Some Notes on Jiann Hughes' Exhuming the Archive
by Matt Packer
There’s a particular episode of Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Stephen Speilberg.
I can’t remember which one. There have been several, and I lose track.
I can’t exactly remember the context, either.
I know that it’s set somewhere in South America.
There are Nazis in uniform, so I’m imagining it as the early 1940s.
It goes something like this.
Indy – the intrepid archeologist and treasure hunter played by Harrison Ford – is deep inside a tomb. The tomb is dark and unwelcoming with its ersatz gothic stone-carved interior covered in vines and cobwebs. In every shadow we might expect to find the grim-faced skeletal remains of those adventurers that have risked coming to the tomb before.
In a small chamber, Indy has finally found the Golden Idol that he has been searching for. It’s there in front of him, set ceremoniously on a stone pedestal, the face of the Idol all menacing eyes and bearing teeth.
Approaching the Golden Idol carefully, Indy reaches into his leather adventure-worn travel bag and retreives another bag: a small sack of sand or dust or similar matter. He seems to know what he’s doing. He’s a professor of archeology and an expert on cryptology, or something like that. He hovers the bag of sand in front of the Idol – beads of sweat collecting at his temples – and he carefully and delicately prepares to replace the bag of worthless sand with the Golden Idol, so to rebalance its weight on the pedestal.
I might be getting all this wrong.
In one quick action, he does so, he swaps the bag of sand for the Idol, and the Idol is now safely in Indy’s hands. He smirks with a sense of his own success. A second or two passes, and then things begin to happen. All hell breaks loose. The pedestal starts to automatically contract through the floor, surfaces start to move, the walls start to shoot bullets, massive stone portcullis (that no-one’s could have foreseen) starts to close, a giant boulder starts to tumble towards him and chases him down a series of tunnels. It seems certain that Indy will never get out of the tomb alive.
He jumps from near miss to near miss, using his leather whip to grapple from precipice to precipice, edge to edge, until by some miracle, he crawls back to the surface of the earth with the Idol, to daylight.
I can’t remember precisely what happens next, but the important thing here is that Indy has just escaped from a world that is latent with ancient kinetic technology. It’s a world where the relationships between cause and effect can span thousands of years; where taking action in 2016 or 1981 triggers the life of something that we might otherwise mistake for dead. It’s a world of cataclysmic agency that has been encrypted in time, that waits and waits and waits until someone (or something) is unwitting enough to uncode it.
The boulder that tumbles towards our hero is a boulder that tumbles with an agency that was bestowed upon it many generations ago. It was a bestowal that could not have imagined the world of its consequences. It could not have imagined precisely the clothes, the customs, or the technology that would now be at everyone’s personal disposal. It could not have imagined someone like Indy. It could not have imagined anyone like us. The bestowal could only ever have imagined that we would be impoverished, desperate, and mortal.
Jiann Hughes has described her work as part-sculpture, part-archeology, which is probably where any association to Raiders of the Lost Ark should reasonably end.
The reference might not be altogether lost, however. There might not be any Golden Idols on stone pedestals here in Millenium Court Art Centre (although ‘Millenium Court’ does sound like it could play a part in an ancient South American apocalyptic prophesy, for sure). Neither are there Nazis in uniforms competing for treasure. Yet, there are things here in the exhibition that operate ideas about the future of objects, which indeed share something of the encrypted potential that exists in the misremembered episode of Indiana Jones.
Many of the works in the exhibition are presented here through processes of sifting, extracting and retrieving from a world of technological remains; works such as Death Masks for Lively Data and Diaspore, for instance, that are assembled from copper wires, computer cabling, floppy discs, and other detritus that have been hoarded from the digital scrapheap. In the overabundant and psychotic materiality of these objects, they suggests an approach that is similar to Jane Bennett’s assertion of ‘a madness appropriate to us; to a political economy devoted to over consumption, planned obsolescence, relentless extraction of natural resources … and vast mountains of disavowed waste’. Other works, such as Cruel Optimism refer to the process of extraction itself, with its assemblage of survey tripods, arcade grabber, spotlights and microprocessor, conspiring to something that Jussi Parikka would call a ‘pseudo-historical object from a speculative future’.
Sifting, extracting, and retrieving are only part-processes in the material reawakening that eventually becomes the artwork before us. There’s the sculpture itself and all else that refuses to be reduced to the sum of its material parts. The form of these sculptures has been partly determined by the plasticity and flexibility of the material at hand (which in turn is part of the effectivity of these materials in the technology that they are designed to support); partly determined by the alliance of other forms that echo through the chambers of cultural history (the death masks of tribal cultures or the display units in Monument to invisible labours and our ancestors the rocks); and partly determined by the theatre of the exhibition installation itself, which carries its own set of conditional behaviours and rituals of encounter. Assisted with plinths and vitrines and the stud walls of gallery architecture, these objects, installations and video works, are sunken into the dark and dramatic tomb-like space of the exhibition, where they are lit by spotlights or the beams of projectors that redeem them from the black void. It’s an environment that recalls the practices of forensic surveillance, or an alien world peering down upon us, or the kind of disembodied reverence that is typically reserved for ancient relics presented in museums. In the exhibition, we viewers seem to be required to flit between these different tropes of spectatorship (forensic, alien, museological), that each carry their own implicit knowledge relationship to the technological deluge that we have left behind and buried into the Earth.
The title of the exhibition suggests an exhumation, but there are no bodies here as such. There are only the bodies that are inscribed into the labours and user-intimacies of the technologies themselves (or the materials that these technologies assign to). Work such as Nebulous fantasies of the total archive, consists of iron racking, industrial fans, micro-computers, and other elements that relate to the infrastructure of our digital lives. The work suggests that our encounters through digital technologies do not transcend materiality (as notions like ‘cloud storage’ seem to propagate), but simply defer this materiality elsewhere and into new forms, whether that’s in terms of a server farm in Norway or the body fat that we smear across our touchscreens as we swipe from message to message.
It’s an exhumation of our bodies right there on the surface of our Iphones that is also by-extension an exhumation of the bodies of Foxxconn workers, traumatised and led to suicide by the working conditions of producing them in the first place. It might also be the exhumation of all of us that are implicated in the slow death of the planet.
We might not see it yet, but there’s a big boulder moving towards us.