The Image Is Not One
This photo-essay is an attempt to look at archival traces from a heterotopic gaze.[i] Such a gaze, as Michel Foucault writes, “exerts a sort of counteraction” on any position we occupy (in this instance, of the archive), thereby reconstituting it. The images of documents explored here are selections from some personal collections of artists that were digitally archived.[ii] They include manuscripts, photographs, negatives and 35mm slides, correspondence, newspaper clippings, images of artwork, diaries and sketchbooks, and many such items that were part of personal collections, eventually instituted within an archive to become documents of art history.
The archive with its claim to objectivity produces every item that crosses its threshold as document, serving the interest of history, collective memory, and posterity. But the domain of the personal collection is perhaps where we might be able to locate the construction of an affective dimension to the archive. Not all of these items were conceived of as ‘documents’ prior to their digitalisation for the archive. Often fragile, in a state of decay, and with marks and notations to the self that enable us to traverse memoryscapes, it is perhaps in the slippages between the personal collection and the archive that we are able to trace the slippages between memory and history, visibility and legibility, and between surface and image.
Archives often derive their authority from the fragility (rarity) of material they preserve. And yet, fragility of the personal collection from which archives are borne, far from suggesting abandon or carelessness, in fact evince the opposite – the fragility of institutions, of documents, of lives, and of worlds.
In his seminal book, Archive Fever (1995), Jacques Derrida explores through the life, work, and archive of Sigmund Freud, the complex role of inscription – or archiving – for the ways that it involves an act of simultaneous remembering and suppression. In particular, Derrida examines Freud’s essay “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’” (1925) which is an enquiry into the function of the mind as perceptual apparatus.
Freud’s mystic writing-pad was made up of a resin/wax slab covered by a transparent sheet attached to the top, containing two layers – of wax paper (below) and celluloid (above, covering). Anything written using a stylus could be erased by removing the cover sheet and placing it back; the slab however, would retain all inscriptions and re-inscriptions – visible, but illegible.
The mystic writing-pad is understood by Derrida as a metaphor for the relationship between writing and memory and in turn to the psyche. He notes that it bears ties also to the archive and in turn, the archive’s imbrication in institutional, collective, and psychic memories. The archive for Derrida then partakes of remembering as much as forgetting; that every archive is “at once institutive and conservative. Revolutionary and traditional.”[iii]
Archives and traces for Derrida are more about the present and possible futures than about the past, given the contemporary frameworks, questions, and urgencies that drive us to ‘uncover’ traces of a lived past. This act of uncovering, as Carolyn Steedman (2001) has so illuminatingly shown us, carries an affective dimension in the persistent failure of the archive to document experience, but to only carry traces of it. Access to those traces lie outside the archive – in the many elsewheres.
On the one hand, we know that the document is itself a trace – of an event or object. And yet, the trace exceeds the document through its eliding absence, its existence elsewhere. To put it differently, the trace moves beyond the document to reach out to a constellation of places and points that the document never could anticipate or envision.
The trace also accrues over time. Indeed, time as it lends itself to material composition and decomposition, becomes itself a trace – at times legible, but more often than not, visible. The digital archive then, captures and preserves the fragility of the document by suspending it for a moment in time.
A related (but not self-same) concept to the trace is that of the copy. The copy is important to explore for its relationship to an ‘authentic/original’ document of which it is copy and therefore ‘different.’ However, it too, surpasses the original document via the notion of trace. Here we must note, the relationship between copy and trace is not teleological – in that, one does not determine the other. The copy does not precede the trace, it is not trace, or vice-versa. Nor do they inhabit the same conceptual registers. Indeed, unlike the ever elusive trace, the copy is always present, even if as double (of the original/authentic).
The trace on the other hand, is the sign of that which is absent from presence (or that which is present), without which the present can never know itself as present. Following Derrida, the trace can never be entirely/absolutely known or present, because it is self-effacing – the trace is always something other (absent). The relationship of the trace to the original is therefore not teleological either, because it could precede it, suggest a dispersal from it, or exceed it. It is not just a stand-in for something else, it is marker of and one step outside of, something other, and is accessed elsewhere.
And by this very nature, the trace is heterotopic – in real and other spaces; elsewhere. The heterotopic trace carries the potential to destabilize the ground on which the archive is built, revealing itself in the interstices of the archive, often laying bare the possibility of a coherent, objective ground on which the archive is built.
In line with such and other elsewheres is the document. If a document is one step removed from that which it stands for, its housing in an archive ensures a double re-move. The archive – which is concerned with ‘presence’ and whose material is located firmly in the present – derives its instituting and constituting power from its reliance on, and framing of the document, fragment, ruin or fossil, as a trace of the past (Mary Ann Doe).
In the context of the archive then, the trace functions as an index, often understood as the unconscious of the archive. It introduces the element of contingency whereby it both props up, and has the power to disrupt or surpass the archive. As Arjun Appadurai writes, “the central property of the archive in this humanist vision is to be found in the ideology of the ‘trace.’… This property is the product of contingency, indeed of accident, and not of any sort of design. The archive is fundamentally built on accidents that produce traces. All design, all agency and all intentionalities come from the uses we make of archives, not from the archive itself.”[iv]
Digital media has further complicated the very constitutive grounds of the archive, through the notion of the database. No longer is the archive structured around a catalogue raisonné; rather, with the database logic, the archive is open to multiple entry points and lateral means of accession that are, some would argue, even algorithmic in potential. Viewing documents in a digital archive then, is intercepted by the screen. And while there have always been optic apparatuses that have framed our practices of viewing documents in particular, the difference introduced by digital technology perhaps is that every document by necessity, is framed by the screen as an image.
How then, do we think of the trace in relation to archive and memory; and on a separate register, to the image, or rather, the document as image? How do we encounter it, and how does the encounter of the trace perhaps even undo the archive, its images and modes of seeing? If re-presentation suggests an act of re-move, the language via which we discuss the optics of viewing images too is premised substantially on the notion of trace.
Let us consider a small set of concepts/actions by which we engage with the language of reproduction of images in the age of digital technology: Scan, meaning to detect some feature by looking at all parts of a whole of something, usually using an instrument; Copy, meaning to make an identical version of a thing; Print; meaning to make an indentation or mark on a surface, or to impress upon it. Clearly the vocabulary of a mechanical process is replicated in the digital one; only here, the screen is no palimpsest but apparently a tabula rasa – refreshed infinitely to show images anew.
The digital archive, with its life on hard disks, servers, and screens, has simultaneous, heterotopic and heterogeneous lives, modes of seeing, and encountering. The document, image, viewed on screen is not one. What does it mean for us then, to be looking at such images, especially since our ways of seeing have been framed together by subjectivities and technologies?
Indeed, viewing also partakes of the re-productive cycle just as each time it constitutes anew an image, and a discourse around it. Early technologies of mechanical reproduction, replication or duplication (printing) saw developments from the Gutenberg press to general letterpress printing, the mimeograph machine to the cyclostyle (interspered by numerous others ranging from the hectograph to the spirit duplicator). They all came to be replaced eventually by duplication through light – the photocopier. No longer did copying in large quantities rely largely on stencils or a stylus, or for that matter inks; light would come to be combined with heat and pressure to be exposed onto a photosensor/photoconductor, upon which it would form an imprint, which with toner would get fused/transferred onto paper.
Or, take for that matter the contact sheet which would be printed as an a priori photograph. To elaborate, the contact sheet is a photographic print that is printed as a 100% scale print of the negative image. It is printed before the photographic ‘image’ is selected from it, cleaned up, developed and printed. And in that sense, the contact sheet is both photograph and not. It bears marks of the photographer on its print and denies us the ability to view it as a finished photograph; yet it is constituted of the photographer’s eye. The contact sheet carries traces of processes and practices of seeing, framing and editing; of the sense of movement in time and space that go into the making of images. The contact sheet also bears traces of an economy of the photographic image – since it is at times the most developed photographic print version of images that fail to make the cut for ‘development’ from negatives. It produces images even in the absence of what we understand as photographs.
In seeming contrast to this reproducibility, the document in an archive is precious for it is the only one of its kind. Even perfect reproducibility does not take away from the preciousness of the document (the original). Or as Walter Benjamin wrote, with the reproduction, we may do away with the aura of the work of art, but what is left in place is a revelation (a revelling) in the consequence of this loss of aura. To put it differently, originality for Benjamin (rooted in his understanding of nature) still implied the impossibility of reproducing its inscription in the here and now.
Let us then consider the carbon copy – a product of a reproducible technology that had as Sven Spieker writes, “become indispensable to the modern office.” Spieker continues, “Carbon paper presumes the virginity of the sheet of paper underneath… [it] transmits an impression or imprint from the top sheet to the paper underneath… [and is] a receptive surface for progressive layers of incoming traces and whose creative act is fashioning a visible object from the archive of these traces.”[v] Much like Freud’s mystic writing-pad, the carbon paper by itself bears traces of multiple inscriptions and impressions, themselves illegible, but indicative of a mode of inscription and remembering nonetheless.
In the context of contemporary digital reproduction however, it becomes possible to state, as Boris Groys does, that “every digital copy has its own “here and now—an aura of originality—that a mechanical copy does not have. This change can be described as a moment of break between modernity and contemporaneity: digital reproduction is original (compared to mechanical reproduction) because it produces originals and not copies.”[vi]
And in that sense, we can see how the sketchbook/diary or ‘copy’ (as notebooks are often called) came to be perceived as an object, document or image within the archival regime. At one very obvious level, the sketch is self-contained; at others, it suggests an ‘artwork’ to come. It carries traces of the practice of sketching itself. And in the context of digital reproduction, of the practices of viewing and illegibility sure, but also the production of an original image with each rendition, copy, transference.
If the production of photographic prints were dependent on light sensitive paper, today archives use the light of the digital scanner to work upon the photographic negative, the transparency, the contact sheet, or for that matter, a photograph, to produce digital images on light-backed screens. Of course, scanners themselves are subject to decay, just as all apparatuses are – to general wear and tear but also more specifically to a decay in light. Today we speak about obsolescence being built into technology. But in that sense, what we essentially have are digital images that capture technologies in the process of becoming obsolescent. Every digital print captures diminishing ink, and every scan suspends fading light.
Cultural memory has always been constituted by the technologies and surfaces that capture traces, and for the longest time, those technologies relied on information being fixed onto the surfaces/objects onto which they resided. Sure, the photographs decayed, but the information on them would not get rearranged/ photoshopped/ trimmed once they were printed. We are now in an era where that very surface of cultural object on which images are imprinted before they enter wider cultural consciousness are the digital screens that zoom, photoshop, reorganise information ad nauseum. And so, what will be the nature of memory here on?
My thanks to Santhosh S. and Sabih Ahmed for going over many drafts of this, and for their valuable feedback and suggestions. Thanks also to Jyoti Bhatt, Gulammohammed Sheikh, and the Estate of K.G. Subramanyan for permissions to use images from their respective collections.
- Jyoti Bhatt, detail of contact sheet, 1967. Image Source: Jyoti Bhatt
- Detail of page from Rabindra Bharati course recommendation, 1999. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Page of a letter from Benode Behari Mukherjee to K.G. Subramanyan, 12 July 1966. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Page from Gujarati book Rangoli published by Vadodara Municipal Corporation Press, 1977, with notes by Jyoti Bhatt. Image Source: Jyoti Bhatt collection
- G. Subramanyan, page from ‘Note on the Regional Design Centres of the All India Handicrafts Board’ at New Delhi, 1975. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Jyoti Bhatt, page from a sketchbook, 1980s. Image Source: Jyoti Bhatt collection
- G. Subramanyan, page from manuscript of radio lecture on ‘The Impact of History on Indian Art and Culture’ 1966-73. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- G. Subramanyan, page from proposal for documentation of handicrafts submitted to Handloom Board, year unknown. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Jyoti Bhatt, 120mm transparency, 1992. Image Source: Jyoti Bhatt collection
- G. Subramanyan, page from true copy of letter by Dr. L.P. Sihare to K.G. Subramanyan, 14 September 1981, regarding custody of the works of Ramkinkar Baij by National Gallery of Modern Art, forwarded by K.G. Subramanyan to the Upacharya, Visva-Bharati with a handwritten postscript which continues on the flip side of the letter. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Jyoti Bhatt, photograph of K.G. Subramanyan with students at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda, 1970. Image Source: Jyoti Bhatt collection
- Gyarsilal Varma, page from a photocopy of untitled essay, with notes by K.G. Subramanyan. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Jyoti Bhatt, detail from a contact sheet photograph of Mrinalini Mukherjee, 1969; and Jyoti Bhatt, detail from a contact sheet photograph of unidentified woman, Baroda 1972. Image Source: Jyoti Bhatt collection
- G. Subramanyan, carbon copy of letter from K.G. Subramanyan to the Trustees, Kolkata Museum of Modern Art, 5 July 2006. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Soumitra Das, “A Celebration of Life,” The Telegraph, 9 December 1994. Image Source: K.G. Subramanyan collection
- Jyoti Bhatt, page from a sketchbook, 34cmx21cm, 1952-54. Image Source: Jyoti collection
- Faulty scan of 35mm negative depicting students at residency. Photographer unascertained. Image Source: Gulammohammed Sheikh collection
- Scan of discoloured 35mm slide depicting J. Swaminathan with other artists. Photographer unascertained. Image Source: Gulammohammed Sheikh collection
Arjun Appadurai, “Archive and Aspiration” in Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder eds., Information is Alive: Art and Theory on Archiving and Retrieving Data. Rotterdam: V2_Publishing/NAI Publishers, 2003: 14-25.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Fontata, 1992.
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. First published in French and English translation in 1995.
Mary Ann Doe, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” in Neil Leach ed., Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. NYC: Routledge, 1997: 330-336. [Originally published in 1967]
Sigmund Freud, “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-74. [SE] First published in German in 1925.
Boris Groys, “Visible and Invisible Sides of Reproduction” in Vyjayanthi Venuturupalli Rao et al. eds., Speculation, Now: Essays and Artworks. New Haven: Duke University Press, 2015: 33-39.
Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy. Camridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2008.
Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust.” American Historical Review. 106:4 (Oct 2001): 1159-1180.
[i] I follow Michel Foucault’s use the term heterotopia (literally meaning, other spaces) as he lays out in the essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1967). For Foucault, unlike utopias which are non-places (or un-real spaces), heterotopias are real spaces, but spaces of otherness, standing outside known spaces. Foucault provides the famous example of the mirror as at once utopic (in that it is a placeless place; in the mirror, we see ourselves in a place where we are not) and heterotopic (in that the mirror is a real object, and yet it enables us to see our absence where we are, since we are in the mirror).
[ii] In the year 2011, Asia Art Archive started a digitisation project titled The Baroda Archives that focused on the personal archives of four influential art practitioners who taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, India. With the Faculty’s inception in 1950, Professors K.G. Subramanyan, Jyoti Bhatt, Ratan Parimoo, and Gulammohammed Sheikh joined soon after and made significant contributions in the world of art through artworks, literature, art writing, curation, new methods and ideas for pedagogy, and institution building. Integral to the establishment and development of the college, their careers and personalised visions show their thoughts on what art could be, and how art education could contribute to the field.
[iii] Derrida, 7.
[iv] Appadurai, 15.
[v] Spieker, 99-100.
[vi] Groys, 36.