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In What ways can Contemporary Artists Manipulate and Challenge the Notion of Reading the Archive?'. 






Part I: Absence and Presence.



Part II: Creating a new narrative.



Part III: Fact or Fiction.










As a definite statement, an archive is a collection of ‘documents’ that have been organized or collated by an individual, institution, business or organization according to a set of designated criteria. As summarized by Paul Ricoeur in his 1978 essay ‘Archives, Documents, Traces’, there are three individual characteristics that are universal to the archive as a form. The first is that an archive will have a body of documents that have been set and organized. Secondly, they are either produced, owned or validated by an institutional entity. Lastly, the ultimate goal of all archives is to conserve or preserve its included documents. The defining feature of an archive, and what differentiates it from institutions such as libraries, is that its purpose is to collect materials primarily on conservation grounds. The archival form is distinctive and powerful enough to be considered a statement within its own right.  Contemporary artists exploit the archives connotations to express their own notions and critiques.  Specifically archival art bodies often display in a non-hierarchical structure or spatially organised unlike other archival forms.


The word ‘Archive’ is rooted in ancient Greek, originally meaning a house, dwelling or building where magistrates or officials lived. These buildings became endowed with a sense of authority as documents were often stored within. This made them a home of information and one of the first institutions. The ‘passage from the private to the public which does not always mean the secret to the non-secret’ (Derrida, 1995 p2-3). The transition of information being moved from the private collections of Kings and the wealthy elite is the birthplace of the individual institution. As institutions were firmly formed from a society of wealthy and patriarchal bias, and yet without these patrons, the archive would never have been created.


The classical idea of an archive differs from that of archival art. Archival art considers the notion of archiving as a form and statement to be considered, meanwhile we tend not to question the archaeological or data archive but rather the information within it. 


Art that used the archival form addresses issues surrounding the inclusion and exclusion of artefacts, the institutions authority and perceived objectivity.  Using the writings of Giorgio Agamben and Allan Sekula, the presence and absence of documents/artefacts will explore the archives semantic availability. The testimony expulsed from an archive is dictated not by its exact contents but by the discourse between items that were and were not included. In reading between the lines, we can comprehend the meaning of an archival body.  In this way, both artists and archivists can harness their meanings by definitively choosing or excluding according to the position of the specific archive. Furthermore, with Sekula’s The Body and the Archive (1986) examples we can identify the inherent fault with this quality. 


The archive can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, and over time and cultural differences the initial meaning can shift or alter. Moreover, individual items may have obvious meanings for their circumstance, but in the archiving process, they ascend from their singularity into a wider context. Contrary to reading the archive from an idealist perspective, as Derrida discusses in Archive Fever (1996) archives are inherently embedded with psychoanalysis.  Our choice to archive portrays our basic impulses as mortal human beings, our wish to remember and be remembered, in essence, the ambition of a surrogate immortality. Through this instinct to live on, we also naturally edit the content or archives. The psychoanalysis of this process can be exemplified by Freud’s thoughts on psychoanalysis and memory-making.


The act of archiving is a recording of history, by rejecting or choosing items it is a choice for the future.  We will also delve into how contemporary artists examine the inclusion and exclusion of objects to create new narratives, discourse with tradition and the institution. Moreover, this is underscored by Freudian thought that items, words and objects carry a symbolic notion between themselves and the viewer, owner or creator. Exploring this is Susan Hiller in At the Freud Museum (1991). The work contains a dichotomy and secondary conversation between the individual item and the full archival body.  Artist Mark Dion’s Tate Thames Dig (1999) adds to this conversation by discussing the museum vs the gallery and the limitation that brings to social consciousness. The artistic practice in creating an archive rather than the purely archaeological collection affects its reading and understanding of it, as well as questions the authoritarian control over knowledge.


It is in the aftermath of these works, contemporary artists embrace fictions in order to readdress the notion of archival objectivity and how it effects the world.  The danger of the archive is its easy monopolisation by the powerful, as the archive is a keeper of history and can manipulate public thought with its perceived truth. By investigating artists such as Walid Raad in context with the writing of critic Hal Foster and philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the deceptiveness in archives can be expunged by allowing new perspectives. Thus, leading to a greater understanding and clarity of knowledge within society.

To read the full dissertation please request for a copy.

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