From conservation to representation: new approaches to the idea of archive

According to the public opinion, the term “archive” means and designates the collection of documents and materials—public as well as private—destined to be preserved; and thus also the place where these are stored and systematized—ordered according to specific criteria. Thus the archive would refer to an activity of conservation and preservation from the natural deterioration process, in order to hand down and leave to posterity a certain body of information and descriptions. In this sense, the archive fulfills the function of preserving and transmitting the historical memory.

Actually, if we go interrogate the term’s etymological root, it discloses some aspects of the archive which are concealed in that common opinion. The term archive derives from the Latin archivum, which is itself derived from the Greek archeîon. Now, the root of archeîon is the word arché, a complex and full of meaning word primarily translated as principle, origin, but which also means command. This little investigation alone helps us to see the concept of archive under a new light, moving the attention from the conservation sphere to that of the exercise of a command—and of an active and constructive practice.

This analysis is important, first of all because confirms and reinforces the idea that the archive doesn’t carry out exclusively the function of preserving and transmitting information; but is most of all important to let us understand how archival processing doesn’t configure itself as a passive practice—collecting data and documents, categorize and enclose them on dusty shelves, in dim and narrow places—but primarily as a praxis able to transform the elements it collects, submitting them to a specific order.

The attention is thus moved from the elements and fragments composing the archive, to the relations and connections configuring themselves between them. It is by means of the network of connections that the archive emerges as a practice that confers an order––that is an orientation.

Starting from the archive construction practice we developed, we noticed how the

configuration of the elements and of their relations is first of all a dynamic process, and an instrument that shapes itself starting from specific emergency situations. This means that the configuration establishing itself among the elements of the archive is never definitive; on the contrary it changes and modifies itself according to what pushes us to interrogate the archive and its documents. In other words, the archive can never be described in its entirety, but always starting from a determined point of view—from a determined urgency or necessity. In accord with this position or urgency, a specific archive configuration—a specific look or scenario—will emerge.

Secondly, the definition of these looks or scenarios represents the step necessary to speak of the archive as an instrument actively involved in the construction of collective narrations. And here is the ultimate value inscribed in the practice of gathering, collection, organization and in-formation of a group of documents and materials: to succeed in forcing a representation or a constellation of meanings, by means of which a group of people can recognize themselves as a collectivity, to emerge from this mass of fragments. It is starting from the archive, and from its innumerable narrations, that a common imaginary is built—and is hence possible to imagine a common future.

This text was thought and realized during the L’Odissea Errante workshop.