Issue #93 The Undutiful Daughter’s Concept of Archival Metabolism

The Undutiful Daughter’s Concept of Archival Metabolism

Doreen Mende

Ken Lum, Melly Shum hates her job, 1990. Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 1992. Photo: Aad Hoogendoorn

Issue #93
September 2018

There is something monstrous, hybrid, and vibrant in the air; dear readers, I feel new ideas coming our way. We just do not know yet what this corpus can do.

—Rosi Braidotti1

The problem with formative twentieth-century theories of the archive is their monocultural commitment to “the law” as if it was naturally given: “The archive is first the law of what can be said,” wrote Michel Foucault already in 1969. What if that which refuses to be forgotten escapes language? Or what if she speaks a language that the law’s system fails to recognize? What if she has been outlawed? It does not take much to realize that “the law of what can be said,” structurally speaking, is the law of the father. Only recently, it seems, psychosocial studies have revealed pitfalls in feminist theories that analyze the mother-daughter relation as a symptom of the patriarchal order rather than a structural possibility in its own right: “She is condemned to memory while he is given access to desire,” is the formulation Amber Jacobs proposes to conceptualize the absent, or untheorized, maternal law.2 In other words, the “law of what can be said” situates the archive in a dominant order of paternal control.

Such an order does not make sense in the twenty-first century. It never made sense. Needless to say, it represses, neglects, and disregards pretty much everything and everyone who does not fit into the law of what can be said: the asylum seeker, the no-body, the depressed, the burned out, speakers of non-imperial languages, etc. Those who have been overlooked by this law seem to require preparation or education in order to satisfy juridical norms, which themselves follow patriarchal, or at least paternal, rules. The archive’s old capacity is defined by those who have access to the law and who (have learned to) speak its language. In the face of this situation, why on earth should a daughter—or someone otherwise inhabiting the life of a daughter—submit to a language that forces everyone who is non-father-like to rehearse a vocabulary that imposes, a priori, a set of principles that are not hers? Twenty-first century archive-theory-without-Theory reformulates the potential of speculation as an epistemological drive. It is an uncategorized or deschooled theory that emerges below the calculating faculties of capital-T Theory, because the daughter does not want to limit her knowledge by subscribing to the prescription, description, and inscription of regulative systems that would contain her monstrous unpredictability of thought. The commitment to her own voice, which the law cannot (or does not want to) recognize, has a reward: not only does she need to find her own voice to speak her own language, but she must also continuously perfect her capacity to learn the dominant language. We would do well to listen to the daughter’s speech-in-tongues, because she can teach us the practice of rehearsing the “xeno-epistemic” engine. This concept borrows from Sarat Maharaj’s strong proposal to seek forms of knowledge outside the normative spheres of reason, i.e., outside the law but inside (non-)knowing.3 It helps us understand that little-t theory might not be found in libraries or inside the law.

The xeno-epistemic approach demands that the undutiful daughter learns a language she does (not) want to learn, but has to. It is a forced learning, perhaps similar to forced labor, but different insofar as once she has learned the dominant language, she is free to do what she wants. However, we know how much effort it takes to maintain our second or third languages, i.e., languages different than our mother tongue. Each of these multiple pedagogical projects consumes time and energy. They train the daughter to recognize her “double consciousness,” which, before the law’s gaze, provokes feelings of both achievement and failure, along with vivid dreams and nightmares.4 The experience is marked by pain, struggle, and exhaustion. At the same time, it builds community, hybridity, and articulation that moves below the possession of the law. What will this “monstrous, hybrid, and vibrant … corpus” be able to do? We feel it, but cannot speak it or spell it out.

The following is an attempt to think the archival condition from the place of the daughter—more precisely, the undutiful daughter who refuses the paternal law but who also believes in the archive’s futuristic power. She cannot (not) participate in the language “of what can be said,” but she does so in accordance with her own learning processes, vocabularies, and pathways. She is already two: a daughter and an undutiful. To occupy the perspective of the daughter, the first task is not to change the law—while this is urgently necessary, we are not there yet. Rather, we would do better to listen to the undutiful daughter who has not been born as such. Inhabiting the place of the daughter is not a matter of biological essentialism or of provided subjectivity; instead, we become an undutiful daughter through, as Rosi Braidotti suggests, a process of “conceptual disobedience.”5 (Anyone can become an undutiful daughter.) In other words, she does not struggle for representation and recognition within the logic of the law; rather, she continuously rehearses the actualization of intensities and forces (Deleuze) by radically challenging the archive’s mind-set.


Betty Jennings (Mrs. Bartik) and Frances Bilas (Mrs. Spence) operating the ENIAC’s main control panel while the machine was still located at the Moore School. Source: ARL Technical Library/Historic Computer Images/Public Domain

Let us begin before the beginningbefore the arrival of the “archon,” that is, the guardian of documents, the gatekeeper, the patriarch and the matriarch.6 When the undutiful daughter occupied the front room of the family home. The undutiful daughter, full of vibrant ideas not yet articulated fully, wants to provide shelter for Melly Shum, the undutiful daughter’s friend and loving aunt, who publicly declared in 1990 that she hates her job.7 It’s been everywhere. In the newspapers. Reporters in front of the house. On television in Teen Species. LinkedIn. Facebook. Flickr. Instagram. It’s gone viral. “Melly Shum hates her job.” On a billboard. For decades. Melly Shum. A woman of East Asian descent. Large white glasses. In her thirties. Working in an office. On her own. In Rotterdam. Pictured at work by Ken Lum. Another worker. In the picture Melly, it seems, is performing abstract labor, operating a machine to her right, maybe doing some calculations. Since 1990!8 Goodness. If only Melly’s abstract labor was recognized, even in retrospect—like the women trained in mathematics for the US Army’s ENIAC Project who, in the 1940s, were initially called “computers”—then she might speak again.9 She could speak of and against “the law of what can be said.”

Exhibition view of Bik Van der Pol, WERE IT AS IF, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 2016. Documentation material of Lucas Einsele, Omar hates his job, 2005. Photo: Aad Hoogendoorn

The archon’s arrival will never be delayed in the architecture of commencement that constrains, ties, and binds the archive to a building, a place, an address, a location from which the archon supports “the law of what can be said.”10 This law exists even absent the struggle for a body but is secured by property. This law is neither nature’s given nor God’s trick, but rather power’s ontological principle for structuring narrative, history, and privilege. For more than twenty years, Melly Shum has been unable to speak more than a single sentence. The Witte de With Center is in an area of Rotterdam that, around the time of the institution’s founding in 1990, was known for accommodating the local economy of international sex workers and coffee shops, which was supported by the nearby harbor and its liquid/fluid business of globalization. Was something missing? Or did the laws of administration and self-organization give rise to a mutant whose speaking, whose language, results from metabolized and continuously metabolizing processes that the archive cannot recognize according to its outdated law? Melly Shum might not have received a job promotion either. Rather, the exceptional appearance of an international artist reads the residents’ participation into “statements as unique events”—following Foucault’s understanding of the archive as “the system of its functioning.”11 This turns the unique event into sweet violence, a wolf in sheep’s clothing perhaps, which operates brutally but smoothly to normalize the violence that began with Witte de With’s inauguration, and which abetted the gentrification of the neighborhood while co-opting the residents’ (presumably) unwaged labor and supporting the globalization of contemporary art. What to do with it? Critique is not enough. The system of the archive’s old functioning perpetuates its silencing structures. Even Bik Van der Pol’s unpacking of Ken Lum’s Melly Shum Hates Her Job in their Witte de With exhibition “WERE IT AS IF” (2016) did not allow her to speak more. It is reported, though, that a Twitter account permits her to at least update her feelings as a worker.


A beginning before the beginning is impossible. There is no beginning without an “ontological partition,” as Anselm Franke has written of the double logic of our capitalist art modernity, which mines and dispossesses its own background to feed the “magic of value production.”12 Bik Van der Pol’s “WERE IT AS IF” operated at Witte de With according to this entangled double logic. It processed existing artworks, correspondence, and texts from Witte de With’s exhibition archives—everything, really, that the archon, with its right to judge and interpret, might be read as juridical evidence worthy of preservation. Anything that is regarded as “preserved” carries with it some characteristic of the macropolitical dimension of the archive: it might have a registration number, belong to an inventory, or be institutional property. The archive always conceives and needs, therefore, the archon, the principle ruler who is the first to emerge from “the law of what can be said”; the archon projects knowledge through its magic quality to attract one generation after another with its power, like iron filings to a magnet.

The archive’s institutional invisibility, or de-institutional floating character, can be understood as its micropolitical potency that creates the conditions for transdisciplinary reading and a collective effort to counter, avoid, and refuse the archon’s principle of disciplinarity.13 For Bik Van der Pol in “WERE IT AS IF,” the micropolitical was the memory of the acts of witnessing and making that operated as a “voice-over,” thus suggesting an essayistic approach to the construction of the exhibition as a space. From the undutiful daughter’s perspective, the “background conditions” point to the family’s (often female) domestic labor that supports the patriarch’s or matriarch’s performance in public. Both threads, the juridical and the domestic, institute an architecture of oikonomia, i.e., an architecture of the household whose privacy is radically defined by the laws and norms of society: the sisterhood slogan “the personal is the political”14 becomes actually true in the archive when the daughter politicizes the household by speaking up against its archonic law, though with the danger—as some would argue—of fulfilling neoliberalism’s demands for labor.

What if Foucault’s analysis of the transition from biopolitics to oikopolitics, which rightly pointed to the rise of neoliberalism, has a micropolitical flip side?15 What if “speaking up” against the law introduces a politics of the household that (re)activates public debate on the problem of unwaged and domestic labor from below? What if the disqualified, the subjugated, and the marginal do not want to speak from a position of oppression but instead from lived experiences of resistance and emancipation coupled with the desire to occupy institutional positions? What if the marginal want to speak in a language undecipherable by the law but still operational in its own terms? This is not a single struggle ready to coalesce into a single voice, “because we do not live single-issue lives.”16 What if the undocumented, the neglected, the unwanted, the forgotten, the unspeakable, and the hidden are closer to mutants than citizens?

The archive is not only the images, documents, installation shots, and deadline reminders that travel from one computer to another within seconds (for example, those exchanged during the writing of this essay between the artists, the editor, and the author). It is also the .jpg, .txt, .pdf, and .zip files that travel around the globe, marking the point of departure for dematerializing an (institutional) archive into data, which can find its temporary (dis)location to be a USB stick traveling in the pocket of her skinny jeans or mingling with pens and keys in her backpack, or a WeTransfer link that arrives in her inbox along with plenty of other emails. Sure, sending the archival element off is marked by the body’s location, but already the network’s geolocation disturbs the securing assumption of one place. The element travels further, decentralizing the imperatives of location and site specificity, and thus preparing the conditions for the “metabolic agora” that theorist Benjamin Bratton associates with the contemporary architecture of computation:17 not only is the household of the archon turned inside out into the agora, but it is also made to disseminate the archive, ramified as digitized materiality, spreading, travelling, and reaching beyond the “law of what can be said.” The metabolic agora empowers and animates that which exists as a materialization of energy—a potency we need in order to process history into the future as a work of differentiation: the metabolic agora respects the existing. At the same time, it operates a platform that enables a transgenerational transmission, one that becomes visible through format changes: from paper to .pdf to email attachment to Xerox copy, even if those formats are “only” the means of production in the framework of a research project. The metabolic agora supports the political work of de-privatizing, defamiliarizing, and de-hierarchizing the narrations of history, towards the articulation and actualization of differences and intensities. Thus, this gathering-but-changing-place which is the arena for spiritual, political, and cultural life, and which is no longer confined to one location like the twentieth-century archive used to be, seems to provide some of the instruments the daughter needs for processing knowledge otherwise.

To better understand the metabolic agora for our politics of the archive in the twenty-first century, we need to shift perspectives on the materiality of the archive itself. Under conditions of uncontrolled sprawl, decentralization, and dissemination, the archive in the twenty-first century is in need not only of a statement but a concept. It is not that the statement has disappeared but rather that the concept allows that which cannot be said according to the archon to persist by different means. Elizabeth Grosz helpfully proposes that concepts “are the production of immaterial forces that line materiality with incorporeals, potentials, latencies: concepts are the virtualities of matter, the ways in which matter can come to be otherwise, the promise of a future different from the present.”18 This is what counts: the undutiful daughter always dreams of a location that is deterritorialized in the world, searching and finding a language that allows one to think towards “a future different from the present.”


Exhibtion view of Bik Van der Pol, WERE IT AS IF, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 2016. Photo: Aad Hoogendoorn

Let’s try the impossible and begin before the beginning. The undutiful daughter speaks truth to “the law of what can be said.” Such a truth is neither given, inherited, nor a unitary subject. It emerges from the complexity of life, which cannot be specialized into one discipline of knowledge. The undutiful daughter speaks as an amateur.19 She speaks while the father sleeps. She disagrees with the mother’s demands. She speaks on her own, with her own voice. For us, here, she has learned to listen, and sometimes to translate, the bubble dome of voices—not only Dutch, French, or English, but also the voice of the artist, the traveler, the migrant, the director, the neighbor, the drug addict, the sex worker. In other words, she has trained herself to speak several languages. If she encounters languages she cannot speak, she insists on listening to what she cannot decipher (yet), while also listening to her friend translate into her ear. What she hears is not a mishmash of voices or approaches, but the articulation of the polyphonic existence of different languages, practices, and readings of the archive.

She continuously rehearses the politics of polyphony, as exemplified by Eleanor Bond’s Witte de With exhibition “Cosmoville” (1995), described by the artist as a “landscape/territory that was being continuously constructed and extended.”20 She asks questions. Many questions: Who is Witte de With, the “naval hero” in one of Bik Van der Pol’s scripted texts?21 What does de With’s heroism hide? The fact that “the Witte de With street had a terrible reputation”?22 Or that Witte de With, the naval dominator, fought in wars in Brazil on behalf of Dutch colonialism? She tours around on the bike that Eleanor Bond used for six months in 1995; she rides through Rotterdam’s liminal zones and areas of transition, including the inner harbor of Maasvlakte, to recreate a fictitious history of “Cosmoville” that includes unrecorded and undocumented conversations with artists and historians Harry Sengers and Willem Oorebeek.23 She speaks nearby. Eschewing a microphone. Eschewing statements. The opposite of direct action. But cycling. Listening. Touring. Thinking. Aiming to unearth and separate several past-layers impregnated by opposing narratives of “hero” and “junky,” urging us to approach the exhibition and institution through a practice of what Boris Buden calls, in his analysis of the museum, “post-historical sociality,” which insists on the contemporary need to rethink the art-institutional space and its social function of narrating the present.24 In light of the urgent need for a new social imaginary and a more complex archive, the material traces of past events—here, the exhibition history of Witte de With—cannot be tied to “history a priori” alone. These traces call for a would-be historian, one who does not want to become a specialist or an official historian, but rather an “accidental archivist,” as described by filmmaker Didi Cheeka.25 The accidental archivist speaks from below to the law of what can be said; this remains a speaking with the archon because there is no other choice, and there is no choice other than to find a form of speaking from emancipatory joy. This speaking questions, challenges, and analyzes “the law” from below, with the absolute desire to undo the principle that reproduces the nomothetic order of the archi-truth: the beginning cannot be measured as past. In reality, this beginning is without end; truth is only ever a partial perspective on the whole. Never complete. Always unfinished. Such a position suggests the destruction of centralized concepts of power, which, in the twentieth century, was widely interpreted as an all-seeing invisible eye.

Eleanor Bond, Cosmoville, 1995. Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam. Photo: Bob Goedewaagen 

Instead, the undutiful daughter undertakes the development of a new position against the archon’s authority, i.e., its macropolitics. Her politics of polyphony—always in danger of being misunderstood and lost in translation, or even worse, accused of postmodernist spectacle—places her in the powerful position of having many voices, languages, and perspectives. This position bears witness to her micropolitics as a powerful tool. Macro and micro: entangled forces. Frame and flaw. Conflicting wills. Different bodies. Daughter and archon. Hero and junky. Undutifulness is her resistance against the imperative of a single united voice as the only political means. She breaks out, swerves, and interrupts. She cannot and does not want to control one language in which to speak. The polyphony is not always in synch, but it is committed to social change. Suely Rolnik asserts that the entanglement of micro and macro is constitutive for understanding the archive of the twenty-first century. This assertion is informed by her analysis of profound political changes in Latin America following the end of dictatorial regimes. She places the macropolitical on the side of “ideological content,” while the micropolitical resides in the inhibited and hidden (intrinsic to the archive), whose speaking is a whisper, fabulation, speculation, polyphony, and “poetic investigation.”26


We must ask: Why today? What has instituted this contemporary institutional desire for micro-histories, micro-social narratives, narratives from below, polyphony, and the undutiful daughter’s passion to speak from below with the archon, without necessarily accepting the rules of the “law of what can be said”? Is the call for a double logic of the archive—macro and micro—an ill-judged symptom of the present? Or is it simply the only possibility, because no other choice exists? Suely Rolnik situates the archive of the twenty-first century inside that double logic. As she explains, artistic creation under dictatorial and nationalist regimes is permeated by the transversality of macropolitics, which necessitates a double consciousness in their undutiful subjects: survive the macro but live the micro.27 Clandestine. Inhibited. Outside the reach of the state/institution. Hidden in the walls. Still, we must ask: Who benefits from uncovering the hitherto hidden? What are the long-term consequences? Not coincidentally, 1989 also saw the emergence of a new institution(alism) in contemporary art—particularly in Rotterdam—that redefined the art institution as a laboratory and an open space, occupying a position somewhere between self-organized project spaces and museum collections.28 (This shift led to the establishment of the “institution of critique.”29) No more, no less: a cultural facelift at a moment when the world began to experience a profound global reordering.

Eleanor Bond, On the Maasvlakte Extension, Rotterdam Establishes a Satellite Colony which Functions as a prosthetic Eye and Arm, Enclosing the International Activity at Europoort within the Sight and Embrace of the City, 1995. Installation view, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, 2016. Photo: Aad Hoogendoorn.

What if the archive whispers dissonantly in various voices and operates within transgenerational time and misunderstandings, deracinating the mechanisms of linear narratives? The double logic of the archive cannot but endure macropolitical forces and the law of the archon while it breeds a “critical-poetics virus” that waits, patiently and passionately, for the right conditions to infect and spread.30 The least we can hope for is to be infected by this critical-poetics virus, since it conceives of art not as value itself but as the lived struggles of art-making. The archive of the twenty-first century needs the metabolic agora, where it fuels and animates complex and far-flung projects, crawling and creeping and walking through the walls. The metabolic agora is architectural in both a localized and metabolized sense: it marks the beginning of change, transformation, and alteration—a space where the first ruler has just arrived, already left, and always been. It is manifest but sprawling and ramifying. Viral. Infectious. Translational. Transgenerational. Always in danger of careening out of control. Never complete. Its formats are soon obsolete. Losing weight from tireless night shifts. Hungry all the time. Always local but uncontrollably disseminated. The daughter, armed with her concept of archival metabolism, grits her teeth and complies with the existing (i.e., the law); she knows she has no other choice than to process the immensely complex world of the law’s outlawed below the archon’s control. She takes the side of the un-tagged, undocumented, unmarked, and (as-yet) incomputable, while studying in depth the father’s systemic blind spot. Her archive’s metabolic condition transforms and creates space for new ideas and projects coming our way, which are carried out by a corpus that is neither hers nor his alone, but has learned for ages to operate the xeno-epistemic machine. Well, the society of undutiful daughters sounds quite urgently needed to my twenty-first-century ears.


“Preface: The Society of Undutiful Daughters,” in Undutiful Daughters: New Directions in Feminist Thought and Practice, eds. in Henriette Gunkel, Chrysanthi Nigianni, Fanny Söderbäck (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), xviii.


Amber Jacobs, “The Potential of Theory: Melanie Klein, Luce Irigaray, and the Mother-Daughter Relationship,” in Hypatia 22, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 175–93.


Sarat Maharaj, “Xeno-Epistemics: Makeshift Kit For Sounding Visual Art As Knowledge Production and the Retinal Regime,” in Documenta11, Plattform 5: Ausstellung (Hatje Cantz 2002), 71–84.


On double consciousness, see W. E. D. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903).


Braidotti, “Preface: The Society of Undutiful Daughters,” xii.


Derrida: “The archons are first of all the documents’ guardians. They do not only ensure the physical security of what is deposited and of the substrate. They are also accorded the hermeneutic right and competence. They have the power to interpret the archives. Entrusted to such archons, these documents in effect state the law: they recall the law and call on or impose the law.” Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 10.


Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1989) is billboard-sized photo-text work by artist Ken Lum installed on the outside of the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. The piece was initially installed in 1990, as part of an exhibition of Ken Lum’s work that marked the opening of the museum. It has hung there ever since; when Lum’s show ended, residents of the neighborhood did not want Melly to leave: “Melly Shum, they said, is us!” Note to the author from Bik Van der Pol, May 8, 2017.


The piece was removed for a short while in 2005, during Lukas Einsele’s exhibition “One Step Beyond” at Witte de With, when Catherine David was director of the museum. Melly was temporarily replaced by a picture of a young minesweeper. One night, an anonymous person posted a message below the image, written across multiple sheets of paper: “Omar hates his job.”


Kathy Kleiman, The Computers: The Remarkable Story of the ENIAC Programmers, 2012, 20 min. It would take fifty years for the stories of the women involved in the development of the first electronic-digital computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), to become public information thanks to Kleiman’s research.


Foucault’s definition of the archive provided an essential vocabulary for a political sequence of Critical Theory that analyzed power relations with the aim of complexifying the “historical a priori”; this definition has remained relevant for curatorial politics, particularly after 1990. See, for example, Okwui Enwezor, “Archive Fever: Photography Between History and the Monument,” Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Steidl/ICP), 10–51.


Michael Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, trans A. M. Sheridan Smith (Routledge, 1972), 146. Italics in original.


Anselm Franke, “Curating Against the Grain: Frontiers, Scripted Spaces, and Groundlessness,” in Thinking under Turbulence, ed. Doreen Mende (HEAD Geneva and Motto Books, 2017), 163f.


Nina Power, “Reading Transdisciplinarily: Sartre and Althusser,” Theory, Culture & Society 32, no. 5–6, Special Issue: Transdisciplinary Problematics (2015): 109–124.


Multiple women have been citied as the originator of this phrase, including Carole Hanisch (in her 1969 essay of the same name) and Robin Morgan (in her introduction to the 1970 anthology Sisterhood is Powerful).


See Melinda Cooper, “The Law of the Household: Foucault, Neoliberalism, and the Iranian Revolution,” The Government of Life: Foucault, Biopolitics, and Neoliberalism, eds. Vanessa Lemm and Miguel Vatter (Fordham University Press, 2014), 20–58.


Audre Lorde, “Learning from the 60s,” in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches (Crossing Press, 2007), 138.


Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2015), 95.


Elizabeth Grosz, Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art, (Duke University Press, 2011), 78. Earlier in the book Grosz also writes that “new knowledges” are “weapons, tools, in the struggles of power over what counts as truth, over what functions as useful, over what can be used to create new systems, forces, regimes, and techniques, none of which are indifferent to power” (76).


See Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (Vintage, 1994).


Eleanor Bond, written reflection on “Cosmoville” for Bik Van der Pol’s exhibition WERE IT AS IF.


“Witte de With, of course, was the name giver, and a naval hero. The first years were stormy.” Bik Van der Pol, Cloud, script, 2016.


Written reflection on “South Bronx Hall of Fame,” an exhibition of sculptures by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres held at Witte de With in 1991–92, for Bik Van der Pol’s WERE IT AS IF.


See Bond’s written reflection on “Cosmoville.”


Boris Buden, “The Public Intellectual after History: Remembering Said’s ‘Speaking Truth to Power,” in A Journey of Ideas Across: In Dialog with Edward Said, ed. Adania Shibli (HKW, 2013).


Didi Cheeka, “Reclaiming History, Unveiling Memory Part II,” contribution to the conference Archival Constellations, February 2017, silent green Kulturquartier, Berlin.


Suely Rolnik, Archive Mania (Hatje Cantz, 2012).


Rolnik, Archive Mania.


Rotterdam in the 1980s and ’90s was also energized by the activities of artist-run spaces (such as residency programs), attracting a lot of artists to the city. The first edition of Manifesta, the travelling European biennial, took place in Rotterdam in 1996. But this energy dissipated when the city government tried to tap into it in order to revitalize the institutional art sector. The 2001 event “Cultural Capital of Europe,” held in Rotterdam, marked this decline. Then in 2002, the right-wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn was murdered in Rotterdam. This led to the election of a majority right-wing city council in Rotterdam, which until then had been dominated by the socialist party for decades.


Hito Steyerl, “The Institution of Critique,” eipcp, January 2006 .


Rolnik, Archive Mania.

Gender, Philosophy, Contemporary Art
Libraries & Archives, Motherhood and Reproduction
Return to Issue #93

This text is a revised version of “Archival Metabolism: Toward a Twenty-First-Century Archive theory without Theory,” in WERE IT AS IF: Beyond An Institution That Is, eds. Defne Ayas and Bik Van der Pol (Witte de With Center, 2017). Thanks to Bik Van der Pol and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy for granting permission to reprint parts of the text. The concepts of “archival metabolism” and the “undutiful daughter” emerged from several collaborative curatorial projects I have participated in since 2008; these projects have involved noninstitutional archives, especially from East Germany, Palestine, and Non-Aligned countries.

Doreen Mende is a curator and theorist who is currently Associate Professor of the curatorial/politics seminar of the CCC RP research-based Master at HEAD Genève/Switzerland. Since 2021 she has been the Director of the Cross-Collections Research Department of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD), where she initiated the Stannaki Forum on diasporic knowledge, and conceptualizes the Transcultural Academy “Futurities” in 2023. Ongoing projects include the case-based academic research study Decolonizing Socialism: Entangled Internationalism (2019–24), funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Based on this research, a new series of exhibitions, called sequences, is coming up in 2024 featuring invited curators-researchers and artists at the Albertinium of SKD. In 2022, she realized The Missed Seminar: After Eslanda Robeson in Conversation with Steve McQueen’s End Credits at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. She has published with e-flux journal, MIT Press, Oxford University Press, Jerusalem Quarterly, spector books, archive books, IBRAAZ, and Sternberg Press. She is a cofounder of the Harun Farocki Institut in Berlin.


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.