Manufactured nostalgia, authentic structure

We threw a new years eve party this (last?) year. We decided early on that we wanted to have a costume party of some kind, and after tossing a few themes about with various friends we settled on one we thought would work for everyone: we would have a 90s party. Reuben and Kate’s all or nothing 90s party.

Why 90s? Most of our friends are in the 25 to 35 age group, so they were teenagers in the 90s. This is more important than you might think: because we were teenagers, the 90s was the period in our lives when we really started engaging with the world, when we became aware of music, and art, and cinema, and each-other. It was a formative period. And because we lived it, we knew all the fine details. No clichés and stereotypes. We remember exactly what we wore. We were there, man.

So: we wanted our invitation to reflect the party theme, and to act as a nostalgia trigger — something to remind our friends of the 90s, to inspire them when it came to costumes, to get them in to the right mood. We wanted it to be fun.

In the past, Kate and I have made well received video invitations for events (another party, and a wedding). This was our original plan: to collect classic 90s videos (movie trailers, TV shows, advertisements) and produce a video mash-up in the style of Liquid Television. But after some discussion we realised that no, a video wasn’t actually appropriate.

Why? Because in the 90s, amateur video production was expensive and hard. It would have been almost impossible to collect all of those videos in one location and edit them together. You couldn’t send out a video invitation to someone without posting them a videotape, let alone send them one over the dial-up internet.

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In Archive Fever 1, Derrida suggests that the process of archivization (consigning an external trace of an object to the archive) is determined by technological constraints such that it directly affects our reading of history. Or: we are limited in what we can capture in the archive by technological constraints. (Full disclosure: I am yet to read Archive Fever, my knowledge here is second-hand via Marlene Manoff 2 ).

The archivization argument seems to point to the political implications of the archivists curatorial decision: you can only add the objects that the technology will allow — “the structure of the archive determines what can be archived” 3 — thus determining what can be added to (and hence, retrieved from) the historical record.

But this technological limitation is also interesting when considered in the context of a layperson readingthe archive, especially if he/she is reading for some kind of nostalgic gratification. The structure of the archive is laden with meaning, and the technical constraints of a period are essential markers of the authenticity of the archival object.

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Ok, so what does any of this have to do with an invitation to a 90s party?

Well, we wanted to create a (loosely defined) archive: a collection of curated works, representative of the era, with the goal of manufacturing nostalgia for the 90s. But for our invitation to be an authentic nostalgic trigger, we required more than just the correct archival objects: we required the correct structure, the correct technical limitations. And this was the 90s — when we, the non-archivist laypeople, began to break the boundaries between the personal collection and the public one.

I’m talking of course about the personal “home page” — the first living archive. So, without further ado, I present to you our own attempt at manufactured nostalgia: Welcome to my home page.

  1. Derrida, Jacques. 1996. Archive fever: a Freudian impression. University of Chicago Press. 
  2. Manoff, Marlene. 2004. “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 4 (1): 9-25. 
  3. Ibid. p. 12