Stolen Objects Stories: a Critical Archive
Stolen Objects Stories (SOS) is a curatorial research project in critical theory, art, heritage, and museum studies, initiated by Margarida Saraiva, which operates as a discursive platform and a critical archive.
Throughout its history, the museum has aimed to be a repository for human knowledge through collections of primary evidence of human history and art. For that reason, museums have a profound impact on knowledge, identity, and politics. As an institution, it has been crucial in spreading particular worldviews based on either nationalism or humanism, depending on differing political agendas.
Stolen Objects Stories locates itself at the confluence of three developments that have had a significant impact on the Museum and its collections: the institutional critique by modern and contemporary artists, the post-colonial analysis of the Museum, and the development of the internet with its constant flow of information and never-ending archival function.
SOS is in the process of becoming an informal and transnational assemblage of Stolen Objects Stories organized around three broad categories:
1 – STORIES
SOS digitally collects and assembles biographies of “objects” which were violently or unethically displaced from their original communities and placed in vastly different contexts and locations, focusing not only on the artifacts but also on transits and voids left behind. SOS offers a voice to the people where the object comes from, aiming to create a counter-archive.
2 – PRACTICES
SOS digitally assembles a variety of practices of knowledge production, with a particular focus on artistic and curatorial practices, which have informed today’s understanding of contested objects, sites and histories, searching for new insights into the relevance of practice.
3 – DISCOURSES
Words, grammar compositions, and complex written or oral discourses emerging from the contested sites are being rehearsed, expanding the debate beyond traditional frontiers, be it the collection, the institution, or the nation, into the domain of ethics of care and repair.
Assembled collectively and created in collaboration with researchers, artists, curators, activists, art historians, museologists and other specialists from Guatemala to Sydney, SOS emphasizes curating as a critical and collaborative thinking process.
SOS knows no institutional or national boundaries. Initiating this research project does not offer answers; on the contrary, it may bring about a new set of questions or relations among different types of knowledges.
Instead of focusing on a single research question as is usually required in traditional academic settings, SOS inquiry expand in multiple directions allowing for a more fluid unfolding of the research process.
Origin / Relocation / Restitution / Return
How would our collective history be if all these objects could just be replaced, re-located, and re-installed in their original locations?
What if one focuses on mapping the object’s movement instead of the possession and ownership of the object?
Coloniality past and future
Knowing that coloniality persists and continues to assume new forms throughout the earth and beyond, how can we use this awareness to avoid the constant repetition of certain forms of violence?
Cartographies of violence / dispossession / appropriation / opportunism
Cartographies of violence, dispossession, appropriation, and opportunism are constantly in flux. Those of the past might not be the ones of the present, nor the ones of the future, and it seems we need to move across disciplines to follow them fluidly.
How could we have more transparent access to these objects and stories for continuous cultural production?
Why is object provenance still shrouded in secrecy at museums and auction houses? How long does it take before someone finds it strange to see a fragment of sculpture, presenting itself as a decapitated head, displayed in a museum or an auction house either for exhibition or for sale? Or, a part of an architectural structure or ornament without asking about the void left at the original heritage site and the obvious violence or opportunism involved in the process of acquisition?
Possible or impossible ownership
Decapitated heads of Greek, Roman or Buddhist sculptures, fragments of architecture, and parts of dismembered or amputated bodies can be possessed or owned by private owners, museums, or placed for sale by auction houses. But what the critical archive SOS attempts to assemble are stories of objects. Who could possibly own them? On a different note, these stories are now becoming data. What do we need to consider in terms of ownership of the data?
New modes of research
How to bring about a new set of relations among knowledges?
Can we bring about new modes of research by radical transnational and interdisciplinary collaboration? Would this be sufficient?
Can we identify new patterns in contested histories, sites and objects through the collected data sets involving methods at the intersection of machine learning and database systems?
Could other historical narratives be possible just by taking a closer look at Stolen Objects Stories as contested sites, beyond the agendas of specific museums or nations?
How to expand?
How could we expand from the care for museum objects to respect for people? From the care for museum collections and heritage to the care for communities, nature and the planet? From the care for the objects’ materiality to the conditions of making? How could we move from a notion of objects’ possession to shared ownership, from locations to transits, from a history of power and violence to one of justice and peace?
SOS adopts expanded notions of Stolen, Objects, and Stories and a radical juxtaposition of time, space, and flow; SOS addresses the need to act upon past, present and future forms of violence and injustice while, drawing upon and publicly staging a particular trajectory of thought. For that purpose, we may need more than expanding old concepts. Inventing new words and new concepts might be necessary if we wish to travel wherever coloniality goes, specially in an age in which we live simultaneously in multiple realities .
Stolen – Beyond its legal definition
From the idea of “stolen”, as it is legally defined, we are moving into a concept of violent dispossession, unethical acquisition of heritage objects or simply opportunistic, unconsented displacement or appropriation of objects, subjects or data.
Objects – Objects/Subjects/Data
The objects we address have long been “objects desired” and have become contested sites. These objects have been constantly (re)produced, (re)shaped, and (re)signified. They are relevant agents of gestures, intentions, and discourse that spark new political actions capable of having national, transnational, and even global resonances. Political performances and the associated debates shall not distract us from the blurred boundary between object/subject and data, as well as its interchangeability; their constant shifting over time and across geographies; and whether we are in a physical, digital or virtual reality.
Stories – History/Document/Monument/Fiction/Truths
Museums have failed its ambition of creating a knowledge of universal value. Using the term “objects’ stories”, SOS expresses the desire to de-universalize and de-neutralize the rigid “epistemic schemata of inherited disciplines”.
A story is usually understood as being fiction. Fiction is relevant here in order to access truth, not a single universal Truth, but a particular truth that is unique to each subject.
In a world in which discourse is produced by those who can ultimately afford to create and manipulate it – nations, corporations, or institutions – what we used to define as “document” seems to be a fiction in itself, from the very moment in which it is produced. What we previously understood as “fiction” is perhaps the only possible “document”.
Stolen Objects Stories will focus on restitution, rehabilitation, and reparation in three dimensions: material, aesthetic and epistemic. How? Sharing and inventing narratives about how we could live together otherwise, specially moving beyond a world based on extractivism, war, conflict and inequality to one based on peace, justice and diversity.
Call for Collaborations
BABEL invites collaborators to be part of the research community we are creating. It re-imagines narratives by looking at Stolen Objects Stories.
SOS invites contributions from art historians, curators, artists and researchers from different backgrounds. Feel free to approach us with your contribution.
We will go fluidly and organically from one research question to another across various disciplines, geographies and times, moving towards what we do not know yet.
SOS is a project organized by BABEL-Cultural Organization. BABEL’s mission is to generate research and learning opportunities in contemporary art, architecture and the environment. BABEL is conceived as a museum without walls and aims to work between cultures and across disciplines. BABEL establishes regional and international partnerships with individuals and institutions of recognized educational and cultural merit to achieve its goals. Therefore a spirit of collaboration is essential to fulfilling the BABEL mission.