Archiving the Arts – Talk at the Bluecoat, Liverpool

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Art historian Antony Hudek chaired the talk which featured three contemporary artists and writers as well as the Bluecoat director, Brayn Biggs.

Hudek framed the opening discussion around the tension between archive as a site and archive as substance.

Within the notion of spatial, Hudek was also keen for the paths of genealogies to be considered as archive spaces.

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Hudek pointed out that there’s been a shift in rhetoric around arts engagement with the archives; there used to be an emphasis on the trace, and what the archive revealed – in other words it was about disclosure. Now rhetoric is based on present activation and the current, present surface of the archive. And this activity is not nescessarily to do with us – archives are active without us.

Another interesting point that came up was that, for archives to remain active in cultural experience, to become the site of engagement they have to be open to foreigness, in other   words, archives exists through being misinterpreted. They function best when beingappropriated by someone/something other to it.

imageImage ImageImageThe thing about archives  on display is that you get a 1960s video of Yoko Ono next to a photo of people from the 60s in funny clothes drinking tea.

‘The Arts and Archives’ Workshop Day at the Arts Council Manchester

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My notes from the day (barely written up)

  • Initial conversations immediately revealed a ‘gap’ in language between archivists and artists working in archival collections. The phrase ‘creating an archive’ was constructively shot down by a leading archivist saying that archives are never ‘created’, they form organically through use, need and event. (And engagement with them will point back to those facts.) This notion made me think of the category in the Birmingham University Cadbury Library, of ‘artificial archives‘, in other words collections put together by a single person, deliberately appropriating items into a set. It’s their historical determination now that points to that fact of that collection and makes it an archive – rather than any enthusiast’s collections having archival status. 
  • (This assertion that archives are never created made me wonder where the space is for artistic intervention in them. Models of engagement and navigation can be pre-emptive and ‘creative’)
  • This point was emphasised – ‘Archives are anything that tells you who-what-where-when-how-why’ – An archive is the stuff, the place is arbitrary. 
  • An interesting difference that was pointed out between archives and museum collections is the issue of ownership. Archives are held on a permanent loan basis – they sit in the institutions and libraries purely to be preserved and for the sake of access. This is a key political point, in contrast to museum/gallery collections where a huge amount of effort is put into clarifying ownership and securing that. 
  • (The more I learn about the mechanisms of archives the more I feel they suit the discursive nature of the kind of art (and poetry) I’m into – artwork that resists commodity, single object, primary document. In archives the emphasis is on access and engagement, telling the whole story including the metadata, including the dirge and the shit, not claiming ownership, just presenting the material.)
  • The issue of metadata is a practical one as well as ethical – an email thread has to be archived with its contextual information otherwise it means nothing and isn’t strictly ‘provable’ 
  • The issue of media-specific artwork came up particularly when specific to unstable media. (Jpeg art is the a good way forward.)
  • A reflective moment considered that all this anxiety over archives is a cultural quirk. We are a record keeping culture and have been since medieval times. Our notion of heritage is culture-specific. An archive made in the UK of Chinese records is not a Chinese archive, but a British archive of Chinese records.
  • Overall the day framed the relationship between the arts and archives as a pretty standard engagement. An arts organisation or individual would research an archive and then create an art product based on that research. I am interested in the act of archiving, the act of navigating and negotiating an archive being the site of practice.
  • Altogether there was an over emphasis on funding strategies and preservation issues, rather than critical thinking about how the mechanisms relate to each other. (someone asked, what about Fluxus?) 

Text Art Archive Announcement – Sentences, by Robert Grenier

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A recent and major addition to the Bury Art Museum collection and Text Art Archive is an original edition of Robert Grenier’s Sentences.

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The seminal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry artwork is a case of 500 5″ x 8″ index cards each with a short typewritten poem, or sentence.

Bury Art Museum and the Text Art Archive have bought Edition of ‘W’ of a newly discovered batch of 26 that were printed at the same time as the original 1978 print run of 200, but lost until 2011.

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Grenier has said that the unbound index cards are an homage to Robert Creeley’s, ‘Pieces’ which Grenier said accomplished steady sounding of the voiced process and real-time experience. (See/hear interview between Grenier and Charles Bernstein).

Of the 500 cards there is no relation of one poem to another – apart from the ‘fictions’ makes when read when made. Also, in Grenier’s performances of the work we can hear the sound quality and verbal events that each card brings about. Each utterance is an obscure, limited sentences that introduces a possibility wide field of possibilities.

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They are very literal, simple words that have a projective capacity and in the way of sound poetry, create an extra-linguistic “reality”’.

Most of the poem cards were written in New Hampshire where there was “lots of white space around”.

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Over the next few weeks I will interview Gallery Directory, Tony Trehy and Grenier researcher, James Davies (both poets themselves influenced by Grenier) to find out more about what this acquisition means to the Bury Art collection and the Text Art Archive, and also to practitioners in the UK.

Meeting at the Whitechapel Art Gallery Archive with Gary Haines and near the V&A with Anisa Sarah Hawe

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Meeting Minutes book – 1899

Today I met with the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s Archivist, Gary Haines. Gary is coincidentally a fellow School of Art  Birkbeck researcher as well as being the key body in charge of the Whitechapel’s vast archive of  records produced by the Gallery from the past 100 years, including publications, rare documents, artists’ letters, photographs, graphic works, press records, exhibition plans and installations, recordings on tape and videos of artists, critics and curators.

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Hepworth Exhibition Poster

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Photo Archive folder

The Whitechapel Archive is the perfect model to gauge and consider the systems in place in the Text Art Archive. The huge size of the Whitechapel archive underlined the necessity to keep archives somewhat loose, let its organisation anticipate a researcher’s wanderings, rather than strictly map them; do not lose sleep over ‘best practice’, let the logic and idiosyncrasies of the material guide how you structure the collection. 

Here it was wonderful to see the feedback between the archive and the gallery – however they do not archive the actual art works, the ‘WAG Archive’ is mainly composed of exhibition material, admin and catalogues, press cuttings and education packs. While there is a generative and key system of exchange between the collection and the exhibition galleries, the archive a primarily document-based. 

The reading room and archive exhibition room was definitely inspiring in terms of what can be set up as a space for engaging with archive material within the context of gallery curation. 

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It was a pleasure to talk with Gary about the practicalities as well as the intellectual practices of archiving. As researchers we shared a perspective on the various ‘ways into’ the material aspect of archives and how a priority for a project like this is to balance preservation with access. How one can experiment with access to the material  however is what will make this project innovative – as well as the accessioning of artworks with the records.

 

 

 

Visit to Copenhagen and Aarhus

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Last week I made a trip to Denmark in order to make connections, see different art archives and attend a conference  on curating sound art-archives.

On my first day I met with the wonderful artist and writer Ida Marie Hede Bertelsen in a bar in Copenhagen.

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We talked about our current projects and some book-works she is involved in and her forthcoming publication. She is going to hopefully send some work to the archive.

The next morning I got up very early and took a plane to Aarhus. When I arrived I went straight to the Kunsthal – an art gallery and key international project space directed by Joasia Krysa.

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The seminar was on curating sound art archives and was part of a three-stage seminar series on curating sound art. The seminars are organized by LEA and the LARM infrastructure Project (www.larmarchive.org). In close Collaboration with Kunsthal Aarhus, ZKM – Zentrum für Kunst und Medietechnologie, Goldsmiths, the Courtauld Institute, The University of Westminster and OCR (Operational and Curatorial Research). The event in Aarhus was introduced and hosted by Morten Søndergaard who opened up the ideas around interactive sound archive designing and how this specifically relates to the archive of the Finnish artist Erkki Kurenniemi.

The first presentation was by the artist group, Constant, who at Documenta 13 in Kassel had that curated a project that experimented in interactive installations of Kurenniemi’s vast and discursive cassette archive of ‘sound diaries’. Constant described that their challenge with this material ranged from the sheer vastness of the archive, to the ambiguous material of Kurenniemi’s sound documenting (sometimes interviews, sometimes humming and talking to himself in the car, sometimes intelligible nonsense, sometimes clear theorisations on art and science, sometimes reading out passing cars’ license plates), as well as the ethics of essentially making public the private records of people implicated by the audio – some cassettes even contain audio of Kurenniemi having sex . Therefore the processes through which the sound data had to be made accessible had to cushion and protect the individual characters in the diaries, filter and frame the large amount of material, as well as best representing the spirit of the archive. The key philosophy Constant appropriated in their approach was one of ‘random access’.

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A question on the contingency of media histories and the interlocuction of the tape machine led to a wonderful comment from a member of Constant saying that in the tapes of Erkki in his car speaking/whistling/humming to himself, it’s clear that the combination of the car and the tape machine are the instrument.

‘Random access’ was the answer to the question: what you do with a mass of unformed, unorganised material, how do you build an interface that maintains the integrity of the archive.  For Constant this involved placing a series of algorithms onto the raw, digitised sound data. One such algorithm was called ‘Gradual Average’ which overlaid the sound information, each tape at a time, gradually and then gradually unlaid them, providing a spectrum of sound information. Within this spectrum what became clear – which hadn’t been apparent in the arduous process of listening to the tapes individually – was that Erkki’s voice (whether talking, humming, nonsensing) was the predominant sound in this archive.

exhibition - CERTAIN PECULIAR THINGS AND IDEAS, OFTEN FAILED (OR, ON HUMANS, MACHINES AND RUNNING ALGORITHMS)

Constant’s use of these devised software mechanisms for framing the archive also raised the question of what their role is in making the archive accessible: where they simply composing a new sound piece from the data? Were they behaving as artists, curators or archivists? For them the question was easily dismissed, what was important was the valued access to the archive.

This was a question that came up through the day – was the creative designing of interactive archives being an artist?  Or another role? For me the question was to be turned on its head. What do the innovative interactive interfaces do to  the role of the visitor-researcher and how does it frame their encounter? What do these instances of ‘archive roulette’ do to the archival knowledge? Or, what kind of archival knowledge is gained from these encounters? This is a question I put to Morgens Jacobsen who curated an intriguing sounding ‘audiobar’ with sound files coded into different coloured bottles that could be played at a specially designed bar. This took random access and interactivity to a new level that even more so raised the question archive knowledge. Jacobsen right emphasised the value of the kind of ‘stumble-upon content’ and the kind of knowledge-experience this allows.

The exhibition on at he Kunsthal was called  CERTAIN PECULIAR THINGS AND IDEAS, OFTEN FAILED (OR, ON HUMANS, MACHINES AND RUNNING ALGORITHMS) and was part of the same season of programming by SYSTEMICS #1 and was, in itself answering some of the questions being untangled in the conversation.

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That night I was introduced to the another major art location in Aarhus, the incredible Godsbanen. An enormous arts complex in an old railway station. Located at the Godsbanen at the Aarhus Literature centre who are currently working on a new Art Writing programme and masterclass. At the Godsbanen, introduced to me by Anne Steen Himmelstrup, they even have small apartments – where the train drivers used to sleep – for residencies and overseas guests. Like me…

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The next day saw the beginning of a series of talks hosted by the literature centre as a launch to their art writing project – also held at the Kunsthal. I was lucky to catch the first talk by Caroline Bergvall who has been a major informer to their project.

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Caroline’s talk was typically invigorating to my thinking about writing practices and: writing as articulation’; approaching material ‘illogically’; testing the smallest point of language materials; ‘body-led speech’; how to learn from and converse directly with other artists through their archive.

The art writing programme is certainly one to watch and I’m excited to see it develop.

I had to rush from there to the airport and fly back to Copenhagen.

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Archive the Mess

A perception shift that was necessary for me to get this project moving, and to begin to function as an archivist, was to resist viewing the archive from a researcher’s point of view. (I don’t need to lose my practitioner’s point of view – otherwise how would I understand vagueness?). As I researcher I would engage with the archive at the front door, by looking for the subject; an artist or a specific event. But from this back door perspective, there is no subject in the archive, only records gesturing towards the existence of a subject or an event. There are chains of evidence, led by documents that support the fact of the collection. Everything is kept in the archive on the basis that it is part of the evidential chain that leads to the fact of the collection. Curating an archive is not so much about imposing order onto chaos, but articulating the collection’s mess.Image

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