Archives are both fixed and flexible. An archive is a record, but it can also be an account—a repository of objects that has the additional purpose of being a source of knowledge. And a photographic archive is still more elastic: It’s art, it’s history, it’s politics, it’s thought. Archives can be reorganized, appropriated, or entirely forgotten. They can be everything or nothing at all.
This year’s FotoFocus Biennial theme is Open Archive—that is, the literal opening of archives, and also an open interpretation of what archives actually are and what they do.
Unlike any other art form, an individual’s experience with photographic archiving is generational. From prints in shoe boxes to files on a server to Facebook uploads, the practice of archiving photographic images is tied to technology and the availability of specific tools: cameras, film, the internet, smart phones. Indeed, archiving is a unique problem for the world of photography, thanks to that medium’s transformative evolution in the 20th and 21st centuries. There are countless photographs in the world; they exist on a scale unknown to any art form in the history of humanity. Additionally, photography is an art form easily recruited for other uses, from political to recreational to commercial, and so its reach into our lives is wide and deep. This year’s Biennial addresses these issues and more with a suite of exhibitions that each flesh out a different approach to the concept of photographic archives.
“We want the conversation to be diverse; the theme means so many things to so many people,” says FotoFocus Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Programming Carissa Barnard. “Archives are in fact political—and they are an empowerment tool. With so much in the world, how do you decide what is important?” The Biennial’s month-long program of exhibitions, events, and programming in venues throughout the city represents that diversity, from straightforward archival footage to printed ephemera to commercial photographic images, all deployed within disparate artistic forms, such as painting and collage.
“‘Open Archive’ is a classic theme that feels very current,” explains FotoFocus Artistic Director and Curator Kevin Moore. Indeed, in the age of so-called “fake news,” the veracity of even straightforward photographs and video footage is interrogated more closely than ever, and often they are casually discarded. Our shared archive of images and the disputes about truth surrounding them represent a sea change in how the average person views news and reporting: with suspicion at best. At worst, with contempt. We’re left with a populace who no longer trusts what they see, read, and hear, and thus our leadership may proceed unchecked by investigative journalism and the visual evidence it produces through photographic images. Moreover, within and alongside this is an actual assault on our democracy, in the form of an outright rejection of truth. “The theme of Open Archive is a little in reaction to that climate,” says Moore, “and the feeling that we’re about to lose something very important.”