Archiving On The Line

Archival Measures

Tina Di Carlo

If one is legally charged with the mission of a collecting institution—whether an archive is digital or physical—what are the implications for contemporary photographic practice?

According to the most current guidelines, incorporating as a not-for-profit, collecting institution within the State of New York, deems that the institution must be incorporated under the Education Law and apply to the Regents of The University of the State of New York for a charter. This charter charges the institution with an educational mission as a public institution. Ownership is eschewed. Individual and financial gains are not only considered contrary to its mission, but illegal. Whether the institution store the objects on-site; as silver-gelatin prints in 59-degree climate-controlled room of black boxes; displays them on the wall or exhibits them on a web-site; stores them digitally on a hard drive, on-line and off-site in a Cloud; or stores them off-site and with the artists themselves, the law does not distinguish. If the institution acquires the object in title, if there is an exchange on paper, if the institution holds it in their collection, digitally or physically, be it on line or on- or off-site, it is legally acquired. The material and the virtual collide in and are made equivalent by law. The institution is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the objects. If it does or cannot it is also responsible for their distribution. That is, if, as a not-for-profit institution, an archive is disbanded, it must be adjudicated as public institution. Board members must come before a judge who will determine how and where the institution as a public good will be distributed. This transfers the care and well being of the collection from curator, the historical guardian of things, to the law.

For the recently formed ASAP, a name which loosely translates to the archive of spatial aesthetic and praxis, but which could just as well stand for art, space, architecture, praxis or archive, space, architecture, photography or aesthetics, space, architecture, praxis, or a myriad of others, such as the very simple phrase, the Archive as Project—the photograph is not only implicated, but becomes implicitly problematic and problematises. It is a co-conspirator of sorts, an instigator. Like the archive itself, the photograph provokes us to question not only the status of the object, but its own status as media, medium, material thing and spatial apparatus alongside its role in collecting, archiving, circulation, display and exhibition, within and outside an institution.

ASAP was founded as a platform that exists across media to chart development in current practices related to the spatial environment. As its acronym shifts and is unstable within language, so too the description of the archive may shift, be assembled and reassembled depending upon the audience, venue, and program at hand. It can be termed as a collection of things that reside somewhere between art and architecture. It can be described as a post-medium or transmedia institution – that is, as an institution that positions itself beyond the modernist divisions of painting, sculpture, drawings, prints and illustrated book, photography, performance, sound and looks rather at practices that take on the spatial environment, across and through media. It could be termed as an argument for architecture, that argues for the value of architecture as akin to other media, and as part of a broader aesthetic, social and political discourse. It can likewise be thought of portable and mobile institution, within the historic traditions of Duchamp’s Box in a Valise or the contemporary technologies of the Cloud or as a satellite. It harks back to the 1960s-70s, from the work of Cedric Price to the lunar landings. ASAP orbits and circulates, lands and takes form periodically. It collects practices that refer to spatiality, of which photography is one among others, and yet, is implicity charged with a different mission altogether.

ASAP’s immediate mission is to become productive archive, to form a different scale of institution within the city of York. The digital platform resides as one form among many of that the institution may assume. That said, within the legalities and administrative practicalities of the institution, it is the digital platform that has enabled ASAP to rethink traditional practices of collecting, storage, circulation and space and thus, a different economy of the art institution. Many, if not most, of the objects are produced, stored and circulated digitally. This implies not only is there no necessity for the three-dimensional object until the time of exhibition but that the form of the object itself is inherently unstable. Storage, transport, and even travel costs are lowered due to the technologies involved. Within a time where the economic support of arts institutions is dwindling alongside sky-rocketing costs of storage, transport ad insurance, not to mention the artwork itself, these technologies challenge the organization as well as principles of stability and ownership of a collecting institution as they are traditionally bound by law.

All of this implicates the photograph. That is, whether the first object produced and collected is a photograph, the archive today, like ASAP, is assembled, consumed, accumulated, circulated and documented through the photographic image or better, the jpeg, tiff, pdf, mp4 file, all of which have become synonymous with the thing itself. The archive takes on a schizophrenic relation to the photograph, as perpetrator, collector, voyeur, producer, press agent, spectator of photography beyond photography as such. It circulates and is circulated in, through and by photograph, now an impostor of things and of itself. The photographic gaze becomes complicit, subsumed and overlooked in the archive, carrying with it, an implicit viewpoint, now tied to the object itself as authored. Thus the collected thing becomes twice, triply- or quadruply-authored, framed, by lense, photographer, archive, web-platform, and screen, before it reaches the spectator, consumer, web-surfer, voyeur. The photographic image not only comprises part of the collection but takes on a documentary role.

In 1985 Thierry La Chut commissioned Jean Francois Lyotard to mount Les Immateriaux at the Centre George Pompidou. Conceived in 1981 as an exhibition to trace new technologies in sound, Lyotard reconceived the exhibition to chart the contemporary state of media in which exhibition was conceived as of one form of media among others. John Rajchman has described it as a “dramaturgy of information.”[1] The exhibition was archival in its approach, attempting to produce McLuhanesque extensions of man. The aim was, as Lytoard insisted, “not to display objects, but to makes visible, even palpable (and so ‘present’) a kind of ‘post-industrial’ techno-scientific condition, at once artistic, critical and curatorial.[2] Les Immateriaux was branded through the wiped swirl of fingerprint: personal data translated into digital-data reproduced as an image. As a trace or mark left behind it speaks to a legal documentary form in which image, photograph, document and archive have become analogous.

Today the photograph has become the digital fingerprint of the archive. A documentary measure, the photograph constitutes and is constituted by the archive. It is marked, date- and time-stamped, authored, personalised, hidden, circulated, distributed, abandoned, accumulated, uploaded, downloaded, resized, reproduced in and through the material world, transferred, to become legible, illegible, readable and not. Ariella Azoullay has conceived of the photographic image as an apparatus through which a series of a relation are made material and negotiated. No longer a Kantian object, it is better described as a Heideggerian thing, that gathers and assembles, through which a series of relations can be read and reread. The archive is but one series of relations, unstable and continually redefined.

In Archive Fever Jacques Derrida’s defines the archive as that which coordinates two principles: “the principle according to nature or history, there where things commence—physical, historical, or ontological principle—but also the principle according to the law, there where men and gods command, there where authority, social order are exercised, in this place from which order is given—nomological principle.”[3] Today these two orders—sequential and jussive—historically housed by the archive are reassembled and transmediated in a digital domicile, through the photographic image as document.

If the photograph dwells in and outside the archive, inhabiting what Derrida terms an uncommon place—the place of election where law and singularity intersect in privilege—does this intersection of place and the law, a scene of domiciliation that becomes visible under the consignation or gathering together as Derrida suggests, still presuppose the heterogeneity and unity of a single cuprous, the “unity of an ideal configuration”? Or does the photograph instead posit the (de)construction of the archive in which classification, order and stability, heterogeneity and distinction can no longer be assured? An immeasurable measure of the archive, so to speak, in which the photograph, in its jussive and nomological roles, proposes a new legislation of things?


  1. John Rajchman, ‘Les Immatériaux or How to Construct the History of Exhibitions’, Tate Papers, 12, 2009. back
  2. John Rajchman, ‘Les Immatériaux’, 2 back
  3. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago and London, 1996, 1. back
Archiving On The Line