Photography

Fugitives

TRUDI LYNN SMITH, KATE HENNESSY

“No one can win against kipple,” [Isadore] said, “except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.

—Philip K. Dick, 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (pp. 65–66)

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

This project began for us while working in the Chicago Field Museum in 2013. The trace of a pastel drawing imprinted on the inside of a manila folder inspired us to look for active materials in archives closer to home. In 2017 we began working at the British Columbia Provincial Archive in Victoria, BC. There, Ann ten Cate, an archivist, and Ember Lundgren, a preservation specialist, walked us through the stacks, leading us to compelling objects and telling their stories. Ann referred to these objects as fugitives, which quickly became the foundation of our project. We gathered these fugitives and brought them to a makeshift photography studio we created adjacent to the public archival research room.

We found that like Dick’s androids, things in archives become fugitive in multiple ways. They may be (1) deemed to exist outside of the logic of the archive, exiled, without provenance or documentation, or (2) an anomaly with provenance or material composition that poses a threat to the archive or to archivists themselves. An item can become fugitive if (3) the archivist determines that it is no longer of value, and therefore anarchival, and by the same turn can be made archival again if new value is attached to it. It can also (4) become fugitive by nature of its inevitable material transformation, so that it literally cannot be preserved. Fugitivity is a form of anarchival materiality that helps us to explore alternate organizations within—and understandings of—archives. Fugitives make the state of change in archives visible.

WALLETS I:

A pile of wallets collected over many decades sat, disorderly, on a shelf at one end of the archive. Most fugitives do not linger in the archive—they are identified, deaccessioned and destroyed. However, some things hang around. Orphaned from their associated files, the wallets, ten Cate told us, were “...the last possessions of someone who died in British Columbia, intestate, no will, no relatives, nothing, so the government took over administration of these items, and so we have these sad little collections.” The wallets still hold the shape of the bodies that they were carried on, transformed through physical interactions. “They’re like last remains to me in a way… the physical body has long gone, but what you're left with are very personal and intimate notes, photographs of their relatives” (ten Cate, 2017). Disconnected from archival documentation, they are rendered fugitive both by their anarchival status, and by the will of archivists to keep them as powerful and intimate reminders of life and death.

SIMON GUNANOOT’S BULLETS:

Bullet I and Bullet II are fugitive anomalies in the files associated with the infamous story and court case of Simon Gunanoot. Gunanoot was born in 1874. His mother was a Gitxsan chief of the Fireweed Clan, and his father a hereditary chief of the Frog Clan. He was a prosperous merchant with a store in Kispiox, BC, until he himself became a fugitive. He—along with his brother-in-law—became entangled in a fight at a tavern in Hazelton, BC. When the two nonIndigenous men with whom Gunanoot had fought were later found shot dead, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Simon Gunanoot’s file contains forensic evidence: two bullets in an envelope labelled in neat cursive handwriting. The photograph “Bullet I” shows fragments of bullets that were fired and presumably extracted from the dead men’s bodies. “Bullet II” is a photograph of a bullet cartridge that was never fired, possibly remaining live, and now a potential threat to the physical integrity of the archive.

The bullets are fugitives because they are unstable, in-between; first, existing as fragments outside of the order of the colonial archive; and second, as problematic to preserve in the context of its history. The live bullet, in particular, represents the latent possibility of violence in the archive, a notion amplified by its historical significance as material evidence of colonial conflict.

TRAPLINE RECORDS:

The mutable nature of fugitives in archives can be discerned in their potential for reversal. Trapline Records I shows a box containing files held in the collection of the Fish and Wildlife Branch of the provincial government in Prince George, BC. It contains correspondence between what was then known as an Indian Agent and the Canadian government arguing that Haida trappers had long-established trapping rights in their territory, and that these territories should not be given over to settlers. In the story we heard from Ann ten Cate, these records had been for an unknown reason deemed anarchival. They lay on a loading dock ready to be sent to the dump when an observant individual walked by and retrieved them, recognizing their importance. The trapline records regain value and significance in ongoing, unresolved Aboriginal land and treaty rights in British Columbia.

NITRATE NEGATIVES I:

Fugitive by nature of inevitable material transformation, nitrate negatives provide spectacular evidence of the vibrant changing force of one thing becoming another in archives. Like Simon Gunanoot’s bullet, nitrate film in archives represents violent potential in entropy. Developed in the 1880s as a flexible film support for photographic materials by Eastman Kodak, cellulose nitrate was widely used through the early 1950s. It is a notorious material in film and urban history for starting fires in the projection rooms of movie houses. Similar in chemical makeup to guncotton, nitrate is extremely volatile, and decomposes into a flammable gas to eventually become dust.

Nitrate Negatives I shows a stack of fused glass plates and nitrate negatives showing plastic negatives curving and arching against glass plate negatives. The negatives are not only fused to one another, but are fusing with the detritus of the archive: thread, hair and paper fragments. No longer a stack of individual, photo-based indexes of the past, the block is a reminder that photography is lively, and photographs, like memories they intend to imprint, are malleable.

NITRATE NEGATIVES II:

Photographs are vigorous changelings within archival collections. Ember Lundgren demonstrated for us the unstable nature of nitrate and acetate decomposition by carefully lifting the edge of a flake of negative. As we watched it slowly curl back into place, the negatives— images of people, places and events—transform. They are gooey, fused and flaky.

Nitrate Negatives II is an example of what happens when materials elude preservation measures storage in freezers. The autocatalytic nature of cellulose nitrate and acetate means that once the process of deterioration has begun, new properties are generated by the degradation, and these new properties create further degradation2 . The process is unpredictable, and attests to the entropic force of the archive.

NEGATIVE CURL I:

The curl of these tightly scrolled negatives arises when the photographic emulsions and their supports change at different rates. These movements form blisters and buckles, revealing the entropic force that drives things to suddenly cross a threshold to become something new.

VINEGAR SYNDROME

The tangy smell of vinegar in the archive is usually the first indicator of vinegar syndrome, a chemical breakdown of cellulose acetate that produces acetic acid. For conservators, the scent signals the fugitive nature of photographic archives. As we walked the stacks Lundgren was on alert for contamination through her sense of smell. Photographing the materials, we could smell the acid and felt a sting in the back of our throats, an unexpected way to sense an archives.

KIPPLE DRIVES NONKIPPLE

To the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles3, Dick’s androids make visible “the unstable boundaries between self and world” (1999:160). Boundaries are made unstable by the force of kipple driving out nonkipple. We can think of anarchival materiality in this way as well: as the archivists and conservators try to hold decay at bay, it is always within a context of frustration and an inability to truly do so.

Unstable boundaries are made visible by following fugitive objects and their human caregivers in the archive. Our photographs reveal our interest in archival uncertainty over certainty, and deterioration over preservation. Anarchival materialities are these deteriorating forces of matter—the force of things curling, catching fire, melting or escaping. While it is commonly understood that the intent of archives is to preserve documents deemed of value, it is the anarchival properties of archives—a set of relationships and processes—that shapes them. Fugitives are powerful reminders of the generative force of entropy in archives.

1 Marty Perlmutter, “The Lost Picture Show: Hollywood Archivists Can’t Outpace Obsolescence,” IEEE Spectrum, http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/it/thelost-picture-show-hollywood-archivists-cant-outpaceobsolescence spectrum.ieee.org.

2 Monique Fischer, “A Short Guide to Film Base Photographic Materials: Identification, Care and Duplication,” Photographs 5.1, Northeast Document Conservation Centre, 2012, nedcc.org.

3 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman. 1999.

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TRUDI LYNN SMITH, KATE HENNESSY

Trudi Lynn Smith is artist-in-residence at the Making Culture Lab at Simon Fraser University and teaches visual ecology in the School of Environmental Studies at University of Victoria.


Kate Hennessy is an associate  professor specializing in media at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University.


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