The Indexical Trace: Records and Retrieval

The selection of particular information to be saved or archived is an act that predisposes that information for attention in the future (Weick & Roberts, 1993). What we record receives future attention just by dint of being recorded. Jacques Derrida (1995) called our obsession with recording “archive fever,” writing, “The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (p. 16-17; my emphasis). We think of archives as collections of pieces of the past, but we use them to save those things for future use. The past matters here not because of historical events as they were recorded, but because of the possibilities of those that were not. As Patrick Greaney writes in Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), “Quotation evokes those possibilities. By repeating the past, artists and writers may be attempting to repeat that past’s unrealized futures” (p. x). Quoting, cutting-and-pasting, sampling, citing—we use the past to build futures not yet forgotten.

"Poetic absence of pay telephones" by William Gibson
The Poetic Absence of Pay Telephones. [photo by William Gibson]
About this “archival impulse” (Foster, 2004, passim), Andreas Huyseen (2003) asks,

Is it the fear of forgetting that triggers the desire to remember, or is it perhaps the other way around? Could it be that the surfeit of memory in this media-saturated culture creates such an overload that the memory system itself is in constant danger of imploding, thus triggering fear of forgetting? (p. 17).

Quotational PracticesHal Foster (2004) ups this fear of forgetting to paranoiac proportions, writing,

Perhaps the paranoid dimension of archival art is the other side of its utopian ambition—its desire to turn belatedness into becomingness, to recoup failed visions in art, literature, philosophy, and everyday life into possible scenarios of alternative kinds of social relations, to transform the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia (p. 22).
Foster’s no-place of utopia is a place without forgetting, a place without the death that forgetting represents. As Paul Ricoeur (2004) wrote, “forgetting is lamented in the same way as aging and death: it is one of the figures of the inevitable, the irremediable” (p. 426). William Gibson (2012) quips, “We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting” (p. 51). Artifacts like diaries, journals, books, and recordings are our archives, reminders of events passing by ever-faster. Huyssen (2003) adds, “Some have turned to the archive as counterweight to the ever-increasing pace of change, as a site of temporal and spatial preservation. From the point of view of the archive, forgetting is the ultimate transgression” (p. 26). Not only are we afraid to forget, but we want histories at hand because we fear the future as well.

@remixthebook: Outright appropriation of things is inherently creative. To be uncreative would be to pretend this is not so. [tweeted November 6, 2014]

Unlike the oral testimony, the archive has no addressee (Ricoeur, 2004). “To quote is by definition to use out of context,” writes Hillel Schwartz (1996, p. 246), which Walter Benjamin (1968) contended led to a loss of meaning. “Ripped from its original context,” writes Stuart Ewen (1984), “its original meanings are lost” (p. 93). When the archives move from written and printed documents to digital databases, meanings and contexts hang together more loosely and drift more easily (Ernst, 2013; Smith, 1998). Meaning is transient in quotational practice. Greaney writes,

There can be no radical separation of quotational and nonquotational aesthetic practices, because quotational works just foreground the forms of distance—from the self, from expression, from communication—that are already more or less present in every artwork. Authorship changes when those kinds of distance are highlighted, but it doesn’t disappear (p. xiv).

The Heretical ArchiveIn The Heretical Archive (Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 2013), Domietta Torlasco (2013) writes, “Cinematographic and phonographic recordings can repeat themselves accurately and indefinitely, bringing about the recurrence of the past of which they are the indexical trace” (p. 92). The “indexical trace” is a semiotic concept in which an object has no resemblance to the object signified yet points to the the signified using a sensory element. Introduced by Paul Kane in 2007, an indexical trace might be the smell of the signified, the sound of the footsteps of a person, or a flag showing the waves of the wind. A sample appropriated and manipulated, a lyric interpolated, a paraphrase or parody—these are all indexical traces owing their originals but not quite resembling them. As they say in forensic science, “Every contact leaves a trace.” (Kirschenbaum, 2008, p. 49). As Norman Klein (1997) puts it, “a memory ‘trace’ may satisfy the urge to remember, but not the urge to remember the ‘facts'” (p. 306; for more on traces, memory, and forgetting, see Ricoeur, 2004). These veiled acts of quotation point as much to the past as they do to possible futures: retrievals without resemblance.

You need to do more deleting and less saving. — Common, “Hungry”

In spite of our hoarding of history, Huyssen (2003) contends that “the past cannot give us what the future has failed to deliver” (p. 27). We have to forget most of what we know in order to move on. We don’t want to shift on the shoulders of giants forever. Against our feverish archival impulse, we want to become those giants.


Benjamin, Walter. (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Illuminations. London: Fontana, pp. 217–252.

Common. (1997). Hungry. On One Day It’ll All Make Sense [LP]. New York: Relativity Records.

Derrida, Jacques. (1995). Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ernst, Wolfgang. (2013). Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Ewen, Stuart. (1984). All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York: Basic Books.

Foster, Hal. (2004, Fall). An Archival Impulse. October, 110, pp. 3–22.

Greaney, Patrick. (2014). Quotational Practices: Repeating the Future in Contemporary Art Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Huyseen, Andreas. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Klein, Norman M. (1997). The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory. New York: Verso.

Ricoeur, Paul. (2004). Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schwartz, Hillel. (1996). The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. New York: Zone Books.

Smith, Abby. (1998, May/June). Preservation in the Future Tense. CLIR Issues, (3), 1, 6.

Torlasco, Domietta. (2013). The Heretical Archive: Digital Memory at the End of Film. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Weick, Karl E., & Roberts, Karlene H. (1993). Collective mind in organizations: Heedful interrelating on flight decks. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 357–381.

Keeping Records with Christian Marclay

John Cage once said, “…music instructs us, that the uses of things, if they are meaningful, are creative; therefore the only lively thing that will happen with a record, is, if somehow you could use it to make something which it isn’t.” (quoted in Block & Glasmeier, 1989, p. 73). As much as any legitimate Hip-hop turntablist, Christian Marclay has made a career of repurposing vinyl records. Exhibits that include rearranging record cover art into new pieces, lining a gallery floor with records for patrons to walk upon (and then playing those trampled records later), and of course manipulating records on turntables to create new sound collages have all been parts of his extensive body of work.

Christian Marclay: Tone Arms

The punk movement was a liberating influence, with its energy, its non-conformism, its very loud volume of sound. Its amateurish, improvised side gave me the courage to make music without ever having studied it — Christian Marclay (quoted in Szendy, 2000, p. 89).

Like two of his more obvious forebears, John Cage and Brian Eno, Marclay is more artist than musician. Hew told Kim Gordon (2005), “I went to art school, not to music school. I don’t think like a musician” (p. 10). To wit, he’s worked in many other media besides sound. Readymades, collages, video, and performances all find their way into his work. “The more I worked with records,” Marclay told Alan Licht (2003), “the more I realized the potential of all the sounds generated with just a turntable and a record and started to appreciate all thes eunwanted sounds that were traditionally rejected: skipping, clicks and pops, all this stuff that people didn’t want. I started using these sounds for their musical quality and doing all kinds of aggressive, destructive stuff to the records for the purpose of creating new music” (p. 89).

On & By Christian MarclayIn On & By Christian Marclay, edited by Jean-Pierre Criqui (MIT Press, 2014), Marclay adds, “I try to make people aware of these imperfections, and accept them as music; the recording is a sort of illusion; the scratch on the record is more real” (p. 42). He questions each medium itself in terms of itself. One of the most extensive explorations of his work, On & By Christian Marclay boasts pieces by Douglas Kahn, David Toop, Zadie Smith, and Roalind Kraus, among many others, as well as several artist statements and interviews with Marclay himself. It’s as good a place as any to start and an essential text for anyone already familiar.

Borrowing term “telegramophony” from Derrida (1987, p. 90), Peter Szendy writes of Marclay’s Telephones (1995), “The fact remains that Christian Marclay does not reject this ghostly, phantasmal telegramophony. He plays with it, trifles with it, turns it into the tacked-on plot of his story/ies. Of his stories without a story, abstract like the color charts of memory, but each time concretely arresting like a call that cannot be delayed” (p. 115). Marclay uses the broken metaphor, “Memory is our own recording device” (quoted in Khazam, 2000, p. 31), but his works can be seen as montages of broken metaphors. There seems to be something damaged or at least slightly off about the connections he makes and breaks. “For a fragment of the past to be able to be touched by the present,” wrote Walter Benjamin (1999), “there must be no continuity between them” (p. 470). This temporal discontinuity and its interstitial ghosts are the raw stuff that Marclay works with. Records, tapes, telephones—the fragmented ghosts of history are in there, speaking out and seeking their way out of the threshold.

Is history simply a matter of events that leave behind those things that can be weighed and measured—new institutions, new maps, new rulers, new winners and losers—or is it also the result of moments that seem to leave nothing behind, nothing but the mystery of spectral connections between people long separated by place and time, but somehow speaking the same language?
— Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces

Christian Marclay: Record Without a CoverGreil Marcus (1989) describes punk as remaining “suspended in time” (p. 2), an unfinished nihilistic revolution. And just as punk has a dubious relationship with Dada and the Situationist International, so does Marclay. Guy Debord‘s first book, Mémoires (1959), was bound in sandpaper to wreck the books filed next to it on the shelf. Noise-punk band White‘s “Life on the Ranch of Elizabeth Clare Prophet” 7″ record (1996) came bound in a self-destructive sandpaper sleeve. Christian Marclay released Record Without a Cover (1985/1999), which is just what its name implies, with the same thought in mind: This record will sound different every time you play it. Its slow decay will become a part of its performance. Leaving the record unsleeved and unprotected was an act of creative destruction.

“The loss of control in music is actually what interests me the most,” Marclay tells Russell Ferguson (Criqui, 2014), “The struggle between control and loss of control is so much the core of improvised music. Many artists have been interested in that threshold between determinacy and indeterminacy, and not just John Cage, but also Duchamp, Pollock, Burroughs, and others” (p. 76).

The exploration of the land between those lines now belongs to Christian Marclay.


Here’s Marclay live on the October 29, 1989 episode of the short-lived music television show Night Music:



Benjamin, Walter. (1999). The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Belknap Press.

Block, Ursula & Glasmeier, Michael. (1989). Broken Music: Artists’ Recordworks. Berlin, Germany: Berliner Kunstlerprogramm des DAAD.

Criqui, Jean-Pierre. (2014). On & By Christian Marclay. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Debord, Guy. (1959). Mémoires. France: Allia.

Gordon, Kim. (2005). Interview with Christian Marclay. In Christian Marclay (pp. 6-21). New York: Phaidon Press.

Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 4.

Szendy, Peter. (2007). Christian Marclay on the Phone. In RE:Play. Zurich: jrp/ringier.

Szendy, Peter. (2000). Le son en Image. L’Ecoute. Paris: Ircam/L’Harmattan.

Interfaces of the Word

Designer James Macanufo once said that if paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Paper, inscribed with writing and then with printing, enabled recorded history (Ong, 1977). Media theorist Friedrich Kittler (1990) wrote that print held a “monopoly on the storage of serial data” (p.245). Even as writing represents a locking down of knowledge, one of “sequestration, interposition, diaeresis or division, alienation, and closed fields or systems” (Ong, 1977, p. 305), Walter Ong points out that it also represents liberation, a system of access where none existed before. After all, we only write things down in order to enable the possibility of referring to them later.

@mathpunk People would make fun of you if you were working on software for communicating with the dead even though that’s half the purpose of writing. [Tweeted, November 1, 2014]

Paper Knowledge“Written genres,” Lisa Gitelman writes in her latest book, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Duke University Press, 2014), “depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for. To wit, documents are for knowing-showing” (p. 2). This “knowing-showing” is the liberation aspect of writing and printing, the enabling of access. She continues, “[J]ob printers facilitate or ensure the pure exchange function. That is, they ensure value that exists in and only because of exchange, exchangeability, and circulation” (p. 48).

“Digital documents… have no edges” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17). A “document” in digital space is only metaphorically so. Every form of media is the same at the digital level. Just as genres of writing emerge from discursive fields according to the shared knowledge of readers, “the ways they have been internalized by members of a shared culture” (Gitelman, 2014, p. 17), digital documents are arranged in recognizable forms on the screen. The underlying mechanisms doing the arranging remain largely hidden from us as users, what Alex Galloway (2013) calls “the interface effect” (passim). It’s kind of like using genre as a way to parse massive amounts of text, as a different way to organize and understand writing.

Comparative Textual MediaGitelman also rightfully makes an appearance in Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, further arguing the importance of job printing and helping define and redefine the fraught term “print culture.” Other pieces include ones by Matthew Kirschenbaum, Johanna Drucker, Jessica Brantley, and an excellent, contextualizing introduction by the editors. In her chapter, Rita Raley outlines what she calls “TXTual Practice,” describing screen-based, “born-digital” works as unstable, “not texts but text effects” (p. 20). Her essay moves away from viewing the digital document and other such contrivances as metaphors and toward employing Galloway’s interface effect. Galloway’s view casts the old argument of interfaces becoming transparent and “getting out of the way” in a bright and harsh new light, writing that their “operability engenders inoperability” (p. 25).

Reading Writing InterfacesLori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) takes on the “invisible, imperceptible, inoperable” interface, starting with ubiquitous computing. Once our devices obsolesce into general use, “those transparent devices that achieve more the less they do” (Galloway, 2013, p. 25), they escape everyday criticism. The interface stuff hides in those edges that aren’t really there. The words I write now float and flicker on a screen in a conceptual space I barely understand. Emerson cites the mass seduction of the Macintosh computer interface and the activist digital media poetics that critique that seduction. Her media archeological approach unearths the hidden mechanisms of reading and writing and the ways we negotiate screen- and print-based texts. It’s no surprise that Reading Writing Interfaces is one of the better recent books on these issues.

Type on ScreenLike Judith Donath’s The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014), edited by Ellen Lupton, takes a designer’s tack on these issues. Though it’s a guide rather than a scholarly study, the book covers contrivances and conventions like type sizes, fonts, grids, scrolls, spines, wireframes, wayfinding, laundry lines, and designing the written word for different screens, as well as case studies of each. It’s an excellent way to frame one’s thinking on all of the above for critique or the classroom. Or both.

If paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Would anyone say the same for the screen?


Emerson, Lori. (2014). Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Galloway, Alexander R. (2013). The Interface Effect. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Raley, Rita. (2013). TXTual Practice. In, N. Katerine Hayles & Jessica Pressman (Eds.), Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (pp. 183-197). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kittler, Friedrich A. (1990). Discourse Networks: 1800/1900. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lupton, Ellen (Ed.) (2014). Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Ong, Walter J. (1977). Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.