Archival traces and ephemeral events

Jacques Derrida’s “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” expands the notion of what can be considered an archive, and assigns more power to the act of archiving. For him, the process of archiving an event leaves a trace on an exterior substrate. A mark is made on a substance; memory is made tangible. This leaving of a trace is called the “repetition” of the event. As he notes,

There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. [1. Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (July 1, 1995): 14, doi:10.2307/465144.]

This repetition is by nature removed from the original event. The archive possesses a quality Derrida terms “spectral”: “…neither present nor absent “in the flesh,” neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met…” [2. Derrida and Prenowitz, “Archive Fever,” 54.]

Yet at the same time it’s spectral, the way an event is repeated/archived is deeply linked to our understanding of that event. For Derrida, the archived form of the event ends up becoming an integral, inseparable part of it:

…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media. [3. Derrida and Prenowitz, “Archive Fever,” 17.]

The act of or potential for archiving ends up influencing the event itself. But what about events that resist archiving, like certain kinds of performances?

Recently, the National Gallery of Art in Washington presented an exhibition on Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, and as part of their web content they produced a video on the history of the dance company. Included were a mix of photographs of the original dancers, photographs of restored costumes, and videos of later recreations of several of the dances. Some of the earlier restagings were done by the Monaco-based branch of the Ballets Russes formed shortly after Diaghilev’s death, whereas others were staged by companies like the Joffrey Ballet in the 80s.

Traditional archival records (like photographs, costumes, and drawings) were probably used to construct these restagings, but the videos of the restagings themselves can also be considered part of “The Archive” of the Ballets Russes: in the absence of a video trace produced of the first performance of a dance, these videos become the most tangible trace of the whole performance.

But should these archives of the Ballets Russes become part of the Ballets Russes? Though any kind of change of medium of reproduction (like the photographing of a painting) can be understood to enact changes on the “event”, reproductions of performances seem to be especially spectral and those changes can be jarring. In the realm of performance art, an awareness of the changes that occur when an original performance is repeated led some artists beginning in the 1970s, like Vito Acconci, to prefer not to reperform pieces—to keep out archival accumulation. Maybe the “death drive” is a concern, reperformance in a way superimposing or causing the forgetting of the original piece. As Derrida says,

If repetition is thus inscribed at the heart of the future to come, one must also import here, in the same stroke, the death drive, the violence of forgetting, superrepression (suppression and repression), the anarchive, in short, the possibility of putting to death the very thing, whatever its name, which carries the law in its tradition… [4. Derrida and Prenowitz, “Archive Fever,” 51.]

This has come up in the context of the performance work of Marina Abramovic—for example in 2005 when she reperformed some of her own works as well as the works of others (including Acconci). On the other end of the spectrum there are artists like Tino Seghal, an artist who vigorously prohibits any kind of archiving of his work. No photographs and very little writing about his pieces is permitted: in the catalog of the exhibition documenta (13) held in Kassel in 2012, the page describing his work was completely missing, and his name only appeared in the table of contents and index.

In some cases the resistance to archiving is a conceptual aspect of the work, but even when it’s not it can be said that in general the ephemeral nature of dance performances and performance art makes them difficult to archive. Part of this must simply stem from the fact that a performance is temporal, and doesn’t necessarily become fixed into a tangible medium: it doesn’t easily leave a trace.

Online media and websites can also be understood this way, even though a website seems fairly tangible at first glance, and for a while even looks the same upon repeated viewings. But like a performance, websites are dynamic. In his essay, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”, Roy Rosenzweig points out that although it feels like we are drowning in digital documents, websites actually change or disappear rapidly. In an article on web archiving at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Heather Slania also brings up this point, noting that it is difficult to capture websites built in Flash and sites that link to databases, “…meaning that the only documentation left might be a website’s mere existence.” [5. Slania, Heather. “Online Art Ephemera: Web Archiving at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 32, no. 1 (March 1, 2013): 118. doi:10.1086/669993.]

To illustrate this point, Slania includes an image of a flash website captured in a crawl done with Archive-It, which appears as a gray box. Of course, the image captured in that crawl is an archival trace, but as Slania says, it only testifies to the existence of the website. How useful is that kind of trace? In this case probably not terribly, but it brings up the point that just as the process of archiving shapes the event itself, so does the character of the archive (what kinds of traces are left) shape the kinds of questions researchers ask.

A recent effort to restore Douglas Davis’ “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence”, an early example of Internet art, could provide a model for archiving web-based materials. Even though it was created less than 20 years ago, the site was already in need of restoration, which was undertaken by the Whitney in summer 2013. Problems like “link rot” (when hyperlinks no longer function since the site linked to has disappeared) arose, as did the question of whether to alter the code so that it functioned in modern browsers. Ultimately the team decided to present multiple versions of the site: a live version that works in modern browsers, the original site (with its broken code), and screenshots of what it looked like in Netscape (an old browser). The live version satisfies researchers who want to understand the interactive aspects of the original site, while the presence of the untouched original site, along with the residual broken hyperlinks left in the live version of the site, are a testament to the fragility of web structures—and to the challenges of archiving dynamic ephemera.

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