Recalling the archive – on Amnesialand by Eva Scharrer

We do not remember, we rewrite memory as much as history is rewritten.”
(Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1982)

Are archives places of remembering or rather of forgetting? Does their content tell the truth or just one’s story? Whose story? Is the so-called collective memory dependent on visual imagery, and in which direction do these images reflect our memory – forwards or backwards? In Amnesialand (2010), his latest work originally conceived for Manifesta 8 in the region of Murcia in southeast Spain, Stefanos Tsivopoulos takes a photographic collection found in the public archives of the port city Cartagena as starting point for a poetic investigation on the questions of memory and forgetting, on the role that images play in the construction of history, and their relation to reality and historic truth.

The installation consists of two parts: An image dies when the gaze that lights on it has disappeared (2010) – a slide installation on three projectors of 120 archival photographs of early 19th century interiors – and the film Amnesialand (2010) that is composed of archival material from different resources and Tsivopoulos' own video footage shot in the region. It is accompanied by a script combining fictional and factual information in form of a dialogue between a female and a male character that speculate about a mysterious event that is said to have caused a state of collective amnesia.

Rich of minerals and close to the shores of North Africa, Cartagena was once the region's main resource and trade port. Throughout 2500 years, Phoenicians, Romans, Carthagineans and Spaniards have been mining in this district for silver, lead, zinc, copper, tin, iron, and manganese. The digging for metals reached its height during the industrial era, when in 1840 mineral fever hit the region and produced a booming Bourgeoisie, still visible in some of the city's decadent buildings. In the 1980s the productivity came to an end, but the ongoing exploitation of natural resources and human labour had taken its toll. As a consequence of the long-lasting mining activities, the mountainous landscapes in the region known as La Unión are strongly transformed: numerous spoil piles and pits extend for many kilometres, leaving a deserted and almost forgotten cratered landscape full of toxic mining waste – an archaeology of mines, and a living memorial to the natural catastrophe that took place here.

The visual evidence that we have today of the region's heydays goes back to almost a single resource: the Casaú Collection, an archive of 7000 negatives taken by a prominent Cartagenan photographer between 1910 and 1940, who documented the life and wealth of his hometown over this short period of time. Casaú not only captured every public event from religious processions to bullfights, from military parades to baptisms and communions, he also portrayed – supposedly on demand – the city's rich bourgeois buildings and interiors. Interestingly, the interiors were photographed without their inhabitants. Pure documents of now-passed wealth, they today appear as memento mori of the industrial age – preserving the subject in the face of its coming annihilation. They remember, as the male voice states in Tsivopoulos film, not the past but the absence of a future. These negatives on glass plates, in the narration of the film, carry on their surface the imprint of the Event – an event that, by nature, has not and cannot be pictured and that is situated somewhere in the past of an imaginative, sci-fi future scenario. Cosmic Radiation, amplified by the constant growth of toxic waste and radioactive debris, had caused the auto-ignition and destruction of all digital data and archival material containing metal. The loss of all visual memory – this is the Event.

The cryptic dialogue unwinds while Tsivopoulos' camera slowly scans the corrugated landscapes with its toxic lakes contaminated by heavy metals and abandoned post-industrial ruins. Though these images depict destruction and decay, they are nonetheless of haunting beauty. Sometimes, the traces in the landscape even resemble earth works of the 1970s, though they are born out of a very different spirit – ignorance and greed – rather than being made to think about the earth and our relation to it.

Like the interiors, the former mines are deserted, and just like the old photographs, they are symbolic leftovers of the industrial past. Neither the interwoven segments of historic black-and-white film at the beginning, nor the glass plates that are presented to us towards the end, document the mining itself, or the exploitation of human labour in the mines. The workers and their labour may be absent in these images, but the dust on the negatives is metallic, we are reminded, while a gloved hand carefully brushes them off and wraps them up:

Dust of the very mines, turned upon itself. "Born in the hour of the Workers' Light, upon their far flung upward way". That light, we now know, is not passing backwards through time to redeem us. It is the metals themselves, blowing backwards by our Amnesia, gridding the dimensions of the Event by the labour of our hands and minds, which we mistook for the future. The metals control us, even now.

The film’s narration is interspersed by lines of poetry by Maria Cegarra Salcedo, a poet born in La Unión, and images of spinning minerals – new video footage based on another photographic estate from Cartagena’s archives. As in his previous works, that often reenacted historic events on the basis of archival material, Tsivopoulos reflects on history and historical memory as a narrative construction – a construction mediated by images that have been edited and re-edited, and deprived from images that were never taken or that are lost. Blurring fact and fiction, past and future, Tsivopoulos is less interested in extracting the truth from these narrative constructions, but rather in interrogating the possibilities and qualities that lie within them, in examining the technologies that are used to create and to broadcast them, and in our relationship toward this imagery – with all its physical and psychological implementations.

With Amnesialand, however, his focus has shifted from the technological mechanisms towards the political, social and economic aspects that determine the production of images. The Casaú plates were, at their time, produced as commodities without any particular artistic or journalistic value, but with the sole purpose to reflect their owners’ wealth and power. Being the only traces – in terms of visual media – left from a period of economic and social expansion, they have now become archives and are regarded as documents. It is the ambiguous status of these images, the shift from commodity to archived evidence of historical truth that is on question here. In the light of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, they symbolize the critical transition from the subjective aspects of political economy towards an objective value: a reification of history written in neglect of the work force that actually produced it – or rather, its commodities. What does this tell us about our notion of historic truth, a truth largely dependent on visual evidence? And what does it tell about the notion of archives per se, and specifically of the archives and databases of the digital age that are, in turn, the result of immaterial, mostly voluntary labour? Are these less corporate controlled than the archives of the past? Who organizes and controls the image production and archives that once will become the visual evidence of our present? What is their commodity value and who owns it? And can digital memory ultimately replace human memory?

While posing this questions, Tsivopoulos places his own documentary footage within the realm of historic reenactment and fiction – and, yet again, in that of commodity – leaving it up to a future viewer to speculate about what has happened in and with these images, and why. By consciously undermining the documentary value of photographic images – exposing their unreliability and vulnerability as documents, but at the same time highlighting their evocative power as images through their aesthetic value – Tsivopoulos still uses images to tell a story. A story that, true or not, is worth to be told, as it stands in as a case study for the current social, political, economical and environmental phenomena around the world. La Unión and the mining history of Cartagena serve as metaphor – a scaled reflection of the condition of the world we still live in now.

Originally shown in the Casino of Cartagena – an environment that could not be more perfect to represent the region’s short decades of wealth and gaudiness, as depicted in the archival slides – Amnesialand created a kind of mise-en-abyme, a mirror cabinet where the past closed in with the present and future – or vice versa.

Eva Scharer is a freelance writer and assistant curator at Documenta (13)