by cristina baldacci
From “Fruit of the Forest”, issue #4 / autumn 2013
The need to classify, or rather, to trace “a multiplicity of objects back to a certain number of types arranged according to hierarchy,” in order to be able to grasp and understand the world, accompanies those moments of history in which a crisis in understanding is perceived with greater intensity, even though today, in the era of total information, perhaps it would be more correct to attribute this renewed interest in cataloguing and archiving to the need to find our way through an excess of knowledge. Novelties that reach us faster and faster, knowledge that gets more and more in-depth and specialized, ever-complex comparisons that multiply, constantly put us in precarious balance between what we know and what we ignore, between what we uphold as necessary and what instead appears totally superfluous or in excess, to such a degree that we feel disoriented.
On Kawara, June 19, 1967, from Today Series, No. 108, 1966. Black Power in the United States, 1967
Each time reality—understood as both a tangible semblance and as microscopic or metaphysical evidence (from astronomical to virtual space)—opens up, ex-novo, before our eyes, the classifying criteria and traditional hierarchic orders waver. We are obliged to resort to new systematic divisions. Therefore, any classification is “arbitrary and conjectural,” lacking, uncertain, inclined to a perfection and thoroughness that can never be obtained. It’s also a demonstration of the need for control, a make-believe representation that implies continuity and “a certain force of the imagination that makes it appear as it isn’t” (to enclose reality in predefined categories is always, in any event, constriction), and which is influenced by the choices and conceptual canons of its creator.
Despite this awareness, we cannot avoid creating new taxonomies, not so much for physical or metaphysical urgency and not even for mere habit, but rather for “a particular kind of moral necessity” that accompanies our intellectual life, just as moral obligation goes hand in hand with willingness. The group and individual desire to collect, to classify, and to preserve—where the antithesis between order and disorder, memory and oblivion, old and new, finite and infinite always maintains, dynamic and pertinent, the theme of the archive. Indeed, it has a very long history, and by traveling back in time, starting from the twentieth century, it leads us from the modern myth of the “imaginary museum” à la Malraux and the Bilderatlas à la Warburg to illuminist encyclopedias, scientific taxonomies, and seventeenth-century trees of knowledge, to Renaissance memory theaters and combinatory logic, to Medieval intuitive cosmologies and compendia of knowledge, and to the earliest classifications of thought in Antiquity, with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Covering history and thoughts that concern the classification of understanding and the archive is a fascinating but disorienting task: it suffices to mention only part of the debate that stemmed from the second-half of this past century onwards—from Michel Foucault to Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, from Paul Ricoeur to Maurizio Ferraris, from Aleida Assmann to Boris Groys—to understand that the inclination to classify on the part of Western culture spread in countless intellectual directions, which range from myths to theology, from science to technology, from literature to art.
The failure of metaphysical cosmologies and modern man’s skepticism and mundanity have brought about a loss in focus, a refusal of any form of superior order. What results is refuge in the archive as an elementary tool of arranging knowledge into lists and alphabetical successions. Among artists, this problem was urgently felt when advanced means of recording, like photography, video, and computers, became part of everyday life, creating not only new technical possibilities but also new doubts and perplexities regarding their actual effectiveness to give order, an overall view, and to hand down memory. Alighiero Boetti, whose investigations followed, right from the start, an explicit interest in the cultural and social value of classifications, quickly realized that boundless faith in technology had transformed the traditional antithesis between order and disorder, thus generating systems “at the same time totalitarian and difficult to comprehend, and therefore fragile.”
From Derrida’s “archive fever” and the ideally endless and immaterial archive of Michel Foucault—where the French philosopher unites all that was said and all that will be said— are born very different works and projects for their modality and forms of expression, though similar for their same need to accumulate, collect, classify. Today, more than ever, organizing the world—be it real, imaginary, or intimate, and between knowledge acquired by intellectual reflection and direct experience—seems to be a shared need. Especially since the Internet has exaggeratedly broadened our field of action, allowing artists to easily archive images, information, data, and above all, to make the audience participate, inviting them not only to use memorized contents but especially to collaborate in activities of research and to implement catalogued materials on the basis of their own knowledge.
Enthusiasm towards projects of online archiving is mainly due to the conviction that knowledge can be available in its entirety and accessible to the maximum; plus—and this is of no secondary importance—it can be outside its institutional context and its systems of surveillance. Control of information, in any event, persists, though in a different way: research engines like Google or Amazon automatically register our preferences and invade personal privacy, unbeknownst to us most of the time. In the same way, the ever-latent danger of the archive is greatly renewed, with the loss-destruction of documents and data. A danger that on the Internet is aggravated by at least two circumstances. On the one hand, the amnesia created by too many choices (or lack of choices), which, in most cases, generates not only difficulties in cataloguing criteria but also the impossibility in actually finding what we desire; on the other hand, oblivion caused by rapidly declining technology, which constantly requires new measures regarding preservation and a precocious digital archeology.
Roman Opalka, Photo by Lothar Wolleh
Gerhard Richter, Photo by Lothar Wolleh
Memory and recollections are operating systems that, like computers and the Internet, need constant updating and re-elaboration in order to remain pertinent. For artists, choosing the archive as a medium means, besides collecting, classifying, and preserving, above all reconsidering, showing, and narrating. The more they create models that are open, fluid, questioning, the more they contribute to renewing cultural heritage and producing innovation. Far from physical reservoirs of knowledge, where memory risks getting lost in multi-layers of traces, and closer to process-type tools, these imaginary archives or anti-models of archives are places that activate thought and encourage critical dialogue and exchange. At times they also become containers of fantastical and almost maniacal visions, akin to the amazing “Chinese encyclopedia” described by Borges or the “museum of obsessions” which Harald Szeemann longed for his entire life.
In contemporary art the “archival impulse” explodes in multiple attitudes, forms, and languages: from the atlasmap to cyberspace; from the index-list to the museum or Wunderkammer; from the diary-agenda to the database. The majority of these projects are potentially unlimited and seem to challenge the horror infiniti of classical derivation—of which even today we find traces in a writer like Borges, who defines infinity as “a concept that corrupts and alters all the others,” a source of chaos, of madness, to such an extent we can consider it more negative than evil itself—to follow the illusion of inexhaustibility, of succession, and of constant becoming.
These are open, forever evolving systems that create a constellation of references and similarities among different people, places, and times; these are cosmologies that follow and outline, day after day, the life and search of their creators and often also the ghosts and cultural memory of an age, like great dictionaries of ideas and vision. The photo sheets of the Atlas by Gerhard Richter (1962–today); the diary pages of Hanne Darboven (Existenz 1966–1999); the Date Paintings by On Kawara (1966–today); the archive boxes and files of Gilbert & George (ongoing); the pictures of old industrial buildings by Bernd and Hilla Becher (since the mid-1950s); the number sequences or Détails by Roman Opalka (1965/1–∞)—just to name a few of the most important examples from the second-half of the twentieth century—are monumental archive projects that tend towards the absolute, despite the fact that their creators possess the totally post-modern awareness that being able to measure and order the world in its totality is utopia.
Cristina Baldacci is a contemporary art historian and critic and a researcher at Iuav, Università di Venezia, where, in 2011, she achieves a PhD in Theory and Art History at Scuola di Studi Avanzati in Venezia with a thesis about the archive as a form and artistic practice. On this theme she is currently writing a book. She also collaborates with the chairs of Aesthetics and Contemporary Art History at the Università degli Studi di Milano, where she graduated in 2004 with a thesis on Gerhard Richter’s Atlas. She was a visiting scholar at the City University of New York (2005-06) and Columbia University in the City of New York (2009) and Adjunct Professor at the Politecnico (2008-11) and the Università Cattolica (2013) in Milan. She writes for art magazines and newspapers, including “Art and dossier”. She is co-curator and organisational committee member of the biennial exhibition C.Ar.D. – Contemporary Art and Design. Among her publications: When is sculpture (with C. Ricci, et al., 2010); Body Art (with A. Vettese, Giunti, 2012); I Dream of Knowing Everything (with M. Gioni, ed. Com. / Eng., The Venice Biennale, 2013); the translation from German of H. Belting, Faces. A History of the Human Visage (with P. Conte, Carocci, 2014); Gerhard Richter. Atlas (forthcoming Scalpendi, 2015).
1- Cfr. the entry “Classificazione” in Enciclopedia Treccani, vol. 10, Milan, Rizzoli, 1931, p. 536
2 – J.L. Borges, Altre inquisizioni (1960), Milan, Feltrinelli, 2009, p. 105
3 – M. Foucault , Le parole e le cose. Un’archeologia delle scienze umane (1966), Milan, BUR-Rizzoli, 2006, p. 88
4 – E. Durkheim, Le forme elementari della vita religiosa (1912), Milan, Edizioni di Comunità, 1971, p. 20
5 – This theme was also treated at the latest edition of the Biennale di Venezia. Cfr. Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, M. Gioni (ed.), 55th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte – La Bienale di Venezia, Venice, Marsilio, 2013.
6 – U. Eco, La vertigine della lista, Milan, Bompiani, 2009
7 – A. Boetti, mentioned in Alighiero Boetti. Quasi Tutto, G. Di Pietrantonio, C. Levi (eds.), Milan, Silvana Editoriale, 2004, p. 146.
8 – J. Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression (1995), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998; M. Foucault , L’archeologia del sapere (1969), Milan, BUR-Rizzoli, 2006, pp. 173-174.
9 – Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art , I. Schaffner, M. Winzen (eds.), München/New York, Prestel, 1998; E. Grazioli, La collezione come forma d’arte, Monza, Johan & Levi, 2012.
10 – Regarding this, see D. Quaranta (ed.), Collect the WWWorld. The Artist as Archivist in the Internet Age, Brescia, LINK Editions, 2011
11 – Borges, 2009, pp. 102-105: H. Szeeman, Museum der Obsessionen, Berlin, Merve, 1981
12 – H. Foster, An Archival Impulse, in “October”, n. 110 (fall 2004), pp. 3-22; also see S. Rolnik, Archive Mania, dOCUMENTA(13) Notebooks, n. 22, Ostfildern (Stuttgart), Hatje Cantz, 2011
13 – I am currently writing a book on the archive as a theme and form in contemporary art, which elaborated on research for my phd thesis (2011) also regarding this topic.
14 – Borges, 2009, p. 109.
15 – P. Zelini, Breve storia dell’infinito, Milan, Adelphi, 1980.
16 – On the work of these two artists, see these essays of mine: Il duplice volto dell’Atlas di Gerhard Richter, in “Leitmotiv – Motivi di estetica e di filosofia delle arti”, n. 4, 2004; Tra cosmologia privata e atlante culturale: Hanne Darboven e Gerhard Richter, in “Engramma. La tradizione classica nella memoria occidentale”, n. 100 (September–October), 2012