Ana de Almeida
The Collective Archive I
Back in Lisbon, in the house where I grew up with my sister, parents and grandparents, there was a shoe box. It opened itself to become an archive and then a starting point for this essay.
(An Exercise of Memory)
Attributing a complete lack of importance to how it really was, I remember having heard a lot about the contents of the box before even seeing it for the first time. I cannot conceive of an existence of a first time that I heard about the period between 1978 and 1987 that my father spent in the former Czechoslovakia as an electrotechnical engineering student. There was certainly not a moment when this curiosity about the past could have just casually arisen, during random talk about traveling or studying, as the exacting conditions for my very existence (born in Prague to a Czech mother) was precluded by a grant given by the Portuguese Communist Party, to my father and to many more.
1978 – 1987 was always a fact.
The quick story of the unexpected chance, the hasty decision that had to be made; option one: Moscow; option two: GDR; option three: Czechoslovakia, has been there for as long as I can remember. But if the story and the fact escape my memory, a more detailed account (though fragmented) of the time spent in Prague, in Poděbrady, in Slovakia and traveling through Europe, arrived much later and with it the mention of a box of photos, and then eventually, the photos themselves.
I was told nothing about the individual photos, but instead of a whole object and my father’s grand plans to organize it.
The fact that these plans have been postponed for the last 26 years also signals the major importance of this task in my father’s life, especially taking in account that the archive has just a couple of hundred photos, which means it could, theoretically, be organized in a matter of weeks. Nevertheless I have gradually come to learn of the importance of having this archive to organize, and this task to fulfill. It is not about the past, but rather, an unfulfilled attempt at making sense of it.
What follows is the transformation of the shoebox from a depository of photos into an archive and the articulation of a lived and of the transmitted (inscribed) experience within macro-political and historical processes.
THE OBJECT ARCHIVE
Searching for the moment before the archive is an archive, or more precisely, before an archive is activated, (as existing as a simple box of photos), is looked for with the single purpose of opening a possibility of an analysis of a specific part of the archive’s material substrate.
Indeed, the photographic hypomnemata – the photographs inside the box – are just a material point of the archive iceberg, they were always the most immediate, or at least the most visible link to the collection. And although my father thinks of this as the ultimate proof of procrastination, the fact that the photos are stored in a shoebox actually facilitates the understanding of the radical condition of the archive and its nominological principle, the arch as container: the (shoe)box.
According to Derrida, Arkhē retains both principles of commencement and commandment, Arkhē has an ontological principle (that of beginning, the first, principal, the primitive) but also a nomological one. The Latin word: archivum or archium comes from arkheion (a house, a domicile, an address), the residence of the archons, those who commanded. Arkhē exists as a place where things commence and as a place where authority, social order are exercised (Derrida 9)
The pertinence of the shoe box in the essay is mainly a metaphorical one, nevertheless, it works as the trigger for a reflection upon the transition of the documental, hypomnesic material, and objects in general to the archive. The shoe box exists as a paradigma of the permanent shift between the awareness of the archive and the lack of it, in the different moments when it was addressed by my father, and by me, before becoming the object of this research. Many times, photo archive (as we came to call it), shifted from being a “collection of photos”, in which the word archive could be a substitute for a non-existing album, to moments of awareness of the operational mechanism of which the archive transcends its own material substrate.
Before the activation of the archive, the box worked as a physical container for documents and corresponded to the specific time period between 1978-1987, nevertheless these photos were neither separated nor sorted when it came to the space (its geographical site) nor to the nature of the events (personal versus political, historical, etc.) Choosing to focus on the shoe box, the container, before diving into the collection is in itself a considered method to divine many of the narrative and reflexive possibilities brought up by the way the material substrate of the archive was (un)organized.
Tantamount to the way the images were produced, the way they were stored accounts for the processing of both personal experience and history, providing the first clue on the mechanism of the archive.
The formal (un)organization of the (object) archive opens a door to the study of both contexts (post-Carnation Revolution and pre-Velvet Revolution) and builds the ground upon which the attempt of the illusion of a unified European identity (one of the many constructions in the history of the EU, situated between the early 90’s and the first years after the economical crises of 2008, and the one that I have recently also learned to be my own) was built.
Derrida writes about the Greek distinction between mnēmē or anamnēsis and hypomnēma, as one never to be forgotten, (Derrida 11). And how the hypomnesic property of the archive, being that the techniques of archivization are dependent on this making-technical of memory, is an antonym to anamnesis as the act of “remembering”does not have to rely on external memory supports. There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside (Derrida 14). This is an external place that allows for memorization, repetition, reproduction and reimpression.
The photos are part of the hypomnemata, the external and material hold for memory, through which the archive is simultaneously made visible and concealed. If the production of photographic material is connected to a first failed attempt to grasp the permanence of the real through time, it is also this material memory that starts rendering visible the multiplicity of contexts that result both from a multilayered inscription of history onto the individual, and the individual’sprojection in history. One cannot dispose of the collocation of the individual’s understanding in the building of an historical narrative, as emphasizing the individual position clarifies history’s arbitrary character.
Returning to our initial object, apart from the shoe box (and inside of it) we come across about one hundred photos in a range of formats that carry from relatively small 35mm to the relatively medium 35mm format, one could say that, upon an immediate gaze, there is no confrontation of major differences within the batch, other than the size division and the simple division between colored and black and white photographs. The initial gaze, the first look, the moment of facing the object for the first time --- it is a pity that this moment is so often connected to the act of “misunderstanding”, of overlooking; when in fact, it is the moment of the fastest and most vivid sensation: the first impression. The function of the moment of the first impression is none other than signaling that there are more impressions to come, otherwise it would be simply called an impression.
The archive executes multiple impressions on us, making no other form of analysis possible than the multilayered one, even if there is not a direct correspondence between specific impression and imprinting on different layers, but rather a multiplicity of impressions (at the same time but also at different times), cutting through multiple layers also at the same time and at different times.
In this sense, I propose that we focus on the first impression, the only one that can be localized at a specific moment in time for being the first one, and one that we return back to even when already marked by following impressions.
In Archive Fever – A Freudian Impression, Derrida finds three meanings for the word “impression”, first, as the literal inscription of signs, the second as a notion (the notion of an archive due to a lack of a concept for it), and finally the third as a Freudian impression --- the impression of psychoanalysis (Derrida 26). This first impression is the impression of the archive in its exterior and photographic substrate (and now clearly deriving from the Freudian impression), an impression to which an inscription of the archive correspond to that which I am aware of.
We are now searching for a place of consignation, the exteriority of the archive. First we pay attention to the material body, the moment of this first impression. The materiality of the photos surges forward way before their content does.
On first sight, and more importantly, at first touch, I noticed the roughness of the paper photo, small porous rectangles, slightly and concavely rolled. There are different kinds of papers gently sustaining the images inside the shoe box, slightly different kinds of glossy to non-glossy at all coating the paper. The different types of paper have something in common, they are all of a fairly high grammage. The yellowish back of every photo, that I doubt has ever been pure white, is distinctly fibrous. I would find it easier to compare with the different qualities of drawing paper, than with the usual photo paper (does not matter if glossy or matte). The paper was of such different quality to the ones we used for black and white analog photographs developed in the dark room of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lisbon.
Apart from the texture, many of these images are too small for amateur family photos, at a time when standardized photo-developing was the norm, and camera rolls were usually brought to the neighborhood photo shop, typically a family-run business sponsored by Kodak, shaded by a yellow and red awning, which promises to deliver your photos in just 30 minutes. If, on one hand, the standard practice would get you a free new roll of Kodak film after you pay your bill, then standard format in which you would get your photos would be in 10 x 15 cm. The ones from my father’s archive are fairly smaller than the standard size.