The collection and the archive

My father cleans seeds: oats, barley, soybeans, wheat, clover- this is a list that comes to me from my memory of working with him. Cleaning seeds means to separate the grain from the chaff, to take the raw harvest from the field and prepare it for sale to farmers. In the space where he cleans the seeds, ‘the mill’, the harvest is sorted and bagged. The bags of seeds are then transferred to ‘the shop’, where they are arranged (classified) and stored based on the type of seed and customer’s order.

When I was a child my father taught me how to recognize the different seeds. He has a glass-topped wooden box in which types and varieties of seeds are sorted into separate compartments. Using this box of seeds as a teaching tool he taught me to see the difference between oats and wheat, the difference between varieties of clover. I carry the image of these differences in my memory and can say that oats are longer, and wheat is more stout, or clover can appear as barely visible, perfectly round grains.

My father has a collection of seeds, and an archive. These two things he has separately. The collection of seeds is what waits for the farmer: bags of seeds lined up in categories. This is a collection for sale, for use, for consuming. This collection does not exist for the specific purpose of being related to memory. Of course, if you ask my father or I if the oats in that bag call forward a memory, we will say yes, and tell you a story. But that is not the purpose of the bag of oats, or the collection of bags of oats. The memory is surplus; the purpose is for the oats to be used.

An archive is a gathering together of signs with the intention for those signs to be related to memory. It is this intention, the relationship between the sign and the memory that differentiates the archive from the collection. The glass-topped box filled with seeds is an archive: it is a collection of signs representing the greater categories of oats, barley, soybeans, wheat, clover, that are there to create or later call to mind the memory of oats, barley, soybeans, wheat, clover. This box exists for no other purpose than for its relationship to memory, either in the creation of or the recalling of. These seeds are separated from their purpose of growing a plant, or feeding someone.

I have read the phrase ‘history begins with the gesture to put apart.’ The archive is this gesture, in both a conceptual and physical sense (as in the bodily act of placing an object apart). The seeds that my father keeps categorized at the shop have not been put apart. They are still a part of a process consistent with their use: within days, a farmer will pick up a bag and open it, empty it into a seeder and drive back and forth across a field, spreading the seeds. The seeds in the box will not be used in this way. They are not going to be taken out from the box, they have been put apart from the process of planting and growing in order for them to be used as a sign for the calling of memory.

This calling of memory is undocumented. Until today, I have not spoken about this box of seeds, but at this moment and with this gesture I make a document that says: these seeds bring to mind the oats that I put into bags the spring when I was 18, or the time I looked into my father’s hand (dirty from working) while he showed me the different varieties of clover, or the way the box reminds me of the collection of spices my mother had in the kitchen when I was a child (also in a glass-topped wooden box, the spices the same earthy colours as the seeds). The neglect to document memory in relation to an archive gives the archive its appearance of objectivity: the seeds represent seeds, mean seeds, call to mind seeds. But I know that this is not the case: it is a false objectivity. My question, with designing a system for archives, is how to bring forward the relationship between the gathering of signs and memory so that the objectivity of the representation (the sign) will be destabilized. I am doing this because I believe that this false objectivity has consequences for those things that do not fall within its scope, ways of being that are not recognized in an objective view.