Antoni Muntadas, The file Room, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago 1994. Installation at The Banff Center Canada. Photo: Tara Nicholson, Muntadas, Database Imaginary (Walter Phillips Gallery)


Art and Archive, 1920-2010.
Genealogies, typologies and discontinuities

Anna Maria Guasch
Roots & Routes. Research on Visual Culture, Quarterly Magazine
July – September, 2011

As published in:
University of Texas

I would like to begin this talk by pointing out the need to frame the discussion around the term “archive”, in order not to explain some artistic practices scattered throughout the XX and XXI centuries (especially in three historical periods: the years 20/30, 60/80 years ; 90s until today) but also to try to establish what we mean by “archive” and “archival turn” as a “modus operandi” between art, literature and historiography from the early 20th century to the present.

I have just mentioned the need to narrow down the wide term archive and, in my view, this boundedness implies to address the idea of archive to its original concept ,from the greek world and from this, recover it in the context of positivism in the late nineteenth century with the Principle of Provenance in 1881 discussed as a literal use of archive.

But, what it is most important for our proposal, is to switch to a more indirect or metaphorical uses (linked to Freud’s psychoanalysis, on one hand and, on the other, related to literary assembly techniques of Benjamin as well as to the techniques of Dada montage (collage, photomontage).

Our first encounter with the archive as a creative strategy came with the findings of the critical text: “Warburg’s Paragon? Collage in The End of Postwar Europe by Benjamin Buchloh1 an essay in which Buchloh examined the “growing enigmatic nature of the work of European artists who accumulated collections of photographs from the decade of the sixties including Bernd & Hilla Becher, Christian Boltanski, Marcel Broodthaers and Gerhard Richter. Works distinguished by their homogeneity and continuity (as in the case of Becher), and for their heterogeneity and discontinuity (as in Richter).

Following Buchloh, the archive appeared, not only in these artists, but as a “continuum” embracing different practices, from Benjamin’s Passages to the Warburg Atlas project, from to the work of photographers associated with the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) to the Hanna Höch and Rodchenko’s photomontages or even the pedagogical panels of Malevich.

And, more importantly, Buchloh came to the conclusion that this new “paradigm” could not be understood neither under the terms of the avant-garde associated to the principles of immediacy, shock and fragmentation, nor with the terms traditionally used from the history of photography (documentary photography, topography, photojournalism). Everything seemed, Buchloh argued, the organization of both didactic and technical illustrations that serve as catalogs for administrative or archival projects with a few precedents in the history of the historic avant-garde.

This discussion was followed, among others, by Hal Foster that in the essay of “Modern Art Archives”2 clearly placed Michel Foucault as the source of introduction of the notion of archive in the contemporary philosophical reflection. Again Foster, in an essay of 2004, “The Archival Impulse”3, extended Craig Owens´allegorical impulse with whom he had baptized many of the practical appropriation of the decade of the eighties [4] to the archival Impulse that tracked  artists such as Thomas Hirshorn, Sam Durant, Tacita Dean, Douglas Gordon, Liam Gillick, Stan Douglas, Pierre Huygen, Philippe Parreno, Mark Dion and Renée Green. Perhaps in this sense, Foster’s happiest intuition was to realize that the ideal of the archive would be the Internet “megarchive” and the rhetoric of “interactivity”, pointing out how some of the most recurrent terms in the recent contemporary art, such as platforms, evoke the “networks” of electronic archives.

Okwui Enwezor has also joined the use and abuse of the term archive in the exhibition Archive Fever. Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008) [5], although only explored a possible reading of the archive, linking it to photograph and document. Apart of putting together artists like Boltanski, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Harun Farocki, Hans Peter Feldman, among others, perhaps the most interesting issue was the need for an epistemological context (from Foucault to Derrida) to “ensure that the archive not only preserves the past or takes action against contemporary forms of amnesia, but it is a place where the suture between past and present is located in an indeterminate zone between the document and the monument” [6].

These have been some of the references I have used to create my own cartography on the practices of the archive, following a chronological and historical approach from 1920 up to the present. And in order to create this cartography, I would like to bare in mind two clear objectives: firstly to delimit the epistemological field that from the philosophical, literary, psychoanalytic contributions justifies the this “turn” and, secondly, to delimit the archive current practices in line with the concepts of principle (arkhe) and consignation, as Derrida pointed out in his seminal essay The Archive Fever. The “archive fever” means a drive by storing, by registering through various typologies (hence the use of inventories, thesauri, atlases, albums, among other archival structures or archival materials) but always in terms of specific regularities and, in particular, the principle of consignation in the sense that the act of consigning is not only to enter the residence or place an artifact in a particular place, but coordinate a single “corpus” in a system or a synchrony  in which all elements articulate the unity, in the words of Derrida, of an ideal configuration: “In an archive, there should not be any absolute dissociation, any heterogeneity or secret which could separate (secernere) , or partition, in an absolute manner. The archontic principle of the archive is also a principle of consignation, that is, of gathering together” [7].




In this sense, I think we should establish two large “machines” of the archive: one that emphasizes the principle of nomos (or law) and the topographical order, and second, that accentuates the contradictory actions of storing and saving and, simultaneously, forgetting and destroying traces of the past, a drive that informs an anomic principle. (Without law).

In the first case, I would speak of a first relationship with the scientific concept of archive in the positivist context of the nineteenth century (based on the principle of provenance – Provenienzprinzip, Berlin, 1881), which stipulated that archive documents must be available  in strict accordance with the order in which they had been accumulated in the place in where they were originated before being transferred to the archive. And in second case,  we can discover, in the early decades of the century, another way to understand the archive related to psychoanalysis. According to Derrida, Freud in the text of 1925 “Notiz über den Wünderblock,” (Note on the Mystic Pad) [8] “have presented an accurate description of the psyche in a mode of archive. The Mystic Pad would indeed be a “machine archive” incorporating the drive of “preservation” and at the same time one of the destruction, oblivion, amnesia and deletion.

Machines that we could also study in relation to the archive physical nature. The archive based on the object culture and the logic of material memory systems and the archive-based in virtual information that follows a rationality closer to the flexible and non stable, not ordered linearly and independently of any hierarchy. Derrida himself, in analyzing the potential impact of Freud´s “magic block or mystic pad”  (1925), questioned whether the structure of the psychic apparatus, the system that Freud associated with the magic slate toy, may or may not resist the technological developments of the archive: Could – asks Derrida- the psychic apparatus to be better represented by different technological tools to archive and play – the so-called live memory prosthesis- or simulations of living things, which are much more sophisticated tools that the “magic block”. Interesting question which Derrida developed in 1994, but that seems overtaken by technological generations own magic slate.

20’s and 30’s

Let´s begin refering to a first period of the “archival turn” of the archive in which we can see how these two archival machines move in different fronts and different disciplines (literature, photography, art history, visual art coincidentally taking a common context or historical background: the Germany of the Weimar Republic.

The Archive and the photography: The beginning, the law

The idea of photography as a kind of archive is present from the earliest days of photography. In this sense, beyond issues related to documentary, photography soon proved itself as a highly suitable instrument, according to the scientific mind of the nineteenth century, for classification, and hence for fragmentation. I would like to refer to the German New Objectivity photographers, such as Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) and his collection of photographs of plants that were never used for artistic purposes but teaching, Albert Patzsch Renger and above all August Sander (1876-1964) that was the first ones to replace photomontage for archive keeping an eye on the nineteenth-century archival model and its emphasis on the topological origin (not semantic) and positivist knowledge. For these artists, photography was the “technology model” of a new transparent and homogeneous society, with which the photograph was identified impersonating archive as a non-hierarchical worldview.


In the same vein, but from another point of view, the literary as in the case of Walter Benjamin and his unfinished project Das Passagen-Werk [9] (The Arcades Book) beginning in 1927, continued with interruptions between 1930 and 1934 and continued more systematically since 1937 until his death in 1940), and the historiographic by Aby Warburg in his Mnemosyne Atlas, a visual and thematic archive Warburg began to work with in 1925: the method of a archive reports a kind of critical work to the notion of linear history since the Enlightenment in the search for the notion of history as “harvesting” (Benjamin) or “memory” (Warburg).  In both cases, indeed, the method is not based on a linear homogeneous system but it is articulated by heterogeneities and discontinuities, while respecting the autonomy and individuality of each image.


Let´s move to another important chapter of archival turn: which corresponds to the artistic practices of the sixties and seventies, with two apparently irreconcilable forces: the need to recover the memory in this case linked to the events of Trauma and the devastating effects of World War II, and the use of serial systems: inventories, taxonomies and typologies that share a lack of interest in the interpretation in favor  for the discursive construction of indexical memory.

In both cases, and this will be discussed in the works of Gerhard Richter (Atlas), On Kawara, Stanley Brouwn, Dieter Roth, Christian Boltanski, Annette Messager, Hanne Darboven, Bernd & Hilla Becher, among others the use of the methodology of the archive is shifting  concepts of “implosion” (pathos, shock effect) and collage and photomontage in benefit of new concepts such as index, seriality, repetition, mechanical sequence, inventory, serial monotony.

Everything close to the “historical a priori” of Foucault and his theory of statements, which is not a proposition or a sentence and only refers to the “materiality” of what is said as such, beyond any kind of evocation or empathy and allusion both subjective and objective). In his The Archaeology of Knowledge10 Foucault, proposes a new structure of thought and knowledge neither interested in the “interpretation of the document” nor in the history of ideas from concepts such as the genesis or the continuity but only “the bare experience of its order.”

It is under these parameters that we can understand the project of Bernd (1931-2007) & Hilla Becher (1934), who since 1957 photograph in a programmatic way industrial anonymous architectures that, as it occurs with Foucault´s stataments, built an archive in the form of inventory, of buildings arising from the industrial revolution in Europe and the United States that threatened their demise. These images are to be classified by type (towers or water tanks, cooling towers, gas holders, lattice extraction, gravel pits, lime kilns, grain silos, coal silos, blast furnaces, prefabricated warehouses),6 according to the criteria: function, material and structural shapes.

On the contrary of the work of Becher, and supporting our thesis of the two machines file, the larger project of Gernard Richter (1932), Atlasbegan in 1962 and still active today who (5530 photographs both black and white and color (photographs found and own). emphasizes the irregularity which inevitably puts us in the “universal reign of anomie.”


90´s TO NOW


A new chapter in this genealogy of the archival turn is the moment that begins in the nineties with the so-called “archive fever”, adopting a more “intuitive” (or anomic) way and less constrained by the formal system that dominated the 60s and 70s. This use of a less systematic methodology and a system seemingly irrational was seen in the first exhibition devoted to this archive fever or archive turn: Deep Storage Archive: Collecting, Archiving, Storing Art [11] in 1998-99. One of the members of the curatorial team, Ingrid Schaffner explained in the catalogue how the notion of “storage” makes reference to both memory (things kept as souvenirs) and history (as information salved) without forgetting the “virtual” (or immaterial)  as an almost ideal way to preserve and keep the same material culture.

Before this inaugural exhibition, the “archive fever” came from the hand of Derrida and his lecture-text delivered at the North London Freud House in London in 1994, in where Derrida advances one of his most brilliant insights, which will leads us to conclude our conference: the immaterial condition of the archive that relates the psychoanalysis of Freud with the archive on the Internet.

In the same way that the theory of psychoanalysis is transformed into a theory of the archive, or in other words a theory of memory (in what is known as “magic block” – der Wünderblock), so the online digital archive is characterized by a continuous flow of data (the equivalent of “impressions” in Freudian psychoanalysis), without geography and without time restrictions, with the subsequent displacement of the notion of storage, classification and retrieval of information, to navigation and to the hyperlinks that connect the pieces of information. As Derrida says: “In the past, psychoanalysis would not have been what it was if the e-mail, for example, had existed. And in the future it will no longer be what Freud and so many psychoanalysts have anticipated, from the moment E-mail, for example, became possible” And Derrida argues: “I also privilege the e-mail for a more important and obvious reason: because electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way  to transforming  the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and  the public or the phenomena”.[12]


Pedro G. Romero. Portada del boletín número 1, Documentos y materiales, Salónica 2007. (Cortesía del artista)

In the framework of this new culture of memory linked to the “digital culture” and of the archive that since 1994, some artists like Muntadas (The File Room, 1994), Vera Frenckel, Body Missing, 1994-1997, The Atlas Group, Pedro G. Romero, Daniel García Andujar have transformed the nature of the archive, working and thinking outside the archive. This, rather than being a set of objects (folders, books, art works) stored in certain places, becomes a flow of data, regardless of any geography or container, without any time restriction (only available here and now.) Rather than storage, now is the exchange which has become the main function archivist, a change in orientation that is evident in the flow of projects in the network beyond physical geography and material [9].




Daniel Garcia Andújar, Postcapital Archive, 1989-2001, La Comunidad Inconfesable, 2009 (Courtesy of the Artist)

To conclude, I think the use of the archive in contemporary art practice not only has developed new strategies by which to contest the constitutive a repository for pure facts, but acquires its full meaning in a time with the ongoing sophistication of the digital domain. A time, the global era, related to the capitalism of communication and the informational theory the rhizome of the hyper mobility, the nomadic, the connected peripheries, the conversation. And this era seems much closer to the archaeological-archival system that’s hierarchical, such as the historical heritage (the historical facts), related to the library and the museum. The archive acts, then, as a site in which creative productivity occurs in conjunction with dissemination, indexicality and fragmentation.

Link to Source:
Roots & Routes
Research on Visual Cultures




1 Benjamin Buchloh, “Warburg´s Paragon? The End of Collage and Photomontage in Postwar Europe”, Deep Archive Storage. Collecting, Storing and Archiving in Art, New York, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and Seattle , Henry Art Gallery, 1998-1999, pp. 50-60 . An expanded text was published on October 88, Spring 1999 with the title “G. Richter´s Atlas: The Anomic Archive”, pp. 117-145.

2 Hal Foster, “Archives of Modern Art”, October 99 , Winter, 2002, pp. 81-95.

3 Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse”, October 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3-22.

4 Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism”, October 12, Spring, 1980, pp. 67-86.

5 Archive Fever. Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, New York, International Center of Photography, 2008.

6 Ibid., pp. 46-47.

7 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1996, p. 3.

8 Sigmund Freud, “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad” (1925), in The Standard Edition of Freud´s Works, vol. 19, ed. James Strachey, London, The Hogarth Press, 1961, pp. 227-232.

9 Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk (ed. Rolf Tiedemann), Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1982.

10 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), New York, San Francisco, London, Haper Torchbooks, 1972.

11 Deep Storage. Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art, New York, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 1998 and Settale, Henry Art Gallery, 1998-1999.

12 J. Derrida, op. cit., p. 17.