The Speculative Archive, by Julia Meltzer (MFA 1998) and David Thorne

The Speculative Archive, by Julia Meltzer (MFA 1998) and David Thorne

Date posted: 2006-11-03 11:25:00

Reproduced here from the New York Foundation for the Arts online news. 

The Speculative Archive is a collaborative effort between Los Angeles-based artists Julia Meltzer and David Thorne. Since 1999 the duo has created videos, photographs, installations, and published texts that rigorously and poetically analyze the use value of documents—classified and not—in the construction of history. The Speculative Archive writes that their current work deals with how documents "project and claim visions of the future." This idea of prophetically laying claim to the future is a process that begins with the past, and for this NYFA Current project the Speculative Archive presents a companion piece to their new video We don't like it as it is but we don't know what we want it to be, which will screen November 19 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Looking at the recent progression of an architectural site resonant of Syria's political and cultural ethos, the project characteristically threads a past history right through the present and into future.

In 2005–6, we lived in Damascus, Syria, supported by a Fulbright Fellowship and a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship. As part of our research for a project on the effects of US foreign policy in Syria and the region, we interviewed a number of people, ranging in age from 24 to 50. These included several members of the opposition, a professor, a journalist, a Sheikha (female sheik), a young activist, and a writer. All agreed to be on camera and to speak openly—not a combination that is easy to find in Syria. We asked people to speak about the future, about what they envision, about what concepts like democracy and citizenship mean to them, and about how pressure from the US affects their lives, their thinking, and their sense of possibility.

Through this interview process we also sought to understand the ways in which time—a crucial component of the Bush Doctrine, manifesting in preemptive action and dire warnings of imminent threat—is and has been manipulated internally by a Syrian regime whose main interest is self-preservation. There are particular methods and means through which this governing body projects itself across time—between past and future—in order to perpetuate and strengthen itself as a regime. And there are particular methods and means—often involving speculation and conjecture—through which people identify, believe, and position themselves in relation to the ruling power and to the religious, family, and social structures that constitute both the time they live in and their perceptions of the yet-to-be.

After conducting these interviews, we began looking in Damascus for buildings and structures that in some way represented the political condition and also seemed to serve as sites of conjecture; who are we? And what will become of us? At the center of the city, in Martyr's Square, there is a looming, unfinished concrete structure, slated to become a shopping center with a large mosque attached. Begun in 1982, the structure remains unfinished to this day. It is called Marquez Basel al-Asad, after Basel Al-Asad, the son of late president Hafez al-Asad. Basel—long heir to his father's throne and seen as a hope for the future of the country—was killed in an apparent car crash in January of 1994.

In the process of inquiring about this building, we encountered multiple and contradictory stories. Over a period of four months we located and conducted interviews with persons familiar with the history of the city and who have associations with this particular building project. We were able to locate and interview the original architect and engineer on the proposed project. We also filmed the model for this project which won first prize in the original design competition for the project in 1966.

For complete story with images, click here: