Three conjectural models for records people from ‘Tending the archive’

Three conjectural models for archives

There are three key ideas in my (Louise Curham’s) PhD thesis Tending the Archive that are relevant for the recordkeeping community. That community is broadly conceived as everyone interested in facts and how they get produced.

Conjectural model 1 – authenticity

There are three parts to my conjecture about authenticity.

1) Authenticity extends to the quality of the action that gets documented in the record. A good record of a duplicitous action is not going to support the record user.

2) Authenticity calls for a double-visioned experience. An encounter with a record needs to take into account both the event that the user seeks to reach through to, and the record that enables it. The authorship of that record will shape that access. Emphasising authorship of the record plays a role in authenticity.

3) Authenticity also calls for ethical use of the record that emphasises what remains true to the record and what varies from it in its new circulation.

Authenticity is a cornerstone in the world of records. It is one of four properties that the international standard includes in its definition of a record – authenticity means a record is what it purports to be. This is the argument that there is a 1:1 relationship between the record and a past event. A parallel lies in photography. As theorist Geoffrey Batchen writes, there is an undisputed relationship between the event that took place before the camera lens, observed by the sensor and recorded by the chip. Reality can be shaped or staged in front of the lens (Australian art historian Anne Marsh writes about this extensively), and the digital record the photo makes can be changed (look no further than Trump, here’s the 2018 article from the Guardian about the inauguration photos but nonetheless, there is the 1:1 relationship photographic technology to event holds. This is the argument records make, they are evidence of a transaction or interaction that took place. To protect that evidence from interference and change is no mean feat and that is the work of record keepers.

The authenticity argument that a record is what it purports to be extends to its material form – it actually is an email sent through a network system. It also extends to its transactional claim – it actually went from my outbox to your inbox. And the content is actually what I wrote to you.

My PhD uses an outlier case study of a media art from the 1970s, British artist Guy Sherwin’s Man with Mirror. The data set involved users testing a manual myself and a colleague made as we re-enacted this artwork.

Above: Teaching and Learning Cinema’s users manual titled (Wo)Man with Mirror, photo, Lucas Ihlein. Check out the manual here

The contention of the manual is that the instructions it contains are a record, they are an account of us carrying out that re-enactment. Can the manual testers expect to achieve something close to the original artwork? Why should future users pay attention to this manual? Because the manual instructions are a record, like a note-for-file from a phone call or minutes of a meeting, an account of an event that took place.

But crucial to the re-enactment process was the intention to stay true to the original. This means that what’s capture in the record has a clear relationship to the original artwork. The intention in the action the record documents matters for authenticity.

Yet this gets complex. No-one can be the original artist, Guy Sherwin, in 1976, not even Sherwin. The instructions in the manual are faithful as far as possible but they are instructions made by my colleague and I.

Above: instructions in the user’ manual showing authors and Teaching and Learning Cinema members Lucas Ihlein (left) and Louise Curham (right) working on the re-enactment that is documented in the instructions.

Users need to both reach through to look at Sherwin’s original as well as be alerted to our authorship (Lucas and I wrote an article that addresses this notion of reaching through to items from the past (2015) ) Historian Greg Dening explains the importance of acknowledging the user of records as a ‘performer’, the process cannot be neutral (2002)). What I add is that the creator of the records is also a ‘performer’.

The research identified there is an ethical dimension for future users of our manual. Each user made changes to the work, changes they felt were needed to ‘be true’ to their situation. Yet their starting point was adherence to the rules and rigours of Sherwin’s work set out in the manual. They followed these rules but as they progressed, they each found issues they needed to deal with that reflected their current situation eg Laura Hindmarsh is an artist 35 years younger than Guy. As a young female, she felt she needed to find a way to reflect her situation while still calibrating to Guy’s original. This emphasises an usual quality to authenticity, that change can be a requirement for authenticity.

I arrived at this whole discussion of authenticity through the work of American archives scholars Bill Rosen and Frank Blouin who write about archival authority. In short this discussion is about how records become social facts, how they have the power to stand in for past events. What makes a record able to claim a relationship to something that happened in the past? The process begins with the credentials of the maker: who made it, and why. Also crucial is the process, what process was used, how reliable was it? From the standing of these credentials, a reputational contagion operates, the reputation of the record maker is conferred to the records. Twentieth century humanities scholarship, for example the giants Foucault and Derrida, spells out hegemonic (world view shaping) power relationships that are a real problem for records – you have to be powerful to get to make and keep records. So accumulations of records in archives have distinct limitations as long as the records that are kept are made only by the powerful. Archivists have been grappling with this for decades, how to make the voices kept in records a more accurate reflection of society and the records that are kept a more accurate picture of events (see Terry Cook and Joan Schwarz for an intro to the power problem from the archivist’s perspective and much of Sue McKemmish’s work focuses on the harm one-sided records cause). The work of my colleague and I in making records for communities important to us ie the manual for Sherwin’s artwork, are part of the crucial and growing sector of community archiving efforts. To lock off Blouin and Rosenberg’s argument, where once archives were a font for writing history, as their one-sidedness became evident, historians needed to look further, to broaden their sources. To spell out the connection from archival authority to authenticity, a record has authenticity, is what it purports to be, because of who made it and the process it participated in. Despite the problems of one-sided archives, the core claim that there can be a relationship between an event in the past and its material trace as a record holds.

To sum up what I’ve got to say here, the intention in the action documented in the record matters. Users both look through to the event the record documents and at the record itself, for this reason acknowledging the impact of authorship of that record matters. In use, change can be a marker of being ‘true to one’s situation’ ie authentic.

Second conjectural model

The case study I deal with is a media artwork from the 1970s. I define it as a complex situation, difficult to meaningfully archive using traditional methods of preservation ( such as good storage for existing components and duplication or digitisation to extend the life of the components). The reason it evades the usual methods is that Man with Mirror requires the same person to perform in both the recorded media and the live performance. Just keeping the recorded media will not deliver a meaningful performance of Man with Mirror in the future. Just keeping a recording of a full performance of Man with Mirror as the artist Guy Sherwin performs it will also deliver a partial experience. As film scholar Dirk De Bruyn describes : ‘the experience of Sherwin’s performance is not available in any YouTube or Vimeo recordings of the event–although the simultaneous “oh-ah” trace of the impact on its audience is palpable on such recordings’ (De Bruyn 2018, 50). You have to be there to really get it.

Man with Mirror as a landmark work is accepted by scholars in the relevant field of contemporary art, experimental film and art history [add those scholars]. It is worth keeping alive. So how to do it? The manual was made in part to address this situation and provide for future re-stagings. What is important here is that the instructions are an account, a tale of the experience myself and my colleague had as we re-enacted the artwork. Another word for ‘account’ here is story.

The role of storytelling in capturing complex situation is supported by recent scholarship. Gibson, Crea and Chambers (2018) proposed that storytelling is a crucial and compellingly effective tool. It involves three stages, witnessing, recounting and receiving. These different viewpoints build up a ‘narrative mesh’, a legitimate way to build a picture of a complex situation.

Not only is storytelling a good fit for the complexity of Man with Mirror, there are qualities to storytelling that can ensure its preservation for the longterm. Walter Benjamin wrote about Russian writer Nicolai Leskov. Benjamin used Leskov to analyse storytelling. In storytelling, the tale is not depleted in the re-telling. It is made stronger. A compelling story is embedded in the teller, it is made specific by the teller but that too doesn’t deplete the tale, rather it strengthens it.

The instructions in the users’s manual for Man with Mirror are an account, a story of my colleague and I, following Guy’s instructions and our own observations to deliver a faithful rendition of the artwork. Future users will embed the instructions in their bodies and tell ‘the story’ using the instructions their way. But the story doesn’t grow weak, it grows stronger in the re-telling. I conceptualise this as a model of a growth ring, where the original work isn’t changed but it is strengthened by rings around it.

The manual reflects these growth rings by inviting users to literally add an insert to the manual, telling the story of their experience. Enriched metadata is one phrase that can be applied to this.

Above: Laura Hindmarsh’s inserts to the user’s manual.

The lessons for record keepers here are that records can be thought of as stories, in this model, use strengthens. That use can be literally attached to the record as metadata. There’s nothing new to record keepers in these ideas – use metadata is standard part of a trusted recordkeeping system, but taken together, they add an emphasis on strengthening or preserving items through use.

Third conjectural model

The discipline of performance studies has theorised extensively about archiving performance. The scope of performance studies is broad but it finds its roots in theatre studies and anthropology. Live performance is a significant component of its objects for study. For this reason, archives and the relationship to performance have been an important discussion in the field. Rebecca Schneider has made some key contributions to this discussion (her original 2001 article, revised in her 2011 book Performing Remains, art and war …). She highlights two aspects useful for record keepers. For Schneider, the archives are about the future and they carry an opportunity for communities to respond anew to events of the past and therefore to repair and set new directions. She describes archives as offering a hail to another time, essentially a future time, a future reader or user. This interval between the time of the record and the time of its reception is critically productive, a time for reflection, in which we can choose how we respond to what has been laid down in the past. For Schneider the archive is always of the future, always live because that is where we receive it, through our senses in the room or before the screen we cradle. This has resonances with Derrida’s conception of archives as pressing send to the future. Hitting save on the keyboard is effectively sending a message to a future, not yet known (this image comes from Archive Fever).

I include Schneider’s hail here for information, because I believe its productive, constructive and generative relationship with the future has much of value to record keepers as an idea.

There is a second idea of Schneider’s that chimes directly with my case study. That is a re-ordering of the usual sequence of record making. Usually the record documents an event that took place in the past. Schneider analyses generative structures like gesture, theatre scripts and religious rituals. Where there is a generative ‘code’, when it is used, that use, or event, becomes a record for the existence of this code. The event itself becomes a record. In my case study, the user’s manual for Sherwin’s artwork has the potential to be a generative code for the work. In that understanding each future performance of Man with Mirror becomes a record of the persistence of that generative code. The potential insight for record keepers is that there are instances where keeping the records themselves may be less important than keeping the generative code that produces them.

There’s a lot more in Tending the Archive. It grapples with embodied knowledge and making decisions that involve bodies (Ch 2), re-enactment (Ch 3) and keeping strategies for works like Man with Mirror (Ch 4).

There are work-in-progress questions it raises about the nature of authenticity (you can see my thinking here is still unfolding in claiming the importance of subjective experience for authenticity) and about forms of knowledge. The ‘future directions’ section outlines my efforts in Indigenous knowledge management that I set aside pending a time when I can research that with appropriately qualified scholars, I’m building those relationships at Charles Sturt University. The records continuum is a model in Australian archives scholarship that grapples directly with problems of time in relation to records, analysing these ideas through the continuum is another fruitful future proposition.

Right now I am focused on a series titled ‘Let’s talk about expanded cinema’. You can read about that here on Dirk De Bruyn’s Dialogics blog at Deakin

Additional references:

Batchen, Geoffrey. 2001. Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: MIT Press.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Storyteller – Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov’. Illuminations, Schocken Books, [1935] 1969, pp. 83–109,

Blouin, Francis X., and William G. Rosenberg. 2011. Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Bruyn, Dirk. 2018. ‘Performing the Margins of the New’. In Experimental and Expanded Animation: New Perspectives and Practices. Springer International Publishing.

Dening, Greg. ‘Performing on the Beaches of the Mind: An Essay’. History and Theory, vol. 41, 2002, pp. 1–24,

Ihlein, Lucas, and Louise Curham. 2015. ‘Reaching Through to the Object: Re-Enacting Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1’. Performance Matters 1 (1–2): 24–40.

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook. ‘Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory’. Archival Science, vol. 2, no. 1–2, Mar. 2002, pp. 1–19,