Archiving on the Line: An Introduction

Duncan Wooldridge, Jelena Stojkovic, Andreia Alves de Oliveira, Estefani Bouza

AAO: As a practitioner working mainly with digital photography, I am very familiar with, if not haunted by, the notion of the 'digital archive'. Digital photography produces digital files that need to be stored and kept in a hard drive. But how? According to what principle? This is a fundamental question that requires an answer on an almost daily basis.

The process of making this decision starts in the camera, where the files are initially stored. The camera, by default, names the files following a numerical sequence and archives them in pre-defined folders. The transfer of the files to the computer involves the creation of new folders. I do not use the camera's folders' names but I do keep the files' names as they are.

For the research and work produced for my practice-based PhD for instance, I have a folder within the master folder ´PhD´ titled 'Practice_Photos'. This folder is divided into sub-folders in which I store the photographs that I take for the project. Each folder holds the name of the place where I have photographed, followed by the date of the photo shoot. When opening any of these folders, there are three other folders on display named ´NEF', ´DNG´, and ´JPEG´. So for each place where I photograph and each session, I have the same images stored in three different digital formats. The pictures in the NEF folder can only be viewed and previewed with specific software, so these are usually only visible as icons, file names and dates when I open the folder. The DNGs and the JPEGs are visualised easily with almost any standard software, and by clicking on them a mosaic made up of the pictures appears. The folders are apparently a mirror of each other, but the differences between them are, literally, quite heavy: the size of the files is almost four times bigger in the DNGs (and a bit more in the NEFs).

Is this a 'digital archive'? In what sense? It is certainly a personal archive, made by me and for my own use, obeying an archival logic that satisfies my own needs. But what if someone else wants to access and/ or use it? Imagine if the University rules require that I submit all the photographic work that I have produced during the PhD, or that I make it available online in compliance with the new open access policy for publicly funded research. How should I present the material? Should I leave it as it is, grouped in folders according to the location of the pictures, or should I organise the folders chronologically? Or, alternatively, should I abolish the folders altogether and present the totality of the photographs uninterrupted, as a whole? The first system already embeds an interpretation principle, which will direct the reading of the material in specific ways. The second system, apparently more 'pure' and therefore open, has the peril of being too overwhelming and, as a result, unmanageable.

But within each of the previous systems another aspect would need to be thought about: what would be the order of the photographs? In the computer, their display might vary according to a number of characteristics. Usually, the photographs within a folder can be sorted by name, date or size. The name of the file can be changed and therefore a whole system of sequencing can be created. This is important as the image sequence would also influence the understanding of the 'archive', and consequently the reading of the work.

These are the sort of questions that I face myself when organising my own material. Each system has different implications and may produce different results. Sometimes connections between photographs are apparent only when the material is seen side by side, with no divisions in between. That is usually when I think I should archive the photographs in a different way, and the archival dilemma starts all over again.

JS: A similar issue arose during my research. It involved spending time at the British Museum, looking at their collection of ‘Pre-war Japanese photobooks and photography magazines’. I was allowed to view five items per session, once a week in two-hour slots in the morning and afternoon. I went to the museum for around a year, announcing in advance the items I wanted to see over emails. At first, I viewed the items while taking notes, describing what I was seeing. Soon, this method proved insufficient and I started simply photographing what I thought would be of relevance to my research. This allowed faster work and the possibility of going back to both the images and texts I was viewing at my convenience. I equipped myself with a basic tripod and spent all the time allocated simply photographing the collection, making notes of what I accessed when transferring the images to my hard drive.

There was no restriction on the number of pictures I was allowed to take, only a restriction on time. Wearing gloves was not required, but the staff members in attendance closely monitored appropriate treatment of the printed material. In order to capture the images and texts of interest, in most cases I had to hold on to the page with one hand while photographing with the other. In revisiting the pictures, I discovered that the largest part of the images I found relevant, no matter how much I rotated or cropped them, mostly featured my hands holding onto the pages, as a trace of the effort and a mark of authenticity. Photographs of my hands also became a part of the research, a part of the digital archive.

Such accidents are not new to archives. In the Big Archive (2008) Sven Spieker describes such occurrences as parts of an archive that escape the control of the archivist: a ‘beyond the archive’ that points at the tension between an archive and what it stores. In the case of the digital archive created within the process of my research, however, the question of what would happen if it were uploaded online, made visible and accessible to anybody at anytime is when the problem of adequately articulating the process becomes more difficult.

It seems to me that a tacit consensus exists regarding the heterogeneous character of archives and their continued significance as a tool for generating knowledge and developing art practice. Theorization of the processes of digitizing photographic collections and their uploading onto the web, on the other hand, still remains entwined with discussions about materiality and opportunities offered to the medium by the online space within the overall impact of digital photography. Without the ability to adequately articulate the phenomenon, much of its potential remains unexplored, while contingencies inscribing its unravelling lack mechanisms of capture and elaboration.

In this sense, thinking about what an online ‘digital archive’ actually stands for can be a good starting point. From the perspective of my individual research, archiving photographic material ‘on the line’ might equally stand for the systematic digitization of existing photographic collections and the simultaneous creation of new forms of individual archive. In the case of the digital archive existing on my hard drive, it is only a partial echo of the complete collection that the British Museum holds. If their collection was digitized and uploaded onto the web, it could inform a number of other, individual archives formulated almost instantaneously, without the limited time of access imposed on my work. This makes clear the implications that digital archiving entails for institutional practices of collecting photography, but does not address the specific time-space in which digital archives exist online.

As suggested in the work by Penelope Umbrico, the space a digital archive occupies is potentially indefinite. The online space also immanently presupposes a possible creation of equally indefinite numbers of networks for which the digital archive can serve as point of intersection. Such a chaotic condition holds immense difficulties for developing adequate classification methodologies, in what Okwui Envezor calls the ‘regulatory control of the archive’ (Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, 2008). It also implies an active engagement with the archive and the development of new relations to the space it occupies on the web. In a text featured in the publication that accompanied last year’s Paris Photo, Saskia Sassen uses the term ‘assemblage of presences’,. which I find useful when thinking abut this issue (Mutations, 2011). 

EB: This is also one of the things that strikes me in relation to photography, collecting and the web. On the one hand, different institutions are uploading their photographic archives onto the web, digitizing the existing material from physical archives, and in most cases maintaining a similar structure and organizing principle. Although this digitization corresponds to different aims, and the main argument is usually related to making the material accessible to a wider public, in some cases it is a way of getting rid of photographs that have become redundant, or a space-saving exercise.

On the other hand, the existence of these institutional and non-institutional resources on the web makes it easier to appropriate images. The users of these online archives become a virtual gatherer of images. Even if they don't own the rights to them, they still have the possibility of creating an open-ended and infinite collection of photographs. The data is re-articulated according to their specific needs and it is mixed with their own photographs. They become the consumers and producers of new archives.

If we focus on what emerges from this practice of collecting images from the net, we could say that the product is not any longer a subordinate of the original archive, but is instead re-articulated in a kind of system that is similar to a visual atlas, a constellation of information, where the photographs work as aids to expand needs within a bigger system that has a rhizomatic aspect: the information is no longer fixed, organised and anchored as in the traditional archive. For Wolfgang Ernst, photographic digital archives are not ‘archives’ in the strict sense, but ‘an algorithmically ruled processuality’ where the distribution of the images depends on a generative principle: an archive based on information itself (‘Archive, Storage, Entropy. Tempor(e)alities of Photography’ in Krzysztof Pijarski (ed.), The Archive as Project, 2011).

Still, the organization of the images is dependant on the software and hardware into which they are inserted. We can call them digital archives, visual atlases, collections or image banks. So there is an issue related to terminology. Yet what is more significant is what changes this has generated in our understanding and relation to images and what users make out of them. The online archive is, more than anything, an associative space. For instance, the digitization of material has brought a focus on the fluidity of the information that is possible within the web, that was unthinkable before. Fluidity sometimes also means that things flow within a user culture where they are quickly forgotten: in fact only a small portion of the material uploaded is ever used.

DW: What seems to be one of our most common starting points is the question of how the digital archive transforms the nature of practice. The digital form of the photographic image, for me, raises interesting questions in terms of its potential, especially with regards to the medium’s status as one of transformation or translation.  We might think of the classic function of photography to capture and extract an image, but also the process of shift from one state or format to another. I also think we should think of the current cultural and technological conditions of the photographic which transform the production and reception of images. I’m thinking of two examples. The first is the imperative of Walter Benjamin in ‘The Work of Art’ essay, to address the world using its contemporaneous technologies – which, as an aside, after Benjamin might shift slightly to include a technological imperative reciprocally imposed upon us. The second is the condition of some artists, and here I seem to think of video artists more readily, though it applies to photography as well, of the changing spaces in which we make our work: Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe, for example, making videos in a room in their apartments, doing away with the studio and mixing desks of ‘professional’ spaces.

What results is a form of practice that is unstable and flexible, a kind of post-fordist studio culture, one based not necessarily upon a self-imposed precarity, but on a necessary ingenuity in developing and continuing to make work. It seems like art is pressured by the same forces that affect everyday life—something which should abolish the notion of an art and life divide definitively—and what it means to make work is the balancing of labour-time. Like many others, I wear multiple professional identities - lecturer, writer, curator and artist.  What this produces is the need for a co-ordination of gaps and opportunities, which are necessary in order to realise ideas (Boris Groy’s has written an excellent text on the ‘loneliness of the project’ which deals with these ‘labours’). 

From my perspective, the digital archive is particularly interesting in that the repositioning of the archive finds one of its most fluid forms in the way that digital image-makers also make, use and distribute their work. I am thinking in particular of the way in which there has been a shift from the archive as an intentional form of institutional preservation, to a constantly expanding unconscious organising of our lives and ideas. When I open my desktop, I have no option but to make use of folders to structure and organise my images, words and data – there is not enough space, and as anyone who has seen my desktop can testify to, it is frequently overflowing (I must tidy my desktop, there is even a button that does some of it for me!) The forms of folders, and how they are navigated is of course also a structure, and one which constantly archives on our behalf – an unconscious archive that is the digital. I wonder whether future artists' archives might not take the form of a simple supplanting of one set of files from one computer to another, rather than the monolithic and public-facing archives maintained by, as Estefani suggests, Gerhard Richter? 

More presently, what interests me is the form of the digital image, its potential multiplicity and even specificities. I am acutely interested in the idea that an image might reside in digital form indefinitely before establishing a material outcome, as print, exhibition object, artistic commodity. These might be a kind of extension of the just-in-time production methods of mass-industry, and the broader shift from a culture of mass-production to semi-participatory mass-customization. This again seems to invert the notion of the archive as destination, but should also throw open some interesting questions regarding the relation of the digital archive to the analogue artefact that seems so established and fixed (we all fall into a pattern of talking about the digital in an acutely formulaic pattern as soon as the analogue is invoked as an opposing pole).  After all, what alters our relation to the image in the digital archive is a question of its modes of access, use, and how these ‘immaterial’ forms find their ways to connect with the otherwise very tangible world.