The Bowden Archives and Industrial Modernity has its roots in an uncompleted Politics and Art MA by dissertation and photography at Flinders University of South Australia under Brian Medlin at Flinders University of South Australia that was abandoned for a PhD in philosophy prior to the neo-liberal downsizing of the humanities. It is based on a form of memory work involving an interpretive and reconstructive approach to the past. What unfolds is a collage of images and writings that stand at the margins of being systematically and/or instinctively ordered. It consists of four sections: the first is snapshot street photography in the 1970s and 1980s; the second is the documentary photos of Bowden, Adelaide during the 1980s; the third is the photos made in Adelaide/Port Adelaide of the 1980s; the fourth are the road trips in the 1980s and 1990s. The texts explore the particular aspects of the photographic culture in Australia.
The book is constructed from unruly 1980s photographic and text archives; a form of memory work that adopts an interpretive and reconstructive approach to the everyday of the past through weaving together image and text. The kaleidoscope of images and text imply an image text that breaks away from the modernist type of photo-book with its images and a minimal introductory text; thereby challenging and resisting the modernist dichotomy between image and text. It rejects the literal image — photographs are an unmediated copy of what they represent — in favour of a historical account of images in which pictures are a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies and figurality. Text and image are intricately entangled in a narrative web and work in collaboration, are supplementary, or in tension. The different pieces are gathered into a book as a visual parataxis. The narrative in the book is reinvented, text and images are combined in weird assemblages, and the reworked pieces of the past have been over layered in some new sense from the perspective of the present.
This assemblage approach is adopted because I can only vaguely recall my thinking about the photographic culture of that period, and I have a slippery awareness of what I was trying to argue in the written material about photography based on what I was then reading. My personal memories are flawed, fragmentary and malleable; and they have become foggy, or faded, like old photographs. Many of my experiences and memories have been forgotten and there are blank years. Since memory is selective, elusive, vivid in parts, and open to embellishment as well as loss, my memories rely on the materiality of the trace and the visibility of both image and text.
Photography, archive, text and memory are closely connected. Walter Benjamin showed that modern memory relies on the materiality of the trace, or the visibility of the image. Photography is bound up with the processes of remembering, forgetting and interpreting. We associate photographs with memories; they are the relics of our time. Kodak, for instance, commodified memory in that the snapshots they processed offered consumers the means to preserve their personal memories of the significant events in their lives. This process of recuperative memory through returning to the archive is not simply remembering the past – recuperating it – but remembering memory itself, where it appears to have slipped away.The archive does not enable the past to be truthfully known, as the photos do not show what happened before and after the shutter closed, or what was outside the frame.
If photography is the presence of absence (of what has been), then the photographic/textual archive filters and mediates what is preserved and recalled. In his article of 2004 “An Archival Impulse,” in October Foster identifies the emergence of art focusing on archives which demonstrates the pursuit of a kind of “counter-memory,” that is, artistic practices that seek to retrieve and represent what he terms “alternative knowledge.” It opens the possibility to continue the critical enterprise of documenting and recovering neglected or marginalised knowledge, but this time with an emphasis on history and historical records.
The ambiguities in photos and text are a guard against cultural memory loss, and they have the power of reactivating sediments of earlier meanings from the past. These transfiguration of the commonplace flow into the present through their affective impact on the viewer. They help to inform an imagining of different histories to those we have inherited and, hopefully, to interpret alternative futures in the present.