I was delighted and honored to take part last week in the Princeton-Weimar Summer School on “Archive Futures” at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. The week featured lots of stimulating guest presentations by visiting faculty and some tremendously exciting doctoral student work. I gave a talk, on our penultimate day, on “Archival Aesthetics.” The first half focused on the aesthetics of the archive: its boxes, shelves, architectural spaces, and digital interfaces; and the second half focused on archival art: art that draws inspiration from the archive (…and that, in the process, represents some degree of diversity in gender, race, and class).
I’ll post my text and slides below.
I was the last faculty presenter of the week, so I wanted to make sure to tie together various threads of our ongoing discussion, and to make mention of the students’ projects when appropriate, to reaffirm for them that their work is part of this big, interdisciplinary, long-term dialogue. For those reasons, I decided to write out my comments, rather than allowing myself to extemporize — but still, I refrained from presenting an “argument” that the participants would merely respond to, and chose instead to offer up an assemblage of examples (in keeping with David Joselit’s notion of aesthetic “aggregation”) — some of which were intentionally problematic or provocative, and some of which even I was annoyed by (<cough> Thomas Hirschhorn <cough>). I was hoping that these various projects — even the problematic ones — could generate a discussion about what an archive is and does and can’t do, and who it’s for and not for, and what it feels like.
We had a long, heated, fruitful discussion — one that took turns I certainly hadn’t anticipated. At the bottom of this post, I offer some reflections on that conversation. For now, I’ll simply say that it’s left me wondering about the relationship between taste and “rigor.”
IKKM_ArchivalAestheticsSlides2 by on Scribd
[Note that the emboldened “codes” below — e.g., S2 — refer to slide numbers: S2 is Slide 2, S22 is Slide 22. You can figure out the rest.]
By now, you’ve probably noticed that it’s necessary to begin with a disclaimer. I won’t disappoint. Since I’m the last in a long day – a long week – of cogent, coherent, compelling arguments by a coterie of esteemed scholars, and since I’m sure your cranial archives are filling up and the bodies they inhabit are wearing down, I’m going to take a few cues from Foster and Joselit, whose texts I encouraged you to read for today, and offer some fragmentary, indeterminate thoughts. Rather than taxing your brains by asking you to stick with me through a linear line of argument, I’ll instead aggregate some aesthetic examples that will, at the very least, I hope, give us some concrete “things to think with” – will allow us to reconsider some of the themes that have echoed through your projects and throughout our conversations over the past few days.
It’s probably safe to say that a rather small proportion of the population at large has been in an archive – a physical, place-based archive. Fewer still have ventured beyond the reading rooms – those realms of white gloves and ink embargos – and into the vaults. Given the general lack of popular empirical evidence of archives, it’s rather remarkable that their commonplace conception is so evocative, if also cliché. Rarely does one encounter a sentence in the popular press in which “archives” are not paired with “dusty boxes.” [S2] Dust: those same teeny-tiny particulates that have the power to defile and disable an entire microchip manufacturing operation, are, in the archives, an integral part of the operative logic and prevailing affect – at least in the “imagined archive.”
[S3] Lots of folks – John Ruskin, Burton Russell, Hannah Holmes, Steve Connor, Carolyn Steedman, and my colleague Eugene Thacker – have contemplated the ontological mysteries of dust, its temporal complexities, its poetic and epistemological powers: both blurring boundaries and revealing contours. And of course on Tuesday Daniel addressed the similar complexities of smoke. Dust, like smoke, is also multisensory: it’s something we see and smell and move through and inhale into our bodies, as Steedman reminds us. Those dusty boxes – timeworn though the image might be – also remind us that the archives (much like religious spaces, as Amanda knows) are spaces of embodied encounters.
[S4] This bears reminding, since there’s been relatively little consideration of what it’s like – empirically, aesthetically – to do archival work, either as an archivist or a researcher. That, I think, is why Farge’s highly tactile The Allure of the Archives received such a warm reception when it was translated into English in 2013, 24 years after its original publication. Farge offered an archival addendum to the already voluminous accounts of libraries as “alluring” aesthetic and affective environments. It’s really quite surprising how often, in our grand, capital ‘T’ Theories of “knowledge infrastructures,” we tend to balkanize intellectual labor and aesthetic experience.
I’ll share one short personal story: [S5] about a decade ago I was working on an essay about the 2006 renovation – a controversial retrofitting – of Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library. [Warning: lots of incoming air quotes.] The room was founded with a gift from Harry Harkness Flager, real estate investor and Standard Oil heir, in honor of his friend and former Columbia professor George E. Woodberry, who aimed to afford undergraduates an opportunity to experience the “delight and entertainment” of poetry outside the “chore of the curriculum,” where, under the influence of new approaches to criticism (particularly New Criticism), poetry was increasingly analyzed with a “rigorous empiricism” and mined for “facts.” [S6] My study examined how Aalto’s forward-thinking and fluid design – a warm, humanistic variation of Modernism – accommodated and symbolized the myriad material forms of poetry represented in the collection: manuscripts, little magazines, records, printed books, even poetry-inspired artwork. One of the reviewers of my article, however, claimed that my focus on “delight” and “entertainment” precluded poetry’s “significance”; to highlight aesthetic experience, my critic said, was to suggest that poetry is devoid of “intellectual or political engagement,” and to fail to acknowledge that “poets even think rationally.”
These were my pre-tenure years: I needed that peer-reviewed publication, and I had already waited well over a year for this irascible review. So, in my revision I took great pains to demonstrate that feeling – even, heaven forbid, pleasure and delight – is not inimical to rational thought. [S7] I also had to spend some time explaining, contra many preservationists’ claims, why, in the Poetry Room, computers weren’t “peripheral” technologies that marred the integrity of the design, and that they couldn’t simply be moved off-site so as to preserve the room’s classic aesthetic. At just over 1000 square feet the Poetry Room was one of the smaller media spaces I’ve focused on in my research, and its specific focus on poetry made its mission and audience particularly delimited. But even this small case study illustrates what I’ve tried to do with all of my research on media architectures (research very much inspired and informed by Lynn’s work): that is, to demonstrate how entwined infrastructures – architectural, technological, intellectual, social, etc. – embody certain politics and epistemologies. And this embodiment happens in large part through their aesthetics.
[S8:B] By aesthetics I don’t mean only beauty or sublimity, or a taste-based assessment of “look and feel.” I’m also referring to sensory contemplation, which is not separate from or opposed to the realm of the intellectual. Rather, aesthetics are an integral part of the research and teaching and scholarly fraternizing – as well as the processing and preservation, cataloguing and curating – that take place in archives and libraries. We need to acknowledge these aesthetics of experience, for both patrons and staff, as well as both on-site and online communities, both the local and the distributed.
Let’s take a look at a few examples in which the aesthetics of archival infrastructures inform archival practice – and shape the operative logics and politics of the institution or collection.
[S9] I’ll start with an easy and obvious example: the archival object itself. One of archival preservation’s central concerns is determining whether something has “intrinsic value” based on its “uniqueness…of informational content, age, physical format, artistic or aesthetic qualities, and scarcity” – and if so, then safeguarding the original item.[i] We saw yesterday at the Goethe-Schiller Archive the layers of meaning revealed by attending to the aesthetics of the document: its paper stock and format, the style of writing and the writing implement, the palimpsestic layering of drafts, etc. We saw on Monday the significance of a photobook’s distinctive material properties: its dimensions and layout, the tactility of its cover and haptics of its image reproductions. Tom’s voice mail collection also reminds me of the archival significance of the cassette tape. There’s been a resurgence of interest in tapes, and their potential researchers are interested just as much in the tapes’ distinctive hiss, the physics and gestures of their operation, the J-Card “cover art” and inserts, as they are in their recorded messages.[ii]
[S10] In an archive, those tapes would be stored in a box – but that box isn’t merely a holder-of-content. The box, too, shapes our archival experience. [S11] Consider Thomas Demand’s 1995 photograph, Archive (again, perhaps a too-obvious example), which highlights the standard modular unit of its namesake. The archival box’s monotonous gray (or grey-blue-green) is the defining “anti-aesthetic” of the stacks, informing our conception of the archive’s epistemological object. Yesterday, at the Goethe-Schiller Archive, we investigated the contents of mute gray-green folders inside a manila box, which was in turn enclosed in a surprisingly cheery blue tie-close box. I invite you to consider the affective and epistemological significance of all the untying and unboxing required to access the prized contents.
Demand, as you might know, uses “found” photographs of historically or culturally significant spaces – photographs, we might say, that are plucked from the collective-cultural image archive – to construct life-size models out of paper and cardboard. He then photographs those models before destroying them, thereby precluding the models’ preservation as aesthetic objects. And when we, Demand’s audience, look at the resulting photographs, what initially appears to be a banal setting soon turns uncanny. It’s too matte (or un-shiny), too sterile, too un-peopled, and, as we notice upon even closer inspection, devoid of details like door handles and electrical outlets. These spaces are too blankly generic to be real. The photographs document a fiction.
Demand’s process, it should be painfully obvious to everyone here, highlights the “constructedness” of the document.[iii] While Demand’s creative process obviously offers commentary on archival and historiographic process, here, of course, the creative content is archival, too. This particular photo, with all its unlabeled boxes, happens to depict a model of a photograph of the archive of Leni Reifenstahl. A headache-inducing hermeneutic tangle.
As a teacher, I often think about the pedagogical potential of the box en masse, too: when I take my students into archives’ back rooms and conservation labs, they start to grasp the scope of an institution’s collection and the breadth of formats it contains. As they scan the shelves and acclimate to the climate-controlled chill, they also begin to appreciate how value is attached to those materials – and just how much of it lives only in material form, and will likely not be digitized any time soon. [S12] I recently completed an article on library logistics, for which I examined the off-site shared print repository for the NYPL and Princeton and Columbia universities, which includes, among its 12.5 million items, some archival material. The facility’s carefully engineered un-design is striking. As Michael pointed out on Tuesday, the aesthetics of storage facilities, with their boxes en masse, embody a host of often competing epistemologies and politics of information. Here, the box is both a unit of knowledge and a trackable object on a shelf; the collection represents both a potential intellectual commons of tremendous scope and value, and a product subject to inventory management.
Such storage spaces are typically accessible only by staff – but let’s think also about the design of public, or researcher-accessible, archival facilities. [S13] Consider Neutelings Reidijk Architects’ 2006 Institute for Sound and Vision, a Dutch audio-visual archive in Hilversum, with its façade of televisions images molded, in relief, into multicolored glass panels – a pastiche of glitch aesthetics, TV imagery, and stained glass – and its ziggurat-like interior with “infernal” subterranean archives.[iv] [S14] Contrast this with Arlette Farge’s Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. [S15] And with Mass Design’s proposal for the Kigali Genocide Memorial archives, (a rather unattractive building, I must say,) where a “forest” of pillars will afford individuals private space in which to offer testimonials, recordings of which will then be preserved in the archives, along with documents and audio-visual materials from the Gacaca (gachacha) [genocide] Courts.[v] Cultivating the appropriate affective ambience is critical for a space like this, which aims to make the public an integral collaborator in building and activating the archives.
[S16:B] Digitization efforts also, ostensibly, bring larger and more diverse publics to the archive. Yet a large portion of archival patrons interact with collections without ever setting foot in the archival space. They “visit” solely through the archive’s website. Yet, surprisingly, only recently have archivists begun to pay attention to the usability and aesthetics of their web interfaces. Usability and aesthetics are not mutually exclusive concerns. Aesthetic choices in interface design inform workflow and intellectual labor, as Fabian has noted in his study of office forms. And as archivists Shaun Ellis and Maureen Callahan acknowledge, “our websites are actually a reflection of a whole ecosystem of tools, practices and attitudes within the library.”[vi]
[S17] Until recently, an “online finding aid” meant little more than a pdf of an archive’s original type- or hand-written guides, or a manuscript-length, item-by-item html-based outline of a collection’s contents. [S18] In 2013 a team from Princeton, including Ellis and Callahan, won the C.F.W. Coker Award from the Society of American Archivists for their design of an online finding aid that is, in the jury’s words, “elegant in its outward simplicity and robust in its search capabilities.” The archivists explained that their work began by “imagining an archives access system more in concert with what patrons have come to expect from the web” – hence, the single Google-esque search bar.[vii] The redesigned site allows users to directly access digital content through the catalog, [S19] to sort inventories and dig into deeper levels of metadata if they so choose, and to offer comments at every descriptive level – from the file to the series to the collection.[viii] And every level of the collection has its own unique URL.
[S20] NYPL Labs – the New York Public Library’s in-house tech development team – is testing other means of accessing the library’s archival and manuscript collections. Their Terms Explorer allows users to search across archival collections and map out relationships between people, places, and subjects. Their Detailed Description Mini Map helps you to drill down into a finding aid at a granular level, while still orienting yourself within the larger collection. [S21] You can also transform a finding aid list into a network diagram, or visualize “distant reading” across all the collections. What do you think are the larger implications of these new interface designs? How does it shape how we navigate the archive and understand its contents?
[S22] Yet there’s another way to think about archival aesthetics: in terms of archival art. As Hal Foster[ix] notes in his widely cited article on “the archival impulse,” which I’ve asked you to read, there are lots of artists who take inspiration from archival or library material, or from the archive- or library-as-institution. In addition to the individual artists that Foster mentioned, we have entire exhibitions and collections devoted to archival art: [S23] Haus der Kunst in Munich hosted Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, Archiving in Art in 1997, Okwui Enwezor curated Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art for the International Center of Photography in New York in 2008, and Sven Spieker’s The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy was published that same year.
In the time that remains I’ll “aggregate” a few concrete examples that grapple with some of the themes that animate your work, and that take up issues we haven’t had time to address. Perhaps Foster and Joselit, both prominent art historians, will offer us some conceptual tools to use – but I should note that I don’t expect us to adopt their models wholesale, or to worry over whether or not a particular work meets all the criteria of a Fosterian “archival platform” or a Joselittian “aggregate.” As I hinted at in a few of my comments earlier this week, I’m not one to deify the capital-T Theorist.[x] I think we can draw from their methods or concepts without necessarily buying into their whole program.
Last year I was invited to give one of the plenary addresses at the Library of Congress’s Digital Preservation conference, where we had representatives from the National Archives, the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio, universities and museums, alongside data scientists from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the NSA: a reminder of the incredibly wide variety of archival forms and ideologies. I focused my comments on the aesthetics of preservation; I started by talking about the history of “destruction art,” then looked at a variety of artists who take up issues particularly pertinent to the “future archive” and its “time objects” and aggregated media forms. These artists often bring into stark relief the conventions of archiving and preservation practice, and propose new directions for that practice, by pushing protocols to their extreme, highlighting “snafus,” and creating “limit cases.” [S24] We have artistic examples of the self-erasing disk, the self-destructing file, the self-deteriorating page – for example, William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh’s Agrippa (this work of course takes up themes that are central to Yasmin’s and Johan’s and Ella’s work). [S25] We also have digital artists who highlight the volatility of data models, net architecture and storage media by building intentionally irreverent, idiosyncratic, unstable archives, or by constructing hypertext narratives meant to disintegrate with advancing link rot.[xi] [S26] We have artists aestheticizing the hard drive and other storage technology, reminding us of the materiality of the digital object and of memory.[xii] [S27] We have artists highlighting the questionable veracity of emulation – a strategy used commonly in preserving “variable” media like video games and interactive art. We have artists transforming the processes of digital preservation and emulation into performances – archival “happenings” – and framing the documentation of those processes as aesthetic objects.[xiii] [S28] In aestheticizing the applications, affordances, failures and limitations of digital tools and techniques, these artists help to make manifest, perceptible – aesthetically experiential – the underlying values, tacit politics, and invisible “structuring structures” of our digital archives.
[S29:B] Yet even artists who aren’t working exclusively – or at all – in the digital realm, still pose questions that are pertinent to the future archive. One thing we haven’t discussed much this week, at least by name, is “community archiving,” which, according to archivist Terry Cook, reflects a move toward more “democratic, inclusive, holistic archives,” “listening much more to citizens than the state,” and “respecting indigenous ways of knowing.”[xiv] There are a number of artists working in the realm of “social practice” and “relational aesthetics” who engage with community archiving – not without much debate over both the aesthetic quality of the work and the integrity of their politics.
[S30] Take Theaster Gates, whose Dorchester Projects, a group of reclaimed buildings in Chicago that have been refashioned into a local arts-and-culture center that includes a slide lantern library acquired from the University of Chicago; book and LP collections acquired from the now-defunct Prairie Avenue Bookshop and Dr. Wax Records; and the library of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. [S31] The assemblage of media and architecture inspires its immediate South Side Chicago community, and the global audience that studies Gates’s work, to consider the significance of preserving others’ cast-off media, and of integrating these collections into a vibrant, multi-purpose community space. It also prompts us to consider the roles those specific materials (architecture books, “ethnic” publications) played in constructing Chicago’s – particularly Black Chicago’s — history, a history that other institutions had to “deaccession” in order for Gates to step in as its conservator.[xv]
[S32] Working with similarly disenfranchised populations is Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, whom Foster wrote about in his October article. In the late summer of 2013 a group of students and I trekked up to the Bronx – to the Forest Houses public housing complex – to see Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, a compound, much like a low-lying adult tree-house, composed of plywood, plexiglass, and packing tape, and offered in homage to the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Throughout the summer the project, funded by the Dia Foundation and built by Hirschhorn and residents of the Forest Houses (who were paid $12/hour), had served as home to heady lectures, concerts, and art programs. As the New York Times’ Randy Kennedy put it, it’s an “inner-city intellectual Woodstock” composed of the “totems of a postapocalyptic garbage cult.”
[S33] The compound’s various platforms feature an arts workshop; a stage for presentations and performances; [S34] a restaurant with two-dollar burgers and one-dollar hot dogs and over-ripe bananas; [S35] a computer lab full of kids playing video games; [S36] an exhibition space featuring objects on loan from the Casa Museo di Antonio Gramsci in Sardinia and the Fondazione Istituto Gramsci in Rome; a radio station; a newspaper office where residents put out a daily photocopied edition; various seating areas; [S37] and an archive and library housing roughly 500 books on loan from CUNY’s Calandra Italian American Institute.
[S38] Hirschhorn supposedly met with folks at nearly 50 housing projects before he found a champion in Erik Farmer, president of Forest Houses’ Residents Association. Farmer appreciated not only the offer of temporary employment for his fellow residents, but also the potential to inject something new into the neighborhood: “There’s nothing cultural here at all,” he said to the Times reporter. “It’s like we’re in a box here, in this neighborhood. We need to get out and find out some things about the world. This is kind of like the world coming to us for a little while.” Meanwhile, Hirschhorn must’ve felt he had found an ideal host in Farmer, who “was the only one who asked me to give him a book of Gramsci to read.”[xvi]
I must admit: the three of us felt rather sheepish about our intellectual-cultural tourism to the South Bronx, an area of the city each of us had visited only a handful of times in our many years in New York. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that it was the archival impulse that drew us uptown. Here’s how Foster explains the draw of the archive: “archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present.”[xvii] They “elaborate on the found image, object, and text, and favor the installation format” and its “nonhierarchical spatiality.” They gravitate toward readymades, composed of objects “drawn from the archives of mass culture, to ensure a legibility that can then be disturbed or detourned, but they can also be obscure.” Much of this work is “relational” in nature, and thus adopts expression that is “far more tactile and face-to-face” than the uber-archive of the Web. These archives are “recalcitrantly material.” Work inspired by the archival impulse “not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well, and… in a way that underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private.” [S39] And finally, it “arranges these materials according to a quasi-archival logic, a matrix of citation and juxtaposition, and presents them in a quasi-archival architecture, a complex of texts and objects (…platforms, stations, kiosks…).”
The Gramsci Monument — with its nonhierarchical circulation, its reclaimed materials, its bulbous nodes of packing tape and springy plywood platforms, its smells of grilled hot dogs wafting across the courtyard, its white plastic chairs arranged in clusters to foster conversation, its library shelves offering a mix of heady intellectual books and Ebony magazines — certainly bears out Foster’s description. Foster further proposes that Hirschhorn’s work is a response to, a “grotesquerie of,” our “immersive commodity-media-entertainment environment.”[xviii] [S40] These platforms offer the “intimation of utopian possibility, or at least a desire for systematic transformation” — new development atop the landfill borne from what Hirschhorn calls the collective “capitalist garbage bucket.” (We’d have to consider the specific ways in which that “garbage bucket” has spilled into the South Bronx.)
We’re not simply remixing and repurposing found texts and images and constructing readymades; nor are we simply rearranging archival materials. [S41] We’re also generating new materials, new knowledge, as is evidenced in the daily newspaper and ongoing radio broadcasts. [S42] While I was there, a group comprised of at least one Forest Houses resident, a former police officer, and an official Gramsci Monument worker (possibly a Forest Houses resident, too) spoke on-air about police brutality and stop and frisk, while periodically evoking Gramsci.
The Gramsci Monument is the fourth and final of Hirschhorn’s monuments; others for Spinoza, Bataille, and Deleuze appeared, for the most part, in the philosophers’ home countries, but apart from “official sites.” Gramsci gets stuck in the U.S., but he, too, is removed from its cultural capitals and finds himself situated in the Bronx. As Foster explains, “the radical status of the guest philosopher is matched by the minor status of the host community, and the encounter suggests a temporary refunctioning of the monument from a univocal structure that obscures antagonisms (philosophical and political, social and economic) to a counter hegemonic archive that might be used to articulate such differences.”[xix] [S43] More broadly, Hirschhorn “wants to expose different audiences to alternative archives of public culture, and to charge this relationship with affect” — with a mix of “love” and “politics,” as proclaimed on the basketball hoops we see here.[xx] “Hirschhorn applies these mixed means to incite his audience to (re)invest in radical practices of art, literature and philosophy — to produce a cultural cathexis based not on official taste, vanguard literacy, or critical correctness, but on political use-value driven by artistic love-value.”[xxi]
As much as I admire the mission, I just can’t help but read condescension in the rhetoric. I can’t get over that reference to the local population’s “minor status.” I can’t help but wonder if the Times’s Ken Johnson is right: if the Gramsci Monument is just “another monument to [Hirschhorn’s] monumental ego.” Yet in reading through the Monument’s extraordinarily text-heavy poster-size program, I found that Hirschhorn explains his relationship to the community in terms that are a bit less patronizing and actually rather redeeming:
I never use the term ‘participatory art’ in referring to my work, because someone looking at an Ingres painting, for instance, is participating, even without anyone noticing. I never use the terms ‘educational art’ or ‘community art,’ and my work has never had anything to do with ‘relational aesthetics.’ The Other has no specific ties with aesthetics. To address a ‘non-exclusive’ audience means to face reality, failure, unsuccessfulnesss, the cruelty of disinterest, and the incommensurability of a complex situation. Participation cannot be a goal, participation cannot be an aim, participation can only be a lucky outcome.
Participation here comes in many forms. As Hirschhorn admits, “I do not distinguish between a person who could be a ‘receptive participant’ and the person ‘hanging around.’” They’re all participating, and those myriad forms of participation are validated. Art blog Art F City featured an illuminating post that drove this point home. They write:
[S44] The purpose of combining a computer room, art studio, radio station, newspaper room, philosophy library, kiddie pool, snack bar, and an open mic stage, is to validate any group cultural experience. Copies of People magazine sit across from a bookshelf of Marxist literature. A photo wall titled “Every book is important” shows kids holding up their favorite books, from textbooks to chick lit. It’s a living embodiment of Gramsci’s desire for proletariat liberation from cultural hegemony, and his credo: “Every human being is an intellectual.”
That liberation comes in many forms. The aforementioned blog post featured several interviews with local residents. Dannion Jordan, who was on the paid construction team, said, “You work on something like this, and after a while it’s not like a job…. You start thinking it’s your thing, too. I mean, I’m no artist, but I’m making a work of art here.” Forest Houses’ Erik Farmer explained to Kennedy that, while for Hirschhorn the project is a work of art, “[f]or me, it’s a man-made community center. And if it changes something here, even slightly, well, you know, that’s going in the right direction.” Local resident Cash explained, “The way I see it is they provided fifty jobs to the community, for one. For two, everybody looks forward to coming here. If it were up to me, I would have this every year.” Another resident said, “It kept people busy, people out of trouble. And focused on something positive instead of negative. You could tell there was a change.” And yet another experienced an aesthetic liberation: “And this is art. I never realized that art…it really changed my idea of what art could be. Art could be anything.” So can an intellectual. And maybe an archive, too.[xxii]
[S45] Artist Ann Hamilton likewise expands our notion of what constitutes, and doesn’t constitute, an archive. For her, the historical document is fully embodied and vital and social; in this way, her work parallels that of Diana Taylor, who draws a distinction between the text-based “archive” and the performance-based “repertoire.” Much of Hamilton’s work engages with the materiality and sociality of communication and historical artifacts, and how that materiality determines what constitutes a culture’s “archive.” [S46] Through the material abundance of her work, and through its lack of familiarity to what Foster calls typical “archival architectures,” Hamilton’s work allows its inhabitants to create new, unfamiliar, affective connections to history. It calls attention to the limitations of the official historical record and suggests means of refreshing the archive’s architectures and materials with alternative sources that don’t always readily lend themselves to classification or preservation.
“I’m very interested in the hierarchies of our habits of perception,” Hamilton says, noting in particular “our” prioritization of “the discursive structure of words” over other “ways of knowing.”[xxiii] Her work frequently questions the authority of the verbal and textual record. [S47] Aleph, for instance, includes a video close-up of Hamilton’s mouth, full of marbles, rendering her mute. [S48] For myein, she recited Lincoln’s second inaugural address in phonetic code and covered the inside walls of the Venice Biennale’s American Pavilion with a Braille translation of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915). Both pieces questioned the universality of language and called attention to the archive’s – and, in the latter case, American history’s – unheard voices. [S49] Meanwhile, indigo blue and tropos involved the “unmaking” of a book through erasure, or by burning away the text, line by line. Rather than an act of destruction, however, this unmaking represented a means of “clearing the field,” making room for another “material kind of telling.”[xxiv]
Hamilton seeks to evoke history’s “untold stories…through a material presence.”[xxv] [S50] In mattering, for instance, a person sitting in a perch draws up from the floor a long line of typewriter tape and “weaves” it around his hands. The gesture links mechanical production to handicraft, and, considered in light of the installation’s title, “mattering,” represents the transformation of materiality, and the human labor that produces it, into something that matters. Embodiment is entwined with epistemology ([S51] even her experiments with mouth-held pinhole cameras argue for an embodied record-making). Hamilton’s work addresses, in her words, “the way the body through physical labor leaves a transparent presence in material and how labor is a way of knowing.”[xxvi]
Hamilton uses quotidian materials – from bread to blue jeans to pink Pearl erasers – and a variety of media formats, to form inhabitable, multisensory “archival” landscapes. [S52] At her 2012 the event of a thread at the Park Avenue Armory, we find newspaper, 8 x 11” lined paper covered with handwriting, scrolls covered with typewritten text, pigeons (which once, like the horse, served as a vital means of transmission), vinyl-record-engravers, erasers, bells, bellows, [S53] radios, the voice. In these installations, which commonly engage the histories of their sites, she creates palimpsestic landscapes by layering sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture, then activating the scene with simple, repeated movements, or what Clark Lunberry calls “accretions of gesture.” [S54] indigo blue and tropos, as I noted earlier, involved someone sitting at a table, [S55] “unmaking” a book through erasure, by burning away the text, line by line. [S56] I took my graduate Archives + Libraries class to see the event of a thread, where several students commented on the various kinds of labor, or performance, represented in the installation. We had “official” participants, [S57] including the artist herself, reading and writing and erasing and singing and recording. And we, the visitors, gleefully labored on our swings to move a giant curtain strung across the center of the Armory. Again, our bodies, through their physical labor, marked their presence in the material and contributed to a larger epistemological project.
[S58] How do we preserve these transparent presences? How do we ensure those quotidian gestures, that invisible labor, those unheard voices are registered in the historical record? What defies recording and preservation? These are among the questions Hamilton’s work raises for me. She proposes that a history rooted not only in extraordinary events, but also in the everyday – its artifacts, sensations, labor, simple gestures – requires an archive that is embodied, material, and living.
[S59] Then again, what if there are aspects of the everyday that we simply don’t want to be recordable and preservable? Voices that don’t’ want to be heard, gestures that don’t want to be captured? Are you familiar with the Invisible Australians project? It cross-references documents generated through the Australian Immigration Restriction Act to piece together the identities – and posthumously grant subjectivity – to non-white residents who weren’t recognized as Australians. The ethics of this project – and of the clearly unethical government policies it aims to redress – are worth debating.
[S60] I’ll end with an example that’s quite the antithesis of invisibility and silence.
Camille Henrot’s 2013 video Grosse Fatigue is the exhaustive aggregative archive – a world tour and grand history of archaeology and epistemology. Joselit describes the aggregate as a platform that “stages cofrontations” between disparate, semi-autonomous items; it brings “unlike things” into a “common space” in order to “have their conceptual unevenness heightened.” The video, based on her 2013 artist’s residency at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., exploits the aesthetic of the interface to contrast different materialities and aesthetics of preservation: [S61] a fish in a preservative bath, tagged bird carcasses in a drawer, proliferating browser windows and books and magazines and hard drives stuffed with gifs – and even technicians working in a natural history museum’s preservation lab. [S62] Art historian Pamela Lee suggests that the “windows within windows within windows” layering of these analog and digital preservation systems – which we might say echoes of the boxes within boxes of the Goethe Archive – shows the “digital windows and screens” to be “just as flattened out and drained of life as all those sorry animals carcasses accumulating in cold storage.” [xxvii] We’re missing that accretion of material presence. The screen, she seems to be saying, despite its riotous chromaticism and propulsive rhythm, fails to provide a “cleared field” for us where we can submerge our hands in boxes, take pleasure in the intellectual labor of mind and body, inhabit the dust, and breathe.
[i] See Kimberly J. Barata, “Questioning Aesthetics: Are Archivists Qualified To Make Appraisal or Reappraisal Decisions Based on Aesthetic Judgments?” Provenance, Journal Of The Society Of Georgia Archivists 12:1/2 (1994).
[ii] Lisa Hix, “Cassette Revolution: Why 1980s Tape Tech Is Still Making Noise in Our Digital World” Collectors Weekly (June 2, 2015).
[iv] See Shannon Mattern, “Infernal Archive: Media States of Matter in the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision” Flow TV (May 21, 2010).
[v] See “Concept Developed to Build a State of the Art Gacaca Archive” Gacaca Community Justice (January 28, 2015).
[vi] Shaun Ellis & Maureen Callahan, “Prototyping as a Process for Improved User Experience with Library and Archives Websites” Code4Lib 18 (2012).
[ix] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse” October 110 (Fall 2004): 3-22.
[x] I don’t particularly care, in most cases, if I’m honoring the integrity of the Academic Sage’s gospel. Even our brilliant Theory Gods are still fallible humans – often driven by hubris, often prone to branded neologisms, often plagued with purple prose or a predilection for obfuscatory rambling – who have nevertheless done us a great service by bracketing and naming particular cultural phenomena, and offering us some potentially useful methods and concepts.
[xiv] Terry Cook, “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms” Archival Science 13:2/3 (2013): 116.
[xv] See See Huey Copeland’s wonderful “Dark Mirrors: Theaster Gates and Ebony” Artforum 52:2 (October 2013): 222-229.
[xvi] Monument program.
[xvii] Foster 4-5.
[xviii] Foster 10-11.
[xix] Foster 9.
[xx] Foster 7.
[xxi] Foster 10.
[xxii] For more on the Monument’s aftermath, see Whitney Kimball, “How Do People Feel About the Gramsci Monument, One Year Later” Art F City (August 20, 2014).
[xxiii] Quoted in Mary Katherine Coffey, “Histories that Haunt: A Conversation with Ann Hamilton” Art Journal 60:3 (Autumn 2001): 15.
[xxiv] Quoted in Amei Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio” American Art 22:1 (2008): 54, 55
[xxv] Quoted in Wallach 68.
[xxvi] Quoted in Wallach 74.
[xxvii] Pamela M. Lee, “The Whole Earth is Heavy” Artforum (September 2013). See also Andrea Picard, “Camille Henrot: A Hunter-Gatherer During a Time of Collective ‘Grosse Fatigue’” Cinema Scope 56.
As I said above, we had a long, heated, fruitful discussion, with lots of unancipated twists and turns. It’s typically a delight to find a conversation generating new frameworks and concepts, and unfolding in unpredictable directions — but parts of our conversation took on a register that made me a bit uncomfortable (maybe productively so?). I’m partly to blame for this: I made a poor choice in preparing my presentation: I spent waaaay too long writing the talk, then spent waaaay too long preparing my slides, then spent way too little time thinking about my coda: a video clip. I wanted to show a few segments from a glossy, impulsive video installation, but the only high-res versions of the video available online were integrated into a seven-minute documentary featuring an interview with the artist. And in that interview our artist said some not-jaw-droppingly-stupid-but-not-exactly-brilliant things about cultural production and ethnology and disciplinarity and epistemology. I, perhaps not-exactly-brilliantly, figured people would listen past her not-always-compelling commentary and instead watch the super-flashy footage of the video installation itself; as I said, by way of preface, that’s what I wanted to highlight: the flow of images in the video. And if members of the group did want to take issue with her commentary in our conversation, all the better! We could disagree with her! Her work, by offending our own sensibilities, could challenge us to articulate those sensibilities. I happen to believe that we don’t have to “like” or agree with work to learn from it. Besides, this particular artist is widely shown, the winner of numerous awards — so why not grapple with her work?
Surprisingly (to me), we spent a really long time talking about intellect and taste: the artist’s intellect and my taste. Why would I not have chosen a piece that was more “rigorous,” more “sophisticated”? There were plenty of more “avant-garde” examples that would’ve been much more intellectually potent (Farocki, of course, as well as other vanguard gentlemen). I suggested that the very fact that this “flawed” work generated such a vigorous discussion indicated that it was, in some sense, successful — in inciting viewers’ critical thought, in pushing us to fill in the gaps that the artist left behind. But, apparently, my standards weren’t high enough; I was letting the artist off the hook — by merely giving her some play, it seems.
I left feeling defeated and a bit stunned. Yes, I made a bad choice in showing a video that interrupted the artwork itself with jejune commentary, which then kinda derailed our discussion. But still, I wonder: can we not seriously examine less-than-“rigorous” art (flawed according to whom, by the way — and, besides, what art isn’t in some regard imperfect?), to see what we might have to learn from it? Does all art have to come with a built-in, air-tight theoretical treatise? Do we expect all of our artists to be verbally articulate critical theorists? Can we, the “viewing public,” not add that layer of intellectual rigor through our conversations about art? Can artists not embed critique into their work though parody or provocation? And what roles does taste play in academics’ critical-judgments-that-aren’t-ostensibly-about-aesthetics?