Towards a Radical Archive: De Balie’s Eric Kluitenberg

Eric Kluitenberg is a well-traveled theorist, writer, and lecturer who has produced media events in The Netherlands, Moscow, and Estonia, and also currently heads the media program at De Balie, a cultural and political hotbed in Amsterdam. I’ve had to the luck to attend some of Eric’s events, such as 2010’s Electrosmog fest, and witness Eric speak eloquently about the digital commons in a lecture inspired by his 2008’s Economies of the Commons conference. That event’s essential question – how will we support our cultural archives in the digital age? – seems largely unanswered, or at least in an unfolding state, and Eric has taken an active role to see that the cultural heritage sector is represented in the fall out.

When I approached him for an interview, Eric asked to focus the discussion on the Living Archive project at De Balie, an work-in-progress that neatly exposes the role played by theory in the technical design of online archives. The Living Archive, in its very architecture, stresses the importance of ephemera, dissenting messages and mutable, collaborative scaffolds to produce conversations around the objects we transmit into the future.

MC: What is the Living Archive? Does it exist yet?

EK: The Living Archive is a really a theory, founded on the problem that most traditional archives are organized through selection, inclusion and exclusion. There is a strong tendency in these traditional models to leave out what is called ephemera, for instance flyers or temporary productions, like the Prelinger Archive’s industrial films that’s made for one particular purpose then expected to disappear. Ephemera are considered noise, irrelevant, and as a result, a large aspect of living culture is often excluded.

This is the topic of The Order of Things by Foucault, who says that dominant powers ultimately determine the structures of discourse and consequently what should be preserved in the archive. Everything that falls out is automatically irrelevant. This classical notion of archiving excludes too much, a problem increasingly recognized within the archiving world itself and even more pressing now that digital media allows countless people to put weird stuff online. The official archiving world doesn’t have an effective way to deal with all this ephemera. Foucault also critiques the archive as a static collection of dead phrases no longer a part of living culture, because it’s already enshrined in a system of power. You have to dig out the power structures underneath, figure out who created the rules, the political motives and material conditions behind it all. That’s why he calls it archeology. A static archive is a completely closed thing, in contrast to the multiple, dispersed discourses of present, living culture. To Foucault there are dominant forces that try to control this dispersal and order it in a particular way, making the archive immutable.

The Living Archive, then, is a theoretical model that makes discursive practice its active component. It refuses the canon of collected statements that Foucault critiqued and doesn’t accept any kind of necessary outcome. It emphasizes active discursive production, a continuous discussion and debate about everything in the archive, using the archive as a material for the discussion itself.  Wikipedia is an example of this, maybe the best at it so far.

Obviously you can’t store everything. Discrepancy operates on many levels. An artist found this wonderful quote of Nietzsche: “in order to imagine it is necessary to forget.” It’s a classical archival problem: if you store everything, you lose the space for imagination or thinking or reflection, or active, living culture. So there is a healthy tension all the time.

The digital nature of archives has unique potential to challenge older ideas of the repository. Can you talk about how the material properties of digital media make this the case?

If you store things in a digital format, you can always reprocess them. They remain in an unclear state – is the text ever finished? You could see this as a threat or a chance to make materials publicly available to be worked upon. That’s why Wikipedia is important – not only can you work on the documents stored in the system, you can also track the document history. In that sense Wikipedia, with all its shortcomings, is the most sophisticated model of the living archive. The process is revealed as open-ended, rather than left to a professional clan of archivists who have their established systems and abhor the idea of public participation.

What specific archiving projects are you working on at De Balie?

When I first came to work here, there was no archive whatsoever, only a huge pile of flyers and announcements stored in big folders in the basement. We introduced a database driven website in ’99 to kick start a digital archive. Around that time we also began streaming live events, and when the technology became available, we created the online video archive.

The real aim is to capture live discussion and debate as it unfolds over the years. So we created a web-based annotation system allowing you to annotate who is speaking in the videos and link the videos to web resources or to articles in De Balie’s site. As a theme runs over years, the results cluster around dossiers. There’s still an editorial hand that makes certain selections, but this whole process started a living archive trajectory.

Another project is the Tactical Media Files, a documentation resource for tactical media practices worldwide. Today we do not have active discussion deciding what to include and exclude, but we want to open it up to a collaborative editorial model. Many people can be invited to edit, creating a collective editing open forum.  If you can fuse a documentation resource combined with an active, open discussion extended in time, a form that Wikipedia allows, then you would get closer to a living archive.

As these archives challenge traditional notions of authorship and hence copyright and power structures, do you think the economic structures of traditional institutions will evolve as well?

That’s not for certain. It’s important to look at this from an historical perspective. Consider the history of radio. Technically any radio receiver can be turned into a signal; Brecht recognized the enormous potential of decentralizing and distributing two-way space, later echoed in Howard Rheingold’s early euphoric description of the Internet as a distributed structure and virtual community. But legislation turned radio into one a one-way medium, and it became an authoritarian instrument, like in Rwanda, where violence was largely organized by radio. In the same way, copyright legislation can very easily and effectively be turned into a tool of extreme censorship, used to push the Internet the way of radio. This open space could be shut down by regulation, and the Internet becomes the next mass medium with some paraphernalia on the edges for people to play around with. Dissident, sub-cultural, and political messages would be without a decent audience.

On the other hand, the question of sustainability isn’t immediately addressed by open access and copyleft practices. If you want to move this discussion forward, even beyond less restrictive copyright policy, it becomes inevitable to consider the economic sustainability of these resources. But for the most part, we’re completely without a clear solution. State funding is not in all cases forthcoming or desirable. Donation models only work for famous projects, but even Wikipedia has trouble sustaining itself. The advertisement model still doesn’t go far. Becoming another commercial media operator is not good for the independence of a message.

One exciting model is the open source area where, because of their self-motivated activity, people move into well-paid jobs or become supported by institutions. So there is derivative economy.  But this for me is the main problem: one the one hand, copyright turning into the ultimate censorship instrument, and on the other, the absence of a clear sustainable revenue model to support our digital archives.

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