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

Excerpt from a lecture on the occasion of the symposium “Augmented Archives – History in Real-Time”, launching the projects the Augmented Archive by Kaya Behkalam and 858 – An Archive of Resistance by Mosireen, and presenting Filming Revolution by Alisa Lebow

Photo: Roger Anis

[…]Is it 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 (Möglichkeitsbedingung, Germans love this Kantian phrasing) 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 […] 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[…].

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«[1], 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.[2] 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.

[1] Bachelard 1987:11. Zur phänomenologischen Archäologie cf. Günzel 2004.

[2] Rossaak et. al., The Archive in Motion, 2010