Anarchival Practices

 The Reading Room #17 and #18 took place on the 2nd and 16th of June 2017 with guest readers Christoph Brunner and Alanna Thain, and was the continuation of our collaboration between The Reading Room and ‘ArchipelagoLab for Transversal Practices’ at Leuphana University.

Conversation with Christoph Brunner (CB), Alanna Thain (AT), Nikki Forrest (NF), Jonathan Reus (JR), Flora Reznik (FR) and Sissel Marie Tonn (ST)

Illustration by Sissel Marie Tonn

This cluster of the Reading Room zooms in on the concept of anarchival practices. Traditionally, archiving has been seen as a practice of documenting and conserving, often done by institutions and those in positions of power. But counter-movements and efforts to archive the daily practices left out of official archives, or artist archives, are gaining momentum and challenging at the limits of traditional approaches. The concept of anarchiving especially attempts to reproach archival methods that often erase the processual, affective, and contextual aspects of lived experience. Anarchival methods are active and lived, they are ways to carry forward the foundations of further action, catalysts for the next event. In this cluster of Reading Rooms we ask how can anarchiving be developed as a creative approach for both artists, activists and academics to use? These questions were unraveled through texts and works in the diverse fields of dance, film, queer and feminist movements as specific memories of daily life.



ST: Dear Jon. Alanna mentions in her first answer the discussions around documenting/archiving the ephemerality of dance, and in the Reading Room we were discussing the issues of documenting digital/online artwork that becomes obsolete, or media-specific work that was born and existed within a very specific socio-cultural context of the time. I am curious whether you 

consider the ‘anarchival’ tendencies of your own work, and if you could talk a bit about the ephemerality of digital objects/artworks? Perhaps this quote by Lepecki can inspire you: “In his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, Walter Benjamin considers how works of art are constituted by a kind of originary, radical incompleteness —one that, nevertheless, animates them, sends them off into endless future iterations, or translations, each of which would somehow unveil or actualize figments of potentiality not expressed in the ‘original’. Thus the movement of works into their many futures and different expressions is literally one of being ‘carried across’, i.e.: translated”.  

JR: As a musician, I am mainly making work in the domain of the present. However, as an instrumentalist, I am working with the past – as instruments are always in some way the unfinished archives of previous musical generations. As an instrument maker, I am considering past, present and future in superposition. For me this is a useful entry point for opening up the scope of history. This sounds a lot like Media Archeology, which is also framed as a response to certain exclusionary tendencies in archival practice. I think Media Archeology in many ways is anarchival.

For example, much of my work from a few years ago, like iMac Music and Telco Remains, could be thought of as re-animating specific techno-scientific moments. However, I prefer to think of what I do as remixing rather than re-animating, because these moments are not the walking dead, rather they are there to be iterated upon.

Re-animating is not the same as re-living. In his writing about remix culture, Lawrence Lessig makes a conceptual link between contemporary digital reappropriation (in memes, for example) to oral performance cultures such as those found in folk music and dance traditions. In such traditions, a piece of music or dance is constantly being incrementally created with each performance. What I try to do in my performances and other work is to reduce the medial boundaries between performance practices and other creative acts. This includes acts from artistic disciplines as much as from science and engineering, or in my more recent work, from anthropology.

As a result my work ‘looks’ like so many things. It looks like performance art. It looks like media art. It looks like music. Not to mention research, design, engineering, pedagogy, etc… My work often involves many activities widely considered as non-artistic, such as deep research into science and engineering journals, reading obscure engineering schematics – this makes it difficult to be accepted by some art circles, but I consider all of this as part of participating in an iteration. To iterate on Foucault’s mantra from the beginning of the first relay: “Acts, not identities”.

On your question about the preservation of digital art. I’m definitely no expert here. But in the reading room I recall we discussed two cases: the first was the attempt by the MoMa to conserve one of Nam June Paik’s “Altered Piano” sculptures.

The second was “”, a seminal net-art piece by Martine Neddam that was recently purchased by the Stedelijk Museum. Paik’s piano piece includes obsolete technologies such as a floppy disk drive and a number of CRT television sets he collected in the 1980’s. In the case of “”, you have a work dependent on the web technologies of 1996, including specific HTML tags and web browser features that no longer exist. Both are examples of how the accelerated entropy of post-industrial technical media exacerbates the already difficult choices that are part and parcel of what conservationists do, such as when to replace vs. when to rebuild, but also what to do about the problem of preserving functionalities that are excluded from the archive much in the same way as the lived experiences of queer communities and dancers that we discussed.

What functionality is necessary for an artwork to function? In the case of Paik the MoMa hunted down new tv sets to replace the old ones. In the case of “”, the entire website was remade with contemporary web techniques – fun fact: by my father – to look and act like a website made in 1996. However, when passing into obsolescence, these media take on entirely different affective charges. To the museum their value lies in their representational capability – via the wood-decor CRT tvs, or crude late-90’s web graphics – to maintain a certain threshold of authenticity, but their functionality is utterly non-authentic, it can never be, it has been historically displaced and is now a cultural free agent, perhaps ready for the next remix.

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