Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Digital Archiving as an Art Practice, Dew Harrison

The idea of archiving as a form of practice within the field of art is not a new one. It has been an accepted activity since the mid 1960s and in evidence in the early twentieth century. The collages and photomontages of the 1920s, although not intended as art works but more as purveyors of social meaning, had an aesthetic, through being both pictorial and semantically-structured, which had a strong impact on later archival works. Benjamin Buchloch dismisses the influences of the earlier archives – ‘such projects share a condition of being unclassifiable within the typology and terminology of avant-garde art history'. He claims that ‘avant-garde history seems to have few, if any, precedents for artistic procedures that systematically organise knowledge as didactic models of display or as mnemonic devices' 1. However, it is not unusual for artists to look beyond their field for both material and content within their practice, and this was particularly so in the 1960s when artists were trapped within the confines of Modernist ideology concerning the autonomy of art, and began engaging with the outside world. Jeremy Deller's current ‘Folk Archive' is a clear example of a contemporary practice resting on earlier methods of archiving for social engagement and response.

Initial influences can be traced to Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg. Benjamin's ‘Passagenwerk' was a textual assemblage created in the late 1920s. This unfinished montage was an attempt to construct an analytical memory of collective experience in nineteenth-century Paris. Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas (1927-29) was a monumental project, aiming to construct a model of Western European humanist culture from classical antiquity onwards. Warburg's work is text-free and consists of over 60 panels containing 1000 photographs in an attempt, according to Kurt Forster, to ‘redefine graphic montage as the construction of meanings rather than the arrangement of form' in a similar way to the work of Schwitters and Lissitsky.2 These two archives existed in parallel with the more politically-charged works of Weimar Dadaists such as Heartfield, Hocke and Rodchenko and the Surrealists, whose montage techniques were known to Benjamin, and whose collages were a random juxtaposition of found objects and images with a sense of fundamental cognitive and perceptual anomic. The Surrealists' work was later read as apolitical and anti-communicative, esoteric and aestheticist, resulting in a call for work with a dimension of narrative and instrumentalised logic within the structured organisation of the montage aesthetic.

These earlier archives were largely facilitated by new technological developments in print and photography, the latter identified by Benjamin as an emerging emancipatory technology containing the social promise of enabling collective interaction and subjecthood.3 Indeed Warburg conceived his Atlas as a model of the construction of social memory. Throughout the mid-60s structurally-similar photographic projects began to emerge in Europe from the accumulation of found or intentionally-produced photographs set in grid formations which were neither collage nor photomontage, not mere collections but art works. Although the German artist Gerhard Richter states that it was Rauschenberg's collage aesthetic rather than the Weimar Dadaists or Warburg that introduced him to the photomontage practice, 4 his ongoing Atlas project, begun in 1962, constitutes a massive repository of pictorial source material with motifs arranged by content and form rather than in chronological order. Richter states that ‘My Atlas is a deluge of images that I can control only by organising them and with no individual images left at all.' 5 According to Helmut Friedel ‘The breadth of ideas and sheer variety of forms and meanings the Atlas embodies is astonishing'. 6 The archive is evidence of the thinking that underlies Richter's paintings and he ensures that every time the Atlas is exhibited it is in compliance with his strict instructions for hanging, so that it is displayed differently each time.

The upheaval of conceptual art towards the end of the modernist period gave rise to an understanding of the organised archive as systemised collation and enabled new working methods for artists. The engagement of conceptual artists with systems theory, information theory, cybernetics and electronic technology had a real bearing on the ideological, political and social conflicts throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Hans Haacke's interest in systems thinking concerned the structure of organisations and social systems. This led to his most controversial work Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. This project held a massive collation of data including two maps, 142 photographs, 142 typewritten sheets, an explanatory sheet and six charts showing the complexity of connections between Shapolski's companies and his subsequent business machinations. The American artist Mary Kelly gives us another example of systemised collation in her obsessive record of the early development of a feminist's son in a patriarchal society. Her Post-Partum Document (1973-79) is a six-sectioned, 135-part, multimedia documentation of the first six years in this mother-child relationship.

The need to engage with social systems caused a general movement out of the studio and into the streets. This gave rise to a critique of the encounter between galleries, museums and conceptual art which resulted in interrogations of museology and the institutional archive. Informed by André Malraux's idea of ‘le musée imaginaire', the museum without walls, where he anticipated that the reduction of historical context and social function would leave a purely aesthetic experience, Marcel Broodthaers showed his Musée d'Art Modern, Département des Aigles at Documenta V in 1972. This was an eclectic range of objects, photographs, books and films begun in 1968, representing the eagle and the complex cultural myths surrounding the bird as a symbol for a nation, of fortitude, of perception, of strength and power. This work was a second order representation of a classification system at work and deconstructed the museum with wit and humour saving the archive from seriousness by verging on the arbitrary. The French artist Christian Boltanski continues to use the museum archive structure for his mixed-media installations. However, in order to create mementos of ‘fictive' identities using collections of poor-quality family photos in order to intimate a common bourgeois life, his installations may include biscuit tins and other household items. An example of such is his Reserve of the Dead Swiss (1990), a cabinet-like tower of tin boxes, each with a photograph of an anonymous person, piles of fabric and lamps. This work evokes the Holocaust as successfully as any museum exhibit but with false evidence.

From the examples of archival activities within art practice given above, two forms of art work are prominent and still have resonance within contemporary practice:

Collective memory/memorial (A contemporary example of this work is Winifred Agricola de Cologne's vast multimedia Virtual Memorial project at: < >) (Accessed 5 April 2007)
Museological methods (Contemporary examples of this work are Susan Hiller's Freud Museum, or Damien Hirst's cabinets of medical instruments and sea shells)
Having given some insight into these two reasons for archiving we will now explore a third, ‘complexity' which, in contemporary practice, may now embrace new technologies beyond photography for reportage and documentation.
Complexity management – or the collation of separate elements in order to make sense of a whole body of work as an ‘holisitic gestalt' for analysis, interrogation and meaning. (Christopher Williams, Art & Language)
In 1991 Christopher Williams exhibited a highly complex installation entitled Bouquet, for Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D'Arcangelo, a piece which combines sentiment with the almost clinical objectivity apparent in past conceptual art works. The work not only pays homage to the two conceptual artists mentioned in the title, but also refers to humanitarian feelings for the world's injustice and to personal loss. Williams is interested in how photographs influence our reality, and his central subject matter has long been the archive, the intersection between photographic trace, knowledge and power. Bouquet is a continuation of a previous piece entitled Angola to Vietnam (1989). The topic is political murder and involves the viewer in an analysis of information and power. Angola to Vietnam consists of 27 photographs of plants taken from the Harvard University collection of glass replicas of botanical specimens. These glass flowers have their own history, not divulged in the botanical and photographic information that accompanies the black and white photographs. Each plant pictured represents a country named in the 1985 Amnesty International Report. This report documents countries where political disappearances have taken place. The piece draws an analogy between the fragile and irreplaceable glass flowers and the human victims of torture and abuse on behalf of whom Amnesty campaigns. The strict symmetry of the images and text is broken by a single image entitled Brasil, an image also used for the front cover of the French magazine, Elle.

Brasil features the smiling faces of five multi-ethnic models along with a number of hats. The eight hats are each labelled with a different country name, referring to the Amnesty list. The image may be interpreted as a global map matching consumption with repression. Williams used this list of countries to inform his botanical mapping of the world and generated a group of eight flower species, one for each hat. The flowers were arranged in a loose bouquet laid across a white damask cloth and photographed. This photograph, in colour, was hung on an installed section of wall. The piece also incorporates a monochrome print of the archives maintained by the Getty Center for the History of Art and Humanities. The aura of institutional morbidity shifts to one of actual human loss through the dedication of the installation to the two conceptual artists who took their own lives. The references within Bouquet to the work of Bas Jan Ader and Christopher D'Arcangelo are numerous 7.

Hans Haacke and his Shapolsky et al project is another fine example of a piece held together by an interlacing of complicated cross-referencing. More complex and literal cross-referencing may be witnessed in the Indexes of Art & Language (1972-74). The Art & Language collective was foremost among those who established the theoretical conditions of conceptual art and their Indexes are systems concerning art as philosophy, structured through language. The materials they processed were the terms and conditions of their own conversations and arguments and their intention was to analyse the internal intellectual structures and relations of Art & Language. The ultimate aim was to produce a system in which decisions were taken (often represented diagrammatically) concerning the connectivity there might be between various texts. The Documenta V Index of 1972 took the form of a filing system holding an index of over 350 text items previously published and circulated by Art & Language members. Each item was read in relation to the others resulting in 122,500 cross-references. The walls surrounding the filing cabinets were papered with the listed index of texts, interrelated according to three possible categories:

a relation of compatibility = orthodox (Art & Language)
a relation of incompatibility = unorthodox
a relation of incomparability = relatively eccentric
The work is an attempt to map a conversation, to find a representation of a place where meanings could be made. The research-like character of Art & Language could be presented in the gallery context only in token form and it was accepted that the hiatus between ‘research-like' activity and artistic presentation had been successfully resolved in this particular Index. How much easier this would have been using the hypertext systems being developed in parallel to the Indexes in the realm of information technology.

Art-and-Technology, being largely concerned with visually aesthetic experimentation in the1950s and 1960s, was anathema to hardcore conceptualists. The conceptualists acknowledged Duchamp's intent of establishing the artist as intellectual rather than skilled craftsman, where the value of the idea predominated over the visual engagement with the art object. Art & Language had little or no interest in hardware and software as tools of production. Charles Harrison, the critic, art historian and prominent articulator of Art & Language, made this quite clear by stating that the ‘legacies of Pop-Art-and-Technology were never a part of the Art & Language agenda.' 8 Without employing hypermedia technology further indexing could still take forms other than printed texts and filing cabinets. The Indexes were understood as a means of ‘mapping' to represent relations within the conversational world of Art & Language itself, the goal of Art & Language being to map the vast territory of modern culture with art at its core, ‘even though a conceptual definition, in the sense of being able to reveal or show the essence of art seemed destined to fail, a map of the relationships, devices and situation in which art unfolded nevertheless seemed plausible.' 9

Art & Language were aware of research outside the art field into similar areas of mapping memory and narrative forms. According to Harrison:

‘Analogues for the indexing project are to be found along the borderline between the study of Artificial Intelligence and the theorisation of mind and memory which has enlarged into a distinct field of research since the 1970s. In typical work in this field, forms of knowledge are represented in terms of such devices as “semantic nets” and “frames” – which are a kind of index.'10

The later forms of indexing, made as self-referential conceptual maps from the 1970s to the present include paintings with text such as the Hostage and Incidents in a Museum series multimedia constructions such as Mother, Father, Monday (2001-2). This is a table-top arrangement composed of juxtaposed texts from Art & Language conversations and interviews printed onto different-sized, rectangular pieces of coloured canvas. An integral part of the ongoing interrogation of art by Art & Language deals with its specified mediums. Although they began by articulating this with language and text, Art & Language have had to come to terms with, and so return to, painting. More recently it has become necessary for them to engage with digital media. Their methods of indexing and archiving in order to make sense of their discourse has now brought them into the range of digital technologies and they have produced a DVD in order to enable a comprehensive totality of their work to date.

Art & Language have produced an archive of their body of work in one format – a DVD. This idea of self-archiving a body of work for critical examination in order to further an artist's own understanding and practice is not a new one. Evidence of a similar but less methodical activity was apparent at a much earlier date, for example in the Large Glass 11 of Marcel Duchamp, constructed between 1915 and 1923 but left as an incomplete project together with its accompanying collection of notes, drawings, diagrams and pictures in ‘green and white boxes'. Duchamp took a more obvious approach to self-archiving with his miniature portable museum, the Boîte-en-valisé described by Thierry de Duve as ‘a monograph of Duchamp's oeuvre in its totality'. 12 However, the Large Glass may be understood as the culmination of his earlier work, informed by his previous ideas. In turn, the Large Glass informed his final work Étant Donnés. According to Octavio Paz ‘Everything Duchamp has done is summed up in the Large Glass, which was finally unfinished in 1923.' 13

The bride and her bachelors depicted in the Large Glass have their own narrative contained by the elements seen within the upright glass plates, but they also refer to other issues: relations between female and male; culture and technology; and the condition of the art object. The subject of the piece is the machinery of sexual desire but this is difficult to understand if the Large Glass is viewed in isolation. Only by following Duchamp's notes are the stages of the erotic encounter between the bride and the bachelors made apparent. The work is a balanced combination of verbal and visual concepts to be approached with humour, in the comic spirit intended by this ‘hilarious picture'. The notes in the ‘boxes' are not clear instructions or explanations of the Large Glass and are often opaque and indecipherable. Some however, are fairly stable descriptions, such as the identifiable objects that populate the picture space. These confusing depictions together with the ‘boxes' of notes are densely interrelated and cross-referenced into a work which always remains open to interpretation.

Within my own research, to achieve a closer understanding of the origins of conceptual art, I undertook a re-reading of Duchamp, by attempting to cross-reference his ideas and outcomes into a semantic multimedia web of his mind. The work StarGlass is an outcome of this research. It is a hypermedia system of the Large Glass, inter-connected through the semantic associations between itself and the notes from the ‘boxes' together with Duchamp's other works: the paintings, objects, ‘readymades', texts and interviews informing and surrounding it. The transposition of his work into digital multimedia form achieved a unification enabling it to be seen at once as a single piece, hypermedia being a useful structuring and cross-referencing tool for managing complexity. Looking back it is evident that what was actually created through this transposition into a new technological form was an archive of Duchamp's thoughts, works and ideas, enabling new understandings. This unification of ideas could not have been achieved with the technology available at the time it was created. In a similar exercise to that carried out by the Art & Language DVD, my archive used a digital format to exemplify the cross-referencing that holds a body of work together.

Another form of a digital contemporary art archive is evidenced in a curatorial activity undertaken in 2001. Around 200 artworks were displayed in an online exhibition at the Watershed Media Centre, Bristol, entitled Net_Working. 14 This activity may also be understood as practice rather than curation. A theme was set and artists were invited to contribute in order for the curator to interlink their separate works into a whole, in this case an exhibition. Previous to this, within my Duchampian research, I had used similar methods to produce a piece called 4D Duchamp where 25 artists were selected to create a website in response to one of the identified items in the Large Glass. These websites were then interlinked into a complete holistic version of the piece. The Net_Working exhibition remains on its dedicated server hosted by the Watershed and stands as a collation of born digital work from all over the globe. It is a testament to the variety of approaches to using new media at that time. The exhibition shows early work by artists who are now well-known internationally. The screen-based interface to these works was problematic in that methods of categorising data and the organisation of metadata had to be devised for accessibility by the end user, the exhibition viewer. Such activity is paralleled with database design and is now proving useful in informing a project currently being researched at Gray's, Archiving the LabCulture Sessions: a new form of database for the arts and academic community.

This project is a further example of explorations into the digital archiving of digital artworks, this time not a curated exhibition but a ready-made archive transposed into an online database accessible from a website. The archived LabCulture sessions will be readily available for analysis and critical investigation to further identify and inform contemporary practice. The archive will contain outcomes of week-long mediaLab residencies run by PVA mediaLab, a UK artist-led arts organisation registered under LabCulture Ltd. This organisation has been running such events for up to ten artists at a time for almost as many years. The archived works cover a variety of practices – social engagement, painting, writing, performance, sound etc., from artists at different ages and stages in their career, many are well known in the UK and internationally. The unifying and unique factor is that the works constitute a set of new media experiments conducted in the same lab conditions. (Although the technical equipment may vary in that it is tailored to the artists' 'proposal' needs e.g. PVA ran a sonic LabCulture session at the Roundhouse in London in 2005). Within a Lab residency the selected artists live and work together with 5 artist-facilitators to further ideas in new media technology which they may or may not have used before. For these events PVA partners host organisations from all over the UK and have now moved into the international circuit with a Lab in Singapore in July 2005 and another in Croatia in spring 2006.

The database is rapidly becoming the new archival form for holding a body of art-work up for critique and response. The conceptual art of the mid-twentieth century, a practice placed within a period of major international political events alongside technological and communication innovations, set the foundations for today's global society. It has now evolved into an art practice where the development of a more culturally, socially and politically responsive art has become paramount. From the complexities of the contemporary conceptual artist's breadth of content and highly-structured methods of presenting it, archiving has emerged and now engages with new digital tools for managing discourse and ideas – vast amounts of information and cross-referenced material.

The international archiving workshop held in Hong Kong in 2004 by the Asian Art Archive was testament to the current ubiquity of the archive. Its application ranges from the institutional to the personal and encompasses the ongoing understanding of, for example, archiving as live art, and in particular the digital database archive. According to Lev Manovich the idea of collating and storing has been accelerating in tandem with the rise of the Internet and the use of multimedia desktop PCs – ‘The rise of the Web, this gigantic and always changing data corpus, gave millions of people a new hobby or profession: data indexing. There is hardly a Web site which does not feature at least a dozen links to other sites, therefore every site is a type of database.' 15 The idea of personal archiving is embedded in our present culture now that it can be supported electronically through continuing developments in technology. It is open to the common man, as accessible as stamp-collecting and as comfortable as the older technologies of print and photography to the present-day artist. Digital archiving is an activity which will continue to develop within current art practice but may be recognised as such only retrospectively for a while longer.

November 2005


1. Buchloh, B.H.D., (1999) ‘Gerhard Richter's Atlas: The Anomic Archive', October, 88, p.118.

2. Forster, K., (1991) ‘Die Hamburg Amerika Linie oder Warburg's Kunstwissenschaft zwischen den Kontinenten' in Aby Warburg: Akten des Internationalen Symposiums, Bredekamp, H., Diers, M., and Schoell-Glass, C., (eds.), Weinhein: Acta Humaniora, pp.11-37.

3. Benjamin, W., (1931) ‘Short History of Photography', Die Literarische Welt, 38, p. 3-4; 39, p. 3-4; 40, p. 7-8.

4. Richter, G., (1995) The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-93 , London: Thames and Hudson, pp.132-140.

5. Richter, G., (1995) The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews 1962-93, London: Thames and Hudson, p.199.

6. Friedel, F., (1997) ‘The Atlas 1962-1997' in Gerhard Richter Atlas, London: Anthony d'Offay; New York: Marian Goodman, pp.5 –7.

7. Crowe, T., (1996) Modern Art in the Common Culture, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, pp.219-227.

8. Harrison, C., (2001) Essays on Art & Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p.17.

9. Cereceda, M., (2004) Art & Language in 10 Concepts, exhibition catalogue, CAC Malaga, p.103.

10. Harrison, C., (2001) Essays on Art & Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p.72.

11. La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, méme' or ‘The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even'.

12. de Duve, T., (1996) Kant After Duchamp, October, Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, p.417.

13. Paz, O., (1978) Marcel Duchamp: Appearance Stripped Bare, London: Lund Humphries, p.43.

14. The exhibiting of these works is covered fully in project 4 of ‘Digital Art (on) the Line', Digital Art History: A Subject in Transition, Computers and the History of Art Vol. 1, Bentowska-Kaffel, A., Cashen, T., Gardiner, H., (eds), Bristol UK: Intellect. pp.69-74. The exhibition may be viewed at: (O7-11-2005)

15. Manovich, L., Database as Symbolic Form. (04-11-2005)

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