Anarchival materiality

From 2016-2019 I was artist-in-residence in Kate Hennessy’s Making Culture Lab Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT). While there I began looking at the role of the anarchival materiality within archives. Kate and I have worked together since 2009 as part of Ethnographic Terminalia, a collective that curates at the intersection of art and anthropology. One focus of the collective has been on the shared interest in archives among anthropologists and artists, curating exhibitions and workshops to address the role of archives in knowledge production.

Image showing exhibition Fugitives in the Archive. Photograph By Rachel Topham
Fugitives in the Archive Exhibition 2018. Photograph by Rachel Topham
Fugitives in the Archive exhibition by Trudi Lynn Smith and Kate Hennessy. Photograph by Rachel Topham

Fugitives in the Archive Exhibition 2018. Photograph by Rachel Topham

See more images from our exhibition at the Royal BC Museum here

The starting point for this project emerged while Kate and I were together looking at a set of drawings in the Chicago Field Museum Archives in 2013. Collected for the World’s Fair in 1893, we observed that the oil pastel drawings, given time and archival storage, made marks through the drawings, seeping and imprinting onto the backs of papers. The residue was a testament to the liveliness of materials and of archives. These new material traces become their own archive – rather than a narrative history, they become a story of how materials interact. They provide a starting point to think about the anarchival within archives.

Archives are generally perceived as arrested in time, imagined as latent instrumental objects to reveal the past. However, we share an interest in questions about the anarchival properties of archives. That is, how do archival documents, imagined as permanent, static objects, actually change over time and make new marks? While archival ordering seeks to makes sense and reiterate dominant and stable narratives of nation states, how do new material traces suggest that archives are vibrant matter, what political theorist Jane Bennett (2010) names as that capacity of things to act as forces? How are archives are not only storehouses of the past but living breathing generative matter? In what way do they emerge, and what do they look like? How are archives infused with anarchic energy, and with disorder? To consider the vitality of matter in archives is to articulate how archives are not outside of us, not of the past or for the future, but how they run alongside and in relationship with humans. To advocate for anarchival materiality is to help to give space to consider more attentive encounters between humans and the more than human world. It is also a way to begin to explore archives not as “perfection” of ordering and preservation, but as an ongoing mediated realm.

In this research, we explore the material agency of more than human archives to inquire into how anarchival properties of archives reveal “sensuous enchantment” (Bennett 2010) between humans and their worlds. How might the role of chemical reactions and social relations within archives reveal the meanings of archives?

We consider how chemical reactions and residue – often the domain of archival conservators – become important to visual anthropology and media archaeology. This is arts based research practice, that begins by documenting the residue of archives, found on the back of drawings and other materials. This provides a basis to construct alternate approaches to emphasize both the material and discursive manifestations of culture (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011). Using photography, itself a technology historically and structurally tied to archives, we document the transfer of materials from one form and shape to another. As archives are understood as contained spaces of order, how does the excess of the archive – what is being generated out of the original document by nonhuman powers — show us about the role of materiality as an ongoing matter for inquiry? How can we give the force of materials more due? (cf. Bennett 2010).


Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter. Duke University Press. 2010.

Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka. Media Archaeology. UC Press. 2011

A film still from To the Burning World a film by Trudi Lynn Smth and Kate Hennessy
A film still from To the Burning World by Trudi Lynn Smith and Kate Hennessy

Recent publications from our work:

Smith, T. and Hennessy, K. (2020)
Anarchival Materiality in Film Archives: Toward an Anthropology of the Multimodal. Visual Anthropology Review. PDF here:

Hennessy, K. and Smith, T. (2018)
Fugitives: Anarchival Materiality in Archives.
PUBLIC 57 (Archive/Counter-Archives): 128-144. Edited by Susan Lord and Janine Marchessault.

Smith, T., and Hennessy, K. (2018).
Fugitives: Anarchival Materiality in the Archive [Photo Essay].
Geist (Spring, 2018). Pp. 48-54.

Smith, T. and Hennessy, K. (2018).
Fugitives. Whats in Sight (Summer 2018). Published by the Royal British Columbia Museum. Pp. 28.

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