top of page


possibility and creativity_edited.jpg

Lost Origins: Adrift in the Archive

The abundance of possibilities within the archive.


For what does contemporary culture keep returning to the archive? Love object, image of the unconscious, abundance set against maternal loss? Darkened film vaults start to look, like Citizen Kane's labyrinthine Xanadu, a lot like the womb.[2]

- Dan Barrow


I begin to think of Dianne’s home: once the family home, empty of children and husband. Val wanted to die at home and in the final month of caring for her mother, the only time Dianne became upset was when Val was taken out of the house for the final time.[3]

- The Field Diaries


            As the diaries of my research in Rainbow developed, I found I was returning to the image of the home. As Derrida observes in Archive Fever:


…the meaning of “archive,” it’s only meaning, comes to it from the Greek arkheion: initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded.[4]


Merging the two together within the context of my research, I saw the Dickson home as an archive, not just in the sense of a container of objects, but of a space that had held events, occurrences and personal moments. The residue of these happenings, held within memories and the activity of storytelling, continued to occupy the home.


The Barrow quote above propelled an image of the archive as a womb, a space of origin, growth and evolvement. Previous discussion here about photography has centred on its connectivity to death, to mortality, and Barthes’s “catastrophe.”[5] But as I have discovered in my work with found, archive and vernacular films and photographs, the archive is a place of possibility and creativity: not about what was, but what will be. Key to this notion is Harbord’s examination of Derrida’s Archive Fever, and his idea of the archive not as a place for “preservation and mummification,”[6] but a place that assumes order of objects for the future. With this in mind, Harbord posits, “The archive is both commencement and commandment,”[7] a space that encourages beginnings rather than endings, which falls in line with Derrida’s observation that the earliest meaning of the archive comes from the Greek word arkhē,[8] meaning origin.  From the position of the present, we use archives to look at the past, but there is also a way of considering archives for the future. Indeed, they position us in the future as we view them, and an awareness of how we will look from there, the future, is conjured.


There was a time when the word archive conjured an image of a dusty vault, dark and neglected, of little interest to the public. But the archive can take on many forms. Enwezor puts forward Marcel Duchamp’s La boîte-en-valise as “certainly not the first of such programmatic engagements with the work of art as archive, but it remains the most rigorous.”[9] The work proposed a portable museum and played with the notion of the museum itself as “a site of reflection”[10] by reducing the work to miniatures: the equivalent of facsimiles, as Enwezor notes, compacted in a suitcase. The work poked fun at the reverence and high esteem in which works were held. At the same time, it created an ordering system that appears to respect the notion of collection and presentation, both inherent to the museum.


Archive works today take many forms as seen through the work of Walid Raad, Dean, Penny Woolcock and Bill Morrison, who all work within photographic and film archives. Enwezor notes that:


Because the camera is literally an archiving machine, every photograph, every film is a priori an archival object. This is the fundamental reason why photography and film are often archival records, documents and pictorial testimonies of the existence of a recorded fact, an excess of the seen.[11]


In Glory Box, the archive weaves through my own photographic works that stand as documents and fine art objects. It is perhaps because the interpretation of an archive photograph can straddle both; that the archive works initiate their own form of reading in a gallery/exhibition setting. They float free of original context. The archive pathway in the artwork deconstructs the notion of the home as a secure dwelling space. Derrida’s definition leads a sociopolitical series that comments on social constructs, war and the notion of the happy home. Rather than to pour scorn on these constructs, the work attempts to highlight the marks left on small communities in more remote areas of Victoria. Familial tensions and tragedies abound. The façade of the archive both covers and reveals, echoing photography’s self-evidentiary and at once opaque tendencies.


Campany comments on a thread that connects photographic works otherwise seemingly separate, through photography “having it both ways”[12] as documents and artwork. I propose this of the archive image. The original author’s intentions may be discarded and unknown; these images float unanchored and become a kind of, as Bush notes, “accidental art, photographic ‘ready-mades’ dependent on the passage of time.”[13] She echoes Sontag who said, “A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings become unstuck.[14]” Sontag goes on to comment on “a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading (or matching to other photographs).”[15] This tendency underpins my approach.


The Glory Box archive images have been allocated a place within the long series of works, but each has a message to send out, received by the viewer perhaps as Silverman’s “ontological calling card” or as a more private, mysterious whisper that alludes to something unsaid. Bush notes this in regard to anonymous images and in Barthes’s preference for photographs that do not announce their intention:


… there’s something more to be discovered, a residue of meaning, beyond the photographer’s obvious intention and not reducible to language: thus such images offer an imaginative space for the viewer to[16] “elaborate himself without being encumbered by the demiurgic presence of the photographer.” [17]


An abstract elusiveness or a trace of meaning conjures a presence only possible through the absence inherent to found vernacular imagery. The elaboration that is afforded to the viewer is key to my work, as I have mentioned before, through Sontag’s abstractness and the images floating free in the viewer’s imagination.


In broadening the scope of artists as ethnographers and how their work has an impact on this research I would reiterate my reference to Walker Evans (page 75), who I consider to be one of the earliest ethnographic artists, specifically with regard to the early development of my photographic style. Another photographer I would add here would be Robert Frank: one of the most celebrated documenters of mid-century America. Frank epitomises the romanticism of the road trip while managing to scratch beneath the veneer of 1950’s idealism to comment on race and gender. As with the work of Evans, I absorbed the quotidian and lack of whimsy in Frank’s images and trained myself to see that which is seen by us all, but rarely noticed.


Other artists as ethnographers that I would consider relevant to my practice would be the Sensory Ethnographic Lab at Harvard University, specifically the filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez who made the films Manakamana (2013) and Leviathan (2012). I experienced the camera as witness in these films, as if no author or cameraperson existed. The work spoke for itself and I was immersed in the culture of the subjects. This was my embedded experience in the regional areas in which I conducted my research and it is an experience I try to create in moments of Glory Box. 


I would also note the work of Walid Raad, specifically The Atlas Group: an archive, real and fictional, created by Raad to explore the contemporary history of his home country, Lebanon, specifically the civil wars. The archive is online and arranged into groupings for the user to select. Individual series are based on images found, donated or created and use events in the wars to comment on Lebanon historically, culturally and socially. Conceptually some of the projects also investigate how images can be used during a war and afterwards to reflect on it. How an image can be altered (not digitally, but by hand) can redefine a national history to make it personal, and Raad investigates some little known facts of the wars to give voice to others’ archives and experiences.


Two major archive works of last century that do not so much disrupt and reimagine experiences, but rather try to make sense of them through collecting and ordering are Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (1929) and Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (1962-ongoing). These two works connect with my discussions on collecting in Chapter 3 (“An Immortality in Artefacts: Regional Archivists”) and particularly Richter’s archive project very much connects to Patrick Pound’s comments on collecting on pages 72  and 143. Richter has said:


My motivation was more a matter of wanting to create order — to keep track of things. All those boxes full of photographs and sketches weigh you down, because they have something unfinished, incomplete, about them.[18]


Pound commented he collects images to make sense of the world. Richter has a similar impetus. The idea of images weighing one down echoes the idea of memories returning and casting their shadow  on our present day experiences. Perhaps these two projects are an expunging of images and therefore experiences to try to make sense of history. Warburg’s Bilderatlas (picture atlas) was not completed before his death, but his vision for the 63 panel exhibition was a mapping of images stretching from antiquity to the Renaissance to chart the course that led to modern art history. Order helps us to control the chaos and maps show us a route through the chaos. Perhaps then archives are about control; stemming from the control that manifested in the arkheion in ancient Greece: the house of those who commanded (Derrida, Page 203).


Enwezor noted ten years ago on the use of archive images in popular culture, in institutions and in the home:


The archive today rests in a state of historical incarceration, played out in media experiences, museums of art, natural history and ethnography, in old libraries, in memorabilia concessions, as popular entertainment, in historical reenactments, as monuments and memorials, in private albums, on computer hard drives.[19]


The archive has been released but has been confined once more into a continuous cycle of remembrance. Some of these uses may be cynical but some are genuine. Curiosity of our past, of how things once were, is an honest place to start from when facing the archive. Which past to unearth is the responsibility of those within the archive. And recent political manifestations have surely tapped into a nostalgic yearning of how we used to live: an edited, cherry-picked version of our past.


Photographers used to put photographs in albums and boxes to be viewed and reviewed at will. Photographs were never made to be scanned and redistributed on eBay. Whether they are analogue or digital, printed photographs have an afterlife that no one saw coming.[20]


More importantly, the past is assembled and re-assembled in the present, but not for the needs of the moment. The archive is a time capsule sent into the future, addressed to a yet-to-be viewer, a correspondence from the present to the future via the past.[21]


The above quotes—the first from The Great Exhibition, and the second by Harbord—offer hope. The way that Pound engages with and reuses photographs (and other objects) releases them from historical testimonials and places them in a long line of simple associations that pay no heed to date, place or subject. As he has said, “When you pair one thing with another, some things start to make sense—or not.”[22] It is as if each photograph sends a command to the next, that then responds and at the same time commands the next, and so it goes on.


Harbord’s idea of the archive as a time capsule is alluring and exciting, taking in all tenses at once. This idea takes the archive away from the image of a darkened, dull cupboard and infuses it with the futuristic identity of a message sent forward, from us here in the present. That we do not yet know who will see these images is romantic and mysterious. Even more fascinating is to guess how the collection will be interpreted. Works created now using archive material, will in turn become archives for the future. Glory Box will do the same: an interpretative piece of work that testifies to the experience of living in some Australian regional areas today.


Enwezor’s proposition for the exhibition Archive Fever was an investigation of how contemporary artists could “interrogate the self-evidentiary claims of the archive by reading it against the grain.”[23] By engaging with the archive as “an active, regulatory discursive system” they explored how materials were “appropriated, interpreted, reconfigured, and interrogated.”[24][MOU1]  . [MOU2] 

He Enwezor refers to Derrida’s “fever”[25] and Foster’s “impulse”[26] to point towards the conditions that directed his curation of the International Centre of Photography exhibition in New York. I would like to attach the idea of a fever—a delirium or a frenzied state—to the process of collecting and ordering, both innately connected to the idea of the archive as a site of record. This is reflected in Harbord’s reflection on Derrida’s thoughts as “A heated fascination with the past, a malady, a lovesickness that fuels the desire to archive objects, ideas and things.”[27] I explore the practice of collecting in the section “An Immortality in Artefacts: Regional Archivists” where I draw on the reasons behind the fetishistic practice and talk about the collectors I have met in Rainbow and Cowwarr. 


[1] The term “lost origins” is taken from a quote by Okwui Enwezor, quote in full on p82.

[2] Dan Barrow, “Sullen Archives,” The Wire, June 2015. 

[3] From The Field Diaries, Rainbow.

[4] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 9.

[5]. Barthes, Camera Lucida, 96.

[6] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 10.

[7] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 10.

[8] Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 2.

[9] Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” 12.

[10] Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” 14.

[11] Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” 12.

[12] David Campany, “Traces and Pictures,” 2011.

[13] Bush, “Candid Camera: Unauthored Photography.”

[14] Sontag, On Photography, 71.

[15] Sontag, On Photography, 71.

[16] Bush, “Candid Camera: Unauthored Photography.”

[17] Roland Barthes, “Shock-Photos,” in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), 73.

[18] ‘Interview with Stefan Koldehoff, 1999’, in Dietmar Elger and Hans Ulrich Obrist (eds), Gerhard Richter: Text. Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961–2007, (Thames and Hudson: London, 2009), p.350 in David Burnett, “The Order of Memory: Gerhard Richter’s ‘Atlas’, Queensland Art Gallery blog, accessed 19 September 2021,

[19] Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” 40.

[20] The Great Exhibition. Wall text.

[21] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 10.

[22] The Great Exhibition. Wall text.

[23] Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” 18.

[24] Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” 11.

[25] Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.

[26] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse” in October 110, 2004, 3–22.

[27] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 10.

fragmented nature of_edited.jpg

Reimagining Memory

Memory is fallible and not to be trusted.

Photographs are about memory—or perhaps about the absence of memory, providing pictures to fill voids, illustrating and sometimes falsifying our collective memory.[1]

- Lucy Lippard


Typically, the analogue photograph stopped life in it tracks. It couldn’t stop time… but it could hold it up to a mirror. The vernacular snap reminds us that the camera is both a portal and a mirror.[2]


- Patrick Pound


            The ideas I have posed previously, and the references made, point towards a substituting of memory for imaginings and photographs. They also lead into a discussion of how the fragmented nature of memory, the fluctuating and veering character of the unconscious memory and the opaque nature of photography can be applied to the construction of “matter made new.”[3] The quote above by Lucy Lippard confirms and repeats the points made in the previous section. But it is the word “falsifying” that stands out. For me, this links to the word “fictions” used by Harbord (below) and is alluded to by Wells above in her use of the word “fairytales.” It is also hinted at through MacDougall’s use of the word “construct” in describing family photographs. The word suggests a fiction, a creation or a fabrication. One image can stand in place for another and we muddle our memories of experience and places, the frame of the image isolating it from context. Serena Bentley, in her interview with Pound, makes the observation that “fragmentation is one of the default positions of the photograph, the camera being a cropping as well as a collecting machine.”[4] In this way, images can be manipulated and repositioned into a reimagining. Harbord comments on this in discussing the creation of La Jetée by Marker.


Barthes’s conception of photography saw in the photographic record an inscription of time, a mark of mortality and simultaneously a defence against it. Marker drives us in the opposite direction.

With not exactly an indifference towards what images mean, Marker takes photographs and uses what is within them to create a fictional frame in which each photograph comes to signify anew.[5]


Barthes noted that a photograph is never separated from that which it represents, its “referent.”[6] But he acknowledges that ultimately a photograph is “unclassifiable”[7] because we can never know the intentions behind the image. Its steadfast connectedness to the subject that it captures is also a portal into which we can consider wider stories and social and cultural histories, and perhaps our own histories. As Pink notes,


The same photograph may have different or changing meanings invested in it at different stages of the ethnographic process, as different audiences view it in diverse temporal, spatial and cultural contexts.[8]


Different viewers bring varying readings of an image depending on their own personal experiences and ways of interpreting perhaps influenced by social and cultural conditions.


Dean’s 2001 work Floh is a series of found photographs from flea markets in Europe and America, collected over seven years. The title is the German word for “flea” and references her source, but it also brings to mind the idea of jumping from one image to another, from one era to another: a quick and sometimes seemingly random hop from one subject to the next. Tamara Trodd’s comment that Floh is a “kind of failed family album”[9] offers a clue. Family albums are personal and idiosyncratic, yet often tell of a narrative. In Floh, the step from one image to another, from one page to another, is very much our own journey through the book. Dean’s other works often use a real history or a specific story as a starting point for her interpretative and expansive pieces. Floh, in contrast, seems to come from the anonymous, yet the known. Known in a sense that we can identify our own experiences, families or ourselves in some of these photographs. Our own punctums prick us: a Johnson’s baby lotion bottle, a suburban back yard, a view of an ice rink, or kitchen cupboards in the background of a snapshot. Each punctum is personal, and each memory journey they take us on is unique. 


By considering the quote by Pound at the start of this section, we can view the vernacular image as a portal into the past and a mirror with which to see ourselves. As Silverman notes in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s observation, “We are all both seers and part of the spectacle of the world,”[10] the concept that a vernacular image can show us ourselves within the world becomes a possibility. Silverman uses the term “an ontological thread”[11] that is created by the image to connect us to what we see and “the toucher to what is touched.”[12] By being touched, we are seen. Barthes was touched, or pricked more specifically, by what he termed the punctum: something in the image that touched him in a way he could not have foreseen or did not fully understand. To recall Pound again: “Photography used to be the medium of record. Now it is equally the medium of transmission.”[13] It is not for me to decide the punctums in Glory Box: they are latent until seen by a viewer. A mediation of meaning emanates from a photographic image to reach us through our own interpretations, engendering material ripe for the imagination.


A sensory ethnographic practice takes note of these messages from photographs that find us and communicate with us. It pays attention to the haphazard and often puzzling nature of memory, as best it can, to remediate these messages for a future archive.


[1] Lucy Lippard, “Outside (but not necessarily beyond) the landscape” in Moments of Grace: Spirit in the American Landscape, Aperture No 1150, Winter 1998: 60.

[2] The Great Exhibition. Wall text.

[3] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 10.


[5] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 24.

[6] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 5.

[7] Barthes, Camera Lucida, 6.

[8] Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography, 75.

[9] Tamara Trodd, “Film at the End of the Twentieth Century: Obscelence and the Medium in the work of Tacita Dean,” Object 6 (2003–4).

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy or the History of Photography, 88.

[11] Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, 88.

[12] Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, 88.

[13] The Great Exhibition. Wall text.

sidestep nostalgia_edited.jpg

The N Word: Beyond Nostalgia

My approach to the archive and how I attempt to avoid cliché.

What is needed is an autonomous, courageous position, capable of striking a balance between humbleness towards the material, its questions and challenges, and the necessity of being a gate keeper in the interest of both the material and the public. Preservation and access go hand in hand.[1]

- Thomas Ballhausen


Nostalgia, I would agree, is the worst kind of relationship one can have with the past, because it imagines something in the past that has never quite existed as such, and because it negates the urgency of the present in favor of a longing for that past.[2]


- Alejandro Bachmann


            In my practice, I aim to sidestep nostalgia. My intention for the work is rooted in my approach to and relationship with the archive. The Ballhausen quote above outlines my feelings towards archives and the materials held within them. There are many reappropriative works being made that seem to bow to the heavy weight of history held within archive material. I believe a progressive, brave and inventive interaction and conversation with the materials is beneficial to their ongoing preservation. By avoiding nostalgia, an experimental and subversive approach to the materials can avoid a dry and predictable reading of the images, and possibly engage new audiences with them.


Kate Bush identifies a way of working with archives that I identify with: how unauthored, vernacular photography, originally intended for private viewing, has been “retrospectively authored”[3] by artists despite it not originally being considered art. She notes Barthes’s preference for photographs that do not declare the photographer’s intention: the photographer’s diminished presence allows an opening of a liminal space, within which reimagination occurs. Enwezor says, in relation to the 2008 exhibition Archive Fever in New York, that:


Within Archive Fever ... the archive emerges as a place in which concerns with the past are touched by the astringent vapours of death, destruction and degeneration. Yet, against the tendency of contemporary forms of amnesia whereby the archive becomes a site of lost origins and memory is dispossessed, it is also within the archive that acts of remembering and regeneration occur, where a suture between the past and the present is performed, in the indeterminate zone between event and image, document and monument.[4]


Enwezor’s zone of regeneration comes from death. By disconnecting archives from their original sources, we are imposing new voices onto the works. Interpretative works can be fragmented, instinctive and unruly. Dislocating the archive through a change of context and an experimental approach can create new permutations and interpretative works.


Memory is both a private experience and a communal one. In each of our minds we revisit our pasts alone, often letting the elusive images flicker through our consciousness unmentioned. Archival institutions serve to remind the community of a shared past, whereas photographs on the mantelpiece speak to a smaller group of people. Through the communal aspect of the Bring Your Own Archive event (an invitation to share personal memories through photographs and film), I encourage a sharing of materials and the experience that echoes the early days of cinema, in contrast to the private, individual viewing generated by personal devices today.


The regeneration Enwezor mentions is, to me, the liminality in the reappropriation of archive works. A reconstruction of then, but not as it was: a slightly uncomfortable, mysterious past-future with voices that speak to us from the grave, but in a language we cannot understand. I have been making experimental found and archive film performances for seven years. Works form links with the past, but more than that, they speak of a reimagining of the materials that connect to the idea of image reappropriation, the communality of everyday lives and collective memory. These works sit within an otherworldly, uncanny representation of our shared pasts, where the familiar is rendered out of context, somewhat strange and unusual. Harbord comments on Marker’s film La Jetée creating a future world out of the present and presents it as the past, through a “manoeuvring of syntax.”[5] The film was made in 1962, but still appears futuristic to us now. Harbord notes:


The film is a view of what the present will look like from there, the future. It is, in a sense, an othering of the present, a making strange of its objects, people, thoughts and landscapes in order to bring them into view, to provide a frame through which the ineffable present may be described.[6]


Ballhausen, at the head of this section, mentions courage. For me this courage is a celebration and preservation of the materials, but also a subversion. The archive is a rich trove of gifts from the past and their relevance in the future depends on their ability to speak new languages, rather than telling us what we already know. An opening up of the way we view these pieces: dismantled, silent, deconstructed, collaged and skewed can feed the viewer’s imagination and generate a new power for the archive.


Films in 8mm format were originally viewed in very different circumstances with different technical structures around them. A film had to be viewed in its entirety, with no fast-fowarding past the banal sections. In my practice of appropriating found films for new archive installations and performances, these films are rarely cut. Respect for this medium and a pushing against the sound-bite approach to media, leads me to encourage the audience to view the three-minute film (the standard length of a role of 8mm film) as it was intended to be viewed: projected in its original format and uncut. This means looking at some rather prosaic sections but is also a testament to an empathetic sense of our world and our behaviour. In between the passing celebrity or the incredible view or the extreme weather are moments that are everyday and identifiable to our own present moments; very quiet moments that often go unrecorded. Sontag notes:


Cameras go with family life…. Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself—a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. It hardly matters what activities are photographed so long as photographs get taken and are cherished.[7] 


The medium of 8mm film was introduced by Kodak in the 1940s. It is half the size of 16mm, with smaller cameras that were easier to use for the amateur filmmaker and avid documenter. In the 1950s, Super 8 was created. The frames were smaller again to allow for a soundtrack to run alongside the images. Recording on Super 8 was, at the time, a phenomenon. Since standard and Super 8mm were designed for vernacular use, the same subjects have been documented over the decades.


Enwezor echoes Sontag:


Since Kodak’s invention of commercial processing at the end of the nineteenth century, the photographic analogue derived from negative has not only generated an endless stream of faithful reproduction … it also set the entire world of users into a feverish pace of pictorial generation and accumulation.[8]


As I mention in the practice overview, these analogue records later became so numerous that they became superfluous and dispensable. The process of watching and logging the films becomes a process of watching repeated weddings, babies, holidays and landscapes, all recorded to be saved from forgetting—to re-watch and to re-live.


[1] Thomas Ballhausen, “Madman in the Attic: On Autonomy and the Archive” in Works in Progress, SPEECHES: Digital Film Restoration Within Archives, ed. Kerstin Parth, Oliver Hanley and Thomas Ballhausen (Vienna: STNEMA, 2013), 25.

[2]  Bachmann, “Don’t Believe the Hype: Cinema as a Political Space,” 48.

[3] Bush, “Candid Camera: Unauthored Photography,” 1.

[4] Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” 46.

[5] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 11.

[6] Harbord, Chris Marker: La Jetée, 11.

[7] Sontag, On Photography, 8.

[8] Enwezor, ‘Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art’, 12.

bottom of page