The Archive Is Not The Story

‘There is no individual authority on the history of Transmission, but a huge number of personal accounts from various perspectives’.[1] John Calcutt visits the gallery archives ahead of the move into Glasgow’s new Trongate 103 building

The Archive Is Not The Story

July 4, 2009 at mid-afternoon: the weather has finally broken. After days of improbable heat and humidity, rain is now falling on Glasgow. And it is torrential. The last time I saw rain like this it led to serious flooding, water shortage, ruined property. I got caught as I crossed the street, but now I am inside a top floor room on King Street, safe from the extraordinary downpour. A sudden escalation distracts us from the immediacy of our surroundings, and we break off to look out through the windows. We exchange a few generalisations about the weather (we only met for the first time less than five minutes ago), and then return to the business in hand. The room, now darkening slightly, is full of brown cardboard boxes, and yellow and red plastic shipping cartons. I didn’t count their number. Becky is cataloguing their contents, devising an archival system that will give order and structure to these silent stacks and piles. I am browsing, casually and unsystematically, occasionally suspended by a memory. Posters, box files, ring binders, folders, slides, video cassettes, CDs, DVDs, exhibition catalogues, magazines, photographs, floppy discs, memory sticks: we are surrounded by the Transmission archive. Letters, statements, proposals, reviews, lists, names, dates, figures, titles, photographic documentation: 26 years of Transmission (founded in 1983) reduced and distilled into documents and texts to hold in the hand and inspect with the eye. The eye, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of pointing out, is cool and detached: sight is an assessor and a judge in relation to the other senses. Speed, heat, weight: if one requires more than a general sensory impression of these experiences they may be accurately measured by devices that turn them into the medium of vision: speedometer, thermometer, scales. But such conversion also entails a reduction. The experiences become stripped of their original sensory complexity and rendered one-dimensional, in much the same way that a photograph cannot capture the emotional resonance of the scene it otherwise represents. Is this the relation of the archive to the events from which it was created? How much can this poster convey of the responses generated by the exhibition? To what extent does this item reveal the conflicting opinions of those who fought during its production? Could this catalogue ever hope to tell us of the profound effect of the exhibition upon one of its visitors? Does this artist know that their VHS tape is still kicking around here more than a decade later?

In recent years the idea of the archive has come to the fore in artistic practice, offering a model for historical thought. According to Hal Foster, a general fascination with the archive is ‘hardly new…Yet an archival impulse with a distinctive character of its own is again pervasive, enough to be considered a tendency in its own right.’[2] Whether or not it is legitimate to consider the Transmission archive as a ‘work’ is perhaps a moot point, but it is surely more than an inert accumulation. According to current plans the archive will be accessible to visitors to Transmission’s new premises from October this year, and it thus becomes available as a site for historical, conceptual and imaginative processing. It is not merely a repository for information; it is meaningful in its own right. This might be demonstrated in two ways.

First, from a technological perspective, it is striking how the various artefacts in the archive are the products of rapidly changing techniques of information generation and storage. I mentioned earlier that the archive has a material form offering itself to sight: this is actually only a partial truth. Whereas early documents, including the Transmission constitution, were rattled out—directly, immediately—on a typewriter, such machines and methods were rapidly superceded by subsequent generations of word processing equipment (from floppy disc to CD). Hard copy became an option, rather than a given. Similarly, photographic prints, contact sheets, and 35mm slides are now almost entirely replaced by digital imagery stored on disc. (VHS cassettes also give way to DVDs, although there is less of a qualitative change involved in this instance.) The general movement here is from a tangible, visible materiality towards encrypted and encoded electronic data, resulting in a kind of inscrutability: a shift that might broadly be thought of as a transition from object to information. This is equally indicative of a transformation in our relations to objects and events: we now rely upon the mediation of a machine (ie a computer) to convert information from its spectral disembodiment into a form that can be viewed or otherwise sensorily experienced. Looking at the disc in your hand doesn’t tell you very much. The Transmission archive, then, comes into public view at a time when tangible things are becoming increasingly ‘de-realized’ through the technologies of digital reproduction. The archive thus partakes of that general cultural trend whereby interest in the relics of the past intensifies at precisely that moment when the past appears as a disappearance. The archive might therefore be thought of either as a fetishistic response to that loss (an over-valuation of that final moment before the traumatic realisation of loss), or as a melancholic response (a refusal to accept the loss; a denial, through constant repetition, of the loss). Either way (and these are offered as proposals rather than explanations), the archive is not a neutral repository; it is a symptom.

Posters for Urban Life and after party, December 1983

Posters for Urban Life and after party, December 1983

Second, from a cultural perspective, the Transmission archive also partakes in Transmission’s history in the same gesture by which it presents that history. Here are some titles of Transmission exhibitions during its first few years of operation: Urban Life (the first recorded exhibition, December 1983–January 1984); Blunt Image (1984); Winning Hearts and Minds (1984); Iconoclasm: Art from the War of Ideas (1985); The Black Bastard as a Cultural Icon (1985); Community and Art (1986); The Nicaragua Show (1988). Now let’s move on and look at some later titles: Specific Rooms (1991); In Here (1992); Three New Works (1992); Transmission Gallery (1993); Itself (1993) Modern Art (1994). Later Still: Mere Jelly (1996); Stay On Your Own For Slightly Longer (1996); I Love This Life (1998); Something Ahhh… Nothing (1998); Hundred Years Egg (1999); Good Luck For You (2000). I would be the first to admit that titles alone offer only flimsy evidence on which to base a case, but they offer evidence of a kind, nevertheless. The first group of titles, for example, suggest exhibitions driven by clear and strong political commitment: this art is engaged with the socio-political sphere. In the second group of titles, the aggressive, combative tone of the first group is absent, being replaced by more introverted, selfreferential, possibly solipsistic, concerns. The third group suggests yet another shift, this time in the direction of the playful, the absurd, the whimsical, and the personal. These phases correspond, naturally enough, with more widespread developments occurring during their time periods (the political activism of the mid-1980s under Thatcher; the early 1990s return to/critique of modernist formalism; late 1990s eclecticism and anti-theory sentiments), all of which should also be seen in the light of developing relations between Glasgow art and the wider UK and international art markets. (In 1995, for example, the weighty Lisson Gallery staged one of its slightly whimsically titled group exhibitions—Ideal Standard Summertime—featuring work by former Transmission members Douglas Gordon, Roderick Buchanan, Jonathan Monk and Gary Rough. Connections between Transmission and major metropolitan commercial galleries were arguably at their height at this time, before the founding of the Modern Institute in Glasgow in 1998.)

The point I am moving towards here is that Transmission’s political and ideological allegiances have changed significantly in many respects over time—something that should come as no great surprise, given the mobile nature of its committee structure whereby each of the six committee members serves for a period of up to two years. This is not to say that such changes are always viewed favourably by successive generations of Transmission artists and committee members. The publication planned to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Transmission in 1993 did not finally see the light of day until 2001, the result, apparently, of irreconcilable differences between various major contributors over the ‘true’ nature of its history and its ideological aims and priorities. The archive, then, becomes embroiled in this disputed history. And it does so not only because it houses the documents that bear witness to change, but also because it is itself the result of a particular decision, a decision that arises from and locates the archive within the concerns of contemporary art practice at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Benjamin Buchloh has argued, in a manner reminiscent of Plato’s reflections on the relations between writing, speech and memory, that, whilst preserving memory, the archive consisting of technological reproductions (Buchloh is mainly concerned with photography) also provides the conditions for its destruction and for the ‘destruction… of historical thought altogether’. Buchloh’s argument, as summarised by Charles Merewether, is that ‘mnemonic desire may in fact be “activated especially in those moments of extreme duress in which the traditional material bonds among subjects, between subjects and objects, and between objects and their representation appear to be on the verge of displacement if not outright disappearance.”’3 The ‘mnemonic desire’ expressed by the Transmission archive is, I have tried to suggest, a response to the ‘extreme duress’ of the present, a duress arising from the increasing ‘computerization’ of knowledge and experience. (Clearly, there is more to it than this, but the mundane practicalities involved in setting up the archive are of less interest to me here.) In fact, a cull of brief extracts from Merewether’s introduction to his anthology entitled The Archive gives further weight and substance to this claim that the archive is implicated in a wider field of struggle and contest. Thus Derrida argues that, ‘there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution and its interpretation.’ For Foucault, ‘who determines, and what conditions, enable a history to be written depend upon the definition of the archive.’ Giorgio Agamben, for his part, focuses upon the role of the archive in relation to the “conditions in which the relation between the sayable and the unsayable becomes a relation ‘between a possibility and an impossibility of speech’. This recasting of the terms towards the speaking subject [Merewether explains] places greater emphasis on the conditions which allow or disallow for speech and therefore, in the context of the archive, makes more evident the fragility of its authority.”

Crowd outside Transmission Gallery's first space, Chisholm Street, Glasgow

Crowd outside Transmission Gallery's first space, Chisholm Street, Glasgow

The rain outside has become even heavier. We can hear its force. I take a blue plastic folder from one of the boxes. There is a musty odour; the folder’s plastic sheathes, now stuck together, make a slight ripping noise as I pull them apart to view the contents. The images inside are wrinkled and spotted with mildew. Of course: the flood. Transmission nearly lost its records to water recently. This would not be the first time that flooding had intervened dramatically in its story. In 1989 Transmission had to vacate its original premises in Chisholm Street and move into the King Street building as a result of ‘burst pipes and a plague of rats’. But now it’s time for me to go. Outside, I am soaked to the skin in next to no time. In the shop, water dripping from my saturated clothes forms a puddle around me. Home at last, I empty my pockets. Everything is sodden. I glance at the receipt from Sainsbury’s, but the rain has ruined it. Not to worry: the fact that I no longer have a record of what I bought and how much I paid for it will have little bearing upon how my dinner tastes tonight.

John Calcutt is a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art

Transmission opens September in Glasgow's new Trongate 103 building, a major visual arts resource developed in partnership between Transmission, Glasgow Print Studio, Street Level Photoworks, Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, and others

[1] Clare Stephenson, Anna McLauchlan (eds), Transmission, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2001
[2] Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, October, no. 110, Fall 2004
[3] Charles Merewether (ed), The Archive, Whitechapel London/ MIT Press, 2006