Exercise 1: An Archival Impulse

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 7: Place and Time in the Archive

Reflective Notes

Idiosyncratic collections probing into particular figures, objects and events. There are many examples in art of these archival impulses. It was active prewar and even more so after.

In the first instance archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. They elaborate on the found image, object, and text, and favour the installation format as they do so.

Sometimes archival samplings push the postmodernist complications of originality and authorship to an extreme.

Yet the term also suggests a changed status in the work of art in an age of digital information, which is said to follow those of industrial production and mass consumption. The ideal medium of archival art is the mega archive of the Internet, and over the last decade terms that evoke the electronic network, such as “platforms” and “stations,” have appeared in art parlance, as has the Internet rhetoric of “interactivity.

The archives at issue here are not databases in this sense; they are recalcitrant material, fragmentary rather than fungible, and as such, they call out for human interpretation, not machinic reprocessing.

In this regard archival art is as much preproduction as it is postproduction: concerned less with absolute
origins than with obscure traces.

Further, it often arranges these materials according to a quasi-archival logic, a matrix of citation and juxtaposition, and presents them in a quasi-archival architecture, a complex of texts and objects (again, platforms, stations, kiosks . . . ). Thus Dean speaks of her method as “collection,” Durant of his as “combination,” Hirschhorn of his as “ramification.

Through mutations of connection and disconnection, this art also serves.

In a sense, Dean’s archival work is an allegory of archival work-as sometimes melancholic, often vertiginous, and always incomplete.

Perhaps the paranoid dimension of archival art is the other utopian ambition-its desire to turn belatedness into becomingness, failed visions in art, literature, philosophy, and everyday life into possible alternative kinds of social relations, to transform the no-place into the no-place of a utopia.

Key Points

  • An archive is not just a database. It needs careful culturing and selection of materials.
  • Archiving isn’t new.
  • It is also different to curating a museum display.
  • The development of an archive can be as interesting as the finished product.

My Thoughts

After reading the article I think I have a better understanding of what an archive is. Before reading I was thinking more along the lines of a database or museum collection but I think there are distinct differences. The creative process involves selecting and constructing the items. You aren’t just cataloguing everything you find or make about a certain subject. The process is more about careful consideration of what goes in and how that item tells the overall story. You aren’t just there to offer a balanced opinion like a museum collection would. An archive can tell a very political story if needed. Of course, everyone will make up their own mind after experiencing it, but you shouldn’t be afraid to make a statement through it.


One item I made which immediately springs to mind is a quilt I made out of my daughter’s old baby clothes. At the time I didn’t think of it as creating an archive but it has many of the qualities. I didn’t just make it from all of the clothes, but there was careful consideration about which pieces to keep. It is a quilt full of memories that evokes a feeling of nostalgia when I look at it. She uses it regularly too – hence some of the holes! It is very much a living piece. When I made it, it was out of the need to be able to keep some of the clothes but in a useful way as I wouldn’t have had the space to keep everything, and if I did then they would have been hidden away in storage. By making this, it meant I a regularly reminded of a time gone by.

Foster, H. (2004). An Archival Impulse. October, 110, pp.3–22.

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