Archive (Works)

HD installation
Black & white, stereo
loop duration 5 min. 45 sec.
16:9 projection, dimensions variable

As the camera pans silently in close-up across rows of wooden index cabinets, the occasional flickering and shaking of the black and white footage suggest it is old. Traces of decay appear, as the camera pulls out to survey apparently unending corridors of cabinets, some with drawers that have been opened and ransacked. Cracked lightshades are revealed and skylights of broken glass from which drips of rain enter and soak the floor. This edifice for the storage and consumption of knowledge is unpopulated, a knocked-over chair suggests an abrupt departure. The mood borders on the post-apocalyptic. Disorientation creeps in as the enormous size and the circular nature of the building gradually become apparent.

What the viewer is seeing is the fictional architecture Fiona Tan has designed to house the utopian archive of Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and then painstakingly digitally constructed. Tan filmed inside this virtual yet 3-D model, in her first investigation into this technology. Thus the video is made entirely of computer-generated images. The space is phenomenologically believable but at the same time troubling. Utopian architecture plans are often circular and Tan instinctively drew a round floorplan when she imagined Otlet’s ideal repository of all knowledge. She used this as the blueprint to digitally erect the entire interior of the structure, 120 metres in diametre, crowned with a magnificent glass dome, all in true-to-scale detail. The circularity of the building is echoed by the looping of the work. In this endless projection, Tan invites the viewer to browse Otlet’s analogue ‘world archive’. Time folds in upon itself, the utopian future proposed here appears already ruined and forgotten. The camera’s movements also recall the adjustments required to use Giordano Bruno’s mnemonic diagram described in De Umbris Idearum [On the Shadows of Ideas] (1582). Bruno’s graphic scheme is a schematised map of the universe, intended to be committed to memory. Its six circles can function like clockwork rings in the mind’s eye that can be rotated to any combination.

Otlet used drawing as a technique of ‘visual thinking’, often working with symbols and shapes. Much of his thinking was presented in a circular fashion, including his plans for the World City and the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). The card drawers in Archive are modelled on the card drawers at the Mundaneum, a museum and archive in Mons. It houses what remains of the ambitious International Office of Bibliography founded in Brussels by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine in 1895 for which Otlet produced 16 million informational index cards. That the architectural space Tan presents is empty and abandoned, even derelict in places, speaks of Otlet’s multiple uncompleted projects, his life-long quest for order that was doomed to end in chaos. During the Second World War, the building housing Otlet’s archives was requisitioned by Third Reich and much of his work destroyed.

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