FUGITIVES Trudi Lynn Smith & Kate Hennessy
Things break down and become new things
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.