The Grain of Ephemera / Event: Thinking Digital Archive Through Photography

Sen Uesaki

The Album: Ginza Hacchō is compiled of photographs of all buildings on the main road in Tokyo’s Ginza district, bound together in a shape of an accordion to unfold in a sequence approximately four meters long. [1]  Edited by Shōhachi Kimura, the photobook took several months in production (from November 1953 to spring 1954) and offers a view of each property on both sides of the road, with their historical records in writing. It was achieved as a supplement to Ginza Neighbourhood, an actual book containing information about the area that was modelled on Ginza (1921), a publication edited by Shiseido just after it was first built before the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. This publication contained a hand drawn architectural view of the entire neighbourhood that was used as a prototype for the 1954 photobook. Historical records of all properties span over the period between 1921 and 1953 and are divided in four columns: ‘Before the catastrophe’ (August 1921), ‘After the catastrophe’ (February 1930), ‘Before the war’ (July 1942) and ‘After the war’ (December 1953). It was Yoshikazu Suzuki who took around 200 photographs during the period of less than half a year, adopting a camera angle of an adult human’s eye view and making an effort to shoot at the same time of the day regardless of weather conditions. Such standardisation of the shooting process was followed up by manipulation of the final shots in editing, with cropping and montage enabling a balanced flow of photographs when viewed as a continuous cityscape in the specific accordion shaped format. Trimming was mainly applied to the top of the photographs, as they only show several floors of taller buildings, leaving the remaining parts of single images to viewer’s imagination, due to constraints imposed by the book’s size. In accompanying notes to the book, Shōhachi makes clear how the intention was to create a ‘contiguous photograph of the buildings’ facades’ (referred to in Japanese as nokinami shashin) and ‘show a raw image of the city in the shape of a scroll’, aspiring to serve as a chronicle of the area for the later viewer. Indeed, many details contained in the photographs can be considered important historical records in themselves, such as a billboard advertising the first widescreen film seen in the country, or the fact that the site of the famous Mitsukoshi department store was previously occupied by a tobacco shop.

Ed Ruscha’s book Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) also makes use of the accordion format, applied in this case to achieve primarily an artist’s project and not a record of the neighbourhood (as in the case of Ginza Hacchō). Regardless of the final aim, this specific format is rather radical and invocative when thinking about archiving and digitisation. The scroll-like structure and its seemingly infinite binding reminds me of a digital interface, especially as the very gesture of opening a page after page gives an impression of browsing through digital content. Two-dimensional images of the buildings’ front views seen in both photobooks could be understood as a ‘meta-façade’. Their flattened view suggests an empty, decontextualised surface and thus implies archival material, kept in individual containers but containing varied information and structures. Such repetition and juxtaposition of facades is very prone to analogical thought, of great significance to archival work. Finally, the pavement between the buildings – on Ginza Hacchō or Sunset Strip, can be seen as the archive itself, enabling walking / looking / browsing / experiencing. Significantly, the two independently conceived projects make the same use of ‘in-between space’ suggested by the margin ‘paved’ in the middle of the printed street (in the place of ‘consignation’ as Derrida would define it). Such ‘medium strip’ inserted between the buildings and certainly existing in both albums with reason develops by means of ‘(re)pavement’ of the road in the material of printed matter. In case of Ginza Hacchō, it allows description and inclusion of written information, whereas in the case of Every Building it reappears as a paradoxical ‘margin in the centre’. Such reappearance of the margin is significant and can be thought about in terms of a ‘naked archival interface’, or media-specific ‘grain’ of digital archiving, something that facilitates grasping its texture and that embodies its immaterial character. Such ‘grain’ does not imply pixilation, resolution or image quality when viewed digitally, but materiality and a being-in-the-world of the digital archive. The closest digital equivalent one could think of – Google Street View has no such space.

If we presume that a digital archive is a medium on its own, what follows is that it, similar to other media, must possess a metaphorical ‘grain’. Naturally, digital space offers a different type of arrangement to those applied using other media, be it an exhibition, printed matter or a slide show. What I would like to see is a web site resembling Ginza Hacchō, not only in its unfolding structure but also in how it treats equally even the most redundant information (again using the word ‘redundancy’ in a positive sense and as a metaphor). In the case of the album such ‘positive redundancy’ is contained in strata of the written information or layers of different historical time-spaces that they point at. If all information, even the most ‘redundant’, is presented on the surface as equal I think that would be a type of digital archive that would adequately reflect on the ‘grain’ of this new medium. In terms of a physical archive, we might say the ‘grain’ comes out when depth is enabled to surface by disorder of assembled material. Even Either/And contains a grain, which is suggested in the slash, its (invisible) filter or a lever that allows a shift of focus and prevents sedimentation. Such deliberate use of the slash is best exemplified in Robert Smithson’s writing about his concept of ‘Site / Nonsite’. Within ‘Dialectics of Site and Nonsite’, a note to ‘The Spiral Jetty’ (1972) he provided ten different examples how the space of the slash creates tension and prompts conceptual expansion, such as in the spaces between ‘Open Limits / Closed Limits’, ‘Subtraction / Addition’, ‘Reflection / Mirror’ and so forth. Following this text, I have suggested that the logic of an archival mind is contained in the ‘space between’ Smithson’s proposed terms, constructing an additional list for January 2007 issue of the Idea magazine that constructed a type of ‘medial strip’ in between his proposed dialectic. [2] Most of the notions in this medial strip or ‘a space in between’ Smithson’s terms were constructed randomly except for the ‘lucid interface’. This one was a take on Smithson’s ‘Reflection / Mirror’ and I suggested it with photography in mind. Located in between the two terms that are widely considered as closely related to the medium, my proposal was that the ‘lucid interface’ exists in the space opened by the slash in between them, as ‘Reflection / Lucid Interface / Mirror’. [3] [4] If we think about what would be an ultimate ‘archivescape’ or a condition of archival interface it would actually be a list, one representing constant reconsidering and sifting of material and information as intrinsic parts of archival processes. When such an ‘archivescape’ is translated into a digital space it might result in something we could term a ‘lucid interface’. The term could be understood as reminiscent of viewing Francis Bacon’s work with oneself always reflected on the glass surface of the frame, but it primarily suggests the expanded ‘space in between’ of not only the ‘medium strip’ in Ginza Hacchō and Every Building but also of the slash used by Robert Smithson in definition of dialectic between ‘Site’ and ‘Nonsite’. That is to say, ‘in between space’, existing as a ‘naked archival interface’ in the case of printed matter, could be considered as a ‘lucid interface’ in the case of the digital archive, something revealing the existence of its media-specific ‘grain’.

Going back to the notion of ‘redundancy’, a photograph that comes to mind is Andreas Gursky’s Paris Montparnasse showing Mouchotte building in Paris designed by Jean Dobuisson in 1966. The original photograph was taken in 1993 but was later printed in a book format, and titled Montparnasse (1995), where its symbolic value to represent an archival logic is especially apparent. This is because the photobook version, including a list of all inhabitants in the building, contains several detailed views in which selected apartment windows are seen enlarged, allowing almost voyeuristic insights into completely different worlds behind them.

This image is very similar to a poster Mori Daishiro and I made for the Penumbra of the Printed Matter: Sogetsu Art Center 1958-1971. 

I have written about it recently in terms of Boris Groys’s notion of ‘non-differentiation’. This type of repetition / semblance is very important to archival thinking, as it offers a possibility to focus on what is different about similar things. One could also think about the Family of Man exhibition here (1955), not in terms of how it homogenises photography, but how it elevates it onto a plane of abstraction. This is a possibility behind the notion of ‘non-differentiation’ – a simultaneous taking place of both un-differentiation (homogenisation) and de-differentiation (heterogenisation) that creates a type of equilibrium. As much as it appears that a digital archive would flatten everything its capability of juxtaposition might allow things to crystallize. However, the simple juxtaposition of varied (archival) and even ‘redundant’ material should not suffice in itself. If they are just presented in a sequential manner, in a series, they nevertheless remain detached from each other, instead unfolding in a contiguous manner as in Ginza Hacchō. Certain models have appeared allowing such simultaneous presentation of varied materials, such as Flickr, but the main difference to Andreas Gursky’s image is the lack of contiguity, coming to fore especially in detailed views of his image in the architectural construction or a grid connecting all the various windows / apartments / archival containers.

In the formulation of an archive, not only is content compiled, but also a series of containers representing the need to understand how images relate to each other. Such contiguity is what I think is missing in the famous images of André Malraux selecting photographs for his Imaginary Museum (1947).  These came to be associated with archival processes, but show photographs laid down on the ground disconnected from each other. The notion of ‘contiguity’ as used by Jean Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour suggests that things should be understood as connected, showing that they existed together. [5] Andreas Gursky’s Montparnasse (1995) points out exactly at such thinking.

Keeping contiguity in mind, what I would like to see next is a more focused exploration of the notion of ephemera, something I believe would bring us closer to the ‘grain’ of digital archive. In terms of printed matter, ephemerality of an art event comes to fore by presenting the so-called printed ephemera, which allow its reincarnation. The role photography played in pre-modern archives in this sense has been rather substantial, whilst sculpture or painting would never be considered as ‘ephemera’. In MoMA’s exhibition The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture 1839 to Today (2010) such relation between photography and other art forms was deliberately explored in the show. The aim of this exhibition was very clear in the museum space, but it did not translate well in the catalogue. To me, a better example of the tension between ephemerality and ephemera in terms of photography is seen in an image of Vito Acconci’s Second Hand performance as it appears in a later catalogue of the artist’s work. [6] In one of Shunk-Kender photographs from the event the focus is on Dennis Oppenheim’s Extended Armour , taking place simultaneously and with Terry Fox also participating in the event (Environmental surfaces: Three simultaneous situational enclosures at the Reece Palley Gallery, New York on January 16, 1971). We see all the viewers together with cameramen and photographers focusing their attention on Dennis Oppenheim’s piece, whilst Acconci is only seen in the background, mimicking the movement of a clock on the wall in an alcove without much interest from the audience. In a later catalogue, however, another photograph shows his piece decontextualised from the space of the gallery into an event of its own. In this case, it is not only that (archival) document decontextualises the (ephemeral) event, but the different shots by Shunk-Kender create a tension in between themselves, with an element, ‘ephemera’ of one document-photograph constructing a separate narrative. Again, Gursky’s photobook makes a better use of this methodology as it offers simultaneous views of the entire shot and its detailed renditions, also making clear the connection between them. This situation, conceptually, evokes working of Salvador Dalí’s paranoiac-critical method, or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guttari’s ‘minor literature’, using a seemingly insignificant detail to subvert narration, reversing scales and hierarchies of significance and meaning. If such type of ‘ephemera’ logic would be applied to digital archiving it would possibly lead to a project of not only reclaiming web site banners as an art space but archiving them simultaneously as they are being produced, and I would certainly like to see such a project take place. However, what I think is more important is that this example makes clear how the notions of ‘ephemerailty’ and ‘ephemera’ need to be revisited in the present digital condition, especially as the ephemerality of digital material comes immanent to the possibility of its deleting with a single click.

This is where I find photographic analogy useful again. If we think about Lucy Lippard’s claim of an idea to be paramount to the work of art, the media becomes irrelevant, the artwork dematerialised. It imprints onto ephemera in a similar manner to how light imprints on to photographic paper, and it is not important whether we classify this ephemera as correspondence, printed matter or similar. The event itself does not contain or hold any grain, it is immanently ephemeral. ‘Event-based’ printed matter exists in either ‘before’ or ‘after’ the event itself. Posters, brochures or fliers announce the event in advance whereas photographs come in its aftermath. By surviving the event, this printed matter becomes its ephemera, expecting its past and retrospecting its future. They reveal void to be its true historical condition. Archival work bases on thinking about that void, about ephemerality of an event, through the grain held by this printed matter, its ephemera.This is the reason why for the Idea article I defined ‘archival mind’ using Robert Smithson’s notion of ‘sedimentation of the mind’ and the visual example of such thinking can be seen in the poster for Penumbra of the Printed Matter. For Smithson, departing from Lévi-Strauss’s ‘savage mind’, nonsite is a container ‘containing the lack of its own containment’, which means that we can never fully grasp a picture, the best that we have are fragments and residues: we need to use our imagination to sift through possible narrations of the void. [7] This returns us to Gursky’s photobook, in which we only have a selection of few individual windows to guide our imagination about all possible scenarios taking place in the entire building. What is at stake in this process is not a simple historicist construction of the past, but a type of history that already embodies potential futures. Its aim is not only set out to define ‘grain’ or redefine ‘ephemera’, but to put in practice a different way of thinking about history, as suggested by writers such as Benjamin or Agamben. As pointed out in the latter’s text about Auschwitz, archival work bases itself upon consideration of what is missing from the archive, that which it lacks from its existing records. [8] Similar to archival material, history is not a finished compilation but is ‘in the process of being compiled’.

* This text is based on fragments of two conversations in Japanese and English between Sen Uesaki and Jelena Stojkovic that took place in Tokyo on April 20 and May 10, 2013. Translation and editing: Jelena Stojkovic


  1. Kimura Shōhachi (ed.), Arubamu: Ginza Hacchō [The Album: Ginza Hacchō]supplement to Ginza Kaiwai [Ginza Neighbourhood] (Toho Shobo, 1954). back
  2. Sen Uesaki, ‘Shuppanbutsu = insatsu sareta mondai (printed matter): robāto sumisson no chōbō’ [‘Printed matter = the matter printed in the printed matter; The landscape of Robert Smithson’], Idea, no. 320 (January 2007: 49-66). back
  3. Robert Smithson’s list reads: 1. Open Limits / Closed Limits -- 2. A Series of Points / An Array of Matter -- 3. Outer coordinates / Inner Coordinates -- 4. Subtraction / Addition  -- 5. Indeterminate Certainty / Determinate Uncertainty -- 6. Scattered Information / Contained information -- 7. Reflection / Mirror -- 8. Edge / Center -- 9. Some Place (physical) / No Place (abstraction) -- 10. Many / One back
  4. Sen Uesaki’s list cuts through the slash in Smithson’s list and reads: -- 1. Open Limits /Displaced Limits/ Closed Limits -- 2. A Series of Points /An Order of Grid/ An Array of Matter -- 3. Outer coordinates /Intermediate Coordinates/ Inner Coordinates -- 4. Subtraction /±0/ Addition -- 5. Indeterminate Certainty /Interdeterminate (Un)certainty/ Determinate Uncertainty -- 6. Scattered Information /Printed Information/ Contained information -- 7. Reflection /Lucid Interface/ Mirror -- 8. Edge /Boundary/ Center -- 9. Some Place (physical) /Elsewhere/ No Place (abstraction) --10. Many /Multiple/ One back
  5. Jean Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour, Cinema: Archaeology of film and the memory of a century (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2005), p. 76 back
  6. Kate Linker, Vito Acconci (New York: Rizzoli, 1994), p. 24. The original photograph is featured in Alanna Heiss, Dennis Oppenheim: Selected Works 1967–90: And the Mind Grew Fingers (New York: The Institute for Contemporary Art, P.S. 1 Museum and Harry N. Abrams, 1992), p. 54. For more information about this performance refer to Willoughby Sharp and Liza Bear, ‘A Discussion with Terry Fox, Vito Acconci, and Dennis Oppenheim’, Avalanche, no. 2 (Winter 1971: 96–99) and Vito Acconci, ‘Peopled Space-Performing Myself Through Another Agent’, Avalanche, no. 6 (Fall 1972: 43). back
  7. In reference to Robert Smithson, ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’, Artforum 7, no 1 (September 1968: 44-50). back
  8. Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: the witness and the archive (New York: Zone Books, 2000). back

Image references

  1. Penumbra of the Printed Matter: Sogetsu Art Center 1958-1971 (KUAC), 2009 back