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Archiving the Unarchivable

Us archivists are constantly thinking about long-term preservation. But what should or shouldn’t we do when faced with things meant to be experienced in the here and now, in the fleeting moment, rather than persist in the long run? On 22-24 November, we attended Archiving the Unarchivable. The documenta archive organised this conference to discuss how archives can create and preserve memories of the sometimes unarchivable experience of time-based media.

Photo by Nicolas Wefers

documenta one of the world’s leading contemporary art exhibitions, hosted every five years in Kassel, Germany. For 100 days, artists take over the city with their installations, performances, digital art, etc. The documenta archive is responsible for capturing this event and its outcomes. At the crux of their job is the question of how to preserve and document time-based media art and ephemeral experiences - a topic that is very close to heart for us here at Sound and Vision. The two-day Archiving the Unarchivable symposium gathered archivists, curators, scholars and artists to exchange ideas on how to approach these temporal experiences that seem to escape the grasp of archival practices.

Photo by Nicolas Wefers

Between Remembering and Forgetting: The Archive and Cultural Memory

Dagmar Brunow (Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden) opened the conference with her keynote on the constant process of remembering and forgetting in the archive. She reminded us that even the things that are seemingly archivable and can be put on an archival shelf for the long term, are not automatically salvaged from the grips of obsolescence. Indeed, no analogue or digital storage solution can create cultural memories that will constantly remain relevant. It is the role of an archive to constantly re-contextualise, curate and circulate these memories so that they would have a fighting chance to survive.

Artwork acquisition at the Guggenheim Museum

Addressing the practical challenges of time-based media art preservation, Joanna Phillips (Senior Conservator, Time-Based Media, Guggenheim Museum) walked us through the steps of artwork acquisition at the Guggenheim Museum. Their approach is very much future-oriented - creating extensive documentation reports about iterations of the same artwork in different environments so that it could be authentically reconstructed again. Phillips described how each step, each decision during the acquisition of Mariam Ghani’s video installation A Brief History of Collapses (2012) was documented in minute detail, and the artist herself became actively involved in the process to make technical adjustments and make sure that future installations of the work stay true to her intentions. And it pays off to be so scrupulous and a bit paranoid about how the tiniest things might go wrong - trying to reconstruct an artwork without such documentation is not only a technical and logistical nightmare, it can also easily jeopardise the intentions behind it and distort the experience for its audience.

Do we need a digital Code of Ethics?

Andreas Weisser (Doerner Institute, Munich) initiated a fruitful discussion about the ethics of archiving digital time-based media. How ethical is it to preserve things that were meant to disappear? To what extent is it acceptable to change things? Does the transfer of media files to a different carrier ensure the survival of the work or does it enganger its authenticity? The ethical guidelines that have been set out for the heritage community in the Venice Charter and the E.C.C.O. code of Ethics do not accommodate these considerations. What Weisser proposed is to create a new code of ethics, one that is much more flexible and responsive to the inevitable digital obsolescence and recognises the need for archival interventions.

Performance, Pragmatically: Truth Claims in Exhibition Practice

Jonah Westerman (Purchase College, State University of New York) presented the outcomes of his research project Performance at Tate: Into the Space of Art at Tate Modern, London. What is distinctive of performance art is that as a medium, it deliberately negates the very idea of preservation - any attempts to capture it are antithetical to the live event that needs to be experienced in real time. Simply preserving objects from live performances like Joseph Beuys’ Information Action (1972) without any social context does not do justice to the work and instead create documents that are completely detached from the live situation that took place. But then how can we create meaningful memories about it?


The conclusion that Westerman and many other speakers came to is that the unarchivable should remain so - unarchived. Trying to fit these temporal experiences into fixed forms only renders them irretrievable and irrelevant. Instead, we should look for traces that can help us understand the social situation they created and, as documenta professor Nora Sternfeld put it, try to reconstruct ‘the moments of affect and intensities’ that took place. If there’s one takeaway message, it’s that archives need to accept that certain kinds of temporal experiences are and should remain unarchivable. It is our role as archivists to focus not only on the events of the past but the opportunities to relive these experiences in the future.

As the documenta archive transforms into a new research institute in the near future, we hope to see further research emerge around new archival practices that these types of unarchivable time-based media demand.