1991 was marked by several landmark global events: the USSR disbanded, formally ending the Cold War; Tim Berners-Lee announced the World Wide Web and the internet’s first website went live; four LA police officers brutally beat Rodney King and the civilian video-recording was broadcast around the world; the United States initiated the first Gulf War. The thing I remember most is that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio constantly.
Recalling historical events, even those with global significance, can feel as subjective as excavating personal histories – for example, I thought I could remember 1991 quite precisely but when I tried to nail down dates and details, most of what I had remembered was hazy or flat-out wrong. It’s one of the reasons an open, free press is often touted as a pillar of democracy: the record-keeping of facts, timelines, opinions, and ideas counters the idiosyncrasies of memory, both collective and individual. Somewhere in this space – between the document of an event and how we remember it, in the gap between a memory and a fact, the blurriness of history narrated through personal stories – is where Iris Häussler has evolved her practice.
Archivio Milano 1991 developed over the course of a single week, September 30 to October 6, 1991, during which Häussler maintained a daily habit of scanning and clipping stories from a variety of international newspapers. Her selections were arbitrary: she kept what attracted her attention, desire, or curiosity, meditating between headlines and human-interest stories. She then immersed the clippings in pools of wax melted from votive candles, which hardened into square tablets. Initially, the work was participatory and the tablets, shelved by the hundreds in chronological order, could be handled by visitors to her studio. Their strict sequencing gave way to intuitive arrangements, a conceit mimicking the way one reads a newspaper: a balance between scanning headlines, images, bylines, and captions, and closely reading only specific sections.
Thirty years later, in the immediacy of a post-truth fake-news social media era, this work reads very differently. Presented in an austere, museum-quality grid installation of 204 tablets, Archivio Milano 1991 (2021) is less an active engagement with reading and more a totalizing testament to a now-passed era of analogue publishing. The texture and warm tactility of wax invites close inspection but its cloudiness prevents legibility, the material embalming process producing an arms-length intimacy. It’s as though the individual stories – forever submerged, unavailable, encrypted – are supplanted by their monolithic presentation. I try, in vain, to find clippings related to my own memories of 1991. There are many men in these photographs – of the age, status, race, and class that marked much political leadership of the time – but few I recognize. There are maps, infographics, migrants, children, plants; odd combinations produced by the partial translucence of front and back bleeding into a single surface. The search for meaning through which to frame a backstory is elusive and enigmatic.
If this disorderly assortment of partially legible news clippings is an archive, as the title tells us, who or what is its subject? Try as one does to read across the clippings, they don’t give much detail about Milan in general, or the period in particular. Häussler’s project predates the ‘00s art-world fascination with “The Archive” (see Foster, Enwezor, etc.), although she anticipated many of the concerns of that period, when archival materials were interrogated as speculative, moody, unreliable. The document’s presumed objectivity was made subjective as the veracity of official truth claims came into question.
Now, rather than an archive, the work offers a lament. Time-traveling across three decades, this beautifully preserved capsule (shown for the first time since 1992) reinforces the massive changes in reading habits, information-sharing, and communication that society has undergone with the shift to online publishing. There is no digital equivalent to the analogue act of scanning a newspaper. Algorithms have replaced itinerant reading with marketing tools; newspaper spreads (where one has some agency about selecting what to read, and for how long) have been supplanted by news feeds that prescribe the stories we see, and how often we see them. Embalming these physical scraps of yesterday’s news and holding them in place, without legibility or function, is a gesture that monumentalizes the print industry. It would be an overstatement to say this work is a work of mourning, but certainly it’s a project that could never be made again.
But that’s also why reading Archivio Milano 1991 now feels relevant. It’s a reminder that the drive to legibility and transparency does not always produce a better, more just world; that opacity and confusion and cloudiness about the past can evoke a more personalized accounting. Häussler, with her signature way of sharpening historical memory through a material practice of preservation, manufactures both a tomb and a beacon for print media – embalming a method of reading while signaling to the attendant risks of homogenizing the past.