I recently inherited a thin, soft-cover guide called Preservation of Historical Records, published by the National Research Council in 1986, which has, I suspect, long gone unreferenced in the Media and Performance Art departmental library. I found it on my desk after returning from a meeting to discuss the Museum’s rapidly expanding digital repository server, an intangible archive of artworks with digital assets, their metadata, and access derivatives. I was struck by the enduring relevance of this title, and in a moment of synchronicity, my unremarkable encounter with this publication brought several arcs of thought full circle.
Departing from a metaphor employed by Hollis Frampton, the exhibition I recently organized in the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Media Gallery, Images of an Infinite Film, considers structural or material interventions as a means of exploring the highly subjective processes of thought and memory. With his concept of an “infinite film,” posited in the 1971 essay “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses.” Frampton not only constructed a theoretical framework in which to contemplate the cinematic apparatus and its place within the history of human consciousness—he also related the nature of film to the shape of the universe, and to life itself. The infinite film is “all knowledge,” and in a 1972 interview with Peter Gidal, Frampton revisited this idea in relation to Jorge Luis Borges:
“This is my metaphor because I am a filmmaker. Borges has a wonderful story called ‘The Library of Babel,’ in which the entire universe has been transformed into a library of books. While conjecturing as to the actual structure of the library, he manages to reconstruct the entire history of human thought. All through this one metaphor! The cinematic metaphor seems to me to be more poignant, more meet.”
The metaphors of Frampton and Borges lead me to the filmmaker Alain Resnais, whose 1956 short Toute la mémoire du monde (All the Memory of the World) follows a small, unassuming book along its private journey through the encyclopedic Bibliothèque National in Paris—from the moment it’s deposited, to its various rites of passage. Stamped, sorted, analyzed, numbered, and classified, the book is entered into the library’s immense catalogue, which is “forever a work in progress” (akin to the “infinity of endless passages” contained in Frampton’s infinite film). The book is transported from the dark, subterranean recesses of the library’s storerooms into its new life in the light, in the public realm—and ultimately, to its resting or “right” place among 60 miles of pure shelf maze. I first became acquainted with this film in August 2012, at a Light Industry screening in tribute to Chris Marker. In Toute la mémoire du monde, Marker’s presence is manifested through the book in question, a fictional volume of the Petit Planète, the series of travel guides he edited and designed in the 1950s: a guide to Mars. The title of the Petit Planète series came from a metaphor of Marker’s, described by Catherine Lupton as “user manuals for life on a small planet.” Characterized by a continuous, associative arrangement of images appropriated from a variety of sources, the spirit of these publications recalls streams of consciousness, filmic montage, and Marker’s own travel philosophy. The proposed interplanetary travel supplement would seem to be summoned from the deep-seated desire to know the unknowable. Lupton cites poet Gérard Nerval in relation to the significance of travel for Marker: “The purpose of travel is to verify one’s dreams.” (One could say the same about the pursuit of knowledge.)
On the cover of Preservation of Historical Records is a proud image of the National Archives building, the doors of which were recently closed for two weeks—along with those of many other federal archives and libraries—due to the shutdown of the federal government. I picture scores of empty corridors suspended in time: books unopened, records untouched, artifacts unseen. Toute la mémoire opens with the literary catacombs of the Bibliothèque; the narrative voice-over quips, “Because he has a short memory, man amasses countless memory aids.” And so in the end, this short, meandering text presents a modest opportunity for reflection on the implications of the recent gap in the accessibility of these branches of our “model memory.”