An interview with Maite Muñoz
By Rafa Montilla
Photographs of Maite Muñoz and of the MACBA archive by Chus Antón
People who have an M within the name are stable, thinking, linguistic and sensitive. From time to time this frequency makes them sentimental and adventurous. An M belongs to the holy letters and sounds. It lends its support determination and human understanding. If you look at this letter, you associate it with the mountains or the height of a hat. Everything serves to protect, karmic protection. The M stands for hope and protection.
Maite has no age and has all ages. She’s an old child born not that long ago in quiet Extremadura. She wanted to become a nun, “but one of the good ones”, redeemer and missionary, able to save lots of people at a faraway place. However, with the passing of time her fondness for painting ended up prevailing over her adventurous nature. Daughter of pedagogy and of the domain of structures, she zigzags throughout Spanish geography from west to east, from south to north, building her signs of identity along the way.
People who have an A in their name are creative, powerful and often successful. A is a creation letter and stands for consciousness, stability and the beginning. The A is similar to a house, a skeleton of a pyramid or a ladder. This means you can climb up and see the world. A stands for wisdom and provision, the connection to the platonic world. In this life, you have a duty to say something, to develop or discover something creative.
She walks through crowds with a consciously limited depth of field. That way there are no detours and everything follows the accorded pace. Later on, sat under a ceiling with small winged divinities, another person appears and looks at us, quietly. She wears spectacles that appear all of a sudden, as if emerging from one of the characters of Jacques Tardi’s comic book The Cry of the People.
This letter makes you powerful, energetic and grounded. What letter I brings is partially unstable or even distracted at times. It symbolizes stubbornness, loneliness and also the planet Earth while giving strength and bringing light into life.
I’m not sure it was predestination or not, but a while back -in the heat of a summer afternoon- someone told me about her. Although that is part of my memory and trusting it is not always advisable.
Joan Pons and Luis Cerveró redefined her again for me. They were convinced that archival science was a good topic to talk about. And they asked me to undertake it, probably thanks to my marked inclination towards chaos.
I called her.
People who have a T in their name are very mobile. You have a sharp mind, are spiritually inclined and have a learning task: to learn and teach. They are discovery-happy, a little sedentary but sometimes cynical and obnoxious. A T looks like a hammer, so they can analyse people. T warns you of errors and provides a foundation of knowledge. T is the first letter of the word Terra (Earth), and therefore grounds very well our feelings.
“I’m off, I quit, I’m moving to Los Angeles next week, but I have time to answer your questions”. Time is emptied.
She doesn’t emigrate pushed by the reality of a country or its emptiness. She does it because of the need to search and discover. Like when she decided to play punk without mastering any instruments, joined by two close friends. Motoretta 3 was the name of their band. Piojos en las pestañas [Lice on the eyelids] and Violencia [Violence] were their biggest hits. Even though she could have studied anything –Geophysics, Criminal Science, Bioengineering–, she opted for Fine Arts. But soon head moulding became a bore and she focused on conceptualism. It was her way to choose a destiny.
People with a T in their name have a wide-awake mind, are enthusiastic and open to new things in life. However, there are always times when one is distracted or indecisive. Letter E looks like a fork, so it’s about tackling things. Act and trust in the E. This character belongs to the earth, so you can be adjusted towards material stuff. But letter E is also about cosmic energies, the left side of the letter is the universe that symbolises 3 leads and three spheres of existence: platonic, emotional and spiritual levels. The E symbolises the fire element.
In her discourse there are no extra words, as if the shadow of a doubt didn’t exist. Order, diagrams, and chirurgical precision: not a micron to the left or right. I begin to feel the presence of the logic that inevitably takes her to her profession. Maite Muñoz is in charge of such a significant archive as MACBA’s. But in a few hours she will cease to be so. Eight years devoted to the preservation and cataloguing of a part of the city’s artistic memory and many other testimonies.
“I’ve spent almost eight years at the archive. I’ve learned many things. I just quit. I’m part of the Vista Oral collective. We’re interested in the relationship between theory and praxis in the context of contemporary art and cultural practice. We understand curatorship as a research process. I just made myself a visit card and a web page to look for freelance jobs. I’ve chosen m_m as a name because they’re my initials and it’s a kind of cute emoji. Now I live in Los Angeles”.
“The personal eight year is a time for the harvest
of what was sown in previous years”
Is the archive a memory?
I consider memory as a construct both in its individual and collective dimension. We have memories of things that never happened, anecdotes we’ve heard so many times that they have ended mixed up with what we’ve really lived. Memory and archive are intrinsically united in a subjective relationship.
Is memory an archive?
It’s an inevitable and complex relationship. I’m particularly interested in Derrida’s discourse regarding this aspect, in conversation with psychoanalysis and tackling the political, ethical and legal dimensions of the archive, in the relationship between archival techniques and document custody with the way in which we remember, with memories. And in how an excessive archive ends up becoming an archival malady under the influence of an archaeological drive, in an archive of evil from all catastrophic and traumatic historical events.
Is the archivist conscious that memory is in his/her hands, be it individual or collective memory?
Generalising and talking about archivists in general is somewhat complicated. If I think about my experience in the medium I can say that yes, there is a consciousness of the relevance to preserve documentation, sometimes even an excess of responsibility that becomes an archival malaise. In this profession, there’s a constant underlying idea of the value of the information documents contain, since they are testimonies and, sometimes, they even constitute legal witnesses of functions and responsibilities.
Probably the key question is whether the archivist is conscious of the critical dimension of the archive, of a deeper thought about the implications of the archival treatment received by the documents that fall on his/her hands. Archives exercise an authoritative function, they signal what is considered significant in a given context or culture. One of the reflections would be thinking about what is left out of the archive and the repercussion this action undertaken by the archivist can have. For all I know about a medium I’ve been part of for the last eight years, but in which I still feel alien, discourse, generalising again, is based on technical questions that focus on not leaving out any documents that norms, and hence power, have decided they should be part of it and doesn’t respond so much to questions such as the politics or economy of the archive.
However, each day more voices are emerging from the fields of philosophy, cultural studies and even art that reflect upon these questions, and some sectors of archival science are starting to include them in their discourses and turning them into an object of study.
Maite, when you showed us the MACBA archive, the part corresponding to the documents about the works of Brossa and Miserachs, we saw that there was an amalgam of documents, from original work to handwritten letters in the case of Brossa. Then, when we visited the Miserachs exhibition, we saw that in the last room there were shown some contact sheets, letters the photographer exchanged with his editors, a time lap of his life and a group of other documents that were very useful to understand the work of the two artists in context. For you, in your experience as being in charge of an archive, what role does that context play in getting to know an artist’s work?
A few years ago, when I was a student, I became interested in Barthes, Foucault and García Calvo theories about the death of the author. I was seduced about the idea of the disappearance of the author and of the conception of their work as a historical collective product. Affirmations such as the one that says that works survive authors and also that the reader/spectator/audience plays an active role and completes the work with his/her many re-interpretations. I think that I never understood the whole dimension of these theories, but I always felt close to what I managed to glimpse in them. Although it might sound contradictory, I think these ideas are precisely what produce in me the fascination of losing myself in the documents belonging to a given artist; the idea of understanding the circumstances in which the work was created and not a supposed obsession for re-constructing the character from a historical point of view.
I’m not interested in the fetishism of the original archive document, but in the complete and complex vision of the context of production of a work that you can obtain through the study of such documents. I think that any passionate approach to the work of an artist implies knowing his processes, his personal relationships, his philias and phobias, his references, his way of looking at the world, at the end of the day. And not with the attitude of a groupie who melts browsing a celebrity’s personal items, but with the intention of obtaining clues that allow for an autonomous interpretation of the work and knowing the context in which the work emerged.
All this is particularly relevant from the second half of the 20th century on, and more so as of the sixties with conceptual art and the dematerialisation of the artistic object, in which documentation acquires a fundamental role.
I think that artistic documentation should be understood as patrimony and, for that reason, to be preserved and made available, allowing consultation and study, since they’re an essential source of collective knowledge.
How does an archive end up in your hands? Is it out of an initiative of the heirs of the artists or through the research undertaken by the museum?
The archival department is relatively new in the general history of the MACBA. It was created at the beginning of 2007, when the Centre of Studies and Documentation is opened with the will of reinforcing the idea of the museum as a generator of knowledge and not only a depository of art works. The Centre of Studies was a project conceived by Manolo Borja Villel, in his years as director, and the bases of acquisition policies were defined under the tutelage of Mela Dávila, director of the centre in its first years. The museum’s research lines, which also provide the framework for the acquisition of works for the collection and the programming of exhibitions and activities, have been since the beginning the guidelines for the acquisition of archival materials and of all those who have joined the project since then.
This is what I know by heart, the institutional discourse I’ve repeated millions of times during the almost eight years I’ve worked at the museum. The topic is very complex, artists and cultural agents generate huge amounts of documents that they keep and manage according to their possibilities and/or the important they grant their archive. There comes a moment when they’re no longer capable of maintaining it and then they approach an institution to value the possibility of donating or leaving that material as deposit. In these last cases, I think due in part to the arrival of the economic crisis, we’ve created lists of possible incorporations to the archive. These lists include archives the museum is interested in acquiring and goes in search of because of the importance of its contents to achieve a particular project or its patrimonial relevance beyond any specific project. Out of all those archives, we make technical and curatorial reports with the purpose of studying the appropriateness of its incorporation, the coherence with the museum’s lines, the capacity the institution has to take over the charges he integration will entail and the compromises of managing it and making it available to researchers. The capacity of the institutions in this sense is limited and sometimes we can intuit the drama of a loss of archives due to the lack of resources and general politics about the preservation of documental patrimony. It’s quite a mess!
We’re entering a frenetic race with new technologies, new formats and tools to carry out works keep on appearing, so it seems more necessary than ever to have a context to understand those works, and an exhaustive job of keeping access to those works up to date. How does an institution that creates a contemporary art archive deal with all this?
As you’re saying, the obsolescence of formats and the increasing de-materialisation of documents present challenges that are part of an archive’s everyday life. Imagine if on top of that we’re talking about an art archive, and contemporary to boot. And yes, in this sense, the importance of documents is reinforced. Museums tackle these problems from different angles. On the one hand there’s the documents that the institution itself has in relation to all the works it owns. Particularly interesting to this respect are the ones referring to the setting up instructions, to the replacement of special pieces and to restoration interventions, in case they have been necessary. MACBA, through its Collection and Restoration departments, interviews artists about all these aspects so as to know as much as possible their opinion about the work’s preservation and the treatment of the obsolescence of the elements that make it up, be it because they’re ephimeral in nature or because the supports or formats are associated to a given technology. We also join other institutions in research projects and keep an interesting open debate on the subject. One of the most important ones was Variable Media, with institutions specialising on the topic, such as the Canadian Daniel Langlois Foundation.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any easy and satisfactory solutions. Digitalization isn’t the miracle cure, and aspects such as emulation, format migration, reinterpretation and exhibition generate many questions but few answers.
If we focus on the concrete case of the archive, historically, the challenge was the preservation of paper, which is an organic element and as such suffers from its own pathologies. We know that controlling the relative temperature and humidity and also the incidence of light over it are key aspects. We know how to preserve a paper document for centuries despite the uncontrollable chemical reactions and biological attack menaces (yes, like zombies, but at a micro scale). The thing has become more and more complicated inasmuch technology has developed. The development of the paper industry at he beginning of the 20th century and the inclusion od acids in its composition brought about new challenges. Fax impressions at the end of the sixties was another level completely. Texts printed on thermal paper disappear very quickly. I’ve witnessed in horror how huge amounts of this kind of paper vanished from artist’s archives. Some of them were barely readable; you could just deduce what they said. This circumstance makes them be featured at the top of the list when it comes to digitalising priorities and it restricts the possibility of consulting the original document.
What we should probably do is assuming the fact that works might become obsolete and original documents that partly gave the work its meaning might end up disappearing as a portrait of the inevitable transient nature of beings, of beings as processes. And meanwhile we shouldn’t give up in our determination to document works and their context to try and grasp their essence and give faith of it. And fight against support deterioration. And preserve, as much as possible, television sets, bulbs, computers and any other item that a given artist might have used as part of his/her work.
Going back for a moment to the Miserachs exhibition, the curator projected an exhibition of the work outside of the usual format, he recreated a setting in which the photographer’s work, as far as I understand, was diluted in a way that I think Miserachs would have never imagined. Today, something similar happens with new technologies, they are consulted in a format that has nothing to do with the original one in which the work was devised, be it photographic or audiovisual. We’re all capable of watching a film shot in Panavision on a smartphone or a tablet. Something really cut off from the intention of the artist that thought and designed it, with a bunch of concepts lost in the process. Is this an unstoppable phenomenon? Are we correcting the artist or distorting his work?
I think my position regarding this question is somewhat contradictory (or straight bipolar). I’m one of the people that enjoy the delicious sound of a 16mm projector while watching a Warhol film in a museum. I feel the delight of the device, even of its accidents and errors and I acknowledge the loss of levels of meaning that substituting this experience for a digital screening entails.
A few days ago I was lucky to see Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful 8, which has been shot in 70mm, screened in its original format. I’m saying I was lucky because I’ve heard that in Spain there’s only one cinema room left that can screen this format (not so much because I thought the film was a marvel). I enjoyed the delight of the format as an aesthetic experience, but I wouldn’t bet I’m able to tell this format from a digital one.
A Romanesque Christ Pantocrator is taken from its original placement to be seen in a museum, a corruption of the experience at different levels. I imagine what seeing one of these pieces in a small church, almost completely dark and with a given social, political and religious context might have been. The work is distorted, its meaning changes and, on top of that, it’s included in the artistic institution through the history of art. I get a chill when I think about it, but at the same time some questions, I guess obvious ones, pop up in my head regarding access to culture and I thank the gods for living in this age in which I can look for a Warhol film in YouTube at any moment.
As I was saying earlier, probably the heart of the matter is admitting that time goes by for all and that watching a Warhol film in 16mm is not the same as watching it projected on the wall of a room of the Chelsea Hotel in 1968. And it might also be a honesty issue, of accepting the distortion of creative works beyond their context, not only technological or formal, but also social, political and cultural. Without letting ourselves get carried away by nostalgic positions, it’s about understanding that complexity and being conscious of the loss of levels of meaning (or of the alteration of such levels) that reinterpretations and emulations entail. But also of not forgetting the fact that any work will survive its artist, with all the implications, and that reinterpreting and altering the work, when these are done openly without hiding anything, can give it new meanings, as long as we call each thing by its name or we adopt a radical position in which we accept that the work will be destroyed once the original conditions for its screening/exhibition have disappeared.