Originally published in the TBA (Time-Based Art) issue of Polvo Magazine in Summer 2008, co-edited by labotanica
On the Archive
Interview with Christopher Cozier
Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud: We are here in Phillipsburg, St. Maarten as part of Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator’s International Exchange, and I here you mentioning the importance of the archive quite often. Could you talk more about the archive and its current significance?
Christopher Cozier: First of all, I don’t think archives are neutral. What is documented and how people research it can have a certain institutional, cultural and even personal subjectivity. An archive is about the way that we protect and preserve a future. It is about the making of both the past and future. And the process may be more significant than the end result; it is a process of remembering, not just coldly documenting. I see it as an active, shifting and ongoing enterprise. Of course, I am speaking from the point of view of an artist who is concerned primarily with the imaginative and fictional as a form of critical understanding.
AJM: Could you talk more about archive in terms of the Black experience and more specifically Caribbean culture?
CC: In terms of the Black experience? Let’s see…while all societies have oral culture, there is often a heightened focus on oral memory in the Caribbean. This is just another way that people remember. There is one thing to have a letter or text documenting a moment and to keep it in a box somewhere, and another to recall a moment through music and daily conversations or gestures. I hope that my literary friends don’t think I am betraying them. For me archiving is related to memory but memory as a process of imagining. As an artist, I am always fascinated by the work of my peers, and those before, and the way in which a sense of a given time or experience is conveyed through the visual form, point of view or the subject of the work. I think for artists living in the Caribbean, we are to some degree complicit in our erasure. This may be attributed to the absence of critical and curatorial reflection driven by the critical intent within the work produced, as well as, the resources to build institutions that document. I know there is a mounting irony in my comments here.
I think, honestly, this may have a lot to do with why the majority of Caribbean artists often do not get into shows in other regions as much as they should, because of this absence. Well, of course, there is the Havana Biennial and the Santo Domingo Biennials, both of which impacted on that question, but in other areas of the region there is still an absence.
AJM: Can you talk a little about the CCA7 in Trinidad and now that has recently closed, how you are attempting to archive programs of this incredibly significant institution in the Caribbean.
CC: I was one of the artists that initiated the questions that lead to CCA7 but my relationship shifted back and forth from that of a well wisher to a formal adviser during its moment…I can say that there were 10 years of activities that CCA7 produced between 1997-2007. After 2000, there were approximately two talks given by visiting artists and critics every month. All were recorded. This was not just a national affair. Artists and curators were coming from all over the world generating a range of exchanges that are still playing out even though the site is gone. One can say that this has no value currently if it is not accessible. Every day that goes by it is danger of disappearing. Or…..one can say that our ongoing collaborations with the Triangle Network, projects like the Galvanize event in 2006, initiated by Mario Lewis and its blog archive driven by Nicholas Laughlin, spaces like Alice Yard, to some degree The Film Club that Artists Peter Doig and Che Lovelace host, as well as, the recent curatorial projects of Claire Tancons for the upcoming Gwanju Biennial are ways that this initiative of CCA7 is still playing out. So we are talking about its history. So… what are the implications of losing 10 years of creative work in the Caribbean in a particular location and its outcomes? That would be unthinkable in London or Berlin. And that’s the politics of the archive. If I wanted to know what artists were doing in New York in 1965 or 1945 it will be accessible in some way. I don’t think it will be a challenging prospect to run that down. But it is this assembling of memory that I am interested in.
AJM: Talk about alternative forms of archive on a daily level.
CC: I think vernacular cultures in the region are processes that are involved in commemoration and memory also. This has often posed a challenge in the Caribbean in understanding what constitutes the monumental for example. I think in the Caribbean the monumental is actually understood through ritual and body language--- things that are often left unseen in the field of representation or things that are rendered static through conventional means of recording like painting or anthropological documentation or statues lumped down in a park. In other words, there are often long debates about monuments to celebrate people and events like Emancipation. This is supposed to be an important moment in Caribbean society. But it is often assumed, by politicians and activists alike, that Caribbean society has no form of its own. So the politicians and the cultural activists often want to build objects, edifices and statues like they see elsewhere. In the process we are in danger of failing to acknowledge that festival cultures are ways in which people remember. In other words, you see people dancing in the streets and you think its just a party, but this is a form of archive; a living one; a form of a asserting their presence and recalling past struggles. People have other ways of remembering and festival culture is one way that people remember Emancipation and the struggle to secure a place in society in the transition from slave to citizen. 200 years later it’s a party, and in some cultures it may have has lost some of its meaning. But what I am saying is that is a method of preservation a form of cultural memory.
And Black memory can also be heavily centered on the performative, from collective rituals to something seemingly mundane as how a guy walks down the street. I don’t know if you’ve seen Rockers, but there is a scene solely devoted to Gregory Isaacs, for example, walking down the street similar to the scenes from movies like Shaft expressing cool and defiance... In my earlier writing I speculated about the way that objects and actions functioned with equal agency in the cultural space. I was concerned about the absence of Carnival and or Dance Hall performances from narratives about visual art in the Caribbean. Annie Paul has written further about this cultural blind spot. Krista Thompson, a colleague currently at North Western is currently looking at the implications within the performative moment of “bling” in the Caribbean and the Southern United States, for example.
AJM: So tell me the way you personally use the archive in your work.
CC: Well my interest in criticism and publications is one way. As you know I am a member of the Small Axe Collective that produces a journal of criticism. As practitioners we have to be aware of the significance of documenting as a process of becoming also. You can’t wait around for other people to determine your value. You have to make your own value. Especially after our long Colonial experience and our ongoing physical and electronic media proximity to the United States. I also use the internet quite a lot and have my own blog site that is networked to other practitioners with whom I converse and I have also placed my ongoing projects in Flickr ..Nicholas Laughlin of the Caribbean Review of Books and Georgia Popplewell of Caribbean Free Radio have converted many of us in the region into bloggers.
I think in the old fashioned constructs of Modernism or Modernity, there was a kind of argument with or appeal to this alleged hegemonic and monolithic cultural assertion which, as a matter of course, excludes you in the process of constructing its own canon and or narrative. The options were negotiation, engagement or confrontation or all at once. The objective was to be recognized because of a past relationship. In a way it is no longer too useful to agonize over whether one is in or out. In a “globalized” platform, it takes on a different significance, because everybody everywhere is trying to build their own story. It’s not an argument for inclusion; it’s about simply proceeding. You just have to get on with your business because history and the archive are about the present moment. It is a process of making the future with available resources. One in which you may eventually have a more healthy sense of belonging or participation.
Christopher Cozier is an artist and writer living and working in Trinidad. He has participated in a number of exhibitions focused upon contemporary art in the Caribbean and internationally. Since 1989 he has published a range of essays on related issues in a number of catalogues and journals. He is on the editorial collective of Small Axe, A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, published and distributed by the Indiana University Press. The artist has been an editorial adviser to BOMB magazine for their Americas issues (Winter, 2003, 2004 & 2005)A documentary produced by Canadian video artist and writer, Richard Fung entitled “ Uncomfortable: the Art of Christopher Cozier.” was launched in Toronto in January 2006. The artist is a Senior Research Fellow at the Academy of The University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) and was Artist-in-Residence at Dartmouth College during the Fall of 2007. https://christophercozier.blogspot.com/