Beyoncé and the Crazy Archive
The cover story of the new GQ is a feature on Beyoncé. Of course everyone is talking about the photos, but read the article. Trust me, read it. I wish it were six or seven times longer.
The part that really got me thinking was the description of how she documents all of her experiences and interactions. She keeps a hi-tech scrapbook of all her recordings, photos, videos, press, etc., which is not that weird, but it goes on...
Beyoncé's inner sanctum also contains thousands of hours of private footage, compiled by a "visual director" Beyoncé employs who has shot practically her every waking moment, up to sixteen hours a day, since 2005. In this footage, Beyoncé wears her hair up, down, with bangs, and without. In full makeup and makeup-free, she can be found shaking her famous ass onstage, lounging in her dressing room, singing Coldplay's "Yellow" to Jay-Z over an intimate dinner, and rolling over sleepy-eyed in bed. This digital database, modeled loosely on NBC's library, is a work in progress—the labeling, date-stamping, and cross-referencing has been under way for two years, and it'll be several months before that process is complete. But already, blinking lights signal that the product that is Beyoncé is safe and sound and ready to be summoned— and monetized—at the push of a button.
And this room—she calls it her "crazy archive"—is a key part of that, she will explain, so, "you know, I can always say, 'I want that interview I did for GQ,' and we can find it." And indeed, she will be able to find it, because the room in which you are sitting is rigged with a camera and microphone that is capturing not just her every utterance but yours as well. These are the ground rules: Before you get to see Beyoncé, you must first agree to live forever in her archive, too.
What's going on here? The article goes on to tell how over the course of her career Beyoncé has learned to take control of her image, her art, and the revenue it generates. Compiling a complete archive of herself is certainly part of that, but it seems like there's something more.
At first, the idea of collecting such an archive seems insane, or at least profoundly narcissistic. But is it? There are archives being created of each of us all the time. Some of them we know about (Twitter, Facebook, Medium), and others we don't (search histories, cookies, spyware, etc.)
There are a few things that are unique about the digital archive of Beyoncé's life compared to yours and mine. For one thing, it's professionally produced. Take a look at her Tumblr. It's full of breezy, Instagram-esque travel photos, funky poses, and arty snapshots, but it's also just a little too perfect. When I look at it, I always wonder who all the other people around her are. Exactly how big is that entourage? And how many people are there to document things? How much editing happens to produce these perfectly spontaneous glimpses of her life?
The Crazy Archive also sounds very big. Thinking about 16 hours of footage a day since 2005 (which is over 40,000 hours of footage) makes the Tumblr seem like the polished tip of a very, very big iceberg. It's almost awe-inspiring.
Perhaps the most important way that the Crazy Archive is different from yours and mine is that Beyoncé owns it. It’s not a surprise that that candid photos and dishy stories about celebrities have a monetary value. That's not new. What is new is that our stories and images are also valuable. When we create our digital archives, knowingly or not, we're creating intellectual property that has an exchange value. You post photos to Facebook, I want to look at them, and that desire creates a space that can be sold to someone trying to sell something to me. Your archive is valuable, but you're not the one getting paid when it gets sold.