Past Imperfect (l'imparfait): Mediating Meaning in Archives of Art
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An examination of mediation in archives of art is an acknowledgment of the issue of language—its deanitions , its cultural and academic parameters, its multiplicities , its unexpected relationships. The French imparfait , while understood conventionally as a particular verb tense of the past, is an appealing example and point of departure. It is a wonderful suggestion of language “in motion,” without end, of the past but moving forward in time, subject to barriers in understanding, and open to new directions and revelations. By borrowing from the French, by adding multiple meanings, we render l’imparfait no more “perfect,” or “complete,” but instead give it added vitality as a redeanable indicator of process, in this case a process concerning the past as much as the present.1 Archivists appropriate language in the act of mediating archives of art. We shape language, regulate it, box it up, measure it, mystify it, fossilize it, microalm it, deacidify it, digitize it, download it, compress it, suppress it, encode it, and expect it to carry the weight of much of our curatorial activities and identity. Our currency is not so much pictures as text—those written words we inherit in the archival record, which is still primarily textual, and those words we create by our placing manuscripts and records under our archival responsibility, “under house arrest,” to borrow a phrase from Jacques Derrida.2 The curatorial language of much of the past century was a progressively formalized, profession-based, modern intermediate language. It was placed between the original language of creator and other original languages —including the languages of those who helped escort the collections into the archives and those of the subsequent patrons of the archives. This is part of the “mediating” referred to in the title of this essay. Another mediation is the action taken to include or ignore, to differ and defer. The words and deeds of mediation go hand 121 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Past Imperfect (l’imparfait) Mediating Meaning in Archives of Art Nancy Ruth Bartlett ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ L’imparfait est une forme du verbe qui indique les actions du passé considérées dans ce qu’elles n’ont pas encore atteint leur achèvement, qu’elles n’ont pas ani de se dérouler ou d’être en train. Il présente l’action, sans en préciser les limites temporelles. L’imparfait est généralement étranger à la notion de début ou de an d’une action. . . . Il demeure que, souvent, les Anglophones se heurtent au problème de l’aspect: l’angle de vue, la manière de considérer le déroulement des actions du passé. En effet, en français, la forme passé composé et la forme imparfait se complètent en un système d’oppositions cohérentes là où la langue anglaise masque les distinctions en employant une seule forme de passé. —“Leçons de grammaire: L’imparfait” in hand.3 They together form the “politics and poetics of archives,” to quote Joan Schwartz.4 Politics and Poetics, Art and Archives It is an interesting proposition for an archivist to attempt to examine the archival act of mediation as it is performed through multiple interventions in historical evidence . It is an important proposition as well since the exercise gives voice to the archivist, who in others’ works is given little opportunity “to speak for him- or herself.” The archivist instead is presented as an agent in and of the past, not as a contemporary peer with his or her own interests as a “scholar of record keeping.”5 In fact in some studies, the “archivist” is absent altogether, excused in the course of the fashionable, metaphorical appropriation of the term archives or, more prosaically, in the tacit implication that of course archives can exist without archivists.6 I complicate the challenge for myself all the more by considering the archives of art, particularly the historical forces at work that mediated against a place for modern art in American archives, the successful and particularly American penetrations of modern art into the archives, and, throughout this essay, the diverse languages concerning art at work in and beyond the archives. Why have I selected what might appear to be a rather specialized genre of documentation within the archives? And what exactly do I mean by archives of modern art? An answer to both of these questions is that a consideration of what constitutes the archives of art is itself a part of mediation. Let us for now accept a rather straightforward...