In the film Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002), there is a scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi is consulting the chief librarian Jocasta Nu about the planet Kamino. They try to locate the planet through the archival records, typing the coordinates in, and one imagines the search term “Kamino” into the interface, but fail to find the planet.
Jocasta Nu: I hate to say it, but it looks like the system you’re searching for doesn’t exist.
Obi-Wan: Impossible. Perhaps the archives are incomplete.
Jocasta Nu: If an item doesn’t appear on our records, it does not exist.
The encounter is brief, the search through the archives futile. Perhaps the brevity of the encounter serves only to reinforce the unquestionable infallibility of the archives. There was simply no need for further conversation. I’m interested in this scene not because of what it says about the archive as a dominant medium for information, history or truth, but rather the fact that even in an alternative galaxy “far, far away,” our imagination of the archive is still fundamentally imagined through texts and written records.
Writing, as Diana Taylor argues in The Archive and The Repertoire, remains a dominant system in our imagination of the archives. For Taylor, this is due largely to a cultural bias inherited from “Western epistemologies” that value the affordance that the written word provides — i.e., the ability to be detached and independent from the body of its host/source, and thus to outlive the latter (24). Compared to the “archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings and bones),” the “repertoire” of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)” is thus seen as inferior because of its ephemerality and its requirements for live transmissions (Taylor 19). And in today’s myth of the digital as dematerialized ether, “the body again seems poised to disappear in a virtual space that eludes embodiment” (Taylor 16).
But Taylor writes against such a linear history of our knowledge systems, against the seductive idea that our knowledge systems are becoming more and more virtual, becoming increasingly stored in mediums that are abstracted further and further away from the body. For her, looking particularly at the performance of cultural memory across the Americas, she argues that “[e]mbodied expressions has participated and will probably continue to participate in the transmission of social knowledge, memory, identity pre- and post-writing” (16). Following Taylor’s argument, we need to examine alternative forms of knowledge systems and cultural memory in order to overcome the “preponderance of writing in Western epistemologies” — one which tends to dismiss and denigrate other cultures that do not share a strong dependence on the written word as the main language for cultural transmission.
To do this, Taylor gives us a binary of the “archive” and the “repertoire” as alternative tendencies of knowledge systems. Although this forms the basis of her subsequent arguments, she does not see the two terms of “archive” and “repertoire” as mutually exclusive, insisting that they often work together in tandem, and often alongside other systems of transmission (21). In that sense, Taylor wishes to break the monopoly that writing has on the histories of our knowledge systems, but without re-introducing any new hierarchy herself.
For the purposes of this presentation, I would like to think about Taylor’s terms — the “archive” and the “repertoire” — alongside a work by Singaporean artist Charles Lim called Stealing the Trapeze (2016). To begin, some biographical details about the artist would provide useful contexts to understand the political gestures behind the work: Charles was born into a family of Anglophiles; his parents having spent their lives as British subjects in colonial Singapore decided to name their son after Prince Charles. In his youth, Charles was sent to a boarding school in Cranleigh, England, where he would discover his aptitude for competitive sailing. Eventually Charles represented Singapore in the Olympics, but he would use the sports scholarship he earned to go to art school at Central Saint Martins in London. (He is also one half of the artist collective tsunamii.net for which my final project is about.) Charles’s practice, in the last decade, has focused on Singapore’s estranged relationship with its waters, how the sea which determined the island-nation’s histories and fortunes has been effectively flushed out of Singapore’s national imagination, turned from a public space into restricted infrastructural zone. (See in particular the Bloomberg documentary on Charles’s practice.)
In 2016, Charles was invited to participate in a biennial set in the Irish city of Limerick. It was there where he first presented the work Stealing the Trapeze — a video installation accompanied by a poster which the artist circulated freely. In effect, the work became a means for Charles to question the written (British colonial) archive surrounding the technique of the trapeze used in modern competitive sailing.
In the existing accounts of modern competitive sailing, the trapeze is often attributed as an invention of Sir Peter Scott. As far as official histories go: the trapeze was dreamt up in the summer of 1938, and first performed by Sir Peter Scott and John Winter in a winning competition that very year. There are plenty of written records to support Sir Peter Scott’s claims to have invented the trapeze in 1938, particularly since Scott was a prominent member of the British society and a polymath (i.e., natural historian, painter, naval officer, sportsman) who wrote and published frequently. In other words, the written archive of the trapeze as a modern sailing technique had been well-established, largely through Scott. Charles was intimated with this history when he encountered, in his boarding school’s library, a book featuring Scott’s account. A book that he would then steal, in his youth, back home to Singapore.
Fast forward to 2016, Stealing the Trapeze contests this official history of the trapeze as a modern invention. Instead, Charles looks to the maritime histories of Southeast Asia, and he finds a possible antecedent of the trapeze in the traditional technique of “tembang” used in kolek boat-racing still practiced today. This traditional technique of using body weights as ballast and to steer a racing kolek boat predates the 1938 invention of the trapeze; and the word “tembang” is derived colloquially from the Malay word “timbang” which means to weigh or to seek balance. Charles would go on to do his own archival research and find a 1902 article in The Journal of the Royal Society of Art (a British journal) detailing descriptions of kolek racers using the tembang.
In response, Charles produced a poster as part of Stealing the Trapeze: a poster that aimed to correct the archive of the trapeze with another earlier article written and informed by colonial ethnography. So rather than Sir Peter Scott inventing the trapeze in the summer of 1938, as the history of modern competitive sailing records it, this technique of using body weights as ballast is proposed to go back to at least 1902 when British colonial ethnographers reported on the maritime arts of the Malay archipelago.
Yet, I want to suggest that the correction of the archive complicates the artist’s position as a postcolonial subject who, though is definitely interested in calling out an appropriation by the British Empire, nonetheless corrects that colonial archive from within. In that moment, does the artist’s reliance on colonial records and documents pay further compliments to the work done by colonial scholars and thus also to the integrity of the British archive at large?
My own personal answer to that question is a resolute “yes,” but there is something more and something perhaps redeeming in the video component of Stealing the Trapeze which complicates this issue further:
Returning to Diana Taylor’s notion of the repertoire, the video documents the ongoing tradition of kolek racing and the use of the tembang (this precursor to the trapeze), alongside competitive sailors practising the modern technique of the trapeze. All this seems to suggest that, despite not having written down records about this tradition or technique by the Malay peoples themselves, this repertoire of the tembang continues to be transmitted through generations after generations who continue to partake in the tradition of kolek racing using the tembang. Despite the state’s ongoing efforts to reterritorialize the common space of the waters as restricted infrastructural zones, this tradition has somehow managed to keep itself alive, and has even adapted to new modern materials — seen most visibly in the bright neon of the kolek’s sail. The dead-time of the written archive (represented by the poster) is thus juxtaposed with the live, moving images of the repertoire. Traditions and repertoires move; they change with time, and perhaps this gives them vitality and longevity.
Finally, as a way of conclusion, I wish to draw attention to the different relationships that the kolek racers and modern sailing teams have to the natural environment, in particular the waters. While the modern sailing duo is decked out in waterproof suits that insulate them from the natural elements, it is compelling to see how direct and tactile a relationship that the kolek racers have with the waters, especially when they are performing the tembang and going close to the surface of the waters. They touch, rather than avoid, the waters. They become soaked to their skins. The water here is not a romantic sublime, nor is it an object distanced from the human body; it is a medium that hosts and thus environs a repertoire of embodied knowledge.
(feature image: screen-grab from Charles Lim, Stealing the Trapeze, 2016)