Archive of Possibility Kyler Zeleny’s Found Polaroids Project
by Rhiannon Herbert
Kyler Zeleny’s “Found Polaroids” (2011– ongoing) is a project that began with the collection of a few Polaroids at various flea markets in Canada. One can often find them there, at markets or estate sales, nestled in among postcards and other strangely orphaned personal ephemera. The vast majority of them being portraits or at least snapshots with human subjects, the Polaroids pose many compelling questions: Who were the people in the photographs, and where are they now? How and why did they end up adrift among the curious collectibles of the flea market? Fascinated by the untold answers to these questions and the stories latent in the images, Zeleny continued to collect the Polaroids. He continued to pick them up while travelling in different regions and countries, even bidding for them on eBay. Years later, the collection now comprises over 6,000 Polaroids.
Originally, the first purpose that came to mind in collecting the images was to get to the bottom of the mystery they presented: to re-unite the people in the Polaroids (or those who had taken them) with their orphaned images. Despite a few successful connections, the overall impossibility of this goal was soon apparent. “We were initially fixated on knowing the true stories,” says Zeleny. “Then it finally dawned on us that the importance of stories is not always their actual truth, but rather that truth that is reflected in our own lives, within stories.”
This intellectual revelation led to the functional realization of the present form of the Found Polaroid project (FP for short). Found online at the domain foundpolaroids.com, the wider collection is represented by a “curated cross-section” of the Polaroids, whose true stories are now open to creative interpretation. Here, Zeleny invites other creative collaborators to compose and submit flash fiction inspired by the images. Though plucked from the provenance of their subjects’ lives, the Polaroids have found new lives of their own in the creative projections and reflections of artists, photographers and writers. Their meaning and purpose have been reinvented in an archival repository of narrative potential.
When considering the numerous layers at work in such a project, it is difficult to choose any one element of the FP project to unpack for the purpose of critical reflection or appreciation. Much as the “true stories” of the Polaroids were lost and eventually “found” to the innumerable narrative possibilities they presented, so too is any single interpretation of the project suddenly made impossible. What may first strike you about the FP project is the sheer number of things it has going on: vernacular photography, snapshot portraiture, family albums (and the loss thereof), collecting, story telling, authenticity and invention—not to mention the intersection of analog media and digital distribution platforms.
The complexity of the FP project is part of its broad appeal, and is also part of what Zeleny, a researcher and photographer whose work is often concerned with archives and identity, describes as its “multiplicities”. The great thing about the FP project, he says, is that “it allows thinking in so many directions”. In fact, thinking about its multiplicities allows a closer reading of the project, and the “parallels” of practice underpinning its methodology: those of an informal archive, an event of storytelling, an artwork, and an evidentiary object of personal creative practice.
Among the most compelling of these observed “parallels” are those Zeleny has explored elsewhere in his writings on the intersections of digital technologies and amateur archives.((See “Amateur Archives: The uses of public and private archives in a digital world” in the International Journal of the Image, 2016, among others.)) In these scholarly investigations, Zeleny has noted the recent trends of increased privatization of archives and the rise of amateur archival projects online. This observation is an excellent point of entry into the exploration of what Zeleny has described as the “functional and symbolic” implications of these archival collections and practices beyond the professional sphere.
As a professional archivist myself, the most evident symbolic implications of these activities are the re-democratization of the historical record, and the pluralization of what a record can be. The old monopoly of the formal archival profession is being challenged intellectually as well as practically. Interestingly, the inherently subversive character of. non-professional or “amateur” archives correlates with the ideological and functional changes at work in the professional sphere. The move towards privatization is indicative not of a shift of values, but of a loss of funding, space, and processing time. The values of most archivists and professional archival associations are actually quite in line with those of the amateurs: many archivists and archival associations have been calling for a shift toward a more participatory, representative, and accessible archival practice.
The traditionally singular authority and story of the archival record has been multiplied, and in many cases disassembled to expose whose interests are most represented, and whose voices and stories are missing. Add to this the ongoing move towards digitization of archival records (among public and private collections), and you’ve got yourself parallel revolutions of unpacking the authority of practice, curation, and historical narrative.
Seen in this light, the creative possibilities of the FP projects’ narrative fictions are a fascinating correlative phenomenon where the notion of “true stories” has given way to multiple narrative possibilities. The collection’s relevance and impact lies not in its capacity as an infallible and linear evidential body, but as a portal to a diversity of readings that we relate to our own meanings and experiences. All archives, informal or otherwise, offer up the stories we choose to assemble: objective truth eludes us in the solitary document as it eludes us in Zeleny’s orphaned Polaroids.
These parallels of practice and meaning are also present in the ‘multiples’ of media embodied in the FP Project. When considered an instance of “new media” art that makes use of an analog media collection by way of a digital distribution platform, the FP project is interesting to consider in relation to parallels that may be identified among creative practice and the applications of computing technology.
These connections have also been a point of reflection in Zeleny’s investigations of amateur archives in the online community. In addition to referencing thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and Robert Logan, Zeleny has often cited Lev Manovich, a theorist who has commented extensively on the developmental correlations between new media, creative practices, and developments in computer science. New media, says Manovich, is the new Avant-Garde: where the Avant-Garde of the early 20th century presented new ways to represent and see reality, the new is presenting new ways of accessing and manipulating information. The FP project is evidence-in-action of Manovich’s assertion that new media technologies, including computer multi-media and networking, have contributed to the actualization and the extension of artists’ ideas using a century-and-a-half’s worth of analogue media as the raw material for new, digital platforms of manipulation and distribution. With these observations in mind, the Zeleny’s project and website reads as the manifestation of the parallels at work between the craft of computer scientists in their pursuits of facilitating ever-greater networking possibilities, and the participatory bent of artists making use of these possibilities as their creative and functional platforms.
It is also worth considering the element of the personal archive at work in the FP project. While the idea of the “archive” being rather elemental to much creative practice has been extensively discussed elsewhere ((See Sven Spieker’s book, The Big Archive: Art From Bureaucracy for a seminal read on the idea.)), the notion that creative practice comprises an archive of the self is also readily visible in the autobiographical quality of all artistic work. A body of creative practice is a collection that tells a story, and the FP project tells stories within stories: a series of nested demonstrations of the archival impulse. Each snapshot is a portrait, taken to document (to archive) a moment in place and time. Appreciated within the relational meaning generated by their place in Zeleny’s collection, each shot becomes a fragment of the geography of nostalgia, orphaned from the provenance and continuity of lived context.
Zeleny has commented that the images of the FP project are personally important because they are a connection to his rural upbringing. Describing them as “banal” and “pastoral”, these attributes evoke the calm banality of rural environments remembered in his memories of home and childhood. Individually and collectively the Polaroids are artifacts of photographic technology embedded in the media, aesthetic and pace of a bygone era— environments that no longer exist, people who have moved on, and buildings that are now destroyed. Perhaps Zeleny’s initial attempts to connect the images to the subjects and get the “true story” was an effort toward staving off this loss. Yet the FP project is more than an archive of ghosts. As a curated collection and creative undertaking, the Polaroids are in effect a collective portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an archive of the geography of memory as much as an archive of other people’s pictures.
Begun from the urge to look back upon the past, the FP project has become part of a forward-moving movement of multiple actors, contributors and methodological parallels whose “symbolic and functional implications” point to more than a mere memorialization of analogue processes.
In a sense, the FP project is an archive of identity both lost and “found” in the vacuum wrought by the mystery of the images, and the evidence they furnish of past moments, lives and places. Operating as a network of creative practice, enabled and enlivened by embracing the multiplicities and potentials of divers narratives, contributions and technological innovations, Zeleny’s FP project invites us in to participate in creative remembrance. In doing so, we may find our own story, our own “truths”, within the archive of possibility.
The Found Polaroid project is an ongoing process and is actively seeking stories. For more information please visit foundpolaroids.com.
Rhiannon Herbert is an archivist, researcher and writer born in Saskatchewan and currently living in Vancouver, BC. She received her Master’s in Human Geography and Library and Information Science from the Universities of Concordia and McGill respectively and sits on the Board of Directors for Vancouver’s VIVO Media Arts Centre. Her research interests focus on place, identity and the convergence of learning objectives among cultural institutions. She is currently studying Cultural Resource Management at the University of Victoria.
This article was originally featured in BlackFlash Issue 34.1.