Personal archiving in the post-digital context.
Personal notebooks can serve multiple roles. Some have a purgatory function serving as spaces for confession or dialogue with the self. Others might be seen as external supplements for one’s memory or an intentionally crafted message left as a legacy to future generations. Histories of personal book-keeping, or what today in the context of digital media we might refer to as life-logging, are long and complex.
In his later writings Michel Foucault explored early practices of life-logging, the so-called ‘hypomnesis’ of ancient Greek: regularly performed acts of externalizing one’s memory into hypomnemata. The term hypomnemata stands not only for outcomes of personal writing, but also other kinds of memory aids such as public registers or account books. Hypomnemata, Foucault asserts, ‘are not meant to be substituted for a recollection that may fail’.
Thus, personal modes of externalizing memory ought not to be treated as static repositories, proverbial shoe-boxes where one’s memories are destined to eventually end up. Rather hypomnemata should be understood as certain interactive assemblages of matter and practice, ‘a material and a framework for exercises to be carried out frequently: reading, rereading, meditating, and conversing with oneself and with others’ (1997, pp. 210-211). Seen in this way, hypomnemata were intended to remain in a close, intimate relationship with their owners. It was a kind of technology of the self, through which one could deliberately withdraw from the exterior world into seclusion as to better monitor and understand one’s own existence. Can contemporary hypomnemata be assigned with similar attributes?
Bernard Stiegler, whose scholarship revolves around questions of personal and collective memory, reminds us that ancient hypomnesis was considered ‘techne tou biou’ which is to say as an ‘art of living’ or craft of existence (Stiegler 2011, p. 74). Constituting an irremovable dimension of one’s existence, memory practices were a field for one’s systematically performed individuation. Stiegler invites us to consider the long history of technological transformations as a series of transitions from more manual, effortful and individuated modes of registering and organizing memories and knowledge – such as mediaeval ars memoriae – to what I would call ‘industria memoriae’: large scale infrastructures or techno-political ecologies comprising standardized templates, various life-logging devices, social media platforms and other data aggregation services set in motion by a 24/7 supply of pings, from a myriad of personal memory streams populating and polluting the cybersphere.
In the context of today’s digital network technologies, the scope, dynamics and control over the outcomes of personal memory practices that we both voluntarily or involuntarily engage in, seem rather far from the principles that used to guide ancient forms of hypomnesis. While blogs, social media walls or self-tracking, automated smart-phone applications can all be seen as contemporary remediations of hypomnemata, they are however infused with such ‘new’ attributes brought about by digital and network culture as effortlessness, self-disclosure, immediacy and automation. Thus, today’s increasingly seamless and latently operating technologies of the self do not seem to resonate with Foucault’s perception of hypomnemata as ‘a set of thorns which must be stuck in men’s flesh, driven into their existence, […] a principle of restlessness and movement, of continuous concern throughout life’ (Foucault in Kember and Zylinska 2012).
Besides the obvious questions about agency – who or what is constructing personal accounts in today’s techno-political condition? – a number of other concerns emerge in relation to contemporary, sous-veillant, life-logging practices and technologies. For example, is there a broader, cultural and archival value that they constitute? Can results from often unstructured and messy data capturing practices conducted by people be considered in terms of (digital) legacy? Given the orientation of today’s life-logging practices towards an immediate consumption and a strong dependence on third-party software and applications continuously upgraded and succeeded by ever new iterations, will people in the future be able to decode and draw meanings from such contemporary personal archives? What kind of an image of our culture arises from such immediate archives? These and other questions have become an important subject of concern to my current research, where I am including my own archiving practices.
In 2006 I moved away from my homeland to study graphic design in Kolding, Denmark. As the processing of my scholarship application was pending, I was pressed to find an alternative way to finance my life. Soon I found a job as a baker. My time became highly compartmentalized. While my night-time I would spend on preparing baked goods for the local community, in the daytime I worked at school learning about graphic art, illustration and design.
One day, while visiting a store with inexpensive art supplies and household gadgets, I purchased a little paper notebook. Besides its low price and size, I was drawn to it by its simple square format and plain pages. Ever since then, I have been carrying with me the very same kind, using it not only for note-taking but also collaging and sketching.
At the time I would interact with my notebook most typically during short gaps and uncertain moments emerging between more stable and arranged chunks of time dedicated to working and studying. Besides initial ideas related to my graphic design projects, the pages of the notebook constituted a territory for loose, fragmentary observations from my everyday life, quickly assembled collages made out of found newspapers or more carefully treated transcripts of dreams.
Today, looking over an array of notebooks I have filled in so far, I can identify a certain tendency in the way they have developed. There is a gradual intensification of interest in registering not as much my presence, my thoughts and concerns as the presence of the surrounding that my body and mind happened to traverse, temporarily settle in, witness and reflect upon. Similarly, the period of time spent in Denmark appears to me as a moment when a more coherent framework for subjectively registering the experience of everyday life began to get its very initial shape, a project I have ever since been committed to.
Along with the increasing affordability and portability of personal archiving devices, my manual note-taking was accompanied by other archiving practices. In 2008 I began a sonic documentation of my everyday life, carrying with me at all times a portable audio recorder. Gradually, the up until then mostly manually constructed archive was transformed into a digital database and became a life-long initiative which I began to refer to as the On-Going Project.
Continuously holding on to the constructive constraints of my first notebook’s format, I soon developed a website, with text, sound, as well as videos and photographs from other consistently performed archiving conducts. For instance, every week I would photograph seven discarded objects that I stumbled upon in the public space. Every single day, I would record a minute of sound each time my attention was drawn to or disturbed by some particular aural arrangement. Another practice of mine was to make one visual collage every week using snippets of newspapers found or freely acquired in the public space. As for today I am committed to twelve regularly performed archival practices of which results are displayed on the especially designed digital structure. (The online version, accessible under www.on-going.net, showcases only a selection of data whereas the offline database on my local hard drive is regularly updated.)
The main principle that remains present from the very beginning and unites all practices of the On-Going Project is that the archiving is executed during transitory moments, on-the-go, in the gaps between more organized chunks of time, always in public space. In this sense, the On-Going Project can be seen as an attempt to reclaim some degree of control over the experience of everyday life by devising a set of idiosyncratic techniques and aesthetics of its record. It is a way of resisting a full submission to the prevailing structures and technologies that attend to orchestrate the everyday life, through a deliberate utilization of the very gaps of these structures: populating them with alternative modes of attention to the quotidian.
In other words, the On-Going Project is a commitment to a set of alternative, self-crafted, micro-aesthetics of experiencing and recording everyday life that runs parallel with the prevailing rhythms of everyday life, yet is also transgressed by the algorithms of ever more automated and pervasively operating technologies of attention and capture.
At some point I began to think of another step in remediating my archive. This time, however, in a reversed direction. My scepticism towards digital technologies and disbelief in infrastructures which these technologies are increasingly bound to, have of course been prompted by several factors. Evidently, the series of data surveillance-related revelations and the academic discontent with the politics of network technologies that have emerged in recent years have been important, but even simpler, quotidian situations have induced my reflection upon the instability and obsolescence of digital memory; dropping my hard drive and losing one month of data from my archiving practices, losing data due to software updates or having my phone and thus personal data stolen are just some of these occasions.
One day, while sitting at the Stockholm city library, tired from looking at the computer screen, I shifted my gaze towards a little, neglected index cabinet hidden in one of the corners of the reading room. This simple shift of attention revoked a recollection of a text I once read on early filing cabinets by John Tagg. He describes such devices as instruments of power, privilege and control (2012). Today, the advancements in information management and technology seemed to have ripped off the cabinet from any such (in-)glorious attributes. Superseded by clouds and digital databases, a heavy, wooden cabinet such as the one my attention got drawn to, might be seen today as paradoxically the safest, most stable and durable technology for organizing memory.
Inspired by this, I started researching the history of index cabinets and more broadly the hand crafted means and manual practices of organizing memory into modules, paper snippets and index cards as carried out by for instance Paul Otlet (1990) or Walter Benjamin (Marx et al., 2007). This initial familiarization with the existent body of work gave me the idea of remediating my personal archive into a cabinet. Instead of challenging the current state of digital technologies for personal archiving by the means of advancing their complexity and accelerating their operationality, I decided to exercise, what some have already described earlier as a reverse-remediation and which can be defined as a deliberate act of reducing the technological complexity by resorting to old, pre-digital devices to trigger reflection and critical thinking (cf. for instance Gansing  or Korsten ). Resonating closely with the principles of media archaeology, reverse remediation is a form of an aesthetic reflection on and a critique of the contemporary techno-culture performed through a deliberate return to old, obsolete and queer technologies.
Consequently, the architecture of the index cabinet, or Fragmentarium as I refer to it, is a direct transposition of the digital structure for organizing the outcomes of the On-Going Project. Twelve squares representing twelve archival practices, materialized into twelve drawers hosting a selection of index cards. The size of the index card follows the exact measure of the paper notebook I first bought in Kolding (14 cm x 14 cm). Made of archival, acid-free paper envisaged to last for at least next 300 years, the index cards depict selected visual, sonic, geo-locational or textual data resulting from the twelve constituent practices of the On-Going Project. All of the cards are stamped and numbered. Themselves equipped with an archival value, the cards also function as indexical interfaces facilitating access to the digital archive.
Fragmentarium is not an entirely analogue device. It is a mixed media device, in the sense that it combines the analogue with the digital. The digital database is accessible thanks to an open, offline network embedded in a physical notebook stored in the cabinet. The database is available only within the close vicinity of the physical cabinet. In order to access the offline network one needs to disable the possibility to go online. In this way, Fragmentarium draws full attention and limits the unnecessarily distractions of wandering off into other websites and platforms. The offline network is based on the concept of PirateBox which is an offline file sharing system made with free software and inexpensive off-the-shelf hardware (https://piratebox.cc/).
PirateBox is an example of a growing culture of shadow archiving for storing and sharing data, emerged in response to increased surveillance, control of and monopoly over personal data aggregation mechanisms in the hands of large corporations and data markets. While remaining close to the physical cabinet one can easily connect to the digital database and retrieve the digital instances of the archived data. For instance, the index cards in the third drawer depict waveforms of soundscapes recorded daily. On the back side of the card one can find an indication of the digital section as well as a corresponding number that leads to the sound file.
Another stage in remediating the archive is making it more mobile. The cabinet takes shape of a portable and rollable suitcase which can be taken along to different venues, presented at exhibitions, talks, workshops and conferences. This allows me to use the archive as a generative tool facilitating conversations around poetics and politics of personal archiving, (digital) memory and personal legacy in the post-digital context.
The physical dimension of my archive forces me to think more thoroughly about the material implications of contemporary, digital memory practices, whose ephemerality and invisibility are often taken for granted. Responding to the on-going automation and standardization of memory practices amplified by an inevitably decreasing distance between humans and technologies, I propose to see my simple (re-)turn to a more tactile relationship with memory as a recognition of Foucault’s metaphoric thorn as a necessary attribute allowing us to become more aware, reflective and critical about our complex entanglements with mnemonic technologies.
Boyd Rayward, W. [trans., ed.,](1990) International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet, Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1990, 256 pp. Selection of texts covering the period 1893-1934.
Foucault, M. (1997) Ethics. Subjectivity and Truth, Rabinow. P [ed.] The New York Press.
Gansing, K. (2013) Transversal Media Practices: Media Archaeology, Art and Technological Development, PhD dissertation, Malmö University, source: http://dspace.mah.se/bitstream/handle/2043/15246/Gansing%20KS%20muep_ny.pdf, accessed: 12.04.2016.
Kember, S., and Zylinska, J. (2012) Life After New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, Cambridge: MIT Press.
Korsten, S. (2010) Reversed Remediation – How Art Can Make One Critically Aware of the Workings of Media, Master Thesis, New Media, Media and Culture, University of Amsterdam, source: http://dare.uva.nl/cgi/arno/show.cgi?fid=188776, accessed: 15.04.2016.
Marx, U., Schwarz, G., Schwarz, M., Erdmut, W. (2007) Walter Benjamin’s Archive, Images, Text, Signs, London, Verso.
Stiegler, B. (2011) The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, Disbelief and Discredit, Vol.1, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Stiegler, B. (2010) “Memory” in W.J.T Mitchell and Marc Hansen (eds.) Critical Terms for Media Studies, University of Chicago Press.
Tagg, J. (2012) The Archiving Machine; or, The Camera and the Filing Cabinet, Grey Room No.47, pages 24-37.