Manifesto for a Slow Archive

We no longer think of archives as destinations for practices, or as media to be parsed and separated; we think of them as practice itself. Studying (in) the archive today no longer means the uncovering of the various archaeological layers that invisibly define the present, dividing it from itself. And in contemporary art, too, the archive does not equal knowledge understood as a destination. Rather, it is the name we give to a practice that takes as its departure point the combination, concatenation, reformatting, or rescaling of information that is archival to the extent that everything is.

What I call “slow archive” can be related to concepts such as “an-archive,” “anti-archive,” or “anomic archive”; yet its ambition is not, as is the case with these formations, to think the archive in relation to what negates, repudiates, or destroys it. Rather, the slow archive creates an opening where archiving is tentatively severed from its allegiance to the traces of the past, to storage, and where instead it exposes itself to the present and its memories. The slow archive is to the archive what the off-modern is to modernism, “a detour into the unexplored potentials of the modern project. It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side-alleys of modern history at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic and technological narratives of modernization and progress.”(Svetlana Boym, “The Off-Modern Condition.” Accessed 08/27/2015.)

Today, though often invoked as if nothing had changed, the traditional archive, understood as a concept as much as a concrete institution, is in crisis. For sure, archive-inspired interfaces, art practices and initiatives, conferences, and exhibitions surround us everywhere. Yet unlike the analogue archive with its emphasis on provenance, context, original order, and regulated process, the contemporary (digital) archive is not grounded in any specific location or site. Databases can spread their data across any number of technical platforms and applications in any place in the world. And the (meta) data they store is not identified with reference to its provenance, its origin in a specific place. The consequences of this change are dramatic. For one thing, one of the major functions of archives has always been the production of evidence through the elevation of archival documents to the status of a right or title. Yet for archives to be able to exercise this function, it is necessary that they occupy a concrete, enclosed and carefully guarded space where such evidence can be visited and verified. Only here does such evidence have the power to bestow authority—by testifying to a document’s authentic provenance. In today’s open archives, by contrast, provenance is no longer authenticated by the act of archival consignment, and images can act as evidence in any place and at any time.

As locations, archives have always depended on the rigorous distinction between (their own) inside and its outside, a distinction patrolled by a whole litany of archival techniques and expertise specific to the archive’s site. Now that that site has gone missing, these techniques, too, are being unmoored from their customary spaces. The archive today functions less as an inside defining itself against what surrounds it than as an environment without outside where what is archive and what is not is increasingly difficult to tell. We do not “enter” the archive, we are in it. In this environment, information is not deposited; it drifts like a cloud. To refer to the archive as a cloud is to suggest that in our globalized world information is a naturally occurring, ubiquitous commodity not tied to any location or a specific cultural technique. The archive-as-cloud not only reinforces our sense that in the age of neo-liberalism an archive is a global environment rather than a discrete location; it also naturalizes that environment by disconnecting its formation from any particular technology. If we can no longer explore the history of the earth without considering those aspects of that history that are man-made because they have long since become part of the natural ecosystem, then we must also consider the possibility that there is such a thing as archives in or of nature: the archive as a natural environment; the natural environment as archive.

In the archive-as-environment, information is no longer consigned; it “flows” or “drifts.” That’s why in global information management, data flows a priori trump permanent storage in the archive. In the neo-liberal economy, the archive functions as a mere afterthought to a corporation’s ongoing production cycle. Or, in other words, the rules and procedures of that cycle are applied to archival records as well, which is why archival data no longer need to be placed in a separate location. As a website entitled “How is big data changing data archiving strategies” argues: “We will need to stop thinking of an archive as a set of operations and infrastructure separate and distinct from production operations and infrastructure … and instead archival data where it is physically located, but marking the data and perhaps applying special services to the data that befit its archival class.”( Accessed 08/01/2015.) From the point of view of traditional archiving, this recommendation is nothing short of revolutionary, since it denies the archive any separate location and suggests instead that archival records can or should be part of a corporation’s production cycle—they need to be as fast as that cycle. The archive in this economy is no longer a site but a class of records, one category within a vast classificatory landscape that defines our information age.

The integration of the traditional archive into the fast-paced production cycle of the neo-liberal economy corresponds to a flattening of cognitive space for which the archive as a layered site in the spirit of Freud’s Wunderblock—with its articulation of different layers in the spirit of an archeological site—is no longer an adequate reference point. The archive-without-location, rather than representing its own architecture, layer by layer, is embedded in the horizontal flatness of the global present. In line with the horizontality of this archive, and based on research suggesting that our brain may processes a current (present) perception the same way it processes its recollection, researchers have argued with the view that storage (archive) and recall (memory) exist as discrete functions. The challenge, then, would be to formulate a theory of memory that no longer invokes the archive as a storage function, in favor of an archive focused on connectivity across a horizontal plane in which inside/outside distinctions, or invocations of original traces, are no longer required for memories to form. This, as Jens Brockmeyer has written, would mean that memory is no longer located in the black box of the archive but rather “within a broader framework of social and cultural practices and artifacts, which are themselves subject to historical change.”(Jens Brockmeier, After the Archive: Remapping Memory. Culture & Psychology 16.1 (2010), p. 9. Accessed 02/10/2016.) Arjun Appadurai has shown the political and social consequences of such a project for the creation of national identity in the diaspora: to wit, the replacement of a central archive of original traces of history as the birthplace of a nation with the dynamic interaction between image flows, migration, and memory-formation (“migrant archive”). The question as to whether the memories traded under the circumstances of the diaspora—online, in newspapers, or by word of mouth—are true to the spirit of the archive, its insistence on original traces and the accident of their preservation, is here secondary to their tactility and efficacy in creating a (migrant) community.(Arjun Appudarai, “Archive and Aspiration.” Accessed 08/01/2015.)

How can we retake the archive and revive or instill in it a critical function without either nostalgically invoking its humanist incarnation or endorsing its neo-liberal nemesis, the idea of a fully transparent, fully capitalized mega-archive? In other words, how can the archive be critical to today’s information society, even as its foundational logic, with its rigorous distinction between inside and outside (of the archive), is no longer intact? To answer these questions is also a political necessity. In the face of limitless data-mining and information transfer both in the commercial realm and as a function of globalized security operations, it seems imperative to think through a politics of the archive that no longer associates the latter purely with a form of storage, but with the contemporary, and with the future.

Perhaps it is time then to invoke the “slow” archive—which is not synonymous with analogue media, or with slowness literally understood—as way of obviating the constraints of enforced archival productivity, yet without reverting to the humanist archive with its emphasis on the metaphysics of arkheion (the original archival site), trace, provenance, and original order. Running counter both to the humanist archive and the neo-liberal archive of fast (capital) flows alike, the slow archive establishes itself in the margins and blank spaces that permit documents to function. The slow archive’s element is speed, not space: the (varying) speeds, slowness included, with which we focus on a document and its surroundings, and the difference that makes. Consider Peruvian artist Luz Maria Bedoya’s work Linea de Nazca (2008), a single-take video of 2:40 mins length that records, from a car driving across the Pan American Highway in the Southern Peruvian desert, the area where the Nazca lines (300 B.C./900 A.D.) are located. The images of the Nazca line, which count among Peru’s greatest tourist attractions, are classically viewed from a plane, and it is from that vantage point that they become readable as meaningful symbols. In Bedoya’s work, on the other hand, the way the artist’s car travels through the desert with the camera more or less at eye level increases the viewer’s visceral experience at the expense of a successfully integrated reading that can transform lines into meaningful symbols. Bedoya, we might say, aims to create an archive that we can inhabit rather than wanting to master or consume it.

Akram Zaatari’s video This Day (2003) is another case in point: combining archival found photographs and sounds with sequences shot by Zaatari himself, it does not use these archival documents as objectifying sources of knowledge. Instead the artist subjects himself and the documents to a destabilizing, dis-orienting speed (slow/fast), as if to suggest that the meaning of an archival photo or document is as unpredictable as the speed with which we scan over it. Sometimes the resulting disorientation comes from the camera itself as it scans the surface of a photograph in such a way that it loses its coherence. It is as if Zaatari has to un-know or de-inform the document before he can summon it to testify. Like Zaatari, artists and writers from Lina Selander (Around the Cave of the Double Tombs, 2010) to Dani Gal (As from Afar, 2014), Jörgen Gasilewski (The Gothenburg Events, 2006), and Julius von Bismarck (Unfall am Mittelpunkt Deutschlands, 2013) have explored the possibilities for a “slow” archival politics based in unknowing, disorientation, and changes of pace. I want to consider three different avenues such projects have taken: first, the replacement of location with different forms of disorientation (Lina Selander); the strategic assumptions of fiction as fact (Jörgen Gasilewski); and, third, the slowing of information flow as a new archival politics (Dragan Espenschied).

Disorientation—both the artist’s and her audience’s—is a key element in Stockholm-based Lina Selander’s Around the Cave of the Double Tombs (2010), an archival video and book project that deals with the artist’s multiple visits to the West Bank city of Hebron. The project takes its starting point in several research trips to the West Bank, especially to the city of Hebron. The mute video links photographs and still images that show a model of ancient Jerusalem in a museum, a check-point with its massive security architecture squeezed into a historical building, houses, walls, and scattered objects. Like the video and despite appearances, the book Selander produced from her film—a combination of black pages, text, and more or less detailed black and white images of the border crossing—never coheres into a meaningful travelling sequence. For Selander, it is during the process of editing when, to paraphrase Harun Farocki, she takes leave of any plan she may have had for her material, realizing that such planning is, in her own words, “nonsense.” Drifting across her material, Selander creates local orders without an overarching master plan; she pushes her material to a point where, as she asserts, she feels herself excluded from it. The document, for Selander, functions like a screen memory: its purpose is to hide, not to testify. It is up to the traveling, strolling, lost artist to find what it may conceal.

Working with or in the archive as a way of opening up a space for what is possible (rather than what is real, original, or authentic) often begins, paradoxically, with the foreclosure of knowledge. Jörgen Gasilewski’s 2006 documentary novel The Gothenburg Events uses a multitude of painstakingly collected and researched documents to reconstruct George W. Bush’s 2001 visit to the Swedish port city of Gothenburg on the occasion of the EU summit meeting. By combining documents with elements of fiction, Gasilewski’s novel provides an elaboration of the demonstrations and police violence that accompanied the EU summit, as well as their judicial aftermath. For Gasilewski, literature is a way of uncovering what he has called the “implicit narrative constraint” of a document. By this Gasilewski means that an archival document does not contain or own its own status as evidence; rather, it searches for that status within what he calls “the greatest of stories, reality.” Calling his novel a “literal fiction”, Gasilewski focuses on the figure of an alleged German agent provocateur who figures in the internal reports of the Gothenburg police and, subsequently, in the right-wing Swedish press as an anarchist and “German terrorist.” The true identity of this German, whose alleged subversive activities the press soon utilizes to refer to all the demonstrators as terrorists, can however never be established. He was most likely an invention by the police. In The Gothenburg Events, this fictitious figure becomes a real character. Gasilewski challenges our idea of a stable boundary between the document and literature; between the archive and the real; and between art practice and politics. Just like the police archive “documents” the existence of an agent provocateur who was in all likelihood fictitious, Gasilewski, by placing this fictional character within the limits of a documentary novel—a fiction based on a real record, testifying to a non-existing character whose identity becomes an established fact—not only discredits the police, he also establishes his own writing as a viable evidentiary practice, since it alone is capable of unveiling the “narrative constraint” that inhibits the police archive.

The last strategy for reinvesting the archive with “slow” criticality I want to mention concerns more literally the slowing or rescaling of information flow. Among such efforts to slow down the global circuits of information we find what Dragan Espenschied calls (slow) “digital obscurity”: “Digital obscurity offers the experience of encountering something that has gone unseen or unnoticed by others. It is a rare, intimate and personal moment in a media world that is geared toward high visibility and high-speed circulation. Discovering a website where the traffic counter shows a single-digit number is so attractive because the counter proves that you, the viewer, are part of a small and select group to have experienced a particular digital artifact or practice.”(Dragan Espenschied, “Acknowledgement, Circulation, Obscurity, System Ambience, Accessed 08/27/2015.) Espenschied, like the slow archive more generally, focuses on information the neoliberal economy has forgotten, the slow and the non-high-gloss, the not-yet-global, and what is of no or only poor quality. Together with the analogue paper archive, which is “slow” by dint of its material condition, digital obscurity may well be our best bet when it comes to eluding the dazzling transparency of the neo-liberal global archive.

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. He specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's book publications include The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008; Korean translation, 2013); Destruction (ed., 2017); Art as Demonstration: A Revolutionary Recasting of Knowledge (forthcoming, MIT Press). He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.