Knut Ebeling, Professor for Media Theory and Aesthetics at the Art Academy Berlin Weißensee. Goethe-Institut Cairo Nov 24, 2017
From Seeing History to the Archive of Trauma
Lecture on the occasion of the symposium “Augmented Archives – History in Real-Time”
Thank you very much for the invitation to Cairo, thank you Kaya Behkalam, thank you to the Goethe Institute for making this event possible.
I thank you for the radical change of perspective that these projects invoke; and this is a change of perspective, a radical change of perspective that we in western Europe are very much in need of – to understand what’s going on elsewhere, to understand more deeply than inside of the realm of the newsreel.
Fortunately, exchange has increased, not only here in Cairo, visibly, but also in Western Europe; there are tons of panel discussions and cultural festivals that discuss the situation in the Near East that got nearer and nearer in the last years – a new closeness that brought many challenges with it. One example for this situation of massively increased interest also in the West for this region was a lecture by Salma El Tarzi in my own artschool in Berlin – I guess she is known here as a documentary filmmaker and member of the Mosireen Video Collective, which is obviously very important for Kaya Behkalam’s work and project.
In Berlin, she presented her film about Egypt’s post revolutionary music scene and the relationship between art and politics within the Egyptian revolution. She lectured on Mahraganat music (Often translated as Electro Sha’abi or Sha’abi rave, sha’abi meaning “of the people”) that evolved from the old tradition of wedding performances in working class and informal neighborhoods into a strange mixture of Western electronic music, Hip Hop, and Egyptian folk, that soon managed to cross the geographical/class barrier and create great controversy in Egyptian Society. And apparently there was a public debate about this “slum music”, that would pollute youth, destroy culture and spread crime. On the other hand, with the rise of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, young revolutionaries and left wing activists and intellectuals (often coming from middle class backgrounds themselves) embraced this genre as the “music of the people” and a token of cultural resistance.
So we are dealing here with signs of an emancipation, with emancipatory movements, and this is first and foremost of course an emancipation through technology – a new music style made possible through the availability of past music online, through a music archive – and well, here we are already within our topic today: emancipatory political projects made possible by new technology, by new forms of archiving the past, by new archives.
And this really is a new situation in the history of mankind, a situation made possible by new technology, as we all know, by new, cheap, digital mobile technology, that at the moment telecontrols and telecommands the global migration movements as well as political uprisings worldwide. Even though this seems to be the perspective of Western observers; in the West, it has been much commented on the fact that the Egypt revolution took also part in this movement of technology-driven emancipation, it was much said that this was the first digital revolution in the history of mankind, a revolution telecontrolled and telecommanded by digital technology.
And one of the first comments on this in the west German/European academic scene was actually a scene in February 2011 that meant very much to me: it was Friedrich Kittler (one of the pioneers of the global media theory movement) on a panel in the Berlin Renaissance Theater, talking to Andrei Ujica, who is a documentary filmmaker and a kind of cult figure in that field – that had made a gigantesque documentary on the Romanian Revolution that lead to the death of the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu – »The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu«. Talking about this project of filming a revolution, archiving a revolution (Ujica had just used archival material for his documentary), Kittler and Ujica suddenly turned their attention to the Egyptian revolution, which was going on then – and thus were the first ones acknowledging that this revolution would have been impossible without the help of digital archiving technology.
I think that these events marked an important step in my own development in archival theory: to see that archives don’t only record the past, but that they are also operative in the present, that it is possible to archive the present and that the present is constantly being archived. Which was of course a situation that for me cried for reflection by media theory in general and archival theory in particular. And this need for reflection increased massively of course with Edward Snowdon’s revelations/unveilings that had a great impact on the politicization of academia/media theory in Germany. So it was then that we learned that we all are constantly being under surveillance, that we are constantly being archived.
And this situation of being archived is the other side of the coin of the emancipatory situation I evoked at the beginning – one can always do several things with new techniques and we all know that these things are all being done today, heavy surveillance as well as important political movements to escape these situations: which led to the data wars of the present, which are fought out between big data companies like Facebook or Google and their consumers. We won’t go into that. But what seems important to me is the fact that this situation supplies the condition of possibility (Möglichkeitsbedingung, Germans love this Kantian phrasing) of the projects that we discuss here today: the possible total archivization of the present has rendered possible the archival projects that we are experiencing today.
So this is quite an ambivalent situation: The very same technology that is used to surveil and control people, is used by activists to change, or at least to highlight this very situation. This has always been done, there have always been different uses of technology, as I said before – and I think that it is quite important that we do this and make use of these very same technologies (and you all know there is a worldwide movement of political hackers that do just that). So much for the data wars of the present (that have obviously just begun, if one just looks at what gigantic surveillance tools the Chinese government is planning right now) and that tells us: Whatever our future will bring – it will all be under surveillance.
So what we are really talking about is archives and counter-archives – and it is also true that there is increasing interest in these political role of archives as counter-archives; the most important publications in archive theory in the last years have been in this area – I will just quote one example: A publication called The archive as a productive space of conflict, ed. by Markus Miessen and Yann Chateigné this year – which gives an overview of this massive field of emancipatory archival practices, of the many counter-archives that are being established at the moment. The reason for this is quite obvious: The more we are dealing with global power structures, the more we need neutral and ›objective‹ data and counter-archives to provide the data we are talking about in the first place. This is also the case of the entire discussion on decolonization we are having today: the decolonization discourse relies on counter-archives and not only on archives in the hands of those in power.
And I am very happy that we have the opportunity to discuss several of these counter-archives today. I will mostly comment on Kaya Behkalam’s project Augmented Archive for I know this project and had the opportunity to follow it along its inception. But I’m also very curious to hear about Mosireen’s archive 858-An Archive Of Resistance and Alisa Lebow’s meta-documentary Filming Revolution. So taking the title of Mosireen’s archive as a starting point: it is possible to make out of an archive a place or an institution of resistance? Why is that and why is that surprising?
To transform an archive into an institution of resistance is not evident at all, for normally, and for centuries, archives have always been connected to power, to authority, since its Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman primal scenes. Over the longest periods of history, the archive has not only been connected to authority, but was often necessary to establish authority in the first place, as a condition of possibility (again: Möglichkeitsbedingung) of authority. For authority, Jacques Derrida has made this very clear in the 1990ties, for law and authority both rely on memory. No authority, no law without memory, without the archive. The state and its system of law need memory. This is what the Prussian general von Hardenberg meant, when in the 19th century he was evoking the »memory of the state« (das „Gedächtnis des Staates“), which is, of course, the archive.
What does it mean if Mosireen are establishing an archive of resistance, what does it mean if Behkalam’s Augmented Archive is instituting a site-specific archive? The first thing is that there is a certain connection of these archives to power, to authority, to order – with their attempts to establish independent sources of history beyond state control; different sources of history that are needed if one is to write a history of the younger Egyptian past. But I won’t go too much into this complicated topic of writing the history of the Egyptian revolution, which is obviously quite central also both in Mosireen’s and in Alisa Lebow’s practice. But it seems clear to me that all archives presented here today provide sources to a different / alternative writing of the history of a revolution: that’s why we call them counter-archives.
This is obviously also the case of the Augmented Archive. So what’s so archival in this archive and why is this archive augmented? This question brings into the discussion a new topic, which is space/site, as it seems obvious that Behkalam’s project is a kind of site-specific archive, or an archive that is more site-specific than archives usually are. For archives always build a bridge between time and space, they install time past in a specific space, in a specific-site. Like museums, collections or libraries, they form what has been called cultural memory, they install and fix the memory of a given culture in a space. This is very much true for archives, which are probably the most solid institution of all institutions of cultural memory.
But different from the alpha numerical archive, the Augmented Archive doesn’t consist of written words and numbers, of bills and digits, like the ancient Mesopotamian archives. It consists of videos, of moving images, that are themselves not stored materially on film or video tape, but not stored at all, consisting of digits, totally immaterial and only accessible via the internet. We are talking about video archives – archives of videos that are stored in the internet (if this is a site at all and if it provides storage at all). And media theorists still discuss the question whether a storage as instable and immaterial as the internet can be called an archive at all. So the internet based nature of both the Augmented archive and Mosireen’s archive 858 question their conventional archival nature.
This is quite important: It means that both the Augmented archive and Mosireen’s 858 detach themselves from any concrete space. They don’t centralize and unite their archival material in space, in a central archive for example (and all archives have some kind of centering quality), but in the internet. Establishing an internet archive is a totally different project that demands totally different techniques than a material archive. But both the Augmented Archive and 858 didn’t create collections in buildings that you can go to like libraries or museums – where you can go and consult the collections. And obviously accessibility in space is an entirely different thing and problem than the accessibility of an internet archive.
And here begin the differences between an internet archive like 858 and a site-specific project like the Augmented Archive. For 858 obviously is an internet archive that centralizes all of the sources in one archive, being accessible via the internet. Which is obviously not the case with the Augmented Archive. The Augmented Archive does not establish a centralized internet archive or collection, which would follow the same logic of centralization. But, confusingly enough, the Augmented Archive is neither a classical material archive, nor an immaterial internet archive of videos of the Egyptian uprising like Mosireen’s 858 (but relies on its material). The Augmented Archive is something else, something discomfortingly new.
On the opposite, the Augmented Archive indeed decentralizes and deterritorializes its material (this is very important I think, here lies its major operation): It scatters the videos in the city, it diffuses and disperses it in the same city the videos originally came from. It gives the images back to the city they came from, back to the sites they once belonged. This is a strange and mysterious operation: with digital images having become independent of what they show, here the images are brought back to the site they document.
This is a very simple, yet very important operation which reverses our general use or abuse of images: Normally, we take images – this taking already indicating that we can take them anywhere, that they have been taken away from their original site, that they lose their site. Photos and videos are never site-specific, you can take and show them anywhere. And we all know that there are still cultures or visual practices left in the world that don’t take this taking pictures, this take-away-service of pictures for granted, that still attribute some magic or ritual quality to images. This is what Walter Benjamin referred to when he was talking about the aura – which is a quality of the image that links it to its origin, to the original site where it was taken, to its origin.
This is really what the Augmented Archive does, it takes images back to their origin, to the site where they once originated. It reverses the movement of images – that normally go away from their origin, their source, to become independent images, to live an autonomous life of their own. Behkalam’s archive does all the opposite, which is very simple and very mysterious: He takes the pictures back, he digs for their origin, like an archaeologist who wants to find original sites, origins. We can call his project an archaeology of images, of primal scenes that he takes back to the sites they once originated. But what does the artist find when he does that? And why does he do it at all?
Well, his presentation made it quite obvious: The Augmented Archive is not a conservative project that wants to celebrate the origin of images or that wants to produce an ontological and archaic congruence of original site and its image. On the contrary, it displaces and defers the archive that gets decentralized and scattered in space. In this space, at the site of the original happenings, the archival images superimpose the everyday life of the city; the real-time images of what once happened there overlay what’s going on today.
So there are at least two temporal layers: the ›real‹ real-time and the archival real-time in the app that somehow interact and meet. But I think that there’s also a third temporal layer besides the recorded image and the actual time in which we see it – which is the technological time of the streaming of these images. The images The Augmented Archive brings to our mobile screens don’t come out of nowhere, they are streamed and come out of the internet; they are recomposed in the second we watch them by digital technology, meaning by 0 and 1’s; which is a technology that is as invisible as it is effective on our mobile phones, coding the images we see.
These three temporal layers come together, they make up the The Augmented Archive – and even though this seems to be quite a complex operation, it’s also the very simple and very strange moment that we all know, when someone sends you a video message and we look at it at the site of its recording: So we can compare the real site to the recorded video image of it. And what happens when we do this?
Kaya Behkalam’s archaeology of images discovers that time has changed; what has once been there is not anymore; there is a natural incongruence of the videos and their original sites: First, the video itself is just a video image that is not identical to past reality. Past reality is coded anew by digital technology. Secondly, things out there have changed also and one layer of time and images superimposes the other. The protagonists have vanished, the uprising has left, the time past is irretrievably lost and life has gone on. Here lies maybe the melancholy of the Augmented Archive, if it has any.
But the Augmented Archive is not an aesthetic exercise about the melancholic nature of the image, but a highly political, if not revolutionary operation – and I mean ›revolutionary‹ purely literal here, reversing something, turning it around as I just explained: reversing the movement of images of past actions. And obviously, this ›revolutionary‹ operation of reversing the movement of images of past actions and bringing them back to their origin does something to them, but what? What is the effect of the Augmented Archive?
There are several effects possible: The images could be emptied out, if one compares the images of uprisings to the contemporary site, this could be truly deceiving: The uprising is past, the revolutionary moment is over, all hope is gone. The course of things went on. No revolution anymore anywhere.
But also the opposite is thinkable: Taking back the images to their origin and superimposing them onto reality, they could regain their original strength, their authenticity, their aura, as Benjamin would say. Benjamin said this of the artistic practices of the surrealists, that their artistic practice recollects revolutionary energy, that it is a storage reservoir of revolutionary energy; that surrealism was the first to discover the »revolutionary energies that appear in the obsolescent, in the outdated and antiquated« (in German, the quote reads: that »Sürrealismus war der erste, der zuerst auf die revolutionären Energien stieß, die im “Veralteten” erscheinen«) That’s Benjamin’s famous nostalgia, which has also a revolutionary explosive side or force.
And I think that this quote also applies to the Augmented Archive, that also discovers new energies in not so old, but rather quite recent images (Jüngstvergangenes). But it seems to discover something and maybe here also lies the true archaeological aspect in the project that it digs for past images of a revolution – but not for mere historical reasons, but on the contrary to also discover revolutionary energy in images of a revolution (quite a tautological operation). I don’t know if this reading is true though, one would have to ask the artist. But this revolutionary past covers up and superimposes itself onto the flat present, providing one (or two) new temporal layers to the present moment – which is, by the way, the sense of any monument: To commemorate at a specific site what has once happened here.
So this would be more or less my reading: That the Augmented Archive constitutes not only an archive but a monument in time, a memorial, or many memorials of moving images – in the very primary, archaic and simple sense that the first monument was not a sculpture but someone commemorating the past: This is the true sense of a monument that Behkalam gives back to the memory of the revolution. The Augmented Archive is like someone standing at a specific site, commemorating what once happened there. Which is in itself a very fascinating and very poetic action. Like any monument, it works like a memory aid that helps us memorizing – also the people who didn’t take part in it – what once happened in a specific site. And this is also why it’s augmented, it augments human memory to bring back to a specific site some scenes that once happened there.
This mobile memorial application re-links images of situations past to the sites where they once happened. It works similar to the ancient Greek practice of Mnemotechnique, which retrieved memories by their dispersal, dissemination and scatter in space: Certain sites in space made some memories come back – just like in one of the most famous situations of the history of literature, when Proust described not only when he ate the famous madeleine; but the site where he hit an old stone in the ground that equally made his memories come back. So the Augmented Archive really reterritorializes memory, it gives back the site to the memory of the Egyptian revolution, the Egyptian revolution regains its territorial agency, so to say.
So the Augmented Archive is all about the site: the site of the former revolution which becomes the site where its images revolve. This site is also what Benjamin calls Ort und Stelle, as is written in Excavation and Memory, Ausgraben und Erinnern. And this truly is what the Augmented Archive does, it excavates and commemorates, it is a sort of visual archaeology, an »archaeology of images«, as French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard put it. It excavates what once has been in a certain place. Which is why it truly is an archaeology of images, of moving images. Like any archaeologist, Behkalam finds something old that has been stored and survived the ages and that is examined in relation to its site. But unlike archaeology, the Augmented Archive finds these images not in the earth, in space, but in the internet, or the internet archive of Mosireen, which is also why this archaeology is also an archaeology of data, of image retrieval, of the retrieval of images. So it’s also an archaeology of data, of old image data that is taken back to its original site.
To sum up what I said: With the Augmented Archive, the archive gets mobile, and this mobile memorial application transforms the once stable archive into a moving archive – into an archive in motion, as a publication once said. The Augmented Archive is an archive in motion for two reasons: once, because it is a monument consisting of moving images; and secondly because this archive of moving images is set into motion, is brought back to the sites where the scenes once originated. Which is why I think that its political implication lies not only in the record of political actions; the political or better: revolutionary quality of the Augmented Archive lies in reestablishing the original strength of images, in bringing back the authenticity or aura of images within a situation where all images lose their aura and strength in the internet. So this would not result in Bachelard’s archaeology of images, but in an archaeology of the political as such (in the sense of Georges Didi-Huberman’s exhibition on the uprising/enlèvement at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2016).
But does the Augmented Archive really do that or is it just the wish of the philosopher, longing for the long lost revolutionary moment in time? Is the Augmented Archive deceptive or nostalgic in the end? I think (and hope) it is neither one of the two; if it was merely deceptive or nostalgic, one would miss the point of neutrality of the archive: Archives are simply recordings in the first place. Thus the Augmented Archive simply displays the records of past uprisings and brings them back to their origin – but it brings the records not only back to their place of origin, forming an archive; it also goes back to the origin of the archive itself, which lies not in its centrality, but on the contrary in its scattered and disseminated character. And it was Derrida, again, who not only coined the term dissemination, but who pointed out as well the fact that the origin of the archives in ancient Greek was as scattered and disseminated as Kaya Behkalam’s mobile archives in modern Cairo.
Thank you very much for your attention.
 Bachelard 1987:11. Zur phänomenologischen Archäologie cf. Günzel 2004.
 Rossaak et. al., The Archive in Motion, 2010