Challenges of the archive


André Raatzsch

A digital archive of Sinti and Roma within the discursive space on archives

The text at hand deals with the context of the digital archive for the art and culture of Sinti and Roma, as well as the complex mechanisms of the archive (and of archival practice), while making no claim to be complete.

In the text we shall touch upon the following overlapping aspects:

  1. developing archive within the discursive space on archives
  2. an archive of Sinti and Roma in the field of tension between visibility and invisibility
  3. curatorial considerations on archival practice and the politics of collection
  4. a digital archive of Sinti and Roma within the discursive space on archives

The text approaches these aspects consistently from the perspective of our archive section of the politics of photography, whereas a curatorial opinion on content will also be heard in its own right. With this text, we hope to stimulate a discourse on archives and archival practice.

A developing archive within the discursive space on archives

In planning an archive, it is essential to conduct multiple examinations in order to gain the most precise knowledge possible about the conditions and the environment in which the developing archive can position itself. It can be expected that a photographic archive – just like a photograph, as Sekula determined in his essay On the Invention of Photographic Meaning (1981) – will become part of a discourse the moment it appears in public. Furthermore, “in a very important sense, the notion of discourse is a notion of limits” (Sekula 1981). In accordance with Sekula’s discursive theory, the following question arises: What risks and challenges must be overcome in this genre ?

The term ‘archive’ itself has multiple meanings, and therefore it must be very precisely defined in every single ‘case’ of an existing archive. The current landscape of archives is not (or no longer) limited to archives of static collections striving for survival and completeness by devoting themselves to the past. In 2010, the general conference of the International Council on Archives (ICA) in Oslo approved the Universal Declaration on Archives, which recognizes, among other points, “the diversity of archives [...] [and] the multiplicity of formats in which archives are created”. According to a general approach described in the foreword to the anthology interarchive (2002), the archive gained special cultural and political significance at the end of the last century – both as an institution and as a metaphor. The emphasis is on “central developments and questions in society as a whole [encounter] each other within an archive” (Kunstraum of the University of Lüneburg (Germany) 2002).

According to Ines Schaber, the archive has also gained more significance in recent years because the reorganization of documents and archival materials into digital databases has influenced both readings and assessments of the past, as well as our access to it. At present, the archive as a genre – to the benefit of other forms of distribution and publication – is producing the full range of discursive possibilities that archives can offer (Schaber 2011).

As we speak of current trends in the discourse on archives, we should however never forget the forms that the “domination mechanisms installed within and throughout archives” wanted to eradicate, so that “polyphony and dynamic as hallmarks of the processes of constituting meaning” may (once again) be established in our mental image of an archive.

An archive of Sinti and Roma in the field of tension between visibility and invisibility

Today’s archival landscape has thus been shaped by a multicolored palette of archive types: from the classical collection on to experimental forms and beyond that to the active archives. Within an environment this diverse, our developing archive will need to position itself as “a digital archive for the art of Sinti and Roma” – and we must do this without a previously existing institute, and as the first project of its kind in this area. What discursive space is thus opened by the social context and – within our archive section – by photography (and the accompanying readings of images) as the main focus point of the archive?

Archives of images have become unthinkable without reference to the discourse on the documentary image, as Schaber (and others) have written, for these discourses set the context and condition the readings of photographs. The archive itself thus becomes a place that influences the photographic image, allows it to speak and makes it legible and able to be localized (Schaber 2011). It follows that archives are never neutral; rather, they are dependent on the mechanisms of power on which their construction and content are founded. In order to grapple with the discourse on archives of photographic images, we must therefore ask ourselves the question: How does an archive affect its own documents? One critique by Sekula about (image-based) archives is that they have a homogenizing effect on the pictures – they no longer retain their individual effect. Furthermore, a decision in favor of one certain archival structure means the elimination of another, as Schaber argues. So what kind of structure have we chosen?

Should it be a classical archive, which is thoroughly problematic in the context of a population that was documented and persecuted under National Socialism? Or are we open with regards to experimental archival structures that integrate those moments of disorder and incompleteness and involve those who have been excluded up to now? If so, then to what degree?

The maintaining authority of the archive also plays a decisive role (not only) in the structuring of the archive, for “the archive as an entity depends on the owners and the managers. Archives are not neutral,” as we wrote in 2013 in Getting Into Discourse:

“The way that they promote a certain consciousness is controlled by the power that determines the practice of the archive, that determines its accumulation, collection and stock-piling of photos and, not least, its composition of legends.” (Raatzsch/Benkö 2013)

How much can or will the archival material still influence the structure of the archive and how strongly will the archival structure affect its material?

Curatorial considerations on archival practices and the politics of collection

As curator, at this point I must also address a series of questions on the (im)possibilities of structuring of contents and in the selection process for material for the collection: How detailed should these processes of classification and structuring for the photographic image documents become? What scientific and political aspects should also factor into the critical consideration? What rules and procedures should be followed in order to handle the digital archiving process and the classification process in a responsible and aware manner, since there are hardly any exemplary initiatives for a politics of collection that is critical of representation? How can both the occurrence and reinforcement of racist patterns of thinking and acting be prevented in the archive (area)? How can an emancipatory documentation of Sinti and Roma people be made possible?

The greatest challenge lies in recognizing and understanding that the Politics of Images faces the paradox of collecting images and presenting them while at the same time selecting and contextualizing them in an emancipatory way, in order to work against the hegemonic readings of them in existing archival forms. This task requires a critical consciousness in order to be able to define the true aspects and goals of the archival area. Changing the name of the area from ‘Photograpy’ to ‘Politics of Photography’ (Bilderpolitik) nominally confirms this approach.

However, what do I mean here by paradox? I'm referring, for example, to: project concepts and self-presentations without clear contextualization, along with the realization that we are dealing with a complex system that in many ways lacks a given or accepted order or means of understanding it; a structure in which the elements often get tangled up with each other in paradoxes whilst still having to become well-fitted parts of a complementary structure – these things lead us directly into contradictions. Yet analyzing such paradoxes can also lead to a deeper understanding of the documents, photographs and archive records of a minority and can, in the best case, dissolve the initial contradiction. New inter- and transcultural understandings and recognitions can emerge in cases where we are dealing with “central developments and questions in society as a whole,” where fellow citizens from the dominant segments of society become a part of the storytelling and the narratives of the minority. In this way, at least, renewed (self-/)ghettoization or cultural and social exile can be avoided.

The mission of an archive section in the politics of photography is primarily to stimulate discourse on the politics of collection, creation and design. The goal is to build critical consciousness and thereby promote the essential change that is still lacking in regards to racist attitudes in society and the portrayal of Sinti and Roma, as well as the first step, already repeatedly taken, towards democratic acceptance and legal equality from the side of the state. As curator, I have to therefore focus less on the art and culture of the Sinti and Roma, but instead focus my critical gaze on the “why?” - on the context and the current moment that still demands me to produce a “representation of a minority”.

A digital archive of Sinti and Roma within the discursive space on archives

“Archives, especially digital ones, will last only if they are constantly used; if a sustaining authority keeps codifying, interpreting and assessing them anew; if this entity actively acquires its documents, gives them away or seeks to eliminate them. Only in this way can digital archives survive for decades. They live for as long as a force can carry them and keep their informational metabolism working.” (Warnke 2002)

What does it mean to use an institutional database software, originally developed for established museums, archives and libraries, for an archive in which the art of a minority – that is, from the minority among them – is to be represented? Does the software establish it as an internationally recognized archive? What powers influence the informational metabolism of the archive? The selection, layout and appearance of the software give a first impression of being connected within the network of infrastructures of internationally recognized institutions, which would naturally be a positive effect. Its danger, however, is that this software selection has the consequence of leaving unavoidable statistical data in the structure of the archive. This is because the system is based on those classical standards that established institutions have to achieve – specifically an effort to arrive at the greatest possible comprehensiveness and order, which is supposed to generally and permanently store “the unique quality of archives as authentic evidence of administrative, cultural and intellectual activities and as a reflection of the evolution of societies” (ICA 2010).

Here we cannot avoid the pitfalls of the genre and may remind ourselves of Derrida, who spoke of mal d'archive, the sickness of the archive:

“The question could be, what do we have when the virtual lid on the archive closes upon the stored material: digital eternal life, or data’s final resting place?” (Warnke 2002)

In the end, the conception of an archive is a matter of remembering and forgetting. The informational content of a typical human long-term memory is estimated to have a digital value at the volume of between 150 and 225 megabytes (Warnke 2002). In the light of this reality, the question that arises for me in the politics of collection and images is: What do we want to remember? What can we remember – in the field of tension between universalizing modes of thinking and individual history? We want to remember what can happen, what potential our actions hold, and – to borrow from Azoulay – our responsibility towards those in the photographs. It is only through them that the development, the connections and the depth and endless range of selective possibilities in the archival practice, the “polyphony and dynamic”, become more interesting than merely what is happening or what has happened. (Azoulay 2008)

In effect:

“The archive is not a place of storage, but a place of production; a place where our relationship to the past materializes and where our present inscribes itself on the future.” (Schaber 2011)

Era Trammer | Die Herausforderungen des Archivs | Non Fiction | Austria, Germany | 2018 | pho_00268 Rights held by: André Raatzsch — Erika Trammer | Licensed by: André Raatzsch — Erika Trammer | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive The images cited in the film were kindly provided by: Diözesenarchiv St. Pölten | Fundación Sierra Pambley | János Sági / Museum of Ethnography – Budapest | Willi Sylvester Horvath | Era Trammer