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The Creation of the Archive: KB as phenomenon

ZS: This is a strange position to be in – and a strangely difficult one to occupy: to talk about the Karachi Biennale, speaking at once from a position brought by an absolute closeness (inside/within), and simultaneously one of that seems far removed (outside). I suppose it is a question of then and now, and the ‘here’ as defined by those. Here, we are removed now from KB17, and stand at the cusp of KB19, not yet realized. KB19 however, though our proximity to it has greatly shifted, signals the fruition of our greatest desire, and realizes our greatest purpose in setting out to do the first. So many times we said: “it’s not a biennale until there’s a second one.” We are thus simultaneously positioned outside, and also inside the fruition of that towards which we aspired.


The push towards externality is as much inevitably defined by our previous role and its position of intimacy (which has receded since) as it is caused by the gentle, persistent and distancing nudge of time – we are pushed gently away, outside, to a position from which we can thus look back and look into. From this place however, it is perhaps exactly our externality that allows us now to speak, lending to us the legitimacy of critical distance. In a 1969 essay, Michel Foucault talks about “lines of words that translate in visible characters thoughts that were formed in some other time and place” when speaking of the great narrative of history, and sets up, contrary to these words, discursive “systems that establish statements as events (with their own conditions and domain of appearance) and things (with their own possibility and field of use).”[1] These systems of statements are what he defines as the ‘archive’. Is this then what we are now doing with the biennale – both that which is past and future – contextualizing, creating a system of statements that signify the creation of the archive set into motion almost two years ago? I propose that we are.


In the same essay, Foucault also speaks about distance and proximity, telling us that “it is not possible to for us to describe our own archive, since it is from within these rules that we speak […] The archive cannot be described in its totality; and in its presence it is unavoidable. It emerges in fragments, regions and levels, more fully, no doubt, and with greater sharpness, the greater the time that separates us from it.”[2] However, he wonders if this description of the archive is fair, if it then allows the archive the full space of its potentials, if viewed only from ‘distant horizons.’ Instead he suggests that there is indeed value in proximity as well, to speak from as close within, in order to deploy the true possibilities contained within the archive. In the way that Foucault speaks, he retrieves the archive from the dust of the dead past, and locates it as that which is full of potentiality, continuity and life. This makes sense to me as a position from which to view the Karachi Biennale, not simply KB17 or 19, but as larger phenomenon: the archive of KB17 at the same time forms the originary point of archiving KB as a larger project and thereby simultaneously becomes an archive of the future. Similarly, it also begins a mega project of archiving the city through sites of encounter and exchange – is it possible for us to begin to see these as collections, pockets/packets of statements, organized and executed as such. What do the sites say about the archive as a collection of objects, if we are to view the city as the greater body and the sites as specific collections within that? What do they speak of, where are their intersections and interrelations, what is it that they record and circulate, where are their intensities and lines of flight, how does the archive thus define spaces of continuity, discourse and debate?


ZA: We witness the city grow. It’s a phenomenon. Every year the map of the city changes, it accommodates. How it does it, and how its inhabitants act, are both unpredictable and in flux. The KB17 was searching for the local narrative of the time, questioning all its experiences, processes and possibilities (in and of the city, outside of itself, and also through the interactions with others and outsiders brought in it) and in doing so it found its landscape activated by the interruptions of all the unknowns – the ever changing time, space and identity. Full of complexity and contradictions, the growing city is a charged site of exchange and dialogue, an intersection of diverse populations, cultures, politics and economics. It is open, welcoming, and generous yet also closed, hostile, parsimonious. Twelve sites spread across Karachi hosted over 180 local and international artworks that examined ways of witnessing and bearing witness.


While there was more than one way to physically and conceptually connect and travel to each of these locations, movement was often challenged by barriers. These obstructions rerouting thoughts and physical mobility ultimately shape and define course and pattern: to find. The Inaugural KB17 began with the opening at the NJV School, where artworks and performances throughout the monumental building actuated the hunt. Beyond the grilled wall and gates, across the large field, up the landing, towards the tall halls, ascending the wide stairs, were three floors of the living archive. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, new-media works and interactive installations served as provocateurs; through the singular as well as the shared interaction and intervention of physical objects and individuals in this space, the event was creating material and immaterial conversations about ourselves – forever developing, this is hard to contain, fully understand and conclude, the only certainty is that one doesn’t know if they’ll find it all.


The dialogue and impossible pursuit was hosted in twelve buildings (the NJV School, the Theosophical Society, Pioneer Books, 63 Commissariat, Capri Cinema, Claremont House, Frere Hall, Alliance Francaise, FOMMA, IVS, KSA and V.M. gallery), divided into three clusters and combinations of familiar and unfamiliar, old and new, public and private, intentional and unintentional purpose and design. Some venues were quite far apart, and their architectural and institutional models were also in obvious contrast to one another, thus changing the experience and discourse from one site to the next in an obvious manner, but others were subtle. At times the buildings in the same neighborhood, of the same era, and even similar structure, evoked different impressions, and so it appeared that the internal limitations of each site resulted in unique, unexpected experiences. For example: the varying layers and textures of the walls within the space changed the presentation of the artwork hung, pressed and viewed against it. The open wooden windows of one offered a dissimilar view or frame of the city seen through the barred openings of another. The permeable or non-permeable walls of each site affected the ways and the intensity with which the sounds of the city bled in and the chatter of the crowds boomed inside it. Consequently this became a reflection of the power and control within the chosen site, as well as outside of it.


ZS: I read your words, and I hear them in my head, where they instantly conjure up images – but not still images, and not linear ones either. There is movement in my memory, and there is also an evocation of other senses: those that feel the quality of light streaming through the vast corridors of the NJV, the heat of Karachi in October as we ran between site to site. My memory is of course, also incomplete. It forms its own connections and ruptures, links and circuits, according to various objects, spaces and encounters, and preserves those in its vaults, ready to be drawn on at a later time. Freud speaks at length of course about memory, but I am reminded in particular of his reference to the idea of the ‘permanent memory-trace’[3], which is formed when I inscribe the memory (onto a piece of paper, let’s say), creating a document to which I can return again and again, which then forever is in possession of that memory-trace. And of course, in what you are doing above, and in the ways we have all written about the biennale over this year, or even the guide-book that was produced for KB17, or the volume on it that is due to be published soon, all of these are inscriptions.


But it is not to any of these that I turned, while reading your words. Your descriptive movement through space invoked in me a desire to see once again, and so I turned instead to perhaps our greatest inscription in this regard – our (curatorial) website[4]. Here I am able to see all of the sites, all of the activities, and the performances, I am able to move between them and through them, aided by the amazing rhizomatic power of the hyperlink, and perhaps most incredibly, I am able to move through each site, as if I were actually there. I am able to now visit a different and single ‘site’ – one that is less tangible than those to which you refer above, but conversely and ironically one that is not as ephemeral, and one that is able to hold all of the sites together within its virtual space.


Of course, I realize at once that this space is different from the one that resides in my memory. It’s disruptions and flows are not the same as mine, and perhaps most importantly, I am all alone here, as one is, a solitary walker, in the vast realm of the virtual. And while I find this somewhat frustrating (my memory protests this was not so), I also find that in many ways, this rupture from my personal memory (and all its associations) simultaneously also allows me to revisit and reinterpret these spaces and works again, from here and now. “The act of remembering involves both storing and retrieving: it is not a passive process, especially in the digital age.”[5] I am of course back to where I started: at the archive, and I am reminded of how beautifully the artist Jayce Salloum describes it in a 2006 essay, where he says, “You can walk into the vaults, there are files, stacks and shelves of material. The records are static but movement is written all over them.”[6] The archive is indeed, in this case too, alive – in that it allows one to enter and to investigate and to form new connections and paths and routes and maps. It allows for new interpretations and classifications, coding and decoding, remembering and forgetting.


ZA: Yes, another way to witness. The mega-archive of the Internet holds – another ‘platform’ or ‘station’ to (re)visit the event of KB17. Similar to our city, it is a recalcitrant space, developed through mutations of connection and disconnection, calling for human interpretation of its found yet constructed, factual yet fictive content.


As I’m making my way through the virtual space, moving backwards and forwards, clicking at each point marked on my screen, I’m seeing the artworks and/in the chosen sites in a way that I hadn’t before. I feel closer yet also more distant than ever, and between the two I find the desire to connect what cannot be connected. In his essay examining the archive, Hal Foster suggests that an important aspect of the archival impulse is its will to make connections, however “this is not a will to totalise so much as a will to relate – to probe a misplaced past, to collate its different signs (sometimes pragmatically, sometimes parodistically), to ascertain what might remain for the present.”[7]


From the laptop in my room, in silence and predetermined degree of achievable proximity, the website allows me to view and glide through a 360-degree experience of the venues adorned with objects. The saturated three-dimensional interaction with and of the biennale is now seen through a collection of images on my flat screen. Here, the various hierarchies dissolve and give way to a democratization of spaces as well as objects; now there is no distinction between the artworks and their mediums, the artists and their ranks, the prestigious and the ordinary, the chosen and the previously present or later found. Yet as I am alone, I question my power and agency to perceive and assert control (physically and also conceptually). This begins with the direction and speed with which I navigate through the site and arrive at certain points, while denying others.


When observed this way, a place that exists without the passage of time (and its effect on the environment), without other bodies (and their relation to the space and others residing in it) and without the possibilities of the viewers influence on what they are confronted with, one finds that the stillness and fixed nature of space and its materials are in contrast to the many and/or repeated understandings of it. In a radio talk in 1931, the German documentary photographer, August Sanders said, “Today with photography we communicate our thoughts, conception and realities, to all the people on earth; if we add the date of the year, we have the power to fix the history of the world”. Though this may be true for photographs, the interactivity of the website challenges this idea. As my cursor glitched and I got stuck scrolling up towards the sky and into the pale blue, I understood that while this is an unusual perspective of the city, it remains the same later today, and tomorrow, for me and for anyone else encountering it.  Therefore, we may be alone in this fixed space, but we (the vast, and invisible audience) share the experience of (re)discovering, (re)examining and (re)connecting the KB17 –  a particular event, at a particular time, through a particular lens.



Foster asks if archival art “emerges out of a sense of a failure in cultural memory, of a default in productive traditions? For why else connect so feverishly if things  did not appear so frightfully disconnected in the first place?”[8]


ZS: Many of the things you have said take me to another time, another tense. These last lines by Foster, as well as the earlier quote where he talks about the ‘misplaced past’ and the attempt to ascertain ‘what might remain for the present’, as well as your mention of the virtual space of the archive in reference to environmental impact – I am taken to the future. KB19 aims to speak about ecology, at once different from and connected to the idea of witnessing…and I wonder: can these things ever not be connected, when the space in which these events occur (the city of Karachi) already connects them like a cord stretching across time, already pointing to its future, and towards the continuation of these ‘ephemeral landscapes’ (if one can see the biennale in this way) that will form the lens through which to construct and deconstruct the city anew again.


Questions of the memory (individual and collective), of power, of the historical, the cultural and social, of the production and dissemination of knowledge, are all crucial here. And so I return to Foster and respond to his references to past and present, with the notion that the idea of the archive has always been an idea of and signal to the future – “an attempt to project one’s presence into the future”[9]. Avery and Holmlund assert that our “cross-cultural and trans-historical compulsion to document everything […] has never been solely about preserving the past nor recording the future. The broader aim has always been to help inform the future.”[10] And so, as those who would engage with the archive of the biennale itself (each individual occurrence forms a collection in and of itself, and exists within the larger phenomenon of the biennale, tied together by its repetition, and by the city), if we are to view it as always in continuation, always a kind of work-in-progress, then we would be able to conceive of this as exactly such an archive, i.e. simultaneously and persistently inscribing its own present, while signaling to the future.


A labyrinth of literature now exists on this, following what would be called the ‘archival turn’ in visual and cultural studies (an increased interest in the archives in the second half of the twentieth century), and perhaps more particularly since the advent of digitization and the vast space of the virtual and its colossal impact on the idea of archives. In this labyrinth, I turn to Derrida, who always has all the words, and who refers to the archive as a ‘pledge’, ‘a token of the future’.  “[T]he question of the archive is not, I repeat, a question of the past. […] It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know in the times to come.”[11]



Zarmeene Shah is an academic, and an independent curator and writer currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. She is currently Associate Professor and serves as Head of the Liberal Arts program at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture. In 2017, Shah served as Curator at Large of the inaugural Karachi Biennale.


Zeerak Ahmed is a conceptual artist, experimental musician and curator based in Karachi, Pakistan. She is currently working with the Fine Arts and Liberal Arts program at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture. Ahmed was Assistant Curator of the inaugural Karachi Biennale in 2017.







[1] Michel Foucault, ‘The Historical a priori and the Archive’, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan Smith, Pantheon Books: New York, 1972

[2] ibid.

[3] Sigmund Freud, ‘A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad’, Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: The Ego and the Id and Other Works, Vol. XIX: (1923 – 25), ed. J. Strachey, London Vintage, 2001

[4] KB17 curatorial website: www.kbcuratorial.com

[5] Sue Breakell, ‘Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive’, in Tate Papers, no.9, Spring 2008, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/09/perspectives-negotiating-the-archive, accessed 15 May 2019.

[6] Jayce Salloum, ‘sans titre/untitled: the video installation as an active archive’, as published in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Archive, ed. C. Merewether, Whitechapel and The MIT Press, first published 2006

[7] Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, as published in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Archive, ed. C. Merewether, Whitechapel and The MIT Press, first published 2006

[8] ibid.

[9] Cheryl Avery and Mona Holmlund, ‘Introduction’, Better Off Forgetting?: Essays on Archives, Public Policy, and Collective Memory, eds. C. Avery and M. Holmlund, University of Toronto Press, 2010

[10] ibid.

[11] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (University of Chicago Press, 1996)


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