Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Sven Spieker: The Big Archive (2008)
"The nineteenth-century archive across a variety of disciplines - from historiography to the natural sciences - had a lasting impact on early-twentieth century art. Rather than endorsing the nineteenth century's confidence in the registration of time, however, members of the twentieth-century avant-gardes critiques and ultimately dismantled that confidence: first, by pointing out that contingency and chance may affect the archive's operations literally at every level (Marcel Duchamp); second, by compiling collections of moments of rupture that elude the archive (early Surrealism); and third, by challenging the Newtonian underpinnings of the archive's topography and its optical correlatives by way of film (El Lissitzky, Sergei Eisenstein). In all these instances, the archive functions both as a laboratory for experimental inquiries into the nineteenth century's irrational underside and as an elaboration of a type of visuality to which archivization is key." This is a nice survey of the avant-garde's incorporation of bureaucratic writing genres, machines, and systems (the latter primarily being the archive). Focusing on the relation between art and archive provides Spieker a way of re-framing certain exhausted debates about art and writing, art and institutions/museums, art and photography, art and memory. In particular, discussing the topography of the archive and the procedures of archival systems allows Spieker, like Bernhard Siegert in his account of the literary "postal system," to spatially reconfigure what could be an excessively self-reflexive or medium-specific argument. Jacques Derrida's "Archive Fever" and Friedrich Kittler's" Discourse Networks" are major influences or predecessors for this book, but they are primarily addressed in the footnotes. I feel Spieker therefore repeats Kittler more than is necessary (or at least doesn't show as explicitly as he could how the archival "system" could encompass, operate through, or even transform the media specificities Kittler describes) and doesn't always engage with Derrida's insights on an "arche-violence." But this neglect ultimately pays off by leaving space for the fresh insights Spieker provides on well-known figures of the avant-garde as well as recent European artists such as Gerhard Richter and Sophie Calle. Spieker takes seriously the bureaucratic reference in the early Surrealist's "Office of Surrealist Research," examines how Duchamp's ready-mades display their own contingent archivization, compares the archival "unconscious" to Freud's mystic writing pad, and highlights how post-Soviet states have a much more negative or paranoid understanding of the archive than their Western European counterparts. The U.S. context (Rauschenberg and Joseph Cornell in particular) is suprisingly absent, but those absences perhaps reinforce Spieker's argument about the central importance of the archive to twentieth-century artistic practices.