The Archive of the Trapeze

[SLIDES HERE]

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.

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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)

 

DECONSTRUCTING SILENCE; EPISTEMOLOGICAL & POLITICAL SUBJECTS

My focus on Ann Stoler’s work, Colonial Archives and the Art of Governance and Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge has in some odd way given me a tremendous understanding of both the history of record keeping and the language that factors to authorize those records.  These reading and others, like Trouillot’s book, “Silencing”, which exposed the greatest lie of the U.S. archives from slavery. This realization, though I had heard stories of the great Haitian Revolution, brought an awareness that was not there before. Before reading these works, I personally not comprehend the practices that for over a century have kept archivist tormenting with the idea of how to better perfect this apparatus called the “fonds”, so that it reflects true society as a whole. I discovered that not only was archival science an intentional and manipulated practice of memory retrieval and making, but also a potential and proven socio-political weapon created as a way to control and rule over populations and to claim provenance.

 

A few key points hit home for me and my interests in the political nature of archives as well as the practice and language that creates them. I was pretty surprised to discover the three Canadian Dutchmen who, in 1898 presented a shiny new rule book on how to ensure the integrity of the “fonds” and how to conduct thorough analysis of it’s contents. The “Dutch Manuel” set the president for what archiving is today.  The most important rule of this ‘Manuel’ was to not be altered or delineated from, was rule number one, ” “the whole of the written documents, drawings and printed matter, officially received or produced by an administrative body or one of its officials …”.  Though others have attempted to revamp this record production system, many continue to use this out dated method still today.

I explored a lot of Ann Stoler’s ideas as well as the cited references from her works.  I have realized that I am one of those “students of culture” she speaks about in her writing. She speaks directly to the questions that have plagued me since embarking on my own journey for true representation of my self and factual historical records of ancestors and events surrounding family. I am questioning the very same issues she points out and reading her thoughts gave me relief, that I can be candid and open about my same frustrations with silence and erasure within and around the archive.

Focault’s quote on asking questions about “how” this happens, gave me the spark to go digging. He states, “I don’t believe the question of ‘who exercises power’ can be resolved, if the question of ‘how does it happen’, is resolved at the same time.” Focault’s “system of formation and transformation of statements”, “enunciative function”, and his “historical a priori” all shed valuable light as to what is occurring as the archives are being structured. What Focault stresses is nothing more than the “language of the privileged” and how the archive becomes what it is when archivist begin to talk over, about and around the truth.

Who has the authority to make selections to be placed in archives? How does this process work? What processes exactly are at work? and “What criteria is chosen to either store or discard?”  What is classified as evidence of truth? and what are reliable sources?– since some believe that history has no power without it’s source.

So many questions began to come to me as I became anxious about the possibilities for future archival work and ways to improve and build new ideas to make it all inclusive for everyone and everything- for the sake of correcting history. I wanted to compare what was already in the archive to what part of my heritage and others in this ‘whole’ had been erased, silenced or omitted completely from the record? As I dug further into the history of record keeping, I began to discover many examples of errors, omissions, deliberate erasures and just flat out manipulations on the public record. How can the archives represent the whole of a society when clearly what is and remains within it, is only a fraction of what is factual. Is this why the three amigos of archival science felt compelled to publish in 1898 an official rule book on properly describing materials? Were they driven by the frustration as I am today? I had to know more and with a few more questions I went a little further.

Focault has greatly influenced me if not as much as Ann Stoler. Stoler’s points which reminded me of Derrida’s truth that “there is no political power without control of the archive.” It seemed true. Who has the power to decide?  Stoler rightfully explains how the “arch”, “archi(v)a” means magistrate in Greek and Latin and how ‘etymology’ rules for those who control it. As Thomas Richards Hilton states in “Lost Horizon about the Archive”, it was a “prototype for a global system of domination through circulation, an apparatus for controlling territory by producing, distributing and consuming information about it.”  This statement suggests that the archive was invented for the sole purpose to circulate information (repetitiously), and to also consume what was being spoon fed to the public itself.

Here is where my application to Political Epistemology begins. I address questions of authority and provenance, the questions of diversity and culture and the questions of access and truth. Erasure, silencing and ostracizing culture in and throughout history has become seemingly the norm for archival practice. Is this behavior inevitable among future archivist or can it be corrected with new innovative approaches to this science?  With so many new technologies, data sets, creative minds springing up, I am wondering why no one has made a way to drastically challenge the of silence to marginalized populations and manipulated evidence of statements and events of the past.

This newest challenge with the art of record keeping is with vast databases of electronic records which will make or break of future archiving. Will archivist create a whole separate practice for digital records? Will they incorporate old practices and processes with new materials and what problems come with them?

Stoler cites author Michel De Certeau’s challenge to question and rethink the archival process. I too will take on Certeau’s call to “prowl” the landscape of what kinds of piece meal knowledge has been blindly entered into the archives and how that information has affected me directly and collide with the future of others. Today with more communication  modes and access to a fair amount of knowledge of the past (not enough), marginalized communities are asking these questions and will ultimately find answers. The taxonomies of race and rule have been unchecked and have persisted for too long.  If legitimizing the epistemology of society is the true mission of any archivist, there must be severe improvements in the areas of provenance and historical cultural claims (not negatively).

Archivist must certainly know the difference between “what happened” and “what is said to have happened” when preserving knowledge. The source is the most important mode of understanding of the process, and the words to describe them has become a nuance for the practice and must be carefully considered before applying them to any new material. It is in the context and the process that create the original record that is more trustworthy and reliable.

Finally, the fact that there are less articles, reports and scholarship written on the social practices of archiving today, than there were a hundred years ago, speaks volumes on the work ahead of Archival Science. Why are there no efforts being made to master the understanding of the act of archiving or the sociology of archiving?- rather than on the rules, extraction of materials, organizing, describing, and theoretical spiel on archival practice?   What is our inner drive or “impulse” to create records in the first place? This is a totally different question from memory- or is it?

Expanding the Archive to Include Earth Too

The reading from this week’s class that I chose to focus on was D. Graham Burnett’s writing on the archive of ice located in Colorado, National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL). I found this a fascinating read because in our ever extending understanding of the archive we have moved from exploring the function, purpose, and organization archives of man-made cultural materials to now exploring the function and purpose of archiving the natural world. Discussing how to archive the ephemeral, and whether we should archive it, made me even more curious about exploring the ice archive.

There were a few things that piqued my interest and inspired me to focus on this area. The first was a personal involvement. A dear friend of mine has been exploring icy landscapes for years as a climate change artist. She is also trying to capture the ephemeral through her drawings of glaciers that are consistently changing, especially in the age of a changing climate. It seemed this archive was trying to do the same, capturing the changing ice landscapes to further understand climate change. The second was the irony of the NICL. The purpose of the archive is to study climate change, which is caused by a warming planet due to greenhouse gases emitted from human activity and energy usage. The NICL uses a massive amount of resources and energy to keep the archive cold enough for the ice, to study climate change. The third was the layers contained in this archive. The ice acts as document, in its layer’s scientists learn about the history of the earth, it is the bible of our natural history, chronicling our time on earth. The archive doesn’t just contain chemical information on our atmosphere, it also contains the earliest life forms we had on earth: ancient microorganisms in the form of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. We think of history as something that is gone, its past is for us to learn from but not live in, however, this ice archive contains life, frozen in time.

This function of this archive is supremely important in the current political climate. In one of our first classes we learned how “epistemology” became a prominent word as the new presidential administration controversially questioned climate change and started to remove data and even the phrase itself from government websites. A few different online archives for this data were started by professors, professionals, and concerned citizens to create a space for information the government was trying to suppress. Here, again, we see the importance of the archive as a place where lost information is found. NICL’s ice collection is the hard evidence in a case against climate change.

The content of the ice archive is essential for our understanding of earth’s atmospheric history. Within the archived ice are layers, like tree rings, that contain information about each era of our environment. Because the snow and ice never melts, each year a new layer was added on top of the old one, preserving the chemical make-up of the world. The ice was creating its own earthly archive.

Per Fredrik Scholander was the scientist who figured out that air trapped in ice was preserved. From Burnett’s description, he seemed like a fascinating member of scientific history. Burnett used the words “cowboy-scientist” and worked with other scientists who studied “life at the edges of death.” Working on another project in the Artic, Scholander heard that dogs were vomiting up fish because they were still alive in their stomachs, after eating them frozen. This led him to working with gnat larvae that were previously frozen, but then when thawed, were alive and well. He then realized that ice preserved the atmospheric air and was, therefore an archive of our natural past. All of this reminded me of Jurassic Park. It seems silly, but the way dinosaurs were brought back to life was because there was a small mosquito that was preserved in the layers of the earth and it has the missing dinosaur DNA. Hollywood took a giant leap into the simplistically absurd, but the idea was rooted in the work Scholander did to discover the invaluable information ice contained in its natural archive.

The organization of this archive has a commonality with most other archives, it needs to function at its best to preserve what is in it. The ice is stored in a freezer that is 55,000 cubic feet at -36 Celsius. In watching this YouTube video about the archive, I learned how sensitive the ice is to any outside elements (like potato chips!) and how important the back-up system is to an archive that needs to stay frozen.

From the reading, we know that this isn’t the only ice archive, but the unique characteristic of NICL is that it allows researchers and citizens to access its collection, through a vetting process of course. While this ice archive is mostly for scientists, granting access to citizens through videos, press, its website, and tours of the actual archive help the larger public understand the importance of its function and the larger scientific purpose it serves.

Learning more about NICL helped expand my own idea of the archive. I have walked through natural collections at museums, I have thought about scientists collecting rocks, soil, sediment, and bugs for study. I haven’t thought of these scientists as archivists, but they are. They are putting together collections that aren’t made of content by humans, but of earthly content. Their organization and selection of these archives could determine how future generations understand a rapidly changing earth. The importance of this during a time of global temperature rise cannot be overlooked.

This archive and others like it, that are preserving the earth’s content makes me think of other “natural” archives like fossils. The earth has its own way of preserving data so we can learn about our past. Now we are also seeing that biologics and the natural world could be a way for  us to archive our human-made culture and data through DNA archives. It has showed me that the natural world and archives are more connected than I ever thought they were.

 

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1M3VUwlV6p19m9OUbKZN1TJ6tFIienrFprSNhbqTNzQw/edit?usp=sharing

 

Net Art is Dead

Throughout the course my position on digital materials and their relationship to archives has changed. Previously, I considered any digital material to be intrusive and of minor importance. This, of course, came from a place of ignorance and misunderstanding. After researching and learning about the internet, hardware, software, The Archive, conservation, and the limitless interconnection with all disciplines and mediums, I have come to completely become immersed in the the digital world and all its implications in regards to our established infrastructures and environment.

Internet Art (Net Art) in particular intrigues me. There is something about the world it creates that draws me in. Specifically, I want to understand what goes on in the back end, which is the most interesting component. Also, the diversity of it. As Christiane Paul adjunct curator at The Whitney Museum said “We are looking at something that is becoming more hybrid. Pieces often have different manifestations: an application, a net-based piece, an installation.” This is what makes it so beautiful: it is limitless and unrestricted. It is democratizing and all inclusive, where not only “artists” are allowed. It is the transition from medium to medium that the net art community (digital art in general) has inspired that in the big picture has fed the art world and, by extension, the history of art.

Another important component is the value of experimentation, which allows for the richness of the net art culture, and which consequently also feeds technological advances. This correlation between art and technology can not be underestimated because one does not exist without the other. We have come a long way from “Cybernetic Serendipity,” an exhibition held by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1968, which coincided with the pop-art movement and ARPANET, the first TCP/IP network. Both of these were groundbreaking. The pop-art movement on one hand challenged the notions of high art vs low art, and ARPANET in itself the red carpet of the internet.

Gordon Pask Colloquy of Mobiles
installation view video 1
ICA, London, 1968.

On that same note of transcendance, Net Art has created a more egalitarian relationship between the creatives and the institutions, hence the desire of museums to contribute to not only the creation and recognition, but the proliferation of digital works. A great example of this is the not-for-profit organization Rhizome, an affiliate of the New Museum, which gives digital media artists a platform to showcase their work.

As Rhizome other institutions, organization and platforms should be mentioned, as are:

Archive of Digital Art (ADA): a database for virtual art,
DiMoDa, a virtual institution dedicated to collecting and preserving digital art, and
MoMa’s Digital Art Vault.

Given that the third edition of The Wrong Biennale is currently live through January 31, 2018, I decided to chose it as an example to illustrate the complex environment of Net Art and the difficulty it poses not only in the curation practice in terms of classification (due to its hybridity), but also and in our case most importantly for storage and preservation purposes. In 2013, Spanish cultural curator, writer, producer and artist David Quiles Guillo created the The Wrong (digital art Biennale). The Wrong Biennale is a global digital art biennale that aims to display digital culture to a wider audience on the basis of open participation.

“The online biennale happens in pavilions: virtual curated spaces in any online accessible media where selected artworks are exhibited. The offline biennale happens in embassies; art spaces, galleries, institutions and artist-run spaces in cities around the world that feature temporary AFK projects, live performances, workshops, artist talks and exhibitions.”

This virtual exhibition has a total of +1,100 artists, 80 curators and an estimated +12 million unique visitors. This is massive. The mediums used by the creators are multiple, the use of the media is interchangeable and it creates a never ending loop of clicking. Once you land on the main website, virtual pavilions greet you, each one promising to take you into an infinite world beyond the net universe. In this biennale, you will find art created to be showcased on Instagram as is the case for “The Future for Today,” which “is a series of Instagram stories about what is to come. Every weekday, a different medium artist posts their predictions, employing divination techniques from the past and future.”

Then you will find a hyperlinked directory called 15cmdments, which “derives from 15 different Macbook keyboard shortcuts one is able to perform using the “cmd” key e.g. Command-C = Copy. 15 Artists have been invited to choose one of the 15 as a starting point to create new art.” Furthermore, in the same ecosystem you find an overwhelmingly uncomfortably curated virtual installation called “Curating Spam,” which is described as “Spam as information, Spam as aesthetics, Spam as communication strategy, Spam as curating, Spam as all the things you never wished for but happened anyway.” The “Curating Spam” pavilion was first intended as ng) shit”, which perfectly takes us to the important point of it all. How can all this inter-linkable material be stored and preserved, maintaining its essence? Should we store everything without discrimination and just amass for posterity? And if not, who shall be given the responsibility to decide what needs to be preserved for posterity?

The most problematic situations with preserving Net Art are: server payments, keeping the software to date, and the conceptualization and context of the art. This according to Annet Dekker in “Assembling traces, or the conservation of Net Art” article for Necsus Journal. With standardization and the defeat of capitalism (which I think is digital media conservation’s biggest issue) not foreseen in the near future, “the caretakers” (net users that appropriate the pieces to keep them alive) seem to be our only current viable net archive.

Application Presentation

Application Presentation

Photo Collection

 

I chose this funny picture (01) to start: it is the first camera ever made (photographed by the second one ever made), at least this is what is says on the website I got it. I found it funny because of the size and because, somehow, the machine and its materiality stand out more than people.

One point that I found very interesting in the readings is the fact that, since the beginning of photography, the issue of archive was part of its production.

There’s an example on John Tagg’s text, which is the stereograph (02), [this double picture that you need to use a specific “viewer”, called the stereoscope, to see the picture.]

The stereograph had a peak of popularity around 1859 and Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American physician, foresaw that this proliferation would create big collections that would need a form of classification and organization in libraries.

Also, it created the necessity of a piece of furniture that would make the storage of them possible, in an organized way – thus the creation of the file cabinet (03), which is this furniture on our left, with the drawer open.

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Like the stereograph, the same situation happened with photography since its beginning. Bertillon (04), French director of the identification bureau of the Paris prefecture of Police, was the inventor of the first system for cataloging and retrieving of photographic records (05).

He had to organize the pictures of criminals and suspects in a way that would be easy to work and access, becoming easy to identify people and connect them to see if they had similar expressions and characteristics.

Besides organizing the photos, he also developed a system for criminal identification (06), based on photos. He used what we called today the mug shot along with detailed pictures of parts of the face, based in five primary measurements, such as the head length, the length of the middle finger, the length of the left foot.

I found interesting how he was able to create two systems of classification, one of people (07) (suspects) and one of photos and documents about them. Here is a “class” (08) he gave to explain his system for criminal identification.

—–

 

Another interesting aspect about these systems of photo classification is the fact that, many times, the method of classification create what Elizabeth Edwards says as a passive resource, in which photos are assembled regardless of their deep meaning, just like a neutral document.

For instance, the creation of the modern vertical file (09) in 1892, like this one, made possible the organization of photos using the decimal system of classification.

But the use of this system and placement made photo collection more related to the machinery of the archive (10) than to the machinery of the camera. Again, as Foucault is cited in Tagg’s text, the space of the file is the space of a disciplinary machine.

—–

 

Jumping from this date to the 1970s, but somehow still related to the commandment aspect of the archive (Foucault), I would like to talk a little bit about the NYPL Photography Archive (11), here is the home page of the now digital collection.

And this is the second point I would like to discuss about the readings.

This archive was created in 1977 by the librarian Julia van Haaften. This photography archive was “discovered” by her when she, somehow, looked into the library collection in a different way, seeing another possible organization / order, in an archive where a system of organization was not “promoting” photography. NYPL Photo Archive (12)

It’s also around this time, a little bit early, that photography started to be used in artistic works, such as Robert Rauschenberg paintings with photos (13).

So, there is a change of status in the photography work. Related to the art work, but especially to the archival process.

Photography was switching from being only a document related to another form or file, a document that would give information, to an art piece, which its aesthetic force. It also started promoting the photographer (the artist, the author). NYPL Photo Archive (14)

[ MoMA Collection already had a department of photography since 1940, which also helped this inclusion of “photography as a form of artistic expression on an equal footing with the other arts” (Thomas Weski, cited in Anne Sophie Springer text) ]

 

Which goes back to Elizabeth Edwards’ text when she talks about the possibility of the photo archive to become an active resource, with historical and creative force. NYPL Photo – Weegee (15). Citing her text on page 55

Weegge, who was a criminal photographer – something very related to information and objective documentation that, pretty obviously gained more meaning when viewed in a photo collection.

However, Douglas Crimp’s text says that though photo status changed, their way of being archived are still very related to the traditional matrix of curating: organized by genre and chronology, based on its acquisition or other “archiving” aspects. The Grain of the Present – exhibition of ten – (16)

So again, the space of the file (now, the photo) is the space of a disciplinary machine and I wonder which ways of classification can break this.

And if the photo acquired this new meaning, the aesthetic aspect of it (cited in Douglas Crimp’s text), wouldn’t be possible to think in new forms of archiving that would be less technical or information-based, and more “synesthetic”?

—–

 

These questions led me to remember a photo collection I saw at the New Museum’s exhibition last year called “The Keeper” (17)

It was a collection created by Wilson A. Bentley (American) (18) in the end of the nineteenth century and called the Snow Crystal Collection (19). Starting in 1885, he photographed and collected information about snowflakes during 47 years of his life. He was able to create an apparatus that consisted of a combination of camera and microscope.

Here is one of the photos (photo snowflake – 20)

I’m using this example because I found very interesting how the original motivation was very scientific (21), thus a documentation of nature, and, even though he was fascinated by the beauty of each snowflake (22), he didn’t consider himself an artist.

But I believe that because of the powerful photo collection he created, his work went to museum (photo newspaper 23) and gained somehow an artistic status, related to the aesthetic experience. Read second paragraph of the newspaper.

His collection was acquired by the Buffalo Museum of Science in 1947 (he was already dead). The digital library was created in 2004 by Dr. June Abbas and graduate students from the University at Buffalo’s Department of Library and Information Science.

I also find this photo collection interesting because each snowflake is unique (24) and very ephemeral, so I it’s also maybe a good metaphor of the archiving process and the photo collection as cognitive artefacts in their production and reception.

Photos 25 and 26 – more snowflakes

 

 

 

Cristina_ApplicationPresentaion_pictures

Epistemological Aesthetics: Grappling with Anarchives

Click here to view my presentation. 

A few images come to mind when most people think of what an “archive” looks like. Books stacked upon miles of shelves in a library, some neatly stacked alphabetically and/or organized by decimal system, others piled on carts waiting to be wheeled back into circulation or scanned and re-cataloged into the institution’s database. Sometimes people think of old artifacts carefully preserved and encased behind glass at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Smithsonian. Occasionally they’ll probably think of digital databases from public libraries or universities that one would have to click through in order to find the most relevant literature to lend academic authority and background context for a research project.

People don’t always think of post-its on a wall that accumulated to reflect a city’s collective consciousness right after an election as a kind of archive in and of itself. They also don’t always wonder about the ways in which street art enthusiasts have taken care to photograph and document a finished piece (or even if it’s work-in-progress) so that they can publish it on their website. They don’t always ponder about how certain museum institutions have exhibits consisting of encased displayed items that were acquired and archived without the permission of certain cultures as a result of colonialism and imperialism. These items are often kept out of reach from the general public — and kept even further away from people who may not be able to afford the cost of an admission ticket — but they are nonetheless catalogued and told from an out of touch and outdated hegemonic viewpoint.

Foucault wrote about the archive as a “totality of the formulations of the conditions of our existence, as the ultimate happiness on earth, the archive serves to organize mental and enforced orders in the shape of appropriate structures and to preserve, with a tremendous amount of effort, the memory of past orders” (Zielinski). Based on the etymology of the word archive as derived from ancient Greek, it means both commencement and commandment. Linguistically and metaphorically, the word itself brought order to a world of chaos as humans throughout time have tried to organize the stimuli and phenomena around them in order to tell stories as a way of survival.

While going through week’s selection of readings, I kept thinking, “What about the anarchive? What is it?” Was it a kind of academic protest movement against the archive as an authority of knowledge? And, as Siegfried Zielinski asks, why do we need “anarchaeology for anarchives” especially for the arts? I stumbled through these terminologies, trying to figure out what they mean and why these words exist to describe two diametrically opposed concepts of what collected knowledge can look like. What is all this anarchy about archives?

According to Zielinski, anarchives do not lay claim to any authoritative entity of leadership. Anarchives do not claim to know from where things originated, nor do they claim to predict or know the direction in which the discourse about any particular topic may be headed toward. Instead, anarchives arise and exist to challenge and provoke the archive. Anarchives are always in an active mode; once they go live, they become an ongoing project that may continue to grow in its significance and/or magnitude. Anarchives also tend to “celebrate the past as a regained present.” This creates a participatory atmosphere in which audiences can also partake in the rediscovery or the revisiting of previously collected items or epistemological works and view them through a different storytelling perspective or narration of history.

A few examples come to mind when I think of anarchives in more recent contexts—whether they’re conceptualized by artists, artist collectives, or individuals connecting across different social media platforms. 

The first example is Subway Therapy by Brooklyn-based artist Matthew “Levee” Chavez. Although he isn’t a licensed therapist, Chavez wanted to create an experience and a space where people can sit with him and tell him what’s on their mind. He would have a table with two chairs laid out on a subway platform and invite commuters to sit down and chat with him, and he would also have Post-Its and markers on the table for anyone who preferred to express their thoughts in this method. Chavez started Subway Therapy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election season, and when the results came in on November 9th, he invited people to write or draw their thoughts and feelings on the post-its, which he then hung up on the wall of the 14th Street station. Chavez would collect each post it and store them in folders, though it’s not clear whether he organized them in any particular order or separated the negative messages from the uplifting, positive memos. Currently, the New York Historical Society is partnering with Chavez to digitally archive the post-its and preserve them as part of a museum collection for future generations to see. 

Another example that reminded me of an anarchive is the artist coalition movement called Decolonize This Place, which strives to provide a more honest and accurate depiction of history than museum curators and historians would traditionally convey to the public. Decolonize This Place arose from the Occupy Wall Street movement and is comprised of artists and academics across different disciplines. On Columbus Day in 2016, the group had decided to “occupy” the American Museum of Natural History and demanded that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt be taken down because of his imperialist policies. They held free educational tours for the public to “challenge and provoke” the museum, making the case that most, if not all, of the artifacts in the museum’s vast collections were obtained from a hegemonic system of colonization and imperialism. 

The attitudes and the language of this imperialist hegemony still permeate the ways in which the exhibits are displayed; the museum curators and historians responsible for collecting and cataloging the artifacts behind the glass cases used language that is considered today to be culturally ignorant and insensitive to human diversity. The layout of the museum itself, if one is to think of the institution itself as an archive, remains largely unchanged—the exhibit on the third floor featuring “Primates” for instance, is right across the hall from where the “Eastern Woodlands Indians,” the “Plains Indians,” and the “Hall of Pacific Peoples” are located.

As someone who identifies as a minority and ethnically identifies herself as Filipino, I felt that this was an offensive and frankly terrible way of organizing the logistics of a museum’s floors. I’m not even going to gripe about the fact that the artifacts from the Philippines should have been grouped with the Hall of Asian Peoples, even though the archipelago is located in the Pacific Ocean. By their logic, then, Japan should have been grouped with the Hall of Pacific Peoples. Alas, it’s not. It just felt odd that artifacts from my ethnic culture were on display, but the labels were written from the vantage point of people who are outsiders to my heritage. In light of these kinds of issues, Decolonize This Place continues to re-educate the public about the other side of history’s coin and remind them of the forgotten and sideswept cultures by staging these sit-ins and tours, thereby disrupting the hegemonic ordering of history and presenting itself as an artist coalition in support of anarchival efforts.

The last example I kept thinking about was the hashtag’s dynamic use in social media platforms, especially on Twitter, to sort, aggregate, and archive user’s posts and status updates. Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #YesSheCan have been used for various social movements since the moment it was introduced to the public as a useful function in social media.

More recently the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter and across other platforms highlights the widespread occurrence of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape that happens each day not just to women, but also to men and to members of the trans community. These endeavors highlight the depth of complexity surrounding the prevalence of these problems in society. These social movement hashtags can be considered as on-going, live examples of the anarchive because they disrupt and challenge our conventional everyday discourse about patriarchal values and toxic masculinity in society.

EPISTEMOLOGICAL AESTHETICS

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.

APPLICATION – EPISTEMOLOGICAL AESTHETICS

Kung-Foucault & the Temporal Identity of Vintage Clothing


Order is suggested by Foucault to be related to a threshold, below which is same, and above which is other. The ordering process, in some ways, is an expression of our cultural tendency to distinguish between that binary we seem to create. An aphasiac’s inability to create order in objects they are given to arrange suggests a hardwired connection between the capacity for communication and the synthesis of distinguishing criterion between dynamic stimuli. Musings on the whimsical ordering logics of a Chinese encyclopedia, and the alphabetization of Eusthenes, fuel Foucault’s argument that theory is born somewhere between language and science. Science operates within the fundamental codes of language, and between the two is a middle ground upon which theory has taken root and grown into our modern systems of classification. Language is much more than reproducible alphanumeric vocal or textual patterns of meaning; semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, permeates and defines the identity of many objects that remain excluded from the traditional archive.

Foucault (KM McCready)

Before the modern age, establishing orders taxed language to its limit, and since language often represents the culture that has refined it, order could be thought of as an expression of culture, if not a key recursive factor in its genetics. We likely cannot conceive of a time when language had substantially more authority, while having less fixity. Both global literacy and the definitional fixity of language seem, by the reasoning of Foucault, to be negatively correlated to its subjective, authoritative potency. That bond has seen its inverse peaks creep closer to zero in the past two centuries. When Foucault suggests the actual Grotian birth of man occurred recently, with the retirement of classical thought, he seems to be referring to an idea that humanity finally stumbled upon a more objective means for authoring and managing whatever portion of its cumulative identity is epistemic in nature.

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël (1874)

As revolutionaries stood around piles of burning Bastille archives in 1789, I wonder if there was a palpable catharsis felt by individuals on behalf of the species; it would seem that on the archival scale of the item people were merely burning paper, but on the scale of the fonds, however, society was rejecting monarchy. This moment in human history sparked the development of what we know to be a hugely determinate epistemological protocol that, even after its own prime, continues to catalyze changes in what defines collections, knowledge, and collective knowledge. Born from the familiar conundrum of how best to conserve history selectively in the wake of regime change, Respect des Fonds created a relevance for the origin story of all subsequent archival data. Along the line of subsequent additions to archival guidelines, the Dutch Manual christened the concept of Original Order, the restoration of which allowed respect des fonds to govern records within (or below) the fondal unit.

Theories were not without critique; restoration of original order risked damaging the meaning a collection had accrued since creation. While adoption was, and has, been far from universal, the effort of a more detailed classification system has obviously enabled a growth in the efficiency of the knowledge pool. It took nearly two centuries for the Scott and Fenyo series system, which allowed for multiple interrelationships in ordering logic. As the successful deviations in practice across Europe over time suggest, respecting the Fonds wasn’t necessarily an attempt to cryogenically freeze the aura of a particular data with its origin, but rather an effort to tag it with a dart, paint a modest portrait of its genealogy, and re-release onto the shelves of the scholarly sea.


The prospect of finding a contemporary, tactile example of some of these principles is daunting. Meditating on my choices, I wander through my neighborhood, smartphone in hand, browsing through the mobile sites of countless libraries. As the unholy marriage of a search engine and my personal geolocation narrow down which locations lay within the reach of my metrocard, I pass beneath a window display of a local vintage clothing store. I stop dead in my tracks, and double back.

An uplit mannequin dons a shockingly period-accurate mid 50s outfit (jacket, shirt, pants, hat, shoes, briefcase – a complete temporal displacement via the subtle semiotics of textured fabric which reveals, conceals, or frames the hosting body). Here, the language of costume communicates to me a sense of suburban American coziness I have only seen depicted in visual storytelling; my grandfather’s generation and its picturesque postwar prosperity lives on in the soft cuts of its surviving period attire. The design conveys the economic confidence of a global superpower counting its profits after a lucrative world war, while simultaneously trying to swallow the the unsettling reality of the atomic age.

mid 1950s attire – illustrated ad – (why? magazine)

On the surface, the outfit before me, while impressive for seeming complete, was not epistemologically active beyond the meaning it evoked in me, nor was it a relevant example to the assignment at hand. What intrigued me, however, was the principled process through which the different elements of the outfit had been unified after having traveled through time and space among countless other garments of dissimilar style. This shop’s curator had assembled a functional semiotic archive by clustering unique garments together in restoration of a modular conceptual cultural artifact an observer could detect. Such a restoration was governed by a respect for the meaningful origins of that which only retains meaning if its origins are retained along with it. While “knowledge” can only be presented through garment with a high degree of abstraction, the aforementioned methodology of conceptual restoration is akin to an archive’s handling of physical volumes of text and visual media with great respect for the fonds. Both garment and book can be processed as artifact, I suppose.

Uffner’s office and records – from NYT

A New York Times article from this past August resurfaces in my memory, and I recall a description of a Sunday afternoon spent shopping with Helen Uffner, one of the most reliable sources of period clothing for the film industry. Like the curators of countless small vintage clothing depots, Uffner’s work is in some small way made possible by the tectonic shift in archival theory and methodology centuries prior concerning what was of value for knowledge based artifacts. She restores order between found items, turning them into wearable modular artifacts of fashion history.

Letty Lynton Dress (George Hurell)

The nuances of a garment’s life as it relates to its historical identity present many of the same issues which faced archives during the attempts to standardize Respect des Fonds. Uffner’s blog documents a style of dress worn by Joan Crawford in the role of Letty Lynton, who went on to define women’s fashion for a generation. The dress design was copied by department stores however (a frequent occurrence due to patent loopholes), so classifying a found dress presents obstacles for the goal of a linear identity as artifact; the item’s actual history (if a clone) represents an important era of American manufacturing, while its design represents a pivotal moment in pre-code Hollywood. Which origin is the determinate one? What is the setting on the foucaultian threshold machine? A responsible system of preservation would demand all potentially notable characteristics of the artifact be part of its classification. Uffner describes an interesting paradox for the vintage clothing collector: nearly every item was manufactured, making it ubiquitous in origin and creation, but the life it has lived has made it unique without severing its connection to the original, abstracted design. This might offer insight into the archive, where the soul of each weathered volume reminds us, in our pursuit of refurbished meaning, not to confuse guiding order with law.