Archive, Atlas, Histoire: Reading Godard, Warburg, and Langlois through Archival Theory

The archivist, at their most lofty task, is charged to endow an archive with powers of testimony that may guide the decisions of the future. Yet, at their most mundane, they are sifting through ragged collections of disused, distressed, disorganized documents. This tension between the import and shapelessness of the historical record produces an affective drive that guides the archivist’s endeavor to preserve cultural heritage and to concentrate value.

In this sense, the work of the archivist is creative. Archives are built and maintained according to specifications of an institutional mission, but the individual decisions made in the service of accession, appraisal, and disposition require analysis that cannot be strictly governed by rules or algorithms. As a unique repository of intellectual value, the archive becomes an object of cultural production. The custodian of records who introduces the instantiation of cultural elements surpasses the role of collector or even assessor; the archivist produces meaning. This, of course, contradicts key dictates of archival theory and practice, which hold the archivist to firm standards of objectivity.

What, then, is the constitutive division between the artist and the archivist? Just as the critical essayist pulls meaning from literature, in turn producing a new instance of literary art, so the archivist engages in the business of creative assembly. They are unstable boundaries, those that distinguish the artist, the creative essayist, and the curator-archivist.

My argument aims to interrogate the boundaries between curation and authorship in three distinct case studies: Aby Warburg’s historical art installation, Mnemosyne Atlas; Jean-Luc Godard’s eight-part video project, Histoire(s) du Cinéma; and the work of Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque Francaise.

Key words: archives, archival theory, art history, film history

Author: Alison Walsh