Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 23, 2009
Charles Merewether, ed. The Archive Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press and Whitechapel, 2006. 208 pp. Paper $22.95 (9780262633383)
Sven Spieker The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. 219 pp.; 78 b/w ills. Cloth $24.95 (978262195706)

There is something of a difficulty in reviewing two such dissimilar publications—an edited collection and a monograph—yet they have a number of themes in common: both attend to the normative requirements of engaging with gender, race, and class (if not so much with sexuality); but they also intersect more particularly with issues that appear key for contemporary archival studies in the humanities.

These issues might be opened with reference to the introduction to Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), where Fredric Jameson noted that in the context of the massive quantitative rise of mnemotechnics and its increasing determination of social, cultural, and economic life, the control and ownership of archives is one of the key political concerns of our times. In addition, “control” in this context is also an issue of data management, since massive archival accumulation requires meaning-producing limiting devices, such as filtering, and any such activity must necessarily encounter the politics of interpretation. Given the current rise in the market of archival studies within the institutions of the humanities, and of culture more widely, as well as the conflicts of method and understanding between them, the politics of interpretation also devolves upon the conceptualization of the archive in these disciplinary contexts. This involves not only the concept of the archive generally speaking, but the relations between archival types—the archive in its professional sense, the library, the museum, etc. As Lyotard argued in “Domus and the Megalopolis” (in Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, 191–204), politics in this context includes the subversion of techno-capitalist order through a recognition of the fractures and conflicts that in fact inhabit the image of its endless archives, as much as they inhabit the image of a replete, monolithic, pastoralized archive. If this raises issues of archival exclusion and reinscription (an activity that has characterized much feminist and postcolonial discourse in their reinscription of excluded voices, memories, and experiences), it also presents the question of the extra-archival: the question of the possibility of knowledges and experiences that might evade normative archival institutions and structures. In this context, there are four key aspects for contemporary thought of the archive: the ownership of and access to archives; the accumulation and limitation of archival material; the politics of concepts of the archive; and the question of the extra-archival.

The Archive, edited by Charles Merewether, refers to its remit as “art and the archive.” Two issues immediately arise, connected by the questions that they raise. First, given the generality of its title, and given its sense of historical breadth (circa 1945 to the present), the collection tempts analysis of its ability to fulfil these claims. Second, given that it is comprised of massively truncated fragments of other texts, the book is essentially an index of texts and objects located in other archival forms—libraries, image collections, digital data banks, museums, and retail outlets. If this renders the collection effective as an introduction to its selections and its subject, while nevertheless being of interest to specialist readers, there are questions concerning its representation of the field to which it addresses itself. This indexical gesture further raises issues concerning engagement with the definitions and relations of such archival types.

The book is taxonomically comprised of subgroups of texts headed under a cluster of terms. “Traces” comprises three theoretical texts: Sigmund Freud’s “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad,’” Michel Foucault’s “The Historical a priori and the Archive,” and Giorgio Agamben’s “The Archive and Testimony.” The section might appear to represent aspects of art practices that attend to objects: Andy Warhol’s “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),” Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away,” and Susan Hiller’s “Working Through Objects”; yet all of these collections are connected to the visual. Such complexly involved relations between objects and images also characterize Christian Boltanski’s “Research and Presentation of All that Remains of My Childhood” and Renée Green’s “Survival: Ruminations on Archival Lacunae.” “Inscriptions” comprises four critical-theoretical texts: Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Paul Ricoeur’s “Archives, Documents, Traces,” Walter Benjamin’s “A Short History of Photography,” and Allan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive”—the latter two of course emphasizing the photographic archive. “Contestations” also prioritizes the photographic (if to some extent this is supplemented by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska on Polish film, and further by Hal Foster and Thomas Hirschhorn on collections as monuments), with Benjamin Buchloh on Gerhard Richter, Margarita Tupitsyn on the photographic archive, Merewether on Japanese photography, and Patricia Levin and Jeanne Perrault on photography and gender. There are also predominating references here to photography in Anne Moeglin-Delcroix’s “The Model of the Sciences” and subREAL’s “Politics of Cultural Heritage”; just as technical reproduction plays a central role in Marcel Broodthaers’s work, “Musée d’art Moderne, Département des Aigles.” In “Retracings” film has its place (via The Atlas Group and Jayce Salloum’s “Untitled: The Video Installation as an Active Archive”), while the document in a broader sense is discussed in Gayatri Spivak’s “The Rani of Sirmur” and by Raqs Media Collective; but the section also continues the emphasis on the photographic, with Eugenio Dittborn’s attention to the magazine, Merewether’s “Archives of the Fallen,” The Atlas Group’s “The Secrets File,” and Akram Zaatari’s “Photographic Documents.”

The sub-headings indicate that the collection’s taxonomy is not media based, but, overall, it focuses on the photographic archive (somewhat ironically, since it contains no images), obviating those practices that have rigorously attended to other archival forms—for example, the museum (Mark Dion) and the library (Candida Höfer). This tacitly suggests that the political issues of the contemporary archive are also dominated by visual media, which downplays the massive role of non-visual data in the construction of contemporary life. While there is some attention to this photographic privilege in individual texts, it is not recognized in the introduction, nor is it marked as an editorial decision, despite the fact that such activity is, as Derrida maintained in Archive Fever (Trans. Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), one of “consignation” (taxonomic inclusion-exclusion)—that is: of politics, institution, and authority.

The taxonomy of the collection bears further attention, as its theoretical content intersects with the four issues previously extrapolated from Lyotard. “Traces” concerns “perceptions and understandings” as residual marks of “events and experiences”; “the archive” here being neither recorded remembrance nor written history, that is, not an accumulation of documents as such, but having a subversive function in relation to them (10). That Freud’s “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’” is included suggests that mnemonic traces would be a form of such an archive, and this possibility questions the difference between experiential traces and the archival document in terms of the extent to which Freud’s thought of memory is predicated upon archival technologies and structures. Such a definition of the trace opens itself to Agamben’s emphasis on experience and its testimony, and in this, too, questions could be raised concerning the difference between experience and technological memory. The emphasis on experience over memory reflects a traditional philosophical antipathy toward the archive, as well as an affirmation of thought, speech, and experience. Paradoxically, such antipathy (and such concepts of experience) may be structured and preceded by archival knowledge. Further analysis would be required to unknot the complex relations between experience and memory in Agamben’s thought, as would the privilege of experience over technological memory that features in Ricoeur’s inclusion (68). In “Inscriptions,” the section from Derrida’s Archive Fever attends to Freud and the destruction drive, and, in reference to the question of Agamben’s relation to the historical privilege of experience, we might note the insistence that “the archive” as technical hypomnesia “takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown” of organic mneme or anamnesis (78). There is some contiguity with this sense of the archive and that offered by Buchloh’s notion of the enactment and destruction of mnemonic experience in the “Contestations” section, which (in comparison to the theoretical nature of the previous, complicated as it is by Sekula’s role as a practitioner) contains texts by artists and art historians relating to the period 1945 to the present. This involves reference to the book and the artist’s book as counter-archival forms, an idea extended in Foster’s “The Archival Impulse,” for example, around Hirschhorn. “Retracings” extends the remit of the former section to include contestation of the “effects” of the “dominant construction of the archival as historical record” (15).

The difference between the concepts of the sections can be undermined by their content, as, for example, there is no reason why Archive Fever, in “Inscriptions,” could not be in “Contestations”: it is intrinsically a thought of the counter-archive. At some points, then, the diffuse taxonomy of the book is undermined by its content and gestures toward its own collapse, and the canonical set of theoretical examples might have been augmented. Jacques Rancière’s The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge (Trans. Hassan Melehy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994) is not included as a gesture toward the new Continental philosophies, nor is Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wautz, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) and its post-Foucauldian approaches to archival mnemotechnics.

As the monograph form permits, there is more detailed discussion of the differences between archival types, and notions of the archive, in Sven Spieker’s The Big Archive. The book argues that late twentieth-century installation art reacts to the early century avant-gardes’ attack on nineteenth-century bureaucratic fetishism of linear, historical temporality, as it is played out through archival theory and practice (1).

The book is structured chronologically. After the prologue and introduction, it takes up with the late nineteenth-century Prussian attention to archival provenance, arguing that its attention to history needs to be countered by attention to spatial mapping. The text then turns in the next chapter to Freud and a discussion of relations between archival and psychic structure in terms of topographics. This shift from time to space is somewhat displaced by the subsequent chapter on Marcel Duchamp’s engagement with archival forms, with its attention to temporality and contingency. Topographics again provides the model for the following chapter on the early Surrealists’ mapping of the unconscious, as it could be said to do in the next chapter on El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko circa 1925 in the context of the tactile exploration of the labyrinth of knowledge within the space of the “Demonstration Rooms.” Spatiality against temporality again marks the next chapter, concerning photography and the archive in the work of Hans-Peter Feldmann, Hiller, Richter, Raad, and Boris Mikhailov, where the archive’s attention to original order is compared to the modularity and mobility of elements within a database. This chapter leaps to 1970–2000, followed by a final chapter on Michael Fehr, Andrea Fraser, Susan Hiller, and Sophie Calle entitled “The Archive at Play,” in which the movement away from history is in part couched in a polarized account of Derrida’s sense of play in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences” (in Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, 278–294) as being, in Spieker’s words, “no longer invested in either history or hermeneutics” (174). Such a sense of freedom characterizes romantic misreadings of deconstruction as much as an uncritically liberatory postmodernism that is itself now receding into history, and that may not suit what might be a more poststructuralist interest in history potentiated, for example, by Hiller’s work.

Indeed, the art-historical argument of the book might distort the work of some of the figures included here: Hiller’s art also reflects an interest in archival practices other than the aesthetic, such as those relating to spiritualism. In terms of such extra-aesthetic practices, while there are some references to archival theory from its professional practice, the book is not interdisciplinary as such, and so neglects to note that the idea of the archive “at play” in the final chapter has also been analyzed and enacted, in theory and practice, by archivists themselves (through ideas of mobility, user-access, and de-totalization). Terry Cook’s work in the area is one example (Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz, “Archives, Records, and Power: From [Postmodern] Theory to [Archival] Performance,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 171–185), as, in another context, is Mike Featherstone’s work on the archive in the context of the contemporary sociology of knowledge (Mike Featherstone, “Archive,” Theory Culture Society 23, vols. 2–3 (2006): 591–596). There are also points where the term “archive” slips into substitution for others, like “document” or “object” (122). While there is an argument to be made concerning the fate of the concept in general, the book does not always attend to the rigorous delimitation of such slippages demanded by deconstruction.

If at certain points there is some wandering from the explicit attention to history marked as the prime focus of the book, it is because Spieker is also interested in another key issue: over-accumulation. This first surfaces in the prologue on Kabakov: “When an archive has to collect everything [. . .] it will soon succumb to entropy and chaos” (xiii), and remains an aspect of subsequent chapters. Spieker’s understanding of art’s response to the issue of over-accumulation tends to think of the archival art-object as a gap or interstice that subtracts from the archive (around Duchamp for example), yet each object nevertheless is an addition to the proliferation of the archive, just as Spieker’s book is an addition to the expanding archive of art-historical studies cataloguing the interstitial. Western culture’s fear of excessive accumulation has been subject to a variety of responses—for example, physical (destruction and perishment), editorial (cataloguing and selection), user-based (cataloguing and search criteria), and ideational (the privileging of experience, thought, or organic memory over mnemotechnical accumulation—an issue of the extra-archival).

In this context, each chapter is preceded by a fragment of a sentence from the introduction: “Archives do not record experience so much as its absence; they mark the point where an experience is missing from its proper place, and what is returned to us in an archive may well be something we never possessed in the first place.” This scene of difference between archive and experience is set, for Spieker, as it traditionally is for many, by Foucault (13). While Foucault’s argument, in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (in Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed., Paul Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, 76–100), that archival research may positively broach new knowledge would need to be recognized, the later Foucault’s insistence on doing (sex) rather than speaking (about it) stands as an affirmation of archival exteriority. There are a number of thinkers and practitioners in both of these collections who intersect with this issue, and it is also a feature of contemporary Continental philosophy, for example in the revolutionary antipathy toward the capitalist status quo and its collections of knowledge that marks the thought of Alain Badiou. In difference—just as, for Derrida, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”—there is no simple exteriority of the archive either: experience and archive are mutually and inextricably entwined.

The Big Archive is bookended between two accounts of art practice, and takes its name from Kabakov; as with Merewether, it affirms the critical potentialities of art practices engaged with issues of the archive, cultural memory, and their politics. The epilogue on Thomas Demand, however, is simply confounding. It argues that the abstraction of Demand’s Archive (1995) “denies us the indexicality to which archives and photographs lay claim,” leaving us “literally blinded” (193). This is, no doubt, part of the rhetoric of the image, but what is obviated here is not only the archival engagement of Demand’s practice in its manipulation of paper and photography in the reconstruction of pre-existing images from archives, but what used to be referred to (by Roland Barthes, for example) as the “image repertoire,” or what might be referred to, after Badiou, as the “encyclopaedia”—that diffuse, circulating “archive” located everywhere in institutions and psyches—because Demand’s photograph refers to an image of Leni Reifenstahl’s archive. If it does not intentionally implicate this dimension of cultural knowledge, Spieker’s epilogue counters its opposite at the start of the book, which, in discussing Kabakov’s Sixteen Ropes (1984) in the context of cybernetics, describes “the archive’s precarious position between order and chaos, between organization and disorder, between the presence of voice and the muteness of objects” (xiii). Likewise, if Spieker carries out subtle engagements with fluctuations in archival antipathy in the development of art, and is keen to argue the liminality of art practice, two, at least, of the theoretical descriptions betray something of a polarizing thought. While Lyotard’s initial opposition between “domus” and “megalopolis” is described, the liminal category of the “complex domicile” is not mentioned, just as Derrida’s quasi-concept of play is not recognized in its relation to history. And it is not the institution of the archive per se that is the condition of histor(icit)y itself, as Spieker argues, but the play of différance “itself.” The book ends, then, not only in affirming an archive without relation to history, but, consequently, an ostensible subtraction from historical-archival accumulation that is as a result of its conceptual polarizations metaphysical.

Likewise, in Merewether’s book, Dragan Kujundzic’s writing makes references to the “infinite” openness of the archive to the future. This is also a feature of Foster’s essay, at least in its unabridged form, with its references to archival endlessness (Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 [Fall 2004]: 3–22). This is problematic because ideas about the infinitely or absolutely other, for example, or ideas of endless accumulation, are determined by traditional philosophical concepts of infinity (the absolute and ad infinitum) and thus remain, as deconstruction does not quite, but Levinas, Freud, Benjamin, Sekula, Ricouer, Agamben, and the earlier Foucault do, within metaphysics.

If these conceptions of the archive are ultimately metaphysical, they remain within and have been determined by the dispersed archives of traditional Western knowledge. If this sounds erudite, one of the key ways in which metaphysics and culture more widely intersect over the figure of the archive is in terms of accumulation described in terms of infinity. This can be recognized in literature in a number of writings by Jorge Luis Borges, like “The Library of Babel,” as much as it can be in Socratic philosophy’s antipathy toward the accumulation of writings. It is also a consistent object for Spieker’s book in its descriptions of endless accumulation, and also registers in Merewether’s, as in Kujundzic’s sense of the infinitely open archive.

Given interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary contestations over the concept of the archive, such metaphysical issues are political, just as in the context of contemporary digital archiving the market is marked by the politics of conflicts between totality and detotalization—Google’s current attempt to gain the rights to digitize and profit from every book published in the United States, and the ensuing conflict with the Open Book Alliance, is a case in point. The great merit of the two studies discussed here, particularly Spieker’s affirmation of the relevance of the early avant-gardes for archival engagement and Merewether’s affirmation of contemporary practices that produce and control archival counter-knowledges, is that they both provide historical context, analysis, and knowledge of practices that offer possibilities of engagement and contestation within this current archival scene.

Sas Mays
Lecturer in Aesthetics and Critical Theory, Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies, University of Westminster