Marijuana dealers (originally captioned cocained dealers in El Espacio)
The dilemma of the archive is how do you make sense of it. You can regurgitate it in its original form, you can recontextualise it through new captions, editiing or fabrication, you can reconceptualise it through the terms of how you make and show it. You can add voice, narrative structure, voice to it, you can accentuate certain elements, ignore certain elements, turn chaos into order, or order into chaos. You can bring it forward in time or move it back in time. An archive is like anything, a movable feast. You can do what you will with it, just do it with a straight face and people will believe you. That's the secret of the archive.
In Archivo Muerto, Andrés Orjuela has worked on original press prints (which were saved by collectors from recycling for paper) from what was the archive of Colombia's El Espacio, a newspaper that for five decades published bloodstained gore from the 'prehistory' of the drug trafficking that has been immortalised, celebrated and glamourised in the Netflix series Pablo Escobar (which I haven't seen).
The glamourisation of Escobar's a sore point with Orjuela. He believes it whitewashes the drug lord (even phrase like drug lord, or drug baron confer a nobility that shields the reality of Escobar's crimes) and conceals the political and economic realities of the cocaine trade; Netflix, says Orjuela, and all the broadcasters and publishers who are involved in the glorification of Escobar '..maliciously conceal the relations among the CIA, the mafia and the dark regimes from Central and South America.'
So for Archivo Muerto, the dilemma was how can you remove the glamour, the spectacle, the impact of an archive which is .designed to have glamour, spectacle and impact. Oh, and gore... The black and white pictures which Orjuela uses in Archivo Muerto were colourised, all the more to emphasise the blood splatters. Topless women and blood, that was the order of the day for the back pages of El Espacio. How do you make sense of that.
Orjuela doesn't ignore the blood. It's there but is limited. His selection of images is designed to show the social exclusion, the creeping politicisation of the drug trade, the police brutality, the prehistory days of smuggling marijuana to the United States and beyond, the way drugs crept into law, into politics, into the very bones of civil society. And with that, there's an undercurrent of the social failures of Colombia to create alternative possibilities.
It's an attempt to take it all down a notch in other words, to present a human face to trafficking that has some more subtlety than the sledgehammer machismo-cheerleading approach of a hyper-celebrated cartel of psychopaths and thugs.
You see that in the picture of a marijuana smuggler. He's standing in front of a blackboard, he's wearing a (colourised) brown jacket, his hands are behind his back (handcuffed presumably). and in front of him is a sea-green expanse of marijuana. His face is sunken, sharp features on a head hung low, a picture that serves the function of shame.
The pictures are reproduced at actual size, with the reverse of the page containing the original captioning and printing instructions. There are mugshots, covered bodies, and carbombings. There are minot criminals, delinquents and drug mules. A young man called Luis Aldana gets a kicking from the police for 'trying to escape'. We see him again later, lying on the ground with a companion whose blood-filled mouth is open in agony, the shiny boots of the police stretched out beside him.
This picture is printed on a fullsize page. We see his face contorted in pain. Slipped into the middle of the pages are smaller images, folded over so we see the captions but not the face. These are of more serious criminals, criminals who are being 'punished' by scale in the design of the book. 'The Colombian criminal... does not deserve to be shown in the same way as the rest (the most representative of the colombian history),' says the book's designer, Veronica Fieiras. 'They are criminals that don't represent the country and they have to be "punished" in some way. Thats why the picture of Gacha (the closest person to Pablo Escobar) is upside down in the book.'
At times the book does look cinematic; the man in the back of a police car with blood stains painted onto his shirt looks like a still from some South American film noir, while the sailor deported from the USA for smuggling marijuana, all beard and sunglasses, is an advert for the 70s. That cinematic quality says something about the relationship between fiction, cinema, crime and photography. They do not stand alone but each is influenced by the other. That relationship is integrated into the sequencing of the book, a narrative that is fed by the captions and leads out into the broader social considerations Orjuela has highlighted.
The book itself feels fantastic. It's cardboard covered with black paper and a red trim, ring bound, the leaves holepunched and loose inside, like an archive but not quite.
And that's what it is. Not quite an archive, not quite a redefining of history, more of a place where the tectonic plates of how images, history and mythology grind up against each other. Archivo Muerto asks questions which can't really be answered but it does in quite a transparent way.
It's an archival treatment that brings order out of chaos, but it's an order that is chaotic in nature, that asks us to examine the interconnectedness of things, the way crime ties into civil society and our daily life, and the extent to which we avoid taking responsibility for that, to which we are blind to that even when it is there right in front of our eyes.
Read about about how the pictures for Archivo Muerto were rescued from destruction here.
See Andrés Orjuela' previous book, Muestrario, here. This book is a re-representation of blood in Mexican newspapers.
Read my review of James Mollison's Pablo Escobar here.
Veronica Fieiras and Chaco Books will be showing work as part of the Panoramic Arts Festival in Granollers, near Barcelona from 27th - 30th September. Free entry for everything which is the way it should be.
Chaco's next book is "SOBRE LA RESISTENCIA DE LOS CUERPOS" from Mexican author Jose Luis Cuevas in co-edition with Cabeza de Chorlito