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

Mark Rawlinson

Response To:

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

Sen Uesaki's essay places considerable emphasis on the function of '/' between key words when proposing his conception of the digital archive. A model for what the archive might consist of, how it might be formed and subsequently function is to found in photography; how we make sense of the question 'why photography?' is rooted firmly in a detailed theoretical series of framings drawn from  Smithson's dialectic of Site/Non-Site, Lippard's dematerialisation of the artwork, and the rethinking of history in the work of Benjamin and Agamben. It is difficult to quibble with aims suggested:  an infinite archive, where all information 'is presented on the surface as equal', but able to endlessly catalyse interpretative strategies for writing and understanding the historical event and history more broadly.

Photography emerges here as the means to visualise how the 'grain' of the digital archive can go beyond surface and offer depth. But Uesaki's examples are photobooks (a very particular kind of photography) - Yoshikazu Suzuki's The Album: Ginza Hacchō, Ed Ruscha's Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and Andreas Gursky's Montparnesse - where there exists a tension between two older terms: form/content. So, Gursky's photobook represents an 'archival logic' in its return to his large scale photograph, Paris Montparnesse (1993) but in photobook form. Replete with a list of the building's inhabitants and blown-up views of individual windows, Uesaki considers this revision an example of the tensions between the homogenising qualities of the digital archive and a capacity that allows us to 'focus on what is different about similar things.' Likewise, the accordian-formats of The Album: Ginza Hacchō and Every Building on the Sunset Strip suggest a digital interface, where the contiguous streets scenes can either flicked through, laid out, or folded to create new arrangements. More important for Uesaki, perhaps, is the equivalent of the textual slash contained in both these photobooks: the strip or margin that exists between either side of the photographed building on the street.

Uesaki's vision for the digital archive is an inventive, even vaguely anarchic, more a manifesto to underpin the work of an artist than a working methodology for a historian. The problematical status of the archive- what goes in, what is left out, who has access, who is able to produce the socio-historical narratives drawn from the archive, etc.? - are not new concerns, and the works described here are part of that process of addressing the inadequacies of the archive themselves. There are larger critical figures and ideas haunting this essay - Bathes' birth of the reader, Foucault's What is an Author? and Adorno's negative dialectics spring to mind. Photography's own problematic theoretical status (post-medium or as a redundant medium, following George Baker) certainly adds a layer of complexity, even disruption, and is seemingly not factored into Uesaki's conception.

For example, Gursky's revisionist photobook is borderline voyeurism; simply listing the buildings inhabitants does not humanise the photographic gaze into their private spaces. The example of Ruscha's Every Building... appears more apt as the book makes no effort to hide the 'joins' between buildings, motor vehicles appear as fragments, and the margin between the photographed buildings does not pretend to be the Strip itself. The book also 'pretends' to document, to fulfill a documentary role, whilst simultaneously undoing the conventions of the documentary impulse. All of this makes for a wonderful work of art, and a challenge to what constitutes an artwork and an artist, as well as photographic practice. Uesaki's vision has its limitations - there's too much of a emphatic utopianism evident - but his insistence on privileging and maintaining tension in the process of making the archive is crucial.