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Archives Are Where You Find Them
Matthew Buckingham


Film, video, and photography are media in which questions of time, duration, and representation of the past are always endemic. Photography and film, at their indexical level, insist on something that was. As Roland Barthes might have said, the "tense" of film and photography is: "this-will-have-been [1]." Video, on the other hand, has the arresting capacity to simultaneously mirror and record traces of the present, creating even more ambiguous relations of time.

But just as these indexical traces firmly refer back to a present time that is now in the past, it is also true, as Walter Benjamin asserted, that every story about the past is more importantly a story about the present. This formulation suggests that memory functions less as an instrument for exploring the past and much more as a theater in which to re-stage past events here and now [2]. This process of re-staging invariably becomes one of selection and sequencing: a process of narration.

This, in turn, points to a parallel between the production of recorded media and the process of creating written historical narratives. The disjunction between the time of the events recorded in a photograph, film or video, and the time of their reception by an audience is, in many ways, analogous to the disjunction of time that exists between historical agents or events and a historian's description and interpretation of these agents or events within a narrative they construct to explain them.

The idea of bringing the past into the present through narration relies completely on the existence of data; records and documents presumably classified and kept safely in an archive of some type. But this concept of the archive itself reveals a great deal about the stories that emerge from within.

The archive can be characterized as a process of repetitive accumulation and storage that becomes a site in which knowledge is produced [3]. This system is motivated in part by a compulsive desire for completeness, and the hope that the sheer quantity of acquired materials will result in coherent meaning [4]. The archival drive is based on a logic of loss and control—mastery attained by filling in the blank spaces of a typology that has, itself, been conceived and created for the purpose of being filled in. The indiscriminate urge to collect and preserve anything and everything, without editing or prioritizing creates vast pools of resources that will always provoke and require interpretation.

This dimension of the archive becomes more apparent when it is compared and contrasted with closely related but decidedly different projects such as the encyclopedia or the museum, where the difference, of course, is the formal disparity between an index and a chronology—between cataloging and narrating. While the encyclopedia and the museum both draw on the resources of the archive, they immediately represent more obvious rhetorical positions, editing and re-ordering the archive in such a way as to illustrate chosen meanings.This is not to suggest that archives themselves are not rhetorical. The enormous costs of maintaining archives are sustained by those who wish to perpetuate their own ideologies, values and interests, whatever they may be. Those in positions of power have long worked to define and control social bodies through the creation and use of carefully catalogued surveillance data. Scientific, medical, and disciplinary professionals have, over time, up until today, also created and utilized archives that were conceived of as taxonomies of the "natural" world, especially of humanity. These were and are intended to define norms and reveal deviation, to identify and label the "normal" and the "deviant [5]."

The archive has also accompanied colonization, imperialism, and so-called globalization (under cover of "exploration," "manifest-destiny," and "progress") "rescuing" traditions and cultures thought to be vanishing. This is the obvious tragic irony surrounding the inception of anthropology and ethnography; academic disciplines attempting to preserve for "posterity" the people and places they help to destroy [6].

The power of an archive is always in the hands of the people who use it. If new populations gain access to formerly inaccessible collections of information these archives can be read and re-read indefinitely and, in many cases, turned against their creators and keepers. The inherent incompleteness of the archival task is connected with its potentially altruistic quality and social dimension. Archiving is, in some sense, a utopic project in the original meaning of the word Utopia, an impossible, unrealizable, and therefore, always fictive model which, none-the-less, may act as a mobilizing agent, as a catalyst for real change. As always, with “Utopian” thinking, it is important to ask "For whom is it Utopian?" It could even be argued that the model of the "free" or "public" library represents an attempt to implement utopian thinking through democratizing access to information.

One of the ways we define the present moment is by valuing or devaluing past events. Narratives depend on the silence that surrounds them, on the structuring absence that hides or obscures competing narratives. If we remove objects and data from their interpreted, ideologically-determined positions where we encounter them in the everyday world, and briefly return them to the archive, we may be able to identify and establish other connections which, in turn, might generate new narrative possibilities. In this way the tension between "raw-data" and narration, and the negotiation of contingency and interpretation can be revealed, while pointing to the organizing principles of the archive itself. This process of return is a tactic of defamiliarization that makes it possible to critique the present moment or, as Walter Benjamin has said; articulating "the past historically does not mean to recognize it 'the way it really was,' it means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of Danger [7]."

[1] Barthes, Roland. "Camera Lucida." New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
[2] Benjamin, Walter. "A Berlin Chronicle," in "Reflections." New York: Schocken Books, 1978.
[3] See Rosalind Krauss’s essay "Photography’s Discursive Spaces," in "The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths," Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985.
[4] See Alan Sekula’s essay "Photography Between Labor and Capital," in "Mining Photographs and Other Pictures: Photographs by Leslie Shedden." Benjamin Buchloh and Robert Wilkie, eds., Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983.
[5] See Allan Sekula’s "The Body and the Archive" in "October," number 39; Winter, 1986.
[6] For discussions of the "salvage paradigm" in ethnography see James Clifford’s "The Predicament of Culture", Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988; and Catherine Russell’s "Experimental Ethnography", Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.
[7] Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in "Illuminations," New York, Schocken Books, 1968.