52 questions about the archive

The seduction of the past is nothing new. Its inextricable imprint on the present necessitates reflection, and perhaps interrogation. And, while our need to document and reorder the past might be politically rendered as a power game, it can also be existentially rendered as a reaction to the threat of mortality. So the “archive fever” — a term coined by Derrida — that has seemingly plagued generations of people is no small parasite. It begs to be reckoned with, as we are all inevitably implicated.

Who are the champions of this archive fever? — Contemporary artists, cultural producers, academics, activists, le nouveau intelligentsia? Perhaps hoarders, collectors, instagrammers, vintage traders, even our grandparents? Many of us would loathe to share this lure of the past with real estate conglomerates and commercial development companies, even if we are implicated in perpetuating a nostalgic rhetoric that is then co-opted by them to justify their gentrification projects under claims of restoring days of glory, the belle époque, or simply a “better time.”

Many in our region seem to despair at the lack of access to official archives, where information is locked in the cracks of ministry buildings or decaying government databases. This absence must be corrected, they propose, or at least dealt with in some way. Or perhaps we might redirect our efforts: take advantage of this absence, and capitalize on the inaccessibility of the national archive. Perhaps we might reclaim, mold, rethink the past. This is perhaps a potentially risky undertaking, and raises the question of whether or not there are ways to avoid reinscribing the sovereign power of state-run archives and to posit viable alternatives.

While it is imperative to acknowledge the power of the “state” in this regard, whose archival materials are claimed to exist but are not always touched or witnessed by “us,” it may surprise us to confront the fact that we, perhaps, could also be agents of power — particularly when it comes to archives. In countering the narratives of the state, our biggest error, however, might be that of tacitly granting power to the institutions that claim control and authority over the past. The danger of this error lies in a potential chain of reactionary events: We resist the higher power, then attempt to seize control of “our” pasts and “our” archives, and in our resistant zeal, we, in turn, purport and perpetuate the same exclusive power and authority.

Many of the questions we are raising in this text came up during conversations we had during a course offered at the Cairo Institute of liberal Arts & Sciences (CILAS) titled, Archive Fever: Appropriation in Contemporary Art. Because we come from various backgrounds: art, academia, cultural management, institutional building and development, we have all used, studied or played with the “archive” in one form or another. These questions, therefore, carry concerns over our own interactions with the archive, and critiques of our interest in the material document.

Throughout the course, we discussed various approaches to thinking about “the archive,” and questioned how knowledge about the past gets produced, preserved, forgotten, and at times repressed. The countless ways artists have playfully engaged with the archive have helped us see how enigmatic and elusive memory is, how walking can be an archival practice, how personal narratives can help us rethink our dominant notions of archives.

The possibilities for how knowledge is formed through archives became a waterfall of possibilities — liberating in one sense, but dreary and draining at the same time. Through engaging with archives, academic texts, art-pieces and films, we were inspired to share these questions publicly to open up a broader conversation on the subject.


On the possibility of a traceable memory

  • How can we possibly remember, recite or record events taking into account the air in which we have breathed?
  • Can we retrieve from a document the immaterial, invisible, intangible, possibly insignificant, fleeting moments, sounds and smells that once constituted an experience in its wholeness and magnitude?

Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember? Why remember the hum of bees in the garden going down to the beach, and forget completely being thrown naked by father into the sea? – A Sketch of the Past (Virginia Woolf, 1939)

  • What kind of object, or mnemonic device, could truly help us remember the hum of bees?
  • If there were a written, photographic or aural record of the hum of bees, might it really help depict the experience in its wholeness? Or would it simply offer a trace that helps us recall latent impressions of an experience, and not as it was once lived?  

How can one remember thirst? – Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)

  • Could the archive proper, as raw material for historicizing, encompass not only the physical material traces of the past, but also its poetic traces, its intangible or sensory intensity?

How do we imagine archival practices as the little practical, experimental and strategic measures that we pursue to expand our sensibilities? – 10 Theses on the Archive (Pad.ma, 2010)

  • Are the sensory intensities of the past documentable or archivable in the first place? Or are we in need of radically different ways, both for recording the present and reflecting on the past, beyond the boundaries of the archive?
  • What constitutes the boundaries of the archive?
  • Doesn’t the human body — much like plants, tables and rain — carry its own memories? Does this render us moving archives?
  • How are memories kept within the universe? Do they remain within its sphere, even if they change from one form to another, even if they were not documented in written or photographic form?

Courtesy: Rawand Issa

The archival impulse and the human condition

  • Is the act of archiving driven by a need to preserve traces of all moments of our lives? If so, could it be thought of as an act of resistance against death?
  • On the other hand, does the assignment of memory to an external place, i.e. the archive, signal the death of that memory as such?
  • Could the act of archiving, then, be simultaneously a resistance to, and a perpetuation of, death? Is the archive at once a manifestation of both life and death?

ليس هذا ما أذكره عن الخالات، كيف أصبحن تماثيل للعصر الفيكتوري المصري؟ كم كن فاتنات في ليالي الزفاف، ملكات في المطابخ المعتمة، وحزينات لفقد جديد في صباحات الأعياد..ما أذكر غائب عن الصورة فلماذا أجتهد هكذا لأحافظ عليها من الضياع؟ – إيمان مرسال، لعبة الكائنات الصغيرة (٢٠١٣)  

This is not what I remember about aunts; how did they become statutes from the Egyptian Victorian era? How stunning they were at wedding parties, like queens in dark kitchens, mournful of their loss on feast days… What I remember is absent from the picture. So, why I am trying so hard to keep it? – The Curse of Small Creatures (Iman Mersal, 2013, translated by Mada Masr).

  • Does the act of documenting an experience of an event lead to the fetishization of the archive as a form of remembering?
  • What is a record? If the event hasn’t been “recorded,” did it happen?
  • When we burn a photograph, do we lose the memory it sought to document? Or do we liberate the memory from the limitations of its material trace?
  • Where do the memories documented through photographs go when they transform into ash during past-burning ceremonies designed to cope with defeat, loss, pain of a breakup, or the death of a loved one?

“Why do people keep photographs?”

“Why? Goodness knows! Why do people keep things—junk—trash, bits and pieces. They do—that’s all there is to it!”
Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Agatha Christie, 1951)

Courtesy: Rawand Issa

The constitution of an event

  • Does claiming to keep an event alive by turning it into an archive simultaneously signal its death, or simply relegate it to the past?
  • Does the moment of deciding to create an archive of a revolution effectively signal that revolution’s end?  
  • Is the end of the possibility of further documentation of the revolution equivalent to the end of revolutionary possibility?
  • How can an archive include those who have been silent during an event? Is there such a thing as an archive of silence? Is silence archivable?
  • When did the act of marriage, for example — much like other social events — begin to derive its legitimacy from being documented as a legal record, as opposed to the physical presence of eye witnesses?
  • Could the enormity of the archive — with all the alleged oppositions and differences contained within it — be merely an illusion of diversity and multiplicity, while all its contents are really constructed on one predetermined and highly regulated battlefield?
  • Even when the forms and contents of the archive are occasionally transformed, does such a transformation remain within a delineated topological sphere that ensures its unity and homogeneity remain intact?
  • What is it that the archive is pushing away from its mammoth sphere? What is it that this enormous body is hiding, and whose penetration is it preventing?

We are accustomed to think that the assassination of Julius Caesar constitutes an event but not so when it comes to a stone. How can a stone be an event? Isn’t an event when a man or woman is run over? Sounding the Event: Escapades in Dialogue and Matters of Art, Nature and Time (Yve Lomax, 2004)

  • What makes an event worthy of archiving?

Courtesy: Rawand Issa

The promise of the document

  • If the very notion of the archive is by default predicated — even etymologically — on the monopoly of power, how do we expect an authority, any authority, to democratize an archive? Wouldn’t such democratization work against the very concept of the archive itself?
  • If we know by now that the archive reflects uneven power relations, rendering it an embodiment of biased narratives and problematic representations, why are we still fetishizing it as a locus of knowledge, instead of creating alternative narratives? And what might such narratives look like?
  • How much does the archive feed into a deep desire to see, to understand, to know the truth? To what extent does it reflect an obsession with a factual, rational approach to knowing what’s really happening?

But, one may ask, when will these interminable stories end? Buddhist monks and Zen professors, intelligence agents, quantum particles, and knives in legs, crows, lichen, telephones, and Norwegian cod… Can this really help us to know what’s really happening? Is it all actually a question of patience? – Francis Mckee, How to Know What’s Really Happening (2017)

  • By fetishizing and perpetually recycling archives, are we — even unintentionally — implicated in autocratic and neoliberal narratives that enshrine the past, both aesthetically and epistemologically, to evade any possible imagination of the future?
  • Do maps give us an impression of finitude, an illusion that everything has already been discovered, noted and studied?
  • How do we imagine an archive when access to official records is denied? Does the archive become a phantom, an abstract ghostly figure that is more susceptible to reverence, fetishization and even worship?
  • What is the archive?
  • In a context dominated by either a lack of interest in engaging with the contemporary, or a difficulty in engaging with it in an overwhelmingly oppressive political climate, does the archive become a safe zone for experimentation, for “play,” for rethinking power? Is it relatively easier to work with the materials of the past than those of the present?
  • To what extent is the obsession with archiving one’s own life a product of being an archival subject? Does being constantly surveilled — and therefore archivable — turn us into obsessive archivers ourselves?
  • What consequences has the presence of “new” media and cultural practices had on our memory, done to our ideas of what an archive is, to giving testimony, to bearing witness, to sourcing stories?

My question is, can someone who does not have a Facebook account opt out of Facebook’s involuntary data collection? -US Congressman Ben Luján during the Congressional hearings of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (2018)

Courtesy: Rawand Issa

Prospects of a rupture with the archive

Rather than collapsing into a reinforcement of disciplinary fortresses that preclude outsiders and jealously guard the authenticity of the knowledge and experience by historians, or resorting to a language of hostile takings by activists and artists, how do we think of the encroachments into the archives as an expansion of our sensibilities and the sensibilities of the archive? –10 Theses on the Archive (Pad.ma, 2010)

  • Does the concealment of official archives signal a crisis in historiography, or present an opportunity for the creation of alternative fictional narratives, beyond the scope of positivist history?

But there is an imminent critical need to ask why a commitment to working with archives has become an apparently dominant aesthetic strategy for contemporary artists engaged with the heterogeneity of cultural production across the Middle East? –Contingency, Dissonance and Performativity: Critical Archives and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Art (Anthony Downey, 2015)

  • Does archive-based art get stuck in the same principles and language that form the archival power it is seeking to disrupt? Even if the archive-based artworks and the archive are dialectically opposed, aren’t they still arguing over the same battlefield: the archive itself?
  • While archive-based artworks provide a much-needed counter memory and play an essential role in analyzing historical discourse, questioning problematic representations and attracting the spectator’s attention to illusions of credibility and completeness, do they simultaneously assert the power of the archive by positioning themselves in relation to it, perpetually dwelling within its aesthetic, and reacting to its narratives?
  • By relinquishing its advantage as a vehicle for affect rather than facts, for sensible intensity rather than material evidence, does archive-based art distance itself from its potential to fight an image with another image, to counter alleged truth with fiction, and to rewrite history without the constraints of any pre-existing document, and therefore change the archive-imposed rules of the game?

…do these practices ultimately foster a nostalgic fetishization of the archive as a locus of knowledge production or, conversely, suggest an ongoing, possibly systemic, crisis in institutional and state-ordained archiving across the region? –Contingency, Dissonance and Performativity: Critical Archives and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Art (Anthony Downey, 2015)

  • Does the scope of the imagination of artworks based primarily on the archive remain confined to the archive it is seeking to deconstruct, simply filling its endless gaps while remaining within its sphere, endlessly indenting, manipulating and twisting its figure without truly disturbing its homogeneity or subverting its mode of rationality?
  • Does the use of a document in a work of art fundamentally signal a surrender to the archive, a declaration of its victory over all other languages?
Ali Atef, Leila Arman, Mariam Elnozahy, Mohammad Shawky Hassan, Nada Hasan, Omnia Sabry 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism