The Big Archive

The Big Archive

Art From Bureaucracy

By Sven Spieker

The archive as a crucible of twentieth-century modernism and key for understanding contemporary art.





The archive as a crucible of twentieth-century modernism and key for understanding contemporary art.

The typewriter, the card index, and the filing cabinet: these are technologies and modalities of the archive. To the bureaucrat, archives contain little more than garbage, paperwork no longer needed; to the historian, on the other hand, the archive's content stands as a quasi-objective correlative of the “living” past. Twentieth-century art made use of the archive in a variety of ways—from what Spieker calls Marcel Duchamp's “anemic archive” of readymades and El Lissitzky's Demonstration Rooms to the compilations of photographs made by such postwar artists as Susan Hiller and Gerhard Richter. In The Big Archive, Sven Spieker investigates the archive—as both bureaucratic institution and index of evolving attitudes toward contingent time in science and art—and finds it to be a crucible of twentieth-century modernism.

Dadaists, constructivists, and Surrealists favored discontinuous, nonlinear archives that resisted hermeneutic reading and ordered presentation. Spieker argues that the use of archives by such contemporary artists as Hiller, Richter, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Walid Raad, and Boris Mikhailov responds to and continues this attack on the nineteenth-century archive and its objectification of the historical process.

Spieker considers archivally driven art in relation to changing media technologies—the typewriter, the telephone, the telegraph, film. And he connects the archive to a particularly modern visuality, showing that the avant-garde used the archive as something of a laboratory for experimental inquiries into the nature of vision and its relation to time. The Big Archive offers us the first critical monograph on an overarching motif in twentieth-century art.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262195706 240 pp. | 6.5 in x 9 in 78 b&w illus.


$24.95 T ISBN: 9780262533577 240 pp. | 6.5 in x 9 in 78 b&w illus.


  • The Big Archive is a wonderfully erudite study of the avant-garde's anti-archival strategies that aim to subvert the structure and function of its nineteenth-century 'hybrid institution.' Spieker's arguments are often beguilingly clever, at times devilishly so.

    Craig Leonard

    Prefix Photo


  • In this diligent and engaging study, Sven Spieker charts the hidden dimensions of the archive as both depository of actual material and the organizing fantasy and principle underwriting many of the West's bureaucratic and artistic practices. Get lost in this book and emerge from it triumphantly, having gleaned from it a host of otherwise unavailable and probing insights into the connections between our age's obsession with memory, its institutions, and modernist art.

    Ulrich Baer

    Professor of Comparative and German Literature at New York University, author of Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (MIT Press) and editor of 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11

  • The Big Archive features an impressive cast of characters: Sigmund Freud, Marchel Duchamp, Alexandr Rodchenko, Andy Warhol, Sophie Calle—all masterfully catalogued and filed into Sven Spieker's meta-archival project. This original and carefully crafted book reveals the extent to which modernity produced and was produced by archival technologies ranging from Wunderblocks to typewriters, from boites-en-valise to filing cabinets. Required reading for scholars working in the fields of psychoanalysis, media theory, and conceptual art.

    Ruben Gallo

    Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, Princeton University

  • This well informed and densely written book succeeds in transforming our notion of archive—from a rationally organized space in which monotonous, boring collections of documents are kept, to a place full of dark mysteries, hidden chaos and unexpected adventures. This non-fictional version of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is indispensable reading for artists and scholars.

    Boris Groys

    Professor of Philosophy and Art Theory at the Academy for Design in Karlsruhe, Germany, Global Professor at New York University, and author of Art Power


  • Winner, Scholarly Illustrated Category, 2009 AAUP Book, Journal, and Jacket Show