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To Read Between the Lines

Upon waking one morning, I was thrilled to discover an email from the art historian Diana Quinby in my inbox. Ah, what a pleasant surprise after several quiet weeks! Her email contained a download link to handwritten notes that I promptly saved on my computer.


The dossier shared by Diana included three files, each corresponding to notes taken during meetings with Nil Yalter in her studio. These notes are respectively dated November 9, 2001, March 23, 1999, and May 24, 1999, spanning over two decades. It’s worth noting, with amusement, that two of these meetings took place before my birth...


I settled quietly at my desk and spent a good hour (and even more!) examining these three files. I feared a bit to find myself facing illegible notes, but I was wrong. Diana’s notes are clear and well-written, her handwriting precise - and she even took care to correct her grammatical mistakes! I was thus able to immerse myself in these three moments of encounter with great ease.


First observation: the notes contain several questions to which we will likely find answers by listening to the VHS tapes converted into MP4. On this subject, I should receive feedback very soon.


Image 1 : Diana’s notes on La Roquette


Second observation: for me, it was clear that Diana’s notes reveal numerous details about Nil’s works, details that can only be obtained through interviews. I’m particularly thinking of the notes from November 9, 2001, which largely deal with Nil’s work, La Roquette, prison de femmes. Through these notes, and thus Nil Yalter’s words, we discover many subtleties of the lives and the daily conditions of women imprisoned at La Roquette. To provide context, the prisons of La Roquette were former penitentiary establishments located in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. One of these establishments became, in 1935, a prison for women, as well as a place of execution for women in Paris. This incarceration policy remained unchanged until the closure of the prison in 1974, the year of Nil’s work’s creation. Through Diana’s notes, we learn, for example, that “the prison provided nothing - neither tissue nor sanitary towel“ Some women worked inside the prison to earn a little money, but these small savings were not enough for all, with some

women even going so far as to “tear images [of recipes] and food to eat“ We also learn that the meat was very tough, blankets were lacking during harsh winters, lice were commonplace, and women were only allowed television once a month. These bits of information interest us as much for what they reveal about the prison as for what touched Nil and inspired her in the conception of her work.



Image 2 : La petite prison de la roquette © Getty – Keystone


Image 3 : Nil’s work, La Roquette, Prison de Femmes


Image 4 : Nil’s work, La Roquette, Prison de Femmes


These handwritten notes, let’s not forget, are only fragments, incomplete traces of a brief moment in the lives of Nil and Diana. Subjective in nature, they ultimately represent what Diana found interesting to note on November 9, 2001, potentially enriching her future thesis and reflections, as well as what Nil deemed relevant to respond to. The great dilemma of the archive persists : what are they hiding and not telling the archivist?


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