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Indepth Arts News:

"Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia"
2008-10-23 until 2009-01-06
Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona
Barcelona, , ES Spain

The MACBA presents Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia, an exhibition which brings together almost 2,000 vintage photos and other documents dated between 1851 and 2008 by some 250 authors, from Lewis Hine to William Klein. The survey or photographic mission came into existence with a specific goal: to build the image of the emerging city in a time of huge but difficult to visualise transformation. It was the writer Prosper Merimée who, in 1851, sponsored the first major photographic campaign in history: the Mission Héliographique, intended to create a public photographic archive of French historical monuments through the work of leading photographers. This mission constitutes the first formalisation of the photographic utopia in modern culture: the construction of a universal archive. Towards the end of 2006, the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) adopted the model of the photographic survey, historically promoted through government bodies, and initiated a project based on Barcelona, aiming to offer a diagnosis of today's city and its focuses of transformation for the 21st century. Commissioning photographers from various generations and backgrounds, the Museum set out to investigate the notions of photographic document and city.

Thus the creation of Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia, an exhibition that brings together nearly 2,000 documents (of which the almost 1,000 vintage photographs and prints are of particular interest) dating from 1851 to 2008 by some 250 authors, including Lewis Hine, Eugène Atget, El Lissitzky, Herbert Bayer, Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, August Sander, Weegee, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Agustí Centelles, Xavier Miserachs, Franco Pinna, Allan Sekula, Robert Adams, Martha Rosler and William Klein, to name but a few. Going beyond the presentation of a single, linear narration through the history of photography, the display offers an entire constellation of narratives on the genealogy of the document: the historic photographic missions, the reformist document, the workers' photography movement, exhibitions, advertising, projects based around ethnography and the documentation of cities, and so on. The exhibition is brought to a close by the commission that initiated Universal Archive: the Barcelona 2007 Photographic Mission, which provides sixteen new looks at the city of the future.

In the early 20th century, Eugène Atget built an exhaustive inventory of Old Paris, with over 8,000 negatives; in the decade of the twenties, August Sander made a collective portrait of German society based on hundreds of photographs divided into archetypes; and in 1947 André Malraux dreamed of an "imaginary museum" which would bring together the universal art of all times by means of photographic reproductions. The construction of a universal visual archive has long been the historical mission of photography. This idea of the image as a bargaining chip, comparable to the function of money in capitalism, is the cultural condition of the emergence of the photographic document as a merchandise in common use and, at the same time, its utopian horizon. Does incorporation of the new Photoshop-era digital technologies signal the liquidation of this utopia?

The Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia exhibition investigates notions of the photographic document through the study and restaging of some of the debates sparked by the genre at different moments in history. Though the first photograph in the display dates back to 1851 and the last to 2008, making its historical spectrum is as broad as the very history of photography, the exhibition does not attempt to present an exhaustive and chronological encyclopaedic archive of photography, but rather sets out to trace the possible genealogies of the photographic document and their conflicts. The resulting constellation of narratives offers surprises, tensions and overlaps, aimed at bringing about a rethinking of the role of photography today.

While Universal Archive is presented as a historical exhibition that adopts museum codes ad hoc, it is also a multidisciplinary project of public participation which has received the cooperation of dozens of institutions, as well as that of Catalan civil society as a whole. This involvement is underlined in the MACBA tradition of experimentation and concerns not only the conditions of the Museum in the city, but also the possibilities of a de-territorialised museum, immersed in social dynamics and capable of rewriting the role of the institution as a public space. The display was curated by Jorge Ribalta, with assistance from Margarita Tupitsyn, Vanessa Rocco, Élia Pijollet, Madeleine Bernardin-Zeyen and Jordana Mendelson. The Barcelona 2007 Photographic Mission, which concludes the exhibition, was jointly curated by Ribalta and Joan Roca, director of the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat.

Mounting of the exhibition

The exhibition is mounted throughout two entire levels of the Museum: the second floor, where the display starts, and the first, where it ends. In addition, the ground floor of the MACBA Studies and Documentation Centre (the building adjacent to the Museum) has created a space dedicated to documentation on the Barcelona 2007 Photographic Mission based on publications, audiovisual material and accessible links. The exhibition is sponsored by Caja de Ahorros del Mediterráneo (CAM) and has received the support of Barcelona City Council and the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Following its stage in the MACBA, part of the display may be seen in the Museu Colecção Berardo-Arte Moderna e Contemporãnea, in Lisbon (co-producer of the exhibition, along with the MACBA).

Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia brings together almost 2,000 documents, notable among which are the nearly 1,000 vintage photographs and copies, dating from 1851 to the present time. The exhibition seeks to highlight how these images really circulated in their day, so in addition to photographs it features 19th-century albums, magazines, publications, films, screenings of historic exhibitions and documentation material. The display installations also include a reconstruction of the Soviet Pavilion from the Film und Foto exhibition (Stuttgart, 1929), designed by El Lissitzky, as well as the projection of photographs by Pierre Bourdieu, co-produced by the MACBA, Camera Austria and the Fondation Pierre Bourdieu. The works belong to some 130 collections worldwide from such prestigious institutions as the MoMA, Tate Britain, the Musée d’Orsay, the Biblioteca Nacional de España, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Washington Library of Congress, the Arxiu Nacional de Catalunya, the Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona, the Museu Nacional d’Història de Catalunya (MNAC), the Architects' Institute of Catalonia (COAC) and the Fundación Foto Colectania

Standing out among the almost 250 authors represented in the exhibition are Lewis Hine, Walter Ballhause, Alexander Rodchenko, Morris Engel, André Kertész, Weegee, Eugène Atget, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Walker Evans, Brassaï, Robert Doisneau, Bill Brandt, Dorothea Lange, El Lissitzky, Dziga Vertov, Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Edward Steichen, August Sander, Franco Pinna, Francesc Català-Roca, Ramon Masats, Oriol Maspons, Joan Colom, Xavier Miserachs, Carlos Pérez Siquier, José Ortiz Echagüe, Margaret Mead, Juan Rulfo, Charles Clifford, Jean Laurent, Robert P. Napper, Charles Marville, Robert Frank, Berenice Abbott, William Klein, Bernd andy Hilla Becher, Allan Sekula, Ed Ruscha, Dan Graham, Martha Rosler, Marcel Broodthaers, Garry Winogrand, Adolf Mas, Josep Brangulí, Pere Català Pic, Agustí Centelles, Margaret Michaelis, Otho Lloyd, Humberto Rivas, Manolo Laguillo and Gilbert Fastenaekens.

The photographers who took part in the Barcelona 2007 Photographic Mission include Ahlam Shibli, Marc Patault, David Goldblatt, Allan Sekula, Patrick Faigenbaum, Sandra Balsells, Jean-Louis Schoellkopf, William Klein, Gilles Saussier, Xavier Ribas, Xavier Basiana, Ana Muller, Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Lothar Baumgarten and Manolo Laguillo.

The exhibition areas

The exhibition is structured into two large parts. The first traces a historical path through some of the leading general debates on the photographic document in modern times (from 1850 to 1980), divided into four general areas: Policies of the Victim (1907-1943), Public Photographic Spaces (1928-1955), Compared Photography (1923-1965) and Topographies. The Culture of Landscape and Urban Change (1851-1988). The second section takes the city of Barcelona and its historical visual evolution as a specific case study. This second part is also subdivided into two areas: The Photographic Construction of Barcelona in the XXth Century and 2007. Metropolitan images of the New Barcelona.

Berenice Abbott
"Pike and Henry Streets, Manhattan"

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