The Creation of a New Archive

Photographic matrices, open-ended works, and gender in art

Generative and deconstructive codes

Revisiting archives in their capacity as such can have the dual effect of vertigo and a dérive, not so much and not just a sense of looking back into the past but, more particularly, a sensation of a vanishing point that might go on into the future forever. In the mise en abyme proposed by Su Alonso and Inés Marful in their art project RE-ACTION, a highly original generative way has been devised of revisiting a series of photographic matrices from the modern age which are able to trigger complex vertiginous effects. The project offers a starting point from which a provoc-action can be derived. It signals a form of artistic creation that breaks down the barriers of authorship, upholding a joint system of creation and disclosing potential sources of inspiration for art, while also revealing the latency of its interconnections, interrelations and, above all, its links with gender.

RE-ACTION is based on the concept of proliferation, linked in with the birth and nature of photography: a technique that facilitates the (in theory endless) reproduction of an image which then loses its aura of singularity as it is multiplied. Although there is nothing new to the multiplication of an altered image (Duchamp himself modified many Mona Lisas), the novelty of this art project resides in its clearly stated open-ended nature, its deliberate chainlike sequential format and the explicit focus on gender by the artists who form this chain in a joint initiative reminiscent of the choral aspect of founder works of 1970s feminism, beginning with Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party Chicago’s work, however, is one big joint work -a horizontal one, it might be said-, created by many hands and many heads. It proclaimed the birth of a new political subject and contributed to symbolic and historical recognition of a feminism that had long been excluded and silenced, just like the long chain of creativity by women throughout history.

Here, in contrast, we are faced with a kind of vertical work, made up of many individual ones which hence have a unique aura. One is sparked off by another in an almost explicit demonstration of the idea that all works of art are a melting pot of connections and influences, of stated or unstated borrowings, and of stylistic, conceptual and affective relationships. The ascending and descending interlinking influences that the derivas evoke (in their capacity as trans-actions between one artist and the next) are a powerful reflection of that complex network of temporal and spatial relations, whether visible or not, that art represents. RE-ACTION is also a firm rebuttal of the gloriously unique, solitary, major social symbolism of single works of art, while also repudiating the solitude of the (always male) artist, who rises up in brilliant heroic style against a landscape of virile solipsisms (Nochlin 1971).

Art is thus a social construction built on collective practices, negotiations, interactions, definitions and self-definitions, and it is inextricably linked to the artist’s experience of gender (Pollock 1988) and to his or her place in the fabric of history. A work of art is the kaleidoscopic end product of a process of building and creating; a meeting point in decisions, interventions, and interpretations associated with that network of actions, reactions and interactions that take place in the world of artistic creation. Even in H.S. Becker’s more deconstructive open version (1982) or in artwork that more clearly reflects forms of collective authorship, the art world still tends to conceal the most basic and, paradoxically, most evident fact: that it is an end product created by men and women positioned on unequal levels, both in terms of power and resources.

Gender in the modern age

RE-ACTION is based on this elementary, basic piece of evidence. Through a succession of actions by the artists invited to take part in this project, six photographical matrices from the officially sanctioned archives of a victorious western modern age, from the second half of the 19th century through to the early 20th century, have literally been re-engendered (or, paradoxically de-gendered) The six photographs feature images (and hence gazes, constructions and narrations) of symbolic generative landmarks in modernity, with their resulting stereotypic influence on men and women’s bodies. In addition, and this fundamental point tends to escape people’s perceptions, all of them represent the close and never fully explicit link between male gender, the birth of the modern art world and its underlying aesthetic register: images produced by men became the much-proven products of a gender (the male gender) apparently regarded as neutral and universal.

As a result, Su Alonso and Marful use these six photographic matrices as non-neutral objets trouvés from the modern age. Starting with a provocative initial intervention, they share the composition in a new work and this, in turn, leads to a succession of almost endless dérives. The artists invited to take part in this generative initiative -which takes the form of a sequential process (because one work or feature of a work is taken as a pretext for the next one)- give rise to a provocative joint series of works that intervene in, alter and invent other works, images, portrayals, and self-portrayals, generating new scenes. In this way, the artists’ experience of gender is clearly disclosed, together with its effect on the work: the supposed universal (i.e. male) experience implicit in the photographic matrices contrasts with the alter-native experience of the artists involved in the other works’ creation.

The photographic matrices

Through a succession of themes in which gender is conferred on bodies and goods, social classes and habitus, urban spaces and art, and bodies and science, the photographic matrices form an archival record of the modern era -something that is no mere coincidence. Let us now examine them briefly in chronological order, from 1926 to 1855.

The photograph of the men’s tailor’s shop taken by Eugène Atget (Magasin, Avenue des Gobelins), is an authentic social and anthropological record of the consumer world, the birth of fashion, and the ghostly mis-en-scène of goods and bodies in the modern era’s archetypal metropolis: Paris (Benjamin 1962). Atget, who intended his work to have a descriptive or documentary purpose rather than an aesthetic one (Krauss 1989), should have defined his photographs as “documents for artists” (Berrebi 2014). In this famous photo and in the two ensuing ones by August Sander, the male body -or perhaps a simulation of the male body- is celebrated in a shop window that fetishizes suits as the emblematic attire of a new hegemonic class, the urban middle classes.

The same symbol can be found in the photograph of Three young Farmers in Sunday Dress by Sander (1914), from his Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (Men of the 20th Century), project, an ambitious fresco of German society of the time through thousands of portraits: “archetypes of all possible kinds, social classes, subclasses, professions, vocations and privileges” (Berger 1995, 39-47). The photograph documents the transition from the rural to the urban world, synthesizing the class hegemony associated with new rituals in male dress and the adoption and dissemination of middle-class suits among the working and peasant classes. The effect is a standardized series of bodies and seemingly natural gestures that are merely a reflection of the dominant class’ cultural practices, which would distort or eliminate popular culture, customs, practices and the working class identity (Berger 1995). We can literally see Bourdieu’s habitus (1979) in action here: that complex fabric of interactions through which “habit” builds, shapes and gives expression to the social body, while the social body in turn builds habits and bodily attitudes.

Even the year in which Sander took the photograph is relevant: with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, not only does it mark the end of a world but the advent of the violent, agonizing, irreversible experience of industrial modernity.

The third photograph, also by August Sander, shows the German painter Anton Räderscheidt (1926) photographed in Cologne’s Bismarckstrasse against a ghostly background. In this case, the photograph seems to celebrate the effortless power of the artist’s habitus confirming the painter’s close imitation of the clothes and stance of so many of the middle classes portrayed in his paintings: here the artist is fully identified with his work.

In the following photograph, Toulouse Lautrec dans son atélier, taken in 1894, we are introduced to the 19th century belle époque, in a painter’s studio with a naked model. Both are shown against the background of a painting -Au salon- which depicts the inside of a brothel. Signed by Maurice Guibert, one of the painter’s friends, the photograph is a symbol of the inextricable interconnections among hierarchies of gender, sexuality, art and modernity. The strong sexualisation of the figure of the 19th century painter in his studio is founded on two powerful common ideas: that there was a “natural” link between being an artist and man’s open access to the naked body of a woman -his model- and that art and the creation of beauty are equivalent to the representation of a nude women (Nochlin 1988, 17; Borzello 1982). The Paris of the Impressionists, that modern metropolis par excellence was heavily characterized by hierarchies and male and female inequalities. With their maps of pleasure, consumption, spectacles, and money, urban spaces are a hieroglyphic. Imprinted on this are sexual signs and forms of commercial exchange, like nudity, brothels or bars, that signal and pierce women’s bodies (Pollock 1988). If the flâneuses upheld by Baudelaire was the artist free to move around in this open space, then the flâneur (the female painter, writer, woman in search of freedom) was a figure whose conflictiveness has been tendentiously erased from tales of modernity (Woolf 1990; Trasforini 2009, 2010).

The two photographs by Duchenne de Boulogne, both dated 1855-56 (Effroi melé de douleur, torture; and Effroi, sujet vu de profil), are the oldest used by lonso and Marful, and they bear witness to the dark side of a history of suffering and manipulation throughout the modern age with the birth of clinical photography. With its ambiguous involvement in the clinical classification of ailing bodies and its transformational control of them, it would lead to the application of similar techniques on the bodies of Charcot’s hysterical patients in Salpetrière photographic laboratory, well documented in the famous Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetrière (Bourneville et Regnard 1876-80). The positivist constructions of a science that sought to legitimize its authority and the “imperatives of medical and anatomical illustration” (Sekula 1986, 7) were closely entwined with the examination of bodies, the production of symptoms and the birth itself of photographic portraits as a way of representing the individual.

Su Alonso and Inés Marful’s interventions to these first photographs and successive ones by the artists invited to take part in RE-ACTION have surprising, ignitable effects capable of rewriting and re-examining a whole myriad of assumed certainties, of established images and meanings that are taken for granted.

Breaking the frame and creating a new archive

By tracing a genealogy of possible pathways and setting in motion a series of unforeseeable theoretically interminable dérives, RE-ACTION proclaims the end of closed works of art. By metaphorically breaking the work of art’s finished frame, not only are its coercions and biases brought to light but also those of the background context that nourished it. When objects and images are consciously placed in a specific context, they become historical elements, revealed in their constructed biased form, and they become open to transformation and to the exercise of freedom.

One image that illustrates the breaking of the frame is Madonna Cascade–Models Triptych (1982-83), a work by the English artist Rose Garrard, who pays tribute to the “mother of all artists’ self-portraits”: the work of the 17th century Dutch painter, Judith Leyster (c. 1633). Garrard reproduces the ironic face in a white gesso frame, which comes open/breaks, leading to an unexpected cascade of Madonnas who fall to the floor (Borzello 1998, 194) in an authentic escape from the oppression and captivity of an idealized angelical femininity finally brought down to earth.

Many contemporary artists work today on archival documents (Enwezor 2008) and this has led to a phenomenon known as Archival Art. They give rise to a response effect,problematizing and de-familiarizing the familiar: pointing out that past and present are possible forms but not inescapable ones (Godfrey 2007; Osthoff 2009; Trasforini 2015). Archives are examined, not just (and not only) for their contents but, more particularly, as an active regulatory system of discursivity (Foucault 1969, Derrida 1995, Foster 2004), as institutions and as a productive and transformative force and structure (Wallen 2011, 277).

For many contemporary artists specializing in feminist and post-colonial studies (and more), archives are not just somewhere to revisit the past and bring about a new temporality (Pollock 2007). They are also a means of disputing the ways of thinking and traumas - with their knock-on effect on the present - that form part of our cultural legacies, of assembling matrices for new archives and of reintroducing possibilities of change in time and in history (Eichhorn 2013).

RE-ACTION can be situated in the midst of this transformative, genealogical turbulence, opening up the “labyrinth-like potential” (Van Alphen 2014, 17) of visual matrices through action based on gender. Evoking Griselda Pollock’s Virtual Museum (2007) and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne revisited by Didi-Huberman (2002), the works that make up RE-ACTION are positioned along the fault lines and cracks of temporality, interpreting and risking combinations and encounters amid historical figures/forms that no longer belong to reality but to possibility.

If genealogy re-establishes different systems of servitude and highlights the random game of domination (Foucault 1977, 38), then gender’s action and re-action to archival documents aspires to transform the non-place of its being into the non-place of a utopian process of change, transforming the excavated historical subsoil into places where new social relations can be built (Foster 2008, 22) and developing not just a historical and artistic methodology but a genuine political intervention on the present.


Becker H. S., 1982, Art World, Berkeley, Univ. of California Press.

Berger J., 1995, Del guardare, Bergamo, Sestante Edizioni (ed or. 1980).

Berrebi S., 2014, The Shape of Evidence. Contemporary Art and the Document, Amsterdam, Valiz.

Borzello F., 1982, The Artist's Model, London, Junction Books.

Borzello F.,1998, Seeing Ourselves. Women’s Self-portraits, London, Thames and Hudson.

Bourdieu P., 1979, La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, Paris, Minuit.

Bourneville D. et Regnard P., Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetrière, Vol.I 1876-77 ; Vol. II 1877-78 ; Vol. III 1879-80, Paris.

Eichhorn K., 2013, The Archival Turn in Feminism. Outrage in order, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Enwezor O., 2008, Archive Fever. Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, International Center of Photography, New York, Steidl.

Foster H., 2004, An Archival Impulse, in October, 110, Fall, pp. 3-22.

Foucault M., 1969, L’archéologie du savoir, Gallimard, Paris.

Foucault M., 1977, Nietzsche, la genealogia, la storia, in M. Foucault,Microfisica del potere. Interventi politici, Torino, Einaudi, pp. 29-54 (ed. fr. 1971).

Krauss R., 1989, Photography’s Discoursive Space, in R. Bolton, The Contest of Meaning, Cambridge (MA), London, The MIT Press, pp. 287-301.

Nochlin L., 1971, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, in V. Gormick e B. K. Moran (eds.) Woman in Sexist Society. Studies in Power and Powerlessness, New York, Basic Book, pp. 344-366.

Nochlin L., 1988, Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays, New York, Harper and Row.

Osthoff S., 2009, Performing the archive: The transformation of the archive in Contemporary art from repository of document to art medium, Atropos Press, NY-Dresden.

Pollock G., 1988, Vision and Difference. Feminity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, London and New York, Routledge.

Pollock G., 1999, Differencing the Canon. Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories, Routledge, London and New York.

Pollock G., 2007, Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum. Time, space and the archive, London and New York, Routledge.

Sekula A., 1986, The body and the Archive, in October, vol.39, pp.3-64.

Trasforini M.A., 2009, Bajo el signo de las artistas. Mujeres, profesiones de arte y modernidad, Valencia, PUV ( 2007).

Trasforini M.A., 2010, Le ‘Flâneuses’. Corpi e spazi di genere fra modernità e post-modernità, in Studi Culturali, n. 2, agosto, pp. 239-260.

Trasforini M.A., 2015, Archivi e arte contemporanea. Fra repertorio, performance e produzione di nuovi archivi, in M. Provasi and C. Vicentini (eds.) La storia e le immagini della storia. Prospettive, metodi, ricerche, Roma, Viella Editore,pp. 319-331.

Van Alphen E., 2014, Staging the Archive. Art and Photography in the Age of New Media, London Reaktion, Books.

Wallen J., 2011, The Lure of the Archive: The Atlas Project of Walid Raad, in Comparative Critical Studies, 8, 2-3, pp. 277-293.

Wolff, J. (1990) The Invisible Fl neuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity, in J.Wolff, Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture, Cambridge, Polity Press.