4. Hal Foster (2004) “An Archival Impulse”

A brief note on the archive as a theme in contemporary art and an essay that I found useful reading in thinking around uses of Archives in artistic practice and how archives can provide inspiration for new work.

The art historian Hal Foster wrote an Essay in 2004 An Archival Impulse   considering  an practice he described as ‘an idiosyncratic probing into particular figures, objects, and events in modern art, philosophy and history’  (2004:03).  He described this as hardly new being active in both pre and post-war (WWII) and with a distinct character that could be considered a tendency in its own rightl How does it manifest? According to Foster

  • Archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present
  • They elaborate on the found image, object, and text
  • They favour the installation format to do so, frequently using its non-hierarchical spatiality to advantage.
  • They use familiar sources, drawn from the archives of mass culture, to ensure a legibility that can then be disturbed or detourné;, but they can be obscure, retrieved in a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.

In considering ‘obscure’ sources Foster notes that some of these archival samplings pushed postmodernist ‘complications’ of originality and authorship to an extreme and can be concerned more with an “anarchival impulse” – being drawn to obscure traces, ‘unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects’ that might offer points of departure again.

He also considers this work ‘archival’ as it not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well and in a way that ‘underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private. This type of art also often uses a ‘quasi-archival’ logic to arrange materials and presents them in a similar architecture (Erik Kessel’s sculpture of photo albums in Arles comes very much to mind here as does Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and Joan Fontcuberta’s exhibition of curiosities.)

Foster comments that archival art is rarely cynical in its intent, but wanting to engage the viewer and he provides interesting examples, including the work of Thomas Hirschhorn    (one of whose pieces was inspired by the spontaneous shrine produced at the spot in Paris where Princess Diana died) and Tacita Dean who based one of her short films Girl Stowaway (1994)  on a single photograph – of an Australian girl who, in 1928 stowed away on a ship bound for England. That one photograph set Dean off on her own journey through time, place and history and is mentioned here in an interview with Simon Schama. Foster writes of Dean “In a sense her archival work is an allegory of archival work – as sometimes melancholic, often vertiginous, always incomplete” (2004:12) and I find this idea so appealing.

Returning to archival art and forming new connections with archival material, Foster views this as not only a will to collate traces of the past to see what might remain for the present but also an assumption that new orders of affective association may be proposed from working through anomic fragmentation[i].  He does acknowledge that sometimes this will to connect can’ betray a hint of paranoia’, projecting meaning where there may be none, that perhaps archival art may emerge from some sense of a failure of cultural memory.  Having written thought I suddenly thought again of Erik Kessels and the photo albums – private archives disposed of as no longer important. However, at the end of the essay (2004:22) Foster speculates that  perhaps this paranoid dimension is the other side of its utopian ambition, a desire  – ‘to transform the no-place of the archive into the no-place of a utopia’.

I had another thought about this impulse towards ‘obscure’ sources, that perhaps this is connected with our urge to complete in terms of the Gestalt process – to join that which is apparently unconnected and create a whole – in this case, something creative and new.



[i] I think this process is evoked very well in a Tate paper http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/09/tangentially-the-archive-and-the-bathroom discussing the role of the archive in artistic process through the work of Lucy Gunning  – the Archive, The Event and its Architecture.



Foster, H (2004) An Archival Impulse in OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3-22 MIT Press

(Accessed 11 October 2016)







  1. Excellent post, Catherine. I wonder what effect the digital takeover will have on this type of art, and also whether some of the current interest in it springs from the realisation that we need to preserve some of the raw materials from the past. The move to digital makes us aware of the value of retaining old records for future generations.


    1. It’s concerning as so much in archives is being digitised. I’ve been enjoying reading about the museums etc that open their archives to artists, who then respond to what they find in an amazing variety of ways. Even the Freud Museum does it – from what I remember Sophie Calle and Matt Collishaw, which reminds me to check the work they produced. More to follow.


  2. Interesting – I never really thought of archive as interesting until recently. Why would anyone want to look at old photographs of someone we never knew, I wondered. But then you could ask why would anyone want to look at any photographs at all – I guess because they are still absolutely fascinating, little still moments of a real time/thing/event.


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