Captured Alive: On Living Memory and Digital Archives
An essay by Eric Kuitenberg
Temporality is one of the problems of archives that has long fascinated me. Inevitably, the archive lifts the objects it contains out of their own time and context. Taxonomies, classification systems and meta data descriptors (Dublin Core) abstract the archived object from the climate in which it originally appeared. If the present, the moment of its appearance, is characterised by immediacy, then the archive is denoted by a suspension of time, a form of atemporality that makes it possible to transmit something, some quality of this object across time.
This process of abstraction and suspension of time is inevitable because we cannot document or ‘archive’ the entire context in which the archived object (a document, text, image, data, audio, video, interactive work, website or app appeared. Trying to do so would lead to something reminiscent of the ‘mad cartographers’ project in the famous tale by Jorge Luis Borges, where the cartographers set out to create a one-to-one map of the entire empire. Covered by the veil of the map, the original territory slowly starts to rot away underneath until it breaks down. No longer supported by the empire it was supposed to identify, the map too awaits its inevitable decay. In the end, only a barren landscape is left, where the decomposing remnants of the empire break through the cracks and holes in the rotting map.
By analogy the ‘mad archivist’ project is equally nonsensical. Every archivist is painfully aware how much of the original context is lost when documenting and archiving any particular object, and that the archive will never be able to restore that loss completely.
As a result the memory function of the archive is quite substantially different from that of living memory, as tied to specific human biological and cultural functions. Living memory is always entirely situated in a particular cultural context, in a set of material and symbolic conditions, but also in the biological body of the one who holds this memory. Furthermore, living memory is unstable. Also the person who remembers can never be entirely sure of their own memories. Memories evolve, mutate, blur, and are continuously re-contextualised by new experiences. Sometimes memories are forgotten, or are apparently forgotten, only to re-emerge at the most unexpected moment. In certain cases, when trauma is involved, memories are obscured, blocked, inaccessible, and sometimes even inexpressible.
Testimony expresses itself not only in what is said, what is written down or recorded, but also in what is not expressed.
This instability and situatedness of living memory makes it very hard to capture. If living memory is so deeply situated, then what should be archived beside the distinct statement, the articulate and classifiable object itself? And how? Should the object be captured once and situated in the immediacy of that moment of capture? Or should we rather aim to capture living memory over and over again to acknowledge its propensity for continuous transformation? Or should we instead adopt a more pragmatic approach and create the conditions that make possible a continuous reinterpretation of the documented and archived objects?
Living memory and digital archives
The task of finding sufficiently sensitive and supple methods for integrating living memory in the archive seems daunting. Through their open-ended character, it is possible to link newer and older objects; and by creating options for user-feedback, networked digital archives can offer relevant ways to approach living memory in a respectful manner. Even when the issues at stake, the memories ‘captured’, are delicate, painful, or potentially problematic and controversial. This raises both technical challenges as well as ethical dilemmas.
Based on earlier experiences and practical work done in this area, a number of relevant qualities and capabilities of digital archives can be identified that can help us engage the question of how to ‘capture’ living memory. The approaches I discuss here remain for now not entirely satisfying beginnings. They can best be understood as models that point to a certain potential.
From living memory to the living archive
In a practice-oriented research and design trajectory carried out at De Balie, centre for culture and politics in Amsterdam from 2004 to 2007, named the Living Archive, our team explored the technical, conceptual, and political challenges of capturing living cultural processes. The Living Archive project aimed to create a model in which the documentation of living cultural processes, archived materials and ephemera, and discursive practices are interwoven as seamlessly as possible.
At the time we started out using the densely programmed theatre spaces of De Balie in Amsterdam as our ‘research-object’. A space filled with political discussions, cultural programmes, performances, meetings of various social groupings, solidarity events, heated debates and controversies, festivals, testimonies of war, exodus, and political strife, and then again collective reflection on dramatic events in The Netherlands and Amsterdam itself - in short, life. And this at a pounding rate of some 400 to 500 events in 10 months of active programming per year (averaging about 1.5 event per day). How to document and capture this?
Instead of referring to this as archiving, we used the more modest term of ‘documentation’. But that obviously did not solve our problems.
We felt too that simply documenting and creating an immutable repository of traces of these events (archived webcasts) was not an adequate solution. We rather viewed documentation / archiving as a dynamic and open-ended process that acts upon present and future events, and is simultaneously acted upon and rewritten by these events and their outcomes. We also felt that living archives should actively engage the construction of mythological cultural narratives to emphasise the open-ended character of historical development and the possibilities for the active involvement of a variety of actors in their determination. Even more so in the context of controversial political and cultural debates.
On this basis, we identified three guiding principles:
First, approaching archiving (documentation) as a dynamic and open ended process. Which implied for us that a living archive is not simply a repository of memory objects. It involves the construction of a set of documentation tools for capturing current and future events as they unfold.
Secondly, we regarded archiving as a discursive principle. Thus the living archive required a set of tools that support and enable the continuous reinterpretation of archived materials, including rich media sources such as audio and video recordings.
And thirdly, we regarded open, distributed, shared and collaborative editorial policies as a necessary and constitutive element of the Living Archive. Traceability of the editorial history is then an indispensable instrument to support such open processes of ‘discursive formation’.
Exploring these guiding principles we believed that the Living Archive as such did (and does) not exist yet, but that its elements and necessary conditions can be specified.
Tactical Media Files as a living archive
The Tactical Media Files, an online documentation resource and ‘living archive’ for tactical media practices past, present, and future emerged from the Living Archive research trajectory at De Balie and was built there. The resource was originally created around the physical archives of the Next 5 Minutes festivals and conferences on Tactical Media (1993-2003), located at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam.
Tactical media operate at the intersection of art, politics, and media / technology.
Tactical media sought to give voice to the voiceless in a period when the media landscape slowly started to open up and a variety of groups and individuals seized upon the new possibilities offered by electronic and digital media, and then online media.
Tactical media always emerged from within the issues at stake and the people affected by them, and were primarily driven by their urgency, which might involve life and death questions. Inspiration came among others from early stages of HIV / Aids activism, and the famous maxim in response to the public denial for the pandemic, “Silence = Death”. The question was primarily what the role of the new (digital) media might be in opening up the public sphere.
Tactical Media Files was launched in November 2008 at a time when more and more materials about tactical media, a more or less global phenomenon in the 1990s, started to disappear from the online (and offline) space.
In many ways the tactical media practitioners had prefigured a cultural and political dynamic that was increasingly moving mainstream, however without any historical awareness of those practices themselves.
To the point that, as theorist Felix Stalder put it, “everyone was doing tactical media without thinking of Tactical Media”]Stalder, Felix (2008): 30 Years of Tactical Media, in: Public Netbase: Non Stop Future. New Practices in Art and Media, World Information Institute / KUDA.org, Vienna / Novi Sad, 190-195. It seemed important to us, as convenors of the Next 5 Minutes event-series, which had given tactical media its name, to retrace and make accessible materials about this phenomenon (in lieu of calling it a ‘movement’), and offer those as one significant reference point (of course among many others) for contemporary dynamics.
One of the ways in which we have tried to make it possible to reinterpret and re-contextualise the materials that are collected in the resource was by creating so-called ‘collections’. This offers some basic tools to any editor invited to work with us to select materials from the ‘archive’ around a particular theme and provide comment and context in an introductory essay that frames the particular ‘collection’.
This idea of invited and collective editorship has proven to be more difficult than imagined or hoped for. To this day, the invitation remains open for external ‘editors’, basically anybody who cares enough, to work with our team to create new thematic collections, which require no prior technical knowledge or skills. However, to this date only the first collection exists, The Concept of Tactical Media, which offers a selection of different takes on the concept in the framing essay.
Beyond this first attempt we see, also in other online resources that the only successful model created so far for shared and open editorial policies has been Wikipedia, which itself is certainly not free of justified criticism.
Robert M. Ochshorn - Tactical Recollections
A different approach was explored for an exhibition series in 2017 where designer, artist, programmer Robert Ochshorn created a mesmerising moving interface for the TMF video collection that the viewer can visually scroll through. Every now and then there is a rectangle floating above the mosaic that if clicked starts a personal comment by a tactical media protagonist. By clicking on any video still, the video that it comes from starts playing at the point where the still was taken. The video continues to play as long as the viewer keeps it selected with a mouse or trackpad. On release, the video dissolves in the mosaic again. Ochshorn devised this as a deliberate game of (mild) frustration.
The aim is to direct attention away from individual videos and towards the commentaries that tactical media practitioners provided. Commentaries cross each other at various points in the collection / the mosaic, where it is possible to jump from one voice and commentary to another.
Eventually, as enough commentaries are collected, a dense network of narrations of the underlying video materials is achieved that privileges no single reading, but does consist of the first-hand experiences (living memories) of the protagonists involved in the materials collected.
While this model is more satisfying than the ‘collections’ layer around the documentation resource, the main problem has been to collect sufficient commentaries from tactical media practitioners. In part this is a funding issue, which results from the policy of the Tactical Media Files to rely exclusively on project-related short-term funding, following a minimum-cost strategy in order to remain independent of influence by any strategic actors, including public and private funding agencies. More than 12 years into its existence, this has proven a highly effective strategy.
ACT UP Oral History Project
The relationship between tactical media and HIV/AIDS activism has always been strenuous. When Caroline Nevejan convened the Seropositive Ball at Paradiso in 1990, high profile members of the New York AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) such as the influential artist Gregg Bordowitz, critiqued the presence of early internet connections to connect with members too sick to travel. Bordowitz condemned the use of computer technology in this context as alienating. Yet Tactical Media seemed to offer a viable approach that addressed ACT UP’s famous dictum, Silence=Death.
The online and offline ACT UP Oral History Project is a collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York. Established in 2001 by Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, Schulman in her very recent book Let the Record Show reflects on the genesis of the project: “Since the popular availability of protease inhibitors five years before, the AIDS activist movement had virtually disappeared from public view. (..) The emergence of internet culture left ACT UP behind, as most of its materials were not digitised or searchable.”
The ACT UP grass roots community of activists was scattered, undocumented and seemingly forgotten. Meanwhile concerns over the misrepresentation of those communities stressed the need, in Schulman’s words, to “make the history and experience of AIDS activism visible and accessible.”
Over a period of 17 years, Schulman and Hubbard conducted interviews with 188 surviving members of ACT UP New York. The transcripts of those interviews form the core of her book. Next to that, the San Francisco Main Library and the New York Public Library hold videos of the first 50 interviews, while complete transcripts of all interviews can be downloaded from the project website. Five-minute video excerpts of the interviews are also available at the website.
Schulman’s book offers a new layer of interpretation over the extremely controversial and sensitive histories (herstories) of AIDS activism and the HIV pandemic.
Most importantly, the video interviews and their full transcripts offer us first-hand access to the personal testimonies and living memories of those directly affected by the pandemic, and the various ways in which affected communities and individuals were silenced in the wider public culture. It is hard to overestimate this contribution to social her/history.
Engaging living memory in (digital) archives
The models referred to here, De Balie and its dense debating and live streaming environment, the Tactical Media Files resource and the contextual layers created around it, as well as the experiences of tactical media practitioners worldwide, the open and collaborative editorial policies of Wikipedia, and the ACT UP Oral History project, all hint towards the potential of digital archives in various forms to capture living memory in a sensitive and respectful manner.
They also highlight the importance of proceeding with caution and modesty towards their subject matter. Particularly the delicateness and urgency of activist practices bring out these qualities most pertinently, but the experiences gained in doing so apply across the whole cultural and socio-political spectrum.
The dynamic and open-ended character of digital and online media offers important capabilities for engaging with the living memory of both individuals and communities. First of all by creating spaces for interpretation and re-interpretation, within which the personal voice and the first-person account can be given centre stage.
With this, however, the politics of the archive, most prominently of course the question of inclusion and exclusion, do not disappear. This is why the open-ended character of digital archives and the continuous openness for reinterpretation is so important. Not just to amend the unavoidable distortion of these voices, but to connect these resources to living cultural and political practices and make them available to practitioners (makers, designers, artists, activists, researchers, students) to inform their own contemporary practices.
Public access, availability, and participation are a prerequisite for these digital, living archives to function. This extends far beyond the technological issues raised here and includes the question of how to create sufficient engagement with a resource to be able to truly call it a ‘living archive’. Hybrid strategies, combining online media and offline repositories, digital and analogue media (print!) provide the best guarantees for their longer-term sustainability. In this sense, living archives do not stand in contradiction to ‘conventional’ archiving practices. They can much rather act as complementary forces, combining dynamism and longer-term preservation.
Eric Kluitenberg is an independent cultural and media theorist, writer, curator and educator. He teaches currently at the ArtScience Interfaculty and the Interactive Media Design programme of the Royal Academy of the Arts, University of the Arts, The Hague. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Tactical Media Files online documentation resource.