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Theorizing the Archive

Theoretical Framework

An amnesiac loss of history characterizes many Filipinx American experiences. There are no federally-funded Filipinx museums in the United States, the Smithsonian National Archives historically disregard Filipinx and minoritarian perspectives, and public high schools often frame US-Philippines relations as peaceful and mutually-beneficial. I approach this gap by seeking to foment public memory via aesthetic practices. I propose that an archive of vernacular images—personal, everyday family photographs—is an art form that supports public memory.

The erasure of Filipinx American history from mainstream art and museum practices reinforces the need to curate a new, reimagined art form. In transnational movement, the past carried with Filipinos tends to be lost, unexpressed, or becoming silenced in history. Lisa Lowe, professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University describes the memory loss associated with transpacific, Filipino experiences. In her foreword to the essays in the 2006 collection, Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse, she writes:

Writers, artists, and scholars—from…Carlos Bulosan to Reynaldo Ileto—have commented that forgetting characterizes the Filipino encounter with the United States...Nations, collectivities, and individuals have forgotten wars, eras of colonial rule, sojourns, settlements, sufferings, and survivals. With memories left unrecorded, locations destroyed or abandoned, and sequences of events disrupted, the past is lost to narrative history.

Lowe and the other contributing scholars argue that such a past—while defined and constituted by forgetting—can never be made available as whole and transparent; however the past may often reappear in fragments. It can be read in the cultural practices, scholarly and political work, and social spaces of immigrant formations.

The amnesiac loss of Filipinx American culture and creation is by no means an accident. Rather, the erasure is a facet of Western, colonial institutions which continually prioritize, present, and omit non-dominant narratives. Museums—as gatekeepers of art and culture—are particularly key institutions that contribute to erasure. As political scientist and author of Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson expresses in “Census, Map, Museum” (1991), the museum was a tool for colonial powers to eliminate and erase certain aspects of their colonized people’s cultures. As Lowe alluded to, Filipinx narratives are rarely explored in any capacity in white-dominant settings and are often reduced to non-distinct characteristics associated with Asian American experiences. Thus, the memory of Filipinx American narratives are often kept private.

With the images of Filipinx American families often kept private, there becomes greater distance between narrative truth and false constructions of history. Roland Barthes’ “Myth as a Semiological System” proposes that photographs and other art practices create new forms of reality, or “myth.” The creative practice creates distance between the original language (the signifier and signified) and the new mythical semiology that undertakes the sign as its new signifier. As the artist further separates her work from the original language, history may also be separated from or obscured by the art form’s presentation of the sign. With Barthes’ framework, we may see, then, the need to understand that Western imagery constructs a limiting, exclusive narrative at a distance from its original history. With another lens, certain imagery may combat historical representations in order to re-connect and mend the distance between myth and history. 

The Pakinggan Archive proposes a new pathway to “listen” to and engage with art. Vernacular photographs from personal collections provide an avenue for self-representation and ensure the narrative visibility of minoritarian cultures. As Tina Campt, a Professor of Humanities and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, writes in Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe, vernacular photographs are a “counterimage.” Photography offers “a means of creating an image of our lives and selves as we would like to be seen” (Campt, 5). For Filipinx Americans—often who have either been displayed in negative terms or erased from mainstream media—the celebration of images as “we would like to be seen” remedies public memory.

To inform the way I view vernacular images, I will consider Rosalind Krauss’, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral.” Krauss confirms Barthes’ logic and proposes that family photos create their own realities. Krauss cites Pierre Bourdieu’s claims of “Un art moyen”: photographs that are halfway between high art and popular culture. Krauss notes that photography as an art moyen is a “function he sees as wholly connected to the structure of the family in the modern world, with the family photograph an index or proof of family unity, and, at the same time, an instrument or tool to effect that unity” (Krauss, 56). Photographs not only commemorate but also facilitate familial structures. Krauss determines that “the photographic record is part of the point of these family gatherings; it is an agent in the collective fantasy of family cohesion, and in that sense the camera is a projective tool, part of the theater that the family constructs to convince itself that it is together and whole” (Krauss, 56). Family photos pieced together, with narrative and thematic purposes, create what I claim is an artistic practice.

The archive intervention is art itself. It is counter discourse to dominant Western images and narratives that prevail in U.S. museums. This collection of Filipinx American photographs provides public access to cultural forms. Now gathered as related, artistic pieces, the work affords a permanent presence and beckons for growth. As artist and theorist Okwui Enwezor writes in “Photography Between History and the Monument,” the archival process turns a series of photographs, or documented testimonies, into art. Enwezor comments: an archive may “become and form a logic of domiciliation and consignation (gathering together signs that designate the artist’s oeuvre), as well as a condition of reality of the statements of each of the individual works, the narrative it has to convey, the a priori archive of the artist’s practice” (Enwezor, 18). Enwezor’s theory employs Jacques Derrida’s concept of “domiciliation”—the belief in institutional and historical presence. Enwezor’s proclamation calls for the archive as art, one that is a lasting portfolio, and provides a sense of self-representation and memory.

As Gayatri Gopinath proposes in Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora, curation of archival material of minoritized subjects enacts an aesthetic practice that performs new histories and foregrounds diasporic desires of everyday life. My notion of curation follows Gopinath’s proposition that curation is not only a rearrangement but also “a mode of intersubjective, interrelational obligation to engage in the past” (Gopinath, 4). With a sense of obligation to document and analyze the otherwise inconsequential or ephemeral representations of immigrant life, as a curator and artist myself, I stage collisions and draw connections between these art objects to create new racial formations, geographies, and temporalities. This is the creative, cared-for space that The Pakinggan Archive envisions.

I consider the process of viewing, curating, and sorting the images as an artistic practice itself. This intellectual labor takes previously private and piecemeal images and weaves them together to occupy digital, public space or a “domicile.” As the images interact on the digital website, viewers experience the fruit of the artistic collection: the photographs work to repair memory, invite questions/connections, and engage viewers. Further, I position the archive as art in order to manage the historical erasure and misrepresentation of Filipinx Americans in artistic spaces. The archive combats harmful, racist visual culture against Filipinx Americans: whether it be displays of the “savage” Filipino at the World’s Fair of 1904 to white elite circles, or the visual renderings of the Labor Movement of the 1960s which often forgets Filipinx activism, or the degrading photographs of dead Filipinx bodies from the Philppine-American War, etc. The established art of viewing Filipinos as a homogenous group of hospitable Brown Asians is harmful and flattens important nuances. Together, the vernacular images of the Pakinggan Archive resist and repair visual culture associated with Filipinx Americans. 

Sources included on the Acknowledgements page.