Archive as Method

‘The archive as method’
The Proliferation of Archives
Agent and Subjectivity
Para-archivists and the Multiple
Socialising (with) the Archive
Future Archive
Editorial Team

‘The archive as method’

We’re delighted to bring to you the second of issue of Field Notes with a query that is close to the heart of Asia Art Archive: what does it mean to be archiving? As outlined in the inaugural issue of the journal, the first few issues of Field Notes will address some of AAA’s core questions: the state of the contemporary and practices of archiving. In the first issue, we addressed the notion of ‘the contemporary in art', with specificity to the contexts of Asia. The forthcoming issue will examine the manifestations of Asia, its methodologies, maps, networks, and geographies. In this issue, we propose the archive as a method to illustrate the way in which initiatives like ours are taking the archive to counter, complicate, and reimagine systems in which narratives of modern and contemporary art are being produced, circulated, and understood.

Attempts have been made in the past to define the archive. This includes Foucault’s position that the archive is not only the traces left behind by history, but is history a priori.(1) In other words ‘the archive is neither just a collection of texts that define a culture, nor even a set of institutions that preserve texts. The archive is “the law of what can be said”.'(2) Despite the widely accepted (and caricatured) depiction of the archivist as gate-keeper over a dusty basement of illegible, yellowing files stacked from floor to ceiling, the truth is that the practice of archiving is from the outset an act of creativity and imagination. The design of an archive and its ontological structure require the creator to envision a future. And it is the archive’s operational structure that must be set into place to manifest this vision.

‘The past is not “memory” but the archive itself, something that is factually present in reality,'(3) proposes Boris Groys in conversation with Sven Spieker. Before the archive is factually present in reality, there is archiving as praxis, which is a series of actions – acquiring, collating, cataloguing, digitising, annotating, classifying – performed by its agents.

How do archives of today respond to contemporary conditions through practice? What can an archive look like – what forms does it take (published anthologies, network of archives, physical archive, exhibition platform, online database)? Who are the people working in and defining the archive (curators, art historians, psychoanalysts, professional archivists, etc.)? How does an archive define its scope and does this evolve over time? What is the place of subjectivity within the construct of the archive?

This is the origin of our inquiry. We are curious about the actioning of the archive, the internal mechanics that determine what becomes factually present in reality. In approaching these questions from the perspective of ‘how’ we were hoping to get closer to an understanding of ‘why.’

We are living in an era of archives, so why the archive?

The Proliferation of Archives

Experimentations around the archive are not a new phenomenon within the visual arts. Since the 1960s, artists in Europe and America have exhibited and dissected the archive as a methodology to critique the opaque bureaucracy of art institutions. More recently and in more diverse geographies, artworks appropriating practices of the documentary and the archival to question memory, the formation of subjectivities, identities, and the accountability of history have proliferated significantly in exhibitions and discourse. Over the last decade we’ve seen exhibitions including Okui Enwezor’s ‘Archive Fever’ (New York, 2008) and conferences and publications such as Speak Memory (Cairo, 2010), The Archive published by Whitechapel and edited by Charles Merewether, and The Big Archive: Art from bureaucracy by Sven Spieker. But a rise in initiatives like AAA, dedicated to the concern and address of documenting and preserving vulnerable materials on the histories of art is a recent phenomenon. Set up in 2000, AAA was established as a response to the urgent need to document and secure the multiple recent histories of modern and contemporary art in the region and at the same time to serve as a counter force to a growing commoditisation and commercialisation of the regional art scene. Likewise, with similar aims and vision, one sees the establishment and initiation of Field Notes contributors Oral History Archives of Japanese Art based in Japan and Southern Conceptualisms Network of Latin America within the same decade as AAA. Despite the multifarious contexts and localities, other institutions that were initiated in recent decades include Indonesia Visual Art Archive (Yogyakarta), SALT (Istanbul), and Sarai (Delhi), each with the vision to collate and enable access to documentation and networks of knowledge that are alternative to existing universalist epistemologies.

Even more recently, organisations and individuals in countries neighbouring AAA such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia have taken action towards setting up independent localised archiving projects. As well, discussions are currently taking place in South Korea about the setting up of a Korea Art Archives Society, to serve as an association supporting the community of art archivists. An anxiety to ‘remember’ has also entered the official consciousness, with the governments of Singapore and Taiwan spearheading national-based archives of modern and contemporary art.

It is imperative to note the Internet’s role in changing the way knowledge is shared, accessed, compiled, and authored. Recent developments in archiving theory and practice are directly related to advancements in technology and specific to the current generation of archiving. And yet, in its capacity to reduce everything into polished commodifiable bytes, there is introduced a politics of memory, a collective anxiety about what is lost in this process.

Agent and Subjectivity

John Ridener’s From Polders to Post-modernism: The Concise History of Archival Theory(4), traces the development of archival theory over 200 years. This text enabled us to visualise the trajectories of archival practice and locate ourselves within it. Ridener argues that archival theory is shaped by three contexts: technology, paradigm, and historiography. An arc is drawn between these contexts, their influence on ontological structures, and the role of archivists within the different structural models to analyse the changing position of subjectivity.

From the 19th century until recently, historical objectivity and the representation of truth were fundamental principles upon which the archival institution was erected. The archivist was a professional, trained to administer the records associated with a larger governing body. Subjectivity had no place in the work of an archivist, and this was controlled by a stringent system of operations (even today, many archives continue to operate like this). Interpretation was left to historians and researchers.(5) The 1950s saw the birth of appraisal theory, an outcome of the exponential increase in records generated by the Second World War. In appraisal, the archivist is tasked with the evaluation of records based on variables such as the researchers’ needs, rights of citizens, historical worth, etc.; this judgment continued to rely on a principle of truth and evidentiary value.(6) Only with the rise of the postmodern, and with it a generation of cultural critics, did skepticism (of truth and in that vein, the archive) come to embody the spirit of the times.

Para-archivists and the Multiple

Jumping to the present, a major shift in the paradigm of the archive lies in the embrace of diverse perspectives within the field. Technology is our paradigm: in the age of the World Wide Web, where everybody is a producer and almost any kind of information is retrievable, shared and produced, we must rethink ownership. And this is the re-envisioning of the archive.

Subjectivity today is acknowledged as an unavoidable contingent in the epistemic process. At AAA, a horizontal ideology built into the mechanism of our operations allows the unique contexts and references of our researchers and advisors to be accounted for. At AAA, multiplicity is designed into the prism of our work. There is multiplicity in provenance – in the case of an art archive like ours, narratives and records by the artist and/or the original archive owner are maintained. Multiple perspectives are represented during the archiving process, where the praxis of archiving is a collective and collaborative project from research to annotation. There can be multiplicity to-the-point-of excess,(7) involving researchers, students, artists, curators, historians, thinkers, cultural workers, critics, and enthusiasts to interpret, exhibit, write, debate, connect, counter, and enrich. These pluralistic layers contribute to the redistribution of knowledge production via networks and new forms of association.

In the past, the archive has been a largely Western construct. Historically, a thriving practice in more authoritarian or governed environments and nation states, the beauty of this recent turn is that the form has been adopted because of its flexibility and is particularly empowering in locations where there seems to be lack of ‘official’ infrastructure, or as a way to protest an oppressive infrastructure in order to insert the alternative. Here we’d like to thank Southern Conceptualisms Network, Van Abbemuseum’s archive, and Oral History Archives of Japanese Art for contributing to this inquiry, because it is by ‘looking at your own archive through the lens of another archive [that] you are able to learn […] about your different positions.’(8)

Emerging out of very different contexts, these four cases converge in our impulse to challenge the conventional methods of archiving by envisioning a new model of archiving-action, one which actively dilutes the dominant and ‘destabilises fixed interpretations.’(9) These initiatives are appropriating the archive as a method to challenge its very status quo.

Socialising (with) the Archive

Conjoint to the process of accumulation for all four archival initiatives discussed herein is the aim to simultaneously disseminate and socialise. The archive’s praxis in its contemporary incarnation envisions an object’s life beyond its own framework, where the material’s ‘sensitive presence in public’(10) enables the epistemic to become a shared experience.

Manuel Borja-Villel, Director of the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid and a collaborator of the Southern Conceptualisms Network, confronts the elite, bureaucratic, and didactic position of the modern art museum by reimagining it not as owner but as merely a custodian of goods that belong to all.(11) He makes a case for the universal archive, an archive of archives where opinions, commentaries, and judgments are shared. The universal archive, based on excess, enables a choral history to be constructed.(12) One of the many methodologies of the Network is therefore the association between vulnerable personal or organisational archives and local institutions - universities, libraries, or arts organisation – to collaboratively develop proper preservation, digitisation, and conservation policies with the final aim of opening up archives for access by the public. This action empowers local communities by decentralising the production of knowledge, and creating the conditions for micro-histories to be written.

Likewise, the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art has recorded the voices of over 40 artists and cultural workers from Japan since its launch, altogether circumnavigating demands for the evidentiary. The practice of oral histories is a method to trigger and communicate cognitive impressions, what is remembered. It is an inherently social practice. Gathering and preserving these memories, which often relate to specific communities (in this case the art community in Japan from the 1960s to the present), enables their reactivation, and extends their affect through new associations. An alternative to the document, the oral embraces a gradation in perspectives in recounting the past. The documents brought together through this initiative present unique perspectives and micro-narratives that together construct a plurality of subjectivities and positions. Oral histories open up a way to add a ‘more diverse and nuanced understanding to the established narrative of the past.’(13)

Moreover, in the visual arts, the archiving profession increasingly sees overlaps with the interpretative roles of researchers, curators, historians, artists, etc. In the case of Van Abbemuseum, former head of library and archives Diana Franssen joined the curatorial department of the museum in 2005. As part of a team of curators, she contributes to exhibitions and discursive activities through the lens of the paperwork recording the institution’s 80-year history – which documents largely administrative activity. This is an example of the rise of the ‘para-professional’ in the world of archiving, where archivists are no longer trained professionals tasked with the administering of records. The archive has evolved into a multi-functional and inter-disciplinary condition, no longer fashioned as a space only for the accrual of material, but as a platform and catalyst that enables the co-creation of meaning, where knowledge accumulation is a latent and inter-subjective process.

Future Archive

As we move forward, we must remain critically aware of our actions.

What does it mean for the archive to be truly socialised? How do we avoid falling back on the canonisation of individual voices? In our praise of the multiple, what have we left invisible? And while recuperating the multiple, how does the archive avoid falling into the abyss of the miscellaneous? Is the public truly engaged in its own memory-making, or is this yet another framing device?

In addition, those of us driving the archive must be conscious of the position we take and our reason for these actions. What is the provenance of our own urgency? What is the impulse? Is it opportunistic? In a calibration of our own identity are we magnifying a perceived adversary?

We take this opportunity to bring to light a project we are currently digitising at AAA, which we feel reflects some of these questions. We present a selection of documents from the archive of Hans Van Dijk (1946-2002) who arrived in China in 1986 as a student of Eindhoven and Arnhem of the Netherlands. His archive, recently uncovered, includes documents of over 500 artists, critics, and curators working in Beijing, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou from the 1980s to 2000. He was a pioneer in exhibiting contemporary Chinese art in Europe. He is remembered for his integrity in a rising art market in Asia during a conservative environment, for consciously evaluating Western and Chinese art ‘equally’, and for traveling throughout China, taking an encyclopedic approach to archiving Chinese contemporary art, and for the inspiring effects he had on those around him.

2012 marks the 10th year of his passing, and as his memory is at once fading, his legacy is also strengthened by the re-activation of his life’s work. Over the last year, the anniversary of Van Dijk’s passing inspired the revival of his legacy through magazines and journals, conversations between friends, acquaintances and those who had heard of him, and largely through AAA’s digitisation of ‘this trove of materials’(14). Who was this man? What triggered him to set up an archive? How did his archive respond to his conditions? How does the organisation of his archive manifest his vision? What stories has he neglected to tell? How do we acknowledge the wealth of its contents and at the same time recognise his voice as one of many? How will this man and the contents of his practice intersect with other narratives? In China, in AAA’s archives, in art, and in history?

We don’t have clear answers. But for now, we do believe in the archive: in its potential to re-envision and revise the way narratives and histories are told, in its potential to reactivate, to dilute the dominant, to manifest the multiple, to challenge the meaning of ownership, and to re-define how and by whom knowledge is produced.

In ‘not [waiting] for the archive’(15), as enlists, we liberate the archive. In its proliferation, we envision multiple futures. This challenges Foucault’s argument then; the archive is no longer a priori.

It becomes a catalyst of conversation.

It is a method.

It multiplies.

It socialises.

It activates.

It is always in a state of flux.




Editorial Team
Edited by Chantal Wong, Janet Chan
Editorial support and produced by Claire Hsu
Translations by Tsui Cheong-ming, Max Hernández Calvo, Miyuki Lo, Reiko Tomii
Copy edited by Daisley Kramer, Phoebe Wong
With thanks to Michelle Wong, Inti Guerrero, Qinyi Lim, Kennis Lai
Designed by Milkxhake
Cover Image
Hans Van Dijk Apartment In Beijing,1990s. Photo by Mai Zhixiong. Courtesy of Hu Fang.

1 | Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969

2 |

4 | John Ridener, From Polders to Post-modernism: The Concise History of Archival Theory, Litwin Books, 2009

5 | This is well outlined by Diana Franssen in On the Van Abbemuseum Archives elaborating on the history of the Van Abbemuseum’s archive as governed by archival law.

6 | John Ridener, From Polders to Post-modernism: The Concise History of Archival Theory

7 | I borrow the term ‘excess’ from Manuel Borja-Villel in his interview in ‘The Museum Revisited’,Art Forum, Summer 2010, XLVIII, No 10

8 | Diana Franssen, On the Van Abbemuseum Archives

9 | Hiroko Ikegami, On the Practice of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art: Toward oral histories of art in Asia

10 | Miguel A Lopez, Micropolitics of the Archive: Southern Conceptualisms Networ and the potlicial possibilities of microhistories

11 | Manuel Borja Villel in his interview in The Museum Revisited, Art Forum, Summer 2010, XLVIII No 10

12 | Ibid

13 | Hiroko Ikegami, On the Practice of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art: Toward oral histories of art in Asia

14 | Fiona He, Hans Van Dijk Archive

15 | 10 Theses on the Archive,



Chantal WONG, 黃子欣

CHAN Chingyan Janet, 陳靜昕

Sat, 1 Dec 2012
Archiving Archive as Method Field Notes Issue 2

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