Archives and Heterotopias

Knut Ove Eliassen

«Archive» has been a key term in the aesthetic discourse of the last decade. Lifted out of its traditional context as a neutral term for, respectively, systematically stored documents, or for their storage space, the term has been recast as an analytical category that refers to and circumscribes complex institutional relations between power, knowledge and social identity.

The success of the concept «archive» since the early 90s goes well beyond academia. Within the art world «archive» has become a "buzz word" and artists, art historians and curators have with apparent enthusiasm employed the notion. The Atlas Group, Harun Farocki, Hal Foster and Okwui Enwezor, are but a few examples.

The reasons for this development are many and complex. Evidently, contemporary information technology has radically changed our understanding of and relationship to archives. Most of us experience archiving technologies daily through the interface of computers, at home and/or at work. No longer is an archive primarily a building filled with never-ending rows of boxes, files or folders; it has become electronic and all pervasive, immaterial and immediately available, always within the reach of our fingertips. Another aspect of this development is how these technologies have created an unprecedented level of registration and concentrated information on individuals. Historically, archives were the political and administrative power's memory centre; with the advent of new sound and image surveillance technologies, the modern, electronic archives have become highly efficient tools for individual and social control.

The archive has emerged as a concept that has proven fruitful for the articulation of pressing political concern

For these reasons, amongst others, the archive has emerged as a concept that has proven fruitful for the articulation of pressing political concern. And at the core of these, the question: As a technology, or rather as a set of technologies, who, how and what does the archive serve today? In whose interest is its data collected? How does the archive shape us and regulate our activity by linking us to institutions that control and exercise power? What kind of data is collected and for what? The modern audio-visual archive is not simply an administrative tool; it intervenes directly in the private sphere through the personal computer and its various applications, CCTV, cell phones and a whole series of other technologies. All this technology vitally contributes to a restructuring of the social field and us as individuals. The question therefore is: What does the technology of the archive mean to us, as users? How does it, as a set of technologies, influence our situation?

The concept of the «archive» is elaborated in conceptual symmetry with the term «discourse»

The works of the French philosopher Michel Foucault have been at the centre of this discussion. The seminal text is L'Archéologie du savoir (The Archaeology of Knowledge) from 1969, a complex and ambitious effort to develop a methodology for discourse analysis. Within the conceptual architecture of the book, the concept of the «archive» is elaborated in conceptual symmetry with the term «discourse», and is thus primarily of a systematic nature. Put simply, while discourse refers to the production of statements, archive indicates the selection of them. In his other works, however, "archive"— like "discourse" – is inextricably linked to the exercise of power. But, as is often the case with Foucault, the content of the term varies depending on the material analyzed. In fact, taking into consideration the many uses the term is put to, it is fair to say that Foucault's "archive" is a concept so complex and many facetted, that it makes sense to claim that it covers at least three different senses or functions. Firstly, the archive (in the singular as l'archive) serves as a systematic notion in Foucault's historical epistemology. Secondly, archives (les archives – i.e. in plural) refers to historically, deeply rooted institutions that register, collect and procure data about the nation, its population, health, wealth, live stock and so forth. Thirdly, archives make up the nation's memory; museums and libraries are memory-palaces that celebrate tradition and link the nation's present with its past. In this way the archive is a nexus between knowledge, power and individual identity, it contributes to the making of who we are and in the maintenance of that identity.

In addition to these three different applications, or definitions, of the term, there is yet another sense of the concept that ought to be mentioned. Michel Foucault was what the French call un homme de l'archive – a man of the archive. Much of his work is based on his study of the historical archives from L'Ancien régime – that is "the old regime", France before the revolution. In his analyses of the historical configurations of the nexus of power, knowledge and individualization, Foucault searched for material providing alternative accounts of historical processes. To him the archives were an almost inexhaustible supply of documents from all social spheres and a resource for the re-writing of history, a great source of new insight and understanding.

However, the archives were not just places where Foucault confronted the overlooked, and often down-right foreign and unheard of aspects of history, the archives were in themselves the source of a particular experience of a nature that can be called "aesthetic". In a lecture from 1966, «Des espaces autres» («Of Other Spaces») he characterizes libraries – one of the best known forms of the archive – as «heterotopias», that is "different places". Their singular nature springs from theexperience of the library as an archive where time and space is organized differently. In themselves, they are refuges from the outside world; places where the dominating systems of time and space are suspended. As an arena for the confrontation of past and present, what they store, de-familiarizes the past and, thus they provide space for experimentation and make possible experiences of the past in all its diversity. As heterotopias they allow for an aesthetic experience of history.

This experience of the past,through documents treated with a keen sense of all their uncanny foreignness, Foucaultdescribesas aesthetic in the most literal sense of the word, as an explicitly physical experience. An exotic, thought provoking document, a striking anecdote, a conspicuous context, would occasionally strike Foucault. What he draws the reader's attention to is the particular nature of that experience. The strangeness of history triggers physical reactions frequently described with formulas like: «I shake», «I tremble «the striking beauty of » and «the laughter it yielded».

The archives are also reservoirs of strangeness

Archives collect information about what we no longer are; they store our past. On the one hand they serve as bases for the mechanisms and procedures whereby control is maintained and power is exercised. On the other hand the archives are also reservoirs of strangeness. Because they accumulate sections of time – in the form of anonymous and foreign language – archives are privileged places for this experience. They hold a potential for experiencing history in unusual, strange, even uncanny ways. They stabilize and produce identities, but are at the same time inevitably the material expression of one of modernity's fundamental experiences, the temporal and ontological split subject so strikingly expressed by the poet Arthur Rimbaud: «Je est un autre» (I am another). The 'I' always is and is already something other than it was. Furthermore, archives contain the potential of new experiences, experiments and principles of alternative pasts, traditions and identities. Hence the nature of archives is twofold or ambiguous; they reproduce the familiar and personal while simultaneously allowing for potential breaks with the past for the emergence of something new. The archive is both created and creates; it is a "place" – virtual or material – where contexts of power are established as well as undermined, or subverted. Archives may store the past but they remain essentially a technology of time and are as such, eminently political.1


1 This text contains a condensed version of an argument that is developed more in full in «The Archives of Michel Foucault», from The Archive in Mo- tion, New Conceptions of the Archive in Contemporary Thought and New Media Practices, edit. Eivind Røssaak, Oslo: Novus forlag, 2010. See also «Tingenes tale; Epistemologi, estetikk og eksistens hos Michel Foucault» (*'The Discourse of Things; Epistemology, aesthetic and existence of Michel Foucault') in Norsk Filosofisk tidsskrift, Oslo 04/2008.


Kunstjournalen B-post nr. 1_10/11: The Past Now!