experiments, the making
available of original archival material to the audience to convey a
better understanding of its quality and sheer amount of data, and a
discussion between involved parties and the audience. Just to give an
example of their experimental approach: the incredibly large amount of
images shot and stored by Kurenniemi made the active archivists wonder
how relevant a single image was, and instead of accessing every single
image, asked if it would reveal something more telling to approach the
mass of images by the use of various tools or filters. Such filters
could for example be computer algorithms that âseeâ differently
than a human would do and that would be able to âaggregate and
separate, connect and disconnect, assemble and disassembleâ the
photographs in new and surprising ways. The result of such reflections
is, for instance, the calculation of âan average imageâ created
through the aggregation of all images contained in a given folder of
the Kurenniemiâs archive.

Another example based on similar assumptions is the application of an
algorithm that filters and extracts all faces from a given selection
of photographs.

The logbook kept by Michael Murtaugh and Nicolas Malevà contains
traces of their interrogations, the output of scripts, algorithms and
personal reflections and provides access to various other examples of
their experiments.

Certainly this project has not (yet) solved many of the problems
related to such a gigantic endeavour, and it is not to be
misunderstood as âThe Kurenniemi Online Archive,â but rather
as âwork towards an online archive.â Nevertheless, due to its
sophisticated and highly artistic, dialogical and networked approach,
the project triggered a most inspiring discussion.

Despite the main motivation I gathered, which was to rethink my idea
of what an archive could be and should be altogether, what I found
most striking about the âOnline Archive: Erkki Kurenniemi (In
2048)â was the appearance of a notion of art that I had largely
missed in the rest of documenta â once reported to be âtheâ
international cutting edge art show. âOnline Archive: Erkki
Kurenniemi (In 2048)â by Constant can indeed be considered to
be an art project, and as such it represents a notion of art that
understands the upheaval caused by digital, networked technology, art
that confronts the question of what it means to think, see, and filter
affect through computational processes, that is to say, art that is
truly contemporary in the 21st century. And that Constant itself does
not operate under the âartâ label only shows another aspect of
this shift to the new millennium that they are embodying: the smart
but modest âartistâ who is concerned with the world and its urgent
problems rather than with himself. In that sense, even if we will
witness the rebirth of Kurenniemiâs digital self in some unknown
future, we will be able to clearly identify him as an artist from the
past (and modernist legacy).

Iâm glad I went back to this event which eventually balanced my
negative feelings towards documenta a bit. However, I am pretty sure
that my reading of the event is not the one of the chief curator
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who probably still thinks that âOnline
Archive: Erkki Kurenniemi (In 2048)â is about the artist Kurenniemi,
while in fact Kurenniemi just gave occasion to present a notion of art
that really breaks new ground. It is only at large scale events like
documenta where such unexpected and unplanned âslipsâ can happen
in the ramifications of curatorial decisions. And thatâs a good
reason for still going there.

Seminar & workshop with Constant, and further contributions from
Joasia Krysa, Geoff Cox, Tarek Atoui, Perttu Rastas and Magda

Online Archive: Erkki Kurenniemi (In 2048) is commissioned by
Kurator.org and dOCUMENTA (13) in partnership with Central Art
Archive of the Finnish National Gallery and Contemporary Art Museum
KIASMA, and supported by Arts Council England. The first phase of the
ongoing work will be exhibited at Aarhus Kunstbygning as part of the
exhibition âSystemics #1â (11 January 2013), and as part of this
Constant will be running further workshops.

Dr. Cornelia Sollfrank
Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design
University of Dundee, Scotland


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