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Archive as Afterlife

‘Only in isolated instances has it been possible to grasp
the historical content of a work of art in such a way that
it becomes more transparent to us as a work of art.
Walter Benjamin, 1937

It is hardly news to point out that in recent decades the institution of the museum has undergone a period of sustained transformation. As part of this process, each of its constitutive categories – collection, preservation, documentation, archiving, classification, curation, display and exhibition – has been put into question, along with the relations between them. New practices have blurred or eroded the boundaries between certain categories and led to the apparent antiquation of others. The causes of this process have been multiple and intertwined – primarily: political, economic and technological – but their combined effects have been structural in character. In the case of the art museum – and the museum of contemporary art, in particular – the process has been further complicated by fundamental changes in the character of art itself, dating back to the 1960s, which have been increasingly reflectively incorporated into institutional practices. The postconceptual ontology of contemporary art has thus developed not only through the critical weight and dissemination of new artistic practices but also through changes in the social space of their presentation. [1]

Much of the literature that has discussed these changes has been museological in character and, with respect to the art museum, has tended to focus on the changing role of the curator and the growing importance of the temporary exhibition, relative to the display of collections. Museum Studies, Curatorial Studies and Exhibition Studies have developed in rapid succession. For political and economic reasons, within institutions themselves emphasis has shifted from objects and works to ‘visitors’ and the qualities of their experiences. [2] Less attention has been paid to the way in which the conventional distinction between the collection, on the one hand, and the document and archive, on the other, has been progressively broken down; to the relationship of this process to the ontology of the postconceptual work; and to its implications for art practices and their public presentation alike.

An ‘archival impulse’ has been detected within contemporary art practice, [3] but this is more about an artistic preoccupation with the fragilities of memory under the conditions of a waning historicality than with the more fundamental issue of the archival status of the artwork itself, and its growing indifference from documentation. In contrast, Boris Groys has proposed that we are witnessing an epochal shift ‘from artwork to art documentation’ in the ‘age of biopolitics’, in which the installation of the documentation of art events produces a new kind of ‘bio-art’, which makes such documentation literally ‘live’. [4] Under that scenario, the artwork disappears: the ‘work’ of the installation of documentation is no longer to make ‘art’, but the reverse: ‘the art of making living things out of artificial ones’. [5]

Let us not rush to that conclusion just yet, though; not least because so much contemporary art fails, precisely, to ‘live’ (it fails to quicken and transform experience); and it fails to live precisely because it wants to live in just the same way as other forms of life. It fails to live at all because it fails to live as art. Insofar as art institutions continue to exist, in their specific difference from other kinds of cultural spaces, what is presented within them will ‘live’ there (rather than being interned) only through their ongoing production and critical instantiation of that specific difference; however ironic, dialectical or purely differential the difference may be. [6] The question is thus not ‘How does documentation come “alive”, bio-politically, in the museum?’ but rather, ‘What does the becoming art of documentation have to tell us about the historical ontology of the artwork, and its relations to the practices of collecting and archiving, in particular?’

In addressing this question, it is helpful to start out by recalling two very different, but related texts by Walter Benjamin: ‘Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Collecting’, published in the Berlin literary weekly Die literarische Welt, in July 1931, and ‘Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’, published in the Frankfurt School journal, Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, in the autumn of 1937. The difference is not only one of genre, but more so of standpoint: from the radical individualism of the bouregois conception of the collector (mirrored in the essay form) to collection from the point of view of the ‘historical situation’, as perceived by ‘the pioneer of a materialist consideration of art’. [7]

Nestling within the autobiographical narrative of ‘Unpacking my Library’ is an almost personalist theory of collecting as the medium of the historical existence of objects. It hinges on the private collector’s ‘passion’ for possession and the fact that ‘for a collector… ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to things’. This is described as a relationship to objects ‘which does not emphasise their functional, utilitarian value – that is, their usefulness – but studies and loves them as the scene, the stage, of their fate.’ It involves placing them within a collection (for books, a library) – subjecting them to the ‘order’ and ‘mild boredom’ of the catalogue, in the construction of an archive. But it is only in the ‘chaos’ and ‘confusion’ of the private collection (its relative ‘disorder’) associated with the collector’s passion, that objects are said to ‘get their due’ [kommen… zu ihrem Recht]. Such loving study produces a ‘rebirth’ of the ‘old world’: ‘the renewal of existence’ [die Erneuerung des Daseins]. Acquisition, curation in its original sense (care of the object) and archiving are thus existentially united in the private collector, in a manner that public collections cannot match, even though they ‘may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically’. And interpretation – effect of the documentary location of the object in the ‘magical encyclopedia’ of its background – appears implicit in the physiognomic act of acquisition itself: ‘collectors are the physiognomists of the world of things’. [8]

Benjamin knows that this model is historically redundant (‘Only in extinction is the collector comprehended’), [9] but it nonetheless sets the philosophical terms that any subsequent, more socialized, historical-materialist model of collection must meet: to give an account of its role in the historical existence of objects. ‘Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’ offers just such an account, in which collecting appears (in the spirit of Marx’s eighth fragment of ‘On Feuerbach’) as ‘the practical man’s answer to the aporias of theory’. [10] The theory here being the ‘Marxist theory of art’ (‘one moment swaggering, and the next scholastic’), which, divorced from ‘human practice and the comprehension of this practice’ (Marx), will, like all such theories, lead only to ‘mysticism’. [11]

Benjamin locates Fuchs’s contribution as a collector in his being ‘the first to expound the specific character of mass art’ and thereby to have ‘cleared the way for art history to be freed from the fetish of the master’s signature’ (a path was to be rather less traveled than Benjamin might have hoped). [12] Fuchs founded what was then ‘the only existing archive for the history of caricature, of erotic art, and genre painting’. [13]

Reconstructing the theoretical meaning of his practice, Benjamin expounds a general theory of the historical ontology of art in which critical and institutional reception act retroactively upon the very being of the artwork.

For the dialectical historian concerned with works of art, these works integrate their fore-history [Vorgeschichte] as well as their after-history [Nachgeschichte]; and it is by virtue of their after-history that their fore-history is recognizable as involved in a continuous process of change. [14]

Artworks are subject to constant transformation by the system of relations into which they enters as part of their reception, which retroactively change our understanding of what they are. As a part of this, ‘historical understanding [Verstehen]’ is itself ‘an afterlife of that which has been understood [des Verstandenen] and whose pulse can be felt in the present.’ It is the critical task of the collection ‘[t]o put to work an experience with history’, so understood, ‘a history that is orginary for each [jede] present’. Such a putting to work is said to ‘blast the epoch out of its reified “historical continuity”, and thereby the life out of the epoch, and the work out of the lifework’, in such a way as to result, paradoxically, in ‘the lifework in the work, the epoch in the lifework, and the course of history in the epoch being preserved and superseded [aufbewahrt und aufgehoben].’ [15]

What light does this constructivist historical ontology throw upon the structure of the postconceptual work and the new institutional practices with which it is bound up?

The first thing to note here is that insofar as the identity of a postconceptual work is not tied to any particular materialisation, but rather to the temporally open totality of its materializations, in reflective relation to its idea, it has an immanently constructive structure. Each materialization – and the boundaries of what is included in the work itself are porous – becomes at once a documentation of the work itself and a set of materials for a subsequent presentation of the work. In this respect, the work includes its own documentation and, to the extent that it proliferates and its materialisations are collected, its own archive. [16]

Groys argues, oddly, that artworks ‘cannot refer to art, because they are art’. Consequently, he thinks that ‘art documentation’ – which refers to art – cannot be art. [17] But this is a sophistical argument, since modern art has been bound up with a certain self-referentiality since its beginnings. (Indeed, for Greenberg, with modernist painting, that became its exclusive signifying function.) Rather, we might say, contemporary art as a postconceptual art is an art in which the artistic materiality of the work and its documentary function are combined. This is clearest in the temporal logic of performance or the art event (and by extension, the performative or evental aspect of any work), but it is equally the case in the disjunction between the material and the ideational or conceptual aspects of other kinds of work – be it ‘conceptual’ in inspiration, or a result of the extended relational structure of postminimalist spatially orientated works or installations. This is part of the postconceptual logic of all critically contemporary art. It finds its institutional correlate in the gradual recognition of a growing indifference between the artwork and its documentation, at the level of the collection. This is marked by, for example, on the one hand, the opportunistic reclassification of ‘documents’ related to the history of conceptual art as ‘works’, and on the other, the integration of photography into the exhibition of historical collections of painting. These processes are gradually effecting an ontological change in the status of the museum archive, in which works and documentation are increasingly treated on the same ‘level’: first, as cultural artefacts, but then, by virtue of the art institutions’ inherent character, as art.

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The process has been reinforced by the change in the character of the curator, from custodian of a collection to exhibition impresario, which has aesthetically orphaned the collection, placing it back in the domain of the historical remnant, on the same ontological plane as its documentation, patiently awaiting a recall to life, by being plucked from the stores and inserted into some new, thematically defined set of relations, proposed by an independent curator from afar. The artistic archive is thus no longer a documentary archive that surrounds the works of the collection with interpretative materials, but a combined archive of works and documents in which ‘the scene, the stage’ of the ‘fate’ of works are laid out, in a functional equivalent to the transformative space produced by the passion and love of the ideal private collector.

This archive preserves and conserves works, in that newly extended sense of the artwork, which includes documents (texts, images, objects) constituting its afterlife. Here, the conservation of the elements of an exhibition is not merely ‘documentary’, but itself constitutes – and is constituted as – artistic materials for possible subsequent exhibition. This process of ontological homogenization, associated with the spatial, temporal, conceptual and institutional extension of the concept of the artwork within the generic conception of art, is reinforced by the ubiquity of the reproductive technology of the digitally produced image, which threatens to reduce archives to digital archives.

Under the conditions of digital technologies, there is a tendential – but necessarily incomplete – reduction of the social objectivity of works and documents to that of their distributed images. [18] And within this ontologically reduced form of the image, there is a dialectic between a multiplicity of visualizations and a technologically based virtuality that parallels that between both the aesthetic and the conceptual within the postconceptual work, and the site and non-site within the social space of its institutions of display.

artwork: aesthetic / conceptual
institution: site / non-site
image: multiplicity / virtuality
of visualisations / of image

However, it would be a mistake to associate ‘materiality’ with just one (the first) side of these conceptual pairs. Rather, materiality is spread, in different forms, across these dialectical pairs; as indeed it is across the more conventionally ‘material’ forms making up the objects of these images, residing in the literal physical spaces of the archive in its ‘old’ sense. (The archive, we should remind ourselves, was to begin with a place of power, the magisterial residence, archia, in which public records were kept.) Reduction of the social objectivity of works and documents to the image will remain incomplete so long as such places continue to exist as sources for historical experiences that are ‘originary for each present’. The process of ontological homogenization associated with the spatial, temporal, conceptual and institutional extension of the artwork is reinforced by the logic of the digitally produced image, but it remains discrete from it, insofar as the former is an ontological space of history itself, to which the later is subjugated, via the logic of the artwork. (‘The function of artistic form is… to make historical content… into a philosophical truth.’). [19] The tactile materiality of the ‘old’ archival forms is the emblem of this difference, which is now distributed across that expanded conception of the archive that includes the collection within itself.

We can see this dialectic at play – the dialectic of the old and the new archival materials within the new archive – in the development of the Arab Image Foundation, as both an archive and a set of artistic materials for new image-based art practices, such as those by Walid Raad, Akram Zataari and others. Within those (digital) art practices, it is nonetheless the individual photographic print that carries the symbolic burden of historical experience, even though such prints are disseminated only through digital reproductions. One can see this most recently, for example in Aina Dabrowska’s reassembly of the photographic collection of Diab Alkarssifi, in the crowd-funded book A Lebanese Archive: From the Collection of Diab Alkarssifi. [20] Nonetheless, it is not the ‘uniqueness’of each individual originating print that grounds its truth-content (however much it may superficially appear to be), but the specific present, Lebanon today, for which it is ‘originary’ [ursprüngliche]. [21] Through that present, of Aina Dabrowska’s and the Arab Image Foundation’s practice of collecting, the photographic collection of Diab Alkarssifi has acquired an afterlife. Its pulse can be felt in the present.


[1See Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso, London and New York, 2013, Chs 4–6.

[2See for example, Peter Vergo, ed., The New Museology (1989), Reaktion Books, 2011, Chs 4–8.

[3Hal Foster, ’The Archival Impulse’, October 110 (Fall 2004), pp. 3–22 – a generalization of the argument developed in Benjamin Buchloh, ’Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive’, October 88 (Spring 1999), pp. 116–145. See also Charles Merewether, ed., The Archive, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel, London/MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006.

[4Boris Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation’, in Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge MA and London, 2008, pp. 53–65.]. Under that scenario, the artwork disappears: the ‘work’ of the installation of documentation is no longer to make ‘art’, but the reverse: ‘the art of making living things out of artificial ones’.

[5Groys effectively recognizes this, having formally denied it, in his belated restoration of the concept of the aura as the criterion of the life of installed documentation. Ibid, pp. 60–65. In this respect, his ‘bio-art’ is ontologically quite conventional, while ‘installation’ remains his basic art category.

[6Groys effectively recognizes this, having formally denied it, in his belated restoration of the concept of the aura as the criterion of the life of installed documentation. Ibid, pp. 60–65. In this respect, his ‘bio-art’ is ontologically quite conventional, while ‘installation’ remains his basic art category.

[7Walter Benjamin, ‘Ich Packe meine Bibliothek Aus: Eine Rede über das Sammeln’, Gesammelte Schriften Band IV. 1, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1991, pp. 388–96, translated as ‘Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Collecting’, in Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1999, pp. 486–93; Walter Benjamin, ‘Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker’, Gesammelte Schriften Band II. 2, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1991, pp. 465–505, translated as ‘Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’, in Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935–1938, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1999, pp. 260–302 – here, p. 261.

[8‘Unpacking my Library’, pp. 492, 487, 491, 487; ‘Ich Packe meine Bibliothek Aus’, pp. 395, 389–90.

[9‘Unpacking my Library’, p. 492 – this is accompanied by a rare reference by Benjamin to Hegel.

[10Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’, pp. 263.

[11‘Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’, p. 260; Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1999, ‘Convolute N’ [N4a, 2], p. 465; Karl Marx, ‘Concerning Feuerbach’, in Early Writings, Penguin Books/New Left Review, Harmondsworth/London, 1975, p. 423

[12‘Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’, p. 283.

[13Ibid., p. 261; ‘Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker’, p. 467.

[14Eduard Fuchs, ’Collector and Historian’, p. 261.

[15Ibid., p. 262, translation amended and emphasis added; ‘Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker’, p. 468. It is important to note that his simultaneous preservation and supersession is not that of the comprehensive intelligibility produced by the integral movement of the Hegelian dialectic. Rather, it is the product of a punctual act, located in the relation of a specific ‘now’ to a specific ‘then’, and its existence is conditional upon the renewal of such acts. In this respect, Benjamin’s concept of afterlife (Nachleben) is close to Warburg’s (Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance (1932), Getty, LA, 1999). However, it remains distinct from Georges Didi-Huberman’s recent appropriation of their notions, in combination, as ‘survival’ (survivance), which downplays the constructivism of Benjamin’s conception. Georges Didi-Huberman, L’image survivante, Minuit, Paris, 2002.

[16See Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All, pp. 99–116, 141–151, where this is demonstrated, with reference to works by Robert Smithson, Dan Graham and Gordon Matta-Clark.

[17Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics’, p. 55.

[18See Peter Osborne, ‘The Distributed Image’/‘Das Verteilte Bild’, Texte zur Kunst 99 (Sept. 2015), pp. 74–84; and ‘“Art” Versus “Image”?’/“Bild” Versus “Kunst”?’, Texte zur Kunst 95 (Sept. 2014), pp. 48–55.

[19Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Verso, London, 1998, p. 182.

[20Aina Dabrowska, A Lebanese Archive: From the Collection of Diab Alkarssifi, Booksworks, London/Arab Image Foundation, Beirut, 2015.

[21Cf. ‘Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian’, p. 262; ‘Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker’, p. 468. In Benjamin’s sense of the term, there is no origin other than for a specific present.


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