Notes on the Personal Archive: A Response to Giorgia Piffaretti

Fragment of 'first draft of the newsstand as a device with multiple functions', by Giorgia Piffaretti

Why do you keep something? Or: why do you record something? These fundamental questions inform the practice of archivists, and by extension filmmakers and others who record what happens in the world. One may assume that things are kept because they are valuable. But what makes something valuable, and what interest does it serve? These questions are implied by Giorgia Piffaretti’s project on personal archiving and the newsstand, as she focuses on things that are not spectacular, which (seem to) have no special value. Floris Paalman responds to her installment of ‘from the archive’, addressing how value is to be found in both objects and the archival dispositif.

Piffaretti’s project corresponds to a broader shift in archival practices, which increasingly venture beyond the preservation of masterpieces to include all kinds of other materials, from ‘bits and pieces’ to ‘orphans’ 1< https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Bits_and_Pieces_from_EYE_Film_Institute_Netherlands> Since the late 1980s, the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam started to preserve unidentified film fragments, which became the now famous collection of ‘Bits and Pieces’, see: Mark-Paul Meyer, ‘From the Archive and Other Contexts’, Found Footage: Cinema Exposed, eds. Marente Bloemheuvel, Giovanna Fossati, Jaap Guldemond (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press/EYE Film Institute Netherlands, 2012), 145-152. A major reference in respect of ‘orphan films’ is the work done by Dan Streible and the Orphan Film Symposium, organized since 1999. <http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/> (2019-06-15) . Something might be valuable for someone, and not for someone else, or not yet, as value stems from knowledge and references, insights and assumptions, ideas and meaning, desires and prospects, and eventually purposes and aims. But purposes and aims relate to multiple things that cannot be conceived independently and assessed here and now, but only as part of larger developments. Long term value is difficult to pinpoint, only through indicators that refer to latent qualities. This also concerns scale. While we know the earth is round, this remains invisible at the scale of daily life; knowledge and experience do not match. Value emerges with the ability to make something hidden perceivable; it requires special awareness, sensitivity and imagination, for which Piffaretti provides conceptual tools.

 

value and the archival structure

Where collective memory has been the dominant metaphor for archives, based on storage and retrieval, we may now face a shift towards personal curating, concerned with selection and drawing relations, to articulate meaning through the organization of archival elements.

When you record something, you have to store it. When more things follow, there comes a moment that you have to create a (provisional) structure to divide and group things, in folders, boxes, rooms. You will have to employ categories and a system that supports it, from codes and labels, to spatial designs. While you keep things because they are (potentially) meaningful, the structure you have created will become important itself. For example, a film archive might be organized based on genres, periods, or regions, which may translate into departments and curatorial roles. At a certain point, a structure may become more meaningful than what it preserves; one may change what was inside the folders, boxes, or rooms, while the architecture stays the same. This architecture consists of a spatial structure intertwined with cultural notions, such as nation, art, and auteur. Such notions are rooted in persistent patterns of thinking about language and ethnicity, individual agency, and role models. How do we overcome established notions and patterns?

Humans are trained to recognize and create patterns in order to give meaning to observations and to allow for a quick processing of information. Exemplary are the constellations, figures of unrelated stars, which only appear as patterns from our viewpoint. Rather than questioning pre-conceived ideas with every new observation, we reiterate them once and again. Piffaretti proposes a method of defamiliarization, of changing positions and questioning what is in between them, in order to see things anew. She therefore radicalizes the idea of the physical archive, by taking the ‘liminal’ newsstand in Gaggiolo as her starting point.

We tend to think of an archive as something permanent. The opposite is true for a newsstand – once an emblem of modernity — for its collage of ever-changing news. But at the same time it has archival qualities. As a model it stresses that archives are similarly time-based, only within another temporal scale. This insight breaks the illusion of an archive granting the object an eternal life, or an a posteriori reason of existence. Like an archive, the newsstand relates to information processing, memory, and classification, within a spatial order, but it shifts the focus from storage and objects, as permanent entities, to curating of objects as vehicles that generate changing compositions and stories. The newsstand is an instant archive with a quick turn-around time. Moreover, Piffaretti’s model is literally conceived upon border crossing, hence a transitional movement, of changing positions.

‘Newsstand, East 32nd Street and Third Avenue, Manhattan’, 1935 – Berenice Abbott (Coll. MoMA)

 

organizing value
With a refined catalogue, archival elements can be stored anywhere, as long as the place numbers are known. But archiving is more than that. It is the way things “are grouped together in distinct figures, composed together in accordance with multiple relations, maintained or blurred in accordance with specific regularities; that which determines that they do not withdraw at the same pace in time.”2Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge (London/New York: Routledge, 2002 – translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith from L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969), 146. See also: Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, Diacritics 25.2 (Summer, 1995): 9-63 [17]. In this perspective there is a difference between access, once you know what you’re looking for, and research, to find things that you’re not familiar with, don’t yet understand, would not consider in the first place, but that become relevant over time by investigating their relations to their surroundings. Within an archive, the context of a text are all the other texts; in order to understand a text, one needs the others. It is like a photographer who chooses a certain frame, to draw relations between things inside it. The ability to do so is informed by what exists outside the frame.

A spatial display shows the scope of an archive and allows for cross-connections. Moreover, the physicality of objects (including images) allows for a bodily experience and understanding. Objects enable the observer to take distance, like a painter who moves backward in order to have a better understanding of the composition, to see the painting in context of others, to put something in between, or to add a layer. Moving back and forth creates a spatial realm in which understanding and value arise. The place of an object may bring to light a trajectory and history, how it has originated, and hence, how it is embedded within a specific situation. Without considering the physical and spatial dimensions of an object, it becomes merely a mental construct – even a preconceived concept, rather than having a place in the world.

Objects, in this case images and their carriers, have their own biographies, which are ingrained in their physicality. According to Giovanna Fossati “the discourse within the film archival field seems to move within the tension between the film as a material artifact and film as a conceptual artifact.”3Giovanna Fossati, From Grain to Pixel: The Archival Life of Film in Transition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 255. But artifacts also assume value through their place in the archival organization, defined by the way archives are created and how they exist in the world. This creates a third angle, that of archival ontology, by acknowledging the archive’s own dispositif.4This argument is based on Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 146. This is shown by Piffaretti and observable in other personal archives, demonstrating the direct relation between objects and their conditions of existence. One can thus trace biographies of objects and their social life,5Cf. Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things Commodities in Cultural Perspective (New York: New School University, 1988). and by extension the biographies of their creators or custodians,6“Personal records show not simply the facts, but the opinions, and rationalizations and romanticizations, about love affairs, parenting, travel, work, and all other aspects of individuals’ inner lives. For writers, life details and personal experience become the background to writing and are not neatly separated from the work.” Catherine Hobbs, “The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals”, Archivaria 52 (2001): 126-135 [133]. “Creation by activators relates to the effect of previous interpretations of an archive’s content and meaning on subsequent interpretations of the same archive.” Jennifer Douglas, “A Call to Rethink Archival Creation: Exploring Types of Creation in Personal Archives”, Arch Sci 18 (2018): 29–49 [40]. how objects have become archival elements, from selection to preservation to access, and how the archive in its turn is part of larger (social-cultural) systems.7“There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside.” Derrida, Archive Fever, 14. The specific archival organization becomes part of the understanding, potential and value of its holdings. To this emerging discursive field corresponds Piffaretti’s question: “What is there between two images, between a person and an image, or between a person and an image as an object?”8Quote from In Between, the ‘visual abstract’ of Piffaretti’s research on the newsstand.

Separately found, tinted Dutch intertitle for the film Tristano e Isotta (FR/IT, Ugo Falena, 1911, Pathé), Eye Filmmuseum

 

processual images and intrinsic meaning
In order to become meaningful, archival records (through their fragmentary status), need research and articulation of issues;9Cf. Jamie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. (London: Routledge, 2014): 10. value still has to be added in the process of elaboration. In the case of visual records, they could be seen as ‘processual images’.10Elaborating on, and in contradistinction to Harun Farocki’s ‘operational images’, see: Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 293. Their meaning has to unfold, which corresponds to Annet Dekker’s idea to understand (new media) art primarily in terms of processes.11Annet Dekker, “Curating in Progress: Moving between Objects and Processes”, Uncertain Spaces: Virtual Configurations in Contemporary Art and Museums, eds. Helena Barranha and Susana S. Martins (Lisbon: Instituto de História da Arte et al., 2015): 33-54. She argues for “concentrat[ing] on processual (or network) aesthetics, [i]nstead of the material promise of a medium, or its substantial form.”12Dekker, “Curating in Progress”, 40. Processual or network aesthetics refer to artistic expressions as condensations of interactions, as functions within larger dispositifs. This is like a tool, which is used to achieve something else, and hence the tool’s meaning is defined by its purpose and relation to other things, as part of a process. The thing produced may similarly serve something else, and so there is a chain of ‘postponed meaning’. This, however, would imply that one can never consume any meaning, as it always evades the thing observed. I would therefore propose that next to a processual approach one may still consider an object for the promise of the medium and as a substantial form.

The value of something cannot just rely on what it ultimately enables to achieve; meaning is not just extrinsic. Different from what has become fashionable in archival discourse,13See e.g. Dot Tuer, Mining the Media Archive (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2006); Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmermann, eds., Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); §2. in Vana Goblot, “The Television Archive on BBC Four: From Preservation to Production.” VIEW: Journal of European Television History and Culture 4.8 (2015). archives are no mines and archival images are not simply ‘raw material’, to become meaningful only in the way they are used by others. Meaning can also be found within an image, which does justice to the archival object – being always already something in itself. This is a question of agency of objects. It asks for an understanding of objects as manifestations in their own right, which are not reducible to ‘data’, ‘thumbnails’, or appearances, but as ontological entities that ‘speak back’.14Cf. Mieke Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 8.

Piffaretti draws a parallel between filmmaking and archiving, as the practices of recording and editing shots on the one hand are like selecting and organizing records on the other; in both ways relations are established between elements while arranging them. In a similar way, one may move into a single object or image, scene or situation (such as the intertitle above, or the rubber below). One may then observe various elements inside it, as results of both intentional and unintentional actions, or traces of some acts, thoughts and ideas. Relations can be imagined between these internal elements, and also between them and external ones, for how images have come into existence. In fact, the value of an archival image might be found exactly in the capacity of triggering thoughts and ideas, in the imagination it enables. The allegedly fragmentary nature of archival objects might well be a major quality that keeps on fueling theory and imagination.

‘Per Semp-re’ (For Ev-er), writing on rubber, childhood relic – Giorgia Piffaretti, 2017

 

theory/imagination
In everyday life, you continuously see things that are not very special, but there might be something to those things that you don’t fully understand, such as a particular appearance or function, or where those things come from. You may start to think of what you actually see, why it exists, what it could mean and what are its possible implications. What you are thinking and imagining, is what qualifies as elementary theory. This usually happens without paying much attention to the thought process itself. You may just examine your assumptions and quickly make up your mind once evidence is provided. But your conclusions may simply rely upon familiar references or preconceived ideas; all too quickly, you may overlook more profound concerns, which relate to hidden aspects.

For example, one may consider an ordinary pen and start wondering where it come from, how its ink is produced, from where its metal and plastic originate – the mines and oil refineries and beyond, and finally, where one obtained that pen. Instead of quickly mentioning a shop, one may question how one came there in the first place and chose this particular pen, because of a certain use, and how one started to think all of this, as the result of observing the pen while writing down these reflections. Elementary theory – the quick answer where one got the pen, grows into a chain of thoughts, beyond what is directly visible, imagining how that thing exists at different levels – from my desktop where it lies, to corporate business that marketed it. Or, to bring it back to film, how the pen became the metaphor for the caméra stylo, how that developed into auteur theory, and caused archives to collect art films, rather than let’s say corporate films that would show you where the metal or the oil was found. Or when art films were collected, the outtakes were not preserved, which would provide context to understand the filmmaker’s decisions.

The question is how archival materials – canonical or not – are more than a confirmation of something already thought or seen before, but how they open up perspectives, to allow for the not yet thought and seen. This is not a license to indulge in idiosyncratic theories without looking for any support, or that systematic examination is precluded. On the contrary, you – archivist, artist, scholar – are continuously challenged to examine your assumptions and thoughts. This is what Piffaretti’s artistic research shows: tracing your own being and subjectivity, how things observed resonate with your personal experiences. Rather than checking your thoughts to be true or false, the archive allows you to understand how you have developed your theory and imagination, in continuous dialogue with the thing observed.

 

applying the model of the newsstand
To conclude this response, I would like to consider the applicability of Giorgia Piffaretti’s method to seeing familiar things anew and to think about how personal archives enable this. Just as I have suggested that her proposal might be part of a larger development towards personal curating, Piffaretti’s model, which allows individuals – archivists, artists, scholars – to recognize value in things that don’t seem special at first, may have much broader applicability to archives.

Through her research in Gaggiolo, Pifaretti has developed the model of the newsstand as a conceptual device with four functions, those of reference point, observatory, narrative generator, and archive. The first step, which stresses one’s subjectivity, would be to determine my own reference point. This might be the (former) studio of my father, the artist Fra Paalman. I can also recognize it as an observatory, from which I could see the world, through his art works, and the way he has displayed them (e.g. the ‘Steering wheels’ below). Filming there myself, the studio functioned as narrative generator as well, for the stories my father told me, the narrative imagination sparked by his works and by all objects he kept there, including family stuff, while family life was often depicted by my father too. Next to my memories of the place and the recordings I have made there, this collection of things constitutes a personal archive indeed. With distance and time, familiar images no longer appear as self-evident. Piffaretti’s model shows how I can trace their trajectories and my relationship to them, while simultaneously moving inside them, to open up an imaginative realm. In this realm I can encounter my father again, and curate his and my archive. It is a process akin to editing, for the meaning that emerges out of the created structure.15Stéphanie-Emmanuelle Louis, “Exhibiting/Editing: Dominique Païni and Programming at the Cinémathèque Française at the Turn of the Centenary”, Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives, Eds. Julia Noordegraaf et al. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013): 326-330.

This quick examination of Piffaretti’s model is promising. I may also try another ‘reference point’, such as a film archive preserving some of my own films. A question here is how my reference point may create its own model, next to and in connection to Piffaretti’s. Or could it be considered as a product of hers, implied by the function of reference point? Her model then creates a house-in-a-house, an aedicula (edicola is the Italian word for ‘newsstand’; through the news it is ontologically part of the world’s architecture). This aedicula creates a ‘space in between’, between my model and hers in which it nests, and this space in between then fuels my own (ontological) theory and imagination, of how an image makes sense to me and assumes special value.

‘Steering wheels’ (LP rack with automobile steering wheels), ca. 2000, Fra Paalman (film still by Floris Paalman, 2013)

Notes   [ + ]

1. < https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Bits_and_Pieces_from_EYE_Film_Institute_Netherlands> Since the late 1980s, the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam started to preserve unidentified film fragments, which became the now famous collection of ‘Bits and Pieces’, see: Mark-Paul Meyer, ‘From the Archive and Other Contexts’, Found Footage: Cinema Exposed, eds. Marente Bloemheuvel, Giovanna Fossati, Jaap Guldemond (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press/EYE Film Institute Netherlands, 2012), 145-152. A major reference in respect of ‘orphan films’ is the work done by Dan Streible and the Orphan Film Symposium, organized since 1999. <http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/> (2019-06-15)
2. Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge (London/New York: Routledge, 2002 – translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith from L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969), 146. See also: Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression”, Diacritics 25.2 (Summer, 1995): 9-63 [17].
3. Giovanna Fossati, From Grain to Pixel: The Archival Life of Film in Transition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 255.
4. This argument is based on Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 146.
5. Cf. Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things Commodities in Cultural Perspective (New York: New School University, 1988).
6. “Personal records show not simply the facts, but the opinions, and rationalizations and romanticizations, about love affairs, parenting, travel, work, and all other aspects of individuals’ inner lives. For writers, life details and personal experience become the background to writing and are not neatly separated from the work.” Catherine Hobbs, “The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals”, Archivaria 52 (2001): 126-135 [133]. “Creation by activators relates to the effect of previous interpretations of an archive’s content and meaning on subsequent interpretations of the same archive.” Jennifer Douglas, “A Call to Rethink Archival Creation: Exploring Types of Creation in Personal Archives”, Arch Sci 18 (2018): 29–49 [40].
7. “There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside.” Derrida, Archive Fever, 14.
8. Quote from In Between, the ‘visual abstract’ of Piffaretti’s research on the newsstand.
9. Cf. Jamie Baron, The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. (London: Routledge, 2014): 10.
10. Elaborating on, and in contradistinction to Harun Farocki’s ‘operational images’, see: Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 293.
11. Annet Dekker, “Curating in Progress: Moving between Objects and Processes”, Uncertain Spaces: Virtual Configurations in Contemporary Art and Museums, eds. Helena Barranha and Susana S. Martins (Lisbon: Instituto de História da Arte et al., 2015): 33-54.
12. Dekker, “Curating in Progress”, 40.
13. See e.g. Dot Tuer, Mining the Media Archive (Toronto: YYZ Books, 2006); Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmermann, eds., Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); §2. in Vana Goblot, “The Television Archive on BBC Four: From Preservation to Production.” VIEW: Journal of European Television History and Culture 4.8 (2015).
14. Cf. Mieke Bal, Travelling Concepts in the Humanities (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 8.
15. Stéphanie-Emmanuelle Louis, “Exhibiting/Editing: Dominique Païni and Programming at the Cinémathèque Française at the Turn of the Centenary”, Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives, Eds. Julia Noordegraaf et al. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013): 326-330.

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