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Front Matter

Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal

Document/ary | Volume 4 | Issue 1

Editor's Letter

My colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz and I founded this journal for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: providing a space outside the gatekeeping and privileged (and white, heteropatriarchal) standards of academic publishing, which often marginalizes emerging and independent scholars and artists; honing our editing skills and providing a workshop-like space for other writers; creating a free and accessible product that circulates beyond/outside the academy; and continually exploring and articulating what “visual studies” even is.


Refract’s fourth volume explores the entanglements between the document and the documentary as sources of information and forms of visual culture. Derived from the Latin docere (to instruct, to teach), the document can be a pedagogical tool, a disciplinary measure, or a literary and legal form that ascribes value to people and property and gives shape to cultural beliefs called laws. And yet, the document defies boundaries—it is at once literary, sociological, scientific, and historical while also being a material object with affective qualities.

Amalia Mesa-Bains and the Archive: An Interview with the Artist

The following is an interview between editorial board member Madison Treeceand celebrated Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains. Treece has worked as Mesa-Bains’s archivist since 2017. For this issue on “document/ary,” Treece askedMesa-Bains about the function of the archive as document, its contributions toChicanx art history, and its more personal implications. The interview took placeon March 9, 2021, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This interview hasbeen edited for length and clarity.

Memory Matter(s)

This essay serves as brief insight into an ongoing art project, centered on the documentation of my grandparents’ house. The aim of the project is to formalize an art-based methodology to explore the histories of a familiar place that no longer exists in its original setting. The location, my grandparents’ house in the Sarntal Valley, in the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy, was accessed and documented through a collaborative recollection of memories linked to artifacts that characterized the physical site. In this work, drawing, mapmaking, and photography are used as tools to examine the relationships between place, object, and memory, and help reconstruct an image of a site now lost in time. The research I conducted for the investigation draws on the interdisciplinary approaches and themes present in the study of contemporary archaeology.

Denis Diderot’s “Salons” as Art Conservation in Eighteenth-Century France

Within existing literature, scholars have most often examined Denis Diderot’s Salons in the contexts of art exhibitions and discourse. While the art world is an apt place to examine his works, this essay intends to broaden the scope of historical inquiry by situating his writing in the context of natural disasters. By approaching his Salons from outside the artistic milieu, I do not intend to imply that the circumstances of the eighteenth-century Parisian art world did not play a major role in Diderot’s work. It did, perhaps first and foremost. I am merely offering the idea that art criticism in France—and especially Diderot’s Salons—developed alongside a cultural consciousness of material durability. Writing about art offered a supplementary type of sustainability. It could conserve not only a literary description of the artwork but also the author’s distinctive experience of it. Diderot’s Salons make for an interesting case study, because his descriptions of art on display at the salon exhibitions are lengthier than any other art critical text written at the time and may lend insight, more broadly, into the power of writing as a tool for art conservation.

Neustadt a.d. Aisch

The historical reappraisal of the German past is a continuous process. The concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an integral part of the society, especially considering the political climate drifting slowly but steadily toward right-wing belief. However, there is a noticeable difference in approaching the past on the collective level or the individual level. While the collective is constituted and established in the public sphere, the individual is operating within the private realm. The work depicts the process of uncovering unexpected facts within the family. The three-channel audio-visual installation conceptualizes the revelation of an uncomfortable truth inside a family in two separate conversations, held between the wife and granddaughter, and the daughter and granddaughter of the deceased family member. Both conversations are captured in alternating audio tracks over the same visual.

  • 2 supplemental videos

The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting: Afterlife and Memorialization of Imagery Surrounding South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Given that truth commissions are heavily intertwined with the social politics of societal memory and the historical perception of events, the imagery surrounding these hearings therefore plays a role worth examining throughout this memorialization process. This essay investigates how imagery from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings has experienced an afterlife in the subsequent decades, and how this afterlife may differ from the images’ original values and purpose. This body of work examines the extended life of these images beyond that of straightforward media representation of the event—looking at how these archival elements have been reappropriated and incorporated into fine-art bodies of work by artists and documentarians working in photography, such as Sue Williamson, Jo Ratcliffe, Berni Searle, Penny Siopis, and others, in order to respond to the TRC by participating in and driving conversations surrounding the commission’s ambiguities, contradictions, and inadequacies. Through a semiotic analysis of the imagery itself, and analysis of the contextual placement and dissemination of the imagery in both its original and subsequent usages, this research therefore seeks to holistically understand the role of visual media in South Africa’s era of transitional justice and reckoning.

Tito/Tata: Fiction and Factuality in Documentary Photographs of the Father Figure in Communist Yugoslavia

The photographic series Tito/Tata and the accompanying essay examine the construction of the father figure in the public and private sphere in communist Yugoslavia. Through combined textual analysis of and artistic intervention on found documentary photographs of her own father as well as the country’s president, Josip Broz Tito, Paula Muhr explores the fictional potential of the purportedly neutral visual historical documents. She foregrounds the “optical unconscious” content of the documentary images, thus disclosing their role in the construction and the perpetuation of the country’s collective fantasy of the omnipotent yet benevolent patriarchal figure.

The Somatic and Textural Language of Patricia Belli: Recrafting Social and Political Bodies in 1990s Nicaragua

“The Somatic and Textural Language of Patricia Belli: Recrafting Social and Political Bodies in 1990s Nicaragua” looks at early textile assemblages by the contemporary Nicaraguan artist Patricia Belli. Opening with the seminal exhibition MESóTICA II: Centroamérica/re-generación—which took place in Costa Rica in 1996—the essay positions Belli as part of an emerging generation of experimental artists who were working in the aftermath of the Central American Crisis. Contextualized within this period, I argue that Belli’s textile assemblages from the early 1990s emerge as affective containers of personal and collective memories endured by the region. By reworking secondhand clothes imported from the United States, Belli recrafts garments into visceral containers that evoke disfigured and mutilated bodies. Thinking beyond normative constructions of the body—and in particular, feminized bodies—Belli’s textile assemblages emerge as subversive constructions that privilege unruly and undisciplined bodies. Through these textile inquiries, I explore how the artist forges a system of sensitive communication that emerges as a medium for healing—evidenced through the recurrent appearance of lesions, scars, and fractures. Looking at her work alongside other feminist practices taking place regionally, this essay also explores emerging feminist artist networks that are rooted in somatic languages that challenge normative modes of knowledge-production and communication.

Grandmother’s Garden, Artist Statement

Stitched together, Grandmother’s Garden is an experimental documentary that examines women who quilt as well as quilting’s history in the United States. Questioning representations of the American woman, Grandmother’s Garden looks at how quilting practices work against and fit into traditional narratives of race, gender, and class. From quilts produced by enslaved individuals to feed sack quilts in the Great Depression, to newly retired baby boomers quilting in the present, this film considers America’s history and economy as it runs adjacent to quilting.

  • 1 supplemental video

Review of An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain

This is an exhibition review of An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain, which took place at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from May 14, 2020, to January 18, 2021. The exhibition was a comprehensive survey of the photographer An-My Lê’s work, which addressed the complexity and politicization of the American landscape and the people found within it. This review explores the difficulty of interpreting Lê’s work and the inability to come away with clear answers about the contradictions that the American landscape and its inhabitants embody.

A Catalog of American Things

Presented as a video slideshow, the ongoing work A Catalog of American Things borrows the notion of the encyclopedia—an “exhaustive” record of the world. Alternately sardonic and deadpan, the work consists of original photographs overlaid with text and is itself an active archive with the potential to be continuously added to and updated. The attempt to catalog “American things” (from government policies to consumer goods) highlights the impossibility of including everything. What is intentionally omitted or missing due to the subjectivity of organizing material? What are the limitations of a catalog and its presumption to be an “official” document?

  • 1 supplemental video

I’m New Here: Black and Indigenous Media Ecologies: Curatorial Statement

Exploring themes of race and shared ecologies across the Americas, the born-digital photography exhibition I’m New Here: Black and Indigenous Media Ecologies presents a hemispheric vision of African diasporic and Native life in the United States, Caribbean, and Latin America. The exhibition features experimental virtual reality (VR) and filmic components. In this curatorial essay, themes of the entangled dispossession of Native sovereignty and African enslavement are explored in the works of seven photographers from Trinidad to Wisconsin to Peru to Dominica. Artists Abigail Hadeed, Nadia Huggins, Kai Minosh Pyle, Allison Arteaga, steve núñez, Melia Delsol, and Dóra Papp provide a visual critique of the long history of racial capitalism, climate crisis, and Black and Indigenous presence. Together the photographic essays form a constellation, a vision of what environmental and racial justice can look like for the hemisphere after the catastrophe of European conquest. Speculatively picturing Black and Indigenous coalitions in the past, present, and future, the artists use the technology of the camera to frame nature, exploring visual aesthetic forms that seek not to replicate the capture of the colonial archive.

Olympic-Scale Subversion: Poster Art, Architecture, Performance, and the Afterlives of Mexico 1968

On October 2, 1968, only ten days before the opening ceremonies of the highly anticipated 1968 Summer Olympics, the Mexican Army surrounded and penned in students at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The plaza, holding remnants of Mexico’s past—an Aztec pyramid and the Spanish church of Santiago Tlatelolco—would soon become the site of state massacre. After months of strife between the government’s single-party regime and student protestors in the lead-up to the Games, the tensions reached a crescendo: snipers mounted the surrounding apartment buildings of Nonoalco Tlatelolco—the new modern housing complex designed by the architect Mario Pani—while armed plainclothes troops, distinguished by white gloves, seamlessly assimilated into the crowd. On that night, in the space of Mexico’s Aztec and Spanish ruins yet surrounded by its modern present, temporal and spatial order was contested and disrupted.

This essay examines both the official culture crafted by the government in anticipation of the 1968 Olympics and countercultural practices that produced a lasting fracture in the temporal and spatial order of modern Mexico—those that effectively permeated the afterlife of Mexico 1968. As I argue, the legacy of the student movement resides in the 1968 foundation of oppositional strategies—such as poster art and street performance—which promoted an active engagement with public space. While most analysis of remembrance strategies after the massacre focuses on the archive of memory, I highlight spatial ruptures that overcame the limitations of testimonial and archival documentation. In doing so, I trace the student movement’s confrontations with space from 1968 to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s 2008 installation, Voz Alta, which continued this practice by channeling October 2, 1968, amid ruins of Mexico’s Aztec, Spanish, and modernist past.

Authoritative Forms

Authoritative Forms is a participatory poem-object that invites playing and reordering of how formal entities shape and construct our belief systems and assert authority on our ways of being. The work comprises a sheaf of handmade watermarked abaca and cotton paper arranged on a handmade wood table surrounded by work stools. Viewers are invited to take a seat at the table to handle, look at, read, and rearrange the papers. With material, language, and participation, Authoritative Forms aims to play with and interrogate how we individually and collectively create and confer meaning.

Thinking of Water as a Material Witness: An Attempt to Fill the Voids in the Archive of the Moscow Canal (1932–37)

This essay revisits the Moscow Canal and explores its waters as the matter that bears witness to the violence experienced by human and nonhuman actors during the waterway’s construction between 1932 and 1937. By attending to the canal’s flow, it argues that water can operate as an alternative archive, expands the limits of what is currently considered unarchivable, and contributes several artifacts to more conventional forms of documentation. Using the operative concept of material witness developed by the artist-researcher Susan Schuppli, the essay investigates the artificial flow and analyzes patterns of its organization and operation as processes that register, disclose, and preserve the residues of violence that remain present underwater yet missing from the Moscow Canal narrative, inviting renarration of the histories produced by the reductive archival structures.

Ground Maps of an Unknown Prospect

Unknown Prospect is a particular place on a map, but also a body of work surveying so-called public lands through Ochre pigments, design research, printmaking, and artist’s books. Unknown Prospect becomes an iterative atlas of mining sites and their geological memory as told through color. My print work and practice in book binding, combined with architectural training in documents and drawing, have led to an interest in maps and atlases as products of information, communication, narrative, and world-making. I wonder if these products can lead to design ethics and practices that prioritize the relationship between human and more-than-human.

As an alternative to conventional, colonial mapping practices in the United States, Ground Maps are emergent with observations from experience, facts derived and measured by technology, and multiplicities generated by Ochre on the page.

Synthesizing a Dual-Definition of Façade in the Western Palaces of the Yuanming Yuan: Art, Politics, and Place-making in the Garden of Perfect Brightness

The Imperial Summer Palace, also known as Yuanming Yuan or Garden of Perfect Brightness, emerged as the center of the Chinese Empire during the eighteenth century and served as the official residence of five Qing Dynasty emperors. However, tension percolating in the mid-nineteenth century regarding British demand for treaty revision resulted in the Second Opium War and the burning of Yuanming Yuan in 1860. The façades and structures of the “European” or “Western” style palaces of the garden were the only buildings not completely obliterated by the fire and have become a symbol of Yuanming Yuan as a whole. This essay analyzes several engravings of the European-style palaces and gardens by court artist Yilantai (1749-1786) and documentary photographs depicting the remaining traces of the palaces taken by German photographer Ernst Ohlmer (1847-1927). The buildings continue to act as a façades in the way their reproduction over three centuries creates an uncanny mixture of the factual and the fantastic. In comparison to the engravings, the photographs might be understood as carrying an indexical documentary potential. However, by examining these two sets together in a more synthesized manner, both present the buildings in a theatrical yet formal method of depiction: they exhibit the very “fairyland” quality Emperor Qianlong had in mind when commissioning their construction, and their simultaneously decorative and void structures provide the backdrop onto which the complex synthesis of art, politics, and place-making in China are projected. After situating the duality of theatricality and illusion alongside the historical framing of Yuanming Yuan, this paper concludes with an analysis of the Yuanming Yuan Ruins Park, a tourist attraction where the factual and the fantastic that marked the buildings in the past continues today.

Jozi Rhapsody: Tracing a City’s Legacy through Time

My short experimental film titled Jozi Rhapsody, which was created as the practical module for my master’s dissertation in film and television, is an audiovisual expression of movement as the carrier of multiple potentialities that drive transformation. I examine the ever mobile city of Johannesburg and the constant changes it has and continues to undergo, alongside those of the filmic medium through time. The aim is to fuse two idioms, those of the city and cinema, creating a “city film” that holds this unstable force of selfhood brought about by motion. The written work provided accompanies the short film in reflecting on a self in flux, and mobility as the central tenet to continual metamorphosis.

Documenting Gender's Signs: Site, Performance, and the US-Mexico Border in Contemporary Art

Since the 1980s, artwork related to the US/-Mexico border region has employed site-specific and performative elements, collective production, and a distinctive set of images referred to as border semiotics. Rather than taking a purely critical approach to the symbols and interpretations of the US/-Mexico border, two women artists with cross-border identities engage and complicate these signs through their own artistic labor: Ana Teresa Fernández (b. Tamaulipas, 1980) and M. Jenea Sanchez (b. Arizona, 1985). Gender consistently influences both their performances as well as the interpretations of their works; because both artists generate phenomenological encounters and illustrate shifting subject positions to expose hegemonic readings of border imagery. This essay argues that by working to demystify the pervasive image of “woman as landscape” in art of the US/-Mexico border, these two artists implant a feminist approach into this evolving language that questions the repeated “types” of Mexican and cross-border womanhood throughout history and literature. Viewership is central to this argument and to the works in question: each artist purposefully engages a larger collective of interpreting viewers to through documentation as the ultimate collective feminist act.

Voices of Visual Studies

Visualizing Precarity and Security: Mona Hatoum’s Drowning Sorrows and Guadalupe Maravilla’s Walk on Water

Precarity is an overwhelming and persistent condition of unpredictability, instability, and insecurity, especially as related to employment, housing, health care, and migration status. While spread unevenly, it is a hallmark of our contemporary world. At UC Santa Cruz, a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution where more than one-third of the undergraduates are first-generation college students and more than half receive need-based financial aid, many of my students are of the precariat, the people for whom precarity is a driving force. Like intersectionality and heteronormativity, precarity allows us to name, to better understand, and then to change the conditions that shape our world. And like intersectionality and heteronormativity, it is an abstruse concept. To help my students identify and comprehend precarity, I have found that it is useful to visualize it. To do so, I turn to art, specifically to Mona Hatoum’s Drowning Sorrows (20012) and Guadalupe Maravilla’s Walk on Water (2018).

Full Issue

Refract Journal, Volume 4: Document/ary Full Issue

Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal Document/ary | Volume 4 | Issue 1