Archive Joy

A guest blog from writer and academic, Bryony White. For more on Bryony’s work, visit Live Art in Scotland’s team page.

The first time I visited an institutional archive, I was overwhelmed even before arriving. For months leading up to my trip, I spent days sifting through the algebraic pages of archive finding aids, seeking out letters between curators and artists, searching page after page for keywords, that might ignite the purpose of my research among the excess of information, of Roman numerals and serial numbers. The titles of folders were opaque— ‘Correspondence, Phone Logs, Manuscripts, Video and Film, Audio’. It felt like there wasn’t a straightforward way to begin or an easy way to orientate myself toward the material. Yet, I had grand visions of the discoveries I would make, the unknown details that would emerge through the fog of the research process as I conjured up the elaborate detective work of the literary scholars imagined in A.S Byatt’s Possession.

On my second day in New York, I walked to Bergen Street Metro in Brooklyn, before taking the F train all the way to 57th Street in Manhattan. The metro journey was long and crowded as I commuted in another grey city, snaking through men in suits and pushing through crowds, in the middle of an unbearably hot East coast summer in rush hour. Once I arrived at The Museum of Modern Art’s large archive, sweat slicking the backs of my knees, I passed through a series of thresholds, first security, a metal detector, then stowing my bag away, forgetting my passport, and retrieving my passport and finally winding up to the 6th floor of the sixth floor of The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building, where I was given a sheet of rules about copyright and a quick induction about how to use the archive. I longed for water but all I had in my plastic bag was a pad of paper, passport, a pencil, and my American pay-as-you-go phone.

As I dutifully began the research process, retrieving files and folders filled with artwork shipping records and laundry bills from the 1970s, it was becoming clear I had somewhat romanticised the serendipitous encounters of the archive, in the months of anticipation of this trip. As a condition of accessing the archive, you agree to ask permission to take photographs of any given singular page, and you are asked to read each piece of paper or singular file one at a time. This led to a somewhat stilted experience; once you had opened a box that contained all the folders and then opened one folder that contained one record, you were committed to it, and once absorbed, you had to return it to its file, before beginning the process again with another singular record, photograph, or object.

In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida writes that the archive, or archon, is the house of the law.[1] In Ancient Greek, it means domicile, masculine, singular. It is the place of authority, operated through the commands of those who rule, of those who make and represent the law. Most of my experiences of the archive, especially in places such as MoMA, or the Library of Congress or the Getty Research Institute conform to this image—sterile, sacrosanct repositories, spaces where I have felt compelled to behave and carry out research in a preordained way. Over time, however, I have learnt that the archive rarely offers some authoritative arc of grand and explosive discovery. Archive work is laborious work. Archive work is satisfying and investigative, it involves slowly tracing connections, genealogies, and epistemologies, comparing ragged clippings from newspapers with undecipherable, handwritten notes. Archive work, often, is slow and frustrating.

Working in Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Art archive was distinctly different to other experiences I have had in the archive. Firstly, the room is small, organised but not overwhelmingly neat—the room feels predisposed to happy accidents or coincidental encounters. It is as if, with brown file boxes lining the walls and a large desk in the centre, the archive encourages the visitor to delight in rummaging. There were a few items we needed to photograph— images of Neil Bartlett’s A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, from 1989. Portraits of Pamela Sneed from 1994. Double-exposed images—cerulean blue and hot red—of a performance work by Ronald Fraser Munroe. But we also rifled without purpose, without a list of things we necessarily needed to look for, and so we stumbled upon items we wanted to find and that we didn’t know we would discover: a small black and white promotional postcard from the first National Review of Live Art in Scotland in 1988. On the front of the postcard, two men embrace. In the image, one man looks on, his eyes closed in a sense of quiet acknowledgment, perhaps even denial. Another man—his lover perhaps—holds him tight, his eyes searching for his—for solace and comfort. Exhibition marketing materials for the Third Eye Centre from 1986. Photographs of Mona Hatoum performing at New Work: No Definition at the Third Eye Centre in ’87. 

While other archives I have encountered have created a sense of reverence, or have felt alienating and cold, my experiences in the CCA archive felt symptomatic of a feeling I experience in the archive every now and again—archive joy. Archive Joy, might imply, as So Mayer once articulated it, as the joy of ‘stealing something back from a culture that wanted to erase you.’[2] It might mean lingering in the messiness of the archive, of not finding what you want, but finding something otherwise. Archive joy might signal the unpredictable desires that get activated in the archive, that flare up and arouse you. It might mean discovering something ephemeral and seemingly unimportant—a receipt, a handwritten postcard, an over-exposed polaroid image—that works against the grain of the archive’s persistent exclusions.

[1] Jacques Derrida, ‘Exergue’, in Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression [trans by. Eric Prenowitz], (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 7–24, p. 9

[2] I take this phrase from an online talk hosted at Tate, London, between Sharon Hayes and So Mayer. Speaking Through Love, 16thFebruary 2022 [Online].