Collaboration, research and imagination - in Brussels
In 2019, Elise Billiard Pisani and I embarked upon a research project around inventories; lists of objects, goods, possessions, drafted by notaries over centuries, covering life and business events such as inheritances, stock-takes, dowries, tenders, and ships’ cargoes. We were lucky to have the support of the Notarial Archives Foundation, whose volunteers welcome researchers, artists and genealogists (as well as the occasional cat) to search through some of the 20,000 notarial registers and other historic manuscripts housed at the Notarial Archives, spanning a period of 600 years.
Through the exercise of sifting through the many centuries-old papers, letters, bills and logbooks we became fascinated by the physical archive. What attracted us was not only the historical or evidential data, but also the physicality of the folios and the archives themselves. The condition of the pages – which date from the 16th to the 20th century, the mix of languages, the indecipherability of their various handwritings, and the notes made in their margins, meant that we, not being historians, and unexcited at the prospect of thinking like one – were obliged, but also free, to take our own meanings from the archives.
The project spanned the period of Covid restrictions – already beginning to fade from public memory. During this time (December 2020 to be precise), we came across a small open call on social media by artist Claire Ducène, calling for artists and researchers to create a group around the idea of a fictional archive. Claire, herself has centred her work around this idea for many years, using found photography, historical records, and local memories to weave stories and legends together through her work. The open call suggested ideas like the ethics of lying or inventing public records, the use of the archive in contemporary art, and the strange question of archiving something which doesn’t actually exist. Deep as we were in our inventory research, we were intrigued by the ideas put forward, and reached out to her.
What resulted was a two-year online, international and hybrid project, with artists and researchers from many different disciplines and backgrounds, including a historian, an anthropologist, as well as a choreographer, an opera composer, and a filmmaker. The artists who were invited to join the group all had a particular relationship with the archive or the archival document; some are focused on physical collections, while others work sonically, and others create their own archival material from contemporary events and production. Some use archives in their ‘raw’ form, while others take a completely different starting point from which to create their work. During monthly meetings, each of the 16 or so members shared their work and interests with the group, building up to a 10-day residency at ISELP in Brussels and La Métive, a residence located in Creuse in south-west France. This January, the group returned to ISELP – an artistic research centre – to set up the group exhibition Memories Gone Wild, which remains open until 25 March.
The archive has been present throughout the project as a watermark; something that is visible, but not immediately apparent, in the finished project. For example, the artist Céline Cuvelier begins her work with official documents, which no longer appear in her final installations; rather she creates a story or an image from what she collects. Patrick Gaïaudo on the other hand, explores the archives of Loïe Fuller, highlighting the grace and poetry around any images that remain of her. The collaboration between Julian Walker, Philippe Black and Sam Vanoverschelde made use of archival images in their original form, but they confront them with their respective – real or invented – stories.
Elise and I joined the project through our research into the concept of the inventory. However, as time went on, our focus shifted, and our thoughts meandered from the human difficulties which official documentation processes create, to the absurdity of personal identification, and back to the preserved records at the Notarial Archives in Malta. In the end, our journey took us to an island – the island of Farfara, which may or may not have existed and which appears on a small number of 17th century maps of the Maltese archipelago. This island off the coast in various locations – sometimes appearing in the place of the rocky outcrop of Filfla, and sometimes shifting westwards past the Dingli Cliffs and towards the south-western Mellieħa coastline. Through our research, we began to pull together a story, and a hazy picture began to appear; one of an obscure and mysterious isle which, though small, may have played a vital role in Mediterranean geopolitics, as the fourth (inhabited) island of the Maltese archipelago. Several personal testimonies, both historical and contemporary, although fragmentary, provided us with evidence that Farfara not only existed, but that its intermittent intangibility has allowed it to play host to enigmatic events on the world stage. The archives which we presented are made of a collection of artefacts and documents linked with six Farfara ‘witnesses’, seemingly the only six people who have documented travel to the island (although this cannot be fully verified). The six witnesses could be described as reluctant, since for the most part they have not voluntarily made their knowledge public. Their individual stories are too long and detailed to list here, but just two summaries may provide an idea of their relationship with the island.
Mirza Aboul Taleb Khan (also known as Abu Taleb Tabrizi or Abu Taleb Isfahani) (1752–1805/1806) was probably an Indian tax collector working for the British. His legacy is a detailed account of his travels under the title Masir Talib fi Bilad Afranji. This travelogue is extraordinary not only for its reverse description from East to West, but also because it presents a unique description of the island of Farfara, including a list of indigenous fauna and flora. Artefacts linked with this adventurous character include drawings, tools and botanical specimens.
Another interesting example is Asunción Axiela La Sorte, a shadowy character born into a privileged family in 1930s Spain. How she came to know about Farfara is unclear. Many questions remain unanswered however documentation has surfaced showing Axiela La Sorte posing as an air hostess assisting the President Gorbachev and his wife during the 1989 USA-USSR summit off the coast of Malta. Why she appears in these photographs, and the exact nature of her link with Farfara remains unclear, although her interest in flying and her privileged background appear to have facilitated her access to the island. In fact, her pilot’s license is one of the items on display within the exhibition.
The process of collating the Farfara Archives provided us with an opportunity to research the mechanisms behind the production of accepted truth through the documentation of fictitious islands and historical myth. As did many of our colleagues in the Fictive Archies group, we spent time thinking about the politics of public culture and particularly ideas of post-truth. The creation of a believable archive, following a simulated version of bureaucratic and scientific frameworks; allowed us to play with bureaucratic procedures and structures, where new narratives and interpretations arise through the placement and association of seemingly unconnected documents.
I started this story with Elise, and a collaboration that meandered and grew between Malta and France. Into that story came Claire, and a group of artists from Belgium, France, Mexico, Colombia, Poland, Germany and the UK. And for now, we’re in Farfara, looking back at its misty history, but also looking forward and planning its future, whatever that may bring.
Memories Gone Wild; Fictive Archive Investigations, curated by Claire Ducène is on at ISELP, Boulevard de Waterloo, Brussels until 25 March. Exhibiting artists are Élise Billiard Pisani & Margerita Pulè, Philippe Black, Balthazar Blumberg, Giordano Bruno Do Nascimento, Juan Cárdenas, Alexis Choplain & Noëlie Plé, Céline Cuvelier, Claire Ducène, Patrick Gaïaudo, Cecilia Hurtado, Stéphanie Roland, Agata Skupniewicz, Sam Vanoverschelde, and Julian Walker. More information on www.fictivearchiveinvestigations.com and www.iselp.be.