SHOWCASE: TOM ESTES – ARCHIVE FEVER

The showcased artwork in April 2013 is Tom Estes’ Archive Fever. You can read more about this work on our showcase page.

Tom Estes Interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini and Elisa Adami, in March 2013 – Part 1*

AF: We want to start with your video Archive Fever that you have named after Derrida’s essay. Could you tell us more about this reference?

TE: As an artist I present work as a visual reflection of the technological advancements that are fast becoming an essential part of our civilization. And my practice is concerned with articulating questions of content in relation to media experience.

I decided to make the piece as a narrative and so I wanted to frame it within a context. Derrida seemed the natural choice because he talks about archives, but he goes into emails too. And my work Archive Fever is really about emails. It’s about looking at the impact of digital technology on our thinking, at the fact that digital technology is not just the message but it’s the medium as well. I made this video in about 2003, eight years after Derrida first published his essay. Derrida recognized and brilliantly identified the revolutionary changes that digitization and new telecommunication devices were about to make in people’s personal lives. He argues that it is not just the external means of archiving that has been changed. Internal perception and the memory systems that generate material to be archived have been radically altered too. That’s what I was interested in.

EA: It seems to me that this video reflects upon the dichotomy materiality/immateriality in the digital era. I mean, the dematerialization of the archive, its conversion into data, seems to be reversed in your video with an unprecedented and witty turn towards the re-embodiment of the information. You create an impossible fossil of the digital. Can we say that you are staging a process of re-solidification, re-materialization here?

TE: I think the whole project is materialization. Creating a video itself is a form of making. And by making the plain text into a physical object within the video I present a kind of reversal to highlight the immateriality of digital processes.

AF: At the same time, this re-materialization can be also read as what Derrida defines as a “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” 1. It felt to me that in a way you are going back, you are going to the river, to the bridge where you met this person. And this re-materialization ends up in the place of origin again.

TE: Yes, absolutely, that’s what I was going for as well. The whole question of archaeology becomes relevant here. Archaeology is an archive in itself. Even what remains undiscovered is a sort of archive even if it is not in the official, institutional sense of the term. It’s a potential archive that I was manufacturing something for.

EA: Your digital fossil has been buried on the Thames banks, waiting to be unearthed or not unearthed in the future. How do you think our present time will be experienced into the future? How do you imagine the future of the archive and of historical documentation in the digital age?

TE: There seems to be something strange going on at a time when technology is proliferating faster and faster, but we are suddenly looking backward rather than forward. We seem to be experiencing a kind of cultural stagnation and we don’t have dreams of futurism anymore. For example, at the moment we believe that in our culture philosophy is overtaking religion. We believe that we are becoming much more logical thanks to the internet and new technologies, which is all very true in some sense. But if you look at what has been happening, religious ideas are coming back very strongly. The modern age has not been the age in which the sacred has been abolished but rather the age of its dissemination in profane space, its democratization and its globalization. Ritual, repetition, and reproduction were once practiced in isolated, sacred places. In the modern age, ritual, repetition, and reproduction have become the fate of the entire world, of the entire culture. Under such conditions it should come as no surprise that religions that operate through media channels are increasingly successful.

So, what’s the future of the archive? I don’t know. That’s a good question. The complexity of human behaviour over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves. And the Internet favours private, unconditional, sovereign freedom over scientific, conditional, institutional freedom. So I guess rather than answer that question, I would like to pose one. The archive exists within institutions. My question is: what is the future of those institutions, if they will still exist? And if they do, in what form will they exist?

EA: Very good answer! Let’s expand a little more on digital technologies. The digital has been famously described as an amnesic technology. I’m referring for instance to Paul Virilio and Andreas Huyssen. What do you think about this? Do you think that ideas of memory and remembering are necessarily bound to material objects?

TE: I was recently reading an article that television screens have a stroboscopic effect. So looking at any kind of screen does seem to have the potential for a kind of hypnotic effect. In the early days of computers there were all these utopian ideas that somehow computers were going to be the dawn of a new age of collectivism, and this was going to change the world for the better. That didn’t really happen. So I don’t want to talk in terms of apocalypse, and I don’t want to talk in terms of utopia either. I think the Internet is changing the way we think, the way we do things and the way we interact. It’s important to understand how this is happening and what effect it is having on us.

EA: In the description of the work, it is said that this is a piece about “anonimity”. Can you tell us something more about this point?

TE: Personally, I have always being fascinated by the anonymity. Especially in a city there are so many things going on that only some subcultures know about. I think there is a transgressive power in anonymity. Isn’t there? Particularly now.  Cyberspace is becoming an increasingly efficient tool of surveillance with which people have a voluntary relationship. Everything has a camera in it, phones know their location by GPS and it is expected that we are available for contact 24/7. All our technologies and devices are slowly learning to see, to hear, and to place themselves in the world. Financial algorithms read the news and feed that knowledge back into the market. But the way we see things is changing too: the Google earth view of satellites, elevated car-sight of Street View and the facial recordings of CCTV. But even anonymity has changed. Anonymity and privacy were once the norm so you could get lost in the crowd. Now to be anonymous is in some way, to stand out from the crowd.

* Part 2 of this interview will be published on a separate post that explores Tom Estes’ artwork Overlords.

1 Derrida, J., (1996). Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, p.91

About the artist

Tom Estes (USA) is a London-based artist, interested in the relationship between machines and humans and, in particular, in digital platforms and new forms of inter-connectivity. He works in performance and digital media. He regularly works with collectives such as The Red Velvet Curtain Cult and Art Evict in the United Kingdom as well as The Biennial Project from Boston in the U.S.A. His work has been exhibited internationally, including the Solomon R Guggenheim, NYC (2012), London Art Fair 2012, the 54th Venice Biennale and Art Basel (both 2011). Visit the artist’s website.

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