Tuesday, April 08, 2008


I recently read an article that described the archives of two artists. The collections were not onlydocumentations of their lives and work, but were considered works of art in themselves. We're all familiar with the concept of an historical archive, a repository for the history of an institution or a person; the documents, photos and other kinds of records that are created as life goes on. These archives are of value to the subjects themselves if they want to review an activity, and to historians and scholars who want to understand and interpret the past.

I'm not sure I understand the concept of an archive as art itself though I enjoy looking through the detritus of someone else's life. Maybe it's a form of voyeurism or maybe it's a way to learn about and understand another person, even though I do it from my own viewpoint. But there are a couple of problems.

Logging the past takes time away from the present. It is a frustration to keep a journal because I can never be ahead; I'm always catching up. And taking time to write down what has just happened means I'm not experiencing what is happening right now. A very detailed journal of one's everyday life would include "and then I spent the evening writing in my journal." However, sometimes life happens so quickly and intensely that we need to sit back and reflect on it to solidify the experience.

The other problem is gathering, organizing and maintaining the archive. This work is usually done by someone other than the person or institution that created the material in the first place. An extreme example is the LifeLogging practiced by computer scientist, Gordon Bell. He records the minutia of his life: thousands of photos each day, every email, every phone conversation, every face-to-face conversation, every piece of paper that crosses his desk. He does it party because, with digital technology, it's possible to do. He also claims to be using the collection to investigate methods for organizing and accessing such a large mass (or mess?) of random information. This activity could be considered egocentric, especially since Bell hires helpers to collect and organize his life history. If it takes three or four people to archive the life of one person, who is going to archive the lives of the archivers?

I must admit that I've long enjoyed searching for tit-bits of information about my ancestors, and I'm presently excited about transcribing some recently discovered letters written almost 150 years ago by my great-great-great-grandmother. These letters and some additional related material will make an interesting story. Fortunately, there are only a few letters and that scarcity somehow makes them more interesting and precious than a thousand letters would be. It's tempting to hunker down and spend hours transcribing. But then I need to come back to earth. There's a real life out there, interacting with real people in real time.


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