Gaps, Tears, and Dirty Hands

It’s a drizzling October morning and I’m visiting Joke Robaard’s studio in the Wittenburg building, located in a former elementary school in east Amsterdam. While she prepares coffee, I begin scanning her shelves. They’re filled with countless folders of varying colours and vintages, all carefully labelled: Archetypes, Faces, Machines, Seams, Tears, Folds, Ropes, Stripes, Backgrounds, Subcultures, Horses…

This is the fashion image archive that Robaard has been assembling since 1978, with thousands of pages and clippings from magazines, catalogues and other print media, all classified according to an eccentric and ever-evolving taxonomic system. Within any of the archive’s current general sections, sub-sections and sub-sub-sections open up. So in Backgrounds, for example, there are sections for images where Artworks, Food, Books, Cameras, Ruins, and Animals appear in the background of the shot. Then in Animals, say, you find separate sections for Bird/Penguin, Cow, Dog, Elephant, Horse, Monkey, Tiger/Leopard, and Zebra––these evidently being particularly prominent creaturely companions in fashion photography of the last forty years.

The first folder Robaard takes off the shelf to show me contains fashion editorials and campaigns, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, featuring a model in the foreground with a tiger or leopard in the background. Reading into these images, we notice that the model’s body always seems to take on qualities of the animal’s body in some way. Feline stripes or spots travel over to her skin via animal-print garments, or she imitates the speed and stealth of the hunting leopard while running alongside it.

This intercorporeality, where the boundaries of bodies are crossed via travelling images and mimicry, is at the heart of the fashion system. As with camouflage in the animal kingdom—where creatures take on the appearance of their contexts so as to blur the boundaries of their bodies—fashion is always about renegotiating the relations between the body and its surrounds: bodies extending out into others, world inscribing into flesh, appearances digesting their contexts.

Robaard’s archive arose out of curiosity, and irritation. As she began to pick up on certain cultural tendencies, shifts and repetitions that she found in fashion images, she responded by extracting and gathering up pieces. The archive was not meant as a means to an end, but as an ongoing practice of reading. As such, it is consciously incomplete, riddled with gaps, and always being reordered. Different projects—including films, performances, and publications—are approached by Robaard as a way to stage intersections in the archive, ensuring that it is not a fixed object but an ongoing process.

As a noun, “the archive” can imply a neutral receptacle. But if we move from a spatial towards a more temporal understanding, we can start to think of archiving as a verb in the continuous present tense. Because archives do not just passively house records of past events; they also have futural orientation. As Jacques Derrida reminds us, “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content.”1 So the way in which we record and store our records also produces what can be recorded and stored. Thus, what is at stake in the archive is, in Derrida’s words, “the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.”2


Robaard’s new film Small Things That Can Be Lined Up is still in post-production; next month it will premier here in the studio with a series of special screenings for the If I Can’t Dance Edition VI – Event and Duration finale. The film is the culmination of a process that began in January this year, with the Introductory Event held by If I Can’t Dance at the Cygnus Gymnasium high school in Amsterdam. Students from the school were invited to select from, read into, and reorganise images from Robaard’s archive, as a live presentation. Following this event, eight students––Sarah Ashworth, Luca Bonsange, Noah Claassen, Jacquy Chellit, Luca Bonsange, Milo Fordham, Marijn Huijers, Eva Vlasblom, and Jona Wolff––went on to perform versions of the process for the camera, making contact with material from the archive while staging both scripted and unscripted responses to it.

In the beginning of the film, we see selected pages from the archive arranged on the ground in a two-dimensional plane. Gradually this flat horizontality is disrupted, as the bodies navigating the space begin to isolate images and hold them up vertically for interpretation, while reciting excerpts from one of two texts selected by Robaard: Vilém Flusser’s Our Images, which explores the ways in which we read images and texts, and Plato’s The Statesman, in which weaving is proposed as a metaphor for the construction of a stable society. Through this process of selection, recitation, and response, the material becomes rearranged and new relations are animated across its surface.


In a text called Social Fabric (2013), Robaard weaves together selected threads from a range of other texts where the vocabulary of textiles has been picked up metaphorically.3 From Roland Barthes writing about description as “unthreading,” and Caroline de Gruyter reporting on economic “unravelling” in the Eurozone, we move to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari proposing “‘crazy quilt’ patch-working” as a philosophical strategy for assembling disjointed pieces—and through to Robert Bringhurst in the eighteenth century, who claims that “thought is a thread and the raconteur is the spinner of yarns, but the true storyteller, the poet, is the weaver.”

Given that the words textile and text share roots in the Latin textus for “woven cloth,” the literary abstraction of terms from the material practice of textiles is perhaps not so much of a stretch. But as Robaard observes, metaphors do not map direct equivalences. “Promiscuous words can stir up consciousness usefully, but when the elements break down and concepts fall apart, inevitably the outcome is altogether something else,” she writes. “Somewhere between fabricated language and real fabric there’s a tear, a hole; yet this ‘distressed’ gap is actually desirable. The gap, in fact, is a perfect place for testing the consequences of literary and concrete matter. The gap is the very essence of weaving.”

While speaking with Robaard in her studio about textile vocabularies and the ways in which they enter into theoretical writing, I’m reminded of a brief passage in the book Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, in which the philosopher of science Michel Serres insists that the directions of time are multifarious and unpredictable—and therefore not reducible to any fixed geometrical representation.4 To demonstrate his point, Serres turns to the crumpled fabric of a used handkerchief …

When you take your handkerchief and spread out the small square of cloth to iron it flat, you can perceive a neatly continuous surface with fixed, predictable distances between points. But as soon as you pick it up and fold or crumple it so you can put it in your pocket, two points that had been disconnected will rub up against each other. Furthermore, if one day you tear your handkerchief, two points that had been right next to each other will suddenly split up. Maybe they will reconvene elsewhere some time, but their proximity will no longer depend on the orderly continuum of a flattened horizontal surface.

The argument Serres is making here is that geometrical laws of proximity and distance depend on metrical abstractions that do not actually apply in our embodied experience of the world. Time, according to Serres, has been confused with metrical reading, where all points are lined up in order on a two-dimensional plane. But the way we experience time is closer to the crumpled, shredded, and continually rearranged fabric of a handkerchief-in-use, than to its untouched, ironed-out state.

Similarly, the archive is a fabric which we navigate via tears and folds—so new encounters with its surface mean that what was thought to be in the past can take on unexpected presence, and what was assumed to be current can suddenly be revealed as very old. The time that the archive holds and preserves is not a flat, unbroken, or clearly delineated surface; it’s a site of contact that is always being reconfigured. And this is precisely what is staged in Small Things That Can Be Lined Up: through bodily contact, the textures of the archive’s surface are being deformed and reformed.

Serres’ handkerchief metaphor is useful for thinking about the time of the archive, but he doesn’t extend it far enough to account for snot. The handkerchief is a piece of cloth designed to take on our externalised bodily fluids, especially those that are expelled from the face—tears and nasal mucus, perhaps some saliva and sweat. If the handkerchief is taken up as a model, then it should help us to understand time/the archive as a receptive surface that absorbs—and becomes reshaped by—encounters with bodies and the traces they secrete.


While Robaard and I speak and drink coffee and open up more folders and boxes, images are piling up on the table. She picks out a double-page spread with a Prada campaign from 1998 showing a male model standing in an unfurnished room wearing a crisp white shirt. According to Robaard, this campaign marks the first instance of alienation being constructed in Photoshop; it shows us alienation as an aesthetic that can be built and honed in postproduction. It seems to be a picture of sterile banality, except that the model has these extremely dirty hands, for no discernible reason. For Robaard this is a visual cue to read the movement between horizontal and vertical axes again; the soiled hands imply that this man had been crawling around in the ground somewhere, before becoming bipedal and freeing up his hands—although anything he touches now will also be soiled.

The students who intersect with the horizontal plane of pictures in Small Things That Can Be Lined Up are dressed in their own clothes—the only costume element is white cotton gloves, which they all wear while handling the printed matter. This is a performative nod to the aesthetics of the traditional archive, where white gloves are usually worn to prevent greasy traces of our bodies from accumulating on the archived material. But Robaard’s archive is never left untainted by the interruptions that she stages. Every encounter animates and contaminates the material in some way: new relations are forged, new categories are invented while others drop off, new gaps open up, and new textures emerge.



1 Derrida, Jaques, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics, vol. 25, no. 2, summer 1995, pp. 9–63; p. 17.

2 Ibid., p. 27.

3 Robaard, Joke, “Social Fabric,” Bulletins of The Serving Library #6, winter 2013.

4 Serres, Michel, and Latour, Bruno, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus, University of Michigan Press, Michigan, 1995, pp. 60–62.



This text was commissioned by If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want to be Part of your Revolution in Amsterdam for the publication accompanying Joke Robaard’s work Small Things That Can Be Lined Up, as part of If I Cant Dance Edition VI – Event and Duration, November 2016.