Alan Gilbert on Julia Meltzer and David Thorne
Gilbert, Alan, Artforum International
LOS ANGELES-BASED ARTISTS Julia Meltzer and David Thorne have long taken an interest in excavating the past as a means of examining the complex interplay of information, knowledge, and political control. Continuing in the vein of the socially engaged artistic practices they had previously pursued separately, they founded the Speculative Archive for Historical Clarification in 1999--a collaborative whose work began with a number of public presentations and text-and-image pieces based on newly released government documents detailing the United States' involvement in the Guatemalan civil war and in Chile after the 1973 coup. Their next major project (the last before they abbreviated their name to Speculative Archive) involved querying US government officials about the protocols for classification and declassification. Some of this research would be reproduced in the summer 2001 issue of Cabinet magazine under the title "1 in 32: The Culture of Secrecy." Featuring images of heavily redacted FBI files pertaining to Josephine Baker, Thomas Mann, George Orwell, and Pablo Picasso alongside interviews with federal employees, the piece conveyed an impression of the massive amounts of time and resources spent maintaining state secrets, while also demonstrating how control over the process remains fundamentally imperfect. The search for such slippage within the mechanisms of repression--whether of the past, present, or future--is a mainstay of Meltzer and Thorne's joint projects.
Their research-oriented approach culminated in the video It's Not My Memory of It: Three Recollected Documents, 2003, a work that intersperses three of their interviews with government employees with three stories: one of hastily shredded CIA documents that were meticulously reassembled by radical Islamist students after they seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979; one of CIA personnel respectfully burying at sea bodies recovered from a 1968 Soviet submarine disaster, as documented in grainy cold war footage; and one of the controversial 2002 US missile strike in Yemen. It's Not My Memory of It thus examines the context and mechanics of image transmission along with the once (and in some cases, officially, still) secret information conveyed. Even as it records actual historical events, the video proposes that history is made contingent as much by its representation as by its occurrence, and that facts remain partially dependent upon an investment of belief.
One could argue that the cultural context for such work has changed in recent years, as a desire to possess the future (more than the past) has destabilized our cultural sense of time and history--something evidenced, for instance, by the Bush administration's doctrine of preemption, which creates the context for a borderless and unending "global war on terror," where the rationale for action is based on possible rather than past events. Accordingly, Meltzer and Thorne (who have recently abandoned the Speculative Archive moniker to work under their proper names) have begun to engage with this newly embattled territory as it is manifested globally--as a struggle not only over the form the future has taken and will take in both reality and representation but also over the hubristic and ultimately impossible attempt to defer it indefinitely.
To this end, Meltzer and Thorne have in their two most recent videos chosen to portray aspects of contemporary life and visions of the future in Syria. Given that the country is among the potential targets for preemptive US strikes, it is fitting that they have made it central to their recent practice. However, such self-consciously rhetorically titled works as We Will Live to See These Things, or, Five Pictures of What May Come to Pass, 2007, and Not a Matter of If but When: Brief Records of a Time in Which Expectations Were Repeatedly Raised and Lowered and People Grew Exhausted from Never Knowing If the Moment Was at Hand or Was Still to Come, 2006, are concerned as much with political systems internal to Syria as they are with the nation's role in regional or global conflicts. …