The idea of an archive: Speech at the opening of ‘Open Edit’

Speech I wrote for the opening of the Open Edit art project in Jaffna, on 15th March 2013. Since I was away from Sri Lanka, this was delivered by renowned Sri Lankan architect Channa Daswatta.

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I am sorry I cannot be with you in person today.

Even as I write these words down, I have no way of knowing who will listen to them. I also have absolutely no control over who will read them out, how it will be perceived and what ideas they will germinate – immediately after you hear them, and into the future. And yet, these words, in some form – electronic or physical – will be preserved as a record of what I said to you on this occasion. In addition to this record, my words will also live in your memory, to a greater or lesser degree, and may in a few cases even prompt a response of some sort – a word of praise, an angry retort, a creative critique.

Essentially, the idea of an archive is not that different. In a literary incarnation, for example, though none of the authors of the books in the buildings around us are physically present with us today, we cannot say they are wholly absent. Their words and images come alive when we pick up and peruse books in this archive. What we read, comprehend, see, feel and touch generates responses that add to, contest, become part of, stand aside from or add new light and perspectives on the source material – and the archive writ large.

An archive therefore, for me, is essentially an idea. It is always alive, never static. It helps creates anew one’s relationship with the source material and the events, people, places and processes recorded in them. This contests the usual definition of an archive in the English language, which suggests material of some historical value kept or recorded for posterity. There is something awfully insentient and boring to this definition. Open Edit, and the discussions around Open Talk, aim to contest this approach to and perception of an archive. Whereas, for example, these books around us exist in physical form, the artistic creations and responses they inspire could be through digital media and reside solely on the web. Content inspired by this archive can go on to inform any number of debates, creations and even other archives. It is this symbiotic process of response and creation, of reference and departure, entwining the local, the foreign, the past, present and future, that excites me about this new venture.

I believe any archive, and this archive in particular, is alive with possibilities. Open Edit brings to my mind the web-based encyclopaedia Wikipedia’s model of knowledge generation – a process determined by a dialectic of responses and counter-responses as opposed to a single, strict source, article or narrative. Whether through recordings, photos, books, cut-outs, personal belongings, art or digital artefacts, your responses to these books will open up the archive in new ways and through various forms. It is both this process of creation – the ideas generation – as well as the final creative output that I am looking forward to engaging with.

My own work with archiving digital content began several years ago, with content produced around the time of Sri Lanka’s Ceasefire Agreement, as well as towards the end of the war. In very different ways, both moments produced a number of websites with content vital to acknowledge in a fuller record of our country’s history. Most of this content is already deleted online – either out of sheer neglect or strategic choice. My archives of this material are, more by accident, unique records of what was said, done, planned and executed by individuals, groups and institutions around war and peace – perhaps inconvenient now, yet expedient then.

Archives thus can be powerful instruments of memory and remembrance. No doubt Sri Lanka’s own violence, as well as hope and aspirations will be inextricably entwined in responses to this archived material. The books here are inert, but very much alive in how they can nourish our imagination.

This is a unique collection and idea. From compelling debates and presentations to the setting up of a new archive on contemporary art, architecture and design, this project fuses my love of literature and interest in art, curation and digital archiving. I want to sincerely thank Sharmini Pereira and Sunila Galappatti from Raking Leaves for inviting me, through Groundviews, to be a part of this exciting venture.

I wish the project, its lead curators and all of you, the best of luck.

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