A Digital bilderatlas of Plague

From early anatomical illustration to August Sander’s sociological portraiture and digital experiments such as the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project, scientists, historians, archivists, artists and amateur collectors have composed archives of visual materials that reach towards an imagined and desired totality. This totality can be indexical, seeking to exhaustively catalogue a range of subjects; the imagined totality could also be the accomplishment of a more complete vision in the pursuit of civic, political, or aesthetic objectives.

Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas dissolves the boundaries between these two methodologies. Warburg built an extensive iconographic collection to permit a synchronic study of regularities and repetitions in visual and gestural forms. In the idiosyncratic arrangement of these images Warburg unravelled encyclopaedic methods of classification following other tracks and senses through the material, in the process creating a collection which ‘echoes’ the taxonomic solutions of systems of comprehensive knowledge (Weigel, 2013) but which bypasses their formal and aesthetic principles in order to create other relations, another historicity of the image, and a novel kind of vision.

As part of the project ‘Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic’ we are building a total archive of our own – an archive of global images of plague including photographs, scientific illustrations, sketches and caricatures. In order to do this we extract these images from colonial archives – archives haunted by failure, by the gaps on the map, by a persistent sense of disorder in the creation and maintenance of military and sanitary power/knowledge. Our re-archiving poses questions of the place of the image within assemblages of sense and resonance apart from but including those of the bureaucratic filing systems of the colonial and postcolonial archive. This re-contextualisation engenders questions about the multiple frames within which these images can be understood and analysed. This paper considers the methodological, ethical, and conceptual questions raised by our re-ordering of a disordered archive and asks what Warburg’s ‘iconology of the interspace’ can do to guide our approach to this eclectic and troubling collection.

Nicholas Evans

Lukas Engelmann

Christos Lynteris

Branwyn Poleykett

Presented at the Total Archive: Dreams of Universal Knowledge from the Encyclopaedia to Big Data conference at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 19-20 March 2015.


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