Italo Calvino & the Live Archive

The short essay below has been published elsewhere in a pamphlet compiled by Sound Camp and issued by Uniformbooks. (Sounds Remote, 2016)

A swarm of day-flies flew into a fortress, came to rest on the ramparts, attacked the keep, and invaded the sentinel’s patrol path and the dungeons. The network of nerves on their transparent wings hovered amidst the stone walls.

‘It is pointless for you to stretch your wiry limbs,’ said the fortress. ‘Only those who have been made to last can claim to exist. I last, therefore I am. You don’t.’

‘We inhabit the space of the air, we mark time with the beating of our wings. What else does existence mean if not this?’ answered those fragile creatures. ‘You, on the other hand, are only a shape planted there to mark the limits of space and time in which we exist’…

 (Calvino and McLaughlin 2013, p. 77)

Day-flies, mayflies, insects of the order ephemeroptera: once every year or so these peculiar creatures emerge from their larval state and swarm for only a day or two, mating and laying their eggs before falling lifeless back to earth.

Compare this with Sound Camp’s REVEIL. For twenty-four hours each year the project follows the sunrise, broadcasting the sounds it encounters as it goes. Its makers refer to REVEIL as a ‘live archive’. A curious term… When the broadcast finishes, the global arc of sound it embraced is reduced to only a few illustrative snippets – press matter for the web. These sound bites are the leather-winged carcasses of day-flies, littering motorway hard shoulders, clogging drains and gutters.

Italo Calvino’s Dayflies in the Fortress, quoted from above, was written as a review of an exhibition of works by the artist Fausto Melotti. Here, it presents us with a lens through which to examine the paradoxical notion of the ‘live archive’, and to begin to consider the relative merits of that form when compared with more traditional, preservation-oriented archives.

For Calvino, both fly and fortress are defined, in large part, in terms of their relationship to time. The fortress embodies both the past and the future. Its meaning is derived as much from its former endurance as from its promise to endure in perpetuity. Its present – notwithstanding the intervention of the dayflies – is unexamined.

Similarly, the traditional archive serves as an index of the past and future but tends to elide the present. In organizing and defining what has been, it constitutes frame and template for all that is still to come. Both the fortress and the archive are totems of a continuity that borders on inevitability.

The fly, by contrast, epitomizes the present. Its existence is precarious, and all the richer for its brevity. Its short life is a rolling paper slid between the dizzying monoliths of past and future, making visible – and opening up for investigation – the here and now we so often assume to be merely the continuation of history. Confronting the present ahistorically, we may discover alternative futures as yet undreamt of.

Both archive and live archive serve in their own ways to frame the world for our inspection. It is for this reason, perhaps, that we can justify REVEIL’s odd appropriation of that key word, ‘archive’.

The live archive, however, is more like the fly than the fortress. Its strength lies in its refusal to preserve, and by extension, in its refusal to set precedents: its past is beyond recall, and thus it cannot be dredged up again in order to define new presents. Suddenly, more is possible.

In sum, the traditional archive is serially reproductive. It forces futures into frameworks modelled on cherished pasts. The live archive, meanwhile, is interpretative, amnesiac, and as such perhaps more promiscuously creative. Its value hinges on the courage its creators show in resisting the urge to preserve.

Calvino, I. and McLaughlin, M.L., 2013. Collection of sand: essays.

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