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March 21, 2011

Archiving Ephemera — A Mini Manifesto (Semifesto)

The lyrics for Talking Heads song “Love For Sale” were, according to David Byrne’s liner notes in Sand in the Vaseline, a not entirely successful attempt to write a love song using product or commercial tag lines. He has his own artistic reasoning behind his assessment, but from my point of view one problem is that he created a decontextualized archive of cultural information. I have plenty of peers that can cite all of the song’s references (and probably recite the entire commercial they originated from), but to my young nieces and nephews the lyrics would be empty containers that lack their purported meaningfulness. Similarly, I know plenty of 50-somethings that could recite commercial pitches from early television, and plenty of 70-somethings that can recall radio jingles and slogans from products that don’t exist anymore — all of which are meaningless reference points to subsequent generations unless footnoted in a scholarly edition of a period novel.

This begs the question of what the value is in the extensive archiving of such ephemeral, temporally-specific output. I like to think, I absolutely have to think in order to maintain momentum, that there is a value beyond kitsch or other forms of ironic re/mis-appropriation. I really hope my work is about more than saving audiovisual works with funny outfits and hairdos that people can giggle about or use in mash-ups. This is why I consider contextualization as an integral part of archiving. Despite the feelings of the general public, preservation requires a lot more than putting things online where they will “last forever”.

What, then, constitutes contextualization? There is the historical and there is the personal, and then there is where those converge. That convergence is key; neither strict historical nor strictly personal contextualizations can stand on their own as true pictures of the past. As Errol Morris suggests in his recent Times essay series “The Ashtray”, when we say that History (big H) is a social construct, we should not infer that to mean that history does not exist. It factually does. The methodology of History and the personal experience or interpretation of historical or otherwise time-based events are constructed from our own points of view and social milieu, and then degraded by the passage of time and the vagaries of memory.

The two sides establish a necessary balance between those Keatsian values of beauty and truth. History requires a degree of, not fiction — the division of fiction and non-fiction is too arbitrary and restrictive to be useful — but a degree of aesthetics or humanism. Both are truth: history is the truth of factual events and personal narrative is the truth of human experience. The context of both is required because an archive is not a resting place, but a living entity that can shift in meaning even as it does not change in content. Ephemera is not just material, but also speaks to the intangible, inconstant nature of memory, which must also be preserved.

As we lose context, we lose what ties us to the past and what moors us to humanity. The responsibility of archives to safeguard the tether to both is an essential function of what we strive to perform.

Joshua Ranger

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