Aleksandra Mir discusses her current HENI Project Space exhibition The Pre-Presidential Library with Hayward Gallery Assistant Curator, Katie Guggenheim.
What are you presenting in your exhibition, The Pre-Presidential Library?
I am showing a series of front covers from New York City’s leading tabloids, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, all of which have been photocopied from microfiche and enlarged to almost two metres high, and feature headlines relating to the business dealings, political aspirations or personal life of the current US President, Donald Trump.
My personal archive, which encompasses the period 1986-2000, was compiled during an extensive research period at the media archives of New York Public Library in 2007, when I reviewed 10,000 tabloid covers – their combined output of 15 years leading up to the millennium. This research formed the basis of my drawing show Newsroom, at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, in the same year, where I worked live with 17 assistants in the gallery for two months, re-creating old news and making new art every day.
Could you explain how this exhibition come about?
I have been in conversation with Ralph Rugoff, the Director of the Hayward Gallery, about revisiting some of the material from my Newsroom show for the past 18 months. Initially, the plan was to recreate 20 Trump drawings which were among the 240 drawings I created for the show, and also among the 120 that were destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, in 2012. Unfortunately, the budget for this exhibition in HENI Project Space wouldn’t allow for any new drawings laboriously made by a large team, so we abandoned that idea.
Around this time, I also began to look again at my collection of photocopies from New York Public Library, and discovered a ‘Trump Reject’ folder with some 40 or more front covers that I had originally found, sorted and dismissed as ‘uninteresting’! At the time of my research, Trump was a visible player in New York City, but still a relatively marginal figure that people didn’t take too seriously. The series of 20 drawings I had made in 2007 revolved around the melodramas of Trump’s marriages and divorces, which were published alongside other stories to do with food poisoning, ‘killer moms and dads’ and misbehaving teenagers, all of which I found equally interesting.
When I laid out all of the front covers relating to Trump in my studio, I realised that I could actually display the source material, which since Trump’s election in 2016 had achieved a new relevance. If you look at this material today, in all of its detail, you can see exactly how his presidency happened. His persona and his ambitions were already fully formed in the 1980s – there are even two front covers from 1999 where he blatantly declares his intention to run for President. At the time, those intentions were laughed off as jokes, and quickly forgotten.
How did you go about sourcing these front covers in the archive of the New York Public library, and what interests you about these kinds of archives?
In my work, I often hark back to analogue technologies, as they were the things that my generation of non-digital natives formed our world views around.
Microfiche, now mostly obsolete, was once the gold standard for archival storage of printed matter, and as a result, the go to for all kinds of research. Before digital scanning and online search engines, every page of every printed newspaper was photographed and miniaturised and stored on film. To access these films you needed to own a library card, carry out a manual search in a card catalogue, fill out a paper order form with a lead pencil, interact with a librarian, and wait.
A maximum of two month’s worth of film could be checked out at a time. You viewed the film on a desktop projector, and as you scrolled, the film would be lit up and enlarged on a frosted vertical glass screen. Images from the film could be printed out as a photocopy for a quarter, which meant carrying round bags of coins, running out mid-search, having to return the films, leave the building, go to the coffee shop for change and come back to request the material again. The scratches and lines in the final images in this exhibition stem from heavy public usage of the films and the derelict nature of public library equipment.
When I describe this process to my students, I might as well be talking about horse-drawn carriages and windmills, but I carried out all of my research this way as late as 2007!
What does this exhibition tell us about the ways in which news is made and received, and how the world has changed since this material was first published?
What is perhaps most startling about the Trump stories is how empty on ‘news calories’ they actually are. Apart from what a rich man does with his money, there is not really much content there.
Although Donald Trump is central to my show, I am still not that interested in the figure himself, but rather in what this research reveals about our media culture, and the fact that we are all complicit in it. There has been a lot of institutional anxiety about my show, fear of party politics, defamation, copyright infringement and such. But rather than being a portrait or a scandalous exposé, my work is really a much more mundane piece of media anthropology.
As well as being an artist, I have an academic training in anthropology from the New School for Social Research, New York (1994-1996), and for my entire art career I have relied on anthropological methods such oral history and archival research. This is also how I evoke the contemporary in my art – by actually working with current events, which are replayed cyclically in the stories we tell about ourselves.
During my research, I have been surprised by how little really changes. Stories on continuous repeat in these papers include drugs, school shootings and bad weather. In 2007, I made a series of 20 drawings from headlines about snowstorms and heatwaves in New York City; every year it’s the same story!
Over the same time period that Trump amassed 87 front pages about his personal life, the AIDS crisis – which claimed the lives of 75,000 New Yorkers – made the front page a mere 13 times. This reveals a lot about how the tabloid media thinks, and what readers want from it. But the disparity goes even further. On 12 February 1990, the New York Post announced ‘Trouble in Paradise’ in an article documenting the terminal ‘SPLIT’ between Donald and Ivana. This story was given 95% of the tabloids front cover real estate, while the tiny line of world news at the bottom stated: ‘NELSON MANDELA FREE’.
The issue is not so much the quality of news, but how quickly we forget. And this is the sheer magic of archives; they are not static repositories but can be re-engaged and made fresh depending on what questions are asked of them at any point in time.
What is a ‘Pre-Presidential Library’?
The Wall Street Journal describes Presidential Libraries as ‘Repositories for Presidential papers and historic showcases of the Commander in Chief’s time in Office’, noting that they are also ‘tourist attractions and museums with exhibits that often have only tenuous connections to the President in question’. I have framed this show as an alternative and open source Presidential Library that anyone anywhere can host, research and develop. I consider my idea a contribution to a fuller history, in that it shows the ‘pre-history’ of any President in Office – thus the title, The Pre-Presidential Library.