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Philosophy of New Music

Performing the Archive: The Transformation of the Archives in Contemporary Art from Repository of Documents to Art Medium

by Simone Osthoff
Atropos Press, NY, NY, 2009
208 pp. Paper, $21.95
ISBN: 9780982530900.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
Department of Transtechnology, University of Plymouth


I believe histories of media, art, science, and technology, rather than becoming a proliferation of case studies that seek to fix their place within a more established international art history canon, need to first and foremost critically engage with historiography and methodology as such, as media capable of topological performances of their own. Simone Osthoff 2009, pp. 53

Performing the Archives is a must read for anyone interested in the modern art history of Brazil and critical studies of media art. Certainly for the Leonardo circle, it is foundational [1]. In revisiting the lively creative careers of Eduardo Kac, Paulo Bruscky, Villem Flusser (1940-1972), Lygia Clark (1920-1988) and Helio Oiticica (1937-1980) [2], Osthoff provides an important addition to the emerging studies of global modernisms, to the inclusive histories of movements, such as mail art, conceptual art, constructivism and the neo-concrete amongst others. More specifically, her study raises fascinating questions concerning the use of archives as art and issues of techno-imagination and participatory aesthetics, telempathy and telepresence art including much else of transdisciplinary value such as performance ethics and psychotherapeutic healing. [3] Performing the Archives is especially useful for reflecting upon the expanding appreciation of that which was formerly excluded from the imperialist canon of American art history. The study shows how these artists worked as cultural activists through the 1960’s and 1980’s to preserve memories of their art, all the more important as their works had escaped commodification and to a great extent lacked international presence in its time.

In her fascinating theoretical discussions relating to the creative exploration of the intersections of art, media, and archives that these artists pioneered, Osthoff’s key argument is presented as the tenet of faith in the above epigraph. Therein notion of topology and topological performance runs through the book as an organizing metaphor and tactic around and through which she gathers and interprets the art historical data. Above all, she is a poetic theorist engaging art works and artist’s writings to pose questions that she concludes have no answers.

Chapter One introduces the notions of topology and topological spaces and how these concepts inform the artists’ works and her understanding of the importance of those works for art history. For instance, in the case of Lygia Clark’s work, Osthoff proposes that topological characteristics are prevalent in the Neo-Concrete work in the early 1960’s and help to explain the fluidity of relations between the art works themselves, the artists’ writings about those art works and the archives they created to record how those art works came about as well as their subsequent exhibition as art. In the case of Kac, she emphasizes the explicit connections between the artistic process, research, and theory. Therein she embraces Flusser’s notion that art making is a form of theorizing, a type of science, and most controversially that science itself is a form of fiction. As I understand it, critique aside, what the notion of topology allows Osthoff to do is to bring together an extraordinarily diverse set of phenomenon, practices and influences, histories, technologies and philosophies.

Gazing across the table of contents evokes how deeply she has been inspired by Bruscky’s “experimental exercise of freedom”, how she has taken on his maxim that “whatever one man [woman] imagines, others can achieve.” From archives alive to pervert’s guides, from the history of the devil to evolution and progress as evil to Brazilian tropical utopia, from cannibalist tactics to cocaine guerillas, carnival and violence, porno-poetry, holopoetry, telepresence, body generating electronic archives, to the experimental bio art and electronic media life of Rara Avis and Rabbit Remix, Kac’s Cyborg, who in critical media or cultural studies could resist adding such a book to their archives?

It is, however, most unfortunate that there is no index. What is an index other than an archive of ideas in a book which allows for enhanced audience response and participation, the very goals of these artist’s works? In any event, that minor but unfortunate issue aside, the point is that each of these artists as theorists have put ideas and art works into circulation that seductively call for creative elaboration. Osthoff has in turn created a topological approach to art writing as a response to the ongoing crisis in art criticism. That allows her to propose where these artists works may fit in an ever changing and expanding, increasingly contested and inclusive modern art history. She also proposes a second-degree criticism based on Flusser’s concept of techno-imagination and argues that archives are alive.

In essence, Performing the Archives relates how these transnational Brazilian artists used sensorial experiences and various media to transform audiences into participants - amongst much else. Indeed, the range of topics as referred to above is dazzling and worth reiterating. From the negative aesthetics of anti-heroes to the aesthetics of circulation and reproduction, from Supra-Sensorial Parangolés to ambivalent tropical modernity and exile ethics, from copyart to teleart, body art to data base, from networks as mediums to news media archives as art mediums, this book is not only a powerfully interesting intellectual performance but surprisingly readable.

Though Osthoff proposes that topology provides a new form of art historical discourse consonant with the nature of these artists’ lives, works, and participatory practices, one might yet ask, however, whether one could equally effectively approach all the issues raised here without recourse to a topological discourse? [4] Does Osthoff’s inter-subjective topological approach really provide us with fundamentally new ways of understanding the “historization” of art and the “general crisis” in art criticism? Perhaps. And is there really effectively no difference between fact and fiction, art and science?

Art historians and others working in the field of archival studies may find it fascinating to consider the three stated studies relevant to the interpretations at hand: Jacque Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1996), Ann Reynold’s morphological methodology in Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere (2003) and Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repository (2001). It would be interesting to consider all four studies in relation to each other as for instance in Taylor’s case where she considers the hegemonic function of text-based archives over visual and aural media. In any event, Osthoff is clearly a Derridean and a Flusser devout, and wherever one’s sympathies may lie in those regards, this is a wonderful book well worth reading. Performing the Archive is at once eccentric, highly eclectic, and daring.


1. See “A Radical Intervention: Brazilian Electronic Art”, a Leonardo Special Project: Documents, Essays and Manifestoes at: http://www.leonardo.info/isast/spec.projects/brazil.html. Guest editor: Eduardo Kac.

2. For easy access, See Jacobo Crivelli Visconti’s “Paulo Bruscky: In Praise of the Fleeting” http://www.artealdia.com/International/Contents/Artists/Paulo_Bruscky, accessed March 14, 2011. On Villem Flusser, see http://www.flusser-archive.org/aboutflusser/biography. On Eduardo Kac, see http://www.ekac.org/. On Helio Oiticica's and Lygia Clark, see Simon Osthoff’s article on line article at www.leonardo.info/isast/spec.projects/osthoff/osthoff.html. On the increasing inclusiveness of American art and the case of Oiticica see Roberta Smith’s “A Short Intense Career Marked by Vibrant Color” in The New York Times March 17, 2007, accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/17/arts/design/17oiti.html?_r=1. Finally for concise descriptions of Lygia Clark’s work especially her use of the power of art objects in the therapeutic treatment of psychological trauma as well as useful links, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lygia_Clark.

3. Eduardo Kac is in all this an exemplary case of an artist as theoretician. See James Elkins “Foreword”, in Kac’s Telepresence and Bio Art, Networking Humans, Rabbits , and Robots (2005). Also see Didier Ottinger, “Eduardo Kac in Wonderland,” in Rabbit Remix exhibition catalog (2004).

4. Topology is a mathematical subject regarding disambiguation or the preservation of spatial properties under continuous deformation. The classic instance is the Mobius strip and amongst mathematicians the possibility of transforming a torus into a coffee cup as can be seen in a moving 3D image at http://en.wikipedai.org/wiki/Topology. The essential issue is that the geometry of the object depends on the way an object is put together rather than on its shape. Perhaps what Osthoff means is that art criticism of the works of these artists needs to be articulated in terms of relations other than the classic notions of perspective theory and quality etc which in any event have been something of a dead whipping horse in critical art history for many years. It would be interesting to see how authors such as James Elkin’s and John Tagg respond to Osthoff’s study. As for those working at the intersection of art and science, while the artists work on the transgenic and on psychological treatment of trauma are fascinating indeed, the notion that science is a form of inter-subjective fiction will be the axis around which opinion must divide.

Last Updated 1 April 2011

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