Introduction to Rethinking Archives Workshop 3

Archive Time

Michelle Henning

Welcome to the third Rethinking Archives workshop on Time and the Artwork. We have, as one participant put it, a stellar line up today, and I’m very much looking forward to it. There will be three presentations and plenty of time for discussion, if all goes as planned. I want to begin the workshop by reiterating something I said in earlier workshops which is that although this workshop is funded by the AHRC, University of the West of England, and Arnolfini, we are fortunate in that we don’t have to focus on outputs, as one often does with grant-funded things. The output is the discussion and networking that takes in this room over the course of the day. If later, we agree it would be nice to put together another kind of output, that’s up to us, but the workshop is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

These workshops were instigated because of the appointment to Arnolfini of an archivist (Julian!) for the first time, and the establishing of Arnolfini’s archives at Bristol City’s archives in the Cumberland Basin here in Bristol. So in this workshop we might want to think about archives of all kinds, about arts archives and about art works that make use of the idea of the archive.

I want to talk, briefly, about one starting point that interests me, in thinking about time and archives. Modernism in the arts presented a particular challenge to the archive and specifically to the museum. To briefly recall the story of art’s difficult relation to the museum as told by Quatremère de Quincy, Paul Valéry and others: art objects once supposedly had their place in society, their social context, but the museum detached them from that, separating art objects from experience and society, and placing them in a collection. Modernism’s response was to attack the museum. Its antipathy to the museum was most vividly expressed by the futurist Marinetti when he wrote,

“Museums: Cemeteries! …Identical, surely in the sinister proximity of so many bodies unknown to one another”.

Much has been written recently, in the fields of anthropology and sociology, on the idea of things having social lives. This means not thinking of objects as static but tracing their movements as they pass through time and society. If the objects in museums or archives have social lives, then for Marinetti it’s a very uneasy form of sociability, a hanging out with incompatible strangers. But there is also another way in which we can think of the objects or documents that exist in an archive as having lives. They all have an inbuilt temporality, all are time-bombs, of one sort or another. Everything degrades, everything decays, or at least undergoes some kind of physical transformation over the course of time. It doesn’t stand still.

And arguably, one of the earliest ways in which art strove to confound its museumification was through a change in materials: oil paint on canvas and tempura on board have a built-in longevity of centuries. Synthetic cubism introduced the newspaper into the painting. What could possibly date more quickly than a newspaper, which as the art historian Marjorie Perloff pointed out years ago, is ‘out-of-date’ the next day? Newspapers also yellow with surprising rapidity, so that the synthetic cubist works produced by Picasso and Braque prior to the first world war would have already substantially changed colour by the end of the war. This makes the temporality of the art object vivid — even a painting isn’t the same from one day to the next. That’s only a rejection of the museum or of archival culture if we believe that museums and archives are places where nothing happens: where time stops. But, I would argue, even in cemeteries, life goes on.

Michelle Henning 2008