Report from the Archive

Category: Hive, Residency
Written by: Sophie Mayer on July 18, 2013

Report on the Archive: A conference at Birkbeck, 5th July 2013, convened by Holly Pester, curator of the Text Art Archive (Bury Text Festival).

Amy Cutler‘s presentation on her exhibition Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig, with its descriptions of venturing, finding, ingathering – as well as references to ‘zombie archivism’ (a phrase coined by Julie Bacon to descirbe the reanimative force of archival art practices) and ‘forest trauma’ – let me to think about a report from the archive: a critical pastiche of nineteenth-century explorers’ and missionary reports (travels that were the source of many items in our institutional and national archives), and the relation between archives and adventures: is the archival researcher’s self-image Lara Croft, Tomb Raider?  Debating ‘zombie’ practices, discussion moved into legal, land-based terminology, with Pester insisting: “It’s really important to feel that you have a right to trespass [on work in the archive] – as a practitioner, I feel like it’s a duty to trespass, although this is hard to stand by.”

This metaphor – of movement in the archive, crossing its (perceived or real) barbed wire and DANGER! signs – was followed by Carol Watts‘ assertion that “the archivist has to be more embodied.” ‘Intellectual Tactility,’ the title of the exhibition from the Text Art Archive – which included annotated emails and diagrams, as well as ephemera from performance and promotion – is a wonderful phrase for this embodiment: proffering the intention that archivists and archival researchers seek for hapticity and materiality in whatever assets they are handling or curating, including born-digital assets.

The digital archive (like any digital site) is the tip of a pyramid the vast bulk of whose labour – mining for minerals, building computer components, maintaining server farms, providing electricity, coding software – is invisible. As poets in the Archive of the Now, might we research and write a report from the archive, a digital edition of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor? (in fact, Archive poet John Seed has taken a psychogeographical step in that direction already, with his sequence, Pictures from Mayhew – you can listen in here). How can we make not only our bodies felt within digital recordings, but the bodies of all those whose labour makes our words appear/be heard onscreen? This is the inverse question to what I was exploring in my previous blog – that material posted online as part of poetic labour contributes both to the earnings of the major internet companies by providing data for mining towards ad-targeting, and similarly data towards surveillance mining – but it feels deeply related: a question of use-value of online labour.

Ben Cranfield, the closing speaker, highlighted ‘work’ as one of his key terms (with anecdote, materiality , and thieving), with particular reference to framing what archivists and archival researchers do as work, “to recognise that we are engaged in work; that we’re practising and might fail… It might open up some relation between process and product,” re-investing rigour and energy into the way we frame and enact practices. Lisa Robertson‘s embodied work with archival material, and/as the crucially important anecdote, can be heard in her reading of “My Frieze” at QMUL, where she talks about encountering a frieze of Amazons in the basement of the British Museum, and her visceral reaction to it and its secret texts, erased when the frieze was restored to public display.

Slab from the Amazonomachy frieze from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, British Museum

“I used to be a little bit embarrassed about the appropriative nature of some of my work,” she says, “but now I have the great experience of seeing it actually function in a documentary manner.” The poem steps in as an archive, erasing questions of trespass. It  begins, moreover, in Robertson’s “very marrow… coiled into [her] body”: Cranfield and I both used the same word for the processual and visceral way we approach archives, and what we value in archives: promiscuity. Both the desire for the moment of encounter/discovery, and a desiring approach to risk, materiality, diversity and uncertainty. Cranfield cited Sam McBean‘s beautiful essay “Being ‘There’: Digital Archives and Queer Affect” as an example of this productive promiscuity, as both a disruption and a reaffirmation of the archive.

Given the root meaning of archive (from archē [Greek]: government), and its association with power, governance, institutionalisation, and thus stability/rigidity, exclusion and authority (however fantasmatic these claims might be for any given archive – or, indeed, government), perhaps it’s preferable to characterise the Archive of the Now as an Anarchive? As well as asking, as Cranfield suggested, “what are the cultural forms that have been proliferated from this work [meaning: the work archived, and the work of the archivist]?”, we could ask “What does this anarchive do to act as an invitation, to democratise the rigorous practice of archiving and take it out of the state’s hands? How does it make the work available to be proliferated, activated?” Can we be Lara Crofts who (mixed video game metaphor alert) let zombies into the archive?