The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (review)
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The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy. By Sven Spieker. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008. Pp. xiii+219. $24.95.

Apart from scant mention of cybernetics at the outset, computer-based technologies make no appearance in Sven Spieker's The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy. The book instead takes up critical nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments, from photographic to cinematic gazes—both intensively time-concerned systems of indexical capture and psychological projection. Also influential, Spieker intriguingly asserts, have been the instruments of typewriter and vertical file—in combination with bureaucratic impulses to govern "real time" by archivally registering masses of people and inventory—not to mention feckless nineteenth-century convictions in the possibility of attaining truth, objectivity, and realism, a faith that notably lingers. [End Page 773]

The late-twentieth-century's careening into a computerized information epoch completely warrants attention, whether philosophical reflection or frantic anxiety, regarding the accretion of chaos. Given the mad magnetism of YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, an archival aesthetic has certainly become integral to current culture. While consideration of global networking phenomena as they pervade electronic highways might have benefited Spieker's discussion, The Big Archive accomplishes plenty as is. Readers may quarrel with choices—or regret neglect of countless other postmodern catalogers such as Mark Lombardi, Cindy Sherman, and John Baldessari. They will probably nevertheless stay engaged enough to follow an intelligent, rich, and well-informed argument for the importance of the archive as twentieth-century art "crucible."

The thesis, that "archives do not record experience so much as its absence," reaffirms poststructuralist mistrust, beyond fragments, toward any sense of history "as an orderly succession of events" (p. xii). The Big Archive having borrowed its title from an installation by Soviet émigré conceptualist Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933, Ukraine), the book opens by examining a related 1984 installation, Sixteen Ropes. Kabakov's "grid and its trash," Spieker explains, serves as visual analog for the psychological entropy of life bureaucratized—as when typewriters have to be registered with the government—or otherwise memorialized by collectives and individuals. For viewers, researchers, historians, or archivists, subsequent immersion in extant materials must inevitably signify events wholly disparate from original contexts. Like an onion whose peeling only reveals more onion, Sixteen Ropes proves as inscrutable as such lost methods of temporal and numerical recordkeeping as quipus, strings systematically knotted by the Incans before Europe destroyed their Andean civilization in the sixteenth century.

A few theoretical chapters follow Kabakov, importantly delineating nineteenth-century archival policies along with Freudian psychoanalytic theory, while erudite discussion of twentieth-century art proceeds chronologically, commencing with Francis Picabia. Before that, however, as if to offer another segue, Spieker attends to Andy Warhol's Time Capsules, begun in 1974, from which point whatever paper detritus moving across the jetsetter's desk filled 610 standard-sized cardboard boxes. A quarter-century later, in Paris, certain Time Capsule relics on exhibition—"a small collection of Concorde memorabilia (napkins, tickets, dinner knives)" from Warhol's travel on the supersonic transatlantic turbojet that began operations in 1976—came to be excessively charged (p. 3). A few weeks before the author observed these items, Concorde experienced its only but fatal crash, on 25 July 2000, shortly after takeoff from a French airfield. Three years later, post-9/11, the Anglo-Franco company folded.

Given Warhol's obsessions with both banality and disaster, Spieker's fixation on Time Capsules underscores the striking synchronicities that occur [End Page 774] "beyond the archive," even if only to validate and perpetuate preservation of uncanny ephemera. Spieker goes on to stress contemporary parallels between the haunting dynamics of archival function and the sublating mechanics of the human psyche, as theorized by Freud and followers. Perhaps too indirectly, the book investigates how trauma, and death, get (mis)processed or (mis)recollected. Another review mentions an African saying that "an old person dying is like a library on fire" (Daniel A. Miller, "The Big Archive," Art Monthly 323 [February 2009]: 38). Going further, imagine the fire extinguished by, say, high-volume, pressurized water hoses: suppressing the blaze, yet resulting in fetid, putrid, or toxic remnants that ineluctably distort any "actual" records. After Kabakov, Warhol...


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