For many years archives are hot both as a theme of academic discussion and as a space for the creative and investigative processes of many artists. This is a stark contrast to the traditional image of an archive as a dead place or the stereotypical archivist: a grey specialist with glasses and sleave protectors. Let’s remind ourselves of the two main functions of archives. The first, very practical one, is to keep an organisation, a community or a country running, such as the archive of our tax files. The other function, less urgent, is that of the memory archive. Those are places in which we can responsibly ‘dump’ our documents that we do not need any more, and that we may want to ‘responsibly’ forget for the moment but safe them for a possible, yet unknown, meaningful role in a near or far future. In-between these two poles of remembering and forgetting we position ourselves as human beings and as communities. They hold our history, that what made us as well as our possibilities of acting out and shaping our future.
In the European Academy of Participation Project (EAP) a group of European partners has discussed and experimented with the possibilities that artistic interventions in communities offer. The driver of these actions is often the struggle of togetherness and belonging. The question of what holds a community together and how is often related to the question of how communities belong to a city, a nation or a ‘culture’. Groups that feel excluded often simply do not see their heritage, their memory and hence their identity represented in the mainstream culture around them. The Dutch scholar Gloria Wekker calls these memories that constitute a group, those deeply engrained notions of who we are, our ‘cultural archive’. By that she does not refer to a basement stuffed with piles of old papers. She rather means a collection of feelings, images, conditions that are part of ourselves and that we have inherited through our upbringing from our families and the communities we live in. This cultural archive is part of who we all are. My own cultural archive is probably different from yours. In-between these differences we need to ‘negotiate’ a way to coexist.
Artists can play a role in this negotiation. EAP investigated what it means for an artist and for the communities to engage in these ‘negotiations’. During conferences and summer schools the delegates have looked at participatory art projects, set-up small project themselves, and discussed the possibilities and challenges of working with communities. Some of the main question that came back time and again circle around ethical dilemmas: How can I take responsibility for my actions in a community that will live with the impact of my intervention for longer than my own presence as an artist? How can I take responsibility of the quality of a project if I give co-authorship to a collective that I hardly know? How can I distinguish between my role of an artist and that of a social worker, an anthropologist. And how do I keep autonomy if with time I also become a part of the community? These questions of responsibility are exceptionally addressed in the case of the SINOPALE. By engaging with the community of Sinop across many years, it is the opposite from a ‘hit and run’ project or an ‘art washing’ exercise. Sinopale takes responsibility for both the local citizens and the artists by taking time and engaging in all aspects of life together and: by talking a lot. Meanwhile, with the 8th edition, it may be safe to say that it has shaped the community in a way to what it is today. It has become part of the identity of the place. It therefore seems logical and suitable to look back and establish an (online) archive of participatory projects. This archive will be both a memory archive and a functional archive, as it closes the circle that I have sketched above: it is aimed not only at ‘not forgetting’ but at being productive and offering material for a creative process in itself, for conversations and for generating ideas that may be useful for today: as an inspiration, a challenge, a provocation or, yes, also warm memories that we can tell each other over a cup of tea and feel that these memories are shared and that they connect us. When talking about collective memory the cup of linden blossom tea in Prousts famous book Search for Lost Time comes back often. The smell of the tea and the madeleine that comes with the tea evokes strong memories for the protagonist. And we all know that feeling: taste and smell that reminds us of our childhood. In this project we will have a cup of tea together in an online setting. We will not be able to share the smell and taste. But we can tell each other what we remember in the projects we have experienced together in the past editions of the Sinopale. And from this sharing something new can emerge, new feelings and ideas. A living archive over tea.
Text written by: Lars Ebert