The Mutable Archive

The photographs that constitute The Mutable Archive – a collection of human skulls and their accompanying archive cards - function as a series of small memorials.  They portray an eclectic array of outcasts, eccentrics, notorious characters, “homo-delinquens” and anomalous individuals, many of who were lost to themselves and to the world.  Each attests to the history of a “lived experience” and to social connectedness, or a lack thereof.  Most of all, each offers a range of interpretations through their individual inscriptions – the post-mortem skull tattoos etched into each – which, like any document, changes according to the reigning regimes of truth of a given period.

Taken from what is referred to by some as: “The Grinning Wall,” a case of 139 skulls collected by Viennese physician Dr. Hyrtl in the 19th century (1874), this index suggests a strange kind of taxonomy.  Reading them through the lens of the present allows us to explore the reasons why such collections still resonate for us even today.  Such historical collections seem quintessentially contemporary because the condition that led to their acquisition is still present in the 21st century, and that is our preoccupation with difference.  The specimens and the photographs alike also bring to light the controversies surrounding the display of human remains and various interpretations of personhood, individuality, and humanness.

The Mutable Archive is a collaborative work that enlists commissioned writers, scholars, historians, medical ethicists, philosophers, and even a spiritual medium, who will each create a speculative or fictional biography, one for each subject.  Archival data, factual errors, personal biases, and the writers’ own conjectures and longings will guide them as they engage their own processes of history and identity construction, engaging in their own ways the illusory nature of truth.

The Mutable Archive (excerpt)