New Considerations

At times, in these readings, I am frustrated. Ann Stoler brings up relevant and vital issues about colonial archives: provenance. Colonialism permanently changes a place and archives reflect that, and there is important work being done to go back and think about how we know what we know. We need to not just question the content of the archive, but to also question how the archive was constructed. We do this to get closer to some “truth” of the place/time/event. After reading the issues she brings up, I am frustrated by how limited the archive can be. It is part of a picture, not the whole picture. Just like our narratives of history. It’s left up to us on what to do with the issues.

In the article by Jarrett Drake, he talks about the history of provenance and how, historically, archives became different from libraries, which I found very helpful! It aided my understanding in the potential of the archive and the limits of it at the same time. Aside from the more sinister parts of colonialism in the archive (people’s experiences it leaves out at best, and aiding the ugliness of the continued rule of the white patriarchy at worst) seems to be a kind of organizational tool. Drake asks how we organize the digital archive at a time when we can expand whose voices are included in 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.


Nature & The Archive

From archiving ice to an artist’s dated computer work, the materiality of capturing the ephemeral materiality is a huge part of the archive. Figuring out, in a rapidly changing climate, how to archive and subsequently learn about our own earthly environment is important to our very existence.

The ice archive fascinated me and that’s what I chose to focus on for my presentation. A few things that stood out to me here are:

  1. Scientist plays the role of the archivist. When archiving nature, we have a group of professionals that are not experts in saving, but in studying/experimenting. What does that mean for how the archive is organized? Are all these scientist/archivists talking around the world? Are they working together to determine what to archive most efficiently?
  2. I have seen the natural world displayed in museums and various exhibits, but I haven’t thought of it in a living and breathing archive. This is an archive that takes an immense amount of energy to upkeep…and there is a deep irony of using the earth’s resources to save the earth’s creations.
  3. If we lose some species of insects or plants in our future, will the archive play a role in saving our existence? Should we be looking at our “nature” archives in this way?


The Paradox of Preserving a Performance

I have friends who work in the performance world, one is a dancer at the New York City Ballet and another is a program director at BAC (Baryshnikov Arts Center). The three of us have talked, a few times, about preserving performances and we wish we could, but they aren’t mean to be preserved.

While completing this week’s readings, I kept going back to that conversation and thinking about how the preservation of the sound/performance can alter it…thereby creating another layer of experience that wasn’t present when it was viewed by an audience. What archive the performance/sound is a part of can create and embedded meaning, how it was catalogued, who presented it, etc.

The multi-sensory archive can offer more context to the experience of the archival object, but it can’t ever fully preserve the context/time/space of the object. Do we accept those imperfections, try to improve them (as people are doing), or should we let these pieces die as perhaps they were meant to? Zen for Film was a perfect paradoxical example of this. Given the principles of Zen to be in the moment and let each moment flow and die as we move to the next.

Archive, Knowledge, and Identity

This week’s readings brought us deeper into the archive by looking at it from another perspective of photo archives. I realized a few things about the organization of the archive that were evident before, but were really apparent in this week’s readings. John Tagg talks about how the photo archive is a “political apparatus” that is “inseparable from the rationalization of information the control of bodies, and the relegation of the photographic operator to ‘the status of a detail worker.’ There is a lot to unpack there, but overall it helps us realize the power of the archive and how its function and organization extend beyond just the organization of data and material objects and into the realm of societal norms and functions. Archives are systems of knowledge and we see both the importance and limits of the archive. As Nina Vestberg stated, the politics of truth fold into a politics of identity through the regulation of relationships both to time, truth, and memory and to the practices and technologies of record and recollection. Our archives reflect our own identity and how we think about the world.

Previously I hadn’t thought about how many different subjects the photographic archive touches and how important it is to access those photos for various disciplines (medical, artistic, etc.)

In my previous job as a copywriter in advertising I would write metadata for images to help people find our website. This was my own form of organizing a kind of photographic archive within the tripartite system that Vestberg talked about. We have the thing, then data about the thing, and finally the bits of information to help you search for the thing and determines your finding, therefore determining your exposure and knowledge.

In current terms, hashtaging on Instagram serves this same function. We are both functioning as the Warburg and Conway libraries do, we account for what a picture shows, but sometimes it is never the same as describing what it depicts.

Where the Stuff Goes

I am easily overwhelmed by huge libraries, but I love to peruse them. Like Machiavelli and Alberto Manguel, I like to sit amongst books. I even tried sleeping with them when I was younger, thinking it would help me absorb the information more quickly. In these readings I was interested in how the digital world intersects with the physical world both logistically and experientially.

In Warburg’s library, the organization of the books was the most important element. This “catalogue of problems” gave a unique insight into the actual information that people were seeking. The intimate journey to the information was just as important as the information itself. The Prelingers carried on this tradition of a journey when they discussed browsing and all the various associations that happen when one is in the physical space of books. Putting their collection online doesn’t quite offer the same experience, although I liked some of the ideas they had to make the online browsing experience more like the in-person experience.

Moving from there to getting a better sense of how some of America’s biggest libraries store and lend out their materials made me feel as though we went from someone’s living room to a warehouse. Gone is that intimacy, but the information is more readily available. I wonder how much the role of efficiency of preservation and the ease of online collections moves us from an intimate experience of sitting amongst our books. I wonder what “free photography” does to the collection of photography. Do things become more accessible and less sacred? Or are they more readily available so we can appreciate them more?