SISSV: AN EXPERIMENTAL APPROACH TO THE ARCHIVE OF THE SCANDINAVIAN INSTITUTE OF COMPARATIVE VANDALISM
The entry below is an email exchange that took place after a workshop in the framework of hildegoesasger at Officin (Copenhagen) where Niels Henriksen presented his research on Asger Jorn’s Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism (SISV) and Ellef Prestsæter together with Nicolas Malevé presented the work in progress of the Scandinavian Institute of Contemporary Comparative Vandalism (SISSV), an experimental art/research project engaging with the archive of the SISV at the Museum Jorn.
Niels Henriksen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, USA. He is currently preparing a thesis on the adaptation of archaeological concepts and procedures in Asger Jorn’s book projects and paintings from 1948 to 1965.
Ellef Prestsæter is an independent researcher, artist, and curator. He is a founding member of the SISSV, together with Michael Murtaugh and Nicolas Malevé. He works at the University of Oslo and writes regularly on art and literature for Klassekampen, Vinduet and Kunstkritikk. Most recent publication: The Invention of the Bright Day by José de Almada Negreiros, translated from the Portuguese into Norwegian and Reports from the Gutenberg Galaxy (http://www.obs-osv.com/gutenberg).
Asger Jorn founded the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism (SISV) in 1961, shortly after leaving the Situationist International. Jorn published a series of theoretical “reports of the SISV” and planned the production of some thirty volumes of coffee table books devoted to 10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art. Eventually only a pilot volume on 12th Century Scanian Stone Sculpture was published. An archive consisting of more than 25,000 negatives taken by Gérard Franceschi and Ulrik Ross (commissioned by Jorn) bears testimony to the magnitude of the endeavor.
NH: My first question regards your framing of your intervention this summer with the SISV in terms of a sort of manual for operating the archive. I am interested in the structures you identified in the original archive, and how you chose to engage with them.
EP: When we started working with the SISV archive at Museum Jorn in Silkeborg, the first thing we needed to do was to develop an understanding of how the archive works, to map the relations, conjunctions and affordances[i] of the archival apparatus. There are more than 25,000 negatives in the filing cabinet. They are all ordered according to geographical location. The corresponding contact sheets as well as enlargements are indexed with a code unique to each image. Thus this image of a wooden stool, to take a random example, is indexed as N7-2-29. N indicates Norway, 7 means that the image was shot in the county of Oppland, 2 gives the further geographical specification of the Gudbrandsdalen valley and 29 is the number given to this specific image.
The key to all of this is a document we refer to as the “white binder”. The binder was produced in the 80s by Stephanie Nørgaard, who was given the task of cleaning up the archive and has been an invaluable source of information for us. Interestingly, she told us that in order to crack the code of the index, she would start with Jorn’s published books (where some of the photos were reproduced) and work her way backwards to the photo archive, reverse-engineering the image articulations of the book, so to say … The white binder maps the overall structure of the repository very well. However, it does not encompass all the material remains of the SISV. Working with the images, Jorn would select the images he wanted to use for some purpose and put them in boxes. Later he would order the images in a particular sequence by putting them into albums that served as mockups for the planned books. A large number of images have been preserved in both “states” of ordering: there are more than 50 boxes and a number of albums. The boxes and albums are not stored in the filing cabinet (indeed they are usually stored in a different part of the museum building; our exhibition at the Museum Jorn this summer brought them into proximity with each other as we moved everything into one room). The boxes and albums bear witness to different stages of Jorn’s work with the images, or so it would seem. Each box and album contains a typewritten sheet where someone (Stephanie says it wasn’t her) has duly indexed its contents, adding a brief annotation of the depicted object. N7-2-29 for instance, appears in an album indexed as Modern times. Volume 6. The common people’s art of wooden images and wooden architecture and has been given the following annotation: “Lillehammer Folk Museum, Norway. A stool with three legs, made of a piece of wood resembling a snake. ?+” The question marks multiply in these annotations.
Most of the boxes are indexed with speculations as to what volume of the 10,000 years of Nordic Folk Art series Jorn had in mind for the selection. The word “possibly” occurs very often: “Hunters’ art. Possibly Antiquity volume 1”. The indexing remains hypothetical, a series of speculations. For us there is something attractive about being able to archive according to hypothetical connections (this is typically what you would want to avoid when setting up a relational database). At the same time, these annotations can be seen as problematic in the sense that they have been made with the book project as sole interpretative grid, with the presupposition that all the orderings can be explained with reference to that project.
This raises the tricky question of whether the SISV can be reduced to the Nordic book project only. This is a widespread assumption, held by, for instance by the art historian and former director of Museum Jorn Troels Andersen, who has engaged deeply with the archive over the years and even published six volumes based on Jorn’s maquettes. But what then, do we make of all the images from Spain, France and Italy? Are they not related to the SISV? In addition, the filing cabinet contains 39 albums with images sorted according to motifs. They include images from the SISV repository as well as from other sources (museums etc.) and date from around 1970 (they were taken to the archive from Jorn’s house in Colombes after his death). These images are by no means restricted to the Nordic sphere. Are these orderings unrelated to the SISV project?
NH: I wonder if you think it is possible to conceive of Jorn’s conceptualization of the archive in relation to his proposed publication series of 10.000 Years of Nordic Folk Art in terms of an apparatus and a manual? What would that imply?
EP: Your questions suggest an intriguing reversal: the image articulations based on the photographic repository preceding it somehow working its way into the latter’s structure, reordering it as its operative manual. Interestingly, such a movement, where a particular use of an archive would feed back into it and transform it is exactly what this archive cannot accommodate. It is significant that whereas you can always trace an image back from one of the boxes or albums to the “archive proper” (the filing cabinet) by means of the code written on the back of most prints, it does not work in the other direction. Looking up an image in the filing cabinet will not point you in the direction of its previous use, whether it has been selected for one of the boxes/albums or appeared in books etc. A book such as the one on the stone sculptures of Scania can only work its way back into the archive as a new document, given a unique location in the archive (indeed there is a folder in cabinet 7.4 containing most of the images selected for the book as well as documents specifying their sequence in the book).
On another level, the sequences and selections developed by Jorn do serve as suggestions as to how the images in the repository might be handled. As such they are perhaps better described as examples rather than manuals in the strict sense. Jorn explicitly made clear that his orderings were not definitive or exhaustive. In one of the texts you translated for October magazine, he states that “the publication of the series “10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art” should be a historic event in itself, in the most proper sense of the term, meaning a temporally limited phenomenon that could soon be replaced by another series, composed in a different way” (Structuralism and suppression, 1967). Also, and even more interestingly (not least for the SISSV!), he ended the 1965 annual report of the SISV (where he announced the temporary closure of the institute) by claiming that the book series “never had been of central importance to the SISV, whose material is primarily meant for other purposes”. In part this may be seen a rhetorical move in the light of the book project’s failure, but I believe there is more to it.
To reiterate, I don’t see the work of the SISSV in terms of creating an operative manual to the archive. Understanding how the original apparatus works was rather the starting point for experimenting with new ways of operating the archive, this time with digital tools. If the strength and weakness of the analogue archive is the rigidity of its structure, a digital archive can perhaps let different orders co-exist in a more flexible and dynamic the way. New articulations can work their way back into the archive and become new structures.
Digitization brings about an archive whose holdings are no longer only addressable at the level of the individual image but also as pixels, histograms, “significant features” or contours detected by different software. All this enables the relationship between parts and wholes to be played out in completely new ways. Here you will find a quick guide, a preliminary manual of sorts, to some of these experiments. I believe our approach can be described as playful, multifarious and experimental, pretty much in the spirit Jorn outlined in a letter to the British anthropologist Francis Huxley in 1969:
“My method is systematically in-konsequent and non-cronologic without other determinations and conclusions except the choice of subject and what eventualli comes out of the puzzle. Some peaces comes to fit together and make groups of relations and perhaps more general visions comes out of it, or perhaps not. So my questions have only the scope to force you to break up my combinations if you see that they are wrong, and put them together in another way if you see a combination, or if you have some pieces to join. It is a game. You don’t know exactly what comes out.“ How would you see the relationship between apparatus and manual? I would be interested in hearing more about your understanding of Jorn’s concept of history as related to a kind of “operative vandalism”.
NH: I very much enjoyed reading about your research on the historiography of the SISV archive. What I wanted to propose by the terminology of apparatus and manual was the idea, which you seem to share, that the archive might have been conceived as a device facilitating other projects and uses than “10.000 Years of Nordic Folk Art.” On the one hand, the failure to preserve the key for the cataloging system, which in any case seems provisional, indicates a lack of interest in the potential for outside use. On the other hand, the deficiency of the cataloging system imposes the necessity on each inroad into the archive of defining an order anew. Thus, each sequence composed from the archive becomes a model for the understanding of the entire repository.
It is for the same reason that I like your shift to the term repository. Because it reflects how this archive—rather than preserving of an abstract system—commands the continuous re-creation of meaning and order with each new approach. This mechanism of continuous re-ordering also implies a superimposition or even eradication of previous attempts, which, to me, gives an indication of what Jorn might have meant by “comparative vandalism.”
Finally, I wonder whether the setup of the archive and its use, as I have proposed to understand it, might also apply to the kind of ‘reader’ experience that Jorn envisioned for the recipients of “10.000 Years of Nordic Folk Art.” On the dust jacket of 12th Century Scanian Stone Sculpture Jorn quotes five different ordering systems, one of which is described as “more or less coincidental.” Thus, the extent of the visual sequences counting hundreds of images, and the inconsistency of their ordering, emulate the characteristics of the main archive repository, only on a smaller scale. This, of course, speaks against the notion of a steadfast division of apparatus and manual, since the “readers” would have to define their own conceptual frameworks, just like the potential users of the larger archive. The idea of an apparatus and a manual is, however, still appealing to me, if for no other reason then because of its implication of active involvement.
EP: I am curious to know how you see the relationship between the image repository and the book series on the one hand, and the paperback reports of the SISV on the other. The connections are by no means obvious! In short, how should we understand the relationship between the material technologies of memory (negatives, paper, inventory, archive etc.) and the theoretical, historical and speculative “superstructure” of the SISV as an engagement with the past?
NH: If you look at Jorn’s “Postscript” in 12th Century Scanian Stone Sculpture, which was published as a pilot for the proposed “10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art” book series, Jorn frames his project as an archaeology as opposed to a history. He defines archaeology—by contrast to history’s tracing of “actions and events”—as the development of “the most ordinary types” in a stratigraphic overview of “…the homogeneity and variation of repetitions.” In addition to archaeology, Jorn defines his project within a terminology of vandalism, adapted from the literature on the destruction of art. Vandalism denotes the research focus on graffiti, heathen iconography in Christian churches, and folk art, but also Jorn’s “archaeological” approach to that object field. Thus, the definition of vandalism does not distinguish between visual production and interpretation. In that, Jorn’s vandalism reminds me of the Situationist strategy of détournement, described by Tom McDonough as borrowing in equal part from Bertolt Brecht’s Umfunktionieren and Lautreamont’s plagiarism.
The notion of a logic of appropriation posed between deliberate critical re-inscription and anarchic attack on the integrity of authorship and singularity of events, I think, also applies to Jorn’s concept of vandalism. Both détournement and vandalism are based on the idea that the construction of the present relies on the simultaneous creation and destruction of the past. I think of the sequence of 12th Century Scanian Stone Sculpture as a reflection of Jorn’s interest in the inherent destructiveness of history writing, or archaeological excavation for that matter. The excessive repetition of similar motifs in the sequence overreach all pedagogical utility and seem more in the vein of Lautreamont than Brecht. My interpretation of Jorn’s vandalism may seem to some to be too generous in its assessment of the criticality of his project. At the same time as Jorn’s vandalism is full of vestiges from his involvement with the Situationist International, the rhetoric of a specifically Nordic or Scandinavian vandalism or barbarianism suggests the notion of a recourse to a primal origin that dates back to the Cobra years, and which is contradictory to the vandalist archaeology as I have just outlined it.
Asger Jorn: “Postscript to 12th Century Stone Sculpture of Scania” . October 141 (summer 2012), pp. 73-79. Translated from the Danish by Niels Henriksen.
Asger Jorn: “Structuralism and Suppression” . October 141 (summer 2012), pp. 81-85. Translated from the Danish by Niels Henriksen.
Niels Henriksen: “Vandalist Revival: Asger Jorn’s Archaeology”. In Asger Jorn: Restless Rebel, eds. Dorthe Aagesen og Helle Brøns (Statens Museum for kunst, 2014), pp. 226-237.
A book about the SISSV project, with essays by Teresa Østergaard Pedersen, Matthew Fuller and Éric Alliez, is forthcoming in 2015.
[i] An affordance is often taken as a relation between an object or an environment and an organism, that affords the opportunity for that organism to perform an action.