|Jaguar puro inmarchito: Deconstructing Carmen Conde’s Work in a Digital Environment
In commemoration of Spanish poet, teacher, and storyteller Carmen Conde’s centennial (1907-1996), the managing Board of the Trust Fund Carmen Conde—Antonio Oliver—an independent institution responsible for managing the writer’s will, on behalf of the City Council of Cartagena, the Spanish poet’s hometown—decided in 2005, to develop an elaborate website that would inform, generate interest, and disseminate new reflections about the work of this important contemporary writer. To develop the website, a section on digital culture was proposed, the explicit goal of which was to have various international digital artists contribute original work in homage to Conde and her writings.
The original invitation encouraged artists to create a web-based piece, taking the title Jaguar puro inmarchito as an initial point of departure. While not one of Conde’s critical books, that title remains extremely suggestive in both Spanish and English. It was written by Carmen after traveling to Nicaragua, and each of its words suggests a different possibility: “jaguar” is used in both Spanish and English to designate the same animal; “puro” (“pure” in English) would not seem to a jaguar, at least in Spanish; and “inmarchito” (“unwithered”, more or less, in English) simply does not exist in Spanish nor in English. Of course, after reading the book, the title acquires its meaning, but our artists had not yet read that book.
On the assumption that contributions would have some familiarity with Carmen’s work—even if in contestation—I, as project manager, launched a first-call for contributions in 2006, to Spanish and English speaking digital artists. A first selection was elaborated, taking into account several aspects of Carmen’s work; namely, the naïveté of her first pieces, and their progressive elaboration into a complex, and sometimes confusing mysticism that cloaks and reveals Carmen’s rather carnal lesbianism. In the same way, Carmen’s poetics—a permanent fluctuation from elitism to social and political concerns, set against a backdrop of sharp feminism—was to be considered.
With these goals in mind, I used personal contacts, and reviewed hundred of similar websites and projects. The result was a smattering of artists, whose work showed some familial relationship to Carmen’s work—even if, as I said, it were contestation. These artists were first contacted by e-mail, explaining the nature of the project, and the type of pieces I was looking for. The idea was to produce an interpretation of the title Jaguar puro inmarchito, translated as “A pure, unwithered jaguar”, with total technical and creative freedom. In addition to the title, a digital version of the book was uploaded to a private directory, along with Woman without an Eden, the only one of Carmen’s work to be translated into English, as a reference for the contributors.
Most of the invited artists submitted an original work; others declined the offer; and others still sent in pre-existing work in homage to Conde. The artists who were able to submit their pieces in the end include: Annie Abrahams, Maria Damon, in co-operation with Camille Bacos and Miekal And; Aya Karpinska; Debbie King; David Knoebel; Judy Malloy; Nick Montfort; Jason Nelson; Dan Waber, in co-operation with Barbara DeCesare, Jennifer Hill-Kaucher, Bob Offer-Westort and Jim Warner; Ted Warnell; and the Spanish novel artists Contreras, Llor, María del Mar Pérez, Kraser and Rebeca Ros Gálvez. Regrettably, in three cases it was impossible, for technical reasons, to include three relevant authors: Jim Andrews granted his permission to publish one of his pieces, but the company contracted to develop the website did not have experience in this kind of projects, and it was not able to re-build the work onto its servers; similarly, the digital musician Jason Freeman offered some pieces, which could not be re-built; finally, the Argentinian artist Ana María Uribe’s work, whose rights were granted by her brother, Diego Uribe, could not be reproduced.
Over the course of the developing the design for the website, two relevant issues for modern archival science arose. First, how does one preserve and exhibit interactive and dynamic records and documents? The essential technical and creative freedom mentioned above is, paradoxically, a perennial, even a fundamental and unquestionably creative concern for the archivist. How to (re)create, maintain in an authentic manner, and preserve over time the interrelated dynamics of the works submitted became one of the main problems in realizing the project. Digital objects do not have a real existence, at least such as we think of real existence in analog environments; rather, they are a compound of elements, all of them playing a role, but none of them entirely meaningful by itself. After all, digital objects are sequences of bits, which come into being each time that we click our mouse, in order to render the appearance we hope they will have. In addition, most of the pieces were not static, and this dynamism had to be preserved, too, beyond hardware, software, technologies and media dependencies. In short, pieces were always in state of becoming, rather than in state of being. We were well-trained in static preservation, and the application of the same principles and techniques to interactive and dynamic objects was a terrible error that led to the abandonment of the project after some weeks of life, in 2007. Happily, Dan Waber suggested the possibility of recovering the project to Drunken Boat in 2008, so, after some initial obstacles, these pieces will at last see the light.
We are more and more involved in a web of continuously changing relationships amongst organizations, amalgamations of organizations, individuals and aggregations of individuals –families, couples, social groups… All of them produce records and documents, including their un-recorded memory, and these records and documents establish new relationships. The process of creating this project brought to bear the deconstructive consequences of the incorporation of an author’s work to a web of documents and records, complicating the relationships amongst all of them. In addition to the complex, nearly unchartable relationships amongst documents and records, the web also reveals the interrelationships amongst them and the organizations and individuals that created them, as well as the relationships between the functions and social or regulatory mandates binding together said documents, records, organzations and individuals. For instance, David Knoebel’s piece opens two webs of relationships, one of them inextricably linked to Carmen’s perception of Nicaragua in the sixties, a perception that history and the current situation of this country prove legitimate. This in turns creates a path Jaguar sin Managua, in light of Carmen’s social concerns, which crosses with some of the insights in Maria Damon, Camille Bacos and Miekal And’s piece. The mutual resonances include the war photographs preserved in Carmen and Antonio’s archives which are linked to Miguel Hernández’s own photographic archive, which in turn link to the sea, as embodied by Aya Karpinska and to the personal drama suggested by Annie Abrahams and Judy Malloy. They, of course, did not know in detail Miguel’s biography. The second web of relationships opened by David Knoebel’s piece shows Carmen’s private situation, being the lover of a Francoist militant’s wife in an oppressive environment, a trajectory similar to that narrated by Julio Cortázar in Casa vacía, a story used by Nick Monfort as motif for one of his works. Obviously Cortázar remind us Ana María Uribe, who, in turn, links to a happiness and freedom, known by Carmen through her relationships to the “Generation of 27”, linked, again, to a naïve and carefree surrealism that, mutatis mutandis, turns back to a less innocent Jason Nelson, as well as to Debbie King’s carnality… Two authors showed a particular interest in creating an internal continuous movement, Dan Waber and his team, and Ted Warnell.
Even, relationships amongst relationships, some kind of second order relationships can be found on this web; for instance, the relationship “this record is held by this archives” is related to the relationship “this archives has received from the Trust Fund a mandate for preserving this record”. The archivist’s task is to categorize this continuum of entities and relationships, in order to apply this categorization to practice, that is to say, to demonstrate evidence of acts.
However occasionally the project failed in revealing some of these relationships. For instance, we tried to link digital Carmen’s works to the contributing artists’ websites, as well as to link these websites, or servers where the pieces for the homage were hosted, to other projects initiated by the City Council: Mandarache, Mucho más Mayo, Archives & Social Studies, etc. In fact, we developed several blogs, as well as a wiki, in order to allow the public to post, to contest, to incorporate their voices and readings to the project. That is to say, if Annie Abrahams, for instance, renewed the reading of Jaguar puro inmarchito, perhaps an anonymous citizen would like to re-read Annie’s reading, ad infinitum. Or in another example, Carmen’s “naïve”, early work has been digitally published, and it shows close connections with Ana María Uribe’s Tipoemas and Anipoemas; a link between both websites would have enriched their respective works. Still other artists were able to reveal internal and contextual links, initially not planned. For instance, Nick Monfort played with words existing, in some way, both in English and Spanish; and Ted Warnell found a connection between the proposed jaguar and the make “Jaguar”, as well as my own profession as archivist and a lawyer. The Maria Damon, Camille Bacos and Miekal And’s proposal discovered connections between social concerns, Carmen’s jaguar, and music by Thierry Robin.
As suggested by McKemmish, this web allows an individual to operate in two ways: as compulsive curator of records, and as a reminder, or in a mode of remembrance. The reminder allows the un-recorded memory to function, he or she rejects the possibility of the document as a form of stability. By contrast, the curator documents his or her acts and manages these documents: he or she appraises, selects, arranges, describes them. Beyond any kind of doubt, Carmen was a compulsive curator of recorded of memory, not only for her published work, but, rather, for her meticulous recording of her activities and relationships, engraved in thousands of letters, preserved in her archives; as well as for the huge amount of photographs and personal objects, also preserved. Letters, photographs, paintings, personal objects are currently being described, and this description is available on Carmen’s website. However, access to these materials is still too poor, even taking into account the new possibilities of information and communications technologies. For instance, many of the descriptions are either isolated or weakly contextualized. Currently, we are working on some new software, as well as a new website, as external layer, capable of establishing enriched relationships, both internal and external, and of providing multi-channel access. In this way, we hope we will be able to link a description of a letter to, for instance, a photograph, and, at the same time, one of the pieces in Drunken Boat or the answer to the letter, held by other poet’s archives; and to allow the general public to access all of this, say, through mobile devices, the Internet or TDT.
However, these compulsive curators, once they are allowed to incorporate their documents and records to a given web culture, must relinquish control over their memories, and become conscious of that surrender. Documents and records, once related to other documents, records, agents, functions, mandates, in no planned ways, run the risk of acquiring new meanings, unforeseen by their authors, each time they are invoked, each time they are reactivated from different perspectives, in different realms, in continuously renewed webs of relationships. This risk is, of course, the richness of the record and the archival document. We found a serious problem in this regard, and one of the main causes for the failure of the project. The Spanish academy has consolidated a reading, an interpretation of Carmen’s work. Specialists in her poetry have calcified a discourse that excludes non-conventional aspects of her life and work. For instance, only recently it has been admitted that her mystic poems were dedicated to her lover, a woman. Since the very beginning, the academy rejected the possibility of new readings, as this would imply a loss of power on the meaning of Carmen’s work. In my opinion, the academic realm demonstrated an extreme shortsightedness by rejecting the results of the project, and by denying that a loss of power on the meaning implies a parallel enrichment of this meaning.
The project Jaguar puro inmarchito is, in my opinion, a proof of this assertion. Carmen’s work, reworked by authors who did not know it, with diverse traditions, languages, skills and biographies, offered fascinating opportunities for deconstruction and, then, reconstruction, beyond academic readings. That is to say, Carmen’s work became more and more enriched by new re-activations, relationships and interpretations, capable of offering fresh perspectives, on the basis of its incorporation to a dangerous, until that moment, technological environment. These possibilities were increased by the requirement, established at the very beginning of the project, of total freedom, regarding contents, technology, size, formats, etc.
It is our hope that works included in this project show how a work hidebound by a monotonous academy can be read and read, re-activated and again re-activated, renewed and again renewed, deconstructed and re-constructed, by authors able to reveal ad infinitum enriched meaning in a web, where the illusion of monolithic power is defeated by the reality of multiple diversities intrinsic to the document.