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What role can the archive play in developing and sustaining a critical and culturally located art history?

Sandra Skurvida
6 November 2013

The Ex-sited Archive

I envision the liberation of an archive (from attachment to a person, state, or region) through its transfiguration into a database. This emancipation requires dematerialization and displacement. The digital archive and database are defined by time rather than space. The digital repository is as limitless as it is omnipresent, ex-sited to the World Wide Web. As workers are leaving the factory for the virtual work of hypercapitalism, so are texts leaking out of archives into hypertext.


Digital archives and databases situated in time skirt the conundrums of regional versus global - they can be saved anywhere in the cloud. Digital information is localized only by specific query, adding use value to the source information, and providing it with an updated potential to reenter circulation in the global-cum-extraterrestrial data-world. Use is the lifeline of digital data; if it is not perpetually activated by millions of clicks per second, it starts to withdraw into oblivion. As Diana Taylor has noted in her lecture 'The Digital As Anti-Archive?' at Duke University in 2009,[1] the objects in the digital archive require, rather than resist, change over time. Data may never die, but access is key. Data becomes inaccessible if it is not constantly used and updated; and yes, impermanence is not unique to the Web - loss is an inherent feature of memory and life, but it has not been welcome in pre-digital archives.


Unlike items of the pre-digital era, which were archived only after their active existence was over, digital files are produced, introduced, and assigned meaning (metadata) through the database itself - exemplified by current curatorial processes that are defined by data mining techniques and proficiencies. The cycle of data entry is constantly speeding up. Acceleration can also mean the obliteration of space in time, otherwise immeasurable distances can be determined in temporal terms: how long does it take for the light of a distant star to reach us, be captured as code, and released as an image on our computer screens? How long would it take for a human brain to select information, rather than having it served up by digital processors? Acceleration of both ontology and topology is the essential function of data organization in hypertext, the temporal locator of the digital archive.


But what distinguishes the database from the digital archive? My current curatorial project, OtherIS (www.otheris.com), is transitioning from the database into the digital archive. Initiated in 2010 in response to the imposition by YouTube and the Guggenheim Museum of embargo policies to the curating of global video art on the Web, it possessed, along with hundreds of video links, the executable potential of change beyond itself, via individual mindsets, the art discourse, and even institutional and state policies. But its own existence hinged on fragile personal commitments and perpetual programming. Now defunct, this algorithmic tool has transformed into a digital archive: a platform of video art from countries that are subject to the US and EU sanctions. Its entries are selected by curators, released by creators, and it is less volatile than its original identity as a database.


The database resists institutionalization – it is a detached state of data. According to Benjamin Bratton, 'computation as a style of thought, while today overdetermined by its economic instrumentality, is held open by the final incompleteness of algorithmic indeterminacy, and through this can engender unknown and unknowable political architectures.'[2] The epistemic and existential indeterminacy of a database and its distributed existence suggest the time and space of decolonized knowledge. Subsequently, the post-human digital eternity – the data paradise – ensues.

Sandra Skurvida

is a New York City-based independent curator and writer. She emerged as an art critic and curator in Lithuania after 1989, where she published numerous art reviews, and curated exhibitions including the Third Annual Exhibition of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Vilnius, Lithuania (1995). She was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship in 1996, and received a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University in 2006. Since relocating to the USA, she has curated exhibitions in New York and internationally, and taught at the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies, New School, MoMA, and elsewhere. Her practice remains focused on regions undergoing radical sociopolitical change, as exemplified in the project OtherIS (www.otheris.com) – a worldwide network of artists, scholars, curators, and others who share the common goal of facilitating art and information exchanges. She is convener of the symposium 'Iran: Art and Discourse', to be held October 26, 2013, at Asia Society in New York City.

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