Spring 2012: Experimental History
Faculty: David Gissen
In almost every museum, with artwork carefully hung on walls or encased in vitrines, flash photography is forbidden in fear of damaging the museum’s archives. On the contrary, what photographs provide is an ongoing archive of the artwork. The context in which we live today is filled with massive amounts of archives, from libraries, to Flickr photos, artist sketches, memoirs, film documentation, and even product commercials. With the abundance of archives that both describe and interpret the “object,” there is no need to preserve the “object.” This essay, similar to the works of Superstudio, counters the conventional sense of preservation, in which “the urban dweller is invited to stay behind the death of the city” and to welcome the world of archives.1
Although an archive is often defined as “a place or collection containing records, documents, or other materials of historical interest,” it also goes beyond physical artifacts. 2 In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault writes, “the archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.” 3 The process of archiving involves an underlying rule set (i.e. category, location, time) that informally unites the materials and produces a set of relationships among them to better understand the archived object. According to Jacques Derrida, “the archive (also) affirms the past, present, and future,” becoming a liaison through time. 4 And for Derrida, the value of “archivization” lies in two factors: the “pleasure principal,” of possession of a vast amount of data, and the “death drive” or “archive destroying,” of “annihilation of memory.” 5 A part of the archiving process is to also acknowledge that the archive is a rich and limited set of documents –
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; but they are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities. 6
Within the umbrella of archives, a common type of archiving lies in either photography or film, possibly because, in many cases, the “object” (tangible item, sound) is simply “captured.” Other forms of archiving are more personal, as in writing and sketching, and others become public performances, “live” archives, such as in product commercials and historical reenactments. Recently, as the issue of archiving is juxtaposed against technology, many universities have started an archiving program, such as Columbia University’s Living Archive, in which the archive is seen less as a dusting collection of the past but instead becomes an ongoing and interactive database that is based both digitally (off-/online) and in-person.
Looking through the different forms of archiving, there is a theme of reproduction that runs across a large portion of the collection –whether in the multiple images of iconic buildings or in the audio or text that reproduces a particular event. In the case of Trajan’s column in Rome, scholars past and present have documented it as both a historical artifact and an architectural feat. A large number of drawings and photographs have been produced of it (including the images produced for each drum of the column that stacks from the street level to its peak) such that the archive tells more about it than what the average visitor would obtain from the object. And in addition, with every image or documentation produced, less of the object’s original aura remains within the object. For many Greek temples, like the Parthenon, Walter Benjamin would remark that, “originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult” and that with every visit and every postcard of them, their religious associations are diminished. 7 Tourists from all over the world come to witness this object whose meaning today primarily comes from the many archives dedicated to it. In a similar case, for them, the Eiffel Tower will always be the iconic mega sculpture of France resembling its souvenir miniature, or the object that lights up at night mimicking the one on a Parisian postcard.
In Preservation is Overtaking Us, Rem Koolhaas notes that “preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions. That makes perfect sense because clearly the whole idea of modernization raises either latently or overtly the issue of what to keep.” 8 However, this obsession for preservation is paradoxical. As attempts are made to preserve the original aura of the place (or object) it “seem(s) to demand that the work of art remain hidden” rather than showcased as a polished archive. 9 The idea of preserving the original aura conflicts with today’s practice of preserving/archiving in which, according to the UNESCO’s General Guidelines, “permanent access is the goal of preservation.” 10 In the case of the Elgin Marbles, the controversy over its “rightful” place is comical, for neither the place nor time would enable its return to its purified form as a cult object. Along with the growing number of archives and accesses to the object is the emptying of the (original) aura from the object itself. If this is the case, then why are we holding on so dearly to these empty stones of history?
Aside from losing significance, the preservation of the object may also alter the object’s meaning. The cover story of the object becomes the one preserved rather than the essence of the object. For Alcatraz, CA, because it still stands today as tourist attraction, its original identity is changed. But if it were destroyed, its integrity as a military reserve may have lasted. Just as Superstudio sees “Disaster as Experiment” in “Radical Preservation,” this proposal sees both destruction and preservation as symbiotic elements. 11 In order to preserve the aura, the link between the object and its meaning needs to be severed, for “the city is infected with the miasma of the soul that once gave it life as a happy haven of humanity. Today it is submerged in the flood of history, a river contaminated and turned into a tide of sewage.” 12 The archives that are left behind become responsible for telling the story of the object in its absence. Because the nature in which we live in today is subjective, there is no need for attempting objectivity (by describing an object in its entirety), therefore the archive should suffice.
In response to the argument for personal experiences with the object, this proposal asserts the falseness of the experience. All restoration and reenactment projects only aim to enliven the archives rather than the true experience so why spend the time and energy on reviving the decaying object? Cities like San Francisco and Venice become so attached to their facades, in hope of preserving the historical aura they once had and never will retrieve, that they forget to embrace the objects of today.
The city’s obsession to preserve becomes overwhelming that it begins to treat a selection of archives as the new “objects.” This is often found in the case of famous architectural drawings. The documentation of Philip Johnson’s Glass House now becomes a thing in itself that the documentation is regarded less and less with the actual house to the point of becoming a singular artifact. When this happens, this proposal seeks to destroy the newly “objectified” archive, because like the emptied objects, it has lost its historical significance. Today, for the sake of preservation, some digital archives are brought back into physical prints, in case of file corruptions, but what this does is “objectify” the digital. As institutions scramble for more space to house the incoming archives, this proposal opens up new real estate by destroying the overly-archived objects.
Along with limited space is limited time. In many instances today, the form of archiving has surpassed that of construction. A vast amount of drawings, photos, construction documents, writing, and physical models have been produced for the projects in Dubai. But even with projects falling out of completion due to an economic halt, it still attracts many visitors. One can understand the works through the many documentations of the works, and so the final products, or in this case “objects,” no longer become the center of attention. A similar case applies to La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona; archives of the project have been ongoing since the late 19th century and all before the Cathedral is ever completed. Since 2005, La Sagrada Familia has been inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which would paralyze the Cathedral from the day of its completion. 13 A part of its significance lies in the fact that it has never been completed and to have it completed would instead alter its identity.
To further clarify and situate this proposal against that of Superstudio, this idea of living amongst archive rather than objects is not to suggest living with nothing at all. It does not aim “to remove all commercially driven clutter from the object, or the architecture … the most elemental prototypical solution possible,” as in Superstudio’s Life, Supersurface or their Five Suburban Villas. 13 If anything, it embraces living in the multitude–seeing the world through the many perspectives of written, photographed, and filmed archives, rather than focusing on the autonomous object. With the ever expanding archive, especially in the digital database, the most plausible move is not to erase all archives ever produced but rather erase the objects that the archives reference.
Archives, rather than the “objects” themselves, hold the memories of the place. A memory recalled is in itself an intangible archive that exists in the mind. Every photograph and home videos revisited provokes a memory. Once the association is made with an “object,” there is no longer a need for it. Therefore, when a place is already significantly documented, the object can and should be destroyed in order to prevent its aura and memory from becoming tainted. Taking the concept of Superstudio’s super-preservation, this proposal aims to mock the strict historic preservation laws in addition to the extensive archiving of each project. Each recording or image captures the to-be preserved and simultaneously exaggerates the destruction of the physical, creating a real-time spectacle of each documentary encounter. Until today, the story of the iconic Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition still reverberates in our conversation despite its “loss.” In other instances, the passing of an event becomes less critical than the reactions to that happening—the archive, then, provides a more in-between-the-lines reading of the object. In the Destroy this Memory, photographer Richard Misrach captures the emotional responses to the presence of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Here the archive becomes the very thing that is embedded with memory, the object is only the medium by which the archive is produced. Similarly, photographer Hans-Peter Feldmann, uses the media outcry of the 9-11 event as his medium for his 9/12 Front Page archive project. Now with the objects gone, the heroic aura of the World Trade Center can no longer be tainted by any other external means. The connection between object and meaning is severed and therefore meaning is preserved. If it were still present and instead of an attack, it suffers through its own structural integrity, then its bold stance, or aura, is altered—no longer would it retain its heroics. The memory becomes heavily present in the archives as it slowly retreats from the object.
This world of archive already familiarizes itself with our current world –souvenir shops, online image search, blogs. Each form of archive becomes the link between object, viewer, and potential viewers. This proposal blurs the line between preservation and destruction, where through time, the archive and object switch roles. With every addition to the archive (in the form of photos, recordings, sketching), the “object” deteriorates–the paparazzi of the built urban fabric produces a new landscape not of objects, but rather of archives.
1 Lucia Allias, “Disaster as Experiment: Superstudio’s Radical Preservation,” Log 22, (Spring/Summer 2011): 127.
2 American Heritage, 4th ed., s.v. “Archive.”
3 Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge (Pantheon Books, 1972), 129.
4 Marlene Manoff. “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 11.
5 Marlene Manoff. “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 11.
6 Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge (Pantheon Books, 1972), 129.
7 Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Fontana Press, 1936), 9.
8 Rem Koolhaas. “Preservation is Overtaking Us” (Future Anterior, 2004), 1.
9 Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Fontana Press, 1936), 11.
10 UNESCO: Memory of the World Programme. “General Guidelines,” http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/homepage/.
11 Lucia Allais. “Disaster as Experiment: Superstudio’s Radical Preservation,” Log 22, (Spring/Summer 2011): 125.
12 Superstudio. “Salvages of Italian Historic Centers,” Log 22, (Spring/Summer 2011): 115.
13 “UNESCO World Heritage Committee says Sagrada Familia not ‘in danger.’” People’s Daily Online, June 29, 2009, http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90777/90856/6689277.html.
14 Peter Lang and William Menking. Superstudio, Life Without Objects (Skira Editore S.p.A., 2003), 25.
Allias, Lucia. “Disaster as Experiment: Superstudio’s Radical Preservation,” Log 22, (Spring/Summer 2011): 125-129.
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Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936).
Easterling, Keller. Subtraction (MIT Press, 2003).
Enwezor, Okwui. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art. New York, N.Y: International Center of Photography, 2008. Print.
Foucault, Michel, Alan Sheridan, and Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. Print.
Hedstrom, Margaret, “Digital Preservation: Problems and Prospects,” University of Michigan, http://www.dl.slis.tsukuba.ac.jp/DLjournal/No_20/1-hedstrom/1-hedstrom.html.
Koolhaas , Rem. Preservation is Overtaking Us (Future Anterior, 2004).Lindner, Christoph. The death and return of the New York skyscraper (Routledge, 2006).
Lang, Peter, and William Menking. Superstudio: Life Without Objects. Milano (Italy: Skira, 2003. Print.
Marlene Manoff. “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” The Johns Hopkins University Press,2004.
UNESCO: Memory of the World Programme. “General Guidelines,” http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/homepage/.
Scott, Felicity D. E. Living Archive 7: Ant Farm ; Allegorical Time Warp : the Media Fallout of July 21, 1969 ; Plus the Complete Ant Farm Timeline. Barcelona: Actar, 2008. Print.
Stevens, Katherine, “Richard Misrach’s Photographs Speak Volumes about Katrina’s Devastation” PBS Newshour, August 25, 2010, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/08/richard-misrachs-katrina-photographs-speak-volumes-about-the-devastation.html.
Superstudio. “Salvages of Italian Historic Centers,” Log 22, (Spring/Summer 2011): 114-125.
“UNESCO World Heritage Committee says Sagrada Familia not ‘in danger,’” People’s Daily Online, June 29, 2009, http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90777/90856/6689277.html.