Understanding the Archaeology of the Archive in 'Archive Everything'

by Linda Levitt

15 May 2017

Through participatory Web 2.0 culture, archives have moved from preserved, cherished documents to the structure of everyday life.
 
cover art

Archive Everything: Mapping the Everyday

Gabriella Giannachi

(MIT Press)
US: Nov 2016

Archive Everything: Mapping the Everyday is an apt title for Gabriella Giannachi’s ambitious exploration into the impulse to save and catalog both material objects and the elusive memories and experiences that comprise meaning in our everyday lives. She argues that the archive is not just a collection of objects but a way of knowing, and this argument provides the backbone for the book as she provides a broad array of case studies applying the archive as both subject and verb across a variety of cultural objects and installations.

Giannachi traces the archival impulse backward in time to create a sense of how archives have not only shaped history but also determined cultural understandings of both past and present. The adage “history is written by the winners” is a facile example of the relationship between archives and power, yet Giannachi takes this idea a step further. She argues that to be in the archive is to present, a mirroring of media theorist George Gerbner’s assertion that to not appear on television is to be absent from public life. The power of the archive has increased, and it has also been rendered more complex through a participatory Web 2.0 culture. Archives no longer exist as collections outside of everyday lived experience but rather have become the environment in which we communicate, work, and live.

As the book opens, Giannachi points out that “archives now operate pervasively within the digital economy” (1) laying the groundwork for the case studies she examines in later chapters. Throughout, she finds ways to thread contemporary ideas about archives, museums, and heritage into her archaeology of the archive, keeping the reader slightly but pleasantly off-balance. One of the pleasures of Archive Everything is the way that similarities resonate between such disparate projects.

The larger body of the book is devoted to case studies of archives that, on the surface, may seem to have little in common. One expansive example that shows the layering of material within an archive is !W.A.R. (Women Art Revolution), Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 2010 film and archive of the women’s movement, spanning artworks and performances from the ‘60s to the early ‘00s. Giannachi’s study of !W.A.R. includes an array of women from Judy Chicago and Ana Mendieta to Cindy Sherman and Guerilla Girls. Hershman Leeson’s collection, then, enables both a historical trajectory and endless comparisons of performance, style, and articulation.

Giannachi’s approach also advocates for public memory, recognizing that projects aiming to gather information about objects and the past can best accomplish these goals by collecting the cultural impacts of an object along with the object and its archival representations (film, photographs, exhibits). In looking at diasporic archives, she argues that oral histories, dance, and ritual can all function as archives, whether they are embedded in daily activities or set aside as significant cultural events. The absence of a document or object does not imply the absence of an archive because knowledge can be transmitted and preserved through performance.

In many of her case studies, Giannachi privileges archives that are considered in the realm of artworks and museums, while others give insight into the intersection of public history and personal memory. Many of these projects ask participants to link their memories to places, creating an archive of personal experiences and reflections that get tied to digital artifacts and museum exhibitions. The contribution of stories makes the archive rich with meaning and personal connection. For example, the mobile platform Placeify was used to create a series of trails that reflect the history of the Exeter City Football Club and its fervently devoted supporters. The histories place significant players, coaches, and events along a geographic trail that includes the Exeter football stadium as its centerpiece.

A study of archives and memory inevitably leads to commemoration. Giannachi briefly discusses Holocaust commemoration by considering architecture and memory in the context of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. A takeaway from this discussion is the idea that contemporary sites of commemoration often blur the boundaries between memorials, museums, and monuments. This is akin to the breakdown of boundaries of categories and disciplines within the complex archives she studies elsewhere in the book.

In a brief but potent afterword, Giannachi points out the worst and best scenarios for how to engage with archives. One should begin by recognizing the archive is a massive collection of histories, stories, and knowledge, but that the archive itself is not a truth. The subjectivity that is brought to observing the archive is as uncertain as the subjectivities that contributed to the archive’s creation. A quick glance at social media reveals that “we are all collectors and curators, using archives as sites for exhibition, performance, and replay of who we are in relation to everything we know” (184). With this in mind, understanding the underpinning of the archive has become the way to understand our cultural pasts and present.

Archive Everything: Mapping the Everyday

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