When we think of the word history, we immediately revisit the past; or more accurately, the past radically appears before us as a specter that still inhabits the present. We seldom reflect on this history, the one we live in today, on its duration and magnitude, on how it will be narrated or remembered in the future—by ourselves, by others. We may not even know how and when we suddenly became intrinsic to it. At what point does one event end to become another? To some historians, the present escapes our understanding precisely because we cannot feel an event until after it has happened, until it is history.1 In his book The Scent of Time, philosopher Byung-Chul Han introduces the notion of the present as a transitional point in which there is nothing “to hold on to” within itself anymore.2 This means that experience is volatile and erratic, rather than accelerated; therefore, in our urgency to fulfill multiple ambitions and “not miss out,” we rush from one place to another without being able to complete meanings and leave lasting traces. In this haste, not only is current history impossible to grasp and frame, but events are also left adrift as easily disregarded and forgotten. This is a tragic and perhaps hyperbolic scenario for history making.
However, even when immediacy strikes us as fleeting and unsteady, it’s impossible for any human being to escape history. History lives with us all the time; it is enmeshed in how we formulate our world-making processes, in how we construct future paradigms and views. We have never been and can never be ahistorical. We embody our own past by following a line of thought through the language(s) that we learn, through ancestry and heritage, and through the place(s) that we inhabit. History is like a skin. It morphs and grows old, receives wounds and collects time, and protects our bodies from repeating the past. Yet it never ceases to exist.
How can we enter after history then? How can we escape the retrospective gaze and start anew? Is it possible to inhabit the present once we assume the past as intrinsic to our history? Ariella Azoulay would suggest that the archive continues to reveal other forms of unlearning the histories that others have erroneously taught us to learn, and that in our right to return and dwell in the past, we will find other “potential histories.”3 Oswald de Andrade, on the contrary, would say, “Tupí or not Tupí: that is the question.”4 Many sociologists would argue that language is the tool to shift from one episode to another—for example, by adding the prefix post to words such as war, colonialism, pandemic, modernism, etc. However, does language transform our notion of history, or does it transform history itself? Ursula K. Le Guin asserts that “words are events, they do things, change things.”5 But even when it is undeniable that speeches, testimonies, popular songs, and chronicles together assemble and continue to shape grand histories, can the subaltern already speak? Can anyone breathe by now? My history, your history, our history, or their history have variations in scale (in time and dimension); they all split into multiple fragments; and they all speak different tongues. But above all, they all are shaped by other pasts.
The anthropologist Diana James, in her analysis of deep time, recalls Nganyinytja, a Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal woman from Australia, who stated: “We have no books, our history was not written by people with pen and paper. It is in the land, the footprints of our Creation Ancestors are on the rocks…We remember it all; in our minds, our bodies and feet as we dance the stories.”6 In Nganyinytja’s history, the notion of time does not follow a sequence of events. History is one long, slow-moving, decelerated entity—an unending cycle where experiences are constantly adapted and reinvented through dance, songs and storytelling, and anchored in the land. But most strikingly, in her vision, history simply is, the same as a mountain is without further interpretation. So, while history is a given, the present continues to expire, and the only possibility left to escape the past and dwell in the present could be by metaphorically using Paul Valéry’s phrase where “poems are never finished, only abandoned.” Perhaps it is time to abandon history and begin anew.
In ESSAYS, philosopher, theoretician, and artist Marina Gržinić critiques how immaterial labor is highly racialized, and has been historically embedded in institutions and organizations of power. Writer, editor, and curator Dieter Roelstraete reconsiders how master posthistorical narratives have been replaced by the “petites histoires” or the histories of minutiae. For IN FOCUS, critic and researcher Carles Guerra delves into the work by artist Fernando Bryce, Allende-Apollo XI (inSite/Casa Gallina, 2018–19), from a perspective in which the assemblage of events gives place to potential histories; and curator, writer, and art historian Karen Cordero analyzes three works from artist Deborah Small—Ma-con-a-qua/Frances Slocum (IN/SITE 92), Metamorphosis (inSITE94), and Rowing in Eden (INSITE97)—from the “counternarratives with respect to hegemonic versions of history” that include ecofeminist, decolonial, and indigenous worldviews. DOCUMENTS presents the work Heroes of War (inSite_05) by artist Gonzalo Lebrija, who invited a group from the Veterans Home of California-Chula Vista to “add their voice to history” by offering testimonies as prisoners of war—presenting them through an installation of video monitors together with multicolored light boxes, based on the geometric patterns of their service ribbons; also, the work disLOCATIONS (inSITE94) by artists Janet Koenig and Greg Sholette is presented, consisting of a series of miniature dioramas and photographs that ostensibly re-created the movie stills from newsreels produced by Lyman Howe in San Diego at the beginning of the twentieth century. Howe donated the original footage to the city in 1915, and it was subsequently lost.
SELECTIONS FROM THE ARCHIVE features the work by Allan Sekula, Dead Letter Office (INSITE97), a sequential montage of text and sixteen large-format still images that reveals the complex everyday flow of goods, labor, and the presence of the military at play in the coastal zones of the region—from San Diego, CA, to Ensenada, B.C.