Documents are the building blocks of journalism. Reporters rely on them to shape their research and develop their narratives. We also create them and produce stories through a variety of media, many of which shape public perception of historical records. A document – be it a government file, a photo, a newspaper or a coloring book – is a power vessel, a product of forces that are often hidden and shape understanding.
âOff the Recordâ – an exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum, which runs until September 27th – draws our attention to this dynamic. On one job, Sadie Barnette used spray paint to mark FBI records on her father, who was overseen after forming a Black Panther Party chapter; the work “deforms the concept of the sterile, objective and authoritative state archive and reclaims history as subjective and ready for inclusion,” it says in an accompanying note. On the other hand, Carrie Weems has retrieved and based on daguerreotype images of enslaved Africans, which were taken by a naturalist, “in order to make allegedly factual, if categorically false explanations that justify the dehumanization of blacks”. The exhibition “asks the vaunted ‘objectivity’ of journalistic reporting and historical ‘facts’, Holland Cotter” wrote for the New York Times.
The show, whose title repurposes journalism’s best-known phrase, questions forms of authoritative communication and expression, including news; it performs an act of media criticism in the broadest sense. “There really is no objective truth that is a major issue,” said Dr. Ashley James, the curator of the exhibition Essence earlier this year. “No single record should have the power to say everything.” James, recently spoke to CJR about art as media criticism, how media form meaning, and the role of self-reflection in information production. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: How did this exhibition come about?
Sadie Barnette’s “My Father’s FBI File” sparked this bigger idea, namely, artists who deal with documents – written, photographic, even things that we wouldn’t consider “documents” in themselves, like a coloring book – as a possibility to speak about a particular story, and also to take up that concept of story, capitalized and how it is constructed.
Sadie’s work features pink and black spray paint against her father’s FBI files. These gestures are conceptually complex, but materially simple – nifty gestures that have a lot of meaning. You talk back to the very destructive history these FBI files represent, but also to the FBI in general, what it means to monitor.
Some of these works argue that there are invisible forces that we do not see when dealing with any type of document, be it because of its distribution – as in newspapers – or because of its authority – as in history books. The invisible things are the people who made them, the editors, the whole story that preceded them. What the artist can do is make these forces visible.
Sarah Charlesworth’s work, for example, masks the text on the front pages of newspapers, which then makes the images hyper-visible and allows what is there to be seen by bringing it to the surface more clearly. To make visible. One could argue that artists have a certain talent for materials and as such are able to bring these things to light aesthetically.
The note next to Charlesworth’s work states that “media is involved in the making of history and even in meaning itself.” How did you feel about the latter in your work?
Various discourses come together in this exhibition – from our historical discourses and the legacies of photoconceptualism to the criticism of Black Studies about who writes history and how it is passed on. So, in Charlesworth’s play, if you look at the Herald grandstand: These are the pictures that make history. A newspaper is a container for writing history. But there are also the limits to how we begin to understand what history is.
The formation of meaning takes place around archetypes of power and leadership and around the hierarchies that exist in the newspaper itself. Think about the front page: what does it mean to open a paper to see what is happening elsewhere instead of gaining meaning from what is presented as a priority? One step away from the information itself, there are these frameworks, which are also presented to us.
This is also an indictment against the show. There are certain museum conventions – even the way you move around an exhibition space – that determine our understanding of the exhibition. Even if we say, “It is neutral to move from space to space,” it is not necessarily the case.
I am interested in artists who find their way around the boundaries of things and either say what these boundaries are or who work within the boundaries, which cross borders. This interplay between what we know and how we know is interesting.
How did you set your limits when setting up this exhibition – knowing that it is a construction itself?
For the most part, it’s a post-1990s show, but the ’77 Charlesworth is some groundwork. There are also literal limits to the structure; there are works that physically do not fit in here. There is work that conceptually fits, but maybe just didn’t look good with the rest.
This is a mostly black womenâs show. Nine of the thirteen artists are black. There’s a version of this that could be all black artists – something I’ve wrestled with. Coming from a marginalized position, it makes sense for marginalized people to be more skeptical of the historical document. It also makes sense to have white female artists who think about gender. It makes sense to have a Latinx artist thinking about imperialism in the US.
âOff the Recordâ strongly encourages visitors to think about the construction of the official record. Is it enough to consider the construction? Can you go beyond that?
There is work here that, in my opinion, is more geared towards making the structures of the album known. But then there are artists like Tamashi Jackson and Leslie Hewitt who, in my opinion, are about creating a new structure. Knowing the structure is always beneficial – even if you just continue to know that these are the things that will determine your decisions. Boundaries are something that I’m very interested in. Where are the limits of knowledge? I’m interested in artists who find their way around the limits of things and either say what these limits are, or work within the limits, crossing the limits. This interplay between what we know and how we know is interesting.
When this show started, there were comments about the idea of ââ”fake news”. In a way, the show can flow into that idea that “I don’t trust the media because of bias”. I understand how to make this connection. But it is a question of which constructions you keep and which ones you reject, right? Everything you call progressive media has a framework, as does Fox News, but they’re not the same things just because they’re both biased. I think it goes back to that question of power. Who has the power?
Was there a lightbulb moment in your own life when you realized that knowledge is being constructed?
I do not know exactly. In the Bachelor we read a number of religious texts in which we talk about what it means to look at something contemporary and not from the past. For me it was one of the first times that âthe documentâ was destabilized as a matter of course – there is no other way. Several interpretations come from the same text. This is such a basic idea in African American Studies: what the archive can say, what it contains, all of these things.
What has become clearer to me through this exhibition is what we call relevant cultural objects. Even a coloring book – which is by no means a conventional document – has an ideological basis. Do everything. I like walking off the show on that note because it just reminds you to keep thinking about it – even in the most “innocent” rooms.
ICYMI: Drawing the Trump News Cycle
Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes the CJR’s weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.
TOP PICTURE: Photo by David Heald. courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.