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.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Big Archive

Artists, in their work, comment on all aspects of life, and they have not ignored archives. Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008) documents such commentary. Spieker’s book “looks at the way in which the bureaucratic archive shaped art practice in the twentieth century, from Dadaist montage to late-twentieth century installation” (p. 1). Spieker analyzes art commenting on the archivist’s role, how archives are ordered, how early professional archivists viewed records as a life form, the differences between archives and registries, and the use by artists of archival artifacts or symbols (such as card indexes, typewriters, and file folders). One gains an interesting perspective on how government and other organizations were viewing records and their management, especially as the artists provided commentary on archival principles such as provenance.

We can get a better sense of how Spieker deals with his subject when we examine more closely what he has to say about specific schools of art. In considering Surrealists, for example, Spieker argues, “Early Surrealist practice took very seriously the idea of the unconscious as an archive of files without an address, as demonstrated by the numerous calls made by the Surrealist leadership to collect, record, and classify the data of the unconscious” (p. 92). He also has this to say about the Surrealists: “Where traditional archives safeguard the preservation of historical facts, the archive of Surrealism collects events that, to the extent that they are unconscious, function as interruptions of historical process. The Surrealists wanted to establish an archive not of history but of its importance, not of narrative but of its other” (p. 96). Looking at another art movement, Soviet futurists, Spieker explains that they sought to “destroy the bourgeois art museum and replace it with a ‘new museum,’” considering the “relationship between archives and museums, using the term ‘archive’ as derogatory shorthand for a revisionist attitude toward the past” (p. 105).

If you have a sense, when reading such excerpts, that Spieker provides us with some understanding of how parts of society see archives at a particular era, then you have a good sense of the book. Sometimes Spieker quotes from observers that reveal a view of archives that no archivist would claim, such as these comment by artist Ilya Kabakov: “Archives contain paperwork that no longer circulates in the bureaucracy, paperwork that has lapsed and become garbage” (p. ix). Indeed, archivists will find in this book terms they do not commonly use – such as “archivizing” and “archivization” – descriptors more often found in the texts of scholars applying hip critical theory and other approaches to their subject. However, such issues are more than balanced by, first, the images of artistic interpretations of art that look, in a sometimes uncanny fashion, the repositories archivists work in, and, second, the use of the archival literature written by archival theorists such as Jenkinson, Schellenberg, Posner, and Muller, Feith, and Fruin.