How do historical facts and fiction mix when we look at and narrate pictures from the past? In her work, visual artist Patrizia Bach questions the process of writing history, strongly influenced by Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on this topic. With a focus on drawing she examines, through working with an amateur photograph archive, how past is perceived and hi/story is constructed.
My main artistic medium is drawing, although I have been working on topics such as archiving, collecting, and re-arranging as well as approaching the city as a site of memory, history and storage. For the past decade, I have been focusing on long-term projects that include in-depth research processes which result in expansive drawing installations that take over architecture. I always see spaces and their shapes, their history and their present time as an invitation to retell a story or stories in different ways.
Walter Benjamin’s belief that history is inherent in all present things and pictures and that they are always to be read »in the fight for the oppressed past«  not only changed my personal relationship to history but also strongly influenced my work in the recent years. My first encounter with his thought images and his ways of writing took place in 2012 in the Walter Benjamin Archive in Berlin. Since then his pictures and thoughts accompany me in my creative process. They led me to Paris, where Benjamin himself – in his day – tried to rewrite the history of nineteenth-century France. Afterward, I followed him to Moscow and retraced the steps of his Moscow Diary and finally I traveled with his notes On the Concept of History to Istanbul.
»In a certain sense, in my practice a circle spins from the archive to Benjamin and from Benjamin back to the archive.«
In hindsight, the engagement in Benjamin’s work led to my long-term project on and with amateur photographs, the TOMIKO Archive that I will continue during my time at Solitude. In a certain sense, in my practice a circle spins from the archive to Benjamin and from Benjamin back to the archive – and I would like to introduce his circle.
All the of projects I’m going to tell about are ongoing. None of them is — or can maybe even ever called – finished, and they all relate to each other. Although I started them in a chronological order, first the TOMIKO Archive, followed by my work on Walter Benjamins Arcades Project and later Past in Each of its Moments be Citable, the time I worked on them overlapped. This is why they share certain interests: Common to all of them is the search for an archive or the work on/in an existing archive as well as the exploration of different ways of history writing. In German the word for history, Geschichte, means to tell a story, to tell a tale and at the same time to tell history; historical facts. This small but in my understanding very significant double meaning interests me a lot. In my practice, I like to play with it, mostly with a wink but sometimes with unspoken truths.
The TOMIKO Archive
The TOMIKO Archive contains exclusively amateur photographs that I collected since 2001 with an inventory, established in 2006. Currently, the archive holds about 500,000 pictures, mainly from the twentieth century and from Germany.
I accumulated these photographs on the streets and flea markets; I also received some of them through a »secret deliverer.« My aim in doing so comes from a very emotional instinct: to save the history of all those lives so carelessly thrown away. That’s why the thinking inconvolutes is so important to me. There are no separated photographs in the TOMIKO Archive, the bundles and their heritage stay together. I am not interested in one chosen moment of many. I would even go so far to say that it hurts me when individual pictures are separated from their bundle and sold singly. It disturbs me to see people choosing their interpretation of the »best« moment in someone else’s life that passed away.
»In German the word for history, ›Geschichte‹, means to tell a story, to tell a tale and at the same time to tell history; historical facts.«
At the very beginning of the collection, when it was still driven rather emotionally, a very personal incident formed my understanding of interpretational leeways in history writing. Back then I found pictures of my grandmother, who died while my mother was pregnant with me. I often heard from the family how similar we were. So, I decided to visit the places I saw on these pictures and to ask people about them and about my grandmother’s life. Everyone told me a different story about the same incident on exact the same picture. I guess it was in that moment I understood that history writing is always a matter of interpretation. And I guess in that moment I became more archiveward. I looked at my own archive more closely and with different eyes.
After collecting the images, I categorize and digitize them. Often the TOMIKO Archive becomes a source of inspiration for other works, like Past in Each of its Moments be Citable, in which I traced the origins of the photographs in Istanbul and followed them in long city-walks in 15 neighborhoods of the city to find the past in the present. The Archive Drawings series also arose out of the TOMIKO Archive. I see this series as a way to create an inventory of the first impression of each image: Each first glimpse and its connected drawing takes exactly five minutes. I later confront the drawings with the photographs in form of books/editions. In that way, the drawing changes the hi/story of the photograph and the other way around – the endless game of interpretation starts.
»No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.« 
The central idea is to preserve an alternative history and histories and carry them to the present: How do historical facts and fiction mix up when we look at these pictures? How do we become cowriters in collective history writing over the decades, and which history do we want to tell? And which has not been told yet? And how can we read this out of a single photograph? Or out of a whole body of an amateur photography archive? And what happens if we confront these stories with the present? And what do they tell about the present? What happens when different eyes, different backgrounds look at the same picture/record?
»How do we become cowriters in collective history writing over the decades, and which history do we want to tell?«
I would like to look into these questions during my time at Solitude: In 2015, the collaboration with the aforementioned »secret deliverer« stopped, for several reasons. One of them is that not so many of those pictures circulate anymore in the households in which people die. This shock and at the same time relief formed the idea of working on the »last delivery« with several approaches. One idea is to bring the pictures back to their origin, traced back throughout notes and hints on their backsides and confront them with the present.
Another idea is to open the archive to the other Solitude fellows, or better, to everyone who physically comes across those photographs in the future. I would like to revive the archive and let it speak. I feel like I have been putting these lives through a second death by just inventorying them by myself, for myself.
The Arcades Work
On my work and research on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, I experienced what can happen if an archive hasn’t been properly consulted, used and kept alive: In 2012, interested in the term of archival writing, I came to see Walter Benjamin’s manuscripts in the Walter Benjamin Archive in Berlin. Ever since I set eyes on these manuscripts, I could not relinquish myself from thinking about their unique qualities. With amazement, I thought that —in my artistic understanding— Benjamin’s work has been published in a wrong way, without the visual sensibility. These manuscripts — about 400 pages on the same slightly yellow and translucent paper, 22 x 28 cm, carefully folded in the middle and written upon in a 7 cm column— are drawings, and these meticulously executed pages and their countless colored markings’ intrinsic meaning got lost in the editions of the published work.
This astonishment was the start of a long artistic journey. After visually researching the colors and symbols Benjamin used, I republished the Arcades Project  in 2014 in the form of a web page that depicts, for the first time, Benjamin’s connection system, including his sources.
Walter Benjamins Arcades Project contains a convolute of 4,251 quotes altogether – collected and commented by Benjamin in the Bibliothèque Nationale during his exile in Paris between 1927 and 1940. His aim was to rewrite the history of France of the nineteenth century through these excerpts: »Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history«, he writes in his Theses on the Concept of History  , a text emerged from the Arcades Project. Within this endeavor he read and collected across many different genres. Children’s books, prose, Marx, Baudelaire and detective stories (to name a few) are cited next to each other, while he tried to work against the linearity and hierarchy of writing. Through colors, marks and words buttressed by black boxes he relinked his quote collection and was—in my understanding—a digital visionary. The web page visualizes this for the first time.
»Benjamin’s aim was to rewrite the history of France of the nineteenth century through these excerpts: »Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history«, he writes in his Theses on the Concept of History  , a text emerged from the Arcades Project.«
But my journey did not end there: Since I do drawings, my urge was to find a way to use Benjamin’s machine and generate drawings from it. So, I took his approach by the hand and reordered Walter Benjamin’s notes through my own colors and meanings. One of the symbols I added to the already existing ones by Benjamin in The Arcades Work was »places in Paris« (meaning all the places in Paris mentioned in the Arcades Project). To see them, but also in order to fully grasp Benjamin’s term of the city as a metaphor for history writing, I followed him for several months in Paris – imposing upon myself the obligation only to go to the places Benjamin mentioned in his quotes. This game made the city bewitching – three different time layers intersected, the here and now of Paris, the Paris of Benjamin’s exile, and the one he was writing about.
This unique experience I am passing on with my book Paris-City-Map – on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, that takes the reader on a journey through the city along these quotes.
Inspired by the research, the city walks and through the reading and transcribing, I established a form of drawing that adopts Benjamin’s methodologies: Each of the more than 150 drawings is connected to one another. The dimensions of the drawings mimic the ones from Benjamin’s manuscripts, keeping the particularities in mind such as his division of the pages. I applied the letter code from the Arcades Project to the images and I use the corresponding color pencil for each drawing that is connected to a quote in the manuscripts labeled with a colored signet.
In that sense, while observing and exhibiting this body of drawings in different spaces, it retells a new narrative through the Arcades Project every time. This was important to me since I also wanted to react to Benjamin’s dealing with the problem of hierarchy and linearity.
But how to publish a work that so highly criticizes the form of a book back into one? In my book,  I answer this with an invitation to browse. The published order of the drawings follows Benjamin’s convolutes – but, at the same time, they can be approached through all their possible connections: from one drawing to the next, from there to associated text, from there through the colored markings, from there to a corresponding drawing, and from a site in Paris to the enclosed Walter Benjamin City Map.
During my stay in Paris, the texts Benjamin generated of his Arcades machine also caught my interest, among them the Theses on the Concept of History.
Past, in Each of its Moments, be Citable
Reading them I could not help but connect them to the city of Istanbul. This might sound a bit incomprehensible at first so I will try to explain my feelings towards this city first: The first time I came to Istanbul was as an Erasmus student in 2010/2011 and I left the city with more questions than answers. Everything I learned about the city, the state, the history and the heroic figures seemed ambivalent to me and contradictory to how I and the people around me live in the city. I was astonished that certain historical manipulations still carry terms like founding of a state, revolution of a language, exchange of a population (just to name a few) while they are standing for ethnic cleansing, forced displacement, and the brutal destruction of different languages and cultures.
»Istanbul became to me what Paris must have been for Walter Benjamin in his time: the past expressed in space.«
It seemed and still seems to me that every picture this city produces is a dialectical one. Past and present clash there, as well as devastation and hold on to what it was before. The city became to me what Paris must have been for Walter Benjamin in his time: the past expressed in space. In Paris, I got to know him as someone who reads cities: in streets, window-shops, backyards, parks, arcades, monuments, railway-stations, museums, cinemas he read out the different time layers, captured in pictures of the city.
» ›Cities are battlefields‹ he writes – the modern metropolis is a battlefield between the traditional and the modern, the singular and the mass, the periphery and the center; it is the battlefield of history. This history is not to be understood as accessible through ›reliving an era‹ an eternal image we can return to anytime we want. History presents itself as a ruin.«  Furthermore, in his Theses of the Concept of History, Benjamin notes down tasks how history has to be written, at any time, and he is writing them in the moment of danger for the afterworld, while escaping from Paris and Nazi Europe.
He writes about »a secret index the past carries with it« »narrating events without distinguishing between the major and minor;« he declares that »nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history.« »The historical materialist therefore […] regards it as his task to brush history against the grain,« since the »tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not exception but the rule.« 
Thinking of how to transfer these tasks into artistic ones, I invited a group of Turkish and German artists to this project to read, transform, and address them through their own artistic approach in Istanbul.
Through collectively sharing our knowledge, experiences and approaches to the text, an exhibition developed, in which Benjamin’s manuscripts were guiding through and connecting the artworks. The manuscripts were first shown in this exhibition at DEPO in Istanbul (2016).
But again, my own work is ongoing.
I mentioned above that the TOMIKO Archive was the inspiration and source for Past, in Each of its Moments be Citable. So in Istanbul I also started to collect amateur photographs, but came across them in a different way. The photographs are sold from street vendor carts. The fact that I had to meet them coincidentally in the city, while they already had made a journey through it, formed the idea of bringing them back to their origins.
»I looked for the side moments; the things you don’t look at at first, to ›the fine and spiritual things [which] are alive in a struggle [for the suppressed history] as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude, and have effects that reach far back into the past. They constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.‹« 
At the same time, I was searching for a way to find the past in the present without becoming too random – so I let the little indicators on the back and sometimes full addresses lead me: the 13 convolutes with altogether 2,000 photographs (0.01% of Istanbul’s population) brought me to 15 neighborhoods of Istanbul in 42 city walks. While searching for those places and while digitizing the archive I was looking at the photographs for the »secret index and agreement with the past« that Benjamin mentioned. I looked for the side moments; the things you don’t look at at first, to »the fine and spiritual things [which] are alive in a struggle [for the suppressed history] as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude, and have effects that reach far back into the past. They constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.« 
When I saw those moments, or glimpses, I made a drawing. Those drawings I consider as one time layer that connects the past and the present. And for exactly those moments and pictures I was looking in the city afterwards. The counterpictures in the form of digital photographs of the here and now of Istanbul are documented in my Arbeits-Buch(work book) with blank sections alluding to the ongoing nature of the work.
So again, three temporal layers surround each other: The archive – the past of the city; the City – the present of itself; the drawings – the time that clashes in between past and present.
While exhibiting the drawings, they are shown in their possible surrounding (enlarged excerpts of the amateur photographs from the related convolute), one possible surrounding, one walk this one wall tells us, but could be positioned differently and therefore retold with a new narrative each time. For example, one time I changed the hanging in the exhibition every week. Another time, I only showed the drawings without photographs but accompanied by lists of words. So, the audience was invited to walk through the city with pictures and words.
Turkish words, which are actually the names of the streets I walked on, since my interest not only lies in the pictures the city creates, but also in the arbitrary renaming of street names (and whole neighborhoods) which in my thinking is a metaphor in its own on the capricious re-shaping of the city, while in the first you can read and in the latter observe little hints of what has been there before.
»He [the historical materialist] takes cognizance of it [the oppressed past] in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history and to blast a specific life out of that era, and a specific work out of the lifeworks. As a result of this method, the lifework is both preserved in the work, the era in the lifework and the entire course of the history in the era.«
»Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones? Don’t the women we court have sisters they no longer recognize? If so, then there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one.«
- Walter Benjamin: »On the Concept of History,« in: Selected WritingsVolume 4, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings [eds.], Cambridge MA 2002.
- Walter Benjamin: »Little History of Photography,« in: Selected Writings Volume 2 1927–1934. Rodney Livingstone and others [trans], Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith [eds.], Cambridge 1999.
- Benjamin: »On the Concept of History.«
- Benjamin: »On the Concept of History.«
- Patrizia Bach: Arcades-Work, Drawings on Walter Benjamin & Paris-City-Map – On Walter Benjamin’s Arcades-Project, published with texts by Kathrin Busch and Knut Ebeling. Berlin 2018.
- Caroline Ader: »Introduction,« in: Past in Each of its Moments, be Citable – an exhibition project on Walter Benjamin’s Concept of History in the City of Istanbul, initiated by Patrizia Bach. Shown and edited by DEPO Istanbul 2016.
- All quotes: Benjamin: »On the Concept of History.«
- Participating artists: Sezgi Abali, Patrizia Bach, Dogu Cankaya, Juliane Eirich, Benjamin Mauc, Lara Ögel, Neriman Polat, Cagri Saray, Elena Tezak, Andreas Töpfer, und Bilal Yilmaz.
- Benjamin: »On the Concept of History.«
- Benjamin: »On the Concept of History.«