The Rubbish Collector
“The analysis of the archive, then, involves a privileged region: at once close to us, and different from our present perspective, it is the border of time that surrounds our presence, which overhangs it, and which indicates it in its otherness; it is that which, outside ourselves, delimits us”.
• Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge
“Here is a man whose task it is to pick up all the rubbish produced on one day in the capital. All that the great city has thrown out, all that it has disdained, all it has broken, he catalogues and collects. He consults the archives of debauchery, works through the lumber-room of rubbish”
• Charles Baudelaire, “On Wine and Hashish” (1851)
I once worked as a rubbish collector, spending one long summer heaving bin bags, fetid with nappies and rotting foodstuffs, from their homes and spending the winter that followed feeding galvanised buckets of coal ash, more bin bags and bare Christmas trees directly into a greedy dustcart. Gratification derived in part from the rude physicality of the labour, from the close camaraderie of the gang and from the surreptitious knowledge that this job was, for me, only a temporary one. But there was another pleasure which contributed to my enjoyment and that was in exploring the treasures of the municipal dump, where the refuse lorries deposited their heavy cargoes. Amongst the grimy teddy bears, discarded consumer “durables” and the shattered furniture, the waste to which I was most drawn was the photographs. In my memory, these photographs — scattered across the landfill site in varying degrees of decomposition — constitute an improbably large portion of the dustcarts’ haul. Recalling these past experiences, I particularly remember pursuing the ruins of school photographs, distinguishable by their format and their presentation folders, across the unsteady terrain of the tip. Today, I retain no sense of what motivated this pursuit, of how it was perceived by my colleagues or, indeed, of what amusement was derived from my photographic plunder, always discarded before clambering back aboard the now emptied dustcart.
Invited to write about Jesus Robalo Teixeira’s own collection of school photographs — a selection of which are published here — my immediate response was to reconsider the functions of this pictorial genre.
From one perspective, the school photograph belongs to a specific category of domestic portraiture; images of either a single, frequently uniformed, sitter or of a group formalised as much by the ranked and seated pose as by the presence of one or several teachers. Displayed on mantelpieces, stored in drawers, or thrown in the trash, these photographs attain immediate resonance through their personal identifiability. Whether sources of embarrassment to their subjects or sources of pride to the subjects’ families, emotional gravity is anchored by the weight of identity.
Once that anchor of recognition is severed, perhaps school photographs float more freely to occupy different indexical positions. Stripped of their familial significations, the images seem to erase other potential references. What might be termed internal complexities become more illegible. Individual characteristics of awkwardness or altheticism and sociability or solitariness, for example, as well as the collective characteristics that mark the dynamics of petty jealousies, adolescent crushes, friendships and bullying, all these are lost to the impersonal viewer and in their place a serene implacability reigns. External complexities find their legibility compromised, too, with such characteristics as the geographical location of the school, its religious orientation, and its status as a fee-paying enterprise or otherwise all underdetermined. Robbed of the internal and external characteristics that personal recognition may provide, the abandoned or anonymous school photograph can be approached as a token of innocence. It can be seen as a literally utopian relic which inverts the alchemical process evoked in The Picture of Dorian Gray — first mobilised by Oscar Wilde and recently reanimated by Will Self — and becomes instead an arrested image against which our own lives decay and deform, gathering only too legible internal and external complexities.
Yet this sentimental reading is not the only one available. The school photograph is not just interpretable as an emotionally engaging genre portrait, it may also function as an archival artefact. Its use within the family suggests that it belongs primarily within the private archive. Yet if the schools themselves retain copies, as would seem likely, it is simultaneously part of a pedagogic and administrative archive. These latter archives can themselves migrate to other discursive catalogues: for educational sociologists the portraits could be candidates for inclusion in academic archives; for police officers or journalists, incidents in the lives of the portraits’ subjects may elevate the images to inclusion in criminal or media archives; and, through the re-presentational strategies of meta-photographers like Teixeira, the school photograph can find itself a membership of artistic archives, that of the artist himself, of his agent and of the collector and the curator.
But is the notion of the archive here simply too broad, too far beyond the safe perimeters of either colloquial or critical definitions? Shouldn’t the archive be identified as an official record, not something of the family or of the artist or of the museum, but something of the state?
Well, according to philosopher Jacques Derrida, the origins of the archive lie intriguingly and firmly within the domestic sphere: “the meaning of ‘archive’, its only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence”. Yet, as Derrida continues, the originally private location of the archive depended upon the public status of the occupiers, the “citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or represent the law. On account of their publicly recognised authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house (private house, family house or employee’s house), that official documents are filed” . As far as Derrida is concerned, “there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation” .
Yet, for all the theoretical cogency of Derrida’s desire to democratise the archive and for all the practical comfort to be derived from actualising its democratisation — as, for example, demonstrated in the inspirational stories of former East Germans doing just this in Anna Funder’s Stasiland — perhaps there is a problem in associating the archive too exclusively with the official records of our own time and place .
Such official, contemporary and “local” archives are real and significant yet there are other archives, unofficial, aged and distant ones, with other realities and other significances.
The unofficial archive, perhaps the counter-archive, can be seen, for example, in the work of the Black South African photographer Ernest Cole, whose activities are described in Alan Sekula’s essay “The Body and the Archive”. For Sekula, Cole’s book The House of Bondage, “and his story are remarkable. In order to photograph a broad range of South African society, Cole had first to change his racial classification from black to coloured, no mean feat in a world of multiple bureaus of identity … He countered this apparatus, probably the last physiognomic system of domination in the world, with a descriptive strategy of his own, mapping out the various checkpoints in the multiple channels of apartheid” . Another counter-archival strategy can be recognised in the work of artist Adrian Piper, whose Vanilla Nightmares series from the 1980s involved the artist re-editing through her superimposition of charcoaled drawings and words pages of the New York Times’ devoted to reporting the crises of South Africa.
Aged archives and archives from “abroad” can equally perform the documentary disruption achieved by Cole and by Piper. Addressing archival images from the past or from other countries may very well provoke a re-examination of our own present place, a re-examination whose force is derived from the very distance of time and of location. It is in precisely these terms that Michel Foucault establishes the potential energy of the archive that is not a bureaucratic record of the here and the now. For him, the archive “establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks” .
Jesus Robalo Teixeira’s re-presentation of the school photographs is a more ambiguous encounter than that of Cole and Piper and less directly a measure of difference than that hoped for by Foucault’s re-orientation of the archival project. The images’ simultaneous excess of ambiguity and loss of directness is a function of their very lack of the representational anchor spoken of earlier. Looking at them I felt less like a viewer of Cole’s or Piper’s work or an explorer of the archive who has absorbed Foucault’s advice and more like the detached rubbish collector of my earlier life. Yet this time, the detachment is a less pleasurable one, for Teixeira’s images are products of a South African educational system on the cusp of transition. If for him “these images would need to represent some form of untruth, [they] shift from an item of personal significance to an obituary of a collective, of a social system and a culture” then for me, the images provoke the guilty sense of opening an archive whose “difference” I am unable to properly and politically locate without a fuller knowledge of its time and place.
Text by Angus Carlyle
©Picture: Jesus Robalo Teixeira
Courtesy: The Moth House, Andre Montenegro