Ben Duvall and the Anti-Archive
On January 1st, 2017, New York-based artist and designer Ben DuVall relaunched his personal website as an experiment—inverting the typical utility of an artist or designer’s site as an archive of past work and remaking it as an “anti-archive.” Gone was Ben’s personal portfolio and in its place was something much more spare and direct. Removed from the constraints of a market-based approach to design or art, the space was reconfigured so that it could become a kind of performance in its own right.
Practically, Ben’s new site is a frame for one piece of content that changes daily. When the 24 hours is up, the piece is removed and can only be accessed from “the Anti-Archive custodian.” All work must be uploaded on the day that it is live on the site so the content stays firmly anchored in the present—charting somewhat in real time the currents of Ben’s creative output. This setup encourages the viewer to focus on the content that is directly in front of them while at the same time inviting them to forget the earlier work that preceded it.
What follows is a discussion with Ben about the nature of this project and the issues surrounding its making. Please excuse any shift in tone to 'interviewer.' Though I count Ben as a good friend, it's hard not to slip into a pseudo-journalistic style, especially for someone not trained in the art. Only true journalists and savants seem to escape it—one by going through it and the other by completely bypassing it.
It's kind of hard to believe that you've been running (operating?) your site as an anti-archive for almost half a year now—that's a lot of unarchived content. How are you feeling about the project at this point in its process?
Yeah, today is day 142, so about a month away from half a year. It's funny that you mention time, because so much of the work has ended up dealing with time, somewhat independently from the anti-archive concept. I've become really fascinated with video timecodes and timestamps, which arose from some work I was doing with film subtitles, but now those have branched out into some drawings and artist books. So it's something that I'm thinking about a lot, the pretty obvious references that pop into my head a lot are On Kawara and Christian Marclay, Kawara from the art-as-life standpoint and Marclay from his mining found material in the service of some kind of overwhelming or meditative (sublime?) effect.
As far as success or failure of the project, I think like anything I'm split. It's a success to the extent that I've carried it out and uploaded something every day, and so as long as I do that, to my mind it's conceptually a success. My biggest frustration with it is that it's hampered some of my work on larger projects. It varies from day to day, but from concept through execution, a day's work is at least an hour, and so to have something in a state where I'm happy with uploading it takes time away from other things that may not be ready for awhile longer—writing, videos, more involved web pieces, more sculptural things—and those things don't always break down into daily showable components. Sometimes I'll do process images or sketches, but generally I try to show things that can exist independently.
The most important thing to me, which lies somewhere between success and failure, is that producing so much, even if it's just a quick few minute sketch, has helped me to pick up some threads between different aspects of my work that I was confused about how they fit together before. I have an extremely hard time working in series, which the site has forced me to do, first of all with everything I upload as a meta-series and even within the smaller series that show up along the way. Since I can't think of something totally original every day, I'm forced to revisit some older work or use it as a launch point.
Do you still think of the project in the same way as you did before you started it or has your understanding of what you're trying to achieve changed at all during the last few months?
I still do think about it in much the same way, which is maybe a problem. I want to start asking more questions about what it could possibly be that it hasn't been yet—questions of seriality, exhibition, coordination, distribution, exchange, critique, etc. The dice tabs on the site represent the potential for those things, so far they are the permanent documents and the editions, which act as exceptions to the structure I've set up. Since the original concept of the site was to subvert what I found boring or predictable about the internet, I'm curious about ways I can in turn subvert the rigidity of structure I've set in motion.
I wonder if one of the ways you've been steadily subverting the rigidity of the structure is your occasional but very consistent use of humor in your posts? When you began explaining your idea to me last October, my mind kept going to an artist like Tehching Hsieh and his very formal performance practice, but I can see now that's not really it. It's still obviously a time-based work that, as you said earlier, has certain real world restrictions to it—forcing you into its structure—but I think the humorous aspects alone place it somewhere else on the spectrum.
I'm curious to hear which ones you see humor in, because while I do think it's a part of my work, it's often hard for me to detect it myself. I think when you work a lot with language, it's inevitable that humor will show up in the form of word play, misunderstanding, mistranslation. Communication always involves some kind of risk, and when the stakes are low enough, failure results in humor.
I'm also very skeptical of humor becoming too much a part of the work though. I'm cautious about making pieces that are "one-liners" or elaborate ways of telling a joke. Sometimes I make them anyway just to get them out of my system, but it's not the direction I really want to go in. I like to think about the "burn rate" of a work, that kind of work burns out very quickly and intensely, but there is no sustained interaction. I would prefer to make something that people can sit with for a long time and not exhaust. But there's also a sweet spot in between. I love Michaelangelo Pistoletto's work which is both humorous and sustained or Shana Moulton who can play off these hilariously absurd scenarios with a very straight face. Those two artists are almost opposite in their approaches, Pistoletto teases humor out of unhumorous materials while Moulton suppresses the humor in what is immediately comical, but in the end they both hit that sweet spot.
Humor is probably not the right word...it's not comedic—it's not the "smile in the mind" of a certain subset of modern designers—but it does seem to me to be that your work is often playful.
Today, for example, your piece is entirely word-based—a sort of poem—that begins with the idea that some people aspire to climb the great mountain peaks of the world but ends with the protagonist being stuck behind 6 of the world's slowest walkers. There's a lot going on here, especially in the relationship between the meanings of the words and the form itself, but there definitely seems to be an element of playfulness. This is more what I'm referring to.
As I read the rules that you've posted as further reading, they seem to exhibit some of the same playfulness. I think of the some of the Oblique Strategies or Baldessari's "I Will Not Make Boring Art." If this is an unfair reading or doesn't fit, we can move on.
The Oblique Strategies and Baldessari are totally on track, I actually turn to the OS deck pretty frequently when I'm stuck on what to put up for the day. I like thinking about these different rule models for the site to function under. Like website as commissary, two-way mirror, safe deposit box or vending machine. You can write a set of rules for any of these that can be transcribed to a website or a piece of art or an interaction. There's also that Flaubert quote that gets tossed around all the time "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." which maybe there is some truth to.
I'm interested in the questions of seriality, exhibition, coordination, distribution, exchange, critique that you said you haven't been considering but would like to—especially that question of distribution. What aspect of distribution that you're thinking of?
To me, the most successful pieces are the ones that jump out of the website in some way. I was just reading this essay Liam Gillick wrote about Allen Ruppersberg's artist books. He said that sometimes artist use books to undermine their own practice and other times to accentuate certain parts of it. I like to think of the Anti-Archive as totally incidental to the actual work I may be doing. Sometimes I'm showing clues to what is happening elsewhere, but other times I'm leading anyone who might look on a particular day down a dead end path. A lot of that has to do with distribution, devising structures where two different viewers may get two different experiences from me. The site becomes an access point or conduit for the labor behind it. For instance, the other day when I had the "If you are here, let me know" email button, every person who emailed me received something different in response. There's also distribution in the possibility that people may be saving their own archive of favorites from the site, at some point maybe I'll try to collect those dispersed files.
Ah I love that...devising structures where two different viewers get two different experiences from you. I meant to email you the day of the email button...I wish I had now. I'd like to talk about that last point just a little more...that people may be archiving their favorites. I'm really interested in that aspect of distribution and I know you are too. I remember the day that you posted your Preliminary Theory of the Bootleg. I think that may have been my favorite day so far. It was a really nice moment, both for its metaphorical meaning and the actual prescribed meaning in your 23 theses. There were some nice layers of inferred meaning even in its presentation but what I enjoyed most is that you were very seriously discussing the act of bootlegging and its fraught relationship to art and the art market...but doing it inside of a structure that, in itself, seems to encourage that act.
I think that a bootleg is one of the highest forms of respect you can pay an artist. It's been cheapened a lot now by convenient recording devices, where most people at, say, a concert take a video at some point during the night, but to actually set out to make a high quality bootleg recording takes a lot of dedication. It's the superfans who make those, the ones who believe they're witnessing something really special. I talked about Malachi Ritscher in that piece, who was a very prolific recorder of live experimental music in Chicago in the 90s and early 00s. He was essentially documenting a whole scene, some of which is pretty difficult to listen to outside of the live setting. But think about what an honor it would be to have a Ritscher bootleg of your performance. I once heard John Peel described as a "virtuoso listener" and I think that applies to Ritscher as well. Come to think of it, the Peel Sessions were doing a similar thing, albeit in a more cleaned-up, legitimized manner.
The other aspect of bootlegging is that bootlegs are never made unless the material is fleeting or scarce. Usually, there's not much reason to bootleg a website, but in creating a situation where that is necessary, I would hope that the virtuoso listeners will show up.
Which brings me to another aspect of distribution I'm interested in, with regards to your project specifically and, for lack of a better term, internet art generally. I don't think it's an accident that those of us who have spent any time making work specifically for an internet audience often make references to music since there's a very similar sense of flattening and loss of value at play. We're dealing largely with digital files that are easily transmissible between anyone with the most basic understanding of a browser. And the potential audience for anything that is published to the internet is everyone that has a device and a connection. So it creates this very novel situation in regards to the making of work—unparalleled numbers of people have access to the work on the one hand but the ability to profit from that work is very, very low. In one sense, that situation is exactly what makes it seem so exciting and necessary.
Totally. Oddly enough, the music distribution methods that inspire me the most right now are ones that eschew technology almost completely. A few years ago, I got really interested in a few labels and bands that were releasing all their material solely on tape, I believe, not so much out of a "hipster" retro mindset as a way of setting barriers to entry and protecting their scene. Blackest Ever Black started out that way, though they have more of a digital presence now, and some French neo-luddite black metal groups as well. At the time, those models were something that I filed away in the back of my mind, but were influential in thinking about what it means for distribution to be made intentionally difficult.
To distribute something like that is a political aesthetic. I think of the distribution systems centered around the Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s, which included everything form the Black Panthers providing free breakfast for children to free jazz musicians creating their own labels to distribute music that didn't have a chance on white-run labels. In Rancière's writings on politics and aesthetics, he talks about the "distribution of the sensible", this plane of potential in which politics and aesthetic potential takes place, and he advocates for aesthetic regimes that can distribute power more equally. What I'm proposing is that convenience or permanence is not necessarily invested in that. That maybe giving the viewer some agency to request back files is more democratic than the passive model of content found on most websites. That maybe convenience is a kind of tyranny.