January 24, 2009 - March 28, 2009 // OTIS Ben Maltz Gallery, Los Angeles
The Future Imaginary
Curating the The Imaginary 20th Century Archive
by Margo Bistis

Once while showing Perry Hoberman the database of The Imaginary 20th Century, he said something like “nice found objects.” It was a curious description that no one had used before. In discussions of the database, we employed a different terminology stemming from the tradition of archive-building rather than the art of assemblage. We thought of the database as an archive of images relating to the material culture of the past, specifically, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We had carefully selected the approximately 2,200 images from amongst the thousands we had found while perusing visual sources. Though it was not our only criterion, history guided the curatorial process. I, especially, emphasized historically significant objects. As curator, I wanted the database to be historically expressive. Perry’s description seemed to undercut my intentions.

Found objects are “merz”, as Kurt Schwitters famously named his modernist assemblages. They are the leftover traces of modern civilization, detached from original points of reference. The artist-cum-ragpicker works by removing objects from history. The archival ruin—the historical object— undergoes a conversion process. De-accessioned from history, it attains the neutral status of “materials”. The bits of metal, wire, fabric, newsprint, photographs, etc. incorporated into a collage or assemblage are no different from the oil paint often used to suture the joins between adjacent objects. Found objects belong to the palette of the modernist artist, whose process exploits their immediacy and associational poetry to aesthetic effect. Modernism is a grand tradition. We like modernism; we earn a living teaching it; we even pay homage to it.

But modernist strategies have not been very useful in the construction of The Imaginary 20th Century, even though Carrie’s legend, which gained currency after she shot a man in 1908, inspired Marcel Duchamp’s masterpiece The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). We seek to retain something of the object’s original context and meaning. The Imaginary 20th Century is an archive as story; history fictionalized before, during, and after the curatorial fact.

Influenced by notions of aperture and correspondence (already put to use in the interactive media novel Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles by Klein, Kratky, and Rosemary Comella), we settled upon “the space between” as our working principle. The loose alignment of archive and story generates a navigational sense of chance and discovery. The mental correspondences made by the user allow the aperture to have an organic rhythm. Streaming clusters of variously-sized images leave spaces between, for the user to puzzle out the historical contexts, fictional ironies, and what Klein calls “the misremembering of the future.” A flat, graphic style of interface integrates the various media elements of The Imaginary 20th Century. The user visually interacts with the novel in a manner not unlike the scanning of the pages of an illustrated magazine or newspaper. Our intention is to echo the dominant visual codes of the turn of the century, an era before cinema took over. Images slide in panels, like maps unfolding, moving at first in three directions for the chapters of Carrie’s story, and then in four directions for the suitors’ worlds. The arrangement of images and sounds enhances ‘white’ space.

If “the space between” principle guided our structural decisions for the DVD-ROM, it also played a role in the building of the archive. The adventures of Carrie and her suitors take the user across centuries, continents, historical events and places, social memories, imaginary worlds, and utopian fantasies. All the characters are misremembering the future differently, adding their own personality to the phantom that was imagined a century ago. It was important, therefore, that we allow differences in our personalities and collecting tastes to guide our collaboration. From Klein’s eclectic book collection, we gathered many of the database’s best oddities, “gag” images which are used to add punch to the episodic tale. Kratky’s taste for the common photograph and stories about everyday life buried in daily newspapers (like the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung) brought narrative flexibility to the archive. My interest in social history and illustration with a satirical edge deepened the archive’s historical focus and meaning. From our differences, we evolved four archival types: 1) gag objects; 2) story objects; 3) history objects; 4) objects with visual energy and complexity. Ideally, objects satisfied more than one type. This typology plays itself out as ironic recombination from chapter to chapter.

The objects themselves come from a variety of sources. We combed through private and public collections of postcards, stereocards, photographs, and films; through illustrated magazines and newspapers, humor journals, comic albums, science-fiction, fantasy and utopian socialist novels, medical texts, and films; through books on industrial design, architecture, and urban planning. Our research took us far beyond Jules Verne and H.G. Wells novels, into hundreds of eccentric and even perversely ordinary sources. The emphasis on the ordinariness of material culture meant that we avoided the fine arts altogether. It was equally important to steer away from overly familiar objects that shouted “turn-of-the-century” or “la belle époque” (a retrospective nostalgic term coined after World War I.) To put it another way, anything that a commercial database like Corbis International would be sure to have under these search terms was off limits. There are no Chéret posters of Parisian music hall performances; no arts-and-crafts designs; no Ballets Russes costumes; and certainly no Pear Soap ads. When Drake and Seekins joined the team as sound archivists and composers, the first words out of our mouths was “no ragtime.” Certainly this had nothing to do with taste or preference, but with the hazards of using branded cultural materials. Nostalgia and the picturesque tend to invade recent films and novels set in the era of ragtime, electricity, aviation, avant-garde art movements, and early cinema.

Our attempt uses archive and the picaresque form of story-telling as a way of getting to the bottom of collective anxieties about the coming of the twentieth century. We mix fact and fiction to recount the adventures of a clinically depressed world traveler named Carrie and her quartet of fumbling admirers. With Carrie, we watch each suitor as he struggles to make up his mind, comes up with dozens of steps—and designs—toward his final product; constantly finding intrusions, bad contractors, faulty equipment, failed marriages, financial disasters and confidence men. The imaginary twentieth century wobbles on its axis.