The archive has inflated art criticism as an overstressed concept in the last few decades. Nevertheless, within specific institutional or artistic practices, archives do embody particular meanings. Michel Foucault, in the Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) , considers archives as “systems of statements (whether events or things), systems of its enunciability, a system of its functioning, relationship that encompass the discourse to a certain epistemology”. “The archive is the law of what can be said.” writes Foucault. Archives as tools for historicization also raise the question of the canon, in other words, of “what can be said”. Western art history functions in this sense, as a byproduct of a sort of hegemonic archive that is constantly being reproduced through the educational system, and its permanence is guaranteed in the global media network.
Against this background, some questions could be posed concerning specific archives: where are they, under which circumstances they have been created, following which purposes and uses, and, finally, what are the instruments for the ‘frontier thinking’ they are able (or not) to activate. In this framework, the relationship between modern/colonial comprises two sides of the same dynamics. As far as archives in Latin America are concerned, coloniality stands for the hidden face of modernity and its very condition of possibility. Censorship is also connected to closed archives, which are linked to dictatorial political regimes. They always hold the potential for promoting a rewrite of history.
Archives are also connected to the geopolitics of knowledge and can often be related to a dispute concerning antagonistic definitions of artwork. They embrace some contradictions such as the plea for memory in tension with the hegemony of the present and the eagerness for visibility within the global media market that shapes present ‘reality’ in the www. Within artists’ archives, where an important parcel of the artistic contemporary memory is kept, the conflicts stand most frequently as a result of the pressures imposed by the global market.
Archives are also tools to reflect upon contemporary art and institutional practices as they can embody the crossroads poised by the work of art and documentation. In art museums, archives can be disruptive as they hold discrepant conceptions of artwork and alternative versions of institutional history.
Archive in the frontier: a short story
Spanish conceptual artist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina( born 1937) traveled to South America in the years 1975/76. The map he has sketched in this trip includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. He moved around with light luggage, willing to learn about the different places he happened to visit through the artistic projects he proposed in situ. In Brazil, he named The city and the foreigner: three exercises of approximation a series of actions he carried out in the city of São Paulo in the winter of 1976. In these actions, Medina investigated the limits of communication by exercising a certain epistemology of the frontier. As a foreigner, he chose to explore the similarities between the Portuguese and Spanish language, recording most hilarious conversations he established by speaking Spanish with anonymous passersby, Portuguese speakers, in the streets of São Paulo.
The Dictionary of the peoples was the second Exercise of approximation of the Brazilian actions. In it, he offered the Museum’s visitors a piece of paper where one could read: “I am a foreign artist visiting Brazil. I do not speak Portuguese, please, write here any word of your language”. As a result, a particular word list emerged with the words in Portuguese in one column and its translation into Spanish, unedited, by its side. There is no logical order in the list, some words are repeated, others misspelt, some people included drawings and the sequences of the words do not allow any logical organization as a proper Lexicon. The word love, for instance, features six times, and freedom twice, in the artists’ Dictionary.
The third Exercise of Approximation in São Paulo’s project was the “Touristic visit”. The record of this last Exercise has been kept in the Museum’s archives in the format of a short note published in a local newspaper, inviting people to accompany the artist on a tourist visit to the city. Nobody showed up, recalled the artist in a recent interview. The records, that is to say, the tapes where he recorded the Interview, the Touristic Visit newspaper note and the Dictionary’s loose sheets of paper did not find their correct address for many years within the MAC USP collection. They have drifted around, between the library and the archives, not recognized properly as artworks. It has been possible to manifest them very recently in an exhibition (2012)  of the artist’s work in the same Museum he had carried out the action forty years before. That is because, as Groys  warns “the unexhibited artwork has ceased to be an artwork, it has become art documentation. Artworks are manifested only in exhibition”. That is the performativity of the archive. In this sense archives are dialectical images as they are able to connect the past with the present in regard to other possible futures.