The idea that information is alive in its own right is a metaphysical claim made by people who hope to become immortal by being uploaded into a computer someday (Lanier 2010).…there will be different ways to hack into these digital memories since the digital archives, once online, are not separated from the “present” any more. In a way, of course, this means the disappearance of the emphatic notion of the “archive”; it dissolves into electronic circuits, data flow (Ernst in Lovink 2003).
Artists and curators have been central in working with the archive and particularly in highlighting archival limitations, both pragmatic and political (Takahashi 2007). The effects of this attention have been to push the bounds of accountability of the researcher making use of archival sources, while also reinstating the importance of the archive itself. The ‘living’ archive is thus configured through the tracking processes of both its content and discourse: what has been preserved, what has been made accessible to researchers, and what this reveals about value at a particular juncture.
To borrow a definition from LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), the ‘living’ archive’s aim is not to bury the past in boxes or databases for posterity, but to “unearth fresh forms of thinking from what has gone before” (2010, online). The ‘living’ component of this archival framework is thus twofold: on the one hand it is about access as it encourages researchers to make connections between materials and to map out their own archival journeys in hopes of “revealing new ways of looking at the future by examining the past” (LIFT 2010, online). On the other hand, it is also about survival, in opposition to death, loss, and destruction, by way of engaging with the traces and remnants that live on. But just what constitutes digital traces online and how traces are retrieved remains one of the dominant conundrums of the online archive.
The online archive―framed as living―calls for a media archaeology approach to locate traces and unearth the structures of power embedded in the process of collecting, sorting, and preserving. For this reason, the living archive’s active component lies in its discursive power, which simultaneously reveals the idea of the ‘digital trace’ and puts it into question: who created the file, for what purposes, and by which means does it circulate? To intercept a digital file―a version of it―is to acknowledge the continuity of the life of a work, often separated from context, creator, and intention.
For Eric Kluitenberg (2010), the imagined discrepancy between the living archive, and the closed system that constitutes the idea of the traditional archive, is summed up as a binary opposition―not with the Web as archival medium, but with life itself:
A static archive is a completely closed thing, in contrast to the multiple, dispersed discourses of present, living culture… there are dominant forces that try to control this dispersal and order it in a particular way, making the archive immutable (Kluitenberg 2010, online).
Despite not acknowledging the varied approaches to ‘offline’ archiving, nor addressing the potential dynamism of the traditional archive, Kluitenberg’s point about the control of the archive is important. Discursively, the notion of control over the circulation of data online is central to reframing the archive; it is an explicit attempt to coordinate if not replicate the human mind to the preservation of humanity itself, a storage that would necessarily be mobile: a moving memory (Chun 2008). Similarly, for Net Critic Josephine Bosma (2010):
It is hard to say how a ghost from the past will fit in the future present. Nevertheless, many of us would, despite obvious uncertainties, like to somehow put our mark on the development of history. What part of our heritage remains or continues can never be completely controlled and predicted, however. This is one thing we can say with certainty.
For Kluitenberg and Bosma, control over the circulation of memories―and often their interpretation and narrativization―becomes testament to the ‘ungraspability’ of the time and space of memory: stored, retrieved or lost, human or machine. However, while the connection between the living archive and life itself seems to be a natural one, for media scholar Geert Lovink (in conversation with Wolfgang Ernst, 2003), what is embodied is no more alive or dead in terms of the ability to trigger memory:
the popular management discourse of ‘knowledge management’ has no explicit references to archives (…) according to certain business gurus, knowledge is stored in people, in organizations, ever transforming networks, ‘living’ entities rather than dead documents.”
He concludes that “in this hegemonic ideology knowledge only exists if it is up-to-date and can operate strategically, not hidden somewhere in a database (Ernst in Lovink 2003 online).
The living in contrast to the dead suggests that memories can lie dormant and sometimes be resurrected. Stasis thus becomes part of remembering (Brouwer & Mulder 2003).
While there may be no definitive end points to digital flows circulating through the Web, the interception of particular nodes, as moments of interruption, can in itself serve to frame the online archive, as a moving memory (Chun 2008). In fact, much of the functioning of the Internet Wayback Machine (IWM) relies on arbitrary screen captures of Websites―not documenting those Websites’ particular shifts or important updates by its community of users, but rather rendering highly self-reflexive the process of archiving itself, by placing the moments (nodes) of capture as predominant entry points into the Web’s past. This makes the archiving process, and the paths generated by it, the foremost layer of the recorded Web (again emphasizing automation for key moments of robot crawls.)
The IWM may be the best example of the archive of the Web, but the online archive also draws attention to the ways the database shapes the possibilities for storing memory, for potential (re)activation. On this, jake moore (2006) reflects and extends the prospects of this process by explaining that it is the and affect of a moment that is to be reiterated in the creation of an archive and retrieval system, “not to replay a moment again and again in a panicked reassertion of the now.” For moore, the life of the archive is in its assertion of the “possibility of placing oneself in the picture, of learning and discovery, of letting each other know we can and will do” (Matricules 2006 online).
Framed this way, the living component is not reserved to the online archive, but it re-emerges there with a particular point of emphasis: permanent exchange between nodes, rather than storage (Ernst 2003). For the great majority of online initiatives, the claim is made that exchange helps to determine archival value. As, Mark Wigley, Dean of the GSAPP (2005), suggests, access and use demonstrate a new potential for the archive:
This leads to the parallel claim from the side of archives, that an unused archive is not an archive. An archive is only an archive when it is entered, or, more precisely, when things come out. When we think of an archive, we tend to think of it as a place to which material has been brought to be protected. However, the act of archiving really happens when the archive emerges through the voice of a particular individual or character. Thus, the archiving gesture protects documents by projecting them rather than concealing them.
The living archive is therefore best conceived as a theory built on the notion of an archive of movement and transmission, which, according to Kluitenberg (2010), is itself instituted from the problem that most traditional archives are organized through selection: inclusion and exclusion. In this regard, the counter-archive is one that allows and encourages open participation, by way of free access to content and, while perhaps more idealized than easily implemented, admission also to its structure and organization. The living archive, if it were possible to examine on a case-by-case basis, would likely not reveal a unified application of the concept. It is perhaps best envisaged as an archive of life layers, where ‘life’ has become a substitute word for participation through access, and where access depends heavily on levels of materiality, to establish value.
This has been pulled (and revised) from my dissertation, available at: http://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/973890/ References available there, too.