FUGI­TIVES Trudi Lynn Smith & Kate Hen­nessy

Things break down and be­come new things

Geist - - Geist - TRUDI LYNN SMITH AND KATE HEN­NESSY

In Do An­droids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s novel set in a dystopian near-fu­ture, the world has be­come an­i­mated by the en­tropic force of kip­ple. Dick uses the word kip­ple to de­scribe use­less ob­jects “like junk mail or match fold­ers af­ter you use the last match or gum wrap­pers” as ex­am­ples of the vir­u­lent de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of all things.

The novel fol­lows the bounty hunter Deckard as he tracks fugi­tive an­droids. The hu­manoid an­droids evade cap­ture as they race against time be­cause kip­ple—the un­stop­pable force of en­tropy—threat­ens to claim them and the world that each in­hab­its. The best one can do, as Dick’s char­ac­ter Isi­dore ex­plains, is to tem­po­rar­ily cre­ate a kind of sta­sis be­tween en­tropy and or­der, while un­der­stand­ing that the “First Law of Kip­ple” is that “kip­ple drives out nonkip­ple.” In the novel, en­tropy is re­sisted while re­lent­lessly re­mind­ing the reader of what it is to be hu­man—that is, to live and even­tu­ally die.

While we are aware that hu­man life is tem­po­rary, we imag­ine our mem­ory in­sti­tu­tions—libraries, archives and mu­se­ums—as ster­ile bas­tions of per­ma­nence and preser­va­tion. To the con­trary, en­tropy, the ten­dency of mat­ter to de­grade to a state of dis­or­der, thrives in con­tem­po­rary mem­ory in­sti­tu­tions, where hu­man stew­ards of col­lected ob­jects work to main­tain a tem­po­rary sta­sis be­tween or­der and en­tropy. In ana­log and dig­i­tal archives alike, is­sues of ma­te­rial loss and cor­rup­tion are con­ven­tion­ally met with tools of re­sis­tance, from sim­ple freez­ers aimed at halt­ing the pro­gres­sion of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, to fire-re­sis­tant bunkers built to con­tain ex­plo­sive chem­i­cal re­ac­tions, to com­plex ro­botic sys­tems de­signed to de­tect and recre­ate files gone bad1. We draw at­ten­tion in our project, Fugi­tives, to what we call an­ar­chival ma­te­ri­al­ity, or the gen­er­a­tive force of en­tropy, of things breaking down and be­com­ing new things, in archives.

For ex­am­ple, some of the ear­li­est and most im­por­tant doc­u­ments are writ­ten on ma­te­ri­als that were made from the skins of calf and sheep. Con­ser­va­tors we spoke to told sto­ries of work­ing to keep the doc­u­ment pages from curl­ing, seem­ingly back to­ward the bod­ies they came from. These prac­tices of care might be con­sid­ered acts of shep­herd­ing ma­te­ri­als through con­stant states of change, re­veal­ing a ten­sion be­tween the task of preser­va­tion and ac­knowl­edge­ment of the fugi­tive na­ture of all things. From this per­spec­tive, archives run along­side and in re­la­tion­ship with liv­ing be­ings and are ripe with the dis­rup­tive force of fugi­tive ma­te­ri­als: an­ar­chival ma­te­ri­al­ity.

An­ar­chival ma­te­ri­al­ity has a shape and smell: It is a stack of or­phan wal­lets; a live bul­let; ni­trate neg­a­tives that have trans­formed into gooey in­ter­leav­ing be­tween other pho­to­graphic ob­jects. The an­ar­chival force of molec­u­lar trans­for­ma­tion, chem­i­cal re­ac­tions, rot and other hu­man and non-hu­man in­ter­ac­tions ren­der archival ob­jects into what are known in archival worlds as fugi­tives, ob­jects that, like Dick’s an­droids, elude preser­va­tion. Us­ing the pho­to­graphs of fugi­tive ob­jects that we cre­ated as ex­pres­sions of our re­search, we sug­gest that flesh­ing out re­la­tion­ships be­tween the ma­te­ri­al­ity of things and their hu­man care­givers can pro­vide a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of un­cer­tainty and pre­car­ity as vi­tal forces in archives.

Fugi­tives in the Bri­tish Columbia Pro­vin­cial Archives (de­tail). Colour Pho­to­graph. Di­men­sions vari­able. 2017.

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