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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Deep in the Archive

Ulrich Baer. “Deep in the Archive,” Aperture, Issue No. 193 (Winter 2008): 54-9.

Allen C. Benson
Doctoral Student, University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences

Why did Ulrich Baer, a comparative literature professor at NYU, choose to publish his essay on archives in Aperture, a premier photography journal? Baer is concerned with artists who engage with the archive to mobilize what Jacques Derrida termed “Mal d’archive.” While the archivist exercises the power of the document, “imposing order on contingency,” Baer argues that contingency must not be entirely ruled out. He introduces artists who turn to the archive as both “metaphor and treasure trove,” expanding the traditional role of the archive and the photograph beyond their original purpose. He highlights the idea that artists who redirect the photograph’s and archive’s originally stated intention raise the possibility of finding new life in the archive and the photograph.

Baer begins his essay by examining parallels between the archive and the photograph. Both, he claims, “extricate their subjects from the flux of time,” entombing them before they have died; both preserve knowledge and “transmit culturally and historically specific modes of remembrance.” Baer describes the archive as a place where we classify, label, and store things we do not want to forget, or that help us understand the present, or that we believe may tell us something about the future. There is a sense of melancholy surrounding the photograph and the archive because they represent countless records, objects and images that were not collected, but were lost.

Baer brings to light a less conspicuous aspect of these phenomena, the notion that there is room in the archive and the photograph for contingency, for discovering something new and for understanding later what may not be apparent today. He turns to the subject of art and how some artists in recent years have been drawn to the archive for their inspiration because of its melancholic nature and its collections of traumatic evidence. To paraphrase Derrida, there is a feverish desire for the archive, not so much to enter and use it, but to have it. Baer echoes his own experience as an archival researcher (briefly touched upon at the end of his essay), tumbling first into the traumatic past found in the letters between Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, which he abandoned in favor of the “Rilkean archives of transcendence and joy.”

These introductory remarks serve as backdrop for the heart of Baer’s essay, which examines a handful of artists who engage with, in and around the archive. He explores their modes of engagement and how different these artists are from researchers who enter through the front door with proper IDs and research questions. Baer claims they “enter like a virus and bring the archive down from within.”

Baer begins by describing a modality he calls constructed, introducing the work of artists like Zoe Leonard who offer alternative ways of remembering history by highlighting the “fetish character of memory in postmodern culture.” Writer and director of “The Watermelon Woman,” Cheryl Dunye, conceived an imaginary black Hollywood actress and blues singer named Fae Richards, asking Leonard to fabricate The Fae Richards Photo Archive to help add realism to this fake documentary. Baer suggests this offers “an alternative way of remembering and archiving experiences that have not been officially retained or chronicled, or that have been deliberately excluded from official versions of collective history.”

Baer then discusses a modality he calls unremembered and introduces the work of artist Ilán Lieberman who carefully redraws miniature photographs of missing children that were published in Mexican newspapers. Photographs like these soon become ephemeral, either because searching proves futile or the child is found. By recreating the photographs, or what Baer calls “creating a virtual archives,” Lieberman is able to “ensure the possibility of testimony and recollection in an age that creates, uses, and discards images with equal ease.”

The last modality Baer describes is the redemption modality. Baer draws attention to artists who “refashion material from existing archives to tell new or alternative stories that may contradict or substantially revise a given collection’s original intentions.” He offers as an example the archived color slides of Jewish life in the Lodz Ghetto taken from a Nazi photographer’s perspective presenting a melancholic, “dominant narrative of hopelessness and victimization.” Baer explains how this intentional avoidance of contrary views has led some historians to regard the photograph as ‘a document of destruction.’ But the photograph can be something more. Polish filmmaker Dariusz Jabłoński reframed many of these same images in his film Fotoamator (1998), focusing on picture elements that the camera accidentally captured. For example, there is a photograph showing a German official inspecting a rack of ties “sold for survival by Jews deported to the ghetto from Western Europe.” Jabłoński zooms his lens in on one staged photo to lay bare the face of a boy who was not meant to be seen.

In Baer’s closing remarks he points to Freud’s conception of memory, claiming that memory is prone to these same distortions. He briefly touches upon Michel Foucault’s analysis of how facts and events shape personal and collective memory as much as the “symbolic order available to express, record, and recall them.” This, Baer concludes, is why contemporary artists working in and around the archive place their attention on “how events are shaped by different forms and modes of representation, and by different media.”