81 image 35mm slide projection.
The keepers of cell-a
Haval Hosain Mohammod
(Originally commissioned by curator, Polly Staple, for Cubitt, London where it was exhibited as part of a solo exhibition of Adam Chodzko’s work (along with Better Scenery (2002)).
Questions of where we choose to look, where we expect to find information and who we expect to be guarding that information are all raised by cell-a. Through a series of 81 black and white images, projected in sequence in a carousel slide projection, a group of Kurdish asylum seekers in Margate are seen to study, rearrange and store 10 years of archive material from Cubitt, a contemporary art gallery and artists’ studios in London. Although made in 2oo2, Chodzko chose a form that would appear ‘dated’; a B&W slide projection, suggesting a 1960’s documentary aesthetic and technology. Yet, it also exists as a science fiction: the entire project is set in the future* when the Cubitt lease expires and once more its artists will be on the look out for a new, safe space. Chodzko proposes that, in the future, only a group of asylum seekers, away from the capital, might recognise the importance of this archive, perhaps seeing it in someway symbolic of their own situation? As people uprooted from their homeland maybe they might evaluate a history uprooted from its source? Or maybe the work’s meaning resides in a desperate absurdity: the insignificance of the artworld’s activities in relation to the plight of an asylum seeker?
The English art criticism texts and reproductions of contemporary art work that comprise the archive are perhaps as incomprehensible to the Kurdish asylum seekers as they are to some of us. Similarly, the Kurdish writing with which they label the material in the archive is likely to be equally incomprehensible to most of its British audience. So, cell-a provides us with many signs that we can only take on trust. We can only work with what we see, yet cell-a also proves that all expectations surrounding this may be constantly undermined. Although apparently ‘buried’ the archive is visitable in Margate, through the guidance of one of its Kurdish keepers. Perhaps then the archive as material is a red herring; an excuse to develop a dialogue between art audience and refugee? Often acting as a mediator, Chodzko identifies and catalyses overlooked circumstances that might bring people, places, states and images together. Using the activity of the search or the notion of collecting as a structure for his work Chodzko’s work demonstrates that looking is an active, and not a passive, process. Just as in cell-a, imagined new structures of ‘social media’ and the role of the ‘image moderator’ within these networks of relationships occurs in many of Chodzko’s works, including The Pickers (2009), and Same (2013). His work with migrant people can also be seen in works such as That night, in a clearing in a walnut forest…(2015) and A Hostile Environment (2019)
*originally cell-a was titled cell-a 2006 to acknowledge the near future moment when Cubitt’s lease was ending. The year in the title was subsequently dropped after 2006 passed.
Excerpt from: Brian Dillon ‘No Right of Light or Air,’ Annual, Kent Institute of Art and Design, pp.19–34
Seashore In his book All the Devils Are Here (2002), the writer David Seabrook, surveying this landscape, looks down balefully on the beach and announces: ‘we still don’t know what’s buried down there’. We do now: in 2002, Adam Chodzko transported the entire decade-long archive of London’s Cubitt Gallery to Margate, and entrusted it to a group of Kurdish refugees, who documented it, labelled it and boxed it before burying the lot at low tide on Margate beach. Cell-a 2006 is a monochrome slide show which records this curious act of interment, the archiving of an archive: a gesture at once enigmatic and strangely apt, given the Kurd’s precarious position at Britain’s ostensible ‘gateway to Europe’ and their doubtless troubled relationship with the notion of a lost, buried history (not to mention the refugee’s uneasy attitude to documents and records). Cell-a 2006 preserves the evidence of an archive which has itself been cast adrift and threatened with exile (2006 is the date at which the gallery’s lease on its current premises will expire), while its protagonists rehearse an anachronic invasion, literally digging themselves into a territory and a history which daily do so much to repel them.
Jeremy Millar, ‘A New Start,’ Visualise the Future publication
Adam Chodzko — cell-a
8 April 2003
‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
— from ‘The Fire Sermon’ in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922)
‘What might this mean?’, we might ask ourselves as we look at slides projected upon a wall in a darkened room until there, within one of these glowing rectangles, we see an image of some men, themselves looking at a projected image and asking themselves perhaps the very same question. As a question prompted by an engagement with contemporary art it is not uncommon, although it is one seldom asked — and even more rarely answered — in good faith. It is a question that is not simply asked of Adam Chodzko’s work but it is also a question that is asked by his work, throughout his work, of the many people, places and events that can be found within it. And so we wonder what it might mean to look at a projection of these men who, in turn, wonder what their projection might mean and we think: here, we are the same.
Let’s continue to look, as they do. We can see them reading photocopied texts in the hope that they might make matters a little more comprehensible (perhaps as you are doing now). A headline or piece of bold type within a folder may catch our eye: ‘If you see a man crying hold his hand, he’s my friend’, or ‘The resurrection of the body’, or, simply, ‘Shift’, although it is unclear whether in this case it describes a movement or seeks to bring about one. The men seem to look through the material with great care, and no little attention. They make notes upon pieces of paper, arrows from them pointing to pictures or pieces of writing that have, for some reason, been separated from the mass and stuck upon the wall.
Perhaps the handwritten notes explain what these pieces of paper are, and why some of them are displayed upon the wall in this way. As the notes have not been written in English, it is difficult to say, difficult to read. Perhaps it might help if we knew that these men are Kurdish asylum seekers currently living in Margate and that the material through which they have been looking is the archive material of Cubitt, a contemporary art gallery and artists’ studios in London (and the artist can always ensure that such important information is made available). We might similarly learn that the events to which we seem to bear witness will only occur in the year contained within the title, 2016. How does this affect what we had thought of these people and their activities previously? We continue to look at the changing slides, and begin to consider how greater knowledge does not always lead to a greater understanding.
The men have gone outside now, and are looking through the folders while sitting in one of the shelters overlooking the sea. Perhaps this is the shelter in which T.S. Eliot sat while composing part of ‘The Waste Land’ — a vision of a civilisation in decline, of a search for meaning — before walking back to the Albemarle Hotel and attempting to calm his nerves by playing scales upon his mandolin. The men are now carrying a watertight plastic box past Droit House on the seafront, past the place where J.M.W Turner used to live, until they reach a passageway cut through the rock, the Thanet Canoe Club visible just behind them. The men are carefully wrapping the archive material in plastic, each parcel then taped securely before being labelled — once again in Kurdish — and placed within the large plastic box. They are upon the beach now, the tide having retreated. The spade’s blade slices through the ripples of wet sand as a hole is dug and the box lowered into place, after being marked once more with the date of their burial — 05/12/2006 — exactly four years after the slides were first shown at a contemporary art gallery and artists’ studio in London called Cubitt.
Chodzko has long been fascinated with ritual and the way in which it can bestow meaning upon a particular activity, place or group of people and this is apparent throughout this entire work, even before the work was begun. The running of an art gallery is, in itself, a form of ritual, the presentation of objects which one believes have a certain importance and value, and the recording of these activities in the form of an archive also. Interestingly, the word ‘archive’ derives from the Greek ‘arkheion’ which meant the Judge’s residence, and a place where official documents were kept. The ‘archontes’, or judges, had the right to shape the law — the meaning of society, in some sense — and as guardians of the documents in their possession, had the right to ‘interpret the archives’. In cell-a 2016 the ‘archontes’, the keepers of the archive, are not those that embody the law, the rules of society, but rather those who have no legal place within society. They have been brought together, by chance, intention or circumstance, and, while simultaneously subject to the petty humiliations of English law and the invidious racism that drips like poison through the body-politic, now find themselves within a position of certain authority. Perhaps they are able to recognise the value in something that has been displaced because they recognise its position as their own, a people that find themselves in a place where they are little understood and consequently little valued. More than this, however, perhaps they understand the most important thing about the archive: that it is not simply a question of the past, the depositing of valuable historical material to which we might have access, but rather that its true value is what it is able to offer the future, and that these people understand this because it is true of them also. Or as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida remarked, with uncharacteristic clarity, ‘The archive: if we want to know what this will have meant, we will only know tomorrow. Perhaps.’
Press about cell-a from its exhibition at Cubitt, London, 2002.
2002 Laura Gascoigne, “Fear and Laughter,” ‘What’s On in London,” December 4th-11th, p.23.
Jessica Lack, Guardian Guide, Dec 14th-20th, p.35.
Neal Brown, “Romanov,” Modern Painters, Winter, p.165.
Rachel Withers, Critics Picks, Artforum 2003
Martin Coomer, Time Out, January 8th-15th, p.51.
Dan Smith, Art Monthly, no.263, February, p.29-30.
MB, Modern Painters, Spring 2003, p.116.