Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Funky Time in Archivesville

The concept of archives encompasses many different readings, as the postings on this blog suggest, ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. Charles Merewether, ed., The Archive (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0-262-63338-3, is testament to this reality. Part of the “Documents of Contemporary Art” series, this volume, with its no-nonsense name, is intended to provide a “contextual introduction to the ways in which concepts of the archive have been defined, examined, contested and reinvented by artists and cultural observers from the early twentieth century to the present” (p. 10). Anyone who has been following how various writers, artists, and social commentator discuss archives won’t be astounded by what they find in this volume, but they will be pleased to have all these writings assembled in one convenient source.

The essays are grouped around a variety of themes. The essays in “Traces” examine the “relation between art and the archive in terms of the perceptions and understandings that events and experiences always leave behind them by means of the index, or residual mark, of their occurrence” (p. 10). Writings include Sigmund Freud, Michael Foucault, Andy Warhol, and others. The next section, “Inscriptions,” “examines ways in which the law of the archive has been inscribed in definitions of the document and the body” (p. 12), with ruminations by Paul Ricoeur, Walter Benjamin, Allan Sekula, and Jacques Derrida, most of whom are familiar to those exploring postmodern concepts about the archive. “Contestations” is a grouping of “commentaries by artists and art historians on uses of the archive from the post 1945 period to the present,” with discussion about various of their projects playing with the notion of archive, including an effort by the book’s editor to examine post-war Japanese photography and the government’s efforts to suppress the “immediate historical trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as much as Japan’s defeat and the humiliation of US occupation” (p. 13). In this section, Cãlin Dan and Josif Kiraly, working the secret police archives in East Germany and Romania, make this interesting observation: “At the end of modernity archives are, next to and beyond their functional aspect, an embodiment of cultural heritage. They have to be protected, and made available for public visit and scrutiny – in the same way that old churches and monuments, museums, theatres, and libraries are. But unlike those institutions, archives do not carry ethical characteristics; they are in that sense amoral. Moral quality is the input of those who access them: people make sense of archives, not the other way around” (p. 113). Patricia Levin and Jeanne Perrault describes one artist’s use of nineteenth century photographs where the artist “troubles the archives she uses by collecting, disassembling, and recollecting, in different ways, what was once immobilized for preservation” (p. 141). And the final group, “Retracings,” “presents texts that contest not only the dominant construction of the archival as historical record but also its effects” (p. 15).

As one might expect, Merewether’s compilation provides little in the way of any practical insight into the administration of archives, and that is not its purpose. The Archive is intended to survey and reflect various artistic expressions of the nature and function of archives, mostly through the artists working with visual materials, especially photographs. Surprisingly this is not a book replete with illustrations, but it is text, writings about the artistic impulse to portray the archival impulse. It stretches the mind, and it gets pretty funky at spots. Have some fun.