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Of Archives and Unfulfilled Romances Romances Carmen Cebreros Urzaiz

Image: Uncertainty Principle (Henrietta Sontag) by Joseph Cornell

Of Archives and Unfulfilled Romances Romances For my beloved friend Maestro Lalo Personal archives are regarded as portals towards the other subjects private sphere. It does not matter if it was the owners will for it to be an archive; it does not matter how well organized and classified his/her owner kept it; it does not matter if it acquired its status as archive out of an accidental assemblage. Archives are intrinsically residual anyways. They are collateral entities.

While belonging to their living proprietors and collectors, archives exist as exercises on the implementation of hierarchy; more or less well achieved, more or less failed, yet always exercised. Their items are preserved out of meaning; an immediate, imminent and unquestionable meaning, or meaning projected for a yet amorphous future, or forgotten meaninglessness that allowed them to infiltrate and stay. Floating and flowing meaning.

Once they are adopted for their (imaginary) perpetual preservation, archives remain to be read in between the lines, for connections to be made (maybe between it and other archives), to speculate, to find hidden stories, to be narrated, to be completed, to be transgressed. Such an adoption becomes its first initiatory transgression. The archive is taken up by the institution and now it the archive will have to follow the rules. For it to fairly coexist with its new younger and older siblings (the other personal or institutional archives), it will have to become uniformed: to be scrutinized, to become readable, to be searchable, to be inventoried, to be historicized. * * *

While exploring the online inventory of Susan Sontags collection, sheltered by the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA, I found, among the different categories in it, one that captured my attention on top of the rest: Artwork by others, and within it another pair, Joseph Cornell Artwork and Joseph Cornell box.

The arbitrariness of my prejudice and the ignorance in the appealing shape of curiosity about this affiliation, is what brought me up to the encounter with these objects, with these subjects, but furthermore, with the reflections I am about to expose. This unexpected affiliation could be described from the vantage point where I was starting as one between an artist, whose description in my records would be male, career started in the early twentieth century, not quite avant-garde, although contemporary to them, old and to some extent outsider, the last two specially if considered next to Susan Sontag. And she, a fierce feminist, critic of critique, profound analyst on the tricks and perversions of representation (particularly photography), whose taste I would have never associated with stuffed birds and butterflies, ballerinas, or vintage paraphernalia, no matter how intriguing the juxtapositions. But again, it was my prejudice the one speaking at all times at this point. Another thing is worthy to be mentioned: I was somehow placing my admiration (for both) somewhere in between that line drawn by my constructed extremes.

Were they two friends? was my first question. They must have been friends I assumed, otherwise what could be the reason for things ascribed to Cornell being in Sontags archive, in such a private redoubt of her, instead of being in a museum or an auction house, in case they whatever they were at that pointwere works of art. Keeping and accumulating things from another person necessarily imply some kind of empathy, appreciation or affection, unless it is treated as a distanced object of study which, again, didnt seem part of Sontags field of interest, in which case there is a possibility for such a thing or things to be regarded as the most despicable ones, but never something that only inspires indifference.

What was then the reason for Cornell to occupy a space within Sontags space; to be among the matter that now composes the material remains of Sontag: those papers that she touched, saw, read, marked, folded, unfolded, and lived with, all of which nurtured or were waiting to nurture her affections, intellectual legacy and articulated discourse.

The distinction expressed in the inventory between Joseph Cornell Artwork and Joseph Cornell Box made the case even more enigmatic. Joseph Cornells artwork more often than not consisted on boxes with particular arrangements, assemblages and juxtapositions between objects and fragments of objects. What did these two different categories stand for? Which objects, documents or items are knit together by each? What kind of borders or limits do they draw? What borders or limits have drawn them?

My appointment is set. My day to meet with this box whatever it is, whatever is in it has arrived.

Archives are secluded places. The atmospheric resemblance between their reading rooms where their items are allowed to be inspected and the areas for prisoners to receive visitors is undeniable. It has to be that way. Bodily contact, sweat, friction, handprints, saliva, dust (which is in larger part an accumulation of death cells of bodies) all this has to be kept at minimum. What is at stake here is (imaginary) perpetuity, an image that is not compatible with bodies.

(T)he production of history is a physical endeavor. It requires a high tolerance for sitting and for reading, for moving slowly and quietly quietly among other bodies who likewise sit patiently, staring alternatively at the archival evidence and the fantasies it generates (Foster, 1995: 6). 6).

While I wait for my requested materials to arrive, I pick my seat and set my computer on the table. My next-chair neighbor acknowledges my arrival, and receives me by condensing her working space and discretely babbling about her unawareness of her sudden expansion over the table. She rearranges her materials and piles them up. I am allowed to examine one box at a time; obviously, my first choice is the Box 120, Folder 1/Wooden box

constructed by Joseph Cornell (5-3/8" x 14-3/4" x 3-1/2"). no date/ Physical Description: 1 item.1

What is this box? At first glance it is a gray cardboard box, just like those other populated by documents. I opened it, and I find a wooden box in vertical position tighten with foam to fit its container. It is a contained box. I pull it from its container; the first thing that this box is now, is a powerful smell.

I seize its shape and realize it is empty. It has no cover and by holding such vertical position it can not be a container in itself. It is an empty box filling, with its emptiness, another box.

The cardboard that protects this box shows a label Wooden box constructed by Joseph Cornell. This description immediately triggers my imagination. Constructed by speaks about a body that labors and transforms a material into an object with a purpose.

These five segments of (perhaps) pine wood, joined by ten headed nails at the bottom, four be-headed nails and two screws at the sides, some minor accidental marks of pen, and a scrape in one of its corners is still, and above all, a penetrating smell. I inhale with intentionality and try to think about Cornells workshop, about Sontags drawers, about the place where this box was resting two days before. I deliberately smell, and suddenly I fear someone will come to tell me that smelling is forbidden; that I have to return the particles that are now in my lungs, because they are the property of UCLA too. Nobody came. Empty boxes can give some much to talk about, but I suspect this one is not going to speak. Not on its own, not under these conditions.

Not all writing bodies, however, fit into the shapes that such theorics make for them. them. Some wiggle away or even lash out as the historian escorts them to their proper places, resisting and defying the sweep of significance that would contain them (Foster, 1995: 8). 8).

Quoted from the website and catalog of the Online Archive of California, in findaid/ark:/13030/kt2489n7qw/dsc/?dsc.position=5001#c02-

I put the box back in its container and request another box. Box 121 where All items originally inside wooden box are now.2

Archives are structured for bodies to manipulate them and inhabit them. How wide can be a box for a hand to hold it? How heavy could it be to be carried by the average archivist or user? How tight the folders inside can be before hands and fingers act clumsily, or brusquely, or result fat to pull between the folders with more force? How much free space should be considered to be left for fingers to penetrate and explore the insides of these boxes skillfully? How many shelves, rooms and buildings such freedom will require? How visually homogenous this boxes should look in order to allow the archivist to focus in the numbering and classifying system, and not be distracted by the features of the containers? How many boxes fit in the shelf? At which height shelves could be reached? How many shelves fit in the room? Which devices does bodies need to reach the higher shelves? How these shelves draw patterns, transform into corridors, into architectures? How bodies circulate and learn to be oriented in these labyrinths called archives?

This box, also gray, same size than the former one, contains a row of homogenous folders, homogenously disposed, all perfectly labeled. I peep out inside them. I see some postcards, letters, poems, drawings, the metallic cover of a chocolate-coin, a ring with a cat. I am not sure where to begin; then I pick the one at the front: Letter from Joseph Cornell to Susan Sontag, dated December 3, 1965. It is a typed letter on a white paper; not very appealing. I review then the labels and realize that the folders are organized according to the date; but half of them are not dated and relegated to the back. I explore then the first not-dated item: 2 torn portions of undated letter from Cornell, a Christmas postcard from December 23, 1908, and a cat stamp, with envelope postmarked November 29, 1965. 1965, 1908, no date. I can only take one folder with me to the table. I can not compare two items, unless I perform some kind of juggling while standing in front of the box. I pick the folder with the not-dated letter


The page is torn in two pieces, and the lower half is only a fraction of it. In this folder is also an envelope, and it is dated indeed. The date is November 30, 1965. I speculate that this folder contains the first correspondence that Cornell sent to Sontag. In the first dated letter, that I speculate is in fact the second, Cornell explains more about a former letter saying that one week ago he sent the fragment of an inept attempt to tell you of my appreciation for your very fine aperu on the subject. Cornell also explains that he could not bring it off adequately, and so (he) enclosed parts of it with Christmas greetings. The description coincides with the torn letter. I am however not sure if it was sent already torn, if Sontag did it, or if it happened while been looked up as an archival item. These labels and order seemed to conceal more than what they described.

In that dreamdream-like space that collects filmed or performed performed reconstructions of the past, visual images from the past, textual references to past bodies, historical bodies begin to solidify (Foster, 1995: 7).

The uniformed archive instigates the solidification of that former floating and flowing meaning, that I spoke about at the beginning of this text. The necessary homogeneity that prevents it from incommensurability, that makes it part of the archive, that allows it to fairly coexist with its younger and older siblings, erases and obscures classifying actions performed upon it. This makes the archive seem naturally ordered: systematized in an unquestionable manner. Yet we believe in these actions to make more accessible, more readable, more decipherable the documents and items contained.

When I recognized the narrative obfuscations that following the physical order of the archive was causing, by persuading me about its hygienic and objective structure, I decided to find out what was been obfuscated too by the fragmentation of the second and the third boxes (both containing items related to Cornell). Separation is an intrinsic archival operation.

UCLA purchased Sontags archive in 2002 while she was living and fighting cancer.3 The Online Archive of California explains the processing history of Sontags archive.
The Susan Sontag Papers came to UCLA in two installments. The first installment, received in 2002, was processed maintaining the organization created by Susan Sontag as it was transferred to UCLA. ()The second installment, received in 2005, was combined with the first installment, maintaining the organization and arrangement of the 2002 installment as much as possible. Due to the nature of the second installment materials, though, some changes were made to the existing organization and arrangement. 4

She died in 2004. This means that she pre-selected one part of it, and kept another part to be incorporated posthumously.

The box 122 of artwork by others is part of the selection integrated in the second installment. Among many others of different provenance, one last folder containing Cornells communication is in it, and it contains only one item: Greeting card from Joseph Cornell with envelope addressed to Susan Sontag (dated June 6 <sic>, 1969). This postcard depicts a geodesic sphere with ornaments of leaves resting on a double pyramid sustained by a geometrical base; a sticker of a robin (bird) was added to the illustration.

Much of Cornells work consisted in allocating objects, within an already existing structure a structure that he has established himself. One can evoke him working in a table with a lamp directing the light to his small elements, gluing them, fixing them together, carefully holding a dead butterfly, or an old piece of dusty paper, or a small sticker depicting a bouquet of flowers. One can imagine his delicate fingers placing this fragments with precision. Ingredients of this kind were sent to Sontag, some of them without further explanation; some others with added cryptic pieces of writing.

This was clearly not a friendship but something else. These letters, poems, random objects, pieces of paper, and valentine postcards forced me to review one of Sontags biographies

Avins, Mimi, UCLA Buys Sontag's Archive, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2002, in 4 Website and catalog of the Online Archive of California, in kt2489n7qw/admin/#processinfo-1.2.6

(published in 2000 before her archive became public); and this biography brought me to one about Cornell. Diverging of the friendship I have speculated about, what Cornell actually experienced was a strong crush for Sontag, arised while watching her speaking about education on TV (Rollyson, 2000: 94) and aggravated after reading a book review where she discussed Surrealism. They both met personally, Sontag paid a few visits to Cornells home in Manhattan. Apparently he gave her two of his boxes (apart of the plain box) and some of his experimental films, and he also created some works having her as inspiration, even using her image in one of them (Solomon, 1997: 314-315). Cornell seemed to be a person who lived in his head rather than his body () I saw what was there; he was fragile and thin and looked almost translucent. If I thought about what he did sexually, I guess I assumed he didnt do anything said Sontag about the artist in interview with his biographer (July 11, 1994) (1997: 314, 405). He then felt disappointed and send his assistant to request some of his gifts back (Sontag interviewed by Solomon, 1997: 314, 405).

Cornells last communication was the postcard with the sticker of the robin. Inside it is handwritten: From the hand of my gal Friday. Id be writing more if you were staying longer. / a bientot and dont forget (dated 6-23-69 but labeled as June 6, 1969).

The penpen-pushing body, after all, bears only the thinnest significance as an inadequate robotics, the apparatus that fails to execute the minds will (Foster, (Foster, 1995: 4). 4).

By stating whose body is performing the physical act of writing, and making clear that it is not him, Cornell charges the action with aura and meaning. He contests the irony proposed by Foster that acknowledges writing as a merely mechanical action. He makes clear for Sontag that it was his touch deposited in these objects that were reaching her, touching her, as he were making his desire manifest through his preeminent medium and life source: the associative objects, textures and elements added to his found and appropriated materials. By emphasizing that it was not him, but his gal (probably the same that visited Sontag to request the gifts back), he seals the breakage of this contact.

By bestilling themselves, modestly, historians accomplish the transformation into universal subject that can speak for all (Foster, (Foster, 1995:7).

Clearly Cornell was not counting that these pieces of his soul would end in boxes in the library of a university. He was not pre-cataloguing himself; but in fact he was, by stating the date, or not doing it in his correspondence.

I was able to trace these hints, to inquire on the physicality of archival organization, and finding some discrepancies within it, due to the fact that I was presently and bodily reading, traveling through the files, making choices that would favor my spatial constraint and preventing my expansion (on the table for example, in which case, perhaps my reading would be drastically different and my attention drawn towards some different aspect). It was my presence and contact with these objects what provided my illusion to feel that I am transgressing this archive by reconstructing a different temporality from it; one that is not its concealing hygienic cataloguing, neither the accumulated mixture inside the wooden box fabricated ex-profeso by Cornell, but a different one. As historians do, I am achieving for a few minutes the satisfaction of having achieved an authentic configuration, the one meant by the archive; accessing some this correspondence that even the biographers did not have access to or did not reviewed. But as it is also well known, historians achievements are historical too; and someone else would annex and refute my speculations to bring new ones, contaminated with his/her own questions, so full with the illusion of authentication.


Foster, Susan Leigh, Choreographing History, in Susan Leigh Foster (Ed.) Choreographing History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. p. 3-21.

Online Archive of California in

Rollyson, Carl Edmund, and Lisa Olson Paddock. Susan Sontag. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: the life and work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.


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