This week I decided to consolidate my my own experiences of working in archives and collections by reading more about other artists working in this way, and particularly how these methods have been critically and historically received. One source of information on artists and writers working in this field was the edited collection, ‘The Archive’.
‘The Archive’ (2006), edited by Charles Merewether, is a collection of essays published as part of the Documents of Contemporary Art series by Whitechapel Gallery in collaboration with the MIT Press. The premise of the collection is as follows: “In the modern era, the archive—official or personal—has become the most significant means by which historical knowledge and memory are collected, stored, and recovered. The archive has thus emerged as a key site of inquiry in such fields as anthropology, critical theory, history, and, especially, recent art.”
‘The Archive’ presents a number of essays which include definitions, provocations and working models of archives in relation to modern and contemporary art practice. In the essay ‘The Historical a priori and the Archive’, Michel Foucault places the archive between the “language (langue) that defines the system of constructing possible sentences, and the corpus that passively collects the words that are spoken… it reveals the rules of a practice that enables statements both to survive and to undergo regular modification. It is the general system of the formation and transformation of statements… it emerges in fragments, regions and levels, more fully, no doubt, and with greater sharpness, the greater the time that separates us from it.” (Foucault, 1969, p29) Through describing the archive as a system which determines that which is remembered and that which is forgotten, Foucault challenges the notion of the archive as a neutral space of authority.
Art and the archive
The role of collections and archives have become more significant to artists and art historians from the start of the 20th century, particularly in relation to photographic and technological developments. As the basis of historical record, archives determine which knowledge is available for future generations to understand their past. This has led to questions regarding not only what knowledge is contained within archives, but also what constitutes an archive and how these systems could be rendered differently. (Merewether, p10)
Systems of organisation became necessary due to the unlimited nature of knowledge and information stored within repositories, and due to the multiplicity of discourses and the fragmentary nature of the information collected. As Charles Merewether writes in his introduction to The Archive: “events and experiences always leave behind them by means of the index, or residual mark, of their occurrence… Manifesting itself in the form of traces, it contains the potential to fragment and destabilize either remembrance as recorded, or history as written.” (Merewether, p10)
Archive as exhibition: Susan Hiller’s ‘The Freud Museum’
One of the main concerns with creating narratives from collections is that of ‘fixing’ the interpretation of the documents. Many artists, therefore, attempt to investigate the systems that produce these meanings as intrinsic to the work. One such artist is Susan Hiller, whose 1994 essay, ‘Working Through Objects’, describes her experience of producing an installation in The Freud Museum, a space that she describes as an installation in its own right due to the curated nature of the artwork and furniture contained within it. (Hiller, 1994, p45)
Hiller describes how her use of the boxes and large vitrine in her installation reflected her previous training as an archaeologist. “When archaeologists do their fieldwork they carefully place all the interesting things found in a ‘neutral’ box. Then a series of hands-on acts transpires: sorting, cleaning, putting into plastic bags, reading, making notes and maps, even repairing… Out of them come typologies and chronologies.” (Hiller, 1994, p45)
She also felt that the condensed nature of the installation, confined as it was to the vitrine, encouraged a closer engagement with the audience, similar to the way in which an archivist or archaeologist might approach their work: “I have discovered that when things are condensed or constrained like this, people will involve themselves in a more careful, slow, and intimate way than they do when they come into a space to see an art installation which perhaps has spread itself out in a large room where it is perfectly possible to stand in the doorway and take a mental snapshot of the geography of the space…” (Hiller, 1994, p41)
The Mystic Writing-Pad
Freud’s own thoughts on the archive as a method of preserving and recording memories are also represented in the edited collection through his 1925 essay ‘A Note upon the Mystic Writing-Pad’. Here he details the discovery of a new piece of technology operating in the style of a palimpsest: “The Mystic Pad is a slab of dark brown resin or wax… over the slab is laid a thin transparent sheet [consisting] of two layers… The upper layer is a transparent piece of celluloid; the lower layer is made of thin translucent waxed paper… To make use of the Mystic Pad, one writes upon the celluloid portion of the covering sheet which rests on the wax slab… At the points at which the stylus touches, it presses the lower surface of the waxed paper on to the wax slab, and the grooves are visible as dark writing upon the otherwise smooth whitish-grey surface of the celluloid. If one wishes to destroy what has been written, all that is necessary is to raise the double covering sheet from the wax slab by a light pull.” (Freud, 1925, pp. 21-22)
Freud likens this process and the resultant impressions left on the wax slab to the perceptual functions of the brain. As a solution to the issues of providing an indefinite surface with which to record a permanent trace, coupled with links to outsourcing memory, the essay begins to touch on ideas of modern computing and cloud storage decades before these technologies become a reality.
The Anomic Archive
Similarly, networked approaches to interpreting information became more prevalent in the 1920s as outlined in Benjamin H.D. Buchloh 1993 essay, ‘Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive’. Although his focus was on Richter’s ‘Atlas’ project, the lack of “precedents for artistic procedures that organize knowledge systematically within didactic models of display or as mnemonic devices” within Avant-garde art, led him to consider comparisons with art historical projects such as Aby Warburg’s ‘Mnemosyne Atlas’ (discussed in week 61), and Walter Benjamin’s ‘Passangenwerk’. Both Warburg’s and Benjamin’s montages were compared to the collage techniques of the Surrealists, and were also contemporaneous with the development of photography. (Buchloh, 1993, p89)
In both projects, along with new montage techniques in art, the arrangement of forms began to give way to the construction of meanings. This allowed for structural networks to be investigated by displacing “the telling of history as a sequence of events and accounts of its individual agents [for a] focus on the simultaneity of separate but contingent social frameworks and an infinity of participating agents.” (Buchloh, 1993, p90)
Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing and Archiving in Art, ed. Ingrid Schaffner and Andreas Winzen 1998
Survival: Ruminations on Archival Lacunae by Renee Green, 2002