Latent Archives, Roving Lens

Uriel Orlow

Modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image. What began as writing ends as high fidelity and tape recording. [...] No longer living memory's more or less intended remainder, the archive has become the deliberate and calculated secretion of lost memory. It adds to life – itself often a function of its own recording – a secondary memory, a prosthesis memory.1

Acceleration is known to affect both time and space. It was ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, continuing in the tracks of the Enlightenment project and culminating in the much talked-of global Information Age. Acceleration not only promotes faster material and data production but also the speed and range of its delivery; it is the stepping stone of instantaneity, immediacy, novelty, economic growth and geo-political power.2 But, and this is known too, the increasingly fast slippage of the present also amounts to an exponential gaining of weight of the past, under which our epoch so agonises. Acceleration leaves behind a growing mountain of 'stuff', results in a windfall of information and an ever increasing sense of disappearance and obsolescence. This in turn results in an intensifying desire to capture things before they are lost for good, a general nostalgia for the past, and a self-conscious interest in, or indeed obsession with, memory both individual and collective.

Responding to and stimulated by this, there has been a marked increase in contemporary arts practices concerned with memory. Two sub-trends immediately come to mind: on the one hand, works which in one way or another simulate memory processes and create fictional archives by way of collecting and classifying things or through the use of narrative (The Atlas Group, Christian Boltanski, Hanne Darboven, Mark Dion, Arnold Dreyblatt, On Kawara and many others fall into this category). On the other hand, a group of works can be identified which reject the imaginary or symbolic archive in favour of the real archive, making use of documentary sources or found footage, be it to address historical themes or to subvert given interpretations of events (e.g. Johan Grimonprez's dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the work of Muntadas and many documentary films). The role of the artist in the former group of works could be described as that of an archive maker whereas the artists in the latter group work as archive users.

What I am interested in here is a third, less obvious practice; namely that of artists working as archive thinkers.3 The works that fall into this category are not principally engaged in the construction of new archives or in the conducting of research into existing ones. And while they might do both of these things, they are above all engaged in deconstructing the notion of the archival itself. They reflect on the archive as something which is never fixed in meaning or material, but is nevertheless here, largely invisible yet at the same time monumental, constantly about to appear and disappear; latent. The exploration of the archive at the intersection of concept and matter has a profound urgency. With the dematerialisation of archives through the process of digitisation, there is a need to re-assess the material qualities of the document itself. The document is not only an original witness, but more importantly, it bears a potent inscription of something beyond the information contained therein; that is, a message which always needs to be deciphered anew, a latency of meaning which cannot be transferred to its digital twin, for it is tied to the historical present of the document rather than the access to the past it is supposed to enable.4 This 'now-ness' of history, (i.e. the fact that history is a concern of the present rather than an interest in the past) is contained in the sheer material fact of both the document and the archive as a whole.

In this essay, I will consider artistic archive-thinking of this materiality from the vantage point of moving image works and their specific inter-weaving of the roles of the artist as researcher, the camera as eye-witness, and the film/video work as keeper of archival matter. Focusing on examples, I will explore two strands of works. Firstly, those whose reflection on the materiality of the archive/document is literally a mirroring of an existing archive, where the archive's material presence and the collection's physicality is visually transcribed into a moving image work. Secondly, I will reflect on the implications of works which project the archival onto the world outside and retrieve documents or collections which are not yet archived and are still physically embedded in their original historical settings.

The World of Archives

Alain Resnais' 1956 short film Toute la mémoire du monde is a pioneering example of a moving image work that explores the physical realities of the archive. A mesmerising portrait of the French National Library, it declares its intentions from the very first Vertovinspired shot of the camera itself: what is at stake here is not reading but looking. Panning to a microphone which is suspended mid-air, an off-screen voice comes in: "Because humans have a short memory, they accumulate countless aide-mémoires." A chaotic underground vault filled with books and boxes comes into focus and a long series of tracking shots takes in piles of newspapers on the floor, shelves bursting with books, stacks of paintings, loose papers and countless boxes full of pamphlets. The movement of the camera over this not yet archived documentary matter invites us to consider the sheer materiality of the archive before organisation has taken hold of it and stored it away. Treating the archive as a sea of documents, by way of an implicit visual metaphor, the film also points to the difficult ontological status of the archive's materiality, its closeness to natural forces, despite being such an explicitly cultural phenomenon. Arlette Farge also points to this archival predicament: "[The archive is] disproportionate, enormous, intrusive like the tides of the equinox, avalanches or flooding. The comparison with natural and unpredictable currents is no coincidence; those who work in the archive often describe their journey in terms of diving, immersion or even drowning... a rendez-vous with the sea."5 As the microphone drops back into the shot, the voice of the off-screen narrator turns the metaphor of the sea into the founding myth of the archive by introducing the notion of control over the uncontrollable tidal wave of documents: "Confronted with these bursting repositories, humankind is assailed by a fear of being engulfed by this mass of words. So to assure their liberty, humans build fortresses."

Subsequent air-borne shots of the dome of the Bibliothèque Nationale further underline this notion of the archive as a fortress in the midst of both the city and the envisioned sea of history. Moreover, it becomes clear that the building itself is an inseparable part of what the archive is. It is not just a shell, store-house or strong-room protecting the document but also a powerful shield against the constant flow of information – an architectural two-way valve.6 The archive as control-mechanism becomes palpable during the following minutes of constant camera-movement along external balustrades and through the long corridors and rooms inside the building. Finally the image comes to a halt in the reading room and the voice returns, echoing the visual stoppage: "In Paris, words are imprisoned in the Bibliothèque Nationale." The many shots throughout the film of locked doors, books behind bars and shelving staff that look like guards continue to develop this visual vocabulary of the archive as prison. For Derrida, the notion of imprisonment describes an essential archival function: "[Documents] need at once a guardian and a localisation [...]. It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place."7 It is exactly this dual purpose of the archive (or library) to both localise and protect documents that the film makes palpable, simply by focusing on spatial design and architectural features of the Bibliothèque Nationale which are normally ignored by those who use it.

The film continues to visualise, and indeed analyse, a kind of archival unconscious by tackling another essential but overlooked archival function, namely to make the dialectic of storage and retrieval work in a meaningful way: "To make it possible to consult this gigantic memory, those in charge of the treasures it contains catalogue them. They sort them, analyse them, classify them and number them methodically. [...] This is vital work. With no catalogue this fortress would be a maze [literally: a country without roads]. [...] It has been necessary to develop classifications (disciplines) which, over time, have become law." Derrida too links the physical localisation of the archive to its conceptual organisation and alludes to its 'unconscious' character: "At the intersection of the topological and the nomological, of the place and the law [of classification], of the substrate and the authority, a scene of domiciliation becomes at once visible and invisible."8 The film continues to develop this contradiction of the simultaneous visibility and invisibility by following the unseen progress of a newly arrived book through the various stages of accessioning until it finally ends up on the shelf. This journey made by a single book exemplifies the extensive processes that all books in the library have undergone, and thus makes palpable the enormous enterprise of the archive as a whole.

It is this part-whole dialectic that I tried to address in my own work Housed Memory (2000-05), which was developed during a residency at the Wiener Library in London. The Wiener Library is one of the world's oldest Holocaust archives. It has its roots in early 1930s Berlin and has been based in London since 1938. My aim was to document the Wiener Library's extensive collections, which include eyewitness accounts, collections of documents, books, photographs and films – all related to the Holocaust, Fascism, German Jewry or genocide in general. But how to do justice to such a collection and by implication to the subject matter it covers, if both the historical event itself and the amount of archival material which documents it are ungraspable in their enormity? A common strategy in films or books that deal with the Holocaust is to focus on the fate of an individual person or family, so that the singular tragedy might evoke the unimaginable trauma as a whole. Indeed, this is what most researchers working in the archive are doing: they are consulting the catalogue in order to gain access to specific documents covering a particular area of study. It seemed to me that something was lost in this approach; namely the archive itself. I felt afflicted by the condition described by Derrida, mal d'archive, archive fever: "It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there's too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself." 9 Not being tied to a research brief, I wanted my gaze to avoid the teleological, microscopic myopia which often characterizes archival study, and lets the archive slip away into the background. Indeed, the archive itself, for practical reasons as well as security concerns, does much to help its own disappearance by storing its collections behind closed doors, and only allowing access to documents on an individual basis – they must be ordered from a catalogue.

Housed Memory is a nine hour long handheld tracking shot along all the shelves of the Wiener Library's collection. The camera takes on the role of a witness and records – shelf by shelf – the contents of the entire archive. As such, the video itself constitutes an archive of the archive. Housed Memory reveals the sheer materiality of a collection which is otherwise hidden from view. Books with their titles readable on the spines, labeled archive-boxes, videos, periodical series and other ephemera pass in front of the lens in an endless procession. But the tracking shot is discontinuous, fading to and from black at either end of the shelf. This breath-like rhythm and the hand-held approximation of a linear movement has a mesmerising effect which induces concentration and produces a sense of the unknowable in the face of a totality which cannot be accessed."The structure of the archive is spectral. It is spectral a priori: neither present nor absent 'in the flesh', neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met."10 The image in Housed Memory refuses to give access to the documents it shows, forcing the viewer to consider instead the meaning of the documents' very existence. This questions the status of primary and secondary sources and their present as well as future role in constructing a memory of the Holocaust. The soundtrack which accompanies the video explores these issues further. It consists of staff, volunteers and academics talking about their work with, and their relationship to the documents. The topics discussed range from the material concerns of conservators, and practical fund-raising issues affecting the director, to organisational questions raised by cataloguers. But above all, the interviews explore the emotional impact of the archive, revealing the personal dimension of working with its particular collections.

Another related video work, The Wiener Library (London), (2000) explores what Derrida describes as the archival interrelationship between the topographic and the nomological. It shows the exterior of the Wiener Library building located in a London street. A thesaurical list of keywords, used to create a searchable online catalogue of the collections, scrolls from A-Z over the exterior of the building in which the archive is housed. This 90-minute video maps the archive both geographically and hermeneutically. The constancy of the everyday image of the building is disturbed by the insistence of the catalogue entries which overlay it, in a textual refusal of representation whose format makes reference to Hannnah Arendt's notion of the banality of evil. This endless list of 'broader' and 'narrower' terms, pointing to enormous historical facts beyond the imagination, also echoes a point made by one of the interviewees in Housed Memory, a Holocaust survivor who works as a volunteer at the library: "It's so vast, the whole thing is so unthinkable. I found myself saying that I lived on another planet. So it's a different language... and yet you've only got language. You've got to be careful not to over-sentimentalize. By that I mean that maybe the biggest drama is the lack of drama. Look at a book like the chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto and you've got entries that were done at the time for the future; day to day entries, as things were happening. In a way it becomes normal to say how many people have committed suicide, threw themselves from the bridge; or that there has been a deportation. Only by recording it like that, by showing that this was the norm of existence – you realise that the lack of drama is the whole drama. Make a list!"

The World as Archive

Avoiding the pathos of historical dramatisation, Susan Hiller's The J. Street Project (2002-2005) presents us with exactly such a list. Devoid of narrative but pregnant with historical significance, the 67- minute video is a visual inventory of the 303 roads, streets and paths in Germany which bear a name that refers to a former Jewish presence.11 It is the documentation of an existing archive which lies hidden in the folds of the German landscape, its rural villages and large cities; an archive which so far has had neither a catalogue nor an archivist. The structure, or classificatory principle, that Hiller discovers in the process of editing the footage which was gathered over three years, is that of the daily and seasonal cycle of time itself. The film moves backwards through the year from winter shots of snow-covered landscapes, icy country-roads and cold urban street-corners through autumn and summer scenes to spring-time images of bustling market squares, flowering hill-sides and cosy suburban backyards. The same temporal sense also edits together night shots, day-time images and evening scenes, respectively. A realisation makes itself felt: this rhythm mirrors the cycle of memory and forgetting to which the images bear testimony. What we see are banal scenes of everyday life throughout present-day Germany, from narrow medieval streets to massive building sites, whose contemporary street signage draws a demographic chart of a former Jewish presence. The rectangular plaques – with white letters on blue background or black letters on white background operate as ambiguous semantic ciphers of a history of racial segregation and violence. Hiller makes reference to this ambiguity in describing the experience which triggered the project: "It began as a chance encounter with a Berlin street called 'Jüdenstrasse' [Jews Street] in 2002. When I first noticed the street sign, I was shocked, astonished but most of all, confused. I had a powerful, mixed reaction, a feeling that although the name was clearly meant as a respectful commemoration, in fact, what is being commemorated is a complicated history involving racism, segregation, and violence. Looking at the street sign, it seemed to me there was a strange ambiguity in retaining or restoring the name of a street commemorating a people who had been exterminated within living memory."12

James Young and others have analysed the contradictory nature of the traditional public memorial as suppressing collective memory rather than actually preserving it.13 By assigning a fixed material form to memory – which is something essentially unstable – the memorial freezes meaning and relieves the public from the obligation to remember. Whilst not being outright monuments, those Jewish street names which have been reinstated (a number of those documented actuallly survive unchanged from past centuries) are nevertheless intended to fulfill a memorial function. But to the extent that they do the work of memory for us, they also allow a forgetting. Put in even more critical terms, the reinstating of these street names in post-war and post-reunification Germany (some as recently as a few years ago) might actually stem from a desire to forget; an unconscious urge to do away with the memory of the Jewish communities to which the signs point, and to repress the long history of racial segregation of Jews in Germany, which in retrospect appears as the sinister prelude to their systematic extermination. In the light of this, The J. Street Project proposes an alternative, critically viable memorial that operates as a mirror of this very problem. As a moving image work, it inscribes itself, and indeed originates in, the rather more subtle but no less powerful paradigm of the archive as a memorial form; one which, while not immediately visible, absolutely demands careful study, close reading and contemplative immersion. By bringing together sites of memory Hiller creates a milieu for memory, a visual archive; a conceptual, time-based 'space' where remembrance becomes possible.14

The connecting principle is a crucial element of this operation. Apart from the general organisation of the film into seasonal and day-time specific sequences, the micro-structure of the montage, too, makes use of thesaurical associations between images.15 For example, we see a series of shots in which the intermediary German street name, which had at one time replaced an 'original' Jewish name, has not been removed and the supplementary nature of the recovered Jewish name becomes apparent. Another sequence groups shots where the imposing presence of one-way-street signs takes on particular significance. Yet another succession of images consists of the evocative absence of altogether missing 'J. Street' signs. This 'classification' of shots according to affinities or specific significatory elements employs a basic archival principle. But by doing so, it creates groups of images with a visual and affective power that goes beyond that of the individual shots included.16 Where a single image offers factual, documentary information, the strategic montage into a series produces new meanings and interpretations, showing the potential of the environment to memorialize. Hiller thinks the landscape as archive (or vice versa, the archive as landscape) and captures its evocative powers. Whereas memorials impose a fixed form of memory onto sites and provide little space for contemplation, Hiller's film allows us to engage with unstable, ambiguous meanings and associations which are embedded in place. The vistas in the work operate as documents which conjure memory rather than presume to narrate history. In this way The J. Street Project produces an historical consciousness which does not rely on the notion of the event, and as such circumvents history's perpetual re-writing of itself under the aegis of this or that ideological stance. Promoting an ethics of memory, rather than teaching a lesson of history, it searches for a social historical consciousness, which emerges in the superimposition of those silent symbols that are the street-signs and the places in which they stand. Peter Carrier eloquently sums up what is at stake in this archival approach to memorial sites and their symbolic context: "The purpose of studying places of memory is not simply to define contemporary memory as a state of awareness of the rupture between historical and social consciousness, or between first- and second-degree meaning, between the 'milieux of inwardly experienced values and the places of their external commemoration'. Instead, it is designed to 'lend a voice' to silent symbols or 'dispel the familiarity' in the case of familiar symbols, and therefore intervene in the status and configuration of the symbolic framework of contemporary memory by highlighting less familiar places of memory and tempering the emotional appeal of more familiar places." 17

Jane and Louise Wilson's Stasi City (1997) – coincidentally, like The J. Street Project also made while on a DAAD scholarship in Germany – operates on the border between the familiar and the unfamiliar, tapping into our own imagination vis-à-vis places of memory. The four-screen video installation documents the abandoned headquarters of the controversial Stasi, the former GDR's secret police. In an endlessly repeating five-minute loop and completely surrounding the viewer, the projected images place us at the centre of a hermetically sealed, panoptic labyrinth. Edited and presented in pairs, the video projections immerse us in a world of strip-lit corridors, vacant interrogation rooms, and lifts mindlessly going up and down the building. Long-shots establishing the location's bland design on a grand scale operate at first as familiar vistas of recognisably institutional architecture; the colour-scheme of the interiors and other architectural details give it away as 'communist'. The insistent emptiness of the building, interspersed with close-ups of the debris of past activity – papers strewn over the floor, surveillance equipment and archival furniture – gives the space an uncomfortable, sinister air. The unease is only heightened by the restlessness of the camera and its constant lateral and vertical shifts. Freud's famous discussion of the uncanny comes to mind; especially his etymological exploration of the ambiguity of the German word-pair 'heimlich' (homely/secretive) and 'unheimlich' (unhomely/uncanny).18 Stasi City passes through the entire range of these meanings from early shots of comfortable, carpeted guest-rooms and lounges via half-open, half-concealed cupboards and long switched-off surveillance monitors to the disquiet of a smashedup control room and the frightful apprehension of the remainders and reminders of what looks like a torture chamber.

In this way, Stasi City paradoxically both alludes to as well as eludes Derrida's archival domiciliation. Itself a former archive, the building's function was to collect and keep records of any anti-state activity, as well as to convict and imprison suspects; as such it has 'house-arrest' and 'fortress' written all over it. But the anarchic has loosened the archive's grip. The building no longer houses anything, and the keepers of law and order, as well as the documents of their oppression, are gone. What remains is the building, itself operating as an archive and preserving its own traces of the mechanisms of power and control. The Wilsons let the architecture map the psycho-political mindset of a totalitarian regime and evoke its violent history. The repeated shots of padded doors are emblematic of this: once installed to suppress the sound of the voice and keep eavesdroppers out, they now, silently, speak volumes. This building which was once a symbol of secrecy has now become a place "where memory crystallizes and secretes itself" in a period where – in the aftermath of German reunification – memory has been torn from historical consciousness "but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists."19

Stasi City confronts head-on the problem, and the opportunity, of memory embedded in place. The Wilsons' own intermittent appearances in the video underline the palpable sense of historical continuity by forcing the image to establish itself in the present.20 They never become characters in a narrative or plot. Instead, their ghostly presence – sometimes they actually float in the space – enters into a silent dialogue with a building haunted by its own history. The drifting through the architecture becomes an archival browsing; that is, a lateral, rhizomorphous approach to history without teleological focus on any one of its documents. Oscillating between metaphorical and literal archival imagery, a rotating corpus of empty card trays exemplifies the simultaneous over and under determination of this site of memory. It also points to the transfer of the documents to another, now accessible archive.21 At the same time, however, it remains a poignant symbol of the now empty archive still full of meaning. As such, viewers of Stasi City become witnesses to the last stage in the transformation of this place from an archival fortress to an empty building of historico-political importance, and finally – through the work – into a site of social memory.

The works under discussion here strategically avoid conventional collecting or consulting of documents. Instead, they either turn the archive itself into a document or read the physical world – a landscape, or a building – in archival terms. Using the moving image, they are reviving ancient mnemotechnia. But, whereas the classical art of memory was used by orators to remember their speeches by associating each topic with a particular place or part of a building, the aim of the contemporary art of memory practiced in these works is not memorisation, but rather visualisation, actualisation and problematisation of what is already memorialised in buildings or places.22 Deconstructing different archival mechanisms of domiciliation, they attempt to re-invest sites of history – the archive itself, symbolic sites, locations haunted by their past – with a social memory. The works strategically oppose the constant re-organisation of the past, a process which, propelled by the acceleration of history, removes its experiential lining. Instead, they promote a kind of memory which is felt, and which has the power to affect us in the present.

  1. Pierre Nora, 'Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire', in Representations, no. 26 (Spring, 1989), p. 13.

  2. Cf. Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard et al.

  3. The relationship between archive makers and users and archive thinkers can be thought of as analogous to and corresponding with that between historians and historiographers.

  4. This latency of meaning is suggested with reference to Walter Benjamin's notion of the aura, as well as his historical index of the readability, i.e. that documents become understandable at certain times. Cf. Walter Benjamin, 'The work of art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility' in Illuminations (London: Fontana Press, 1973).

  5. Arlette Farge, Le goût de l'archive, (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1989), p. 10. Author's translation.

  6. The rejecting and deaccessioning of documents is as important an archival function as the preservation of documents.

  7. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, Eric Prenowitz, trans., (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 2.

  8. ibid., p. 3.

  9. ibid., p. 91.

  10. ibid., p. 84.

  11. The work exists as a film, a book and several series of photographs. I refer here only to the film.

  12. Susan Hiller, The J. Street Project, (Warwickshire and Berlin: Compton Verney/DAAD, 2005), p. 6.

  13. See for example, James E. Young, At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000) and The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993).

  14. This echoes Pierre Nora's terminology in 'Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire', in Representations, no. 26 (Spring, 1989), pp. 7-24.

  15. The principle of thesaurical association is to loosely group terms or images according to similarities or shared qualitative criteria. This is opposed to a taxonomy or classification which tightly organises terms or documents according to strict rules, i.e. nomologically (according to a law: alphabetically, chronologically etc.). Whereas classification aims at taming difference, thesaurical organisation exposes the differential in the similar. For an extensive discussion of the idea of a visual thesaurus see Uriel Orlow, 'Chris Marker: The Archival Power of the Image', in Lost in the Archives, Rebecca Comay, ed., (Toronto: Alphabet City, 2002). The principle of the visual thesaurus was also employed in Uriel Orlow and Ruth Maclennan: Re: the archive, the image, and the very dead sheep, (London: The National Archives, School of Advanced Study and Double agents, 2004).

  16. This classificatory principle is also developed in other work by Hiller, e.g. From the Freud Museum (1991-1997).

  17. Peter Carrier, 'Places, Politics and the Archiving of Contemporary Memory in Pierre Nora's Les Lieux de Mémoire' in Memory and Methodology, Susannah Radstone, ed., (Oxford: Berg, 2000), pp. 50-51.

  18. Sigmund Freud, 'The Uncanny (1919)', in Standard Edition, vol. XVII, James Strachey, trans., (London: Hogarth Press, 1995), pp. 217-256.

  19. Pierre Nora, op. cit., p. 7.

  20. The priviliged relationship of the moving image with regard to the present (as opposed to photography's relationship to the past) has been discussed by Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and others.

  21. 'There is no political control without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpreation', Jacques Derrida, op. cit., p. 4.

  22. See Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966).

Latent Archives, Roving Lens first published in: Ghosting: The Role of the Archive within Contemporary Artists' Film and Video, ed. by Jane Connarty and Josephine Lanyon (Bristol: Picture This, 2006), pp 34-37.