Review of Archive Everything: Mapping the Everyday
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
240 pp., illus. 56 b/w. Trade, $42.00
This book is a humanistic and philological delight. Exhibiting a dazzling erudition in contemporary museum practice, archive theory, and fascinating arcane information Giannachi’s writing is always clear and precise, never obscurantist. Drawing widely on archive and museum studies at the same time as reflecting upon some of the most creative museum exhibition experiments of recent years, Giannachi returns us to both ancient, foundational, and cutting edge sources. In that this fascinating study deserves to become a classic in 21st Century archive studies.
Not only is this is a fundamentally important book for scholars interested in archives and museums, but it is also a textbook example of inter-disciplinary studies at its best. Each chapter succinctly and clearly frames a set of very wide ranging and fascinating case studies within the contexts of a deftly chosen relevant theoretical literature. Systematically advancing archive studies in terms of the participatory museum ethic, Giannachi adds a new dimension to the power of combination. Connecting an eclectic range of scholarship and deeply inspired by Michael Shanks’ work on media archaeology and the archaeological imagination, this book will be of considerable use to curators and of special use to those working in applied Diaspora studies.
Throughout Giannachi makes use of Derrida’s notion of the “archiving archive.” For instance, in her discussion of exhibitions such as ReConstitution and the transmedia works of sosolimited to advance ideas of fluidity and interchangeability, she describes how social media and technology have radically expanded upon the museum’s precursor in the Victorian cabinet of curiosities. Now anything that enters archives can potentially become a part of our self-fashioning. And perhaps no other instance is more illustrative of the type of new participatory and archiving archive practices detailed here than the exhibition organized by the Museum of the African Diaspora, I’ve Known Rivers (IKR):The MoAD Stories Project with its focus on migration and adaptation stories.
In order to provide a panoramic view of how archives have functioned across time as apparatus for mapping the first chapter crafts a brief evolutionary history of archives by defining five periods, Archives 0.0, 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0. The contribution is not merely synthetic as each chapter is of profound historical interest and theoretical productivity. For instance, in each case, Giannachi revisits and extends upon important exhibitions that have creatively generated “auxiliary archives” from user interaction. It is this participatory condition which is the essential feature of the new archive based museology wherein new interpretations are generated by visitors which add value to the exhibited archives. Moreover, different types of documents are juxtaposed in matrices of inter-documentation so that we can appreciate the contexts in which individual documents were created, collected and archived. The author thus explores how knowledge emerges in which the “truthfulness” of documents in and of themselves is not taken for granted. Her discourse on the role archives play in “presencing” and in the augmentation of everyday life is compelling.
Of special mention is the consistent concern for the function of witness, as for instance in the case Daniel Libeskind’s conceptually experimental Jewish Museum in Berlin. Set in such contexts, Giannachi engages Giorgio Agamben’s advancement of the potentialities inherent in archives while expanding upon Foucault’s ideas that an archive is a generative system of statements for discourses. Here, specifically for the individuals who witnessed those events themselves, exhibitions become archiving contexts for people to actively define themselves as witnesses. The same logic motivates the exhibition and co-creation of Diaspora archives as at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion and for the South African Apartheid era - The Black Photo Album: Look At Me: 1890-1950.
Effortlessly, Giannachi engages very different case studies. From the exhibition of Zuni ethnographic materials to records of early modern art history, from Christine Borland’s Hela show and the history of Henrietta Lacks’s Hela cancer cells to Lynn Hershman Leeson’s hybrid media installation The Infinity Engine, 2005-2015, she has cast a wide net. From Hershman’s !Women Art Revolution, the iWAR Movement and the Guerrila Girls documentary histories of the feminist movement and the creation of feminist futures to Judy Chicago, Giannachi never disappoints.
One learns here about many archives and exhibitions that one may have missed otherwise, and each case has been very effectively used for theoretical exploration. For instance, museums can be brought alive in the most embodied way as spaces for realizing creative potential and this has theoretical consequence. So when the Tate’s Turbine Hall was effectively turned into a nightclub, it wasn’t just about having fun but it demonstrated how dance and performance art in museums can work as epistemeology.
The will to archive is then a matter then of identification and advancement of the pure potential of archives. We have become our own archives. From bio-art, organ regeneration, gene manipulation to cyborg futures, the important thing, as deCerteau wrote, and as Giannachi reminds us is transformation. Archives facilitate transformational multiplication. They can function as “presencing” tools for generating new historical plots. The archive is indeed (a)live.
For those in transdisciplinary studies who might at this time be pondering the question of to what degree the definitional difference with interdisciplinary studies might have stood the test of time, specifically as regards the arts and archaeology, humanities, and the sciences, this is a book particularly well worth reading. Instead of being somehow diminished by the fusion of such an extraordinary range of disciplinary materials into this singular work, it is enriched. Giannachi has thus managed to bring a plethora of very different disciplinary materials together without losing the values inherent in retaining the integrity of each discipline.
Naturally, the topic of archiving everything lends itself to such a broad net, but the way in which all this diversity has been drawn together here is very compelling. In that context, this is I believe an important book for art historians and especially for curators and art historians interested in experimenting with archives as agents of transformation. In short, if you are in the business of museums, art history and archives, I suggest that you buy this book today.