In a faded photograph, the cropped image of a woman in the lower-right foreground faces outward. She wears a green blouse with a black scarf dangling down from neck to chest. Behind her, London’s iconic Tower Bridge looms in the background. The reproduction of an otherwise innocuous tourist photograph distinguishes itself only for the fact that the woman’s face has been sliced from the image. What remains is an oval-shaped patch of maroon.
Positioned front-and-center in a black-and-white photograph, a man mid-step approaches the camera; behind him, a leafless stand of trees runs along a fence line. Clouds overheard, a dirt lot below. In this desolate, rural landscape, the figure of the man has been obscured by opaque strokes of what appears to be a white, digital paint brush.
These images, which are digital reproductions of analog photographs, cast a ghostly aura. The subjects in each of them exist only partially: we see figures, or the outlines of them; but someone rendered their faces or bodies indecipherable. They are both present and absent in the selfsame artifact. A moment captured, a likeness destroyed. Each photograph is archived in The Unperson Project: an online repository of digital reproductions in which the individuals pictured therein have been burnt, cut, scratched, or otherwise effaced from an image.
According to Susana Moyaho and Andrea Tejeda, the artists who curate it, the project explores the “value of the photograph as a medium in which inflicted attempts at oblivion are perpetrated.” Such “attempts at oblivion,” the curators claim, demonstrate “how those blank spaces...only insist on the presence” of someone. Indeed, the destroyed memory does assert the existence of those who have been erased because the material effacement of the photograph ruptures the aesthetic plane, emphasizing that which was removed. What is forgotten is never truly forgotten.
In addition to this tension, Moyaho and Tejeda argue that The Unperson Project examines the manner in which “control” functions in the creation, curation, dissemination, and use of an art object. Specifically, the artists’ statement notes that:
Control plays a predominant role in this project. Beginning with effacing the frustrated desire to control their memories, the participants shift that desire of forgetting someone and project it to the object that contains their image, inflicting their control over a photograph. Once they decide to donate it to the project, the control of the photographic object is passed on to us, the guardians of the archive. Therefore the intentions behind the materiality of the object change, The Unperson Project takes control: We catalogue them, organize or disorganize them, decide their place in the archive. In addition, we take the photographs out of context, they now have the potential to morph and adapt to new forms of exposure. Their material forms will now create different experiences from the original intentions and by making them public, we make them accessible, hence losing control over them.
Certainly, Moyaho and Tejeda understand the mutable and elusive nature of control: the emotional resonance of a memory, captured in a photograph, shifts and becomes displaced once an individual alters an image (through material alterations or analog-to-digital transfer), sends it to someone else, and changes context to become a collective, conceptual art project.
What once was an ephemeral event manifests itself as memory in the material realm via photography; becomes an emblem of sorrow through subsequent, traumatic experiences; transforms into a totem through defacement; then enters the public domain as a re-contextualized, digital object untethered from its origin. To this extent, The Unperson Project raises compelling questions regarding the manner in which materiality and the ineffable intersect and echoes the late-Foucaultian concept of power.
Foucault claimed that power is a “multiplicity of force relations,” in which “ceaseless struggles and confrontations transform, strengthen, or reverse them.” Moreover, the philosopher also believed that power is “not something that is acquired, seized, or shared”; instead, it is “exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations” that are “both intentional and nonsubjective.” Or stated in other words, no one “holds” power. It is, instead, a diffuse set of relations that can be leveraged by those who come in contact with it.
Foucault conceived of power as mutable, transferable, extensive, and multitudinous. Something that shifts and moves through person to person, object to object, idea to idea or, in his words, point to point.There is no top-down hierarchy or material locus for power. Similar to Moyaho and Tejeda’s statements about control, it “morphs and adapts [in]to new forms” and “creates different experiences” for different audiences. Yes, the ghost in the photograph untethers from its origin and proliferates into an unknown, digital environment open to interpretation, intent, purpose, and use based upon where, how, and who has access to it.
With a project so indebted to issues of control and power, one should give heightened attention to the archive’s moniker. The Unperson Project takes its title from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Specifically, the word “unperson” is a Newspeak term (i.e. the drastically reduced lexicon employed to limit a populace’s capacity to think critically) that refers to an individual who the government not only killed, but to whom “any identifiable reference” had been “abolished.” Accordingly, one who was unpersoned “never existed,” and to mention them was a “thoughtcrime” perpetrated against the state.
To unperson someone in 1984, then, was Orwell’s unsubtle allusion to Hitler’s gestapo: the Führer’s elite death squad that disappeared anyone who opposed his agenda. As such, Moyaho and Tejeda’s project begs several questions: what does it mean for an archive to adopt a name that references an authoritarian regime’s practice of systematically disappearing people it finds to be agitators or undesirable? Even if employed ironically or as a pedagogical device, does the subsequent proliferation of a nefarious concept/practice for academic or aesthetic purposes serve to challenge that concept/practice, or does it simply replicate the tactics of its fascistic namesake?
The answer, one can assume, is not clear cut; and, most likely, it is not an either/or proposition. But what is for certain is that a nominal engagement with oppressive political regimes and ideological superstructures encourages both active participants and audience members of The Unperson Project to challenge (or, at very least, examine) the sociopolitical ramifications of an archive dedicated to the material removal of an individual’s existence and memory. Let the ghost expand and contract as it passes from author to archivist, audience to audience. But let us not forget that, at one point, someone wanted to remove someone else from their personal history. To disappear them. To eliminate their essence. To erase their existence. What results from such an act? And how are we responsible for its ramifications? Each must answer these questions for themselves; but one hopes that all of us do so judiciously and with what wisdom we have.