After having worked for some years with independent columnists, we are delighted to be able to welcome Tirdad Zolghadr as our new regular columnist. Zolghadr, born in Teheran, is a versatile curator and a prolific writer, whose works include the novel Softcore. Currently he lives and works in New York.
The thing about a column is its unfolding over time. One hopes the pieces add up to a coherent strand, a sustained preoccupation. Surely, the point of any institutional allegiance, whether in magazines or marriages, is to build on where you’ve come from, and appreciate where you’re headed. Otherwise you may as well be fancy free. And just enjoy life. Either way, few among a column’s readers will remember anything beyond a vague sense of tone. He’s the bitchy dandy guy. She’s the brainy one with the long sentences. And if you’re honest, you rarely remember your own pieces yourself. Occasionally, you’ll revisit an essay and gasp. How in hell did you write that stuff? As if the visceral shock of Standards Declining is integral to any palpable experience of time going by. In magazines and marriages alike.
If it’s challenging for individual readers and writers to maintain a sense of temporal verticality beyond the sporadic traumata of standards declining, how might institutional memory fare in comparison? No one expects much from magazines. They’re considered much too up-to-date and à-la-mode, especially published on behalf of people who recycle every mag in sight. It’s only when you collect them that you discover a mnemonic deep freeze that is terrifyingly efficient. Instead of breathless amnesia, you see how ever-changing themes, fonts and names (of colleagues forgotten long ago) unflinchingly memorialize and venerate the grim march of history. Starting a new column feels less like barging into a fleeting conversation and more like penetrating a necropolis of haunted signs and ghostly residue. If you liked Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you’ll love Metropolis M.
Schools, by contrast, are perfectly amnesiac. To a surprising degree, the faculty at art schools and curatorial programmes are subject to constant and unpredictable change. The alumni maintain their lasting, Mafiosi ties to one another, but this happens far from the corridors of learning, leaving the institutions bereft of any memory whatsoever. Who was here last year? Well I remember a bitchy dandy one, and a brainy one with long sentences. Museums, meanwhile, are widely considered the Mnemonic Non Plus Ultra, but are hardly any better. Though museum collections are considered backbones of solid memoria, with that aura of immovability and umpf, a decent collection show will always already reflect the aesthetic and political prerogatives of the day, and is ruthlessly forgotten on the night of the finissage.
In sum, it’s easier to be fascinated by memory as an idea than to be engaged with it as a material practice. Of course the many ongoing curatorial projects of historiographic disposition are important and emblematic efforts in this regard. But beyond archive shows and sixties theorists, might there be other possibilities for everyday remembrance-in-practice?
Among the commemorative tools of our field, the nuclear option, the most crassly literal attempt to conserve the parameters of a given time, is the Period Room. Most say Period Rooms are fascinating only as long as you ignore the naïve theoretical premises they imply (not unlike a Thomas Demand show, for example). Personally, I’d argue the opposite. As a thing in itself, the phenomenon is quaint, but as a conceptual and polemical pointer, it’s compelling and perplexing stuff (not unlike a museum collection, for example, or Social Democracy). A Period Room is a complex apparatus in that it always contends with an audience of many different Period Eyes, and different appetites for shades and markers of authenticity. Consider the notion of density. In a Period Room, a high degree thereof is important to ensure accretion and complexity, but the question of whether something looks dense, cluttered or overdone is itself a question of periodical trends and dispositions.
The above scenographic tussle applies to nearly any display whatsoever, but the Period Room makes this struggle far more visible, which is why the genre will productively haunt your judgment of other shows as well. How do design and paraphernalia conspire to conjure a specific historical situation, not only in permanent exhibits of colonial tea parlours, but also in more site-specific, time-based, proto-dematerialized examples? In other words, if Period Rooms can never fulfil their promise, their failure is heroic in that they gracefully highlight tacit challenges of context and contextualization in stagings of contemporaneity in general. How I might pull this off in a column I have no idea, but the ghastly echo chamber that is a magazine is not a bad place to try.
Tirdad Zolghadr is a writer and curator based in New York. He teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies/Bard College.