I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Christine Tamblyn’s Autobiographical Frames: Considering Archival Quality, the CD-ROM

For weeks I’ve been planning to view Christine Tamblyn’s CD-ROM Archival Quality, but, as I was surprised to learn, it’s formatted only for a Macintosh computer, and I have a PC. I hope to make arrangements soon to view this posthumously published work. A noted media arts critic, educator, and conceptual artist, Tamblyn died of breast cancer on January 1, 1998, at the age of forty-six. As Tamblyn’s sister explains in the booklet that comes with the CD, and as friends and colleagues have recounted, Tamblyn worked on Archival Quality until the day before she died. The NEA-funded project involved the CD and an installation that premiered at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies (LACPS) in September 1998.

According to SF Camerawork, which distributes the CD-ROM, Archival Quality investigates formal tensions between a virtual and a real archive by mining personal documentation that Tamblyn had collected of her life and her work. In this way the project “serves as a testament to the overwhelming scope and complexity of an individual life, and explores how one understands a life archived in this manner.”

The Video Data Bank, which also distributes Archival Quality—as well as Tamblyn’s two other CD-ROMS, She Loves It, She Loves It Not (on women and technology, 1993) and Mistaken Identities (1995)—describes the four segments of the CD-ROM:

“In the first, Memorativa, powerful childhood experiences of secrets are evoked. In Olfatus, documentation of the artist's performances are revealed by clicking on symbols in landscape. The third segment, Gustus, is co-named Slices of Life, My Videotapes (1976-89), and takes the form of a giant pizza, slices of which, when clicked, advance towards the reader. Vermio, the fourth segment, consists of four text-and-image collages, sections of which can be ‘peeled off’ to reveal loops of sound and image.”

I’m looking forward to seeing for myself how Tamblyn framed and organized her autobiographical project, for she addresses many issues related to self-representation that I’ve been exploring in my critical and creative work, especially with regard to writing, theory, media, archives, memory, performance, and technology. I’ve admired her critical writing on video for many years and still refer to some of her essays, such as “Significant Others: Social Documentary as Personal Portraiture in Women’s Video of the 1980s” (in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, 1990) and “Qualifying the Quotidian: Artist’s Video and the Production of Social Space” (in Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, edited by Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, 1996).

In “Archive Fever,” the short essay included with the CD-ROM I purchased, Margaret Morse mentions that Tamblyn originally had intended to call her project “Archive Fever” to pay homage to Derrida’s text Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (delivered as a lecture in 1994, published in 1995), which, as Morse emphasizes, deconstructs the notion of archiving. While Morse touches on Derrida’s approach to psychoanalytic theories of the death drive, patriarchal laws, and spectral fantasies, she passes over questions Derrida raises earlier in the text about technology, psychoanalysis, and archives that are also relevant to Tamblyn’s project, and to contemporary explorations of self-representation involving “new media.”

Considering a “retrospective science-fiction,” Derrida wonders how different psychoanalysis would have been if Freud and his contemporaries had had access to many of the technologies associated with the late twentieth century, such as “MCI or AT&T telephonic credit cards, portable tape recorders, computers, printers, faxes, televisions, teleconferences, and above all E-mail” (16). Arguing that such technologies would have “transformed this history from top to bottom,” Derrida contends that

“the archive, as printing, writing, prosthesis, or hypomnesic technique in general is not only the place for stocking and for conserving an archivable content of the past which would exist in any case, such as, without the archive. . . . No, the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media” (16-17).

Speaking in 1994, Derrida privileges the example of e-mail because “electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal,” transformations, he notes, with juridical and political implications (17).

Known to blur boundaries between private and public, as well as between art and life, and at the same time sensitive to technological matters related both to theoretical and creative discourses (boundaries she also challenged), Tamblyn has passed on a rich legacy. The physical counterpart to her virtual archive is housed at the Special Collections Department of the Main Library at the University of California, Irvine, where she planned to teach before she became ill. (Coincidentally, Derrida’s papers are archived there, too.)

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