November • 15 • 2020

Jane Booth
The Archive as Evidence
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Susan Harbage Page, Riverbank with Inner Tube, 2011, from the U.S.–Mexico Border Project, Archival pigment print. Image from the collection of the artist.

Archivists, like forensic scientists,

become expert witnesses, testifying to the nature of the documents.

    —Elizabeth Diamond, “The Archivist as Forensic Scientist.” (1)

The archival art of Susan Harbage Page (b. 1959) takes on the perspective of expert witness in order to testify to the trauma at the United States-Mexico border. Harbage Page’s larger work examines the border as a site of collective trauma through the presentation of photographs and objects found during the artist’s trips to the Rio Grande Valley in southeast Texas. Harbage Page’s research-based practice seeks to interrogate the archive as artwork and the interplay between art and documentation. Her assembled archives, taking the form of found objects collected from the U.S.-Mexico border, were featured prominently in her 2019 exhibition at the Gregg Museum at NC State University titled Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande. Through the act of assembling and exhibiting her archive as artwork, Harbage Page acts not only as an artist but also as a conservator working to preserve stories of migration that may otherwise be forgotten. The role that Harbage Page embodies as artist-as-conservator also carries a political significance; her work resonates beyond the gallery walls and contributes to a larger narrative of history and activism. Harbage Page assembles the archive as a reaction to the forgotten stories of migration and creates archival art as a way to combat failing memory. How museums react to and steward these archives is the difference between these stories being told or forgotten by the public.

 

Harbage Page assembles the archive as a reaction to the forgotten stories of migration. The artist’s photographic and archival art marks her inquiry into the increased militarization of the border, and her consideration of the real, human experiences of migration. Dr. Gabriella Giannachi situates the archive as an “established strategy not only to present artifacts found in everyday life but to refocus the viewer’s attention on their act of viewing and the emergent body of knowledge associated with this act.” (2) Harbage Page’s work operates within this scheme, refocusing the media portrayal of border politics to the human stories left behind in the crossing.

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Installation of Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande, 2019, Susan Harbage Page. Gregg Museum of Art at NC State. Photograph by author.

Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande pairs a selection of Harbage Page’s photographs with objects that constitute a material archive of evidence of migrations across the border. Taken as a whole, Harbage Page’s work––constructed from a patchwork of found objects, photographs, and commentary––engages politics, human rights, and activism. By pairing the material archive with contemporary photography, Harbage Page resists simplifying the political debate surrounding the border, focusing instead upon the complex struggles and stories of migration represented through objects that have been left behind.

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Installation of Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande, 2019, Susan Harbage Page. Gregg Museum of Art at NC State. Photograph by author.

The installation of Borderlands portrays the U.S. border with Mexico as a landscape eroded by collective trauma, marked with the passage of people. The exhibition hangs in a single gallery and includes twenty-four photographs of the border taken by Harbage Page between 2007 and 2015. A low platform in the center of the gallery contains objects the artist collected during her annual trips: toothbrushes, identification bracelets, undergarments, and Bibles, all displayed together in an installation titled Objects from the Borderlands (2019). The objects are arranged on the white platform with no apparent order or hierarchy. They are listed in the loan agreement as one entry of 111 artifacts, further evidence of the lack of hierarchical arrangement that would prize one story over another. Instead, the narrative that emerges is one of a collective narrative of the border, powerfully insisting on shared memory.

The installation activates the space by placing the viewer in the shoes of people crossing the border, inviting them to excavate the ground for meaning. The arrangement of the objects on the low platform, inches from the ground, accentuates their status as discarded items and situates them as evidence of the material debris of migration. 

As a result, the presentation of Harbage Page’s anti-archive invites deep looking. Although Harbage Page’s interpretation of the objects in her anti-archive is rooted in her personal observations of the border, the exhibition labels speak for the border as a whole. (3) The language accompanying Harbage Page’s material archive attempts to narrate the past lives of the found objects. The label text describing Objects from the Borderlands defines them as:

Innertubes and improvised floats for crossing the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo, clothing that was shed to put on dry clothes after crossing, and energy drinks for surviving long nights on the run. Migrants carried Bibles for inspiration, along with combs, soap, deodorant, make-up and other grooming aids to help restore a sense of personal decency. Shoestrings, belts, baggage checks, identity bracelets and evidence bags speak of encounters with Border Patrol officers. Abandoned bras provide evidence that rapes have occurred. (4)

Harbage Page animates the archive with stories — Bibles carried “for inspiration,” energy drinks for “survival,” undergarments as markers of violence — which are presented as truth, both in the gallery setting and the accompanying identifying information. By characterizing the presented objects as evidence, and narrating their past uses with personal conclusions, the Gregg Museum of Art presents a depiction of the border that plays into common narratives represented in the media. Harbage Page’s work attempts to humanize stories of family separations at the border and the “ongoing trauma that is taking place there.” (5) However, the identifying information included in the exhibition labels invites consideration of the ethical implications of their procurement. In the taking, what was lost? In the transformation from debris to fine art object in the gallery setting, what was gained?

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Susan Harbage Page, Riverbank with Inner Tube, 2011, from the U.S.–Mexico Border Project, Archival pigment print. Image from the collection of the artist.

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Detail of Objects from the Borderlands, 2019, Susan Harbage Page. Gregg Museum of Art at NC State. Photograph by author.

Harbage Page’s photographs establish evidence of the conflict, such as in Riverbank with Inner Tube (2011), a photograph depicting a rubber inner tube discarded on the grassy area bordering a river near Laredo, Texas. She narrates the violence in the accompanying label, explaining that Border Patrol has cut the inner tube to prevent it from being reused to cross the river. 

The absence of people in the photograph — and all of Harbage Page’s work — is a conscious decision by the artist to focus on the material traces of migration and shift attention away from voyeuristic depictions of suffering that have been often criticized within documentary photography. (6) 

Instead, Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande takes the visual evidence of migration and layers it with objects in order to provide dimensionality to trauma. Perhaps these battered, torn, and worn objects are meant to represent the migrants themselves — the materiality of the object standing in for the reality of the person. The artist’s photographs achieve what Walter Benjamin describes when he compares the deserted landscape photographs of Eugène Atget to the space of a crime scene: “A crime scene, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence.” (7) By including the same inner tube depicted in Riverbank with Inner Tube in the material archive presented in the exhibition, Harbage Page documents the current crime scene of the southern border as a landscape eroded by collective trauma.

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Susan Harbage Page, Eye Shadow, 2015, from the U.S.–Mexico Border Project, Archival pigment print. Image from the collection of the artist.

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Detail of Objects from the Borderlands, 2019, Susan Harbage Page. Gregg Museum of Art at NC State. Photograph by author.

If, as Susan Sontag wrote, photographs are a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the safe might prefer to ignore, then the role of the accompanying material archive of objects depicted in Harbage Page’s photographs carries significant weight. (8) In the case of several photographs on display, the objects depicted in them also appear in the Objects from the Borderlands installation. Eye Shadow (2015) presents an abandoned eyeshadow palette found by the border wall near Hidalgo, Texas.

The label explains that it is proof “a woman had been picked up by Border Patrol.” (9) As confirmation, the same eyeshadow palette is arranged on the platform for the viewer to examine. However, Harbage Page’s interpretation of the relevance of the abandoned beauty product as a marker of an encounter between a migrant woman and Border Patrol agent is not based in fact but in conjecture. 

The presentation of these objects as representative of actual events distorts the viewer’s perception of the work, and in doing so, plays into characterizations of the border as an always violent spectacle. Because the objects have not been reunited with their original owners, presumably people who have been detained upon crossing and later deported, the true stories around their possession can’t be told.

Not every item on display is anonymous: glimpses of individual stories surface in Harbage Page’s inclusion of identification bracelets in her material archive. In doing so, she reveals the personal information of people who have crossed the border, perhaps illegally, creating the potential for them to be identified by visitors to Borderlands. Although the visibility of the real, lived experience of migration triggers an emotional response in the viewer, the consequences for putting this information on display should be examined thoughtfully. Perhaps by including the identification bracelets, Harbage Page intends to provoke discomfort in the viewer. By confronting us with the names, photographs, and dates of birth of migrants, Harbage Page moves beyond a generalized conception of migration to the individual stories of crossing.

It is clear that the U.S.-Mexico border is and has been a site of violence from media reports and its status as a national emergency. The narrative Harbage Page constructs around the objects on display in her material archive emerges from these accounts, without commentary on how each item came to enter her collection or confirmed research of its past ownership. The reasons for the artist’s narration are compelling; violent stories, such as the trauma of rape, have the ability to spur people to action. There is power in amplifying these stories in order to compel the viewer to feel compassion and empathy. But in doing so, Harbage Page manipulates the viewer through her presentation of the material archive. Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande activates the imagination of the viewer to imagine what those crossing the border face. By including material evidence alongside photographs, the display does more than simply re-present the struggle. It activates the struggle by forcing the viewer to think about themselves as participants in the crossing. Viewers with permanent residency or citizenship in the United States are called upon to consider the struggles of migrants and refugees seeking the same opportunities.

The material properties of Harbage Page’s Objects from the Borderlands enhance the story being animated. The inclusion of the material archive forces the viewer to consider the politics of immigration from a perspective of not only images but also objects: produced, sold, packed, held, treasured, discarded, forgotten, buried, excavated, archived, photographed, exhibited. By keeping the human traces of deterioration on each object, the material archive acts as a proxy for the migrant figure. If the objects are evidence, then Harbage Page takes on the role of not only archivist but also archeologist and conservator. In her artist statement, she writes, “These present-day archeological artifacts reflect incomplete narratives and a history of flight, surveillance, and fear.” (10) Harbage Page’s intentional choices to keep the detritus and dirt present in the objects in the museum setting establish the archive as one “primarily concerned with debris.” (11) Material objects have a sensory dimension, too; holding and caressing a worn copy of the New Testament and touching a bracelet or garment that had itself been touched by the carrier might invoke their presence. Perhaps these objects even acted as protective talismans, providing hope during the journey for safe passage. The dirt and debris included might be a testament to the rough conditions and difficult climate they survived in. But the qualities inherent to each of Harbage Page’s anti-archive objects — the signs of wear — don’t provide concrete evidence to how each object was used or the story of the person who carried it. Objects, like humans, are fallible records of what happened, unless scientific methods such as fingerprinting and carbon dating are utilized. Even then, the material record isn’t a perfect stand-in for the thoroughly researched historical one, and neither is the photographic record.

Perhaps the U.S.-Mexico border is the real archive. Harbage Page, in collecting and mediating it in the museum setting, alters the real collection of artifacts left behind in the crossing. Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande would benefit from the voices of the people who have crossed the border, a device that would add more emotional context to the presented narrative. Objects alone cannot alone speak for these people; we need to present them in a way that lets people speak for themselves. The inclusion of voluntary oral histories of people who have actually crossed the border would strengthen the viewer’s connection to the issue. Perhaps the exclusion of documentary “proof” in the archive may be part of Harbage Page’s point about how stories are generated in the first place, commenting on the border as a site of human emotion. Political realities might also be at play: first-hand accounts from many migrants aren’t available because of a general fear of the media and visibility, which threatens their safety and status in the U.S.

So, why do such small objects still matter? To quote anthropologist James Deetz, “For in the seemingly little and insignificant things that accumulate to create a lifetime, the essence of our existence is captured. We must remember these bits and pieces, and we must use them in new and imaginative ways so that a different appreciation for what life is today, and was in the past, can be achieved.” (12) The work of Susan Harbage Page animates and elevates small, insignificant objects with stories of their use in order to tell a larger story of border politics. Her practice unearths questions of ethical representation and preservation and crosses a line — or border — between what is truth and what is imagination.

• • •

Jane Booth holds a BA in Art History from Duke University, where she graduated with honors for her thesis on archival practices in contemporary art. She is currently a research assistant at Goodman Taft, a curatorial and advisory firm with a focus on contemporary and modern art. Prior to her arrival at Goodman Taft, Jane held positions at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Nasher Museum of Art.

Endnotes

1. Elizabeth Diamond, “The Archivist as Forensic Scientist: Seeing Ourselves in a Different Way,” Archivaria 38 (1994): 139–154.

2. Gabriella Giannachi, “A Brief History of the Archive,” in Archive Everything: Mapping the Everyday (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 14.

3. Most of the labels are labeled as “Texas” and then, only a few places on the Texas border. Yet their descriptions draw upon lived realities from parts all across the border, not from site-specific interviews with migrants or Border Patrol officers.

4. Label Text, Objects from the Borderlands, in Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande at the Gregg Museum of Art at NC State, 2019. Also significant is the decision to include Spanish translations of each label and caption, a push towards greater inclusion in the museum.

5. Emily Pietras, “Susan Harbage Page Didn’t Want to Photograph People at Their Most Vulnerable. So She Documented What They Left at the U.S.-Mexico Border Instead,” IndyWEEK, February 20, 2019, Online.

6. Susan Harbage Page, Interview with the author, 2018.

7. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 217–251.

8. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 7.

9. Label Text, Eye Shadow, in Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande at the Gregg Museum of Art at NC State, 2019.

10. Susan Harbage Page, “Artist’s Statement,” in Borderlands: Evidence from the Rio Grande (Raleigh: Gregg Museum of Art, 2019), 3.

11. Achille Mbembe, “The Power of the Archive and its Limits,” in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2002), 22.

12. James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life (New York: Anchor, 1977/1996), 260.