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The Active Archive

Ruin of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church with New Belfry in Berlin, Germany.

Walking around Berlin, what I notice most are the absences. The bullet holes in walls and statues and monuments. The gaps left as a form of remembrance. The jumbled artefacts that sit behind glass in the national museums, still unidentified 70 years after the war that destroyed so much of the city’s history and knowledge, yet kept as another kind of memory.

Human history is always disappearing. Images and ink fade. Videotapes deteriorate. Memories die with the people who house them. But Berlin is one of those places where the obliteration of the past is made visible, its voids left unfilled. The forgotten is memorialised.

As I was reminded in Berlin, memory, forgetting and the archive are all deeply, inescapably emotional. This same truth surfaced again in ‘Curating the Nation’, the first of the AHRC’s tenth anniversary public debates. During the discussion, what rapidly became clear was the level of personal investment that each of the museum curators has in their object(s) of study. For each speaker, research and autobiography were inextricably tangled in their description of what they do and why they do it.

So why are we still so often queasy about the intrusion of emotion into our research? Emily Robinson has argued for an acknowledgement of the affective experience of archival research, persuasively suggesting that the archive is a place of ‘sensory pleasure’ for the researcher, albeit one where such pleasure ‘can hide behind professional codes and disciplines’.1 Research – especially research engaging with ‘pastness’ – is an emotional experience, but one that we as researchers are loath to own up to, instead clothing our feelings in respectable intellectual garb.

However unpalatable a combination research and emotion might seem, though, it’s disingenuous – maybe even dangerous – to ignore their illicit coupling. Personal agendas govern – or at the very least influence – public, academic decisions. As Manchester Museum’s Nick Merriman put it in his presentation, any collection or archive is ‘an interpretation of the world’, not a straightforward representation of it. It is, inevitably, subjective, affected by individual and collective interests and emotions.

Engagement with and curating of archives is not just personal, though; it’s also deeply political. One of the questions posed by the ‘Curating the Nation’ debate was ‘what is the role of the national institution in a global world?’ When asking what it means to be a national collection, we are implicitly asking what we mean by nationality and by national values. This is particularly pertinent at a time when so- called ‘British values’ are the subject of slippery parliamentary rhetoric. National archives speak not only of Britain’s past, but of the nation we think we are now and the nation we want to be in the future. Public assemblages of collective history are also – to take the title of the AHRC’s debate series – a glimpse into ‘the way we live now’.

To return again to the streets of Berlin, I was struck during my visit by what I perceived to be the contrast between how past conflicts are memorialised there and the official, public rituals of remembrance annually observed in Britain. That is partly, of course, to do with opposing perspectives: history is written differently according to which side its scribes fall down on. For Germany, and particularly for Berlin, the previous century’s history is difficult to process and come to terms with.

The real difference, though, is between active and static forms of memory. From the limited perspective of an outsider, it seems to me that the confrontation of the two World Wars and the healing of their wounds is an ongoing process in Berlin. This is still something that the city – and the nation – has to actively deal with.

In Britain, meanwhile, remembrance has in many instances congealed around sanitised, hollowed-out symbols. There is too often a poppy-garlanded triumphalism to our national narrative around the two World Wars, and one that is far from politically neutral. Misplaced nostalgia for ‘Blitz spirit’ – neatly encapsulated in the fake vintage of the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ logo – can be a canny way to sell a new kind of austerity.

Our national collections, then, have a choice: active or passive. This choice was reflected in the ‘Curating the Nation’ debate. Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library, persuasively argued for curatorship as movement rather than stasis. He referred in his presentation to Edwin Morgan’s poetry collection From the Video Box (1986), itself modelling a new kind of subjective, polyphonic archive curated by an imagined public. The third poem in the sequence mischievously imagines the burning of the (not yet built at the time) new British Library, offering what Price described as ‘a gleeful act of simultaneous creation and destruction’. It is these two seemingly opposed forces – creation and destruction – that often meet in archives and national collections.

In my own field of theatre and performance studies, the idea of the archive is fiercely contested. Ever since Peggy Phelan famously declared in her 1997 book Unmarked that performance ‘becomes itself through disappearance’, the possibility of recovering the ephemeral has been the subject of disciplinary debate. According to Phelan, ‘performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance’.2 For many academics, there is a strong ideological – and, yes, emotional – investment in this idea that performance resists documentation and thus commodification. Faith in the supposedly inherent radical and resistant qualities of live performance is, I would suggest, as affective as it is political.

But others, like Rebecca Schneider, have taken issue with Phelan’s opposition of the performative and the archival. What about the traces that remain in performance’s wake? And what kinds of knowledge and history do we deny by refusing a place for performance in the archive? Schneider instead argues in favour of the kinds of embodied knowledge hinted at by Robinson; the archive, in this imagining, is ‘a house of and for performative repetition, not stasis’.3

There is also, as Matthew Reason has recognised, something deeply paradoxical about the performing arts’ relationship with the archive, in which ‘disappearance and documentation seem to go hand in hand’.4 This has led in some instances to a distrust of memory and a moral imperative to document – to ‘save’ what might otherwise be lost. But as Reason points out, the faulty recoveries of memory acknowledge the ways in which they transform their subject, while documentation rarely does the same. His proposed answer is ‘a theoretical archive of detritus’: one that is fluid, that points to its own incompleteness, and that replicates the characteristics of both liveness and memory.

Perhaps, then, an active, embodied, affective understanding of the archive – tempered with an awareness of its political entanglements – could offer performance scholars a map for navigating the field’s precarious terrain of memory and loss. But it is not only in theatre and performance studies that we deal with the ephemeral. Everywhere, the past slips through our fingers, its physical traces only emphasising its distance. As Robinson puts it:

"The archive is the place where historians can literally touch the past, but in doing so are simultaneously made aware of its unreachability. In a maddening paradox, concrete presence conveys unfathomable absence. It is this irresolvable tension which drives the historical discipline and which determines its affective character."5

In other words, what motivates us to grasp at fragments of the past is an emotional urge that can never be satisfied. Every historical research project or archival collection is doomed, to a greater or lesser extent, to failure.

The impossibility of touching the past is not a reason to stop reaching. This is not an argument against archives or national collections. As researchers, we are always in dialogue with the impossible, always inching forward human knowledge while never quite making it to the markers we set ourselves.

What this is an argument for is self-reflexivity. We cannot escape the emotions and politics tied up with archival research, but we do have a choice about whether to acknowledge all the problems that haunt our framing of the past. Earlier, I set up an opposition between active and static forms of memory, but really the archive is always active, because it is always informed and shaped by subjective choices. It therefore needs, perhaps, to be doubly active: to be at once curated and interrogated. Only by marking what is lost and remaining attentive to the emotions and ideologies that govern what is kept can the archive remain dynamic and relevant.

Essay by Catherine Love

1Emily Robinson, ‘Touching the void: Affective history and the impossible’, Rethinking History, 14.4 (2010), 503-520 (p. 507).

2Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 146-147.

3Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and war in times of theatrical reenactment (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 108.

4Matthew Reason, ‘Archive or Memory? The Detritus of Live Performance’, New Theatre Quarterly, 19.1 (2003), 82-89 (p. 83).

5Robinson, p. 517.

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