Book Review – (W)ARCHIVES: Archival Imaginaries, War, and Contemporary Art (2020)

Archives are “structures of meaning in process” (Roberts 2014: 114), always in the process of becoming, linked as much to the past (which they claim to represent) as to the future (which they inevitably shape). We can learn much about societies by looking at what is included in archives but also by searching for what is excluded from them, without assuming that everything that is included in archives is equally relevant for the ways societies see themselves and want to be seen by others. Archives structure politics and societies, and they do so with regard to the past, the present and the future.

Digitization gives the archive new momentum, explored in this fine book in terms of “the increasingly structuring role played by digitization and digital archives in contemporary warfare.” The term (w)archives refers to “the extended materiality of contemporary art, wherein immanent digital archiving, as a structuring condition, intersects with images, bodies, senses, infrastructures, environments, imaginaries, memories, textures, emotions, and structures of feeling” (editors, XXXI).

(W)archives merges visual and social analysis aiming to increase the relevance of archives as “sites for making political demands, to invent new forms of evidence-making, and to make sensuous the experience of living with war” (XXXI).

The book does not include a definition of war. In consequence, forms of social interaction are included that do not fit standard definitions of war, thus interrogating our understanding of war but also blurring the contours of the book.  

Artistic practices appear throughout the book “as potential sites from which to intervene in the epistemological gaps produced by datafied processes” (XIII), as engagements with war-related technologies, and as sites of resistance and counter-archives.

Drones serve as the book’s meta-signifier for (the visualization/critique of) current and future warfare. They fit neatly into emerging sensor/surveillance societies and exemplify machine–for–machine imagery, seemingly decoupling human beings from moral responsibility. They are apt vehicles to theorize, visualize, and engage (W)archives’ overall problematique.

Drones are both visible (not always but often) and visualizable. So are the consequences of drone strikes on the ground. Visualizing drones’ psychological impact on those exposed to them visually and/or aurally is, however, more difficult.

Being constantly on the move, producing and archiving images instantaneously, drones create an archive that “disrupts conventional notions of spatial order” (Maurer, 123) and temporality, thus moving the archive – which is deeply embedded in imperial violence, colonialism, and the history of aerial surveillance – from the past to both the present and the – hypothetical/virtual – future.

While most artworks discussed in (W)archives utilize drone (and other) images as “counter-hegemonic tools” (Braeunert, 164), Tuck notes that drone art is mainly produced by European and North American artists thus reproducing “asymmetrical power relations in [the drone] war and its viewing conditions” (165).

Similarly, missing from public protests against mass deletions from social media of video documentation of human rights abuses in Syria are “the videographers themselves – the eye-witnesses who shot the video content and uploaded it” to social media. Interestingly, these videographers tend to talk about their videos in terms of community-building and memory-preserving rather than in such Western notions as “‘transitional justice,’ ‘postwar accountability,’ and ‘video as evidence of human rights violations’” (Saber 390–1).  

Inspired by anticolonial and feminist critiques of vision, Dyer discusses the “careless act of seeing but not seeing” (233) manifest in US/UK ignorance of civilian casualties in the war against ISIS which is indicative of institutional bias – racialized, gendered. As a remedy, Dyer suggests open-source remote monitoring utilizing local sources. Such monitoring would include, inter alia, “feminist ethics of care,” radical empathy, respect for ambiguity, and acknowledgement of the remote monitor’s “restricted view” (248–9).

Reappearing the disappeared is the subject of several chapters on the legacies of the Argentine dictatorship and the current politics of migration. With regard to Argentina, for example, Lebech reenacts on stage interviews with survivors to reflect on “the durational affect and effect of torture” (300), geographical entanglements and the performative dimension of bearing witness.

In the Israel–Palestine context, Azoulay suggests entering the imperial archive only together with those excluded from it – as “co-citizens of a nonimperial imagination” (317). Since this is often “an impossible goal,” she proposes, rather than entering the archive, “dwelling in its threshold” (321) because the very act of entering the archive implies recognition of both the criteria according to which the archive is organized and the legitimacy of those who put it together.

The book also discusses the limitations of, and dangers hidden in, artistic engagements with political issues. Agostinho observes that long-distance, thermographic, infrared imagery “reconfigures the senses beyond the field of human vision [but] it does not fundamentally challenge what we know about the senses as racial formation” (213).

As regards forensic photography, Braeunert notes that “potentially positivist notions” like truth and evidence “have reentered critical debate” (190; see also Gade, 380). Such anachronistic epistemology contrasts with “uncertainty, double vision, and looking askew” (Braeunert, 190) to be found in many art practices discussed here.

In many discussions of forensic art, political considerations have replaced aesthetic dimensions. It is, however, the aesthetic dimension that can serve as a forum “for negotiating the status of contested objects” (Gade, 369) and disclosing the process through which evidence comes into being.

Inevitably, questions emerge regarding the relationship between critique and reproduction, opposition and confirmation, counter-hegemony and reinforcement: do scholars, artists and NGOs, regardless of their intentions, always (on some level and often inadvertently) confirm that which they set out to criticize?

This question is crucial in any engagement with visual practices as potential sites for interventions in and critiques of the computerized, datafied, digitized rationale of sensor societies and contemporary wars. Is it possible, then, to escape the violence, dynamics, and power discrepancies of the (w)archive entirely while still operating, albeit with critical intentions, within the epistemology and terminology of the archive?

(W)ARCHIVES: Archival Imaginaries, War, and Contemporary Art (2020). Edited by Daniela Agostinho, Solveig Gade, Nanna Bonde Thylstrup and Kristin Veel. Sternberg Press, Berlin

Reference and suggestions for further reading:
Roberts, John (2014) Photography and Its Violations (New York: Columbia University Press)
Derrida, Jacques (1998) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
Taylor, Diana (2003) The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham and London: Duke University Press)
Pinho, Ana Catarina, ed. (2021) Reframing the Archive (Porto: Archivo Press)
Morton, Christopher and Darren Newbury, eds. (2016) The African Photographic Archive: Research and Curatorial Strategies (London: Bloomsbury)