Fiona Siegenthaler/ Giulia Battaglia

‘Archive’ is a term that barely is found in handbooks, dictionaries or encyclopaedias of anthropology. It appears that it has not yet reached a sufficient level of relevance and acknowledgement to be considered as a part of anthropological history and methodology. However, obviously, the archive is relevant in anthropology in a variety of forms and meanings and it is variously handled both in different areas of research and for different purposes.

In fact, anthropology as a discipline has its foundation in a vigorous drive to establish a particular archive, the “archive of humanity” (Bastian). In its beginnings anthropology was keen to collect information on and material about/of societies that were considered on the verge of perishing. On the basis of the evolutionary model of a teleological development of civilizations, scholars at the end of the 19th century believed that ‘primitive’ societies would either perish or evolve, over time, to the state of ‘civilized’ societies. In order to preserve knowledge about the ‘origins’ of human being, it was considered the task of anthropology to learn and collect as much as possible about these societies before they vanished. In this sense, the beginnings of anthropology were as much an archival project as are historical research and collections. Just recently Karl Heinz Kohl emphasized the relevance of archives for the future of Anthropology and even the future of the societies it has traditionally researched (Kohl 2013).

On the contrary, the archive is a key concept and resource in contemporary art practices that involve and critically reflect different kinds of production-consumption activities: namely, the storage of information, the collection of meaningful material, the sharing of this material and knowledge, the excavation of memories, and the rediscovery (or recovery) of lost, forgotten, unknown images, memories, texts or objects. Unlike the conventional collection, assemblage and categorisation of (fixed) objects, (fixed) texts, (fixed) images and (fixed) images of objects and texts, a contemporary understanding of archive gives to individuals, groups and institutions the possibility to produce novel images, objects and memories of the past. The archive in contemporary art practices is thus a temporal tool to create a performative connection between the past, the present and the future and it is employed both at institutional and individual levels.

Our short complementary research (and follow-up discussion) in the fields of contemporary ethnographic and artistic practice respectively has shown that the relevance of the archive as a static repository of history is being challenged. However, the discussion should go further by questioning understandings of it as ‘fixed’, ‘rigid’ or even ‘repressive’ material structure. Rather, it must be addressed as something with a strong immaterial or ideational aspect, as something that is prone to decay, dissolution and re-arrangement and hence as being permanently in process. This enables us to better engage with cleavages and links between past knowledge and future imagination as well as the role of representation in this process.

With these reflections in mind and with a particular interest in the archive’s potential for collaborative artistic and ethnographic practices, we would like to trigger some reflections and discussions with the following three questions:

  • What forms of collaborative work does the archive offer, and what could it contribute to the exploration of the relationship between art and anthropology for scholars, artists and other actors?
  • Is the collective/shared quality of the archive unique? How can it be further explored, and to what extent does it distinguish itself from other collaborative and shared practices, places and subjects? What does archive then mean for future ethnography as a discipline of societies and cultures?
  • What can we gain from a process-based notion of the archive? What implications does this have on the role of the archive in art and anthropology, and for the practices related to it in particular?

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