What did you have for lunch yesterday? What was the vocalist wearing in the last concert you’ve been? Can you recall where were you six days ago? Try answering any of these questions without reaching for your cell phone. Facebook timelines, old Instagram photographs, ‘cloud storage,’ backup disks, hardware disks, and the constant fear/anxiety of losing data. Why does our generation have this obsession of keeping every-single-thing archived?
Before trying to answer this question, and relating to essays of authors like Allan Sekula, Ilya Kabakov, and Tom McDonough, it is important that we sort the term ‘archives’ clear. Paul Ricoeur cleverly begins his essay “Archives, Documents, traces” giving two definitions for the expression:
According to the Encyclopaedia Universalis “archives are constituted by the set of documents that result from the activity of an institution or of a physical or moral person”; and, as Encyclopaedia Britannica puts, “the term archives designates the organized body of records produced or received by a public, semi-public, institutional, business or private entity in the transaction of its affairs and preserved by it, its successors or authorized repository through extension of its original meaning as the repository for such materials”.
As Ricoeur stresses in his text, both definition ensures three key features for the term ‘archives’: 1.the reference to the notion of a document (or ‘record’); 2. the relationship to an institution; and 3. it has the goal of conserving or preserving documents. The document, still in Ricoeur’s essay, is defined “as information, the warrant a document provides a history, a narrative, or an argument. This role of being a warrant constitutes material proof; evidence. If history is a real story, documents represent its last means of proof.”
As the habit of keeping journals and sending letters died long ago, the main ‘documents’ of our generation is, undoubtedly, photographs. And, as any trace left by the past becomes a record for historians, what will the future generations inherit from us?
In Allan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive,” we read:
“For nineteenth-century positivists, photography doubly fulfilled the Enlightenment dream of an universal language: the universal mimetic language of the camera yielded up a higher, more cerebral truth, a truth that could be uttered in the universal abstract language of mathematics.”
Indeed, one can argue that photography is a universal language. But unfortunately, apparently, we don’t have many interesting things to say: Do people care about ‘self-portraits’ (aka ‘selfies’), random food plates, and cute cats pictures that much? We have such an uncontrollable urge to document every-single-thing that we don’t stop to think beforehand what is worth recording. Do we need to remember every single meal we had in the past year? Who cares if on Tuesday, the 9th of July the weather was horrific, or if you had a bad haircut?
And it gets worse: we storage events for further remembrance and forgets to experience these moments, while they are happening. How many concerts have we attended and made a massive effort to photograph/film every single minute of it — instead of just lifting our eyes out of the screen and looking at it? How many dinner parties did we spend taking pictures and ‘instagraming’ it and not even talked with the people who were there? This necessity of keeping track of everything blurred the line between what is critical to, in fact, keep.
In Ilya Kabakov essay, “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away,” we see the compulsive need of a man to keep and organize everything. At first glance, it seems an exaggeration; but, after a few minutes of consideration, this anecdote is a clear picture of our society nowadays — even though it was written almost 40 years ago.
As said, the contemporary documents are no longer scraps of paper. We live in a mainly visual/pictorial society. The advent of technology and the popularization of digital photography made our ‘archives’ exponentially bigger. As now we can easily take 500 pictures/minute without actually thinking about it, we lost our critical ability to pick and choose what is worth registering.
As Sekula stresses, “The early promise of photography had faded in the face of a massive and chaotic archive of images; the problem of classification.” If in the early nineteenth-century classification was a problem, multiply that for a gazillion, and you get close to the size of the twenty-first-century photograph archives.
But, as Kabakov character, along with the documentation obsession, we acquired the organizational fixation: we have a social network (Pinterest), with over 70 million users, dedicated to the classification of images; mega-stores specialized in providing the right type of container to specific little things (The Container Store). We have label makers, post-its, classifying folders and all sorts of apparatus to feed our insatiable appetite for putting things in boxes. And it is not only in our daily lives that the organizational-freak-monster appears.
Besides what many tend to think, artists are humans just like us — and some of them cultivate the ‘hoarder’ instinct as well. “Against this widely noted crisis in the mechanism of social memory, artists have deployed what Hal Foster calls ‘ an archival impulse’ as a means to construct alternative histories and forms of knowledge” (McDonough’s essay, The Anarchive). The Brazilian Vik Muniz, with his realistic garbage portraits. Mike Kelley with his carefully arranged color-coordinated assemblages. And, more extreme, Christian Boltanski’s works, like ‘the heart archive’ (originally titled ‘les archives du coeur’): a collection of heartbeat recordings captured since 2005 from thousands of people who visited his exhibition, permanently installed on the island of Eshima, in the Seto Inland Sea; and his ‘Reserve: The Dead Swiss’, that consists of 1,168 boxes and photographs making an analogy to people who died in the Holocaust.
As Sekula poses, in the beginning, photography was used by the police to document and classify criminals, in order to prevent them from committing atrocities again. In that sense, photography was considered a socially ameliorative. But, at the same time, it was seen as a socially repressive instrument, as the State was not only using it to ‘repress’ criminals but to ‘keep an eye’ on society in general.
Nowadays, it got exponentially worse: we are under constant surveillance, and we don’t even care anymore. It is George Orwell’s 1984 in the 21st century — and we abide by it, by registering (and geo-tagging) pictures of ourselves; giving personal information to random websites, and allowing organizations to have our fingerprints taken.
Today, photograph portraits ‘classifications’ are now being made by ordinary people, who think they have the authority to judge people according to their looks. The ‘eugenicists’ are now the bullies, the fashion magazines, and the tabloids. People regularly suffer from the pressure to look taller, leaner, blonder — or whatever the supermodels or Hollywood actresses are looking like now.
The question “Why does our generation have this obsession of keeping every-single-thing archived?” remains unanswered — but a guess can be made: the contemporary Enlightenment project is the ‘Spotlight’ project, as people tend to think that they are the center of the show, and everything thing about them — like what they are wearing, what they are eating, where they are, etc.a’ it is an ultimately relevant thing.
We can only hope that the next generation of archive-keepers finds more interesting things to put in their boxes.