The Pleasure of the File
A Foucauldian anxiety over information and the way it is accessed, received and composed has opened the archive up to intense scrutiny and interrogation within contemporary art practice. If history is never truly ‘knowable,’ but actually a series of interpretations manipulated through successive contemporary concerns; whether these are ideological or distilled through the dominant methods of disseminating information, the margin for error in the archive is great. Taryn Simon’s recent project The Picture Collection exposed the complexities, arbitrariness and chance inherent in the archive’s codes through her work in the New York Picture Library. The archive, which holds 1.2million images taken from secondary sources and is organised into a complex cataloguing system of over 12,000 subject headings, was Simon’s material for investigation in the work. Selecting categories such as ‘Chiaroscuro, Handshaking, Haircombing, Express Highways, Financial Panics, Israel, and Beards and Moustaches’ she then overlapped the presented images so that only fragments were visible. For example, the word ‘Veil’ produced a series of incongruous images of women in bridal wear and burkhas, producing a visually inconsistent composite that served to undermine the reliability of the cataloguing system.
A productive way to side step the potential errors of viewing history as a rigid, static or ‘objective’ pursuit is to re-evaluate the pre-occupation with truth that the archive operates upon. What happens if the historical document is used as a springboard for new discoveries; for re-enactment and re-invention, for the opening of spaces where the unexpected can arise; spaces that cannot exist without artistic intervention? Alongside increasing attempts to correct and expose the archive’s errors and omissions there is a growing alternative model for accessing and understanding history that uses error as a tool to unique and creative ends. ‘Error’ here refers to the deliberate deconstruction of the dominant logic of the archive by reversing or challenging its terms. These include the artist’s unfaithfulness to its material through re-enactment or heavy-handed appropriation, the dismissal of the idea of history as linear progression and a de-fetishisation of visible remains and ‘originals’.