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FileWorks: My Archive as Artwork

Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg ruminates on the life journeys of his archive, weaving a tale that takes in personal, cultural, socioeconomic, and institutional dimensions of building—and letting go of—an artist’s file, and considering whether an archive can itself be a work of art.

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Felipeehrenberg by dar%c3%ado l%c3%b3pez mills

Felipe Ehrenberg

Artist Felipe Ehrenberg (b. Mexico City, June 27, 1943) is a Mexican painter, printmaker, performance artist, writer, teacher, and publisher. He qualified as a printmaker at a... Read more »
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FileWorks: My Archive as Artwork

Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg ruminates on the life journeys of his archive, weaving a tale that takes in personal, cultural, socioeconomic, and institutional dimensions of building—and letting go of—an artist’s file, and considering whether an archive can itself be a work of art.

Show More

Mexican artist Felipe Ehrenberg ruminates on the life journeys of his archive, weaving a tale that takes in personal, cultural, socioeconomic, and institutional dimensions of building—and letting go of—an artist’s file, and considering whether an archive can itself be a work of art.

Felipeehrenberg by dar%c3%ado l%c3%b3pez mills
Felipe Ehrenberg. Photograph by Dario Lopez-Mills

To most people, a file is merely a collection of objects, mostly papers, stuck into folders and saved in cases, ordered and stored in such a manner that one may consult them at will. A file, of course, is that and then much more. Files have existed for a very long time and in many shapes, and if you stop to think about it, you’ll notice that we humans still use most of the devices for storing and remembering that we’ve invented through the ages: mnemonic rote and chant, carved wood and monoliths, clay tablets, knotted ropes, papyrus, parchment and paper, and now, with the advent of computers, electrical impulses.

Corporate files share a certain logic. They exist as an accumulated series of decisions and moves that, as they expand to meet specific needs of the group, eventually gain control over not only the original group's behavior, but also that of other groups, not necessarily kindred ones. Microsoft Office, as it gradually cuts and pastes itself across the world, is a perfect example of this.

Archives and filing systems may be invaluable aids for conducting life, be it collective or individual. But we must beware: we cannot allow them to become a restrictive burden. Tools, if misused, can all too easily turn into weapons, as may be happening in the U.S., a society whose complexity is forcing it to lose sight of its parts. That country has gradually developed the art of filing into what is now, in all probability, the largest, most efficient information-gathering system ever conceived on earth. Therein lie the deepest, darkest dangers, to the U.S. and to all of humanity.

Corporate archives are very different from personal ones, but both are pristine reflections of the persons or the group of people that keep them. What a person or a group chooses to save or throw away depends on very specific conceptual frameworks that may or may not vary according to specific circumstances. Changing the system, for example, can become an almost impossible task to undertake. Indeed, corporate filing systems can adjust to meet the corporation's ever-changing needs much more often and rapidly than personal systems.

Fehrenberg informacionselectiva seleccioninformativa alta
Felipe Ehrenberg, Información Selectiva (news from the front), 1976. Stamp, newspaper, and paper. Courtesy the artist and Baró Galeria

The framework that shapes and sustains a personal archive can be quite mysterious. A personal file can, and most often does, acquire a life of its own. It can achieve such strength that its existence may actually determine how one leads one's life. One of my great discoveries was realizing that my file was not merely an extension of my profession, but that it was in fact an extension of myself. For example, I’ve reached several “tripping points” along the way—moments when I felt either paralyzed by my mind's inaction or caught up in the chaos of the file's disorder. At such moments, the only solution was to stop, reclassify all my papers, and of course, buy more and more folders and file cases. Naturally, one of the folders, the one tagged “Ideas to Decipher,” has become a section of its own. It contains “Ideas ’84… ’92… ’99…” and so on. I’m still missing the folder called “Deciphering my own Codes.”

I've spent more money on my file, on my various files, paying several salaries to keep them in order, than on art materials. I delved so long into what was called Conceptual art that my files became my principal work tools. As I grew and developed, so did my tool file. In time it also became an information bank; then, by its sheer size, a burden (changing addresses always required a lot of thinking); then perhaps a legacy; and finally, a hiatus, a mark in life.

I never questioned the need to create a file and took it for granted that I would have to sustain it forever after. I don't believe I ever thought about its value—the value it could then have or later acquire, beyond serving as a tool to help me in my day-to-day existence. My father, who never actively dissuaded me from being an artist, always insisted that we be, all eight siblings, absolutely formal, punctual, and orderly. In my teens especially, he repeatedly mentioned the need to order my papers. Though he never expressed any enthusiasm over my choice of profession, my father would sporadically send or hand me news clippings that mentioned my name, and these, like all his letters, I duly filed away.

It may well have been shortly after the Great Earthquake of September 1985, but at a given moment I began thinking that my files could, in fact, be considered a work of art very much akin to other works of mine of a conceptual nature: an installation, perhaps, or better yet, a performance, so that by logical extension it would require special care, the care one gives to an oeuvre d’art (as opposed to an objet d’art). So I proceeded to give it yet again a new order, not quite knowing how best to frame the idea, how to convince the powers that be to perceive it—that ordered mass of papers—as art. It wasn't until a decade after the earthquake that I met Issa Maria Benitez Dueñas. Her dissertation was, precisely, on documents as works of art, and after we discussed her subject matter, she confirmed and honed the concept. I’ll always be thankful to her for this.1

Felipeehrenberg el arte seg%c3%ban yo  1979 alta
Felipe Ehrenberg, El arte según yo (Art according to me), 1979. Black-and-white photos (11 pinhole photos selected from Chapultec Garden performance). Courtesy the artist and Baró Galeria

South of the Rio Grande we know Milton Friedman, who proposed a new world economic order at the IMF as one of the principal ring bosses of the so-called Chicago Boys, a gang that's been stomping up and down the streets of this wide world blandishing a doctrine that goes by different names: free-market capitalism, neoconservatism, neocon, whatever, and which among us is known as neoliberalism. Well, when in 1994 the Mexican branch of the Chicago Boys set up NAFTA (which, as it benefited a sliver of the new rich, blew the strangest smelling gases into our perpetually ignorant art market), when these people's doctrines began shining (?) on our horizon, I woke up one December morning and found myself totally broke. Me and who knows how many other Mexicans. With the brutal devaluation of our currency, we had all of a sudden lost properties, businesses, cars (I lost my newly purchased home), and faced unimaginable debts.

The economy of a country manages to affect art in so many complex ways that are difficult to imagine, especially by artists. Though I had until then lived almost exclusively from my art, I had never produced—nor do I expect to do so in any near future—what you call market art, and thus I found myself in the direst of straights. To date, not a single private art collection in Mexico has work of mine. Some friends of mine who knew about my file suggested that I try to sell the letters of my famous friends. So I proceeded to spread the word via e-mail. Several people wrote back, a couple of them from Europe and some from the U.S. Describing themselves as “collectors of trivia,” they asked if they could travel to Mexico and visit, which of course they did. I still have no real idea of what these people took (invites, mail art, homespun hand-printed things, handwritten notes, typed letters and handmade cloth envelopes, and what-not by friends and acquaintances). Many of them were from Fluxus people, such as Carolee Schneemann, Dick Higgins, Takako Saito, Wolf Vostell, but also others like Ulises Carrión, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Clemente Padín, Michael Nyman, etc. Nor do I have any idea of what, if anything, such trivia fetched for these collectors later in the market.

It pained me so to feel that the file was being dismembered. Disemboweled might be a better word! But the money afforded me a respite, and this breathing space allowed me, sometime in 1996, to come to terms with the idea of offering up my whole accumulated file, letting go of it as a whole. Now, relinquishing property and control of a personal file is neither simple nor easy. My first thought was that it would be best if it stayed in Mexico. So I started making the rounds, writing letters and visiting institutions. I first approached the Institute for Esthetic Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), then the faculty of art history of the Iberoamerican University (UIA). Then I sounded out the museums that belong to the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA). I also visited the National Council for Culture and Art (CNCA). I even wrote to Ernesto Zedillo, then the country’s president (if I remember correctly, there's a letter somewhere that curtly declines the offer). Two or three people in high places mentioned that file keeping in Mexico is still an unexplored concept, but no one—nobody—showed even a glimmer of interest in purchasing files, let alone those of a visual artist. I did find several interested institutions abroad, among them the Tate Gallery, which keeps a surprisingly complete record of my life in England and of the Beau Geste Press.

Felipeehrenberg.la poubelle still
Felipe Ehrenberg, La Poubelle, or it’s a sort of disease, 1970. 16mm video. Courtesy the artist and Baró Galeria

I might mention here that Mexico is not—or is no longer—an archival culture, an archive-oriented society. The country's upper echelons, its governors and its business people, naturally, but also those who work in its learning institutions, depend more and more on filing systems created in the U.S., by mostly young but mostly uncultured North Americans, surely brilliant minds cyberwise but lacking knowledge of the world’s different cultures. This is to me very alarming because it means that Mexico, and for that matter, most of the rest of world, is ever more dependent on the thought patterns that determine the shapes, uses, and applications of filing systems.

The greater part of my file ended up in the U.S., at Stanford University. Perhaps one of the reasons why I decided to deal with Stanford, apart from the splendidly careful and respectful way it stores knowledge and its generosity in acquiring it, was the fact that the file would be in California, not far from Mexico, at hand in case any Mexican scholar or researcher might eventually show an interest in exploring it. Since then, in 2010, another portion of my archive was acquired by the MUAC (University Museum of Contemporary Art) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico as part of the museum’s archive-building project, Arkheia.

Fehrenberg the tube o nauts (london underground map) alta
Felipe Ehrenberg, Tube-o-Nauts Travels, 1970. London Underground Map. Courtesy the artist and Baró Galeria

On a personal level, there are aspects of these exchanges which I haven't learned to deal with. For example, the fact that a file could be considered a work of art and thus might one day appreciate in value differently from a collection of papers. I must remind you that in a case such as the MUAC, one cannot simply surrender everything. Of course, I kept a lot of material for my own use and reference: photographs, correspondence with my family, and such. But also all the notes, texts and scripts, photos, messages, business letters, contracts, receipts, and sundry records related to the administration of my past production and of my work in progress, which includes not just art but art theory and journalism, artists’ books and mural workshops and diplomacy.

Once in a while I ask myself whether my various archives’ contents, all of them, are truly public. Will I get anyone into trouble? Will I get myself into trouble? Apart from letters that record the life I led and shared, we all led and shared, in the troublesome 1960s, there's also the matter of how much truth epistolary literature contains. As I mentioned at the beginning, I truly have no idea what value this collection of facts and personal opinions, carefully stored by a reasonably informed and pretty well-traveled citizen, could have, other than offering the opportunity of deciphering a part of Mexican history.

1.

Issa Maria Benitez Dueñas, "Arte no objetual y reconstrucción documental: Perspectiva teórica," doctoral thesis, Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico City, 1997).

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FileWorks: My Archive as Artwork

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12 fe y andrea salda%c3%b1a

This text is, of course, pre Assange, Snowden & Cy, having being written sometime in 2003. On re-reading it, though, I was struck by two phrases of mine. The second one is, I think, worthy of close attention:

  1. "...Tools, if misused, can all too easily turn into weapons, as may be happening in the U.S. of A., a society whose complexity is forcing it to lose sight of its parts. That country has gradually developed the art of filing into what is now, in all probability, the largest, most efficient information-gathering system ever conceived on earth. Therein lie the deepest, darkest dangers, to the U.S. and to all of humanity."

AND

  1. "... Mexico, and for that matter, most of the rest of world, is ever more dependent on the thought patterns (OF THE PROGRAMMERS) that determine the shapes, uses, and applications of filing systems."

I'm afraid there's no turning back now, though...

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Discuss (1) Print

This text is, of course, pre Assange, Snowden & Cy, having being written sometime in 2003. On re-reading it, though, I was struck by two phrases of mine. The second one is, I think, worthy of close attention:

  1. "...Tools, if misused, can all...
Show more »