“Ordinary life is receiving powerful impulses from a new source. Where thirty years ago architects found in the field of the popular arts techniques and formal stimuli, today we are being edged out of our traditional role by the new phenomenon of the popular arts advertising,” wrote Alison and Peter Smithson in their classic 1956 essay, “But Today We Collect Ads.” For these architects teetering on the edge of modernism it was ephemera—”the piece of paper blowing about the street, the throw-away object and the pop-package”—that was redefining the everyday.
So, if ads were the Smithson’s obsession, their touchstone for discourse, what should we hoard today? Some might suggest the smart phone or iPad-kindle-like reader as the objet du monde to represent our networked condition or the long filaments and hubs that cable and connect. But given the spate of books, exhibitions, Tumblrs, and websites that document and compile material appearing within the discipline and beyond, I suggest that the archive itself has become not a mode of collection, but the thing in itself to be collected.
Recently, a copy of Clip Stamp Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X–197X arrived on my doorstep. And with doorstop-like proportions it not only documents the exhibition of the same name, but also features essays, dozens of interviews, and lovingly reproduced full-color editions of a number of the wee periodicals. The only book that exceeds it in girth on my shelf is the similarly collective Storefront Newsprints 1982–2009 (pages: 1,000, volumes: 2, weight: 7 pounds) that republishes in book form nearly three decades worth of Storefront for Art and Architecture’s printed matter. Both books are beautiful assemblies chock full of primary source gems. Who can resist paging through a facsimile of the utopian-minded Fortoromanz? Or the handdrawn Street Farmer, One from September 1971? This “manual of alternative urbanism” lights on the kinds of urban agricultural and interventionist tactics that are cropping up within contemporary practice.
But what does the desire to not only revisit, but to collect and/or reprint ephemera tell us about our condition? Is this urge to collect an outgrowth of the web’s ability to publicly aggregate material or a more fetishized need for private ownership of what had been previously been kept hidden in institutions? Indeed, a section of Clip Stamp Fold is oxymoronically entitled “Exhibition as Archive.” (Full disclosure: My own recent curatorial efforts, A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production, which brings together complete runs of subcultural architecture publications from the 1990s, 2000s and onward, and Newsstand, which focuses on the newsprint format as a method of architecture and design discourse, also follow this tendency.)
“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his oft-quoted “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” giving a kind of credence to the irrationality of hoarding. But in “Against Print,” a recent post on Kazys Varnelis’ blog, he takes an opposing view, writing: “Let’s face it, a personal library is the academic’s version of an SUV. It’s handy for when you need it, but it’s big and unwieldy, a poor choice when it comes to ecology and not a defensible option in a world of limits except for those who really, truly need them.”
Varnelis’ gripe rang especially true when the 700-page Clip Stamp Fold slipped from my fingers as I was moving it from shelf to desk, crashing with a resounding thud on my parquet floor. So, perhaps the less-weighty option is to move to the digital. But even online we find data caches encrypted with Benjamin’s passionate chaos. Archi-Zines, has hopes of becoming an exhibition, but for now lives as an online collection, presenting photographs of “international fanzines, pamphlets and journals from 2000 onwards that provide an alternative discourse to the established architectural press.” Curated by Elias Redstone, the collection is ever-growing and has a kind of irrational sensibility, similar to that of a record collector obsessed with both top 40-hits and B-side rarities.
Prone to turn a blind eye to a little pirating, the online archive Aaaaarg.org positions itself as free-sharing site for digital copies of critical theory and philosophy books. However, the crowdsourced requests and announcements of new PDFs that are broadcast over Twitter and Facebook sound like the cries of longing grad students and academics. And over at Publiccollectors.org, Marc Fischer administers a lightly organized collection of downloadable content. The material varies widely and takes pleasure in finding the obscure, the outtakes, and the outliers. These range from “A Collection of Live Banter From the Band Fugazi” to out of print books such as the 1974 How To Build Your Own Living Structures.
In his last Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker summed up the phenomenon of online projects that present arty collections of stuff—pine cones, pencils, spools of thread—that seem to delight in the representation of the multiple without the need for the physical ownership. Of them he writes, “It is everything we love about stuff—but without the stuff. In a reversal of the desire to have your cake and eat it too, we can consume these lovely objects and not-have them, too. In recent years, we have added a form of vicarious possession to our consumption: there is so much covetable material to drool over online that it is no longer possible, let alone necessary, to imagine owning a tenth of it.”
However, both Aaaarg and Public Collectors are set up for downloadable PDF consumption. Just about any piece of reference is just a click away so that you can not only “own” and add to your private collection (replacing spines with long file names), but also read these publications on any device of your choosing—to skim, search, and otherwise algorithmically mine for info. Or maybe not to read. Today we collect collections, turning archives into totems of hope to someday make sense out of ephemeral production.