Something Lost, Something Gained
Giulia Parlato, Diachronicles, Witty Books, 2023
‘Something Lost, Something Gained’ is an essay written for Giulia Parlato’s book Diachronicles.
24×30 cm / 120 pages
500 copies / Soft cover with Swiss binding
Design by Nicolas Polli
Text by David Campany
Published in February 2023
Something Lost, Something Gained.
Let us imagine Giulia Parlato’s recent photographic series Diachronicles is acquired by an important museum of art and archaeology for its permanent collection. A set of prints, editioned and signed, is proposed by a curator to the museum’s acquisitions committee. At a meeting of the committee, a thorough discussion takes place as to the merits of the photographs and how they might benefit the museum and its audience, both now and in the future. The committee votes, and acquisition is approved, although there are differences of opinion as to how the images should be classified and the context in which the museum might display them. This will be decided later. Funds are found and allocated for the acquisition. Parlato prepares a portfolio which is delivered to the museum’s registrar. The prints are carefully unpacked and photographed, and the digital image files are uploaded to the museum’s online database along with important information including titles, dimensions, descriptions of materials, a long list search keywords, and accession numbers. A place is found for the portfolio in the atmospherically controlled facility that houses the museum’s permanent collection. Its future is reasonably secure, although its meaning remains less so.
Years later, the museum loses its database when it is attacked by an unknown virus. After much delay, the arduous process of re-cataloguing the entire collection begins. Giulia Parlato’s Diachronicles becomes a troubling point of uncertainty and consternation for the curatorial team. What is this set of images? An artist’s project? A collection of disparate documents of museum displays and archaeological digs? Instructional photographs for some kind of museum training manual? Is it a fiction? An allegory? A work of criticism? Thinking positively, the curators turn the mystery into the new significance of Diachronicles. The portfolio will be displayed as an enigma, inviting visitors to speculate as to its meaning and the possible reasons why the museum acquired it. Visitors will be encouraged to reflect upon the purpose and function of the photographs and, by extension, upon the function and purpose of the museum itself. Some curators suggest simply displaying the images with no text or captions; not even an author’s name. Others feel the museum ought to introduce the works with a text, indicating different ways visitors might wish to consider them.
In the grander scheme of things, it seems museums had only a very brief period in which their methods were not in question, and rightly so. Today one has only to hear the word ‘museum’ and the string of associations moves rapidly from ‘history’, ‘archives’, ‘facts’ and ‘artifacts’… to ‘stories’, ‘fictions’, ‘empire’, ‘power’, ‘exclusion’ and even ‘theft’ and ‘repatriation’. Museums seem to survive and find new purpose not by repressing this situation but by embracing and addressing it. The good museum is the museum that reflects publicly upon its own presumptions and is open to revision.
In 1974, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) issued this statement:
A museum is a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of the society and its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of man and his environment.
In 2022, after a period of deep soul-searching, self-questioning, and eighteen months of participatory consultation, ICOM revised its statement:
A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.
Despite the attempts at clarity, the function of such a statement is left deliberately open. It could be a description of what museums actually are and do, or it could be a prescription – aims, goals, practices, programmes and behaviours for museums to aspire to. Either way, the update points to a shift, real and desired, towards transparency and accountability to potential audiences, or communities. And between the lines, one might sense a change of emphasis from museums being for ‘anyone’ to museums needing to be for ‘everyone’.
In this new situation for museums, the photographic image is mobilised in many different ways. Its presumed accessibility or even democracy makes it unintimidating and ‘user friendly’. Photos appear as parts of explanatory display panels. They are exhibited as documents imparting information. And the public is invited to make and contribute their own photos in the newly embracing and participatory museum culture. All these types and uses of photographs are retained and archived by the museums. But if the databases collapsed, the images would not be able to speak for themselves. For all their use and functionality, they would be returned to the essential condition of the photograph, which is ambiguous and enigmatic, suggestive and associative.
In the light of all this, the images that comprise Giulia Parlato’s Diachronicles seem exemplary. They adopt and adapt the photographic rhetoric of use and function but they withhold any ultimate commitment to meaning or significance. Even if the artist were to declare her intentions, which in the lazy way of contemporary culture might become the preferred script for looking and interpreting, the uncertainties would remain. Indeed, it is almost as if the more straightforward the imagery seems, the less straightforward it really is. This is not a new revelation. In 1844 William Henry Fox Talbot wrote in The Pencil of Nature of the way even the plainest and most descriptive kind of photograph cannot secure its own meaning. It would be ‘evidence of a novel kind’, as he put it, to be fought over by lawyers and other interested parties. In the 1920s the Surrealists appropriated Eugène Atget’s photographs of old Paris for their own experimental journals, bringing out their latent poetic strangeness. In 1977, the American artists Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan published Evidence, a book of photos they had found in various scientific and industrial archives, now presented without their original captions and contexts. Function fell away, leaving aesthetically charged visual mysteries, full opaque rituals, and questions without answers. Parlato’s Diachronicles certainly bears a relation to these examples, and it would not come as a surprise if in some way they had helped to form her own approach. Nevertheless, one need not know much about photography’s complex history to make complex photographs. They can emerge simply from thinking about the medium and the expectations that culture seems to want to make of it.
So, to return to the speculation with which I began, you may recall that the imaginary museum that acquired the Diachronicles portfolio did so without knowing exactly what it wanted to do with it. That was the appeal of the work for an institution coming to terms with its own presumptions and revised practices. Eventually, the museum did not make up its mind but turned over to its audience the question of what exactly these images might be, or could be. This, it seems to me, would be the ideal context for Diachronicles. And it would not require the catastrophic loss of a database to make it happen.