The Seamless Archive of Everything
Marianne Mueller on indexes, cataloguing, and the visual poetics of unexpected comparisons
This visual essay is part of a series highlighting the commissions and conversations generated by The Lives of Documents—Photography as Project exhibition. Curators Stefano Graziani and Bas Princen commissioned Marianne Mueller to revisit her extensive archive and add a new chapter, STONES, to her project STAIRS ETC. Some images from her archive are reproduced here alongside her reflections on collecting images and titles, seriality, and photographic encounters with the world.
I’ve always liked collecting possible titles, fragments from songs, poetry, advertisements, manuals. I’m drawn to how a word sounds or how it looks. I jot down words or phrases on small notes and store them as future titles in a box at my studio. Since I only choose a title once a work is finished, I’ve accumulated many excellent titles waiting for their related project. So, you might say that I’m far more into discovering and collecting images and ideas than indexing.
However, indexing and archiving is necessary to gain or maintain an overview of my work, 90 percent of which results from my encounters with the world. My praxis is like a stream of consciousness, a constant engagement with the world without a defined purpose. Based on the resulting vast collection of images that I’ve accumulated, indexes become indispensable once I work on a specific project. But I will specifically search for a motif, when I work on a project and realize that something is missing, something that is not yet part of my existing archive. For example, I’m working on a book focusing on stones. I realized that I have many images from the Himalaya region and Japan, but close to none from Switzerland, so I started researching garden decoration and cruising through recently built housing developments and traffic junctions to “supplement” my selection of images.
My way of looking with my camera doesn’t aim to produce an encyclopedic inventory of the world. I would get hopelessly bogged down by this goal, so I’m far more interested in notions of visual narration, comparison, and curiosity. I’m interested in moments of unusual alikeness, unexpected resemblances that one can discover over time, diverse cultural contexts, and spaces. I don’t believe that an experience of the world can be organized into a series.
When working on a project, I select images or single prints from my analog archive and organize them chronologically in envelopes containing all the prints from one film, which are then stapled together and filed in large boxes. The Seamless Archive of Everything was too vague to ever use as a book title, but I like to think of it as a fitting phrase to describe what can be found in the boxes and envelopes of my archive of overload, blur, randomness, and memory. My books emerge from this “seamless archive of everything,” which comprises all the books or visual essays that resulted and will result from my archive.
My books materialize in different ways, but they share common features in terms of their associative logic and non-linear history, like a film soundtrack. They gather meaning between images. I’m not interested in the single photograph but in the tension between the images. On the one hand, I like to combine images with different motifs that relate as visual analogies. In other cases, I compare identical motifs, like legs in my book Leg, or stairs, pillars, columns in my book STAIRS ETC. The resulting comparisons or pairs can be described as “same same but different,” hence the original title of STAIRS ETC as Actual Likeness.
My way of working could be described as a life project in the sense that it won’t continue once I’m dead: the whole archive, the thousands of small prints in envelopes in boxes will be trashed once I’m not around to make something with it. But maybe it will also end with the book I’m working on? I’ll see if something new comes up, but since I’m not interested in completeness, I’m not pursuing any defined plan. I work mostly out of curiosity, not because I’m striving to achieve a major goal. The older I get and the more expansive my archive becomes, the more hopeless it feels to get through it.
As far as I’m concerned, the problem with “nature” is that it is an artificial concept. I find it impossible to translate nature, whatever it may be, in a way that does it justice. I tried with pictures of trees: you can organize trees according to a long chain of references, but the outcome still seems like a plant catalogue, a useful document rather than a visual journey that stimulates your brain. At the same time, I’m not interested in addressing topics such as climate change or the human dominance of the environment when showing “natural” images, although these topics are of personal interest. I’d rather take what I find seriously without imposing it into some kind of ideological or symbolic order. My photographs are about observation, visual narration, and poetry.
So, my interest in stones isn’t an interest in “nature.” I find them fascinating, like sculptures in themselves; they break down from large to small and have existed before people started to make things. I started to look at how stones are used in specific ways that don’t refer to concepts of nature and found many relevant things in my archive: painted stones, glacial erratics, street furniture, visibility barriers in gardens, devotional stones, stones placed on construction sites, decorative stones, or stones that are exchanged internationally, .
I understand my photographic gaze more like a contact dance with the fragments of the world I encounter. I embrace what I find, rather than trying to force my discoveries into some structure.