Title: History Database
Author: Luke Stettner
Publisher: Self Publish, Be Happy
Publication date and place: May 2016, London
Edition: 500
Format: Hardcover
Size: 15 x 20 cm
Pages: 248
Printing: Offset
Price: 35 GBP

I am somehow glad that I have been so slow in writing a commentary on History Database by Luke Stettner, published by Self Publish, Be Happy in March 2016, because this gave me the possibility of coming back to the book at various times. 

History Database is that kind of editorial project which, at first glance, makes you utter “aaah, it reminds of...” plus the name of some author or the title of some other project dealing with the photographic archive as a source and a praxis. This is precisely what I did at the presence of Luke himself during the art book festival One Thousand Books in Copenhagen, where History Database was presented (read our overview on OTB at this link). Luke was polite enough to smile back to me and keep our conversation alive, explaining me how the publication was actually conceived and created, which helped me to fully grasp its meaning.
History Database derives from an exhibition entitled a,b,moon,d that took place in 2015 at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor (USA), where Stettner combined installation, sculpture, drawing and photography. The main artwork of the show consisted in a site-specific outdoor piece inspired by pictographic codes – an “ideogram like” abstract composition of biochar-filled trenches, expanding over 80 foots of land. The visitor could walk in it, but the large scale installation could be fully read only from an aerial view.

In preparation of that work, Stettner studied photographs of archaeological digs and maps of ancient architectural complexes, and observed how their geometric forms recall icon-based languages. Some of the photographs were taken by him, while others were collected from specialized publications. After making inkjet prints of the images, Stettner scanned all of them, removing the halftones, re-photographed them with 35mm film and finally developed them onto gelatin silver paper. This process created material equivalence among all the pictures both on the formal aspect and on their significance: the photographs were brought to a flat condition of similarity that removed any trace of their origins and stories, creating a sense of suspended time where past and future are mingled together.

A small number of these images were displayed in the gallery in form of photo-collages. Short after, the rest of them naturally flowed into this book, that in my opinion benefits from not having being conceived as a photobook on its own, but comes instead as a natural step of a larger process. Which is still ongoing, since a future exhibition is planned, transitioning this gray corpus of images back from page to wall.

The curious thing is that the deeper I went into the book, the blurrier it became. My impression progressively shifted from the rational experience of going over an archive to the sensation of browsing an unintelligible manual – an illustrated instruction book for men of the future (or aliens) to guide them through our history from our very primitive days up to now. On this level, the word “database” contained in the title is more than appropriate, at once hinting at an inner codified structure out of our reading skill, and contributing to the sense of vagueness that this book leaves us with. All in all, I would include History Database in the realm of post-internet art rather than in the world of photobooks. It is an image-based art object arranged along several thematic threads, from information dispersion and historical documentation to human language and approaches to art history.

Buy the book here