Case Study

Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production

November 2015

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Work that takes place inside archives and work that is designated as art are often perceived as conceptually distinct practices, yet it is possible for the two to share common techniques and methodologies. A performative approach can be taken to the production of artworks that is comparable to that of the archive in terms of following a predetermined structure and controlled methodology, and with direct links to archival thinking. I will demonstrate how visual practice can work with, and in consideration of, prescribed standards and open up theoretical debate that is pertinent to archives yet lies outside of conventional archive or art theory. Whilst not wanting to initiate a discourse on specific artworks of my own in this limited space, there will be a detailed discussion as to how the associations between art, work, and archives have become central to my own practice and research. I will discuss how my appropriation of archival techniques of image description results in a “writing and reading” of the image that contests traditional art historical models of image analysis and appears radical when placed alongside them, if one is to understand “radical” as a departure from the norm. Such work does not constitute radical thinking in terms of the archive but becomes radicalized by way of its passage into the milieu of art research, where traditional hermeneutical analysis generally persists. It is a practice that does not oppose but instead utilizes and builds upon archival standards, and aspects of archival thinking permeate the various practices of artists cited in this essay, notably through the application of performative working methods that position their work within an established genre of indexing and categorization. It is also important to note that these works make space for complex and abstract thinking around images and image sets, and around language itself, whilst still maintaining the structural discourse of the archive at some level. Although archive professionals may not be the expected audience for the practices discussed here, there may be an opportunity for the reverse flow of “work experience”: an unpicking of the methods and thinking of art research could be useful and constructive when taken back into the archive. The examples here, including my own, traverse material culture, cultural theory, performativity, and media archaeology—a thematic that is, after all, as pertinent to archives as it is to art.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 My relationship with archives and image collections began with a five-year stint as slide curator in a London art school. As an artist, I was already a proponent of image sets, where notions of interdependencies and interrelationships between objects take precedence over the representational assets of the single image. Here, with one foot in technical media and one foot in collection management, I occupied a curious pre-digital space between camera, image, typewriter, and filing cabinet. Indeed, in his essay, “The Body and the Archive,” artist, theorist, and frequent writer on matters archival, Allan Sekula, when discussing the archival aspects of early physiognomic applications of photography, argues, “The central artifact of this system is not the camera but the filing cabinet”; it becomes “a merger between optics and statistics.”1 The techniques of image organization were becoming important and dynamic considerations in my own visual practice. For the last decade or more, I have been working within archives in a large university library, and during this time my practice has taken a distinct “archival” turn. The relationship between art practice and archival structures has become a critical focus in terms of my own theoretical and practical explorations of image description, with the rules and methodologies of “archiving” becoming the practice.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 From a position inside the institution, both theoretical and material understandings of archival thinking and techniques can be afforded. London-based artist Uriel Orlow uses film, lecture-performance, and installation to discuss images, memory, and narrative, and his work frequently intersects with archives. In his correspondence with Ruth McLennan, Orlow argues that when one is not involved in specific research one can focus on the procedural aspects of archives, “the sheer materiality of the collections, beyond the specific information its documents contain.”2 He goes on to ask how we can comprehend “the meaning and status of the archive as a whole, operating as it does like a memorial behind closed doors.”3 By spending time behind these closed doors, an understanding of the material nature of the archive is formed, and this in relation to organizational and structural concepts. This is a spatiotemporal understanding of storage techniques: how papers, files, boxes and shelves all function together. From October 2001 to July 2002, McLennan herself worked as artist in residence in the Archives of the British Library of Political and Economic Science, London School of Economics; this was the first time that an artist had been a resident in a UK academic archive. McLennan was treated as a member of the staff and enjoyed unlimited access to all archives.4 Once lived, worked, and understood in this way, the archive, its structure, and the position of the single object relative to it start to acquire tangibility.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Archival practices are performative in nature; they are directed by prescribed standards and defined by bodies such as The International Council on Archives, which, through its International Standard Archival Description (General) or ISAD(G)5 sets out clear rules to be followed when writing and organizing descriptions. Margaret Iversen, in her essay, “Auto-Maticity: Ruscha and Performative Photography,” sees performative practice as one that “begins with an instruction or rule which is followed through with a performance.”6 It is Iversen’s definition that is significant to the comparison of performativity in art and archive here. Her specification of two distinct actions, the second dependent on the first, differentiate this use of “performative” from the early designation by J.L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words, where the “saying” and the “doing” are one and the same thing (famously, the performative utterance of “I do” in the course of the marriage ceremony)7 Iversen also argues that the term performative is often wrongly used to define work that has an element of performance, whereas it should be “reserved for the work of those artists who are interested in displacing spontaneity, self expression and immediacy by putting into play repetition and the inherently iterative character of the instruction.”8 In her discourse on gender performativity, Judith Butler draws on theatrical and phenomenological aspects of performance that are often associated with performance art (and are somewhat alien to the rationale of the archive), but she too sees repetition as critical and emphasizes the grayness of the activity itself: “This repetition is a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established; it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.”9

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Within this definition of performativity then, the implementation of work such as Ruscha’s seminal Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) is critical; the work may be conceptual, or proto-conceptual,10 but the concept by itself does not constitute the work. Iversen sees the instructional element in her definition of performativity as a “partial abdication of authorial control, in favour of accident, chance or unforeseen circumstances,”11 thereby acknowledging the possibility of unexpected results. In performative art practice authorial control is established early on in the work, in the design of the workflow; this method parallels that of the archivist, who, working to established conventions, produces work that is near algorithmic in form and intent, and where authorship is largely unrecognized. In art and in the archive, though, chance events materialize, resulting in a hybridity between human and system that can be seen in all levels of archival description even today, as well as in other information management systems generally. This hybridity is already a topic of media archaeological discussion; as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young remarks, “What we call the human is always already an emergent product arising from the processual interaction of domains that in time are all too neatly divided up into technical and human.”12 However, Butler warns against deliberate unscripted incidents, arguing, “It is quite clear that there are strict punishments for contesting the script by performing out of turn through unwarranted improvisations.”13

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Aside from the structures and the non-human aspects that intervene, description and classification of images still remains a task best performed by humans, even though there has been some progress in the field of computer image recognition. Research into artificial neural networks has thrown up exciting results in the field, but the scope of machine learning of real-world situations required for practical application is extensive and therefore not cost efficient. Quite unlike the high cost of research or even of institutional cataloguing, digital labor schemes are extremely cheap. Amazon Mechanical Turk, which was founded in 2005, crowdsources HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks). A worker can earn $4.95 for 4 hours 30 minutes of microtasking, presumably if working as fast as a machine: Mechanical Turk labels itself as “Artificial Artificial Intelligence.”14 There are well-subscribed schemes that offer no financial reward at all, such as the Library of Congress’s Flickr tagging group or the Galaxy Zoo project; both rely on the desire of participants to be useful as collaborative individuals. The tag itself has become a byword in the discourse on connectivity, as it works across social media to bind things, ideas, and people together, ideally facilitating the indexing, retrieval, and circulation, the “archiving” of networked images. Daniel Rubinstein sees user tagging as “the bridging of the gap between human perception of images and the computer’s blindness to them.”15 Rubinstein’s main problem with tagging is that it is a system that undermines visual literacy; he argues that “tagging can be thought of as a strategy that allows one to remain immersed in photography without being affected by images.”16

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Archival techniques can be explored in a media archaeological way. Media archaeology offers an understanding of digital cultures through physical examination and critique of past media forms and has clear connections to the archive. The “paper” list (or simple online database), which follows the orders and hierarchies, the shelves, boxes, and files of the physical archive, may be perceived as a past media form, except that it is still in widespread use. The word archive is now part of our digital vocabulary, and the structure of the archive has firm ties to the organization of digital media of all kinds. Media theorist Cornelia Vismann, in her book Files: Law, Media and Technology, emphasizes the physicality of these ties, as she explains how in “highly unmetaphorical fashion, files and their techniques organize the very architecture of digital machines.”17 The institutionalized object-management system of the archive can be perceived as a prototype for internet media storage and “archiving” techniques. As Manovich and Douglass observe, “We have ‘been digital’ on a theoretical level for a very long time,” in terms of employing categorization to “theorize, preserve and exhibit” our cultural knowledge.18 But media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst perceives the shared language, such as the word archive, as metaphorical and idiosyncratic, blurring the similarities and the differences between physical and digital.19 He argues, “If we disregard the metaphorical use of the word archive for all possible forms of memory and cultural memory and use it to mean the specific agency of memory technology, the Internet is not an archive.”20 Ernst maintains that cyberspace “is not a even space, but rather a topological configuration,”21 but of course it does require a physical space, as has been well-documented by Google in their so-called secret glimpse into where the internet lives, with numbered aisles and storage units not dissimilar to those found in the archive. The histories and practicalities of photography—both human and non-human, and not just in terms of photographic media and production but also in cataloguing, storage, and access—are extremely relevant to the study of wider photographic practices today and are consistent with the recent material and post-representational turn in photographic studies. These histories are also critical in relation to the current abundance of networked art and Internet curation.22

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Distinct from the description or cataloguing of photographs, photography has been used as a cataloguing and classification technique from the start. Sekula argues, “Photography was to be both an object and means of bibliographic rationalization.”23 Because of its indexical qualities, early photography was quickly assigned to scientific enquiry and classification.24 Subsequent performative art practice around classification, collection, and typology has been famously demonstrated and defined by artist-photographers such as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Berndt and Hilla Becher, all working to varying degrees of self-initiated instruction. Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) is a set of photographs of all the gas stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City. According to Iversen, and gleaned from a 1965 Artforum interview, the choice of instruction was fairly arbitrary: “The work began as a ‘play on words’: he liked the word ‘gasoline’ and the specific quantity ‘twenty-six’. The design for the cover was finished before a single photograph was taken.”25 Like Ruscha, John Baldessari uses quasi-scientific organization in his project, My File of Movie Stills, with shifting sets of words serving as a device for choosing images. Even though he changes his words according to his requirements, the piece is significant for Baldessari’s classification of images through implementation of a limited vocabulary: “I don’t order stills, I must choose from the menu.”26

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Taryn Simon, in her 2009 project, Contraband, works in a more regulated way that harks back to early photographic classification. She photographs items illegally imported into the United States and seized by the authorities. Contraband also meets Iversen’s definition of performativity: it is performed to strict instruction. The project is carried out in a prescribed manner and over a prescribed time span (five days at JFK airport, New York). The 1,075 contraband items are each photographed and presented in the same way: simply, clearly, and stripped of context, as though the project were a documentation of museum objects. The images are presented in simple typological groups, such as, BRANDING, TIFFANY AND CO. (COUNTERFEIT); FITNESS DVD’S (PIRATED); POTATOES (PROHIBITED); U.S. CURRENCY (INCIDENTAL TO ARREST). As Hans Ulrich Obrist argues in his “Ever Airport: Notes on Taryn Simon’s Contraband,” a foreword to Simon’s book of the project, the photographs are “something approaching the approximately impersonal and administrative form of the list.”27 He continues, “The photographs and texts of Simon’s Contraband reveal disorder and chance within the strictures of a system determined by absolute order and control…. Simon’s images and lists embrace both order and disorder, and open up a third space within the cracks of these forms of control.”28

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The “administrative form of the list” introduces immediately the idea of record-keeping and archival practices, and Simon’s work leads us to the “order and disorder” of the archive: the “third space” of original order. Archival order, guided as it is by the collection and use of objects, contrasts with the ordering systems of libraries, where, as Judith Ellis points out, they are dealing with “consciously authored information products,” and not with the rich, complex, and variously kept records of a life or an organization.29 Michel Foucault succinctly defines the archive as “that which determines that all these things do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass, nor are they inscribed in an unbroken linearity.”30

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Simon’s classificatory photographs form a visual list, but other artists have chosen to employ the list in its more familiar text-only form. Dan Graham’s Schema (1966) is an inventory of the grammatical structure of the publication in which it exists, as defined by the editor of the publication, so there are as many versions of Schema as there are publications. A generic version of Schema is published in volume one, number one of the journal Art-Language (May 1969),31 along with some explanation on how to implement the piece, to perform it. Alexander Alberro argues that Schema “effects the total depersonalization of the work—the artist virtually disappears behind the structure’s self-generation.”32 In fact, the first issue of Art-Language puts forward three different works in list form: Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, Graham’s Schema, and Lawrence Weiner’s Statements. The Art-Language editorial board went on to produce a series of works entitled Index, the first of which was Documenta Index, displayed at Kassel in the 1972 Documenta exhibition. The piece was made up of four filing cabinets of texts surrounded by walls covered with copies of an index to these texts. Charles Harrison cites the principle design decision to be “that the appearance of the indexing-system should be made compatible with the appearance of other indexing systems”;33 in other words, non-aesthetic, not designed, but belonging to the real world of organization and the technologies that support it. Iversen, in her definition of performativity, uses words and phrases such as “putting into play,” “repetition,” and the “iterative character of the instruction,” all indicative of computing, and Conceptual Art’s relationship with early computing and cybernetics is evident.34 Number 29 of LeWitt’s Sentences reads, “The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with”35 and in his Artforum piece, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” he states, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.… [T]he artist would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem.”36

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s works Day (2003) and Seven American Deaths and Disasters (2013) share LeWitt’s approach: rules are set and the resulting texts are not tampered with. In Against Expression: an Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Dworkin and Goldsmith describe the methodology for Day:

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Day (Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 2003) is a complete transcription of the entire edition of the New York Times from Friday, September 1, 2000. Kenneth Goldsmith predicated his procedure on the constraint of uncreativity, which he refers to as “the hardest constraint a writer can muster.” He systematically worked through each page, moving from one article to the next. Anywhere in the newspaper where there was a word, letter, or number, he transcribed it. He made no distinction between editorial and advertisement. Finally, when published, everything was set in the same font, without the use of styling such as bold or italic. The result is a leveling of information to text, which is stripped of hierarchy and design.37

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In Seven American Deaths he similarly transcribes radio reports (jingles included) of catastrophic events such as the Kennedy assassinations and the Challenger space shuttle disaster. More recently (March 2015) Goldsmith’s uncreative writing techniques caused controversy, as he performed The Body of Michael Brown, a reading of the autopsy report of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer. Goldsmith, a white male poet, was accused of racist exploitation, but he defended his work, arguing that it was in the tradition of Seven American Deaths and Disasters:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 I took a publicly available document from an American tragedy that was witnessed first-hand (in this case by the doctor performing the autopsy) and simply read it. Like Seven American Deaths and Disasters, I did not editorialize; I simply read it without commentary or additional editorializing.… The document I read from is powerful. My reading of it was powerful. How could it be otherwise? Such is my long-standing practice of conceptual writing: like Seven American Deaths and Disasters, the document speaks for itself in ways that an interpretation cannot. It is a horrific American document, but then again it was a horrific American death.38

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Transcription is a labor commonly undertaken in the archive, and without interpretation or gloss. Like the archivist, Goldsmith is performing what already exists, and what already exists may unfortunately be unpalatable.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 All the works so far cited interact with archival thinking and systems. Specific archival techniques of description and listing, particularly in relation to the photographic image, form the backbone of my own research as I examine and perform, through theory and practice, the object and its positioning within the archive. As with Simon’s temporally regulated and restricted Contraband project, time has become a fundamental preoccupation; this should come as no surprise, as time is central to the archive and to archival practices of collecting, description, and ordering. As Jussi Parikka notes, “Such notions [heritage, storage, freezing time] become an index to a way to understand time, rethink time.”39 My practice uses time-based media, predominantly taking the form of moving image or scripted performance, always with text present (written or spoken), and is tightly controlling of time. Eric Ketelaar, in his text on the “Dutch Manual,”40 argues that Van Riemsdijk, the early pioneer of the concept of original order, turned the emphasis away from trying to anticipate and facilitate any particular future use of objects, focusing on the record-keeping process, not on the record itself.41 In common with archival objects and descriptions, the objects and descriptions that I capture, perform, and interrogate are situations that are discrete and unaffected by outside time, but they are rendered time-critical and timeless through processes of documentation, preservation, and storage; they are all at once temporal, atemporal, and supertemporal in nature.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The notion of original order—with its unexpected connections, relationships and insights—has clear confluence with modern historical analysis and conceptual thinking around seriality by theorists such as Michel Foucault; a seriality where “linear successions” give way to “discoveries in depth”42 and objects are seen sometimes as “temporally neutral,” sometimes as implying “a particular temporal direction.”43 In relation to this theoretical framework, the archival list is of great practical importance; it is not only significant as a finding aid, but as an insurance policy against the misfiling of objects, against the loss of evidence of the methodological mechanisms of collection and use. Sven Spieker (2008, 19) quotes from Walter Benjamin’s 1932 essay “Excavation and Memory”: “For authentic memories, it is far less important that the investigator report on them than that he mark, quite precisely, the site where he gained possession of them.”44 The archive list affords such precision. In his text “Archive in Transition,” Ernst describes how information on the Internet is “quirky, transient and chaotically shelved”45; there is a strong argument for preserving and documenting the ordered systems of the physical archive, more than simply as a celebration of the haptic, what Ernst calls a “retro-outcome of digital culture,” but as a platform that is vital for preserving anomalous spatial relationships.46 The physical archive, its order upheld by the catalogue list, becomes a secure backup for the digital archive object. Christopher Hood uses the language of cybernetics to define the dual use of administrative tools of government, such as the list: firstly, “detector,” “for taking in information”; and secondly, “effector,” “to try to make an impact on the world outside.”47 The dual use of the list can be seen in the archive and in my own art practice, as well as in that of others cited here.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The image, paralleling an everyday archival situation, is often hidden or obscured in my work, but its visual content is described in detail. This methodology constitutes an examination of the photographic image that might seem somewhat alien within the context of mainstream visual culture, but it is familiar in the archive, where many images remain undigitized and mostly unseen. The archival image description may be the researcher’s first point of contact with the image and the image’s first method of communication with the outside world. In common with the cataloguer within the archive, I do not attempt to assign meaning to objects or flag up visual signifiers that might encourage the completion of a narrative outside of the image. Many photographic practices actively demand such completion by the viewer. For example, British writer and conceptual artist Victor Burgin uses the idea of audience completion to take his strongly representational practice into a desired cultural and political framework.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Throughout his career, Burgin has worked across a variety of forms of visual representation, and with a strong linguistic presence. Using language in a typically restrained and carefully constructed way, he alludes to notions that lie outside of the image itself. Burgin recognizes the effect of completion (useful for him, but problematic for the archivist); he begins his book, The Remembered Film, with a Wittgenstein quote, which concludes, “If you complete it you falsify it.”48 The essentially decontextualised type of visual content-based description that I use emphasizes the synchrony of the moment of capture and the duration embodied in the image. Photographs are inherently decontextualized objects, pauses in time; and description, often perceived as a low form of writing, is ultimately identified as a “narrative pause,”49 and celebrated as such. Images can be viewed through something other than a narrative gaze, as lists, and the juxtapositions within them, expose the often non-chronological advancement of the archive. The visual content-centered approach asks for consideration of the image and the description as discrete but not autonomous objects, as atemporal units that take their cultural and spatiotemporal context from their surrounding objects and from their recorded place; in this way, the structure of the “archive” becomes the sign system for the “archived” photograph. This specific technique of “writing” the image is readily distinguishable from hermeneutical analysis, as it is placed outside of the system of signs that is usually considered in discussions of photographic representation, thus becoming what media archaeologist Bernard Siegert terms “[p]ost-hermeneutical, rather than anti-hermeneutical in its outlook”50; this is key to the epistemological positioning of my performative practice around archives.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The restricted writing technique that I employ is a conceptualization of already restricted institutional writing practices and falls broadly within the canon of the language-based Conceptual Art of the 1960s, such as that of Art & Language group, already mentioned. The phrase conceptual writing was coined by Craig Dworkin as a way to include the practices of conceptual artists and those of language poets, such as the Oulipo group. For Dworkin the term conceptual writing offered “a way both to signal literary writing that could function comfortably as conceptual art and to indicate the use of text in conceptual art practices.”51 My practice clearly comes under Dworkin’s “conceptual writing” umbrella, and shares many qualities with that of today’s conceptual writers, such as Kenneth Goldsmith. Unlike Goldsmith, I do not directly appropriate text, but instead appropriate an existing system of generating and managing text. As I take my writing off the page and into film, installation, and lecture-performance, it demands of the viewer a complex combination of both conceptual thought and direct “reading.”

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Over the past decade or more, public interest and artistic practice in response to the archive has proliferated. As Ernst observes, “The topic of archives has never been as inflationary as it is today. At the turn of the millennium, the archive transforms the questions of memory, recollection, and the preservation of traces into a cultural obsession.”52 In 2004, Hal Foster coined the phrase “archival impulse” as he charted the history of archival art back to Alexander Rodchenko and John Heartfield, and then, later, to Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Prince.53 Over the years, much archival art practice, including some of the examples Foster cites, has generally not attempted to engage with the structures and peculiarities of organization that underpin the archive, but has centered around issues of memory and nostalgia, often materializing in the use of visibly degraded archive images. Certainly, such practice can be a way of exploring issues of temporality in the archive, but visual media taken from archives can easily be seen to embody a “glitch aesthetic” of the past and fits in with the obsession for vintage-inspired filters that are applied to images through popular software. Ernst too has concerns with “the art of the archive” (in his essay of the same name) and its failure to address archival structures: “Many models of artistic work on recollection continue to be configured as being analogous to human remembrance and thus anthropological … deriving from the old media of archive and library, collection and museum.”54 Some noteworthy examples of visual metaphors that sit outside such use of archive media are represented in Sven Spieker’s book The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008), where he specifically considers artists working with archival technologies. Spieker discusses the work of performance artist Andrea Fraser and her piece Information Room (1998), where she utilizes the classificatory systems of shelves, boxes, and files to address the fundamental archival notion of original order, through encouraging the visitor to rummage to such an extent that all order is lost.55 Fraser’s piece is no doubt disturbing to the archivist and could even act as a physical representation of the instability of archival objects in network space.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Image appropriation and associated tactics of reordering and decontextualization have become mainstream postmodern artistic strategies, especially in the age of the networked image. Terry Cook perhaps alludes to this in his essay, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” arguing that archivists must “re-think their discipline and practice” in a postmodern world; in fact, he positions archivists in the postmodern era even before postmodernism came about.56 Cook is preoccupied with the ordering mechanisms facilitated by digitization and argues that there should be “a shift away from viewing records as static physical objects, and towards understanding them as dynamic virtual concepts.”57 Both archive and network are fundamentally spaces of storage and retrieval. In the archive, systems such as user registers and carbon-copied paper slips prevent material from being lost or misfiled. In contrast, the digitized archive object, once released to the outside, to the network, loses any special status and behaves like any other digital object; it can be called up, copied, altered, discarded or rearranged (by artists and non-artists alike) in a way that would be considered absurd and unethical within the walls of the institution.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Images are regularly pulled from archives (of all kinds) and subsequently elevated to the level of art. There is considerable discussion around the decontextualization and disempowerment of the image under these conditions, and in defense of this we must refer to Maurizio Lazzarato’s thinking on the dispositif, the transformation of the object through its positioning, which I will discuss in more detail below. Undoubtedly, the networking and movement of archival images represents a democratization of the archival object, a freeing from its institutional chains; but although appropriating images from any source can be productive and fun, loss of context means a loss of cultural significance that can rarely be regained. As Douglas Crimp describes in the case of Julia van Haaften’s reorganization of the New York Public Library, where “World War II becomes Robert Capa,” collections of images of an event are “reclassified according to their newly acquired value,” that of art. This is an exercise that Crimp traces back to John Szarkowski (director of MOMA’s Department of Photography from 1962 to 1991) and his modernist vision of photography as an art form, a medium of subjectivity. Crimp describes the image as “ghettoized” through its journey from archive to museum, arguing, “It will no longer primarily be useful within other discursive practices; it will no longer serve the purposes of information, documentation, evidence, illustration, reportage. The formerly plural field of photography will henceforth be reduced to the single, all-encompassing aesthetic.58 Perhaps ghettoization is too emotive a term to be applied to photography, but Crimp uses the word precisely: to ghettoize is to segregate, to confine to a particular area or category and, in doing so, to strip of any cultural and political power. In “Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital,” artist and writer Allan Sekula reiterates Crimp’s point as he discusses at length the question of information, politics, and aesthetics of the photographic image through his case study of images taken from the Shedden archive for the production of a book. He states, “The very removal of these photographs from their initial contexts invites aestheticism.”59 This same debate is also dominant in Sekula’s essay “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” where he argues against the photograph as an autonomous object and labels the much-peddled notion of the “universal language of photography” as “bourgeois folklore.”60 To support his argument he attempts to lay bare the Lewis Hine photograph Immigrants Going Down Gangplank, New York (1905) and Alfred Steiglitz’ The Steerage (1907), by describing them in a naïve manner, “divesting both images of context, as though I and the photographs fell from the sky.”61 The arguments that Crimp and Sekula make are even more pertinent in terms of the networked image: digital objects can be moved, reassigned, and re-valued in a click, and often with no reference to their provenance; indeed, “as if they fell from the sky.”

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Description is a cultural technique that is universally familiar, but inside the institution it is a costly and labor-intensive affair. It is a form of labor that is fast becoming too time consuming for many archives to employ, but it is readily accepted as part and parcel of the production of art, which is, after all, expected to be time intensive, and frequently comes up for criticism when it is not. With this, an adversarial relationship between “work” and “art” is generated, one that is particularly interesting from my dual position of artist and archive worker. In The Politics of Aesthetics, Rancière uses the Platonic ideas of the “mimetician,” which state that the (in)ability to practice as an artist comes down to a fundamental question of time: the impossibility of doing “something else” that is based on an “absence of time.”62 My own art practice, relying as it does on the time management of two separate but connected activities, does not fit either of what Maurizio Lazzarato perceives to be Jaques Rancière’s “two politics of aesthetics”: the first of which is “the becoming life of art”, where there is no separation between the two; the second, “resistant art”, is one that actively seeks separation, so as to maintain art as a commodity.63 Instead my practice lies in a transitional and transformational space between the two activities, and the transformation itself is critical to its functioning. Rancière questions “the relationship between the ‘ordinariness’ of work and artistic ‘exceptionality”64 and perhaps, as Lazzarato argues in the case of the readymade,65 this relationship between work and art has more to do with the dispositif, the performing or the positioning of the piece on a public stage, outside of its original private location, so transforming both the “ordinariness” of the activity and the “ordinariness” of the product. This notion of the transformation of the ordinary underpins the definition of “radical” that I identify at the beginning of this essay—that is, as a departure from the norm.

  1. 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0
  2. Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter 1986): 3-64, 16-18. []
  3. Uriel Orlow and Ruth Maclennan, Re: The Archive, the Image, and the Very Dead Sheep (London: School of Advanced Study/The National Archives/Double Agents, 2004), 79. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Sue Donnelly, “Art in the Archives: An Artist’s Residency in the Archives of the London School of Economics,” Tate Papers [Online], Spring 2008: 1-4,, 2. []
  6. Access the full document: The International Council on Archives, “ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description,” 2000, []
  7. Margaret Iversen, “Auto-Maticity: Ruscha and Performative Photography,” in Photography after Conceptual Art, eds. D. Costello and M. E. Iversen (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 15. []
  8. J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962) 5. []
  9. Iverson, “Auto-Maticity,” 15. []
  10. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: an Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. A. Jones (London: Routledge, 2003), 397. []
  11. Liz Kotz, Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 221. []
  12. Iverson, “Auto-Maticity,” 15-16. []
  13. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks,” Theory Culture & Society (Special Issue: Cultural Techniques) 30, no. 6 (2013): 3-19, 10. []
  14. Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” 401. []
  15. An introduction to Mechanical Turk and information on becoming a worker can be found at, accessed July 23, 2015. []
  16. Daniel Rubinstein, “Encyclopaedia: Tag, Tagging,” Philosophy of Photography, 1 (2010): 197-200, 198. []
  17. Ibid. []
  18. Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law, Media and Technology. Translated by G. Winthrop-Young. 1st English ed. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008. Original German edition ‘Akten. Medientechnik und Recht’ (Fischer, Taschenbuch GmbH, 2000), 164. []
  19. Lev Manovich and Jeremy Douglass, “Vizualising Temporal Patterns in Visual Media: Computer Graphics as a Research Method,” 2009, accessed September 18, 2012, []
  20. Wolfgang Ernst, “Archive in Transition,” in Interarchive, eds. B. Von Bismark, H.-P. Feldmann, H. U. Obrist, D. Stoller, and U. Wuggenig (Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung, 2002), 476. []
  21. Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive (ed. and intro. by J.Parikka), (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2013), 84. []
  22. Ernst, “Archive in Transition,” 482. []
  23. More on the topic of Internet curation and models of network distribution of art can be found in Joasia Krysa, ed., Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2006). []
  24. Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” 57 (original emphasis). []
  25. Jussi Parikka discusses the emergence of “the science of the image” and references scientist Robert Koch, who in his Zur Untersuchung von pathogenen Organismen, states that “the photographic picture of a microscopic object can under certain circumstances be more important than [the object] itself.” Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012), 21. []
  26. Iverson, “Auto-Maticity,” 16. []
  27. John Baldessari, My File of Movie Stills (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute, 1985), 91-93. []
  28. Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Ever Airport: Notes on Taryn Simon’s Contraband,” in Contraband, T. Simon, (Göttingen: Steidl, 2010), 9. []
  29. Ibid. []
  30. Judith Ellis, Keeping Archives (Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: D. W. Thorpe, 1993), 11. []
  31. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A. M. Sheridan Smith. 1 ed, Routledge Classics. (London: Routledge, 2002), 145. []
  32. Art-Language is the journal of the Art & Language group, a collective first conceived by British artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin around 1966. Their language-based work provided a challenging riposte to the modernist and minimalist mainstream. Edward A. Shanken cites Art & Language (along with Joseph Kosuth) as “perhaps the most persistent advocates of the use of text as a viable medium in visual art.” (2003, 15). Edward A. Shanken, “From Cybernetics to Telematics: the Art, Pedagogy, and Theory of Roy Ascott,” in Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), 15. []
  33. Alexander Alberro, “Structure as Content: Dan Graham’s Schema (March 1966) and the Emergence of Conceptual Art,” in Dan Graham, ed. G. Moure (Barcelona and Santiago de Compostela: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona y Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, 1998), 27. []
  34. Charles Harrison, Essays on Art & Language. 1 ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1991), 67. []
  35. Iverson, “Auto-Maticity,” 15. []
  36. Sol LeWitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Art-Language: the Journal of Conceptual Art 1, no. 1 (1969): 11-13, 13. []
  37. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (1967): 79-83. []
  38. Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith, eds. Against Expression: an Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 2011), 249. []
  39. Goldsmith’s comments are taken from an article in the Guardian newspaper, Alison Flood, “US poet defends reading of Michael Brown autopsy report as a poem,” The Guardian, March 17, 2015, []
  40. Jussi Parikka, “Archival Media Theory: an Introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology,” in Digital Memory and the Archive, ed. J. Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2013), 12. []
  41. The concept of original order, or respect des fonds, was conceived in the late 1800s by Dutch archivists Muller and Van Riemsdijk, and authored as The Manual for Arrangement and Description of Archives (known as The Dutch Manual) by Muller, Feith, and Fruin in 1898. []
  42. Eric Ketelaar, “Archival Theory and the Dutch Manual,” Archivaria 41 (Spring 1996): 31-40, 33. []
  43. Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 7-8. []
  44. Ibid., 186. []
  45. Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008), 19. []
  46. Ernst, “Archive in Transition,” 482. []
  47. Ernst Wolfgang, “Art of the Archive,” in Art. Archive: New Works on Historical Holdings, ed. C. Weber (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2001), 99. []
  48. Christopher C. Hood and Helen Z Margetts, The Tools of Government in the Digital Age (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007). []
  49. Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2004), 7. []
  50. D.P. Fowler, “Narrate and Describe: the Problem of Ekphrasis,” Journal of Roman Studies, 81 (1991): 25-35, 25. []
  51. Bernard Siegert, “Cultural Techniques: or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory,” Theory, Culture & Society (Special Issue: Cultural Techniques) 30, no. 6 (2013): 48-65, 48. []
  52. Dworkin and Goldsmith, Against Expression, xxiii. []
  53. Ernst “Archive in Transition,” 475. []
  54. Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 3-22, 3. []
  55. Ernst, “Art of the Archive,” 97-98. []
  56. Spieker, The Big Archive, 175. []
  57. Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archival Science 1, no. 1 (2001): 3-24, 3. []
  58. Ibid., 4. []
  59. Douglas Crimp, “The Museum’s Old / the Library’s New,” in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. R. Bolton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 6-7. []
  60. Allan Sekula, “Reading an Archive: Photography Between Labour and Capital,” in The Photography Reader, ed. L. Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 448. []
  61. Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” in Thinking Photography, ed. V. Burgin (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982), 86. []
  62. Ibid., 88. []
  63. Jaques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 39-40. []
  64. Maurizio Lazzarato, “Art, Work and Politics in Disciplinary Societies and Societies of Security,” Radical Philosophy 149 (May / June 2008): 26-32, 26-27. []
  65. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, 39-40. []
  66. Lazzarato, “Art, Work and Politics,” 28. []

Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production

Jane Birkin

Artist and Independent Scholar
Researcher and Visiting Lecturer, Winchester School of Art – University of Southampton
Senior Archive Assistant – University of Southampton

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