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ASSIGNMENT 2 / Giorgio Agamben – The Archive & Testimony

(Remnants of Auschwitz, 1989)

Here is a summary of the included excerpt from Agamben’s text, in the book on The Archive.
A demanding read once again, but essentially a response to the previous text by Foucault:

Twenty years after Foucault's The Archeology of Knowledge, Agamben picks up Foucault's
definition of the archive and asks: “How are we to conceive of this dimension, if it corresponds
neither to the archive in the strict sense – that is, the storehouse that catalogues the traces of
what has been said, to consign them to future memory – nor to the Babelic library that gathers
the dust of statements and allows for their resurrection under the historian's gaze?”

Agamben reminds us of Foucault's claim that “the archive is situated between langue, as the
system of construction of possible sentences – that is, of possibilities of speaking – and the
corpus that unites the set of what has been said, the things actually uttered or written.” Using
a figure of speech, Agamben describes the archive as “the dark margin encircling and limiting
every concrete act of speech”.

After having reintroduced Foucault's concepts at the beginning of this text, Agamben then
proposes a slight change in perspective on the subject matter. Rather than focussing on the
newly established site between language (langue) and acts of speech (parole), where the archive
should be located, Agamben opens up another field in between language and that same archive;
“that is, not between discourse and its taking place, between what is said and the enunciation
that exerts itself in it, but rather between langue and its taking place, between a pure possibility
of speaking and its existence as such.”

The term testimony is coined, referring to “the system of relations between the inside and the
outside of langue, between the sayable and the unsayable in every language”, as opposed to the
archive “which designates the system of relations between the unsaid and the said.” What this all
comes down to basically is the reinstatement of the human subject, after it had been “bracketed”
and “reduced to a simple function or an empty position” in Foucault's reasoning. “In testimony,
by contrast, the empty place of the subject becomes the decisive question.”

Agamben invites us to ask ourselves: “How can something like a statement exist in the site of
langue? In what way can a possibility of speech realize itself as such?”

This is where Agamben's notion of contingency is introduced, where he argues that “because
testimony is the relation between a possibility of speech and its taking place, it can exist only
through a relation to an impossibility of speech - (…) as contingency, as a capacity not to be.”
As human subjects we are capable of having or not having language, which we are also very
much dependent on.

Based on that idea, Giorgio Agamben concludes the text by defining human subjectivity as
bearing “witness to an impossibility of speech.” Although somewhat backward and counter-
intuitive, we realize that it is only by acknowledging a field outside language – which is not
sayable – that we can begin to produce and speak language at all. “Testimony is a
potentiality that becomes actual through an impotentiality of speech; it is, moreover,
an impossibility that gives itself existence through a possibility of speaking.”
Proceeding onward in order to find out how this text relates to my own practice and research.

We turn our attention to what is sayable or unsayable in language itself. Since we have now
clearly shifted to a more subjective point of view, thanks to Agamben's passionate plea for the
human element in this grand all-encompassing theory of knowledge and memory production, it
might be appropriate to link his particular text to some of my own personal testimonies about my
artistic practice, which I consider to be an integral part of the work output.

The form in which I present these testimonies are, usually, desktop presentations. Using screen
capture software, I record a video picturing my desktop as I move around on it with the cursor.
At the same time the sound is recorded while I talk. This format offers me a chance to introduce
my work and research topic to other people in the clearest possible way, since most of it involves
online content, video files and – perhaps most importantly – details of my own personal life.

desktop presentation May 5th 2010

Testimonies today are no longer simply written texts or oral accounts describing events as they
unfold. They can now incorporate the extensions of our bodies and minds we have grown so
accustomed to: our mobile phones and laptops, but also the music we listen to, the videos we
watch and the websites we frequent on a daily basis. This evolution asks for a remediation and
digitization of human testimony – which was once an exclusively analog affair. As a society we
are still very much in the process of learning this new language; the language of the internet
and of new media.

In his 2003 book Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark pleads in favor of a new conception of the
human brain. In his introductory words, he writes: “The human mind, if it is to be the physical
organ of human reason, simply cannot be seen as bound and restricted by the biological skinbag.
(…) It is because our brains, more than those of any other animal on the planet, are primed to
seek and consummate such intimate relations with non-biological resources that we end up as
bright and as capable of abstract thought as we are. It is because we are natural-born cyborgs,
forever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper and electronics,
that we are able to understand the world as we do.”1

We should bear in mind however that, in performance theory, testimonies after the fact have been
criticized for jeopardizing the purity of the live experience; for limiting the event's potential and for
rendering the event too legible. One may even argue that essentialist historical or contemporary
live performances should only be referred to as “Those We Don't Speak Of”. Or rather, in the
infamous words of Peggy Phelan: “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or
otherwise participate in the circulation of representations, once it does so, it becomes something
other than performance.”2 Little less than a year ago, I myself was also still feverishly defending
this fundamentalist notion of live performance art.

But then a very big surprise struck me as I got to read Art as Life, the book on the work of Allan
Kaprow that was released two years after his death. Initially I was shocked to come across this
book that included loads of documentary photographs and written notes about the artist's work,
since I was under the impression that Kaprow had always been radically opposed to the idea of
there being any documentation in circulation. In one particular passage in the book that seemed
to border on wishful thinking more than anything else, one of the contributors writes: “... one of
the key principles of Happenings was that they were one-time, ephemeral events that could not
be reenacted. Unrecorded, they would soon sink into oblivion. Kaprow was too canny and self-
aware as an artist to allow this to happen and all too well able to use his writings to endow his
oxymoronic ideal of nonart with a public presence, even if this meant throwing into question his
commitment to the living immediacy of the passing moment.”3 Hardly won over by the book's
premise, I read on in anger, until I came to realize that many of Kaprow's Happenings had
initially been scored, written down in advance. To my even greater amazement, Art as Life
contains an anecdote revealing Allan Kaprow's alter ego as a newspaper art critic, writing
about his own work. Under the pseudonym “Theodore Tucker, South Lincoln, Massachusetts”
Kaprow had managed to get a review published in The Village Voice about his own 1960 piece
Apple Shrine, an Environment set up in New York's Judson Memorial Church art gallery.

In describing my own works in writing I have always made a conscious effort not to use too many
words. It has become a habit for me to name the piece, which is most of the time a play on words
relating to the online platform where the action takes place, and to have it be accompanied by a
fragment from the Wikipedia definition of that same platform. Then an artist statement is also
included, or at least in some select cases, such as in Face-to-Facebook:

On May 21st 2010 – Paradise Day – Sven started a lifelong documentary performance,
Face-to-Facebook, sharing pictures of everyone he talks to face to face during the day.

In Art as Life, contributor Alex Potts states: “The actual Happening lives on in Kaprow's writings
as a phenomenon located in the gap between two verbal articulations: the scenario or projection
of what the Happening might be, and the recollection of, or commentary on, what it was.” (...)
“What is a Happening then? (…) Its status as an artwork is stubbornly unresolved.”4

Rather than merely being the sum of testimonies circulating around a performance, the memory
and the Real (in the Lacanian sense) of a live performance is in fact located in between those
testimonies, always at a distance from that which can be said about what actually took place. But
it is only by acknowledging and tracing back these testimonies that we can begin to analyze how
the live experience failed to be captured in these written and oral evidences. On the other hand,
these records kept may sometimes hold an even greater potential than the witnessing of the
performance ever did, which – arguably – may be what live performance should be all about;
implying potential, instead of simply drawing our attention to what goes on in the present moment.

Clark, Allan, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human
Intelligence, Oxford University Press 2003, 4 - 6.
Phelan, Peggy, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge: London 1993, 146.
Potts, Alex, Writing the Happening: The Aesthetics of Nonart. In Eva Meyer-Hermann & Andrew
Perchuk & Stephanie Rosenthal, eds., Allan Kaprow – Art as Life, Thames & Hudson: London
2008, 27.
Potts, Alex, Writing the Happening: The Aesthetics of Nonart. In Eva Meyer-Hermann & Andrew
Perchuk & Stephanie Rosenthal, eds., Allan Kaprow – Art as Life, Thames & Hudson: London
2008, 27 - 28.