Re-Mediating the Archive: Scholars discuss archival revolutions

On April 24th, 2015, the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, together with the university’s Department of Comparative Literature, the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, the Office of the Dean for Humanities, as well as the Romanian Cultural Institute inNew York, held an all-day symposium entitled “Re-Mediating the Archive: Image, Word, Performance” organized by NYU’s PhD candidate in Comparative Literature Emma Hamilton and Professor of Comparative Literature Cristina Vatulescu. The symposium welcomed seven participants from various fields who, as Vatulescu pointed out in her introduction, were there to address “the coming together of texts, images, and bodies in the archive.” She also added that currently “archival re-mediation is in full swing,” with new scholarship posing the question of the role of media and images in the long textually-dominated archive and attempting to bring other media out of persistent blind spots. She referred to this recent development as a new archival revolution, and invited dialogue with other archival revolutions, such as that prompted by the emergence of film as a medium at the turn of the 20th century and the one following the fall of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago.

The first panel of the day was entitled “Eyes to the East: Art and Archives In Eastern Europe and Russia” and was chaired by Professor Michael Kunichika from the NYU Department of Russian and Slavic Studies. The panel focused on shifting attitudes towards the use of film footage in the Soviet Union and Hungary, the Romanian secret police’s use of documentary film and reenactment, as well as the concept of self-archiving in the late Soviet period.

In her paper “Archival Kino-Eye: Dziga Vertov and Curated Image Archives,” Oksana Sarkisova – a permanent research fellow at Central European University and Open Society Archives in Budapest – spoke of the evolution in the use of documentary footage in Dziga Vertov’s films. For instance, his 1926 film Sixth Part of the World revealed that Vertov used the footage primarily to catalogue and document the various peoples in the Soviet Union and to depict it as “a fully surveyed and structured entity.” This ethnographic move was reflective of his negative attitude towards narrative films and his trust in the camera eye being superior to the human eye. It is roughly at that time that Vertov was developing his famous Kino-Eye method, which aimed to do away with “play” elements in film. By contrast however, his 1934 film Three Songs About Lenin reveal a different understanding of listing and work with archival footage. The life and deeds of Lenin became exemplary for the emerging Soviet subjectivity. In his film, Vertov used the newsreel for the purposes of constructing a unifying foundation for the imagined identity of Soviet subjects and nation. For instance, images of Lenin’s funeral were used as a mechanism of collective emotional experience in which the archive plays the central role; editing together geographically remote witnesses, simultaneously mourning the passing of the Soviet leader, was meant to evoke a strong sense of a unified collective identity.

In her paper “Multimedia in the Archives: A Film, Two Photo Albums, and 27 Files” Vatulescu questioned ways in which one should look, watch, and see inside the archive, if one has been trained to read. She focused on her personal work experience in the Romanian secret police archives, which often lack a clear organization and finding aids. Many types of media that are traditionally separated from each other continue to be stored together for forensic purposes. The seeming amalgamation of various media can at first startle a researcher. Yet, as Vatulescu revealed, careful consideration of these disorganized materials may lead to striking discoveries. Through discussing the 1960 reenactment film of a bank heist produced by the secret police, she showed how the seemingly random materials relating to this film found in archival folders pointed to the “behind the scenes” of the secret police operations. By placing images and words against one another, she could analyze the collusion carefully choreographed by the police: certain images revealed more than they could capture (the location of the film cameras, etc.), while the discarded and suppressed scripts for the film disclosed how hard the secret police was trying to control the set and the final product.

Sven Spieker’s presentation focused on the politics of self-archiving during the Soviet period. He believes that self-archiving was particularly significant in Eastern Europe, because it was the needed mechanism to “turn the outside into the inside.” For instance, the lack of institutional spaces for exhibiting art forced many artists to self-archive and present their work inside their homes. Therefore, the traditional understanding of an archive that is often defined by the distance between the object’s site of production/utilization and its final confinement was subverted and replaced by their coincidence. Spieker also questioned whether the process of self-archiving leads to self-construction and change in oneself. Referencing Michel Foucault, Spieker suggested that the process of self-archiving can be seen as the “technology of self” – a modern era development through which a subject changes and transforms oneself in order to obtain a certain amount of happiness. This consideration further leads to question whether self-archiving is a form of self-surveillance. Alternatively, the artistic practice of self-archiving could critique and reveal the state’s apparatus of surveillance: for instance, Ilya Kabakov’s famous installation of “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away” could be considered as a revelation of what a regular apartment would look like to a state official. Living in the Soviet era, Spieker added, was like “living in a giant archive.” And for artists, it was not unusual to turn to this material as the medium for their art.

After a short break, Iosif Király of SubREAL, a Romanian art group, spoke at length about the series of projects that the group undertook rooted in the event of rescuing the archive of ARTA, the only Romanian art magazine, which was published from 1953 to 1989 and controlled and dominated the public image. The goal of the group was to break through traditional tendency of thinking in oppositions: i.e. to unmask the myth of the radical break that dominated public discourse after the 1989 revolution, as well as the binaries that were common in viewing relations between dissident artists and power. Working with 600 kg of images, the purposes of each project was also to open up a debate about archives and how to approach the archive in different ways.

The afternoon panel, entitled “In and Out: What Counts as Archival?” and chaired by PhD candidate Emma Hamilton, focused on the dynamic between the inside and outside of the archives. Among other subjects, the panel focused on differentiating between thing and object in connection to the archive, the archival film’s (in)ability to record history, as well as the productive and exclusionary aspects of archival practices.

Diana Taylor began by discussing the common understanding of the archive as the place that preserves and cements materials, as articulated in her paper “Archiving the Thing.” According to it, the selection of a thing to be stored in an archive renders it significant and important. Our faith in the archive and its imposition of what is important allows for writing and underwriting of truth, the law and other contested concepts. In light of the archive’s cementing function, Taylor argued, there is an established conception that things found outside the archive have no staying power. In fact, she claimed, “things do not disappear.” Rather, they exist in a constant state of transformation. What we see in the world outside of the archive, Taylor claimed, are things, not objects. In her opinion, only objects are found in archives: they are representative of the way that things appear to us – which is nameable and can be categorized. By contrast, a thing is much more ambiguous because in its fabric it carries the potential for transformation and can therefore be unidentifiable. Taylor discussed “Bom Retiro 958 metros,” a Brazilian performance by Teatro da Vertigem, which takes the audience on a stroll through São Paulo’s life of things. The performance generates a horrific and terrifying environment by revealing that things, which are by logic of capitalism replaceable, are in fact not dead. For instance, the performance pointed out the horrors of slavery and violence against women by bringing attention to the bodies that would be “thingified” and sold according to the logic of capitalism. The confusion between the real and the non real contributes to the horrors of our world, in which everyone is constantly morphed into something else.

Paula Amad, who presented a paper titled “Ambient Chaos: The Archival Imaginary in Post-War French Film Culture,” discussed the various attitudes towards documentary film footage in the post-war period in France, which she described as the moment of “crisis in representation.” On the one hand, the newsreel became increasingly crucial to record and produce history in its most violent and extreme moment; reporters were ordered to get film footage of war scenes and death. Faith in the “long memory of film” was also telling of a collective anxiety about the potential of nuclear war. Simultaneously, doubts and suspicions about the film’s ability to function as a substitute for memory were heard from various intellectuals, including André Bazin. He believed that film gives additional power of illusion by its very realism, which could be very dangerous. He also felt that films were impoverished substitutes for real memory. Yet for Bazin, Nicole Védrès’ film Paris 1900 – a documentary footage montage film – was a triumphant expression of “a haunting human embodiment of life in the face of death.” In Amad’s opinion, it is a counter-archival film, which interrogated the desire to objectively record history and pointed to the ambiguous nature of the real that continues to be realized today.

The final talk of the conference was presented by Ernst van Alphen. In his paper “The Politics of Exclusion or Reanimating the Archive” he discussed the productive aspects of the archive. Beginning in the 1990s, when the focus on archival theory began to grow exponentially, the archive was often interpreted in both literal and figurative sense. In the literal understanding, the archive is an institutional space. In figural understanding, the archive is the practices of memory and knowledge not bound by any institutional organization. According to Michel Foucault, it is a set of discursive rules based on inclusion and exclusion of “can” and “cannot be said”. From this perspective, knowledge and memory excluded from the archive are also a part of the archive produced by the institutional rules of exclusion. The archive, van Alphen argued, is not a place that stores uncritically. Rather, it is a place that by employing its institutional power consigns materials in order to create a structural unity and a classified system of elements. In the modern era, van Alphen continued, the archive has been considered not as a document of past memory, but as a document for future use. For instance, Foucault insisted that unlike the pre-modern era during which individuals substantiated the archives, in the modern era the archival categories construct, shape, and substantiate individuals. Van Alphen concluded his presentation by discussing artistic archival practices that are meant to animate lost history’s identities. While he is generally skeptical of such projects, because they often lack a critical dimension, projects by artists like Akram Zaatari (Another Resolution), Santu Mofokeng (Black Photo Album/Look At Me), and the Atlas Group successfully critique the gaps between social norms and generational, gender and racial dynamics.