Over the weekend I saw Bladerunner 2049 in theaters and the film gave new parameters to the definition of the “archive” while at the same time maintaining existing aesthetic ideologies. Encased in an Egyptian temple-like monolith, offline digital assets were stored on acrylic “drives” and in precious glass orbs handled with white gloves.
Archival assets, both analog and digital, have unique attributes when taking into account the struggle to store them in perpetuity: analog paper assets can be affected by flooding, humidity and climate control; digital assets are affected by increasing needs for physical geographical location.
The Internet Wayback Machine is an attempt to archive pieces of the internet that have been deemed valuable, but what of the future of the archive? As resources become sparse, what will we deem as valuable of saving?
For over a century artists have created artifacts meant to re-frame existing knowledge and perception, and create social commentary for the future of civilization. From Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, to Jan Hoek’s The “Real” Somali Pirates, 2017, artists have (sometimes literally) flipped reality on its head in order to engage the audience and invite them to look at things just a little differently.
The landscape for viewing these artifacts has also changed dramatically: where Duchamp’s work is in the pristine gallery, Hoek’s photographs are in a Brooklyn deli. In the same way that physical artifacts have moved from the Archive monolith into the public space, web-based digital interpretations of assets have become more and more prevalent. For the last four years, Rebecca Onion has been featuring her favorite “Digital Archives” on slate.com, and they range from Knitting Pattern Archives to the a timeline on the history of slang. Each year the interfaces for these online projects become more and more dynamic and engaging.
More important than the interface is the artifact itself. But how do we define the artifact? Typically the association one makes when thinking of the archival artifact, one thinks of a document, whether it contains information on births, deaths, landowning or laws. In Bernard Stiegler’s For a New Critique of Political Economy, the author defines the “document” as “tertiary retention” where Primary Retention is the present, Secondary Retention is memory of the past and Tertiary Retention is the documentation of the memory of the past. And I agree with David Joselit’s assessment that by storing a temporal occurrence, “It is consequently perfectly possible that by this definition documents may be fictional…” (“On Aggregators,” pp 8).
This is exemplified in Hoek’s photographs which recreate images of Kenyan men posing as Somali pirates. In 2010, at the height of Somali attacks, Western journalists sought to find retired pirates, as it was much safe to travel than traveling to Somalia where they may have fallen victim themselves, in order to gain insight into the surge. These Kenyan men saw an opportunity to be paid for their stories by pretending to be pirates.
Similarly, in an interview of Mariam Ghani, the artist states that, while conducting research for her work, “Sometimes this research leads me to construct a fiction or reconstruct a speculative history around documents or fragments, physical traces, or a sense of place” (Bindu Bhadana, “Index of the Disappeared,” 2016). Constructing truth or fiction through photography and film has been a long running debate among theorists since the mediums’ inception into the art world.
But some artists embrace the ethereal nature of the artifact more than others. In the 1963 interview of Nam June Paik by Gottfried Michael König, the Paik regaled musician John Cage:
“Why do all musicians and music publishers believe that everything must result in something of importance to the history of music? That’s crazy. I told Cage: Destroy your manuscripts and tapes when you die! He thought that was too dramatic. I think it’s a crime that Cage makes tapes at all.”
During his interview, Gottfried Michael König pursued the issue: “So your own works are only intended for the moment? They have no significance afterwards? Not even for you? […] Your work only exists as long as it is being performed?” Nam June Paik responded: “Yes, that is beautiful. When I die there’s nothing left. I am not producing a child” (quoted in König 1963: 32, 34).
So what is to become of the artifact? Should it be contained and preserved only to be found in the next millennia while digging through the mountainside? Or will it finally be returned to its rightful owner? Possession of an artifact not belonging to its country of origin can often be a double-edged sword: while the artifact might be better maintained, once the artifact can be returned, how will it get there? Remaining in the hands of the possessing society may also mean a false interpretation of an object, not unlike the scene in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and her seagull companion’s designation of a hair-combing “dinglehopper” to an obvious fork, the artifact may not be fully understood until returned to its rightful owner.
These questions may only be answered by future generations, who even now are re-framing their definitions of the artifact by recognizing it, as Joselit does, in having a “condition of plasticity or transitivity” (pp 8). Exercises conducted in the classroom ask students to think on the viewpoint of future populations and come up with their own artifacts in the same way that artists have for so long.
So whether fleeting and ethereal, analog or digital, vivid or crude, fact or fiction, the ideological landscape for the artifact and archive alike are ever-changing and their future has yet to be seen.