Deep in the Archive


Ulrich Baer

‘Deep in the Archive’, Aperture, 193 (Winter 2008), 54–59


‘In the silence of the archive, researchers try and grasp the texture of lives from the remains left here, on this sheet, in this box, on this clean table, and now for their eyes only.’

‘By definition, archives always collect a bit too much: they must include things the value and meaning of which are not entirely known at the time of their archiving. When archives are understood as inevitably oppressive orderings of thought, airless sepulchers of the past, this is overlooked.’

‘Many contemporary interpretations of the archive unduly stress the melancholic. There is an instructive parallel here to much theoretical literature on Photography.’ [see Barthes, Sontag, Benjamin]

‘Such interpretations often miss the fact that the archive and the photograph both offer the strategic or accidental possibility of opening up new worlds, or of offering new historical identities.’


‘Artists often approach the archive as a symbolic or evidentiary access to traumatic memory – but this conception of the archive is, I would suggest, limiting. There are also archives of joy and life, and it is sometimes possible to exhume hope from among the ashes.’

‘Artists currently engage with archives in three major ways.’

[1. ‘exaggerate, and make ironic the trope of archiving to highlight the fetish character of memory in postmodern culture’ : like Boltanski]

[2. ‘create archives of events that otherwise register fleetingly in a media- and image-saturated culture’ : like Ilán Lieberman]

[3. ‘refashion material from existing archives to tell new or alternative stories that may contradict or substantially revise a given collection’s original intentions’ : Walter Genewein]


‘But all artistic practices of archival engagement mobilize what Jacques Derrida termed “mal d’archives” [see Archive Fever] […Artists] enter like a virus and bring the archive down from within.’

‘We enter the archive as researchers or historians in search of a document, a deed, a letter, or a file that will lay our search to rest, just as life contains a “death drive” that moves us towards equilibrium and stasis. […] Derrida analyzes this drive for an original, self-evident document or object as the search for the moment when the archive becomes irrelevant, and its purpose and existence is destroyed.’


[Three major conceptions of memory that influence artists working with the archive:

1. ‘Freud’s conception of memory as prone to distortion, revision, and possible redemption through certain analytical methods’

2. ‘Derrida’s systematic examination of the splitting of the origin that is operative in every conceptual system and actual archive.’

3. ‘Foucault’s analysis of the ways in which personal and collective memory is shaped as much by facts and events as by the symbolic order available to express, record and recall them.’

[on artist’s works that do not deal with trauma] ‘These projects are destined to end up in an archive of someone else’s devising, or to be bypassed and forgotten in other ways. For the moment, The Fae Richards Photo Archive and Harris’s photographs may chart a path for someone to construct his or her own archive of light, of hope, and of shadings of life as yet unlived, and may allow us to see the past not as something static but as something yet to be delivered.

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