Epistemological and Political Subjects

What strikes me about these reading is thinking about how temporality can transform archives. The structure and means of organizing an archive reflects the environment that communities are building. We have seen this in other archives we’ve explored this semseter, especially in archives that reflect colonial natures. So it no surprise that we see the archive radicalize within the last few decades in line with radical feminism. I wonder however, what radical taxonimical features, we are injecting into archives that either will fade with time, or even will be amplified with retrospection.

Processing: Archives

First, a digression: only after years of studying and being exposed to various Asian and Romance languages that I came to really think about the enormous European bias in the designations of languages/dialects. The former contains connotations of higher status or prestige, while the latter denotes something more local, less important. Languages are worthy of preservation, while dialects are not. Romance languages can be mutually intelligible and yet considered distinct “languages,” while Chinese “dialects” can be mutually unintelligible and yet never achieve the status of “language.”  The main difference is perhaps that the distinct romance languages have distinct written texts (and yet so similar) while the distinct Chinese dialects share the same written text.

Diana Taylor’s article not only challenges the privileging the written over the spoken and points out its Eurocentric bias, but also further argues for a programme of “performance studies” that takes non-textual modes of communication, such as singing, dancing, and other modes of performances, as serious conduits of meaning. As Ann Stoler’s article argues, the written archive as a repository of meaning is not neutral, inert; history is not waiting in the archives to be discovered by historians. Neither the archive nor the “repertoire” of performance-based production of knowledge and meaning is neutral or inert. And yet the written archive has come to be the most dominant mode of communication of knowledge for its material properties make storage and retrieval possible for a very long time. Our claims to knowledge/our capacity to know, therefore, hinges on the materialities of the archive, all the way down to the techniques of language itself. Taylor is against the disciplinary divisions among dance, music, and theater, but it also appears that we should also re-incorporate these non-textual modes of communication back into the core curriculum of liberal arts education in general.

embodiment within the archive

In “The Archive and the Repertoire,” Diana Taylor explores the ways in which written knowledge in the archive has been prioritized above embodied performance as a way to transfer knowledge. While I agree largely with this claim especially in the way it pertains to the systemic destruction of certain indigenous rituals, dances, and ceremonies during the Spanish conquest of the New World, there were other statements made about the archive that seemed to me a bit inflexible and stagnant. On page 19 Taylor delves into the myths of the archive – that the archive supposedly “resists change, corruptibility, and political manipulation.” Yet on the very next page, she relies on these ‘false’ images of the archive in order to establish all the things embodied performance can do that the archive can’t. “As opposed to the supposedly stable objects in the archive, the actions that are the repertoire do not remain the same.” (20, emphasis mine). The “supposedly” hints at her understanding that objects, in fact, do not remain the same in the archive either, but this set-up ultimately places these two knowledge transmission systems in a binary of one as dry, the other fluid; one as stable, the other as adaptable; one as stationary, the other as movement. Again, while I understand the purpose of this piece is to explore the importance and possibilities available through embodied performance, establishing the archive as something that lacks embodiment doesn’t seem accurate to me. The way the body moves through the archive, the way hands must handle fragile items, the sifting through files, not to mention artists who engage the archive in their work or create performances centered around archival materials (perhaps Lena H. could speak to this a bit more than I could?) are all interesting routes that could explore the particularities of embodied practices within the archive.

epistemological + political subjects

Stoler and Taylor both contextualize archives in the power imbalances and systemic oppressions imposed from colonization and its enduring legacies. Taylor separates the archive from the repertoire, the latter for embodied and lived forms of knowledge. She argues that Western epistemologies are founded on the equation of writing to memory and knowledge. The dominance of language and writing means these mechanisms for knowledge come to stand in for meaning itself. Yet it is not perfectly clear that written forms of knowledge are archived versus embodied knowledge being repertoire-d. Even through colonization, writing did not entirely displace embodied practice. Even colonizers bring (and enforce) their own embodied practices too. But writing became the dominant mechanism of legitimization of over other epistemic and mnemonic systems. This is how, as Stoler argues, we should think of the archive as the supreme technology of late 19th century imperial state.

So what happens to our understanding of “knowledge” (and whose knowledge) as we have moved from dominance of technologies based on written texts to digital ones? Videos and images are not the same as performances and acts, though we may treat them as alike. Robertson identifies this tension in digital archiving of lesbian porn/erotic publications from 1984-2004. It was both documented and embodied, though was very likely intended for a small and time-bound audiences of queer zine-readership, before anyone could imagine reverse image search engines and permanent googleability.

Foucault reminds us again that the realm of thinkable thoughts available to any one of us is limited by our discourses and our ability to determine something as knowledge. The archive functions both as the “law of what can be said” and the rules by which these delineated “unique events” accumulate into understood patterns. We can neither exhaustively archive all of a given society, culture, time period, nor can we adequately describe our own from within. What gets recorded in archival institutions passes for collective memory on the side of the powerful, and “structural amnesia” for those memories that do not serve them (Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard). History reminds us of the importance in looking to the form of archive, as well as the content. In my research on voice recognition technologies, looking to the mechanisms of digital archiving itself hopefully provides one avenue to do this.

on distribution, contextualization and fear

The blog entry by Tara Robertson „digitization: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should“ highlights some key points concerning the digitalization of analog material. With the example of the “lesbian porn magazine” (in quotation marks because this designation is controversially discussed in the commentaries) she discusses the ethic implications on digitizing these sensitive pictures of woman, who agreed to having their pictures printed in a magazine mainly distributed among the lesbian community in the 80s. Through digitization the content of these magazines become, in Robertson’s view, now with a few clicks available to everyone globally and that is, due to her, certainly not what the photographed women signed up for.

Two things I found very interesting in this short piece, the first one is distribution and the second one is context. Robertson seems much more concerned with the first one. Even though it is technically possible that the digital version of this magazine could be accessed by everyone with an Internet connection one has to specifically know what to look for. In my personal case I have never heard of “On our backs” and therefore I never would have looked for it. Even though I can understand the reservations when it comes to the availability online it is still limited to people situated in a specific discourse, I would say. From the historical point from where Roberson its speaking it almost seems like that there is a certain protection of personal rights in the printed medium.

Linked to that I want to elaborate on what I called context earlier and with that I mean contextualization. One can cut a picture out of a magazine, but it will still refer to its origin: There will be something printed on the backside, the quality of the print and the paper. With digitization it is a different thing, I would argue. With a single screenshot and some cropping the picture is stripped of its context an can be easily distributed in completely different contexts and assign a different understanding of what is in the picture as well. This is maybe part of the discussion in the commentaries about calling it “porn” or calling it “erotic publication” – it depends on the context and the context is what can’t be guaranteed when it comes to digitization.

To support my understanding of the topic and, I have to confess, a big part of curiosity was in it as well, I looked for the “On our backs” in the Independent Voices Archives, but I could not find it (I just found a feminist magazine called “Off our Backs” without of course any erotic illustrations) – Ironically Robertson is drawing attention on something she wants to handle with care when she Is writing a blog post about it.

What Roberson argues, that these women, who chose to participate in creating pictures of having sex in ways that differ from “the norm”, must be protected from the judgmental society of bosses, coworkers and families, that in my understanding could be one reason for taking pictures like that in the first place: To widen the perception of what is “the norm” when it comes to sex. Along these lines, Robertson should have used this space on her blog, I my opinion, to revolt against a society in that women standing in for their sexual preferences and identities are still stigmatized and need to fear the revelations of their “non-conformist pasts”.

Community (of) Practice

In “Digitization: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should” I found the theme of provenance, particularly of importance. I agree with the sentiment that participators in this adult magazine were unaware that they would one day be included in an archive available on the internet, a distribution much wider than they expected. 

Initially, I thought “Perhaps making this available offline within an academic setting for scholarly research provides a context for the work that doesn’t exploit the subjects or stray too far from their initial expectations of distribution?” However, who is to say that this needs preservation? Who made the decision that this even has epistemological relevance? Where are the voices of the community which the content was initially created for? Here, the archivists failed to acknowledge the community which would stand to be affected by this, both the intended audience and the participants.

In regards to one of the “setbacks” of citizen genealogy, as mentioned in the article by Jarrett M. Drake, there is little accountability when it comes to the validity of information. I don’t see this as a problem. If the information in an archive is curated by those who hold ownership over the artifacts which affect their own community, does it matter what is a truth or mistruth? In instances such as these (as I have come to find out through my own genealogical research) sometimes, especially for marginalized people, the stories we tell ourselves have a greater level of validity than the “truth” itself.

Voice to the voiceless

I thoroughly enjoyed the readings for this week and I was particularly inspired by the words of Diana Taylor. Taylor’s work made me reflect on Mexico’s relationship with its Pre-Hispanic history and how we relate to it. In dealing with out past we tend to have a conflicting and contradictory relationship: oftenly rushed and diminished in our primary education; part of our language, cuisine and traditions; exalted by our Government internationally, yet ignored and oppressed by it internally.

And what about the archives and museums? A good part of them were built and conceived with a Colonial mindset that still permeates and reaches many aspects of our lives. How can we reimagine our archives? Is it possible to rebuild these structures in a more organic way where we give the indigenous communities the power to tell their stories?

The Mexican Government owes a great debt to its indigenous communities. Giving them the resources they need in order to reclaim their identity free from Colonial infrastructures is of extreme importance. We should reinvent our archives and we should do it by giving voice and agency to those who have been silenced.



The Good Life: the utopian “no place” of email archives

Susan Breakell makes the point that “to archive” was not originally used as a verb; rather the word became one around the same time as the entrance of the PC into our homes and lives. We use the word both to mean to store records, and to store electronic information that we no longer regularly use. Zielinksi highlights that “the archive serves to organize mental and enforced orders in the shape of appropriate structure and to preserve, with a tremendous amount of effort, the memory of past orders.” And from Mattern we see that archives demonstrate the interconnected technological, social, intellectual, architectural infrastructures required. This embodiment is entwined with certain politics and epistemologies, and particularly takes place in large part through aesthetics.

“The Good Life” is a project by artists Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne, an archival performance art that positions your email inbox as the stage. It is based off a proportion of the emails sent between Enron employees in the late 1990s to the early 2000s. This large-scale archive of emails was the first of its kind, and was the training database used for many early natural language processing (NLP) algorithms – including most current spam filters, and early versions of Siri. By allowing your inbox to be hijacked for a period of time of your choosing (between 7 and 28 years), you too can embody “The Good Life” of white collar, mainly white, mainly male, corporate workers (and some criminals) though language-based architectures of late 90s corporate culture. In doing so, we can all explore the enduring nature and wide-usage of digital archives, “the impulse to archive” against “the right to be forgotten,” the inescapability of bias in training data sets, and the aesthetic of emails, the poetry, and the “rational” world order of this corporate elite.

Enron started out as an energy company. Based in Houston, Texas, it was considered “America’s most innovative company” for six years in a row. It employed 20,000 people, and in 2000, the year before it collapsed, it claimed revenues of $101 billion.  It embodied a vision of American corporate success, constantly scaling and growing, moving from energy into creating new financial instruments, from trading to investments in broadband. Right before its collapse, was in partnership with Blockbuster to stream movies online – it could have been Netflix. In 2001, its stock price collapsed, and in the fallout, the company and its executives were found to have been involved in price fixing, misrepresentation of earnings, institutionalized accounting fraud, and generally corrupt business practice. When it declared bankruptcy, it was the largest in American history.

As a consequence, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) acquired the company’s data, including the massive archive of emails that had been sent to, from, and between employees – 1.6million emails in total. After complaints, some of these emails were removed from the archive. We can consider this a form of selection and curating the archive, though as Breakell notes, “any selection process is problematic.” One hundred employees were given 10 days to search through and remove personal emails (of their coworkers, their friends, their family members, their children). These workers were told to search for terms like “social security number” “credit card number” and “divorce”. However, as you can still find emails sent between divorcing spouses and flirting coworkers through The Good Life’s database, it’s clear many of these searches were not particularly effective in their task. The archive of 500,000 emails was the first large scale archive of its kind to be made publicly available. It is still one of the only large public email collections that’s easily and freely accessible online.

As Hal Foster writes, “no place” is the literal meaning of “utopia.” The artists’ project’s name, “The Good Life” speaks to Hal Foster and Breakall’s point – in the “no place” of the archive, we see the archival impulse go further: we can imagine “possible scenarios of alternative social relations.” To fully experience “The Good Life,” you can opt in for your own email inbox to receive a slightly reduced version of the archive. You can have 225,000 emails in total sent to your inbox in the order and with an equivalent time-spacing they were originally sent. Originally the project provided the option to have the emails sent over 5 days, 30 days, or 1 year, but these tiers had to be canceled because the emails kept getting blacklisted as spam. Given that modern spam filters were originally built off this database of emails, this seems ironic. Now, your options are to sign up to receive the emails every day for 7, 14 or 28 years.

Beyond an examination of the banality and volume of email even from its earliest usage, the project brings into play a much deeper critical commentary on contemporary digital archives, perhaps especially unintentional ones. First, we can consider the political, social, and cultural architecture of an archive, the importance of archives, and the enduring legacy of this particular database. Finn Brunton notes “the FERC had unintentionally produced a remarkable object: the public and private mailing activities of 158 people in the upper echelons of a major corporation, frozen in place like the ruins of Pompeii for future researchers.” As the first of its kind, it has been used to train spam filters, email recognition technologies like prioritization rules in your inbox, fraud detection, counterterrorism operations, and workplace behavioral patterns.The hegemonic ordering of an archive that Zielinski writes about is very much alive and enduring. There is a good chance that at least something on your phone is running off software that used this archive as its training database.

It matters then, that the users from which this archive was generated were from a particularly narrow group of people. This archive was used to build NLP algorithms because it was assumed to be representative of how people use email. But algorithms are only as good as the data provided, even or perhaps especially when they are on a large scale. As we discussed last week, biased inputs can generate and embed biased outputs in both allocation and representation. What cause for concern does it give us that so much of the epistemic scaffolding of our current information management systems are built off the corporate (and at least somewhat corrupt) working elite of the 1990s and early 2000s? On the other hand, as artist Mimi Onuoha has pointed out, today many our current datasets are built off the personal data of those who have no choice, or limited choice but to sign away their data, typically the structurally disadvantaged. This archive then offers a rare view into a group of users normally afforded more “privacy” than most people.

However, it is clear there was still a personal cost. The scrubbing of the archive did not clear out, for example, a named husband and wife emailing each other as their divorce proceeded. Employees may not have been aware in 1990s that their emails would ever resurface, least of all for public perusal. It is likely that corporate practice has changed since this time with increased awareness of the permanence of emails – the concept of “huddling” in corporate culture today is to take something offline, to communicate without leaving a digital trace. And even though we all know on an abstract level that email is not private, most of us today would still be deeply uncomfortable with our emails being publicly available in a searchable format and with our names attached to them, even though we operate with some awareness that this is possible. While it is clear that this email database deeply embodies the archival impulse, it also speaks to the right to be forgotten.

Though we might ask if that is realistic. We are now all contributing to digital archives many many orders of magnitude larger than these 500,000 emails of the Enron database. Every email, click, like, hovering over a link, and many other forms of our digital footprints are now collected by the biggest (and some not so big) corporate players in the world. What machines are ultimately being trained off datasets produced by our digital labors, and what implications does this have for both material and immaterial orders? Is anarchive even possible in this terrain? The artists suggest that by rendering your inbox into a timewarp between 1998 and present day, you subvert your email provider’s algorithm’s ability to make accurate sense of your data. Their “service obfuscates your personal emails, and it breaks the machine learning’s algorithms for understanding you.” They add: the real benefit is that it also makes it impossible for you to use your email.

Though there is a strong case to be made for examining the material infrastructure required to enable email technologies, for most people, emails appear largely through immaterial means. And yet, clearly they too operate at an aesthetic level. The Good Life’s commitment to replicating the Enron employee’s experience is achieved through the Windows 1995 interface. And while we might imagine email as standardized communication, the variation in content is analogous to Zielinski’s write up of VALIE EXPORT’s work. Formally similar frames can bring to the forefront the heterogeneity of what is contained, in this case in emails. In teaching the machines how to “think” through human language, this archive is showing a range of human communications. Granted, this is limited both by it being explicitly written content (which differs greatly from human speech, for example) and by the narrow collection of humans whose “labor” was used to generate this.

Mattern writes of a critical reviewer of an early article at pains to point out that highlighting the aesthetic experience might suggest that poetry is devoid of “intellectual or political engagement” and to fail to acknowledge that “poets even think rationally.” Given the current political debates about whose speech is considered “rational” and “unemotional” I thought it was telling that artist Constant Dullaart and NYU data scientist Leon Yin created an experiment with Brain and Lavigne’s project – a predictive text generator based off the Enron corpus. When the generator was fed a “poem” (itself found in the Enron database), it emulated the speech patterns of the emails to create this rather poetic response:

 …I put my arms in front of me

The company, that Enron companies,

the service of the company

so the company

so the company seedness.


And went to pull her nearer

To the CIO,


Please no California

Thanks company

And the company

So the company.


And realized that my new best friend

Business conceding the company

so the company

so the company

so the companies seedness.


Was nothing but a mirror

Of the company

So the company.

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.

The Aesthetics of the Digital Archive: Navigating through the Sublime.


This week’s reading focused on art practices that are inspired by the archive — aesthetic strategies that place the epistemological aspect of gathering and ordering documents at the foreground of the artworks. In my presentation, I will concentrate on the digital archive. I will survey different approaches artists take to represent the characteristics of the digital record: its vastness, fluidity, obscurity, and materiality.

I will start with an anecdote from my childhood. When I was eleven or twelve years old, I found out about the Internet by a TV show that advertised its new website. We didn’t have an Internet connection at my home yet, but I was very curious about it. The obvious thing to do at the moment was to start to fill a notebook with all the websites I heard of, so when I did get an Internet connection, I could check them out. By the time my house was connected to the net, this list had long become obsolete. I was frustrated and fascinated by that. Of course, I could have the same failure if I was ever to try to write down all the books or music disks I can think of, but the Internet encompasses additional characteristics: it grows exponentially, and for the common eye, is intangible, invisible, and uncatalogued.

Many artists focus on that note: the parallel, or translation, between the physical and the digital archive; between the human-scale collection, and the incommensurable scale; between the classic encyclopedia set and Wikipedia. The artist Michael Mandiberg approaches this subject with the work “Printing Wikipedia”. In 2015 Mandiberg wrote software that transforms Wikipedia’s entire English-language database into 7,473 volumes of 700 pages (as it existed on April 7, 2015), making the volumes available to print on demand. Mandiberg’s intention to visualize the large accumulation of knowledge is for me beautiful in its failure. Not only did he place in the installation only a few printed volumes, but by the exhibition opening time, the work was already outdated. To actually transform Wikipedia into tangible words on paper would demand many “crazy” printers that in real time spill prints of pages as they are edited, filling the room with unordered sheets, as in Christopher Baker work’s “Murmur Study”, where he prints live tweets, or Jason Huff’s work “Endless Opportunities,” which I will show shortly.

In the same year Ai Weiwei created “An Archive”, a collection of 6,830 rice paper sheets of printed tweets, a physical chronicle of his social media activity from 2003 to 2013. With this gesture Weiwei also materializes the fleeting and forgettable condition of the digital archive, in this case, the personal one we create on social media.

Also focused on the fleeting aspect of social media archive, Liat Segal created in 2014 the sculpture “Confessions Machines”, an ultra-violet printer that displays on a UV sensitive surface, confessions made as posts on the Facebook platform. Segal points out with this work the immaterial condition of digital files, and the short exposure life our words have in a digital ecosystem where they are constantly buried by newer ones.

Similarly, Cristopher Baker investigates the personal voice in the large digital archive, in this case on the YouTube platform, in “Hello World! or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise”. In this piece, Baker not only exposes the multiplicity of voices but also questions how the archive platform format shapes or influences the content itself.

Focusing on the short-lived aspect of the digital archive, on the lack of a discernable unique, but from the catalogue point of view, Jason Huff explores in “Endless Opportunities” how image results change in relation to a single keyword in search engines. Huff developed an algorithm that searches for changes in image results algorithms and prints the results onto paper.

With a similar focus in change, Dganit Elyakim, Batt-Girl, and Eran Hadas created “Wikiland”, an interactive installation that approaches with humor the narrative dilemma in the Commons. As Siegfried Zielinski points out, the archive accounts for the externalization of historical consciousness. The archive represents a voice, a political position. In “Wikiland”, viewers physically fight in order to change the most disputed Wikipedia articles about Israeli geography, and consequentially, the political position of the archive.

Although fractured, created by different authors, and dependent on different bodies, digital archives construct narratives. Many artists have focused on the characteristics of these voices. In 2017 Zach Blass created “Im here to learn so”, a four-channel video installation based on Tay, an artificial intelligent chatbot created by Microsoft in 2016. Tay was supposed to learn from social media posts, but within hours of her release, the chatbot became extremely racist and was terminated after a single day of existence. Blass reanimates Tay in his artwork, exposing the concealed voice the social media archive creates.

With a different argument on the same subject, Jon Rafman explores the narrative poetics in the Google Street View archive. Navigating through the endless archive, apparently created by an objective and detached eye, Rafman captures decisive moments, odd moments, relevant for the human eye only. These relics are uncategorized items in the massive archive, and therefore attest to the labor Rafman placed in finding them.

Similarly, Clemente Valla investigates errors in the Google Street View archive. As Hal Foster describes, artists working with archives often try to make the lost or displaced information present. In this case, Valla makes visible the mistakes in the seemingly perfect world of representation.

The archive narrative is also explored in Natalie Boockhin work “Mass Ornament”. Boockhin selects several YouTube videos of home performers being inspired by celebrities and weaves them into a single choreography. On the same note, Penelope Umbrico inquiries into the commonplaces of our digital expressions with thematic collections of photographs taken from Flickr.

Thinking of our unconscious digital expressions and the archive they create, Evan Roth’s work “Internet Cache Self Portrait” makes visible the invisible archive we feed with our daily online interactions. Roth printed the massive collection of images saved by his browser. Again, printing is used as a strategy to compare the digital with the physical archive.

Finally, the artists Arvida Byström, Molly Soda, and Chris Kraus also bring forward the invisible but, in this case, the censured. Inquiring into how censorship policing shape the digital archive narratives, the artists published a book of images censored by Instagram. This book presents a parallel narrative. Physically published, instead of online, the artists made sure further censorship is more difficult to implement.

I subtitled this presentation “Navigating through the sublime”. The “Sublime” concept refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation. It is long explored in aesthetics as the pleasure of the overwhelming. The “Sublime”, however, represents, as Sianne Ngai argues in Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, a higher power structure over the viewer. Many artists use multiplicity, vastness, and an impossibility to completely perceive, as strategies to convey the digital archive dimensions, to create an aesthetic experience, but also to question the power relationship between humans and the digital archive.

The Anti-aesthetic of the Archive

From the talk by Susan Breakell, I was drawn to the idea of the archive as both a product and raw material. While archives are a resource for information to be drawn from, it is important to acknowledge that they were created and processed. Mattern describes how the “anti-aesthetic” of the stacks, informs our conception of the archive’s epistemological object” which is enforced through the use of gray, dull boxes and housing (Mattern, 2015). Working in an archive, I have become increasingly aware of how processing materials and writing finding aids is about presenting material in a way that performs objectivity, the intention being to present facts without opinion. I think the material and intellectual objectivity of the archive is what allows for one to have an affective experience. The bland, monotonous aesthetic of the archive enhances the feelings one can have when discovering something seemingly alive and charged in the dusty archive.

The use of archival material and archival (anti-)aesthetics in art brings out not only the content of the material but often illuminates the fact that archival material is not dead or dormant. Despite archival material already having been processed, it is through another layer or method of processing and display that the material gains a new meaning and context. As seen with the various ways artists reveal or uncover previously unseen material, it seems that archival material always requires mediation or recontextualisation. Is it through the different ways of utilising archival material or through different models of the archive itself that the ways we can and are allowed to engage with archival material be changed?


Revolutionary Conceptions


Encountering Zielinski describing the conception of a ‘classic archive’ as, “the externalization of historical consciousness,
thereby documenting a consciousness fundamentally tied to power”, I immediately saw the contrast in Breakell’s conception of the ‘modern’ archive as ‘democratized’. The image of ‘dusty basements’, dismissively so, paints how the general public is often told to visualize ‘classic’ archives. Additionally, our modern understanding that “history is written by the winners” provides us an excuse to keep the basements dusty, coloring any archival work as inherently incomplete, or one-sided. Breakell points out that archivists have been labeled ‘voyeuristic’; shuffling between dusty boxes (the “monotonous gray”, as Mattern points out, appears to us as an “anti-aesthetic”) in darkened underground spaces, this was the image the came to mind from the advent of archiving until the dawn of modern computing.

In a short period of time, the conception of ‘archive’ was completely and radically changed. Breakell herself points out that “archive” had not been used as a verb until the PC-era, and was quick to share her hope that “the original meaning not to be lost in the new”. The new conception of ‘archiving’ seemed a far more active and relatable task: Mattern points out that “a rather small proportion of the population at large has been in an archive”, but nearly everyone has had the experience of archiving data via computer systems. The digital universe seems at once more tangible and omnipresent than the arcane world of the subterranean stacks. The ‘cyberspace’ aesthetic of instantaneous retrieval, and endless digital storage has quickly re-contextualized how we conceive of archives and archiving. Mattern identifies the experience of students physically visiting an archive, “how much of it lives only in material form, and will likely not be digitized any time soon.” If history is written by the victors, does that mean the dusty basements will fall by the wayside to visions of LED-lit server rooms?



Community and Ephemerality

With traditional epistemological institutions, there is a level of intimidation towards disenfranchised communities, those who are quarantined into spaces where an expanded cultural knowledge is limited. Pertaining to the theme of “community-driven knowledge”, community practices adapt the current infrastructure and can result in archives that reflect various nuanced cultural perspectives.

Framing an archive from an artistic perspective grants it, I believe, (1) a level of accessibility, an affordance for the audience to participate as much or as little as desired. It also—I believe—constitutes a semi-removal of institutional epistemological speed bumps by displacing the formality of an “archive” with the interactivity of art. (2) In the traditional sense, I feel that an archive is an entity that attempts or aims for objectivity. Though as we discussed last week this oftentimes fails due to the limited perspective of the archivist. Art allows for archived material to be brought into the realm of subjectivity, to take a perspective, or more accurately reflect society.

In reference to the theme of destruction and ephemerality, I found Nam Jun Paik’s statements interesting. Paik did not take steps to archive his work, under the ideology that art is meant to be experienced in its original form, that the aesthetic of preservation changes the original intent. However, not only is meaning changed based on the medium or context in which the work is displayed, but it also changes with time and space. Society influences how art is experienced and interpreted. When art is destroyed it is frozen in time, free from shifting cultural influences. The destruction of the art form is also its salvation.

Connecting What Can/Cannot Be Connected

“Consider a temporary display cobbled together out of workday materials like cardboard, aluminum foil, and packing tape, and filled, like a homemade studyshrine, with a chaotic array of images, texts, and testimonials devoted to a radical artist, writer, or philosopher.“

This opening sentence to Hal Foster’s An Archival Impulse struck me immediately because I had this exact experience last weekend. While on a visit to the Catskills and doing some exploring I happened upon the Pine Hill Community Center in the tiny town (actually a hamlet) of Pine Hill, NY. Inside this building — which was the very epitome of what a community center should be, in my mind, as it contained: a library, radio station, free coffee all day, a bookshop (which was separate from the library?), computer lab, thrift store, dance floor, welding shop, etc., as well as several good humored people who were in deep conversation with one another about various goings on around town (I mostly overheard them discussing the health of various local/favorite trees and I loved it) — there was also a featured exhibition from an artist named Peter Mayer. I took a few photos which are here, here and here.

While the cardboard and aluminum foil were clearly prevalent traits in this work, the artifacts/images/texts were also present but required closer examination. The radical artist they were in tribute to, in this case, was the artist himself. This was a departure from the opening statement that Foster discusses in An Archival Impulse.

Foster’s densely footnoted article* is a survey across many artists and works of theory and criticism, with a focus on those who are drawing on “the archives of mass culture” and using the information artifacts within it to “inventory, sample, and share” in ways that present “a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.”

I had not been previously aware of Thomas Hirschhorn or the tributes to philosophers via “interventions in public space” he has created in the form of alters and information kiosks. It was helpful to supplement this reading with Shannon Mattern’s presentation on Archival Aesthetics which presented an on-the-ground view on one of these, the Gramsci Monument in the South Bronx. This temporary installation was built in the form of a ‘complex’ near the Forest Houses of the Morissania section of the borough, which Foster would have likely and perhaps problematically categorized as a purposefully chosen host community of “minor status” — which Mattern also addresses. However, not unlike the Pine Hill Community Center, this installation included a radio station and a library, a computer lab and a snack stand, and more — and though this ‘intervention’ may have been built upon some queasy elements, it did have qualities that seemed to impact the host community in a positive way, as noted in the Archival Aesthetics talk.

Though the community in the South Bronx may not have been directly impacted by the actual works of Antonio Gramsci (the philosopher focus of Hirschhorn’s installation) during the duration of the project, Hirschhorn’s artistic motive and his method is quoted to be “to connect what cannot be connected” — a successful pursuit in this case, and an important consideration in the work of incorporating archival impulses into artistic practice.

Also just to quickly say that I loved learning about the work of Tacita Dean and especially the associative links and synchronicity behind Girl Stowaway.

* I intend to return to a lot of what is referenced in here!

The Silence of Words

“I think it’s a crime that Cage makes tapes at all,” says Nam June Paik as mentioned in Siegfried Zielinski’s AnArchaeology for AnArchives. I really stuck onto the humor and underlying meaning that this statement revealed regarding our tendency to preserve and urge for historical precedence. It reveals the true essence of art, a cataclysmic moment meant to be felt and understood in its present context and state. This is intrinsically tied to the work of Dieter Roth or “Rot”, whose work Insel (1968) is destined to diminish through natural decay, and forced to be felt in the moment. It makes me wonder in regards to performance and installation works, which function solely through the presence and interaction of the spectator, if their memory shouldn’t be preserved through documentation, but solely left to the trail of spectator experience and memory…Ann Hamilton, whose piece Mattering I found particularly inspiring, creates a physical and spacial layering of meaning, material, touch, and interaction. The part performance part installation piece questions the ties between the physical and the mechanical and the negative space these narratives get lost in. While I am captivated by the documentation, I wonder if this negates the ephemeral and performative intimacy that the physicality of the space offered.

As mentioned in Mattern’s Archival Aesthetics, Hamilton reveals her interest “in the hierarchies of our habits of perception”, where we have historically prioritized “the discursive structure of words” and textual information. But words are limiting, and somewhat inadequate at articulating or expressing human intuition and experience. It got me thinking about the impossibility of archiving religious experience or a “religion”, as it is purely created through individual experience. Historically, scriptures, texts and prophecies are perceived has being the primary tell all source of a “religion”, but the very human intuition that ignite those prophecies fall through the cracks, ultimately silenced by words. In Islam, the Quran and its scriptures are typically viewed as being the fundamental guiding source of Islam’s principles and truths. But the Quran did not originally exist in written nor textual form, but solely through a thread of memorized recitation, orally passed through individual practitioners. The Quran is thus stitched and printed through their voices, but are they heard? And how can an individual experience be archived-or even properly conveyed?

It was also an interesting experience to view Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue– with its endless layering of flattened meaning and context, through my laptop screen, yet another flattened plane of personalized layers of “knowledge”, tabs and applications. My own digital landscape became yet another tab lost in the narrative. It made me wonder if the physical space I embody, that which I share with my digital counterpart and the scattered physicality of my notebook, pen, and library book, are stripped of their physicality and dimensionality due to the ultimate reliance of the digital to process and formulate my once physical ideas.

A feature, not a bug?

Perec’s awkward foray into thinking through categorization of snow using the problematic term “Eskimos” is an own-goal. He highlights the power imbalances and reductionist processes inherent in any classification system even as he muses on the limitations of codification: which comes first, the thought or the classification?

But he writes that it is “so very tempting to want to distribute the world in terms of a single code.” Is he universalizing this tendency? Just as bias is a feature, not a bug of artificial intelligence, can human intelligence, or even human language function without some kind of categorization? Foucault writes of the unease we feel at the disorder of inappropriately linked ideas not just because it is incongruous but “in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension.” Do we all cling to systems of order to stave off the queasiness of unbounded uncertainty? And if so, is this what keeps systems of control in knowledge organization in place—and their unequal human consequences—in place? When we swap higher ideals of justice for (the pretense of) utopian order, what dystopias have we signed up for?

Where Drabinski highlights that critiques of classification and categorizations have a long history and are not new conversations, Crawford situates why this matters so crucially in our current context. Critical theorists may have been pondering these questions for a while, but data practitioners, whose work has huge implications for us all, have embraced codification and run with it. The scale and scope is unprecedented. Machine learning algorithms function through and inevitably embed biases both on matters of allocation and representation, the latter having more insidious and long-ranging impacts. It matters at an epistemological level then that categories are increasingly applied in attempt to naturalize and essentialize that which we consider the social, relational, cultural.

As highlighted in Crawford’s presentation, an example of bias in machine learning, and how it makes its way into everyday systems. Using Google to translate “he is a nurse, she is a doctor” into a language like Turkish without gendered pronouns, then reversing the translation, the AI automatically equates nurse with “she” and doctor with “he.”


Foucault, Perec, and Drabinski are all concerned with how a priori classifications not only delineate and form the basis and limits of thinking (as per the way refined description of snow in Eskimo language allow people to think and perceive differently about snow), but can also produce new realities (not just representing it) from the tension between their framing (containing world in categories) and their inevitable overflows. These are very productive frameworks for thinking about classification and knowledge.

When it comes to artificial intelligence/neuro-network, Kate Crawford explains how, depends on how the AI system is “trained,” different patterns of bias may emerge as a result, which is contradictory to how AI evangelists like to sell AI as a post-human “objective” technology. This is, of course, a very relevant and important issue, but I do wonder if the more existential question revolves around the fact that, underlying how humans understand the classifications and biases of AI systems, the neuro-network is more fundamentally like the “culture entirely devoted to the ordering of space, but one that does not distribute the multiplicity of existing things into any of the categories that make it possible for us to name, speak, and think.”

In other words, even though the outcomes of neuro-network calculations are made legible to humans, the precise logic appears to be enigmatic even to the developers of the AI. AI seems to produce confounding results all the time, and so far AI scientists seem to explain why except resorting to always calling for more data. The fact that humans have created a machine whose logic is foreign to even the developers who made it seems like a major philosophical as well as a practical problem.


A central problems of libraries is the category — particularly the ones we are accustomed to. They are, Nowviskie writes, “enlightenment-era crystallizations of a singular, dominant understanding,” failing to represent marginalized communities and, on an individual level, “all the other words users might use to describe themselves.” (Drabinski)

I was imagining a library where everyone could have their personal catalog with a preferred set of categories that maps to a shared shelving system (which would be stripped of legible categories or thematic order). It wouldn’t need ‘category words’ that attempt to mean the same for everyone. It could even function without words, arranged visually or spatially on a digital map, or in different ways which, I am sure, others have already pioneered.

I can imagine this library to feel more welcoming for everyone but am afraid it might, at the same time, prevent debate about values that should be shared.

Classification & Being Called into Being

At one point in her lecture, Crawford argues that bias is not an error of certain classificatory systems but a feature of classification itself. For example, she points to Facebook’s expansion of its gender identification choices from two to fifty-six in the span of two years, which, for her, did not solve the problem of under- or mis-representation, as it rests on the same classificatory logic that limited gender identity expression to pre-formed categories in the first place. Crawford suggests that a free-text field or doing away with the gender identification option altogether would have been more effective. However, I wonder whether the latter suggestion is even feasible or desirable. This ties into Drabinski’s argument that we need categories “in order to come into being,” though that “being” can always be contested, subverted, and resisted (103). This also comes up in Foucault, when he argues that “fabulous” animals are not impossible “because they are designated as such,” rather, it is their proximity to “real” animals that is impossible (2). To what extent does designation or classification make something or someone real or call them “into being”? How important to the process of resisting and re-making categories is the ability to call out their biases? In the same way that there is no way to permanently correct classificatory systems, is there any way, let alone any point, to permanently erase them?

Recognizing bias in data visualizations

After reading Drabinski’s ideas and listening to Kate Crawford I started wondering about how bias manifest itself in data visualization and what are the solutions being presented in order to tackle this problem. Media organizations, businesses and large public institutions resort to data visualizations in order to provide people with access to data, but it is important to remember and understand that data visualization remains a storytelling practice influenced by the perspective of the people who create and design them.

A simple presentation of a graph can drastically change and affect our perception of important public issues depending on how it is designed. An example can be the analysis of monthly change in jobs created by the NYT on 2012 where the authors give us the opportunity to scan the graph with Democrat and Republican lenses.

There are other cases where there is risk of unintentional bias. The usage of certain colors and shapes can alter the ways in which we visualize and understand certain social groups. Take as an example this map of concentrated poverty in Minnesota where the people living in these areas considered that they were being portrayed as an infestation.

The readings for this week reminded me of the importance of leaving room for discovery even when we may have a preconceived notion of how we wish to visualize the data and, above all, the need to develop techniques that promote transparency in our work as designers.