Returning to the Tabularium – by Alana Kushnir + Lawrence Lek: Memory Palace
An Exhibition and Archive in Pursuit of Chronological Time (1)
In the so-called Information Age there is little evidence which attests to the existence in ancient and medieval times of an impulse to concentrate certain types of information by different creators in a single physical place. One of the few exceptions to this is indicated by the survival of the Tabularium, a building which was constructed in around 78 BCE to house official legal documents of the ancient Roman State. (2) These documents – tablets inscribed with legislation, decrees and treaties – were fundamentally legal in nature, and were crucial tools for the administration of power by the State. Unlike a library, (3) during its operation the Tabularium building was not open to the public. Thus by nature, its archive was closed. The secrecy of its contents was a necessary quality, without which it would not have had power. (4) Its role as the Tabularium was nonetheless communicated to the public with a nearby inscription (now lost) which identified it as such. To this day its importance to the ancient Roman State is readily apparent due to its prime physical location – now the location of its remains – on the south-eastern slope of the Capitoline Hill beside the Roman Forum. These remains act as a testament to the ancient origins of an exceedingly popular, multidisciplinary and somewhat fatigued discourse about and around the archive.
Lawrence Lek, Memory Palace, video 2014
The evolution of this archival discourse by no means begins or ends in art theory or practice. Nevertheless, contemporary art exhibitions have become a useful mechanism for art-informed audiences to consume such classic meditations on the notion of the archive as Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, (5) Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, (6) and more overtly in its reference to contemporary art practices, Hal Foster’s essay An Archival Impulse. (7) The 2008 exhibition Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, curated by Okwui Enwezor, which “presented works by leading contemporary artists who use photographic images to rethink the meaning of identity, history, memory, and loss", (8) is the quintessential example of such exhibitions. Specific attention to the realm of the internet in the context of archival discourse was then given in the 2012 exhibition Collect the WWWorld: The Artist as Archivist in the Digital Age, curated by Domenico Quaranta. (9) It presented the artist as an explorer-type, who traverses the terrain of the internet – the unknown – in search of the undiscovered image. Yet in such exhibitions there has been a lack of affinity for what Wolfgang Ernst has described as “the traditional script-based institutional archive”, (10) or in other words, the aforementioned Tabularium. In doing (or rather, not doing) so, they represent a shift in the meaning of the archive in popular culture, to one which is open to the public (in terms of both access to and contributions from), which is interchangeable with the notion of a library, or an idiosyncratic collection of things, which accommodates our ever-increasing range of options for storage, and which has even been described as the internet itself.
Left: Alana Kushnir, Tabularium Archive, 2014 – ongoing, publications with an online ethos unavailable in digital form, server rack. Centre: Rachel de Joode, Hanging Marble, 2014, digital print on vinyl, MDF. Right: Katja Novitskova, Shapeshifter X, 2013 (left) and Shapeshifter V, 2013 (right), broken silicon wafers, epoxy clay, nail polish, appropriated acrylic case, appropriated wooden capital. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
Left: Eloïse Bonneviot, My Forensic Steps 2, 2014, digital print on silk. Centre: Heman Chong and Anthony Marcellini, Twenty Plots for Things To Come, 2013 – ongoing (image still), online film, unknown duration. Actor: Robert Pierson. Programming: John Weir. Right: Ry David Bradley, Flowers for Ukraine, 2014, ink transfer print on suede. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
At the heart of such descriptions as “the megarchive of the Internet”, (11) is the malleable quality of available content. The information that the internet contains can be added, altered or erased at any given moment. Rachel de Joode’s Hanging Marble, 2014, mimics this condition. While the image which her digital vinyl print depicts is a close-up piece of marble – a material which is assumed to be aged and rigid – it is presented by being draped over a frame, so that the image appears bent and distorted. It takes on a new, object-based form. Hanging Marble mirrors the internet’s sublime-like façade, where older information can be altered and shaped into newer information, or at least, can appear to do so. This façade is made especially apparent by Ry David Bradley’s observations for his diptych print, Flowers for Ukraine, 2014. As an experiment, David Bradley altered the Wikipedia page on the Ukraine, (12) replacing the Location of Ukraine map with an image of a flower. Within a few hours another user had replaced the image added by Bradley with the previous Location of Ukraine map. What occurs in this experiment is a literal uncovering of “a stage for struggles for freedom and control, [as Lars Bang Larsen suggests,] the Net variously accommodates, on the one hand, individual trajectories and anti-authoritarian forces, and on the other, the potential for the centralization of information and surveillance”. (13) Bradley’s print on suede acts as a form of documentation of his momentary erasure of and addition to the Wikipedia page on the Ukraine. In this way Flowers for Ukraine consciously takes on a similar role to that of a record document in an archive – it acts as a piece of evidence which suggests that the malleable quality of available content is merely a façade.
Rachel de Joode, Hanging Marble, 2014, digital print on vinyl, MDF. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
Ry David Bradley, Flowers for Ukraine, 2014, ink transfer print on suede. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
While such a record document acts as a form of evidence of a particular condition, other documents can act as evidence of certain content. As part of his ongoing practice Jon Rafman sets out to preserve archives in digital form and uses their content to unveil their ability to construct personal and collective memories. In the video Annals of Time Lost, 2013, Rafman presents a series of shifting, layered images sourced from London’s National Gallery collection, including architectural blueprints, patent drawings and Old Master paintings, as well as images from anime cartoons. For Rafman, creating personal digital archives using collective archives is a way of re-framing loss and preserving the past. (14) What is particularly pertinent in the context of this essay is the reference in the work’s title to time that is lost. When one surfs the internet, the available content is experienced by the user in the present. Unless one specifically uses the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine or a similar digital archive to access content, the lack of ability to gain an accurate snapshot of chronological time on the internet is problematic. (15) This issue is also made apparent by David Bradley’s experiment for Flowers for Ukraine, as the time in which the image of the flower is left on the Wikipedia page is lost. It is distinctly unlike the experience of reading a book which has been left untouched for a number of years, as all physical books are products of specific moments in chronological time. Rafman grasps on to such specific moments, attempting to salvage their imperceptibility through the creation of his personal digital archive.
Jon Rafman, Annals of Time Lost, 2013 (image still), single channel HD video, 6m 52s. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
A personal digital archive can also act as a tool for constructing alternative historical narratives which, by virtue of incorporating selected images, only maintain selected memories. It is a construction of the self which supports the meaning of the archive as a vehicle for the preservation of memories – a contemporary meaning of the archive which is somewhat different to the traditional one of the ancient Tabularium. This connection between the construction of the self and the archive as a vehicle for memory is also made apparent by the process of constructing user identities on social networking and dating websites and apps. As Tom Penney suggests, “[s]ocial networking systems may sort or manage us, essentialising a diverse or multiple self, but we willingly produce the content that constructs the ‘types’ they identify for us.” (16) In Penney’s Whorenet, 2014, an interactive iPad app acts as a caricature of the experience of using the existing Hornet App, which is a social network app for gay men. The user is presented with different characters and is able to use a ‘chat’ feature which effects the ‘arousal’ of the characters. Each character represents a different ‘type’ adopted by Hornet users so that they (and/or their content) become more memorable. Social networking and dating websites and apps also perpetuate the contemporary meaning of the archive through their use of the term ‘archive’ itself. For example, Facebook allows you to hide messages from view by opting to ‘archive’ the conversation and Twitter users can download their ‘Twitter archive’. (17) However, such sites should not be understood as digital archives of a user’s personal past. After all, users experience the past on these platforms through today’s filter. As such, it is more appropriate to describe these mechanisms as archives of the present, rather than as archives of the past.
Left: Jon Rafman, Annals of Time Lost, 2013 (image still), single channel HD video, 6m 52s. Centre: Tom Penney, Whorenet, 2014 (image still), iPad app on iPad 2 in iPad mount, programming: Stevie Griffiths. Right: Tom Penney, Selfie, 2014, digital Lustre print face mounted to acrylic. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
Archives of the present are not however entirely antithetical to such archives of the past. What they share in common is a reliance on a methodical approach to the collection or accumulation of information. As Ernst suggests, “even in virtual worlds, we discover the algorithms of archival provenance. There is nothing anarchic in the digital world. Every action here is based on precise algorithms.” (18) In her print, My Forensic Steps, 2014, Eloïse Bonneviot lists the forensic steps which she follows to collect information about mountain incidents that occurred in the UK in 2013. These steps include: “1. Preserve scene… 5. Collect statements…9. Maintain scene as found, 10. Document conditions… …[and] 17. Locate items on the map”. (19) The collected information is then incorporated into her interactive online game Thinking Like a Mountain, 2014 and presented in an irrational way. For example, various weather condition and ground options – which are typically used by rescue agencies in creating their incident reports – are presented as a romantic poem. Any potential for using the information to create a logical narrative is removed. Thinking Like a Mountain aims to disrupt the ability of the methodical approach of the archive to produce a comprehensible meaning. It therefore possesses an anarchic quality which is akin to Derrida’s notion of the ‘death drive’ – the desire to destroy the archive. Derrida’s death drive relies on the polar opposite of ‘archive fever’ (“a compulsion, [a] repetitive and nostalgic desire for the archive” (20) to exist, as he explains, “right on that which permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than that which exposes to destruction, and in truth menaces with destruction”. (21) Bonneviot too, relies on her forensic steps – which echo the methodical approach of archiving processes – as a means of gathering information that she then makes incomprehensible.
Eloïse Bonneviot, My Forensic Steps 2, 2014, digital print on silk. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
Derrida’s death drive is a condition which also affects digital archives that are displayed online. The requisite destructive element is the dead or broken weblink, which can obstruct access to contents of an archive that are uploaded to a website. Twenty Plots for Things to Come, 2013 - ongoing, a work by Heman Chong and Anthony Marcellini which exists as an online film, has been created using links to online image databases of artifacts from science and technology museums. These images are played in a sequence that is randomly generated by a computer program, with a soundtrack of twenty different voiceovers that is also randomly generated. The duration of the work is unknown, as it will continue to play on the host website until all of the links which it is connected to are broken or dead. The work is consciously designed by the artists to not be visible over time. The artists observe that “through these processes [of augmentation, erasure and reduction], things have turned the world and our everyday existence into something completely different.” (22) Twenty Plots for Things to Come manifests these tendencies and in doing so, erases the provenance of the depicted artifacts. It is possible that such erasures of provenance will affect the utilitarian value and consequent meaning of museum artifacts. The ability of such objects to mutate into other types of objects is the subject of Katja Novitskova’s Shapeshifters, 2013 – ongoing. Novitskova constructs knife-like weapons using found silicon wafers which have been printed with circuit boards. Neither the artist or the viewer are made aware of the machine that these silicon computer chips have been created for. Unlike traditional storage media, the information is not physically inscribed in the silicon. (23) Without this property, the printed circuit boards become abstract patterns on the surface of the silicon wafer object. The information which may be contained in the computer chips has become inaccessible. The result of this mutation in the object’s utilitarian value is that its high-tech, manufactured nature assumes a new meaning. It becomes a handcrafted, analogue art object whose form is reminiscent of a primitive artifact. Like an old mobile phone which lies switched off and unused at the back of a cupboard, the Shapeshifters series suggests that over time, objects do not only evolve from analogue to digital. Rather, they may also evolve in the reverse.
Katja Novitskova, Shapeshifter X, 2013 (left) and Shapeshifter V, 2013 (right), broken silicon wafers, epoxy clay, nail polish, appropriated acrylic case, appropriated wooden capital. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
Heman Chong and Anthony Marcellini, Twenty Plots for Things To Come, 2013 – ongoing (image still), online film, unknown duration. Actor: Robert Pierson. Programming: John Weir. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
All forms of evolution are accompanied by forms of loss. Losing a sense of chronological time in the Information Age – a part of the past – is one such loss. This can be reclaimed through the deliberate sharing and provision of public access to information in tangible, physically inscribed, fixed forms. Information in these forms can take on a restorative role while still possessing an online ethos, and while still exploring subject matter informed by the ways of the internet. Indeed, the desire to hold onto a sense of chronological time is apparent in artists, writers, curators and others who are affected by the condition of the internet but who nonetheless choose to create content in tangible, inscribed, fixed forms. The Tabularium Archive has been initiated by the author of this essay to document the presence of this desire, and to accompany the exhibition of the aforementioned artworks. The Tabularium Archive collates and preserves printed publications created by artists, writers and curators, that have an online ethos but which are not available in digital form. In choosing to collate and present the documents within a single physical space, the project is conscious of its conservativeness. And yet, as Derrida’s states, “…every archive, … is at once institutive and conservative. Revolutionary and traditional… it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion”. (24) What distinguishes the Tabularium Archive from its ancient Roman predecessor is that it is not state-sanctioned – it has been initiated and produced due to the personal fixation of its maker. It gains its power through being presented in an exhibition which is open to the public and through having its accompanying inventory available for the wider public to view online. (25) The public is given the opportunity to peruse and touch the material, to evaluate the past, present and future significance of the publications in the context of one another, such as Katja Novitskova’s Post-Internet Survival Guide 2010 (26) and Dragan Espenschied and Olia Lialina’s Digital Folklore. (27) It is an archive which aspires to provide a worthy response to Derrida’s musings: “Why archive this? Why these investments in paper, in ink, in characters? … Does this merit printing? Aren’t these stories to be had everywhere?” (28) The Tabularium Archive is a project which is built on paper, ink and printing with the premise that the stories it contains should be had everywhere and absorbed by everyone.
Alana Kushnir, Tabularium Archive, 2014 – ongoing, publications with an online ethos unavailable in digital form, server rack. Photograph: Christo Crocker.
The Tabularium Archive returns to a particular system of spatial language - the physical space. Lawrence Lek’s work, Memory Palace, 2014, juxtaposes this system of spatial language with its virtual, utopian counterpart. The virtual world he creates combines the imagined architecture of the ancient Roman Tabularium archive with rows of server racks, which are a typical site in present-day data centers. Through the medium of simulated architecture, the viewer experiences a mash-up of these real and hypothetical systems of spatial language and the collision of their varying forms of non-verbal communication. Within this virtual world, the viewer encounters digital versions of publications from the Tabularium Archive, which are each ‘stored’ in individual server racks. By being made available on Slopes’ and the artist’s website, Memory Palace enables the Tabularium Archive to be experienced virtually, anywhere and by anyone. In its physical form the Tabularium Archive consciously attempts to capture the sentiments, concerns and preoccupations of the featured artists, curators and writers at the specific moments in which their publications were created. For this reason its accompanying inventory is ordered according to publication date. (29) This linear approach is in many ways traditional, as it is only one means of recalling the impact of technological developments on the every day in the recent past. And yet, in tracing the history of these developments through an abundance of artistic practices, the narratives which it includes are numerous and diverse. Ultimately, it is hoped that the Archive will gain its power through the sharing and preservation of these narratives. Fortunately, only time will tell if this will be the case.
Alana Kushnir is a freelance curator and art lawyer based in Melbourne, Australia. She received her BA in Art History and her LLB (Bachelor of Laws), each with First Class Honours, from the University of Melbourne in 2008. She received her MFA in Curating from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2013. Her research is concerned with the relationship between curatorial theory and practice, and how contemporary art, curating and fashion practices intersect with the law. She has presented her research in a wide range of contemporary art publications and academic journals, including the Journal of Curatorial Studies and Leonardo Electronic Almanac. Curated exhibitions and other curatorial projects include Tabularium at Slopes, Melbourne (2014), #FFF with Eloïse Bonneviot online at alpha60projects.org (2013), Open Curator Studio at Artspace, Sydney and online at joeyholder.com (2013), Walking Sideways (co-curator) at the ICA, London (2013), Fourth Plinth: Contemporary Monument (co-curator) at the ICA, London (2012 – 2013), Paraproduction at Boetzelaer|Nispen Gallery, Amsterdam (2012), TV Dinners at BUS Projects, Melbourne (2012), Acoustic Mirrors (co-curator) at the Zabludowicz Collection, London (2012). Forthcoming exhibitions include Collection+: Christian Thompson at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney (2015).
( 1 )
This essay has been written on the occasion of the exhibition, Tabularium, curated by Alana Kushnir for Slopes, Melbourne, 20 August – 13 September 2014.
( 2 )
An earlier example is often referred to in contemporary discourse on the archive, which relates to the etymology of the word ‘archive’. ‘Archive’ is derived from the Greek word ἀρχεῖον (arkheion), the home of the ἄρχων (Archon) - meaning ‘ruler’ and which in ancient Greece was used to refer to the chief magistrate. Official state documents which were kept in the Archon were interpreted under the authority of the Archon. Unlike the Roman Tabularium, no arkheion buildings are still in existence.
( 3 )
One of the first examples of the library was the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty’s Royal Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, founded in 3rd century B.C, which functioned as a center for scholarship and was part of a research institution called the Musaeum of Alexandria. The library was destroyed during the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. No index of the contents of the library’s collection survives.
( 4 )
Media theorist Wolfgang Ernst argues that traditional archives gained their power from being secret and publicly inaccessible. See Wolfgang Ernst, “Archival Times. Tempor(e)alities of media memory” (lecture at the National Library in Oslo, October 6, 2010), , 11, accessed 18 July 2014; see more generally Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
( 5 )
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998). Originally presented as a lecture on June 5, 1994, at a colloquium in London.
( 6 )
Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge And The Discourse on Language (New York: Vintage Books, 2010). Originally published in French in 1971.
( 7 )
Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (2004), 3-22.
( 8 )
Okwui Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art” (press release, 2008), 1, accessed July 18, 2014.
( 9 )
See also, e.g., the 2012 exhibition, Liquid Archive, curated by Geraldine Barlow at the Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, Australia.
( 10 )
Ernst, “Archival Times”, 10. Indeed, they are perhaps better characterised as capturing the ‘anarchival’ rather than the ‘archival’ impulse which is discussed by Foster, amongst others. As Foster explains, ‘[i]n this regard archival art is as much reproduction as it is postproduction: concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces (perhaps ‘anarchival impulse’ is the more appropriate phase), these artists are often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects – in art and in history alike – that might offer points of departure again.” (Hal Foster, “An Anarchival Impulse”, in The Archive (Documents of Contemporary Art), ed. Charles Merewether (London, Cambridge Massachusetts: Whitechapel & MIT Press, 2006), 144).
( 11 )
Foster, “An Anarchival Impulse”, 144.
( 12 )
“Ukraine”, Wikipedia, accessed July 18, 2014, .
( 13 )
Lars Bang Larsen, “Introduction – The Unimaginable Globality of Networks”, in Networks (Documents of Contemporary Art), ed. Lars Bang Larsen (London, Cambridge Massachusetts: Whitechapel & MIT Press, 2014), 17.
( 14 )
See Annals of Time Lost (press release), http://futuregallery.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Jon-Rafman-Annals-of-Time-Lost-Press-Release.pdf, accessed July 18, 2014.
( 15 )
See “Internet Archive: Wayback Machine”, accessed July 18, 2014, www.archive.org/web/. Indeed, even if one were to use the Wayback Machine, this option is not foolproof either – websites are excluded, not all tracked website updates are recorded and the numerous law suits which have been brought against the Internet Archive suggests that their efforts are somewhat precarious. See, e.g., Internet Archive v Shell, 505 F. Supp.2d 755 (2007), available to read at http://www.leagle.com/decision/20071260505FSupp2d755_11203.xml/INTERNET%20ARCHIVE%20v.%20SHELL, accessed 18 July 2014.
( 16 )
Tom Penney and Florian (Floyd) Mueller, “Playing the Subject (Draft)”, https://www.academia.edu/5084090/Playing_the_Subject_Draft_, 4-5, accessed July 18, 2014.
( 17 )
( 18 )
Ernst “Aura and Temporality”, http://www.macba.cat/en/lecture-wolfang-ernst, accessed July 18, 2014.
( 19 )
Eloïse Bonneviot, My Forensic Steps, 2014.
( 20 )
Derrida, Archive Fever, 91.
( 21 )
Derrida, Archive Fever, 91.
( 22 )
Heman Chong and Anthony Marcellini, artist statement on Twenty Plots for Things to Come, 2013, in e-mail message to author, December 23, 2013.
( 23 )
Ernst notes that “traditional storage media have been physically inscribed…by writing the information to be stored, literally informing the device” (Ernst “Aura and Temporality”, http://www.macba.cat/en/lecture-wolfang-ernst, accessed July 18, 2014).
Derrida, Archive Fever, 9.
By virtue of a regularly updated GoogleDocs document, which is available to view at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1C8hqwpkFZiecHtsWu4FIQsGLwSS7A2NxoZkRxMfzzTM/edit?usp=sharing.
( 26 )
Katja Novitskova, Post-Internet Survival Guide 2010, Berlin: Revolver Publishing, 2011.
( 27 )
Dragan Espenschied and Olia Lialina, Digital Folklore, Stuttgart: merz & solitude, 2009.
( 28 )
Derrida, Archive Fever, 9.
( 29 )
See the regularly updated Tabularium Archive inventory document at this Google Docs link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1C8hqwpkFZiecHtsWu4FIQsGLwSS7A2NxoZkRxMfzzTM/edit?usp=sharing.