Anthony Downey-The Archive as Alibi
The archive has been increasingly represented as an example of how visual “evidence” can be deployed for political, historical, ethical and economic ends. As a result, image-based archives have become associated with interrogative, critical, and juridical gestures: they are expected to do something, even if that is largely concerned with providing, to paraphrase Harun Farocki, a form of testimony against the archival image. In turn, there has been a critical and legal investment in the idea (if not ideal) of the archive as an evidentiary form of witnessing that will in time answer to, if not ameliorate, present-day injustices. This is all the more evident in the wake of an unprecedented refugee crisis — one that now far exceeds the number of displaced refugees in Europe post-1945 — and revolutions across the Middle East. Images, in these contexts, are often positioned as proof of engagement and recognition of responsibility; their archival potential apparently representing a bulwark against future forgetfulness. However, is it possible, this paper will ask, that the ongoing production and subsequent archiving of images — specifically those of migrants and other displaced communities — are being submitted as scant compensation for the political and legal representation that is both withdrawn from, and thereafter denied to, refugees in the first place? Is it conceivable that archives, as they are deployed in contemporary cultural practices, are not only becoming complicit in neutralizing political effect, but also in co-opting the political affect surrounding the figure of the refugee and the principle of justice? As models of visual representation, finally, what historical value will contemporary archives have as a tool for retrospectively enquiring into what occurred in an era defined by short-sighted protectionism, political exceptionalism and opportunistic extremism?
Anthony Downey is Professor of Visual Culture in North Africa and the Middle East at Birmingham City University. His research focuses on the politics of visual culture across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Global South. He has published widely on art practices and human rights, civil society and collaborative art practices, postcolonial and critical theory, and new media. Recent and upcoming publications include Zones of Indistinction: Contemporary Art and the Cultural Logic of Late Modernity (forthcoming, Sternberg Press, 2018); Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet: The Works of Hiwa K (Walther König Books, 2017); Future Imperfect: Contemporary Art Practices and Cultural Institutions in the Middle East (Sternberg Press, 2016); Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2015); Art and Politics Now (Thames and Hudson, 2014); Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practice in North Africa and the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2014); Slavs and Tatars: Mirrors for Princes (JRP Ringier, 2015); and The Future of a Promise: Contemporary Art from the Arab World (Ibraaz Publishing, 2011).