I am not a zombie

An exploration of the “living archive” as a conceptual landscape

Sarma May 2014English

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Contextual note
This essay is a reworked version of a lecture delivered in December 2009 at the conference Archive/Practice at the Tanzarchiv in Leipzig. It is published here for the first time, awaiting a long overdue book publication.

Taken to the letter, the term “living archive” appears to me as a paradox, as two words that sit uncomfortably together. Isn’t a “living archive” a ghostly fantasy, or perhaps even a pathological state? To explore the paradoxical nature of the “living archive”, I propose to take the two words apart as far as possible and look closer into the double movement they then  produce. We could bring life to the archive, by having a human being interact with it – the narrative labour of a researcher, a historian or an artist, giving life to the archive by making it “speak”. Or we could impose the archive upon a human being and observe what then happens to life – here I am referring to embodied memories that make someone become a living archive, which could be either a vigorous condition or a burden. So, when the “living archive” starts to speak, we’ll have to prick up our ears and listen closely – it might happen to mutter: “I am not a zombie!”

Referring also to our presentation of the piece Anarchiv #1: I am not a zombie (together with Kattrin Deufert, Thomas Plischke and Marcus Steinweg) within the framework of this conference, Archive/Practice, I would like to speak from a position of practice. My aim is not so much to expose the source material and method of the working process, nor to explain the piece – which, since I am performing in it, I haven’t seen for myself. Rather I want to address some thoughts referring to the double movement of the “living archive” just described and to the relation between archive and choreography. Introducing some of the conceptual personaethat populate the conceptual landscape of Anarchiv #1: I am not a zombie, I’ll be drawn to the archive’s opaque aspects, to its inaccessibility. In contrast with a joyful re-enactment of history, we might thus discover artistic strategies that negotiate the limits of cultural intelligibility.


Bringing life to the archive

In the summer of 2007, invitations crossed. Driven by a desire to reflect upon seven years of collaboration as artist twins, deufert + plischke were planning the cycle Anarchiv, inviting others to engage in a creation departing from their body of work and the traces left of it in their archive. As a regular collaborator and dance critic familiar with their work – in a sense my watching experience made me a living archive myself – I was the first to take up the challenge. Preparing a book around the tropes that have guided my writing on dance over the years, I was equally curious to explore those further with artists I had a long-standing dialogue with – Anarchiv was the perfect occasion for making our interests meet.

Using the provisory title Je ne suis pas un cadavre exquis we wrote a subsidy application, in which deufert + plischke described the project: “We don’t think that we’ll be able to deal with our own archive all by ourselves, because we don’t have enough distance from the material and the themes. The archive is our blind spot, it eludes us as a monstrous ‘in-between’ between ourselves and our work. Moreover, we are at a point that we would like to look at the borders of our history as artist twins.”

Over the years deufert + plischke had  regarded their collaboration as “artist twins” as a continuous process of mutual witnessing, and their works as incidents punctuating this trajectory. But how does the work actually communicate outside of the bubble of the artist twins? In deufert + plischke’s directory trilogy (2003-06) several “scenes of address” are at work, gestures of reaching out towards a third, towards a listener or spectator: the audience are addressed via an imaginary “you” or are literally handed out little gifts. Even their working process of “reformulation” makes use of a structure of address via diaries and notebooks. Reflecting upon my position in this process as an outsider that allowed them to deal with the “archive as their blind spot”, I wrote to them in October 2007:

“In her Giving an account of oneself, Judith Butler insists upon the following question: what is the scene of address in which we can narrate ourselves? To whom do I address my account? (…) It makes somehow clear to me what is at stake in the Anarchiv project. The mutual witnessing that happens among the artist twins is translated to a certain extent into a series of works, and shared in the theatre or an art context. Yet, there is also the archive as a medium in between the act of witnessing and the translation: materials that have been touched, they are documents, so witnesses of something, yet they still have the status of a ‘rest’, of ‘excess’, of ‘waste’ maybe, as long as they don’t travel from the first scene of address (witnessing, especially among the artist twins), into a second scene of address (reformulation of the archive, in the theatre or an art context). In a way, Anarchiv is about creating scenes of address in which the archive can come to life – or not. Some materials will be revived, others will be buried. But to be suspended is the unmourned status of the archive as in-between zone, where documents reside as ‘undead’, as zombies... Thus ‘Je ne suis pas un cadavre exquis’ may be understood also in the sense of 'I am not a zombie'.”(1)

In July 2008 we brought our personal archives into the studio, which literally resulted in a pile of stuff on a table: films, books, performance texts, video registrations of performances, video works, photographs – source materials and evidence of creative processes as much as of pieces. What these materials actually manifested or referred to was a set of practices, concepts and tropes – sorting them out meant mapping out themes and issues. There were certain things we actually did not include to the work: such as notebooks from creation processes, the video registrations of deufert + plischke’s works, or my texts about them; even the performance texts were rather quickly put aside. Already after a few days it became clear that we were not interested in reviving or celebrating the past through the archive, but in exploring the themes and issues that kept us busy since a long time, and continued doing so, as an underpinning of our work. We headed immediately for the loose ends and open questions: what drove the process was memory and desire. Declaring things in the archive either dead or alive, was a process completely intuitive; our principle and practice of selection was making art, allowing us to transform information (once again) into meaning via experience.


The creation of Anarchiv #1: I am not a zombie involved a long and complex process of translation or “reformulation”(2) of the archive into a piece, which would provide a “scene of address” in the theatre. An important term that kept returning during the process is the “conceptual landscape”. It is a space of thought in which one can take a walk – not just any walk, but along certain pathways afforded by the particular concepts at work. In a way, a conceptual landscape is an extended version of a “conceptual scene”(3) (think of Plato’s cave) or the “conceptual personae”(4) discussed by Deleuze and Guattari as figures of thought: “The features of conceptual personae have relationships with the epoch or historical milieu in which they appear that only psychosocial types enable us to access.”(5) The idea that conceptual personae have concrete features is also interesting from a choreographic point of view: the embodiment and embeddedness of thought, its being situated in time and space, allows for taking philosophical athleticism out of an abstract or metaphorical space, literalizing it and testing it. Not only are concepts brought to speak, it is through conceptual personae that the unknown aspects of a (philosophical) problem can be addressed.(6) We could now imagine the living archive of Anarchiv #1: I am not a zombie to be a conceptual landscape with particular spatial, physical and dynamic features, populated by conceptual personae.

Revisiting the dossier that prefigured the project, it is helpful to reread Michel Foucault’s definition of the archive. Foucault connects it with a “conceptual field” that “defines a limited space of communication” and is particularly interested in the conditions of emergence, including their historical contingency, of such a formation of discursive practices. “The archive is first the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.”(7) The description of the archive will always be fragmentary, just as one cannot describe one’s own archive – “it is that which, outside ourselves, delimits us.” And Foucault continues: “its threshold of existence is established by the discontinuity that separates us from what we can no longer say, and from that which falls outside our discursive practice; it begins with the outside of our own language; its locus is the gap between our own discursive practices.”(8)Thus the archive’s description entails a sense of difference – therefore, I would suggest to continue our choreography with a pause and to linger on that very threshold.


Bringing the archive to life

By now, the piece Anarchiv #1: I am not a zombie is a small archive in itself, consisting of a choreography, a set design, a soundtrack and costumes, twenty-odd notebooks with scores – and carried by four people and the memories of spectators. Several of its performances have also been registered on video, a documentation we sometimes use for quickly revisiting details after long breaks in the touring schedule. Yet, contrary to the common habit of videotaping dance performances for archival reasons, these video documents don’t contain substantial information about the concepts, the choreography or the delivery of the piece. Moreover, in order to circumvent the power of visual regimes within dance and the creation of imaginary bodies, we filtered, developed and choreographed all our materials through a shared method and practice of “reformulation” through writing – not through improvisation or by using video. In that respect, I think it is important to question the authority often allotted to video documents in discussions about archiving dance. Anarchiv #1: I am not a zombie consists of five superposed conceptual landscapes (structured around five themes: anatomy/vampirology, abyssology, tattoo, memory, and knitting), actualized through scenography, text and sound, but foremost through five choreographic walks, performed on stage.

In this process, the question of the “living archive” remained a blind spot, burden or “monstrous in-between”, bound to a rather amorphous collection of events and things that resists being transformed into meaning (experience, memory, history). And yet, some conceptual personae we encountered during the creation of Anarchiv #1 prompted us in unexpected directions. Perhaps the “zombie” indicates to us some aspects of what they have in common: due to its (bodily) condition the zombie has a problematic relationship with memory. It is placed outside the realm of cultural and social intelligibility and therefore faces a gap between its embodied personal history and a collective history. The zombie brings up issues of identity and subjectification as it looks for a scene of address, a space for self-narration as living archive, in order to move beyond its pathological state or shed its burden – just like we need the presence of others and a public space to deal with our blind spots, with the fact that the knowledge and experience stored in our minds and bodies will never be fully accessible to ourselves. Could the zombie and related figures be thought of as a conceptual personae that develop artistic strategies to that end?


Into the conceptual landscape

In the working process of Anarchiv #1, another figure became important: the vampire, which has always too much and at the same time not enough history, being at home in two discursive formations – or not quite. As Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) defines it: “The amphibious existence of the vampire is sustained by daily renewed slumber in the grave.”(9) Perhaps the vampire remains at the other side of the threshold – which makes it a tragic figure, but also a liminal one that has an unexpected access to our archive, pointing out our difference. Vampires are manifold; their mobility within our world is limited and following different strategies. Sometimes the “mainstreaming” vampire is seeking to inhibit its appetite for blood and disappear among humans, such as Peina in Abel Ferrara’s film The Addiction (1995) or Bill Compton in the TV series True Blood (2008). And it is interesting that the latter’s first-hand accounts of slavery and the civil war, so experiences based in his old age as a traditional access to history, grant him a place within present-day American society.

A vampire always needs an invitation to cross the threshold and enter someone’s home.  That stresses not only the limitations of “mainstreaming” as an artistic strategy, but also the failure of the archive’s description – which is Foucault’s threshold. The gesture of invitation is a paradoxcial one that recalls the discontinuity of the archive as an alternative beginning. It is the first gesture of the Anarchiv: a choreography that acknowledges the impossibility to bring the other side to life or speech. A scene both in the novel (2004) and the film Let the Right One In (2008), shows exactly this one movement, not quite shared between the man Håkan and the child vampire Eli: “Come in, my beloved, come in. But the window was locked and even if it had been open his lips could not form the words that would allow Eli to enter the room. He could perhaps make a gesture that meant the same things, but he had never really understood all that. Can I?”(10)


The philosopher Marcus Steinweg proposes a definition of art as an “assertion of form”,  a resistance against established realities, in order to point out its exterior. Thus Steinweg also lingers on a threshold, symbol for the artwork’s “geometrization of the incommensurable”, site of a “compulsorily failed communication”: “this threshold between the order of facts and the space of a radical disorder which is the dimension of the truth of instituted and consolidated realities. The threshold and thus the art work (…) open up to reality in its status of incommensurability. (…) The opening up to the real means touching the unknown of this not-knowing, a touching of truth insofar as truth is the name of the inconsistency of the space of consistency which we call reality. (…) A work (…) opens itself to the horrifying truth that reality is already the real, that is, that every consistency, every certainty, every fact hovers above the abyss of an inconsistency. The work itself hovers. It articulates itself as a construction held above this abyss.”(11)

For looking into this choreography of hovering above the abyss, let us introduce another conceptual persona, well-versed in the art of “abyssology”: the coyote in Chuck Jones’ animation series Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. While at a first glance he appears as a figure with a total lack of memory, consumed by an excessive life in the here and now as he is driven by primary desires such as eating, the coyote’s lack of history is perhaps more philosophical in nature. In his Sisyphus-like attempts to construct devices that keep him hover and prevent him from falling into the abyss, the coyote epitomizes the art work’s relentless failure. He knows that the originary leap into the abyss is an ontological joke and it performs time and again eloquent answers to the question: where are we when we make art?

The episode Soup or Sonic (1980) opens with a “conceptual scene” that reads like a self-reflexive choreography of hovering. Chasing the road runner, the coyote gets engulfed by a dust cloud that transports him above an abyss. A question mark appears. The coyote opens a window and looks down into the unfathomable depths. He looks out towards the spectator, his gaze flushed with anxiety, to then quickly close the window again. When the cloud dissolves, the coyote is left to hold on to the question mark, which he transforms into an exclamation mark, producing an unexpected gesture of recognition. Facing both the impossible and the spectator, he goes down into the abyss and crashes with a loud thwack, leaving us to acknowledge that “horrifying truth that reality is already the real.”(12) Then the coyote starts over again. And again. He invites us to share an artistic practice that fails to get hold of its own history in its attempts to touch the incommensurable.


During the performance of Anarchiv #1 the coyote becomes audible. When the cartoon sounds have disappeared into the distance, a loud smack has tuned our attention to the nearly inaudible breath of the abyss. Yet there are also other voices to be heard, words that hover and reverberate across the theatre space, like ghostly remnants of a realm out of reach, swallowed by noise or silence. “Up here my grey matter is folded and imprinted with synaptic impulses, sense connections, traces of experience. They are the neurograms setting signals for alarm and action, withdrawal and yearning. They set and unsettle… Always already brainwashed, yes… Means nothing to me… No old secrets, no new secrets… The stench of fear… Local ties and melancholy… If you don’t have tattoos you don’t exist… There are fingerprints all over the place. A crime scene…”

These voices may remind us of Peter Sloterdijk’s reflections on the “tattooed life” where he contrasts art with a “preliterary text of life”. It is in learning to speak that one gains distance and freedom from the signs and inscriptions that one is, “until they are no longer recognizable”, so that a world and a realm of potentiality open up.(13) Yet among the other voices we also hear Nikolai, the double agent in David Cronenberg’s film Eastern Promises (2007), who literally overwrites and erases his personal history by tattooing the Russian mafia’s lexicon onto his body. Not the worldly eloquence of free speech but criminal codes of secrecy grant Nikolai a new life with the brotherhood of the Vory v Zakone. Nikolai is a conceptual persona that silences his genealogy and deliberately turns part of his body into a mute archive.

Nikolai’s strategy offers a rather uncanny model of subjectification through art, and that is precisely what makes him an interesting figure. In contrast with literature, dance and choreography seldom revolve around an “antipathetic” conceptual persona, that even in its otherness doesn’t allow for identification. In the creation process of Anarchiv #1: I am not a zombie, this figure has been crucial to make us aware of the strictness of conceptual personae and landscapes. They allow for certain trajectories of thought and action, but these don’t necessarily coincide with one’s own convictions or poetics, might even put them to the test. Literally mapping out the conceptual landscape of the “tattoo” notebooks in space, as if it were one large, tattooed body spread out on the dance floor, was a first step towards choreographing the Anarchiv’s heterogeneity.


“But anyway – that was the situation. The first couple of days were pure hell. The next couple totally sucked. Things got a little better after a week. And at ten days, well, the worst of it seemed to be over, the crisis had passed. I might walk around like a haunted zombie for the rest of my life, but at least I would have a life.”(14) Until shortly after all the memories and the crisis are brought back to Alex, the skating teenager in Gus Van Sant’s film Paranoid Park (2007), upon seeing a picture presented by a police officer. The photograph of a body cut in two halves epitomizes the drama at work in Alex’ life, just like the event of witnessing (again) formally divides the film. In his adolescent world everyone tries to stay cool and to live up to the unequivocal self-image of one's projections. In this context Alex experiences the extreme reality of trauma and discovers a decentred subjectivity that puts the banal reality of “teachers, break-ups, girlfriends,…” into a dark perspective. Alex’ body is a living archive, hosting the memory of a confrontation with “just all the stuff in general… right out there… like outside… there is like different levels of stuff”.

As a conceptual persona, Alex inhabits a space of trauma, facing both the impossibility to remember and to forget. In order to remember, to forget and hence to relieve himself from his burden, Alex seeks refuge in writing – he buries his secret in a diary, places it in a book outside of himself to eventually burn it. Although the possibility of forgetting makes the “living archive” a bearable place, forgetting is not only a capacity which enables us “to live, to act, to work, and to remember”. Maurice Blanchot reminds us that “the possibility that is forgetting is a slipping outside of possibility. At the same time as we make use of forgetting as a power, the capacity to forget turns us over to a forgetting without power, to the movement of that which slips and steals away: detour itself.”(15)

Equally stricken by trauma is Dennis Clegg, protagonist of Patrick McGrath’s novel Spider (1990) and David Cronenberg’s eponymous film (2002). He also seeks to revisit and reconstruct the events through writing, yet his schizophrenia locks him into his own world. The novel reads like a first-person account of clinical schizophrenia, in which Clegg doesn’t find relief: “It’s occurred to me more than once that I am dead – the presence in my body of the worm and the spiders would seem to suggest this, the withering of my vital organs, the smell of rot and decay that seeps continuously from my rind now – aren’t these signs of death? When did it happen? (…) I’ve just been burning down, smoldering to ash and dust inside myself while preserving merely the outward motions, the jerky gestures and postures of life.”(16)

Scribbling away in his notebook, Clegg’s writings verge on the illegible, they are recognizable as a language yet only accessible to himself – his schizophrenia pushes him time and again into a realm of idiosyncrasy. In Cronenberg’s film, where Clegg doesn’t find relief either, one may rediscover him too as a conceptual persona: Spider makes art out of his existential idiosyncrasy, his condition of being locked into his own world, his being a living archive. In his book The Artist as Monster, William Beard observes that Spider is “a nightmare vision of an artist figure so much the outsider, so true to his own intensely personal inner vision, that he has become a pathetic creature mumbling to himself and writing in a crazed script that no-one else can understand.”(17) Collecting objects in a sock, weaving webs with discarded thread, frenetically jotting in his notebook: are these activities only the symptoms of Spider’s madness? Perhaps these peculiar artistic practices also yield signs of a different discursive formation or living archive, as a series of thresholds placed right into our world to reveal our difference.



(1) On Judith Butler’s “scene of address”, see Giving an Account of Oneself, New York 2005 , pp. 9-40. For an elaboration of Butler in relation to the work of deufert+plischke, see Jeroen Peeters: How can you knit your own private political body? On deufert + plischke’s directory project, in Jenn Joy and André Lepecki (eds.): Planes of Composition: Dance, Theory, and the Global, London/New York/Calcutta 2009, pp. 209-232.

(2) On the method of “reformulation”, see Kattrin Deufert, Sandra Noeth, Thomas Plischke (eds.): Monstrum. A book on Reportable Portraits, Hamburg 2009.

(3) In relation to dance history and re-enactment, André Lepecki’s discussion of Thoinot Arbeau’s dance manual Orchesographie (1589) is particularly interesting: not the score is what he analyzes, but the physical and spatial features of its conceptual scene, such as it also appears in recent works of Bruce Nauman, Xavier Le Roy and Juan Dominguez. See André Lepecki: Exhausting Dance. Performance and the politics of movement, New York/London 2006, pp. 19-44.

(4) In relation to memory, a famous conceptual persona in literature is Borges’ Funes the memorious. But one can also think of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym Bernardo Soares, Maurice Blanchot’s reflections upon Orpheus, or mythological figures such as Sisyphus or Europe – all of which play a role in deufert + plischke’s work. See Peeters, op. cit., and Jeroen Peeters: Restless portraits. On deufert + plischke’s reportable portraits, in: Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 23 no. 1 (2008), pp. 24-29.

(5) Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: What Is Philosophy?, New York 1994, p. 70.

(6) Ibid. p. 81.

(7) Michel Foucault: The Archeology of Knowledge, New York 1972, p. 129.

(8) Ibid. p. 130-131.

(9) Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: Carmilla, Edinburgh 2003, p. 100.

(10) John Ajvide Lindqvist: Let the right one in, London 2007, p. 285.

(11) Marcus Steinweg: Definition of art, in: Inaesthetik, no. 0 (June 2008), pp. 121-5.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Cf. Peter Sloterdijk: Zur Welt kommen – Zur Sprache kommen, Frankfurt1988, pp. 15-19.

(14) Blake Nelson: Paranoid Park, New York 2006, p. 86.

(15) Maurice Blanchot: The Infinite Conversation, Minneapolis/London 1993, p. 195.

(16) Patrick McGrath: Spider, New York 1990, pp. 211-212.

(17) William Beard: The Artist as Monster. The Cinema of David Cronenberg, Toronto 2006, p. 492.