2020 - 2021
Research project, in collaboration with Elise Billiard Pisani
With contribution by Mohamed Ali Agrebi (Dali)
Supported by Notarial Archives Malta and funded by Arts Council Malta
Research project, in collaboration with Elise Billiard Pisani
With contribution by Mohamed Ali Agrebi (Dali)
Supported by Notarial Archives Malta and funded by Arts Council Malta
inventory (n.): early 15c., from Old French inventoire "detailed list of goods, a catalogue" (15c., Modern French inventaire), from Medieval Latin inventorium, alteration of Late Latin inventarium "list of what is found," from Latin inventus, past participle of invenire "to find, discover, ascertain" (see invention).
The Inventory takes as its starting point, the numerous and varied inventories held within the Notarial Archives in Malta. These inventories, drafted by notaries over centuries, cover life and business events such as inheritances, stock-takes, dowries, tenders, and ships’ cargoes.
Etymologically the word inventory has the same origin as invention. This is no simple play on words; the inventory constitutes an attempt to order reality, the extraordinary multiplicity of reality, rearranging it in neat lists and tables for scientific, aesthetic, practical, ethical, or unethical purposes, therefore imposing a new narrative onto the complexity of reality, not unlike scientific findings and inventions. The inventory is not a given, it is a construction, and in a sense, an invention.
The epistemology of the inventory, its fabrication, is not only theoretical, but also to be found in its very materiality. The fragility of the paper medium (subject to fire, to humidity, insects and even fascist ideologies), leads to the paradoxical vulnerability of what is meant to survive time. As Derrida wrote, the archives are at once born from the obsession to fight time and death and yet are at risk or being destroyed anytime.
Through the exercise of sifting through the many centuries-old papers, letters, bills and logbooks we became fascinated by the physical archive. What attracted us was not only the historical or evidential data, but also the physicality of the folios and the archives themselves.
Moreover, the condition of the pages – which date from the 16th to the 20th century, the mix of languages, the indecipherability of their various handwritings, and the notes made in their margins, meant that we, not being historians, and unexcited at the prospect of engaging one – were obliged, but also free, to take our own meanings from the archives.
The inventories presented a particular slice of information - extracts from lives - which provided data, but which left much untold. Some of the inventories which we studied listed house contents for the purposes of inheritance, some listed shop contents for the sale of the business, others listed personal effects such as jewelry and linen. More unusual among the inventories were some which listed the contents of the then Royal Opera House in Valletta, pharmacy chemicals held, foodstuffs required for medical institutions, and even slaves being brought to Malta in the 18th century.
After these critical discussions we moved to creating our own inventories. One of us (Margerita in Malta) was given access to an empty family house, while the other (Elise in France) was living in an old and tired maison de maitre – the layered, generational histories in these houses led us to attempt a documentation of the traces contained within them. Both houses offered up intriguing silent evidences of the lives that had been lived within its walls. In the process of archiving and listing minute traces of past lives, we have taken the chance to create our own inventories, as fragile as those found in the notarial archives of Malta.
The production of a folio of traces, and several lists of the said traces, would render visible a certain number of characteristics of inventories that we believe to be important in this age of data collection and need of civic imagination (Ariella Azoulay).
We set out to create an archive containing inventories of traces – real and imagined - which would provide us with clues to the lives previously lived within the houses. Not unlike the process of producing official intangible heritage, the inventory’s entries were intended to be made tangible, developing from text entries to images, drawings, rubbings, and samples. What was originally planned to be a physical archive – a sort of herbarium of traces - eventually moved online for practical reasons. The items being recorded – which really should be called ‘non-items’ – are traces of lives lived, actions repeated, furniture placed, tools used, in a family house that has been left empty. If an archive is an accumulation of historical records, this is a collection of non-records, non-histories, and non-objects, because its entries no longer exist, or possibly never existed at all.
Through our work, which included sample collecting, photographing, note-taking, and sound-recording we amassed a repository of around 150 ‘items’, which, translated to digital images, ranged from photos of whole rooms or walls, to photos of tiny samples and specimens found in the houses.
We set out to recompose the relation between the ‘items’ we had collected, somehow recalling the mental maps of clues used in television detective series or corporate mind-mapping tools. Indeed, there is an element of detective-work in the inventory, but it has developed into detective work alongside the work of the imagination. The movie ‘The Usual Suspects’ provides a good example of what can be invented from a simple notice board in a police inquiry wall. The element of invention, or at a minimum, leaps-of-faith, is present in the archaeologist’s and historian’s work - as we come across clues or traces that we don’t understand, a certain amount of divination is required. This raises the question of whether a deliberate misinterpretation of information can be inserted into an inventory, and thus into an archive (reminiscent of José Saramago’s proof-reader in The History of the Siege of Lisbon). For whatever reason - carelessness, corruption, boredom - inaccurate information can be an essential part of the inventory and therefore recreating an alternate truth from it.
As an aside; this almost myopic attempt to record and analyse traces can be seen as symptomatic of intense destruction of built heritage taking place in Malta, and rapidly changing streetscapes, characterised by apartment blocks replacing older, indigenous architecture. It can also be seen as related to a process of post-colonial rehabilitation, as a society attempts to reclaim its tangible and intangible heritage.
Following Borges’ famous absurd inventory of the possession of a Chinese emperor (1942), a nonsensical form of categorisation is also possible - one which is not only arbitrary, but in which items also outwardly bear no relation to the other items listed. In such parodical inventory, some paradoxes will inevitably be revealed. One important paradox, for example, is the fact that inventories cannot be totally exhaustive and the limits of their corpus of study are rarely clear. Where should the notary stop when listing the possession of a house? Should the cheap trinket, the single earring, or the sweet wrapper also be listed? Another paradox lies in the difficulty in writing a strictly objective description of reality, since human production is profoundly limited by medium, language and by the state of general knowledge of the time. In a nutshell, the denomination of items in inventories is bound to be arbitrary, somewhat artificial. Essentially inventories are artificial reconstructions aiming for an impossible mechanical reproduction of reality. By naming the world, they create an order and in doing so, the inventory makers are exerting a soft but nonetheless crucial power. The political question raised here is: how is this authority justified? Who allows the archivist or the notary or the botanist to make such a rearrangement of the world in miniature? The project will look into these questions in offering the freedom to rearrange and rename the folio items.
As in structuralist theory, the inventory is a system in which items are endowed their meaning from their position in the folios, and the importance and detail allotted or denied to them. We attempted to subvert this categorisation by assigning an intuitive, non-value-based, and almost meaningless categorisation to the items found. So, entries were labelled under the following;
Using this system of inventing categories, an infinite number of categories could be assigned, based on personal memories, preference, or any number of subjective classifications. Poets and philosophers have long ridiculed the pretence of science and truth that inventories claim, from Borges to Prévert, via Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and more recently Latour. We believe however, that inventories have the ability to beget narratives and to inspire a certain versatility in the reconstruction of reality. Similarly, the inventory and its flatness - the monotone of the list, as it were - can hint towards a democratisation of history, as each item takes an equal amount of space on paper, until, that is, the item’s value is listed alongside each entry.
Research, invention and intuition
Archives are often associated with dust and old parchment – with that which has been forgotten. They may lie in a corner of a city for decades or centuries, waiting to be rediscovered. Meanwhile, the work of the archivist is to save and preserve the documents, and to order them methodologically in order to facilitate their further exploration by researchers. This ordering is not immediately creative – it is alphabetical, chronological or thematic – but necessarily involves a certain amount of subjectivity in selecting and ordering the documents.
The historian, on the other hand, is allowed more creativity, working to select a corpus of documents within the archive, and developing links and creating sense or ‘knowledge’ from these documents, and contextualising them in a bigger picture of previous knowledge. Thus, a new ‘historical truth’ is revealed – or created – with the documents understood as proof of this truth.
The scientist works through a similar process, collating facts, samples, test results and combining them in a new interpretation or ‘result’, through an analysis of these facts. Comparing this process to a divination ceremony is possible, although will likely not be seen favourably by a scientist. The common ground between these methods (historical, scientific and divinatory) is the Platonic theory that the truth (or reality) lies in ideas, in pure concepts, in mathematical formulas, that have to be extracted from what we perceive with our senses.
The visual artist also works by combining and re-ordering information and imagery, but in a more intuitive manner, privileging form to formulate a narrative. The combination of images – essentially, the ‘collage’ – provides an interpretation of the world from which the viewer is for the most part free to extract their own meaning (though art historians and critics often have authority of the official deciphering and value of the artwork).
As the material passes through Shanks’ archival stages, freeing itself from bureaucracy, and moving through the mechanisation of digitisation, it becomes the ‘animated archive’, and can exist as ‘remixed’ or ‘regenerated’ material. The act of archiving is placed within the cyclic pattern of discovery, reinterpretation, experience, and documentation. Since the modern age, many artists have engaged with archival material through their practice, either reordering or representing existing archives, discovering unknown or ‘informal’ archives, or creating real or invented archival material of their own.
Lists and inventories are linear and based on words. They propose a strict ordering of things that we intend to deconstruct. Instead of words we choose to work with images and fragments of physical traces because of the inherent polysemy they offer. We also decided to combine images in a series of boards, living their interpretation to the viewer. We were inspired by the Atlas Mnemosyne of the German art historian Aby Warburg and the powerful analysis of it by Georges Didi-Huberman in his book “Atlas ou le gai savoir inquiet” (2011) (illustrated in his large exhibitions). The atlas offers a more open collection to the viewer, and unlike a book, it is not linear and non-exhaustive. However, it proposes a reading of the world, and in the case of Aby Warburg, a re-reading of history. Warburg created 80 boards with about a thousand representations of artworks and antiques objects in an attempt to rewrite the history of civilisation which in his times was tragic (after the first world war and the loss of faith in the European civilisation).
According to Didi-Huberman, the atlas and its juxtaposition of images offers a reading of “what has not yet been written” (Walter Benjamin). Reading cannot be left solely to literature or academic papers, as there is much more to be read in nature and emotions than has been written in text form. Reading is the ability to link things, to combine them, to see similarities and make parallels and finally weave a new understanding of the world. As such, the atlas works through imagination and intuition, while its construction is based on collages and editing. Charles Baudelaire wrote that "Imagination is an almost divine faculty which, without recourse to any philosophical method, immediately perceives everything: the secret and intimate connections between things, correspondences and analogies." This atlas works by gathering images on boards, without comments or footnotes, which enables the viewer to make up his own interpretation.
Divination - Making Meaning
The historian, the scientist, the doctor, the curator or the visual artist generally follow a course of research which can be said to combine science and intuition. They each ‘read’ or interpret a very specific portion of the world, a delimited square, a human body, a corpus of forms, and formulates a question, hypothesis, or new sensation which will be the basis of their experiments or study.
Interestingly, the tarot reader works for and with a client, very much like a doctor works with a patient. The client approaches the cartomancian with a question to be submitted to the astral system. Once the question is made clear, the client proceeds to pick up cards and places them on the table. The tarot reader, who is the interpreter of the signs (not unlike the doctor identifying a patient’s symptoms), starts by naming the cards (like a doctor pinpointing symptoms) before combining them to weave a narrative that possibly answers the client's question. Tarot-card reading is essentially a deciphering of signs, very much like reading any text. It presupposes a prior knowledge, a system of interpretation that is historical, cultural and contextual, or in other words, that is not timeless nor universal. The reading of the world, which the divination priests as much as the scientists spend their life doing, is not as ‘objective’ as it is generally accepted and albeit its rigorous methodology. Foucault in his book 'The Order of Things’, argues that each historical period has its own way in which to guarantee ‘truthful reading’ that acts as a shared system of beliefs (which Foucault called epistémé). We accept the narrative of scientists of our times because we share the same epistémé.
For instance, in Assyrian time (700 BC), and generally before Renaissance time, truth is found in analogies (in parallels between the details of a sacrificed liver and the stars for example). The world is seen as a cosmos where everything can be ordered and in which man is not central. The human body is a microcosmos governed by the same rules as the macrocosmos (the solar system). Today the regime of visibility seems to guarantee truth. Anything that is made visible becomes true.
Art is not science and does not aim to find objective truth, in fact what Rancière calls aesthetics occurs when the artist challenges the epistémé of his time, when the artist creates a rupture, deconstructs the order of things, the taken-for-granted interpretative methods.
In the context of our project, the archivisation of our respective houses, instead of documenting the objects left, we aimed at listing “things” that do not hold value (economic or sentimental value) and even intangible things (the fine traces of the presence of the previous inhabitants). We challenged what house or shop inventories are, and what commodities are. Here we follow Igor Kopytoff’s demonstration that human beings can be commodities (slaves), and that some objects could not be commodified because of their sentimental value.
During our research, we also visited an irkant - an auction of items within a private house. The listing, numbering and valuing of items that were once loved or familiar family objects brought together a discomfiting combination of sentimentality and commerce; once-loved items were suddenly numbered, priced and placed on display, available to the highest bidder. Of note also, was the naming style used by the auctioneers, items reduced to descriptions which stripped them of most of their meaning, limited to value-enhancing periods (Victorian, post-war etc), or to their ‘genuineness’ or authenticity, whether perceived or actual.
We pursued our deconstruction of the inventorial system by continuing down the path of divination through meaning-making and the creation of seemingly arbitrary connections between symbols-made-from-objects. Thus, we have created a set of tarot-cards from the traces which we found within the two houses and propose a similar DIY tarot game which a user can construct ‘at home’, by following a set of instructions to turn one’s own house into a microcosmos which contains hidden truths, yet to be revealed. Referencing Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit project (1964), in which she presents art-making instructions, the work’s method is simple; the participant first documents their house (collecting items, taking pictures, drawing chosen details), each of 22 selected entries is turned into a card, and each card is named to offer various meaningful combinations between drawn cards. Once the tarot-house-game is created, it can be played like any tarot game in order to find answers to practical and spiritual questions. Finally, the house will become a kind of mnemosyne cosmic entity where truth is to be found. At the same time, the archon, or gate-keeper of the archive is no longer in control of how the inventory items are catalogued or ‘used’, since their placement, meaning and hierarchic position can be shuffled or changed at will.
Over the course of the project, the research shifted focus from old inventories kept at the Notarial Archives, to a more intangible record-making of inventories from contemporary private houses. This change of temporality did not deter us, since formalised, linear histories were not the focus of our research. Thus, the fast disappearing remains of the past, allowed us to become archeologists of the present, following here the modern obsession for archiving, which Pierre Nora (after Daniel Halevy and Reinhart Koselleck) called ‘acceleration of history’. Like these renowned historians we found ourselves working within a paradox of archiving the disappearance and obsolescence of material objects in an attempt to make sense of vast amounts of archival information.
As artists, we were interested in challenging archival authority and the aura of objectivity that is endowed upon an archive. We pointed out their intrinsic limits: the impossibility to be truly exhaustive, the reduction of reality implied in the naming of things, the confidence given to the notary (or any one drawing the list), the classification and ordering of the corpus. We aimed at playing with these limits, not to condemn them but to open up the discussion around archives, to reintroduce them in the public sphere.
The dematerialisation of our inventory also played a part in our desire to share our archive with as many people as possible. Once online, it could reach a wider audience, particularly in the context of the pandemic. However, we did more than digitise our collection of traces. Our process of recording and creating an inventory, dematerialised the entries in different ways.
Firstly, we did not seek commodities to include in the inventory; on the contrary entries included stains, vanishing light and fragments rather than furniture, jewelry or material possessions. The fragility of our collected items embodied the impossibility to truly preserve the past.
Secondly, the items listed were photographed, drawn and minutely described in words rather than preserved in physical form. This was largely due to the impossibility to hold an exhibition in the pandemic context. At the beginning of the project, we had wanted to keep physical items, in a sort of herbarium of traces. In the style of forensic investigators, who ‘bag’ items found on a crime scene, we kept many tangible items, thus attempting to avoid any loss of the item’s essence by reducing it to a two-dimensional image. However, our eventual decision to render our collection in a digitised and image-based format, opened up new directions, and shed its physical constraints. Working digitally allowed us to act as modern archivists, turning to digitisation as the ultimate secure preservation vehicle, but also made us aware of the intangibility of and immateriality of our online information.
Thirdly and lastly, the items were inventoried, not on a paper list, but were listed, linked and categorised online, on a mind-mapping digital tool (Miro board). This allowed the compilation on an open plan, bringing every item into view at once (contrary to the linear list compiled along several pages). Thus, and once again, leaving the viewer with a great freedom of interpretation.
This research project has allowed us to delve into the complexities of inventories (their collection method and their display). The minute recording of details, clues, traces and fragments, and alongside the deciphering and reimagining of the inventories contained within the notarial archives, allowed for an exploration of memory and materiality which led to a Borges-like categorisation. To this day the project has progressed towards large atlas and a DIY tarot game, resulting for our quest to democratise the archive and play with the intrinsic polysemy of images. We will look further to bring Maltese archive into the public sphere, empowered by this experience.
The Online Inventory
Below is a low-res version of our Inventory. The online inventory can be seen more clearly here.
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