Bird house courtesy Dansk Ornithologisk Forening.
The money-box was once my uncle's
This blog entry, and the two that follow it, are an adapted version of the paper I read at the 17th annual conference of the association Performance Studies international (PSi) in Utrecht, on 25-29 May 2011. In its turn, my paper is an altered and expanded version of a tiny snippet of a longer text on Fluxus and its relation with the archive. The choice of snippet was determined by the theme of the conference, “Technology, Memory, Experience”. It is about the experiential nature of Fluxus works, the way they activate and affect our memories and their relationship with our sanctioned ways of remembering as embodied by the archive. The paper consisted of three sections, entitled “Two Houses”, “Two Word Events” and “Two Directions”. Today’s blog entry is a modified version of the first part.
There are as many accounts of Fluxus as there are Fluxus scholars, but one thing most of them seem to agree upon is the idea that Fluxus works offer nothing but themselves. I will here refer to only one of them, Hannah Higgins, and the way she phrased that particular idea. In her book Fluxus Experience (University of California Press, 2002), she writes that Fluxus works offer “an ecological form of knowledge that (...) allows us to understand ‘our place in the world’” (p. 34). I am especially interested in the word “ecological” here. Ecological knowledge, and another term Higgins uses, “primary experience”, refer to a direct bodily experience that tells you something about who you are in relation to the objects you handle and the temporal and spatial situation you find yourself in. Such knowledge is always personal. You can compare it with others, but others can never have the exact same experience. Applied to art, this means that everyone creates his or her own work of art. Such a work is always with you; it is never elsewhere; and that, of course, is the diametrical opposite of the archive as we know it, because one of the characteristics of the archive is that it accumulates things from elsewhere and from other times. In fact, it is exactly this aspect of the archive that prompted the philosopher Michel Foucault to characterise it as a “un espace autre”, a “different space”, a heterotopia, “a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted” (in “Of Other Spaces”, 1967/1984).
I will return to this quote in section 3 of this text, but actually I am not really concerned with Foucault here. What I want to do here, is contrast Higgins’ understanding of the word “ecological” with the word “economical” as Jacques Derrida uses it in his theory of the archive as formulated in the essay “Archive Fever, a Freudian Impression” (Diacritics, vol. 25, no. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 9-63. Derrida starts his account of the archive with the etymology of the word. He points out that it has a double root, both derived from the Greek word “arkhē”: commencement and commandment, beginning and law. The word is connected with the arkheion, the place where the records were kept, and the arkhons, the people who did the keeping. The archive, Derrida writes, “shelters” and “domesticates” its contents; it “places them under house arrest” (p. 10). That is why he speaks of an “eco-nomy” (p. 12), from the Greek words “oikos”, house, and “nomos”, law. He also speaks of the topo-nomology of the archive (p. 10), his way of saying that the archive is twice determined, by and as location and by and as law. The word “ecology”, by contrast, derives from the Greek word “oikos”, house, and “logia”, study of. The study of the house and the law of the house are apparently mutually exclusive.
When explaining his use of the word “economical”, Derrida writes about the archive that “it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (...) or in making people respect the law” (p. 12). What it collects is signs; written proof, but also, in Derrida’s words “that which it presupposes”. The archive “coordinates a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration”. Proof presupposes a distance between sign and signifier and that distance, in turn, presupposes an ideal that all signs point towards but give an imperfect rendition of. Hannah Higgins, by contrast, claims that Fluxus works never signify anything. They are carriers of primary, ecological knowledge, and any meaning that is found in them is secondary knowledge. An archive collects signs, a Fluxus work disperses primary knowledge. An archive imposes a law upon others and it regiments experience, a Fluxus work leaves you free to experience things for yourself and takes pride in the endless variety this produces. An archive collects things in a particular place – Derrida means the document and the archive at the same time –, a Fluxus work emanates from one place and wanders off from there with all the people it connects with. The two houses, the house of the law and the house of study, could not be more different.
And yet Fluxus exhibitions nearly always take the shape of archives. How come?