Archive for the ‘Archive’ Category

[To be expanded for a forthcoming article]

If a stable, humidity, temperature, dust, and pest controlled environment is the ideal setting for preserving historical material, could we produce the inverse environment? In other words, if late-modern history relies on a type of ecosystem for the preservation and study of historical material, could we produce the anti-ecosystem of historical maintenance?

This anvironment (parallel or anti-environment) would be a space where historical preservation was impossible but that would nonetheless be a stable integrated nature. Like a black hole in a historical universe; the eye of a historical hurricane.

So consider some type of room with incredible levels of humidity, swirling dust, and horrible heat. It would be a place that also happened to represent two of the West’s key enviro-phobias — tropiphobia and aridiphobia. This room would be an orangey green place of sweat and dirt where pieces of paper, building elements, and other artifacts don’t stand a chance of surviving.

Ultimately, such a place forces us to reflect on the stability required for history, and the environments lurking in our future.

Picture 1



“Historical Practice” was the driving theme of my presentation at Storefront for Art and Architecture’s Postopolis! LA. I spoke  on Wednesday, April 1st; stuck around to hear extremely interesting presentations, interviews, and impromptu thoughts; and then headed off to the SAH annual conference in Pasadena (a much different scene).  At Postopolis! I enjoyed seeing Mary Ann Ray and meeting Joseph Grima, Geoff Manaugh (responsible for my appearance), Nicola Twilley, Brian Finocki, Gaia Cambiaggi, Cesar Cotta and Dan Hill. It was such a playful and innovative event. Anyway, if you’re interested, you can see a recording of the presentation here.

In addition to Postopolis!, a small taste of my forthcoming book, Subnature, is out in the current issue of the journal AA Files (#58) — the chapter “Debris”. My essay is among others that explore the historical image in architecture (a subject I explored much more broadly in my postopolis talk).

It’s shaping up to be a great, but busy month; in addition to Postopolis!, I’ll also be speaking at Kim Anno and Tirza Latimer’s Stanford/CCA conference “Rising Tide” — an examination of art and ecology.

Finally, I am happy to report that a A Daily Dose of Architecture named HTC Experiments one of their 33 favorite blogs. Thanks for that!

swamp from biodiversity site

The swamps at the edges of my childhood town in Bergen County, New Jersey were strange zones of muddy flats and reeds that ended in the Manhattan skyline. If you grew up in New Jersey and were not that interested in going to the mall, you probably went to the swamps. We “swamp kids” were metal-head teenagers, who thought “fun” involved transforming this landscape by whacking reeds, shoveling out trails and building hills. The swamps were viscous landscapes, where virginity was lost, D-batteries drained (playing awful music on tape decks), and road bikes shot up dusty hills. The swamps were places where the more normative, middle-class trajectory of suburban adolescence was momentarily suspended. It was a space I constantly considered as a kid, but have not thought about in a long time.

The swamps of New Jersey never appeared in recent and hilarious representations of New Jersey youth, primarily because they do not fit the narrative role that New Jersey often plays. The swaps were the furthest thing from the “malls” — spaces that typified aspects of New Jersey town life and that are endlessly contrasted to the more urbane Manhattan. The malls of Jersey appear in publications and writings, but the swamps do not. But despite the swamps invisibility, I have come across the swamps again in the most unexpected of places — an art practice, an essay, a film. What I never knew, was that adults also saw the swamps as spaces of transfiguration.

Here is Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s video “Swamp,” (1971) filmed in the New Jersey swamps of Bergen County. It completely captures the minimal flora and sounds of these landscapes.

In an interview Holt conveyed some thoughts about the film

“it deals with limitations of perception through the camera eye as Bob and I struggled through a muddy New Jersey swamp. Verbal direction cannot easily be followed as the reeds crash against the camera lens blocking vision and forming continuously shifting patterns, confusion ensues.”

And Smithson added…”it’s about deliberate obstructions or calculated aimlessness”. 

As Smithson and Holt wandered the swamps, the swamps were used as dumping grounds for building debris from Manhattan. As a child, my friends and i could watch trucks roll into the swamps and dump bricks and stones into mounds which we would then climb. It is only recently that I learned that the remains of Pennsylvania Station were dumped here. Architecture history buffs traverse the swamps looking for the remains of this and other famous New York City buildings


In the past few years, I have come across the swamps again, as an aspect of post-structuralist urban theory. In the opening passages of his essay, “Anxious Landscapes”, the architecture historian Antoine Picon recalls looking out of an airplane on his way into Newark airport and seeing a strange landscape neither wholly natural or human. Picon was viewing the swamps. His perception of the swamps begins this essay on architectural and technological history, concepts of nature, and the production of selfhood. The Anxious Landscape, as he labels it, can be seen in the New Jersey swamps, and in the visions of Piranesi, Boullée, and contemporary films, such as Blade Runner.


Within this landscape of anxiety (the swamp and related spaces), Holt, Smithson, the scavengers, and Picon all revel in the momentary  disorientation.  For Holt, Smithson and Picon, the contemplation (or navigation) of this type of space produces an alternative form of subjectivity.  In Smithson and Holt’s video, we witness a type of anti-explorer — a parody of geographical exploration. In Picon’s essay, he also questions how one might navigate or map the anxious landscape without a corresponding transformation in the viewing subject. This is a form of landscape that demands a certain transformation in those that move through it. I suppose that was how I used the swamp, as a landscape in which to get a bit lost and to try to become something different.

Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the possible forgery of the Getty Kouros sparked the following post/thought/project. If the Kouros was forged, then those that pulled off this particular forgery applied a type of mold (potato mold) to the Kouros to give it the appearance of something ancient — something buried in the earth for hundreds of years.  Potato mold wasn’t central to Gladwell’s story, but it struck me because it suggests that running through art and architectural history is a natural history that enables what is ancient to appear so. In other words, our detection of age is often the perception of molds (magnified below), the abrasions of sand, the bleaching of the sun. In cities, this extends to our subliminal register of the accumulation of pollution on buildings.


Another aspect of the ecology of historical appearance is the nature used to make objects appear extremely clean. To make objects look like natural history they are typically brought to a sparkling clean finish with acid and/or bugs. Bones, in particular, are immersed in containers of insects — Dermestidae (below). These little beetles, which can eat bits of flesh, enable conservators to bring a whiteness to skeletons.


And in addition to mold and bugs, there are also all of the gasses, which preserve the historical documents of social history in an endless time. Argon (below) is one of the cheaper of these inert gasses. When visiting archives and museums to look at the most precious and fragile documents (dead sea scrolls, the US consitition), you often see documents through invisible clouds of argon gas.


All of these bits of nature construct the image of the past, which is ironically, simultaneously an image of decay, cleanliness and timelessness. I am not yet certain how all of these conflicting images of history move together so easily. More curiously, all of these involve forms of nature that are frightening and, at times, grotesque. Molds, pollution, bugs and poisonous gas are not forms of nature that are particularly desirable, nor are they forms of nature one would immediately associate with displays of history. These and many other things, in total, speak of the natural history that moves through history.

ecohistory diagram

We can bring these three forms of nature (animal, mineral vegetable!) into a type of ecosystem of the archive: mold and sand for buildings, bugs for the skeletons of its former inhabitants, and gasses to preserve the documents of this former civilization. This is the ecosystem of historical appearance. It’s the ecosystem overseen by curators and archivists.

{Above, David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear]

While some of my very favorite texty types are predicting the future, we might reflect on our more traditional role as commentators on the past.

Five years ago when my partner and I were beginning our PhD’s we sat at a restaurant table with some of her fellow graduate students. While waiting for our meals, these new graduate students went around the table talking about their goals. One intended to write a definitive history of this or that aspect of the past, one intended to write an untold history, and so on. But one of these “PhD’s to be” said something I will never forget: He intended to erase a historical event. He intended to disprove a key aspect of the past that all of us understand to be part of the historical record.

He was inspired by the recent work of Michael Johnson, the Johns Hopkins historian. In a book review (of all things) Johnson examined several pieces of recent literature about the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion. This is one of the most important of Southern American slave rebellions. Revisiting the original sources, he proved that this famous rebellion — on which scores of books have been written, and grants and tenures awarded — never happened. The whole thing was a conspiracy dreamed up by slave owners, most likely to suppress any possible future rebellion. When I learned about this whole affair, I thought it was one of the bravest acts of contemporary history writing; and hearing this student dreaming of repeating this act in his field tapped into my own desires to radically rethink the past.

I am writing about this affair because this is an activity that I find so inspiring but laughable within architectural history and the history of architectural theory; you cannot make a building disappear (although David Copperfield did a great job of it when I was a kid)! Perhaps some elusive figure like Villard de Honnecourt never existed or some famous carriage ride that launched an architectural theory in the 17th century never occurred; but so what? The erasure does not register on the same scale.

But the moral of the story is not that we should necessarily strive to erase history. That is also silly as a goal, and also a bit irresponsible. What this teaches me is that we have to remain on our toes; we have to register every paradox from every archival source; we have to be willing to be frightening (we should not turn down writing book reviews!). We also might let the impossibility of historical erasure within architectural history (particularly modern architectural history) register in works of historical production. We might pretend to exaggerate those purposeful erasures of the past that are rediscovered; or we might exaggerate those past events that almost happened. It’s much easier than what was staged at Hopkins; but it’s the least we can do while reminding ourselves of larger goals.

For more on the historian’s role in a time of crisis, see this.

Scary Archivists


In a post a few weeks ago, I explored how certain archives appear horrific. I argued that certain archives are scary because their particular form of organization (or disorganization) is scary. This “archive horror” extends into another image — the image of the scary archivist. If the scary archive is that space that an experimental historian might unintentionally generate (the spaces of Soane, Eco, Collyer) then the scary archivist is that personae that lurks in these spaces (eg. Eco’s archivist above and Collyer below); it is the “subjective” product of unusual productions of history. We might probe this figure that lurks in literature and film as a potential subject for future projects and proposals related to experimental history.


The roots of the scary archivist can be traced to various figures in Greek mythology, particularly the mythological story of Medusa — the female guardian who turns the living into stone. She cannot interact with the living, and through the course of living increasingly surrounds herself with frozen representations of the world. The Medusa image moves through the scary archivist image in various ways. Like the Medusa, the abilities of scary archivists to capture the lived world are often related to their disabilities and disfigurements. They appear either as blind, wheelchair bound, obsessive compulsive, or horribly malformed. The scary archivist is often a woman who turns “men to stone” through a type of emotional ferocity. This particular (often misogynistic) image of archival guardians is partially captured in the whimsical site “Scary Librarians”.


Every historian builds an image of the archive, which also suggests that every historian invokes a type of archivist that manages this imaginary archive. The best archives are always a bit scary, and they always have (seemingly) intimidating (sometimes frightening) archivists.  It’s what makes going to these places exciting and interesting; bringing the contents of these archives back into “the world” requires navigational skills and often-epic struggles with their keepers. The best histories emerge from these struggles. The best archives and archivists project a bit of fear to make this possible.



Many of the scary creatures that lurk in horror movies, such as vampires, blobs, and robots, are a type of archive – a horrific archive. For example, I was watching HBO’s new series “True Blood” and the protagonist, the vampire “Bill”, told his love-interest “Sookie” that once he drank her blood he would have “a little bit of her” inside of him. He would then be able to sense her feelings, track her location; she was in some sense stored within his body. This archival monster has similarities to the “T-1000” in the film Terminator 2. Once the “T-1000” touches another living being or object it may assume its form at any time. It too keeps a record within itself. Or you might consider the Blob, from the 1988 film version of that movie; the blob absorbs people into its structure. All of this is a literal realization of the notion that when things enter the archive they die (or are un-dead), as they are disconnected from the context that gave them their particular meaning.

The horrific archive is interesting because it only reveals the entirety of its contents when it dies or falls apart – usually through some intense act of violence. In the case of the vampire, the blood within it explodes out, sparkling with its collected souls. In the Terminator and the Blob films, the archive gathered by these creatures suddenly appears as an explosive outpouring of data and imagery when the monster is about to expire. The collected bodies of the T-1000 (above) are suddenly represented in quick succession.


More traditional forms of archives also contain this element of horror. Consider the elderly pack rats that we read about from time to time (eg. the Collyer Brothers House, shown above). Some poor fellow who piled newspapers and magazines for years and years is suddenly found buried beneath his collection, when its entire contents come tumbling down. These people are eventually consumed – literally – by their collecting activity as their archives collapse on them. I can recall many times entering an archive and fearing that the shelves of material would come crashing down on me; or who has not thought that they might be accidentally trapped by those rolling shelves that most libraries use?

Although they are a bit disturbing (or because they are disturbing) I find this horrific image of the archive inspiring when considering what archives might be and how historians might collect data. Perhaps we should build an archive that is a type of beast that collects. This is what John Soane did in his house. His house was a type of being that he kept feeding with more and more classical fragments. Perhaps we should reconsider the Soane-ian image by appropriating the image of the archive that moves through horror films; we should engineer an archival beast that will consume architectural knowledge.


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 (


It is a map, a proposal, a fantasy archive for the retrieval of future data related to the indoor atmosphere of cities. During the course of my dissertation I spent a great deal of time exploring the politics surrounding indoor air in Western cities in the 1970s. This was way before debates about sick building syndrome; the issues were much different back then, more about what indoor air might enable as an aspect of urban development and institutional politics. When I was writing my dissertation, I lamented the fact that we had no archive of indoor air; as we do for all other manner of indoor elements of the built environment—furniture, designed objects, fashion.  The specific content of the air of the interiors of the past is lost to us —its bio-physical make-up is gone; we really can’t study it with a full range of analytical methods. But I wondered…what if we archived our current indoor urban atmosphere  for the historian of the future? Why would we do this, and how would this be done?  In this speculative proposal I imagine using the tools we currently have to study the air of the past, but wiring them in reverse. What if we made urban core samples of the air inside buildings and then stored them like we do with core samples from the North Pole or Antarctica? What would people in the future study? Every historian “builds” his or her archive; what does this say about the archive?