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Rifkin’s Dossier for Lost Documents

Jessyca Hutchens

To cite this contribution:

Hutchens, Jessyca. ‘Rifkin’s Dossier for Lost Documents.’ OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 0 (2016),

You won’t hear this voice of the lonely researcher. You won’t hear the voice of the careful unfolding of archival research.1

 – Adrian Rifkin, 2015

Despite increasing awareness of the illusions of historical reconstruction and recovery, the archive at the end of the 20th century assumes an even greater intellectual and social significance.2

 – Harriet Bradley, 1999

Hoccleve would have doubtless been amazed to discover that his shopping list could have been prized by later centuries, just as those who piled more garbage on top of the Gnostic gospels at Naq Hammadi probably had no idea of the cultural significance of the rubbish and would (ironically) by attempting to save it, probably have condemned it to destruction.3

 – David Greetham, 1999

In archives she looked at Gardner’s travel albums and the Collection inventories. However, it was the things that got left behind in the process of archiving, documenting, and conserving that Kher felt drawn to. These included saved pieces of string, small labels, pressed flowers and blotting paper.4

 – Online description of a residency by Bharti Kher at The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2013, 1999


During his presentation, ‘On Writing The Last Line First (One of Three Possible Titles)’ Adrian Rifkin threw a folder of documents onto the ground, causing most of them to spill out across the floor. This action followed shortly in the wake of the promise quoted above: ‘You won’t hear the voice of the lonely researcher; you won’t hear the voice of the careful unfolding of the archival research’.5 The folder, which he described simply as ‘the archive’, was not at all carefully unfolded in front of us, described and woven into a clear narrative by the art historian who had come to the art school to impart his wisdom, to demonstrate his mastery over the archive which had yielded some of its most precious objects to him. Instead, he offered possibilities for what we could do with these bits of the archive strewn across the stage: ‘We can do what we want with it, we can throw it away, we can pick it up, [he throws a few other folders to the floor: THUD, BAM]. We can get down on our knees and scrabble amongst it, but we may never find a proper footnote’.6 Following decades of theoretical interrogation of the archive, the possibilities for its use may already be assumed to be split wide open, even for us non-artists (‘I’m not an artist, I can’t do anything I want’).7 But the invitation to not use the archive, to throw it away, or to do as Rifkin did, to refuse to carefully reveal or explicate its contents (did anyone scrabble around in it afterwards to see what was there?), might be a counter point to the dominance of the archive as still the thing we must continuously consult, to emerge heroically from with our bundle of ‘new’ discoveries, insights or interests.

In ‘Dancing Years, or Writing as A Way Out’, Rifkin expresses frustration with the process of making and revealing archival discoveries, writing how he ‘began to realize that the archive, in the more limited and technical sense of being a series of organized technical records, more often than not, and too easily, gave me what I was looking for’.8 On his given example of one such find – a box ‘on gay sailors in Toulon circa 1929’ – Rifkin wrote: ‘I needed it to authenticate what I felt it was already obvious to say about homosexuality and class difference, but which I badly needed to “prove”’.9 The box is thus a ‘find’ for Rifkin the rigorous researcher, who seeks, finds and provides the evidence demanded by his discipline, but is not much of a ‘find’ otherwise, it tells him nothing much new about his topic (ironically, a good find in the archive typically confirms the seeker’s theory. Should this ever be thought of as revelatory?). He goes on to say:

Yet some of my best discoveries, the ones that most satisfied my desire to underpin certain guesses, once satisfied, I kept to myself and never tried to publish even though this meant leaving some assertion in its speculative state.10

Even more than scattering the archive across the stage, refusing to reveal an archival discovery altogether – allowing it to remain unproven – seems an even greater sin, breaking faith with both the notion that researchers should share their finds so that others may use them, and denying the legitimating aura of archival discoveries. On the other hand, the desire to keep the archive secret constitutes a fascination with archival treasures, even a sort of protective regard for them. Left unpublished, the archive remains in an even more precious state, awaiting another diligent researcher to uncover it. Both gestures (concealing and tossing aside) are perhaps a dismissal, not of archival materials, but of their disproportionate use-value to academic research. At another point in his lecture, Rifkin refers to a different folder, his ‘dossier for lost documents’ – which also ends up thrown onto the floor – but with no contents to spill out, the effect is more melancholic than dramatic.11 Despite expressing frustration with the norms and expectations of archival research and revelation, Rifkin still yearns for the ‘lost document’.

One of the strongest seductions of the archive is the elusive promise of uncovering materials that are wholly unlikely to be there, that, according to the original logic or purpose of the particular archive, should perhaps never have been saved or included in the first place. In his paper, ‘Who’s In and Who’s Out: The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion’, textual scholar David Greetham traces the complexities of archival exclusions, from unconscious bias in seemingly small archival decisions, to deliberate destruction, to accidents of transmission and of preservation.12 In one example, he describes Frank Sinatra’s 1959 performance of Cole Porter’s ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’, speculating that by varying the rhythm of one line Sinatra had managed to draw ‘attention to the weak content of the previous line’, which was ‘perfume from Spain’.13 Greetham speculates that Sinatra’s performance might have pointed to a specific exclusion from the textual archive, drawing attention to the weak line because it had replaced the original 1934 lyric containing the word ‘cocaine’.14 The suppression of this lyric has since become a well-established part of the cultural history of the song, suggesting a successful rediscovery and resurrection of a piece of ‘excluded’ information. At the same time, if Sinatra’s performance was indeed a kind of knowing wink to his audience, this might also be evidence of the lyrics’ persistence throughout a period of censorship. Greetham argues that while overt acts of cultural exclusion may constitute more permanent loss for the archive, ironically, ‘the more overt (and the more successful) the cultural exclusion the more prurient and intrinsic the value of the excluded may become’.15 Such excluded material (banned books for example), become highly valued, and are therefore likely to be recovered for the next generation’s archive. The lyric was never neatly lost or excluded nor suddenly rediscovered. In other words, it is difficult to locate when and whether something becomes lost to or lost in the archive, or when or whether it might return.

Because archives are tasked with predicting what will be of greatest value to future users, Greetham writes that they are ‘hopelessly doomed by the force of local prejudice. Hoccleve would have doubtless been amazed to discover that his shopping list could have been prized by later centuries’.16 And in turn, whoever ‘found’ Hoccleve’s shopping list (or first recognized its value) might have been shocked that it had been saved. This is precisely the place of excitement in the archive, that if by some slip of its own regulatory regime, by error, by accident, it has included something of value to the present-day researcher, who hunts for the elusive lost document, presumed to be discarded, suppressed, or never created. In those discourses that have most critiqued the archive for its failures of inclusion (such as the focus in postcolonial or feminist critiques of the archive on marginalized or repressed histories), recourse is still made to the offending archive to examine its absences, or to find the traces that exist of its exclusions and suppressions. No longer able to offer up unbiased accounts of history, the archive nevertheless offers up a multitude of proof of its own inadequacies. The frustration that Rifkin expresses, that the archive is consulted to prove a point he already considered obvious, suggests that in seeking the unexpected in the archive, or even the evidence of exclusion and oppression, one might both have to search harder and more heroically, for less of a reward: validation from the archive, for what one already knows by other means.

In regard to post-colonial research or art projects, the colonial archive is often consulted for its losses and absences, for its lack of interest in the people who were colonised, or the biases or racial prejudices in their representations. Present-day communities are forced to rely on a complicit and asymmetrical archive, often to recover remnants of culture and history actively suppressed by coloniser and archive. As part of a residency at the Natural History Museum, London, in 2011, Australian Indigenous artist Daniel Boyd responded to the museum’s First Fleet collection, which contains documents related to the establishment of the first British colony in Australia. Much of Boyd’s project revolves around the idea of the collection’s ‘missing information.’ In a video on the residency, Boyd is shown speaking in the museum’s library in front of three images from the collection. As the camera pans over a watercolour painting of a snake, Boyd asks questions that cannot be answered by the image, nor by the rest of the archive which only records the perspectives of the colonisers, and not those of the Aboriginal people with whom the invaders made ‘first contact’. He says, ‘What I’m interested in is the information that’s not in this image, how this snake came to be in this picture, did they trade for this snake? Or did they have a guide? What did they trade for?’.17 The archive as a signifier of this lost information functions as potent proof of its own failure, consulted precisely because it is a material trace of erasure. But similar to Rifkin’s gesture of throwing down his dossier of discoveries, Boyd attempts to put distance between his archival source materials and his audience. For his final works, Boyd used copies of images from the archives, first hand painted, and then obscured under a top layer of semi-transparent dots that partially obscure them, a process Boyd describes as a ‘reduction of surface information’.18 The loss found in the archive is replicated for the viewer. Boyd says: ‘In the final image, the loss of information, it empowers me, because the viewer is put in a position where they don’t have information’.19 Still, though, the archive figures strongly as original source material, as a place where the artist finds inspiration. In two videos documenting the residency and embedded on the museum collection’s webpage, Boyd’s process of consulting the archive, of finding it pertinent, useful and revealing, is itself revealed. Moreover these videos are framed almost as a corrective to the colonial archives’ omissions. The webpage for the collection on the Natural History Museum site states: ‘The perspective of the people invaded was not recorded at the time but is investigated here’.20 The project reveals an uneasy relationship between seeking knowledge from the archive on the subject of its own exclusions, while evincing a desire to also obscure its contents, to turn away from a narrative of archival revelation. Boyd’s final work is not the missing perspective that the archive wishes to compensate for, he does not speculate on the answers to the questions he asks of the images. Instead, he offers up the experience of being confronted with a sense of loss in the archive. At the same time, his process of consulting the archive is laid bare, the loss which his work creates is perhaps somewhat undermined by the project’s own documentation, by the way it is being framed by the institution online. And thus emerges an interesting tension, frequently played out as artistic archival research and thus becoming more exposed and documented in these ways: between a research output (the artwork) that obscures the archive, and modes of representing research which reveal and explicate it, reaffirming, perhaps, the archival stronghold on all kinds of research.

In many ways, the ‘careful unfolding of archival research’, which Rifkin referred to and himself refused to perform, is present not only in the construction of academic arguments that weave together archival evidence, but in the proliferation of representations of archival research itself; narratives that have found their place in both academic papers and contemporary artworks, for example, historian Harriet Bradley’s 1999 paper, ‘The seductions of the archive: voices lost and found’, which offers a highly personal and phenomenological account of doing work in the archive, and which stresses ‘the pleasure, seductions and illusions of archival work’.21 Or work associated with the ‘archival turn’, Tacita Dean’s Girl Stowaway (1994), which traces Dean’s journey researching and connecting with her archival source, a photograph of a girl who stowed away on a ship. They exist too, in the various ways research is now documented, on the research or residency blog, which often feature both written descriptions and images of newly found archival discoveries before they have been included in more formal research output. The video of Boyd in the library, explaining how he drew inspiration from the archive. Susanne Keen has called such representations in literary fiction ‘romances of the archive’ which proliferate across a variety of genres.22 Such works frequently depict a central protagonist ardently searching the archive, and ‘share a preoccupation with the secrets and hidden truths’ that can be discovered in archival spaces.23 Keen writes how: ‘In the face of postmodern skepticism, this kind of contemporary fiction claims that its world-making can answer questions about what really happened without surrendering its license to invent’.24 One need only think of the successful book and film franchise, the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, that begins with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where adventure and romance seem to emerge directly from a kind of fervent archival searching. Beyond romance and adventure, I’m thinking too of a number of television crime and legal dramas, such as the series Suits, where nearly every major plot point is punctuated by someone throwing down a document folder supposed to contain the answer to the problem at hand – I thought precisely of this when Rifkin performed his own dossier throwdown. It is as though all of these fictions of fact-finding fill a kind of void – if not entirely remedying our disbelief in historical truths, such depictions re-inscribe the archive as an important site of discovery. In many ways, Rifkin’s treatment of the archive and his performance of his own relationship to research is also romantic, but the kind of romance that refuses either to offer up the totality of the story, or to unduly focus on the good times. Unlike so many of the representations of archival research, that seem to engender endless amounts of enthusiasm for what the archive can provide and teach, Rifkin gestures towards moments when we may need to turn our back, pretend to ignore, break away or have time apart. Holding up his ‘dossier of lost documents’ for the audience to see inside, Rifkin said:

you can see – completely empty, and what we have to do with that dossier, is to learn how to fill it up. [Throws the dossier on the floor] we’ll see at the end if it’s still empty.

With this project – the website and journal – we are attempting to give our research output a different type of frame (or folder). To create an archive of materials that is not always a careful unfolding of archival research. But there are certain things to be careful of – that in attempting to give visibility to the processes of research and practice that we don’t simply fetishize process – construct heroic narratives of doing research. That, too, if we choose to romance the archive, that we don’t always show ourselves to be faithful, kind and patient lovers, that we are willing to show the frustrations, failures, discontinuities, and antagonisms involved. Finally, that if we are going to learn to fill up our own ‘dossier of lost documents’ then we may need to get thoroughly lost first.


1.  Adrian Rifkin, ‘A Transcription of Adrian Rifkin’s “On Writing the Last Line First (One of Three Possible Titles)”,’ transcribed by Yuval Etgar, Jessyca Hutchens, Anita Paz, Naomi Vogt, and Nina Wakeford, OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Journal Issue 0 (2016): 11,
2.  Harriet Bradley, ‘The Seductions of the Archive: Voices Lost and Found,’ History of the Human Sciences 12, no. 2 (1999): 107.
3.  David Greetham, ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out’: The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion,’ Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 19.
4.  Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, ‘Bharti Kher,’ accessed July 25, 2016,
5.  Rifkin, ‘A Transcription of Adrian Rifkin’s “On Writing the Last Line First”,’ 11.
6.  Ibidem.
7.  Idem, 15.
8.  Rifkin, ‘Dancing Years, or Writing as a Way Out,’ Art History 32, no. 4 (2009): 806.
9.  Idem, 807.
10.  Ibidem.
11.  Rifkin, ‘A Transcription of Adrian Rifkin’s “On Writing the Last Line First”,’ 15.
12.  Greetham, ‘Who’s In, Who’s Out.’
13.  Idem, 4.
14.  Idem 3–4.
15.  Idem, 19.
16.  Ibidem.
17.  ‘First Fleet: Aboriginal Australian artist Daniel Boyd’s new installation, Natural History Museum,’ 2012,
18.  Ibidem.
19.  Ibidem.
20.  Natural History Museum, ‘First fleet collection,’ accessed July 25, 2016,
21.  Bradley, ‘The Seduction of the Archive,’ 109.
22.  Suzanne Keen, Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction, New Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003).
23.  Idem, 2.
24.  Idem, 5.

About the author:

Jessyca Hutchens is a doctoral student at the Ruskin School of Art and the University of Oxford, working on a thesis on contemporary artist-in-residency programs. She is a Charlie Perkins scholar and originates from Western Australia. She is also a co-founder and editor of OAR.