Archive Karl Lydén

The word “archive” stems from the French archive, which comes from the Latin archivum or archium, which in turn has its roots in the Greek arkheion (ἀρχεῖον), meaning “government house.” In ancient Greece, the arkheion was where official documents were kept and archons (ἄρχων), the magistrates who were entrusted with guarding the official documents, worked. The word archon comes from arche (αρχή), which means “beginning,” “first place,” “government,” “origin,” and “order.” Thus the very etymology of the word suggests the close connection to politics, power, government, and order that has been so notably examined over the last few decades. As defined in a contemporary context, an archive is a service or institution that collects, classifies, conserves, and makes accessible certain documents. It also designates the physical place and structure, house or building of this service or institution, whether it is a place for public or institutional records (such as minutes, correspondence, reports, and accounts) or a repository for any documents or material often considered to be of historical value (such as diaries, photographs, and private correspondence).

The content of an archive can be defined in different ways: by its subject matter, by its material features, by its availability through classification, or by its status as knowledge. For example, what is possibly the world’s largest archive, and perhaps the first archive organized in a modern fashion, the Archives nationales in Paris—created during the French Revolution by a decree which made it mandatory to centralize all private and public pre-French Revolution archives seized by the revolutionaries—contains documents and objects of varying material nature, with the earliest dating back to 625 AD. The unifying principle is that they concern the administration and government of the French state. In contrast with this materially diverse archive centered on a specific subject, one might mention the vast diversity of subjects and complete uniformity in material of radio archives, or, perhaps, to give an example close to the previous one, the Centre national du microfilm et de la numérisation, where all documents share the same form or material—i.e., that of microforms—even though they still retain something of their own materiality, since the microforms take the form of photographic representations. This microfilm archive, situated in a castle in the French countryside, has a sort of back-up function: it contains microfilm versions of documents from other archives, both departmental and national, in case the originals are destroyed. Of course, one might suspect that there is another castle somewhere, containing back-ups of the first back-ups, with microfilms of microfilms in what would constitute an infinite regress, but one could perhaps draw a more important conclusion from this (besides the fact that the world’s largest publicly accessible archive was created through what, from a liberal perspective, could be called theft, or, using different terminology, the repossession of public material and the redistribution of wealth): archives of real, historical artifacts and archives of materially homogenized records might very well refer to the very same objects.

Another way of looking at archival content is by distinguishing between three different categories: what the users of the archive know how to find, what the archivist knows how to find, and what not even the archivist knows about. This brings up problems created by classification mistakes and, more importantly, a lack of classification. It has been repeated so many times that it almost amounts to a saying: in an archive, you can only find what has been classified. This is why the historian and Columbia professor Alice Kessler-Harris could say that to historians in 1972, Gerda Lerner’s book Black Women in White America was a statement: one could actually write the history of African-American women by only using classical archives, despite the extremely poor classification of the history of both women and the African-American population in general.1 But, according to Kessler-Harris, one had to know where to look in those archives, because records relating to women, such as notes, documents, and letters, might be filed under their male relatives, or under institutions they had been associated with.

Archival content is thus defined by its subject, its material features, and, maybe most of all, by the classification scheme. In his book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Jacques Derrida examines the way psychoanalysis has been formed in a sort of feedback loop by the ways it has been archived—every archive informs its content—and at the same time how the archive could be interpreted in psychoanalytic terms. By its repetition, for example, the archive is characterized by the death drive. Curiously, Derrida circumvents the issue of the death drive in a highly repetitive manner himself. He investigates the archive as memory and as the mechanism of memory, as time (the archive is not a thing of the past, but of the future), and as paternal authority in terms—psychoanalytically speaking—of dead fathers and the name of the father. It is a small book, concerned with readings of Freud as much as with the archive, and yet, through its interconnections, the archival propositions seem endless.

Nonetheless, with regard to the theorization of the archive, it is perhaps Michel Foucault who has become the most influential thinker on an interdisciplinary level and who almost seems to have modeled his ideas of discourse on the mechanisms of the archive. In The Archeology of Knowledge, Foucault says, “the archive is the first law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events. But the archive is also that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity, nor do they disappear at the mercy of chance external accidents [ … ]”2 And if the ultimate question of Archive Fever is whether there is an outside to the archive, Derrida’s answer is, it seems, first “Yes” and then “No.” Compared to this, Foucault’s “No” is clear: “The archive cannot be described in its totality, and in its presence it is unavoidable.”3

Finally, and perhaps inevitably in a book of the kind you are reading right now, the discussion of the archive can be extended to the field of art. And in this field, where the vegetation seems to have an insatiable appetite for its surroundings, so to speak, the archive has been quite an important and influential concept over the last 20 years or so, with works by Christian Boltanski, Renée Green, Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, to mention only a few.4 In his essay “Research and Display,” German critic Jan Verwoert investigates archival practices in contemporary art, and distinguishes two kinds.5 He describes Christian Boltanski’s Archive (1987)—a dimly illuminated installation of countless black-and-white vintage photographs of anonymous people posted on a steel grating exhibited at Documenta 8—as belonging to the category of what he calls the sublime archive. Here, you encounter an archive so vast that the documents it contains could not even be grasped if you devoted a whole lifetime to examining them: the archive would undoubtedly survive you, and you would “be overpowered by the sublime sensation of encountering history in its totality.” This concept is contrasted with what he calls the “pragmatism of the personal,” exemplified by Renée Green’s Import/Export Funk Office (1993)—a small, user-friendly archive devoted to a limited subject, where “(f)our simple metal shelving units are linked to form a cubicle which visitors can enter to help themselves to the various media on display including books, videos, and audiocassettes.”6 But to describe Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, one would probably have to add a new category to those of Verwoert. It is not so much a sublime poetics, an overwhelming mass of documents, or the transformation of the viewer into an archival researcher that best characterize Walid Raad and the Atlas Group’s work. Rather, it might be something in line with the archive as producer—that is, how the archival modes of classification, collection, and systematization inherently produce and shape the meaning of the archived material. Through more or less absurd classifications of violent historical material related to the wars that have been waged in Lebanon over the last three decades—such as My Neck Is Thinner Than A Hair: Engines (1996–2004), which shows car engines seemingly out of place in the streets of Beirut, photographed and carefully described in terms of location and date, revealing that the engines are all that remains of cars that have been blown up, possibly killing people—Walid Raad and the Atlas Group perform a critique of the mechanisms of the archive, and make visible both the power associated with the act of classification, and the arbitrary, totalizing, and productive nature of the categories it creates.

Note

1 / Alice Kessler-Harris,”History and Archive,” paper delivered at Archiving Women Conference, Columbia University, New York, Jan. 30, 2009.

2 / Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge, Pantheon Books, New York 1972, p. 129.

3 / Ibid., p. 130.

4 / Works by both Christian Boltanski and Walid Raad were included in a recent exhibition titled Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (after Derrida’s book), curated by Okwui Enwezor. The exhibition, which took place at the International Center of Photography in New York, was devoted to artists’ use of archival structures and archival materials. Another exhibition often referenced as highly influential in this context is Deep Storage, Arsenale der Erinnerung, curated by Ingrid Schaffner at P.S.1, New York, in 1998.

5 / Jan Verwoert, “Research and Display: Transformations of Documentary Practice in Recent Art,” Untitled (Experience of Place), ed. Gregor Neuerer, Koenig Books, London 2003. The version referred to here was published under the same title in the anthology serving as exhibition catalog for Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1, ed. Maria Lind, Hito Steyerl, Sternberg Press and CCS BARD, Berlin and New York 2008.

6 / Ibid., p. 193. After this text was written and just before it was to be published, I had the opportunity of speaking to Renée Green, who expressed a slight skepticism about the “archival” characterization of Import/Export Funk Office. Green highlighted her textual work as more concerned with archival structures.