Archive Noise

In the opinion of most observers, the process of political transition in Spain was a model of its kind.

The move from dictatorship to democracy was accomplished fluently and in a short space of time. The death of the old dictator toward the end of 1975 allowed Spain to blossom into a creative, modern country with a desire for full integration within Europe. Today Spanish people under 25 know nothing about General Franco, or that their country was deprived of the basic freedoms during more than forty years, and this lack of memory can be seen as a democratic moving on (a turning of the page in the history book) or as a failure of the education system (the difficulty in addressing a still painful past). But the country’s political, economic and social achievements have not managed to heal once and for all the wounds of the memory. There is still a problem with any attempt to touch, or touch on, the past. Even today fascist monuments still stand in some cities, and there are streets named in honour of those who in 1936 took up arms against the constitutional government. Attempts to exhume and identify the remains of the bodies buried in the common graves of the Civil War are blocked by the authorities, on the Left as much as on the Right. But the most telling example of the unease with which power manages the memory is provided by the so-called ‘Salamanca Papers’.

At the end of the Civil War in 1939 Franco’s army impounded enormous quantities of documents that belonged to Republicans and to Republican institutions. This pillage, justified by the ‘right of conquest’, had an immediate repressive purpose (to gather information that would compromise individuals and groups), but the haste and the crudeness with which the enterprise was carried out were not conducive to fine discrimination, and the rapine accumulated materials of all kinds.

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These were concentrated in Salamanca, a city whose stones are steeped in history and mediaeval legends and has the honour of possessing the oldest university in Spain. The intention was to create in Salamanca a centralized archive on the Civil War. The advent of democracy and the widely declared desire for national reconciliation seemed to suggest that the documents would all be returned to their legitimate owners. A vain hope: although the Socialist government voted to return them, local politicians (of all persuasions) manipulated the issue to whip up popular protest. From the balcony of the city hall of the city a well-known writer, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, harangued the crowd and exhorted them ‘to defend what they had obtained with the force of arms’; the mayor in person added —allegedly to ‘calm’ the crowd, that ‘anyone who tried to remove a document from the archive would have to do so over [his] dead body’.

For some political analysts these reactions mask other problems. Salamanca and the surrounding region are in the grip of a deep crisis with no easy solution in sight. The exodus of population from the area is alarming and unemployment is over 10%. Local industry suffers from a total lack of modernization for which central government and the regional administration are to blame. There has been next to no investment in research and development, and the technology gap is worsened by a shameful lack of infrastructures (for example, Salamanca was the last province in Spain to have modern roads). The soul of Salamanca continues to dwell in its ancient stones and its wells of knowledge: the city cannot help but see history as substantially its own patrimony. In such circumstances, who can expect Salamanca to give up what is regarded as the spoils of war?

But the anger and resentment stoked by irreversible decline does not entirely explain the situation. Perhaps if it had been a question of a technology park or a ham curing plant (which would undoubtedly have a greater social and economic impact as generators of wealth, but do not have to do with the control of the past in the symbolic order) might not have been so contentious or at least might not have been fuled with so much virulence and passion. We are talking about an archive here, that is to say, a repository of memory, and the memory in question relates to events that half a century ago cut the country in two, causing a trauma so deep that, as it seems, it has not yet recovered. And we are talking, above all, about the ownership of that memory. There is a sensation that blood was shed, people were killed (in short, there was a war) so that, amongst other reasons, those sources of memory should end up in Salamanca. An archive that had come into being with a will to control (in the Foucaldian sense) the people has grown into an archive-patrimony, an archive-mark of identity. The present climate of confrontation confounds the obvious difference between access to the information and the patrimonial possession of the documents. It highlights the idea that the past is not just aseptic information but, manifestly, emotion, passion and sentiment.

I wanted to present the case of the ‘Salamanca Papers’ because they are current news at the time of writing these lines, but also because, for all that they exemplify an extreme case, they speak to us of that ‘excess of history’ that Nietzsche identified as a dead weight on life. Institutionalized history acts as a corset that moulds the memory, but at the cost of limiting our experience of the present and the future. Therefore the first critical duty of every historian is to de-institutionalize history; that is to say, to strip it of authoritative discourse. This is the historian’s task, but it is also the task of that parallel conscience which art so often becomes. And this is why we see so much interest among contemporary creative artists in that archive culture in which we find ourselves immersed. I would like, then, to look at two art projects that set out to desacralize memory. The first, entitled Statics, is the product of the incisive intelligence of Joachim Schmid; the second, Googlegrams, is a project of my own.

All of Schmid’s work is governed by a spirit of visual ecology: there is an excess of images in the world, therefore instead of contributing to that supersaturation we should impose on ourselves a task of recycling, of salvage among the residue. Recovering a gesture of Duchamp’s, Schmid denies the value of production (making photos) and displaces it onto selection, the act of choosing and pointing out. The abundance of indiscriminate data does not resolve our need for information but leaves us just as ignorant and even more confused.

Schmid wrote: ‘I’ve been working with found/appropriated imagery because I think that basically everything in the world has now been photographed in every possible way. We have an incredible amount of pictures after a hundred years of industrialized image making, so making more pictures is no longer a creative challenge. Nevertheless this production of photographs of images goes on, photographs will always be produced. It’s not so much the production of photographs which needs to concern us, but the use of them. On the one hand, every single photograph represents or depicts a fragment of reality, while on the other, that same photograph is a part of reality, both as a psychical object and as an image/symbol. It’s much more interesting to use these existing images and work with them than to make new photographs because existing photographs not only represent parts of our realities, they are realities. Today’s reality is the reality of images.’

In 1986 Schmid presented the project Archiv/Archive in which he grouped together banal photographs on the basis of arbitrary typologies (couples, children with a ball, men with moustaches, baseball players, etc.). He was ironizing about the criteria of classification and the numbering system used in the thematic cataloguing of archives, but he also seemed to be mocking the highbrow photographic series of the Dusseldorf School. Given that his work required vast quantities of photos, in 1990 he invented the imaginary ‘Erste Allgemeine Altfotosammlung/The Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs’. A lot of people took the ‘Institute’ seriously and sent Schmid whole archives of useless photos, which he then applied to a variety of different ideas.

For the series Statics, begun in 1996, Schmid took advantage of all the images that were no use for other projects, squeezing all that was left out of his reserves of photographic garbage: anonymous photos, prints, chromos, postcard, advertising brochures and so on. The challenge lay in obtaining something new by recycling the graphic leftovers that had already been rejected in previous phases, and to achieve this, Schmid was to use a device also used in industrial recycling: a paper shredder. The elements to be recycled (the trash information) would be grouped together again by thematic family (postcards of Rome, press photos, exhibition invitations, etc.) and then destroyed using a small office shredder. He then laid out the familiar narrow strips of paper in parallel lines in totally random order, in this way converting the meaningless trash into signifying structures, a kind of white noise. The resulting works certainly resemble to the band effect of a television screen when it loses the station signal. And in the same way that in the television image the signal is there but the decoding is faulty, in Schmid’s Statics all the information contained in the original archive is still there. Strictly speaking, it has not been destroyed but transformed, in a reordering of its formal attributes that makes it impossible to access the content. The information is physically there but unintelligible; it has been encoded in such a way that we can no longer decipher it. As a metaphor of what happens in so many archives, the documents have ceased to afford illumination and baffle us instead. Or, as Borges liked to say, it is as if the map suddenly turns into a labyrinth: instead of guiding us it loses us.

Statics can thus be read as a commentary on the archive at the level of loss. But it is more: it confronts us with a dialectics between documentation and experimentation, between memory and loss of memory, and between the institutional projections that correspond to the archive and the museum, respectively. The museum (the place for which the works in Statics are ideally destined) is thus, in contrast to the archive (the place from which the works proceed) a cockpit for speculative discursivity. The postmodern sensibility speaks of the ruins of the museum, but it is more a case of the museum yielding to the loss of memory in a process of hybridization of genres that perverts the very notion of the document. The terms are reversed: the documentary photograph invades the space of art in the same measure as the illustrative photograph occupies the pages of the information media.

The ambition of developing into an increasingly extensive archive has prompted Schmid to make the natural progression from ‘Erste Allgemeine Altfotosammlung/The Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs’ to the Internet, a medium that has evolved into the mother of all archives. His most recent projects have indeed been based on images and situations found on websites, such as the series Cyberspaces (2004), which deals with the on-line dives created for virtual sex. The Internet is the supreme expression of a culture which takes it for granted that recording, classifying, interpreting, archiving and narrating in images is something inherent in a whole range of human actions, from the most private and personal to the most overt and public. Internet underwrites our archive culture and at the same time resolves the old dispute between access to information and the ownership of documents (a matter of much concern in Salamanca): cyberspace imposes on us a universe of pure information in which the physicality of things has disappeared; a shared pool of information, in relation to which the idea of ownership is all but meaningless. Perhaps we are arriving at that prophetic noosphere envisioned by that heterodox Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, back in the early years of the 20th century, when the computer was still beyond even Alan Turing’s wildest dreams. These days the omnidirectional Internet acts as the communicative link between all connected individuals. The Internet may prove to be the tool that so enhances our stock of information that we manage for the first time to create a ‘noosphere’ — that is to say, the collective mental space where all our cultural exchanges take place. The Internet is in the process of becoming a world memory common to all connected minds. Googlegrams is a project that negotiates with precisely this utopia of connectivity and the free exchange of information.

In my previous work, as in Schmid’s, the archive has been a recurring presence. On numerous occasions I have used the faked discovery of an archive as the starting point for a critique, parody and deconstruction of the whole concept of the document. On other occasions I have looked at issues of representation, focusing, for example, on the notion of the palimpsest. Googlegrams combines the two strategies. The basic idea consists in selecting images that have become icons of our time. For example, one of the widely disseminated photos of the torture scandal in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad: Private Lynndie R. England holding a leash tied around the neck of a prisoner as if he were a dog. In one ‘Googlegram’ this photograph has been refashioned using a freeware photo mosaic programme. The photo mosaic is a technique used by graphic designers and photo enthusiasts that consists in composing an image out of a large number of tiny images, which function like the cells in a reticular structure. The programme selects each graphic sample from the bank of available images and places it according to chromatic value and density in the position that most closely coincides with a portion of the larger image being recreated, as if it were making a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Logically, the greater the number of cells, the sharper the resulting image will be.

For the Googlegrams, however, the programme was connected to the Internet and used the search engine Google to locate thousands of images on the basis of search criteria determined by the user, normally images associated with one or several words. In the Abu Ghraib photograph, for example, the search engine was given the names of top officials, civilian contractors and enlisted soldiers cited in the ‘Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations’ (August 2004) of the Schlesinger Panel, set up by the United States Congress to investigate the alleged abuses.

At a certain distance the photo mosaic presents us with a perfectly recognizable picture of Lynndie R. England, and as we move closer we find photos, drawings, caricature, graphics, etc; in other words, a host of images associated in some way with each of the names supplied for the search. What we have again here is a palimpsest effect of overlapping texts whose hierarchy is solely dependent on the observer’s distance: a hyperopic vision privileges the composite whole, while a myopic view privileges the little component units that make up the coarse graphic texture. The overlapping of the two, the lack of fine detail, indicates a first level of noise. At the same time, however, the creative weight of each work derives from that noise, or rather from the relationship established between the content of the primary image and the search terms. The connection can be causal, spatial, temporal, metaphorical, linguistic, etc., suggesting the dense relational constellation that resides inside every archive while at the same time determining the project’s ideological orientation.

The Internet functions as an immense visual memory bank that supplies the graphic information available at any given moment. However, Google introduces into the search another kind of inevitable noises that manifest themselves as logical ‘accidents’. The origin of these noises is the ambiguity inherent in the words used, words that also express the categories or catalogue numbers of the archive. This ambiguity can deflect the search mechanisms and cause certain ‘errors’ that touch on the question of how documents are catalogued and what routes are used to access them. In effect, we are exploring the connections and disconnections between word and image. When we give a particular surname as the search term we are provided with pictures of all the people who have that name, as well as images of a whole host of things that happen to be associated with that name; the photo mosaic programme will use those images it finds most suitable, irrespective of whether they happen to be of the target person, and the random ‘intruders’ will appear with greater or lesser frequency according to their degree of Internet notoriety.

And if we want to avoid sinning from an excess of innocence, we must also acknowledge the presence of other noises that are the product of ideological ‘accidents’. We like to think of the Internet as a vast, open, democratic structure, but the channels of access to information are still mediated by political or corporate interests. The blocking of data, secrecy and censorship are technologically feasible options that the search engines exercise, freely or under compulsion, without informing the user. For example, when the Abu Ghraib affair hit the headlines, Google did not at first supply images of some of the people implicated (including Lynddie England and her boyfriend Charles Graner), although images of these were available from other search engines such as Altavista, Lycos or Yahoo. On its ‘Remove Content’ page, Google declares: ‘Google views the quality of its search results as an extremely important priority. Therefore, Google stops indexing the pages on your site only at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for those pages or as required by law. This policy is necessary to ensure that pages are not inappropriately removed from our index. Since Google is committed to providing thorough and unbiased search results for our users, we cannot participate in the practice of censoring information on the world wide web.’ Unfortunately, however, we have to wake from this ‘noospheric’ dream and keep a sharp eye on the latest Big Brother’s decisions as to what is and is not politically desirable or potentially detrimental to ‘national security’.

Exploiting this archive noise is basically a way of entering into a new dialogue with the archive. Over and above the intellectual game that defuses the archive, the gestures of Statics and Googlegrams, although strictly symbolic, have a pedagogical dimension. On the one hand they expose the elaborate semantic camouflage with which the archive invests information. On the other, they light up the space between memory and the absence of memory, between useful data and the undifferentiated magma of raw information. Finally, they establish the supremacy of intelligence and creativity over the accumulated mass of information; an absolute requirement to ensuring that memory does not become sterile.

Published in Photoworks Issue 4, 2005
Commissioned by Photoworks

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