(Im)possible Counter-archives

The interests of the Museo Reina Sofía and its Collections Department to carry out a present-day study of Guernica, relating scores of accounts, spheres of knowledge, geographies and points in history, have given rise to (Im)possible Counter-Archives: research undertaken by Francis Frascina, a professor of Visual Arts at Keele University (Staffordshire, UK) and a specialist in post-war Art History, specifically the 1960s and 1970s counterculture scene in the United States, reflected most notably in his work Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (1999).

(Im)possible Counter-Archives sets forth a broad map of relations and connections that start from the political resignification of Guernica put into effect by different US artist-activist collectives at two specific junctures: the Vietnam War (1955–1975) and Iraq War (2003–2011). Around these two events another type of framework is constructed and comprises numerous moments, documents, discourses and agents. A sweeping and flexible framework which, rather than reciprocating with a linear reading, is responsive to a field of intensities that fluctuate, concentrate and expand. In this manner, we delve deeper into a critical temporality that starts at the present to look back at the past, leaving itself to be rocked by prior events and learning.

Pablo Picasso’s mural, an anti-war plea created in 1937 to the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), acted as a symbol for artists-activists who, from disparate focal points, practices and militancy, personified protests and contentions that in one way or another sought to transform, through art, the system and its institutions. On the one hand, the protests led by the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) and the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG) in front of Guernica displayed in MoMA; two collectives that demanded a firm and public commitment from the New York museum to oppose the Vietnam War and to other political and social conflicts of the time, such as anti-fascist and feminist struggles, often resorting to other strategies situated on the margins of the system. And on the other, the San Francisco- based group Retort, which, conversely, made use of the same system to enhance its positions, despite this entailing participation in the same dynamics and logics they confronted. Their installation Afflicted Powers, 2006, with concrete allusions to Guernica in both video and political broadsheets, was conceived as a political intervention to condemn the war against Iraq waged by an international coalition spearheaded by the United States, in addition to major media groups treating the event as a spectacle. This piece, visually entwining the bombings of Gernika, Vietnam and Iraq in one sole critique, was unveiled at the Second International Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville (BIACS 2) in 2006, a far- reaching macro-event tainted by corruption scandals, malpractice and the misuse of public funds.

Each of the events gathered in this platform illustrates a specific intervention mode by artists and collectives in systems and contexts at once different and related: on one side, modern art institutions as places of collection, exhibition and the documentary confirmation of predominant historical narratives; and, on the other, biennials and the recent “biennialization” process of the art world, with the economic, political and social implications that denote conflict for many of the proposals held. How effective were these critical actions? Were they able to radically question historical circumstances or did they suffer from what Walter Benjamin called “Left Melancholy”; that is, were they captivated by the longing for an impossible ideal or condemned to repeat past struggles? What can we learn from exploring and examining these materials?

To become immersed in (Im)possible Counter-Archives is to approach the documents and the critique of documentation as a process of archive categorisation. This digital platform offers you the chance to question the concept of archive as a universal and exhaustive repository of documents, information and knowledge. Inevitably, the documents, images, sources, voices and actors included here are the outcome of a process of archive selection, emphasis and assumptions, and, from this premise as a starting point, this exploratory and interactive instrument demonstrates the incompleteness of all archives, immersed in development and open to criticism, which can bring about a state of dysphoria or a melancholy longing for completeness before the (im)possibility set forth by counter-archives.

We invite you to contemplate the different contexts and constellations of connections, archival impulses and causality, contingencies, and alternatives present throughout the whole narrative, doing so not as a consumer, reader or passive spectator, but as an active and self-reflexive participant, as a producer of meanings and interpretations.