archive(s) : interstice(s)

Addressing the gaps in time-based media collection and preservation

“Inconvenience has its virtues . . . ”
– Rick Prelinger

The difficulty in time-based media is that it is time-based; moving images and sound are bound to time. A specific duration is required to experience these media, unlike traditional material objects, the intake of which is sometimes satisfied with a passing glance – there is no playback mechanism required. Articulating the archive as an “interstice” is my attempt to circumvent the disparate formations of the archive that seem to hold it in a fixed time and space. Emphasizing the interstitial, I align with Jason Farman’s position “that the delay between call and answer has always been an important part of the message” (Delayed Response, 2018).

Rather than proposing yet another taxonomy of the archive, I wish to interrogate this very tendency to separate and organize notions of the archive. In short, my aim is to elevate the ephemerality and mutability in the archive(s). It is also to challenge the Foucauldian episteme that defines the archive as “the system of [a statement-thing’s] functioning” (original emphasis, Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 129). The archive as interstice acknowledges the multitudes of being and knowing the world as much as it acknowledges the myriad constructions of the archive. In this way, we might recognize the archive as a system that is “malfunctioning” or deviating from presupposed spatial orientations. This framework identifies the interstice (the gap, trace, or memory) as the major stakeholder in time-based media archiving.

I want to begin by grounding this rationale with questions that always seem to present themselves in archival epistemologies: What constitutes “collection” or “preservation”? Is it the encasing or the containment of a material object in space? What constitutes materiality? How is it negotiated in “real” or “virtual” space?

This brings me to Ranganathan’s Colon Classification system. In pivoting away from the definition of the archive as such, my hope is to highlight what falls through the cracks, what fails to encode, or what cannot be arranged according to a specific protocol. The “classification” in Ranganathan’s facets favors multiple variables over taxonomy, emphasizing “universal principles inherent in all knowledge.” [1] This thinking led to the development of the following facets:

Personality—what the object is primarily “about.” This is considered the “main facet.”; Matter—the material of the object; Energy—the processes or activities that take place in relation to the object; Space—where the object happens or exists; Time—when the object occurs

Ranganathan defined an object as “any concept that a book could be written about.” [1] The limitation here is that the Colon Classification system presupposes objects as publications. Considering the flexibility afforded by the system and Ranganathan’s own acknowledgement that “the library is a living organism,” it stands to reason that library classification systems must accommodate the ever-expanding notion of materiality. [1] With this in mind, we might see the facets working for contemporary time-based media. I’ll use Scott Northrup’s Hämeenkyrö Redux as an example:

Personality: Romance; Matter: Digital video; Energy: Mourning, melancholia; Space: Hämeenkyrö; Time: 2018

Obviously, this reverse indexing system (where we begin with the object itself rather than the reference terminology) is quite an undertaking, but the motivation behind this organization is the implementation of a user-centered experience rather than a top-down episteme. We see this user-experience ethos working in the Prelinger Archives, where the “taxonomy” functions as a mutable installation (Figure 1). What the Colon Classification system and the Prelinger Archives demonstrate is that both archival collection and organization, in theory and practice, are interstitial in their methodologies and subject to change.

Figure 1: Prelinger Archives

Turning to the interstitial material quality of time-based media, Shannon observes the meta-dimensions of audio recordings. [2] Identifying the imbricate relationship between the recording device and the subject (or object) being recorded, she writes, “any sonic archival document is archiving the historical event and its own recording.” [2] The interstice between the mechanisms of recording and sound itself actively shapes material experience. Unlike traditional text or still photographs, sound “can suggest the material and volumetric properties of both the recorded sounding subject or object and the space in which that recording occurred.” [2] The suggestion of materiality and space is readily apparent in Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room. With the removal of the sound’s source (in this case, Lucier’s voice), we are left with reflections of the original sound. The result is the sonic representation of the space itself. (Link:

The difficulty here is the performative quality of time-based media. This leads me to Shannon’s remark that “preservation necessarily involves transformation.” [2] Considering the expanse of magnetic tape that currently safeguards our digital data, we must come to grips with the fact that some email threads, like many ephemeral films, will inevitably slip through the cracks. But as Rick Prelinger reminds us, “ephemeral films weren’t meant to be kept in the long run.” [3] Rather than merely acquiescing to the contestation in best practices and arguments over what should or shouldn’t be preserved, we might consider leaning into the imminent, fleeting quality of time-based media. Moving beyond static models, we might begin to acknowledge the archive(s) as a mode of creation in addition to a method for collection and preservation.

Recalling the case study I presented above and earlier in the semester, Scott Northrup’s Hämeenkyrö Redux (Figure 2) calls attention to the “ghosts in the reels.” The digital video operates as a memento to a precedent film, Hämeenkyrö mon amour, which vanished from a faulty hard drive. The following “redux” was produced with archival vestiges: photographs and videos taken with the artist’s iPhone and his sensorial memory embodied in sonic form. Northrup’s voice-over, which recounts a fleeting romantic interaction, is a reification of immaterial loss. While both iterations of Hämeenkyrö exist precariously as digital artifacts, they demonstrate the notion that the archive is inextricably tied to ephemerality. (Link:

Figure 2: Hämeenkyrö Redux, Digital Video, 12min. Scott Northrup, 2018.

The interstitial quality of the archive permeates archival research and practices, but also library sciences, media archaeology, and media and cultural studies. Circling back to Jason Farman’s emphasis on delay, I want to end with a final loose thread. Reading Timothy Leonido’s “How to Own a Pool and Like It,” I want to also acknowledge how gaps can be manipulated to operate unethically. Leonido recounts the conviction of Edward Lee King, which was substantiated by speech-recognition technology. [4] The “dubious 99 percent accuracy rate” and the questionable research practices in Lawrence Kersta’s voiceprint trials notwithstanding, how can we trust recording apparati that can be so easily manipulated? A recent example of egregious misuse of technology that leads to misrepresentation:

I think this is why many of us turned to art practice this semester when illuminating the ways in which we might circumvent nefarious infrastructures and data-collection tactics. Speaking from personal experience, to practice art is to embrace inconvenience.



[1]  Mike Steckel, “Ranganathan for IAs” (October 7, 2002)

[2] Christine Mitchell, “Media Archaeology of Poetry and Sound: A Conversation with Shannon Mattern,” Amodern 4 (2015)

[3] Prelinger Archives Part 1,” C-Span (April 11, 2013) {video}

[4] Timothy Leonido, “How to Own Pool and Like It,” Triple Canopy (April 2017)


Inviting “the other” + invisibility politics

Having been raised by a single mother, my understanding of domesticity is imbued with certain “feminist ethics.” I was particularly moved by Caswell and Cifor’s idea of radical empathy, one that involves a kind of hospitable guidance of “the other” in archival interventions (2016, p. 25). At the risk of extolling midwestern friendliness, I take this invitation of the other to mean the potential to bring together disparate, perhaps even incompatible, articulations of “care.” Failed attempts to ethically preserve cultural knowledge reveals the collective tendency to efface the granularity of these archival materials. However, the power relations enfolded into politics of invisibility complicate the right to privacy. As Doreen St. Felix notes, some work is produced with an intended illegibility: “not every artist wants everyone to understand.”

What does become clear in the digital landscape is that cultural material produced and preserved online faces more questions than those cared for in historically private spaces like the home. We cannot domesticate the Web.

Alternative archiving (art?)

Echoing Lena’s remark that archival material intrinsically requires a re-presenting or recontextualization by virtue of expanding time and space, I want to call attention to Susan Breakell’s understanding of trace and the role it plays physically and metaphorically in art-making. Shannon highlight’s Ann Hamilton’s expanding notion of the archive that takes into consideration the labor practices in archiving and art-making: “the way the body through physical labor leaves a transparent presence in material and how labor is a way of knowing” reminds me of Ernesto Klar’s Invisible Disparities performance project. While Ernesto may be part of the “will to dust” endeavor (Invisible Disparities involved the collection of dust from a number of countries and the subsequent fusion of this collection into one “anthropic rock”), I think there is value in looking at the labor of small units or traces of matter (I’ve also had a class with Ernesto and can attest to his sincerity and anti-elitism!). The idea of traces is also palpable in a Jennifer Reeves film, Landfill 16. Reeves buried the footage underground before editing it, allowing traces of fungi and enzymes to leak through the layers of light and image. These traces of matter and mortality are definitely present in Bill Morrison’s nitrate film work.

thinking beyond speed

Unsurprisingly, the spatial arrangement of curiosity cabinets in centuries past aligned with a peripatetic mode of inquiry. I would contend that wandering as a form of cognitive activity continues today (my mom can spend hours on Facebook, if you call that neuronally stimulating). But, as Katherine Hayles notes, our engagement with new media seems to require “hyper” – rather than close – reading. Here, Hayles is not exclusively concerned with the immediacy in digital scholarship, but rather the vast array of challenges digital technologies pose to the humanities. I think this is something Chun points to when she says “we need to think beyond speed.”

As an artist (who no longer makes anything!), I can completely sympathize with the will to singularity. There is something about occupying a physical space that requires what Stewart calls “gestures of care which maintain the integrity of the body.” I think Google attempted to emulate something like the immersive experience of a museum in their Cultural Institute exhibition, but it’s difficult to realize this when all that’s required are one’s visual and finger mechanics.

Mal d’Archive – maladroit?

What I find most baffling (to the point of amusement) reading Derrida is what appears to be a complete refusal of epidemiology in favor of metaphor. Thankfully, Carolyn Steedman notes this oversight, calling attention to the missed opportunity in characterizing (or perhaps more appropriate, in diagnosing) “archive fever.” Notwithstanding Derrida’s critical engagement with psychoanalysis, his ontological framing of the archive fails to take into consideration another obvious archive: Freud’s collection of antiquities.* In her book, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects, Lana Lin demonstrates the efforts in archival practice are very much like the archives themselves: requiring persistent labor and maintenance.** Both Jessica Lingel’s and Region of Peel Archives blogs acknowledge the very human forces behind the objects, places, and processes we often take for granted when walking into a library or museum – or, similarly, when entering the virtual spaces that allow us to access memories of meaning.

*Maybe he does write about the Freudian archive. I should admit that I haven’t read much Derrida. I would rather read him through someone like Patricia Clough.

**Does this brush against your recent work, Shannon?