Socio-natural Archive, 2008

Snowdon Aviary, London Zoo, Cedric Price, Frank Newby, Tony Armstrong Jones, 1964

The people in the house next to ours own an African Grey Parrot (we will call him “Abraham” to protect his identity). Abraham is quite sweet and friendly, but his sounds are distracting, to say the least. His squawks and squeaks stress the limits of our patience while writing and reading. Recently, I gave up on trying to write during the bird’s latest squawking fit. But as I stopped working long enough to listen to Abraham’s song, I finally realized that the sounds he made were not just some secret African Grey Parrot language but his variations on the sounds surrounding us in our neighborhood and between our two houses. Abraham replicates the sounds of our squeaking doors, the alarms on our microwave ovens, the screeching brakes of busses that stop in front of our houses. Abraham mimics the clanging of his owner’s dishes, pots and pans. In short, Abraham is a type of architectural and urban, living archive.


We of course exist in the age of the “living archive.” Everything alive is treated as an archive, from trees (“growth rings”) to our DNA to the fish swimming in the ocean (Mercury deposits). We see life as a type of recording device. While this may make for exciting television programs on nature, I find this general trend troubling. The living archive, as it has appeared thus far, appears to actually dehumanize life itself as an instrument of historical inquiry. If the natural history museums of the 19th century reduced life, including antipodal human life within the unfolding narrative of “nature,” then the natural archive locates history within nature as well. Such a view of history – as stored deep within our bodies (as in a library) – diminishes the real existing human strife that producing historical analysis involves and that archiving data also often entails. People undergo displacements, enormous migrations and even death to bring material into the archive.


But all of this does not mean that we must give up on the living archive. It just means that we should consider this life as part of a broader social sphere in which it takes place. And all of this returns us to Abraham. A bit of research reveals that the majority of African Grey Parrots engage in a migratory pattern in Africa that extends from Liberia into the Sudan. In other words, Abraham’s species-kin move through some of the most troubling areas of the African continent in the very expression of their lives. This, of course, is a far smaller scale version of the tremendous human displacements due to violence in this stretch of Africa. But when we actually consider the living archive encoded through the social archive and vice-versa, we begin to arrive at an image of Abraham and his African Parrot kin that is far more complex than the naturalist who bores into a tree ring to tell us about our earlier “carbon footprint.” These parrots are involved in something that exceeds our current notions of the living archive. The African Grey moves with social violence, and it both records and reacts to this violence — due to its own biological features and due to the natural displacements that forms of social strife produce (the violence impacts how the African Grey moves through the continent.).


To conclude, imagine the naturalist, the geographer and the urban historian collectively capturing some of these birds, with the violence they have recorded, and bringing them into our urban zoos. One might imagine recoding the zoo, an archive that appears as a space of entertainment, as the representation of trans-continental war and conflict that it really is – those animals come from somewhere (usually an “elsewhere”). If we can imagine bringing Abraham’s brothers and sisters into a space where we might reflect on their song of urban and social destruction, we will hear things that will shock us, frighten us and make us consider the particular power and moving nature of archives that are part of life itself. When we consider the way non-human life is used as an archive, we realize that the social, the natural and the historical cannot be so easily divided.

here is a link to some peculiarly violent parrot sounds recorded by the sound artist digifish (



  1. Mary Todd

    Great post! Have you thought about the relation to Derrida’s writings on the archive? The notion of the living archive extends the discussion of the problematics of archives in general in interesting ways, and provides a model for rethinking the “technologies of inscription” in such a way that clearly muddies the nature/culture binary.

  2. dlgissen

    Dear Mary Todd:
    (Good screen name!). That is a great suggestion; and no I was thinking within a much more historical/theoretical perspective (Foucault, e.g.) than one developed within philosophy (at least more strictly defined). I plan on developing some more material about archives in classes and on this post; so I will definitely explore the Derrida material. Thanks again–

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