What if we let archives die?

http://the-life-and-death-of-an-internet-onion.com, 2020

by Cori Olinghouse

As an artist, archivist, and curator working primarily with performance, I imagine an archive as a living space that develops protocols for process and regeneration, allowing for flexible methods of creating meaning that include bodily knowledge and improvisation. A living archive is an open-ended system that is adaptive, responsive, and modular. The archive is dynamic and may contain both pre-existing and newly generated documentation produced from past, present, and future iterations of works, alongside a built-in system for review, redaction, and expansion. Embodied archives approach the body as a repository of knowledge, drawing from performance forms and cultures that use orature, improvisation, ritual, storytelling, and choreography.

I work closely with artists to create living archives—collaborating on ways of translating, documenting, and mapping their creative practices. In each project, I place the distinct form of each archive in direct conversation with the complexity of an artists’ practice and work—looking to see how the archive might best reflect the unique ways an artist is working. In one example, I collaborated with the Studio Museum in Harlem on the acquisition and restaging of Autumn Knight’s performance work WALL—the first performance to enter their permanent collection. In a preliminary discovery phase, Knight and I met across multiple studio visits and conversations to map the concepts and embodied practices embedded in her artistic work. We collaborated on a multivalent documentation strategy, using textual, aural, visual, and embodied means to transmit the presence of the work. In another example, as archive director for the Trisha Brown Dance Company, I collaborated with David Thomson on an audiovisual database that tracks Brown’s development of a lexicon of movement, mapping her choreographic ideas and methods into a vocabulary that can be further searched and accessed.

In the proliferation of performance projects moving online due to COVID-19, the spaces between archiving, curating, and hybrid forms of publishing are blurring in the effort to translate liveness in the digital realm. Publishing as an artistic practice[1] can be a useful experimental approach in the archiving of performance. Traveling through multiple disciplines, as an artist, archivist, and curator, I relate to these identities as unbounded sources for insight and technique, rather than as siloed practices. In the context of this writing, I am thinking of websites as archives, in the way the internet itself is a kind of archive.

So much of archiving is centered around the desire to save or rescue what otherwise might be lost, especially with ephemeral mediums such as performance and time-based media.[2] I’m interested in publications that use the web as a medium for poetic and sensorial potential, an emphasis that is easily lost during a time with endless Zoom meetings and social media engagement, where the repetitive ways of appearing can deaden the senses. Rather than asking how performance can live online, I’m interested to ask how the web can continue to learn from the discipline of performance—from its appearances, disappearances, and multi-sensory complexities? What about the possibility to build an archive around systems of decay and regeneration—letting the space of the web have its own embodied gestures?

This year, I had the pleasure to collaborate with artist Laurel Schwulst on the website design for The Portal, an initiative I formed in 2017 dedicated to archiving as an embodied, poetic, and performative practice. Her approach to the web shares many overlaps with performance, which manifest through her use of alt-text and time-based elements, including her Internet Onion project that decays.

Recently, she collaborated with Taichi Wi to build a website for Shannon Finnegan and Bojana Coklyat’s project, Alt-Text as Poetry. Alt-text is a type of written description that provides access to visual content for blind and low vision users. This project explodes the poetic potential of alt-text, offering what Schwulst describes as “multiple entrances” into an image. This nuanced approach is created precisely by thinking about access in the context of disability culture. As Finnegan and Cokylat write, “How do we make spaces and experiences that disabled people not only can access but want to access?”[3] Moving beyond the perfunctory styles of alt-text, poetry serves as a textual form of touch. Space is given for the interpreter’s subjectivity.

Similarly, poetic description, generated by an archivist, is rarely found in cataloguing records, finding aids, or database systems. Many would suggest that this inserts too much interpretation into a space that should be objective, neutral, and democratic. While this may be true, notions of neutrality and democracy are laden with complexities around issues of representation, and when invoked, preserve certain orders, hierarchies, and meanings.[4] In breaking down the binaries of object/subject and knower/known, description becomes a performative function that has the capacity to thicken our embodied and social relations.

Exposed image descriptions are also used in Schwulst’s website design for arts venue Artists Space. Visitors are invited to experience over four decades of institutional history through a multiplicity of views and media (images, texts, video). Evoking the subtle feeling of time passing, the background color changes from white to a deep blue, just after New York sunset.

In “My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be?” Schwulst lays out a poetics of publishing—using the web as a pliable, temporal, embodied zone. She writes, “There are endless possibilities to what a website could be. What kind of room is a website? Or is a website more like a house? A boat? A cloud? A garden? A puddle?[5]” There is something regenerative in the way she approaches interactive design, almost fractal-like in construction. Using metaphors of weather, she continues, “Puddles evaporate slowly over time. It might be difficult, but I would love to see a website evaporate slowly, too.”

Engaging the web as a sensuous medium is a practice of worlding—a term that anthropologist Kathleen Stewart writes is an “intimate, compositional process of dwelling in spaces that bears, gestures, gestates, worlds. Here, things matter not because of how they are represented but because they have qualities, rhythms, forces, relations, and movements.”[6] Temporalities animate life. Marked by endless scrolling, so much of the internet feels like “dead space” with no sense of time passing. Similarly, archives can also feel like places where things go to die.

The sensibility of worlding comes alive in The Life and Death of an Internet Onion. Structured as a webzine anthology, the site decays after a five week period—the average shelf life of a non-refrigerated onion.[7] Both volatile and regenerative, the “perennial” publication is imagined to return each Spring. Rather than saving and preserving what otherwise might be lost, the publication invites visitors to move through states of change. There isn’t the possibility to grab and take hold.[8] 

The site unravels in a series of meditations—each layer of the onion is composed of a written contribution, a graphic illustration by Minhwan Kim and Monica Kim, and a response letter by love counselor Adam Moftah. Writings are accessed by the virtual peeling of an onion, and accompanied by a crinkling, textured sound. There are nineteen layers in total with an outro by editor Meg Miller.

http://the-life-and-death-of-an-internet-onion.com, 2020

The onion was chosen as a metaphor for love, whose “sweetness can only be unlocked by slow simmering over time.”[9] Rather than reproducing images or documents that represent love or loving, the site attempts modes of touching across digital space. The site engages its own performative practice, using the form and materiality of language, design, and coding to gesture sensuously.

In the tenth layer of the internet onion, Anna Sagström offers a list of what she calls, “Proposals for loving interfaces.” Here are a few thoughts excerpted from this layer:

    • A website that breathes.
    • A website with a warm temperature, that beams through your fingers.
    • A website with soft buttons made of clay.
    • A website with a cursor that sends more love the longer you hold it down.
    • A website that isn’t overly confident but gets nervous too.

To this, Adam Moftah, responds, “Dear Anna…We might need to consider new dimensions to see that a website breathes over the course of periodic updates to its homepage, rather than with a respiratory system.” Translations between technology and sentiency are relatable, but not synonymous.

My main issue with the kinds of digital archives and exhibitions that I’m seeing online is that they are flat, representational, and lacking interactivity. They act as virtual vitrines for artistic practice. I love the interventions artists are making to use the web as a sensuous medium—exploring the form of how we might come together on a shared ground and care for one another online.

I’m drawn back to Kathleen Stewart’s line of inquiry: “How do we describe the activity of sensual world-making? What happens if we approach worlds not as the dead or reeling effects of distant systems but as lived affects with tempos, sensory knowledges, orientations, transmutations, habits, rogue force fields?”[10]

Of course, in my own attempt to write about a site that has otherwise elapsed, I am also attempting to save what has passed.

[1] Refer to Publishing as Artistic Practice, edited by Annette Gilbert through the Steinberg Press in 2016 as an overview on artist publishing. Refer also to publications such as 53rd State Press, Wendy’s Subway, Emergency INDEX and Ugly Duckling Presse, which are actively publishing performance.

[2] Mathew Reason discusses this at length in “Archive or Memory? The Detritus of Live Performance.” New Theatre Quarterly, vol.19, no. 01, 2003, 82-89.

[3] They write: “Alt-text has existed since the 1990s, but it is often overlooked altogether or understood solely through the lens of compliance. The resulting alt-text is often written in a reluctant, perfunctory style, but it has tremendous expressive potential. This project reframes alt-text as a type of poetry and provides opportunities to talk about it and practice writing it. We don’t just want alt-text users to be able to access visual content on the internet, we want them to feel a sense of belonging in digital spaces. Both of us are interested in how communities can move towards better and more nuanced approaches to access. Instead of focusing on compliance and doing the minimum, what if we approach access creatively and generously, centering disability culture?” Published in Finnegan, Shannon, and Bojana Coklyat. Alt-Text as Poetry, 10 Dec. 2020, https://alt-text-as-poetry.net.

[4] Paraphrased from my 2017 graduate thesis at Wesleyan University. Olinghouse, C. (2017). Mapping the Unruly: Imagining a Methodology for the Archiving of Performance. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.14418/wes01.2.217

[5] Laurel Schwulst goes further to write, “While an individual website could be any of those metaphors I mentioned above, I believe the common prevailing metaphor—the internet as cloud—is problematic. The internet is not one all-encompassing, mysterious, and untouchable thing. (In early patent drawings depicting the internet, it appears as related shapes: a blob, brain, or explosion.) These metaphors obfuscate the reality that the internet is made up of individual nodes: individual computers talking to other individual computers.”

[6] Published in Stewart, Kathleen. “Atmospheric Attunements.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 445-453.

[7] Paraphrased from Schwulst, Laurel. “Onion and Rocks.” Are.na, 22 July 2020, www.are.na/blog/onion-and-rocks.

[8] Of course, websites don’t have to die. They can be archived using various programs. The most known is The Wayback Machine, a digital archive of the World Wide Web, founded by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library based in San Francisco. 

[9] Written in the introduction to The Life and Death of an Internet Onion.

[10] Published in Stewart, Kathleen. “Atmospheric Attunements.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 29, no. 3, 2011, pp. 445-453.