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Brief and Candid Notes on Artificial Archive

RODELL WARNER

People have lived in the Caribbean for six-thousand years, since around 4000 BCE. Photography was invented in 1822, about two-hundred years ago. Slavery in the Caribbean began three hundred and thirty years before the invention of photography, with the arrival of the Spanish in 1492 and their enslavement of great portions of the Indigenous populations they encountered. And slavery continued, enforced by Spanish, French, English, and Dutch colonists until the 19th century. The first enslaved Africans were brought to the Caribbean in 1517, about three-hundred years before the invention of photography. The first indentured laborers were brought from India to the Caribbean in 1838, four years after the end of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834, and just before the oldest known photos of Caribbean subjects were made, around 1840. Chinese laborers were brought to the region in the mid-1800s.

When I think about the Caribbean’s past I don’t think about the etchings printed in my high-school history textbooks, and I don’t imagine the incomprehensible complexity of six millennia of human existence. No, I think immediately about the photographs I’ve seen. Photography most readily, seemingly automatically, informs my imagination, my ideas of each island and ethnic group, my sense of the history. Do many of us have this experience? Because photographs represent so little of the vast history of the Caribbean, any conception of Caribbean history that is informed primarily by photography is necessarily severely limited.

That being said, consider that so many of the archival photographs that exist were captured by colonial settlers who had little respect for, interest in, or access to the personal lives of Indigenous, African, and Asian Caribbean people. Consider all that was not photographed.  Can you? From these considerations we see that any photo-based conception of the history of the Caribbean would be a severely biased representation of our history, apart from simply being inadequate.

In 2018 I was giving a photography workshop at a high school in Jamaica, and as part of one of the exercises I was sitting with the students in a classroom with a projector and reviewing the photos that the students took of each other. The first images to come up on the screen were portraits of one of the students who had a lighter skin tone, and, as planned, we all discussed the angles and the lighting, the focal points etc, then we moved on to someone else’s photos. An image of a boy with dark skin popped up on the screen and immediately somebody blurted out “Slavery!” and many of the students started laughing.

I think about this often when I think about what archival images can mean to us personally.

Rare photographs taken by colonial settlers in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s, early photographic records of Caribbean people, give us glimpses of the lives of our ancestors during that period. How long was it before colonial subjects were taking photos of themselves? The imported photographic equipment and the expensive processes of photography were generally not available to colonial subjects on Caribbean islands. A great many of the early photos I encounter in publicly accessible archives like the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections or the UK’s National Archives are documents of agricultural production which include colonial subjects seemingly just as part of the machinery of the plantations. In many of these photos we see the 19th-century Caribbean people, post-abolition, standing shoulder to shoulder among the banana harvests and the sugarcane harvests and the cocoa harvests, next to the donkeys, carrying loads of produce, wielding tools, or pausing from laboring, brows wrinkled in the sun, to stand still for the photos. Crucially, present-day Jamaican high-school students, for example, do not encounter images of these dark-skinned ancestors laughing with their families or holding hands by the waterfall. I know from years of working on my ongoing project Augmented Archive, combing through online archives in search of images of Caribbean people at leisure, or at least not obviously framed by an oppressive context, just how rare such images are, and how hard they are to find. The laughter and hand-holding did occur, of course, along with the back-breaking labor on plantations, along with ambitious work on their own gardens, along with gathering to play games, making beautiful garments, making musical instruments, cooking by the rivers and in the villages, mourning, marrying, dancing. Immeasurable, unfathomable lifetimes of exceptional and mundane events alike, moments we will never be privy to the intimacies of, were never recorded in the Caribbean during the days of photography’s infancy. As a result we rarely, if ever, imagine that they did.

Banana carriers [Jamaica.]
Published in 1909 in: The West Indies, illustrated. Historical and descriptive, commercial and industrial facts, figures, & resources. Author: Alllister MacMillan

The power of the photographic archive to direct our imaginations and render reality for us lies as much in what it depicts as in what it does not. Will artists and others who make the images that influence our identities take it upon themselves to oppose the unbalanced power and ongoing unchallenged influence of the photographic archive of the Caribbean? As precious as it is for the glimpses into the past that it offers us, it is perhaps even more deleterious than it is precious for all that it keeps hidden from our collective imagination.

In the early 2020s Large Language Models (LLMs), machine learning tools commonly referred to as Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, became freely and suddenly available to the public online. Text-to-image generators, one manifestation of these tools, allow users to generate complex images simply by inputting descriptive text. Images that look convincingly like photographs or other types of pictures that humans make could be generated in mere seconds by computer systems that have been fed, and which have learned to emulate, millions and millions of photographs, paintings, drawings — practically everything pictorial that humans have ever uploaded to the internet. The ethics and care with which these systems were developed and deployed is an important concern that deserves its own discussion, and which we won’t go into here. These tools have, however, given us the ability to easily conjure, from our imaginations, practically any picture we are able to articulate.

An image conjured in 2023 by a text-to image generator of “a 19th-century Caribbean person writing” is not likely to be a historically accurate representation in every regard, and is not itself a historical document. However, it is a prompt for imagination that might get a Caribbean high-schooler thinking more about the life of a dark-skinned ancestor than simply actions relating to the reductive category of “Slave”.

Prompt the AI to produce a photo of “a 19th-century Caribbean person laughing” or “having an encounter with the grandeur of nature”. Be detailed — specify that the photo be lit by glorious morning light filtered through the trees. Specify a Jamaican mountain backdrop! Prompt it a hundred times or until you get results that really make you excited, or make you want to see something else. These are images that can counter the narrow, biased depictions offered by the photographic archive. The narrative-bending power of the AI-generated image over the imagination of the viewer can be as powerful as that of the archival image.

Maybe you’re feeling conflicted? Are you concerned with the fragility and “purity” of the archive? A few of my friends are, and they tell me about it, and I understand. We feel attached to history, it can feel precious. Here is my question though: How loyal do you want to be to a telling of the story that cares little for, and even actively erases people like yourself? Do you feel such a telling should remain authoritative and unchallenged, or are you in favor of using imagination to create conversation about what might be missing, and what might be healing to envision?

For me, this is where Artificial Archive comes in. This project is where I conjure images that I would have liked to see included in the photographic archive. This is where I share these images so they can do their work in our collective imagination. This is also where I take liberties, artistic license, so that imagination can escape the many traps and oppressions that have suppressed the expressions of Caribbean people for centuries.

I ask: What would Caribbean people have looked like if they were the beneficiaries of all their centuries of labor? What would 19th century Caribbean fashion have looked like if artists and designers were resourced enough to explore their practices without limitation? What would the archive look like if it included representation of the queer bodies, perspectives, and narratives that existed in the 19th century Caribbean? What would Caribbean Carnival have looked like in the 20th century if it were set in these alternate Caribbeans? How would the visual life of religion have taken shape in the Caribbean in the absence of the European missionaries? How would pre-colonial practices of interfacing with the environment have visually affected Caribbean landscapes? How might exposure to images from these alternate, imagined versions of the Caribbean affect the ways we see ourselves and each other?

Rodell Warner is a Trinidadian artist working primarily in new media and photography. His digital animations using archival photography have been exhibited recently at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Fragments of Epic Memory, and at Trinity Square Video, Toronto, in the solo exhibition Heirlooms and Lenses. Rodell works between Port of Spain in Trinidad, Kingston in Jamaica, and Austin, Texas in the US.
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