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Archive Everyday Life

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  • 1. Proposal: The Archive and Everyday Life Conference, McMaster University, May 2010 Shannon Mattern, Ph.D. Assistant Professor Department of Media Studies and Film The New School 2 West 13th Street, 12th Floor New York, NY 10011 matterns@newschool.edu
  • 2. “A Material Kind of Telling”: Ann Hamilton’s Archival Installations We might say that visual artist and MacArthur honoree Ann Hamilton feels a sort of “archival impulse”—although not the kind that has gripped some of her contemporaries, like Sam Durant and Tacita Dean. While these artists, according to Foster (2004), collect and combine détourned everyday objects into a “quasi-archival architecture [of]…platforms, stations, or kiosks,” Hamilton uses quotidian materials—from bread to blue jeans to pink Pearl erasers—to form inhabitable, multisensory archival landscapes. In her installations, which engage the histories of their sites, she creates these palimpsestic landscapes by layering sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture, then activating the scene with simple, repeated movements, or what Lunberry (2004) calls “accretions of gesture.” I argue that, through the material abundance of her work, and through its lack of familiarity to typical “archival architectures,” Hamilton’s work allows its inhabitants to create new, unfamiliar affective connections to history. It calls attention to the limitations of the official historical record and suggests means of refreshing the archive’s architectures and materials. “I’m very interested in the hierarchies of our habits of perception,” Hamilton says, noting in particular “our” prioritization of “the discursive structure of words” over other “ways of knowing” (quoted in Coffey 2001). Her work frequently questions the authority of the verbal and textual record. Aleph, for instance, includes a video close-up of Hamilton’s mouth, full of marbles, rendering her mute. For myein, she recited Lincoln’s second inaugural address in phonetic code and covered the inside walls of the Venice Biennale’s American Pavilion with a Braille translation of Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (1885-1915). Both pieces questioned the universality of language and called attention to the archive’s—and, in the latter case, American history’s—unheard voices. Meanwhile, indigo blue and tropos involved the “unmaking” of a book through erasure, or by burning away the text, line by line. Rather than an act of destruction, however, this unmaking represented a means of “clearing the field,” making room for another “material kind of telling” (quoted in Wallach 2008). Hamilton seeks to evoke history’s “untold stories…through a material presence” (ibid.). In mattering, for instance, a person sitting in a perch draws up from the floor a long line of typewriter tape and “weaves” it around his hands. The gesture links mechanical production to handicraft, and, considered in light of the installation’s title, “mattering,” represents the transformation of materiality, and the human labor that produces it, into something that matters. Embodiment is entwined with epistemology (even her experiments with mouth-held pinhole cameras argue for an embodied record-making). Hamilton’s work addresses “the way the body through physical labor leaves a transparent presence in material and how labor is a way of knowing” (quoted in Wallach). While we might not regard Hamilton’s installations as archives themselves, they do call into question the contents and architectures of the historical record. She proposes that a history rooted not only in extraordinary events, but also in the everyday—its artifacts, sensations, labor, simple gestures—requires an archive that is embodied, material, and living.