Reflecting on the Relational Archives Collaboration

May 6, 2016

Relational Archives 

The Swell Gallery presents RELATIONAL ARCHIVES, a group show featuring work by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Paula Morales, Juan Pablo Pacheco, and Aaron Wilder. 


RELATIONAL ARCHIVES is an exhibition that explores the different ways of constructing, interpreting, and re-interpreting an archive in an era of intangibility where the physicality of documents and images is no longer a priority. How can we understand our relationship to the past when traditional archives start losing their authority, and the boundaries between the simulated and the real become increasingly blurred? How do we understand the impulse to record in a time where space and time are shattered through the digital and its relationship to global environmental, social, and political crises? Our common understanding of the archive is interpretative, meaning that it is based upon our own relation to the objects and information displayed. RELATIONAL ARCHIVES plays with fiction, reenactment, and imaginative intervention to engage with the meaning of the images/objects, not necessarily with the factuality of the events that these are supposed to speak to. Each artist in the show will be accessing, interpreting, and curating the archive of a different artist in the show. Through this collaborative exercise, we seek to open a dialogue about limitations of partiality and the subjectivity of authorship.


When I think of an archive, I think of a vault sealed off to preserve the delicate objects it contains for the purpose of research and understanding of future generations. This is obviously an idealistic perspective. Archives are not objective. Instead of preserving truth, they preserve someone’s notion of truth. As Fred Wilson demonstrated in “Mining the Museum” in 1992, items saturated with historical and cultural symbols can be interpreted differently depending on the perspective of who is arranging the items, the layout in which they are arranged, and the expectations of audiences.

Because of this notion of agency with regard to who has control over the archive, I believe we should approach them as we approach an author’s memoir. Truth and reality are only two of many tools available to the author. I still think that the contents of archives help us better understand history, but we should look at them with a certain amount of skepticism. Instead of assuming the representation of fact, I think it is a healthy exercise to always consider questions such as:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • What is the storyteller’s relationship to the story?
  • How is the story being told? Is it in first person? Or maybe third person?

This is not to say that a story told through an archive is worthless, meaningless, or manipulative. In fact, we can better understand events of the past if they are related to us via multiple, divergent perspectives.

And on a personal level, archives have a strong literal and metaphorical relationship to memories. Metaphorically, archives, like memories, can be fragmented, incomplete, lost, and selective. In a more literal sense, our interaction with archives can form the basis of our own memories. For instance, as we look through the contents of our own personal archive (photographs, letters, old toys) our memories become weaker and the items within our archive serve at the very least to supplement our memories. They can even replace our memories entirely as more time separates our current selves from the moment we are trying to remember. When we were working on creating Relational Archives, this link to memory featured strongly for each of us as we worked with someone else’s archive. As I was working with the archive of Paula Morales, there were times I had to rely on memories she had related to particular items or individuals so that I could better understand context with regard to her relationship with these items or individuals. I also leveraged my own memory in relation to aspects of Paula’s background, including my studies on Mayan culture and the politics and contemporary history of Guatemala. Through this process, I seek to use this combination of my memory, Paula’s memory, objects and documentation of people in Paula’s personal archive, and my own imaginative approach to storytelling to open dialogue about memory and perspective.

That’s actually what really unites this show. The four of us have a strong interest in memory and perspective. We also are all exploring the functionality of the concept of the archive now, in 2016. In some ways, academicians, historians, and even the general public are constantly questioning the traditional forms of the archive (including museums, libraries, and even our own personal memorabilia). Many types of individuals across the sociological spectrum consider these types of documents and institutions anachronistic and out of touch with the spirit of our times. Simultaneously, institutions like museums and libraries are investigating new ways to engage with the public as they consider how to remain relevant to different audiences, often through different combinations of technology and programming. And we ourselves are using technology more and more as at least a component of our archive. Instagram, Facebook, We are inundated with reminders of memories from our past. And what’s really disturbing about this trend is that these companies are monetizing our personal archives. What are we to do with that? These are the types of questions we’re broaching in this show.

As I started working with Paula’s archive, I was inundated with a significant amount of material. Photos, clothing, poetry, diary entries. At first, I felt overwhelmed with the content I suddenly had access to. I also had a language barrier. While this is not as different as Spanish to Urdu as Paula had to deal with as she worked with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s archive, I have an extremely limited understanding of Spanish. I studied Spanish for two years when I went to graduate school the first time, but I don’t remember much of it. Paula gave me access to an immense amount of personal diary entries of herself, her mother, and other members of her family. It was a lot to translate in a short period of time. It was too short of a period of time.

Ideally, I’d like to have at least another month to work with Paula’s archive. But that’s not always possible when you’re working in installation. Interviewing Paula was really important for me, because I deeply needed context to the materials provided. I learned about the role her aunt Rebeca played is Paula’s life. Rebeca was involved in the resistance to the US-supported takeover of the Arbenz regime. She was disappeared before Paula was born. When Paula went to a traditional medicine healer, she had several visions that I incorporated into my curation of Paula’s archive. Three of the visions she had were seeing herself in three different roles from traditional Mayan culture: a male astrologer, a male healer, and a female priest. I seek in my installation to portray Paula’s personal, individual story while also telling the story of the Guatemalan people in what they went through. When I was in my undergraduate studies I learned a lot about Guatemala’s history. As an American white male, I found myself in need of understanding the perspective of an “other” who directly experienced the long war there in Guatemala. I cannot accurately tell the story of someone who lived through that struggle. But I have internalized, from my own perspective, the issues of Guatemalan society. My hatred of United Fruit Company (now called Chiquita Brands International) for their irreversible negative impact on the Guatemalan people, my own personal reading of Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir, and the history of violent US interference in Guatemala’s own political trajectory. All of these personal interests are told through Paula’s personal archive. She told me that she feels the need of creating art about the Guatemalan experience, but that she doesn’t want to or can’t tell that story. I personally feel guilty about taking her story and telling it from a white male, American perspective, but that is exactly the question of authorship and interpretation that this show seeks to explore.

Working with Paula’s archive has been really interesting for me. Not only has this brought me back to my undergraduate political science interest in Latin America, it has empowered me to explore my own personal hatred of Chiquita as a company as well as the conflicted feelings I have as an American citizen who passively supports the interjections of the US government on the future trajectory of other nations and cultures.

I realize I’ll never be able to separate myself from my white male American background. But I truly tried to represent Paula in the most respectful way while still telling her story from my perspective (given the nature of our show).  In the end, I feel that the actual art of Relational Archives was the exploratory process each of us went through working with the personal archive of someone else as a kind of month-long performance. And the “art objects” displayed in the show are merely documentation of that performance.

- Aaron Wilder

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