Reframing History - Albuquerque Journal

Reframing History

“Agitated Histories”, curated by Irene Hoffman, Phillips director and chief curator at SITE Santa Fe, in collaboration with assistant curator Janet Dees, is an ambitious exhibition. Employing strategies of quotation, re-contextualization and re-enactment, most of the work is consciously positioned as political intervention within art historical narratives rather than being political in the activist sense, but the line is not always clear.

The work is divided into four separate, but related, themes: “The Archive” (work created in response to a specific historic archive), “The Reenactment” (work that restages historic events), “The Persona” (work that interrogates the construction of iconic historic figures), and “The Intervention” (work that recalls historic events to highlight the present and caution about the future).

While most of the art is not confined to one category, it is those works engaging “The Archive” that are the most interesting, complex, and in some ways, problematic: Archives not only document lives, movements and events, but, in fact create historical narratives. Like the histories they construct, they are subjective. Many of the artists mined archives for source material while others interrogated the conceit of the archive itself.

If you go
WHAT: “Agitated Histories”
WHERE: SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta
WHEN: Through Jan. 15
CONTACT: 989-1199 or

Based on photographic archives of African-American, Native American, and Aboriginal Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, Sam Durant’s graphite drawings depict protest demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, thereby documenting the photo archives as well as the original events. At SITE, these photo-based illustrations are juxtaposed to large industrial lightboxes with vinyl texts copied from the hand-lettered signs carried by protestors in the drawings.

Installed in a fine art space, the texts – accusations such as “200 Years of White Lies” and “You are on Indian Land: Show Some Respect” – now several times removed from their original political context, function as aestheticized signs of activism interrupting the dominant narrative of Western art rather than activist signage (art in the service of activism) – however this changes when the same glowing signs are installed outside in public spaces. Given Santa Fe’s indigenous population and history of colonization, SITE’s decision to not install a lightbox on the outside of its building seems like a missed opportunity for “art and artists of the 99%” to join the conversation initiated by the Occupy/De-occupy movement’s encampment in the adjacent Railyard Park.

It’s not to say that one visual strategy is better than the other, but rather to note difference in meaning and possibility that follow shifts in presentation contexts. Take Mark Tribe’s Fort Huron Project from 2006-2009. Like Durant, Tribe reframes archival material documenting moments of political unrest. The Port Huron Project is a series of re-enactments of protest speeches from the Vietnam era. Tribe hired actors to deliver speeches by Stokely Carmichael, Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis and others, in locations where the original speeches were made, to an audience of “invited guests and passers by.” These performed speeches were videotaped.

At SITE, the Fort Huron Project is presented as a room-sized two-channel video installation with sound. Videos of re-enacted speeches by Carmichael, Chavez, and Davis are projected on two large screens – one focusing on the speaker, the other, the crowd of listeners, with the gallery viewer looking at both speaker and crowd from a distance –– occupying an awkward space between intervention, art commodity and the potential of art as activist tool to shape the public imaginary. It’s Tribe’s intent that the speeches, while “removed decades from their original context, pose questions about the lack of political engagement and detached nature of political dissent today,” however, against the backdrop of the Occupy movement that has emerged in recent months, the videos remain in documentary mode, albeit one that suggests connection of dissenting voices across time and space.

A differently edited version of the Chavez speech playing on a small video monitor in the entry area of SITE, incorporates news media tropes. Because there is no sound, the text of the speech appears as captions on the screen. News media tropes were also used in 2008 when excerpts from the Chavez and Davis speeches were screened on MTV’s oversized HD video screen in the heart of Times Square. In both cases, the “faux news coverage” format used to present archival speeches, had a feeling of news “happening live now.”

The Fae Richards Photo Archive (consisting of 78 gelatin silver prints, four chromogenic prints and a notebook of six pages of typescript), is a collaboration between Cheryl Dunye and Zoe Leonard. Dunye’s 1996 film “The Watermelon Woman” is about an emerging lesbian African-American filmmaker (played by Dunye) who is making a documentary about the lesbian black actress Fae Richards (aka Watermelon Woman), popular in the ’30s and ’40s. Richards is a fictional character invented by Dunye in an effort to create an artistic lineage for her own cinematic practice. Leonard created the archival photographs of Richards featured in the film.

“The Watermelon Woman” was screened at the Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque in conjunction with “Agitated Histories,” but the “The Fae Richards Photo Archive” is displayed at SITE. Leonard and Dunye’s invention of “a photographic archive for a fictional figure whose life may have mirrored that of a real-life person of who there is no historical record …” draws attention to fact that few records exist documenting the lives and work of black lesbian artists, thereby interrogating the political nature of archives – whose stories are preserved and whose aren’t?

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