Guest Blog: Instagram & Digital Archives

The artist’s archive can be just as much a source of creative material than a product of it. As Rut Blees Luxemburg explains in her interview with Art360 Foundation, she prefers to think of the archive as an active repository: an evolving record of work and material that is in constant use.

An ever-increasing presence of the art world online is largely thanks to the migration of artists’ and galleries’ archives onto social media, as they become more active and accessible than ever before. The interactivity and spontaneity of platforms like Instagram is suited perfectly to the needs of artists working today, as they are free to share so much more than just their finished work.

From empty office lobbies to accidental sculptures and even other artists’ work (with permission!); videos, images and photographs uploaded to Instagram both intentionally and inevitably mould an artist’s visual identity as they curate their feeds into an informal but illuminating visual archive. These structured, chronological feeds have the potential to reach far more people than formal gallery exhibitions – especially for smaller and emerging artists - and despite their gridded format, allow for endless experimentation. The ability to edit, rework and play with images reflects the open and "un-precious" nature of any artist’s studio, and lifts the pressures of having to present resolved or even necessarily relevant work. Instagram provides the opportunity to bring the artist’s archive alive, and dispels the preconception of archives as dust-covered boxes and filing cabinets locked away in basements.

Artist Yuri Pattison exploits his Instagram feed to full effect, curating a visual archive of places, buildings, objects and aesthetics that inform and reflect on his own practice. While none of his exhibited work is shared here, this active image bank instantly gives followers a seductive idea of Pattison’s interests and attractions – many of which consist of ephemera and brief encounters -  and should be considered just as much an archive as his website or gallery exhibition records. His presence on social media is a great example of how artists working with new and digital media can expand their archive and audience, while at the same time interacting with the very platforms and domains that are being explored in so many contemporary practices.

Working with the Art360 Project, David Batchelor also provides an effective insight into his life and work via Instagram. His archive of images includes a range of other colourful artworks and exhibits from both modern masters and his contemporaries, as well as his own photographs of found objects and places – with a particular attraction to geometric floor tiles! What is most exciting however, is the sharing of the artist’s studio space: an insight into his working environment, featuring colour experiments, trials and sketches. They are bluntly captioned ‘studio wall’, ‘studio detail’ or ‘studio figures’ but this behind-the-scenes archive gives us an invaluable sense of Batchelor’s working process, and establishes a more intimate relationship with the artist than we might ever have had otherwise. This process is most explicit and most fun in his time-lapse videos of exhibition installation – at Matt’s Gallery, for example. A novel archiving method in its own right, sharing this video allows us to see every step of the process and engage with the work on another level. This certainly seems to work to the artist’s advantage – and incites unanimously positive and excitable comments. These studio insights remind me of Polly Morgan’s Instagram updates – sharing the gory process of her taxidermy works before they are immaculately and magically transformed. There is certainly an argument that these demystifying updates may blunt the allure and impact of the finished works – but these images are a crucial part of the artists’ working archives nonetheless.

Social media archives can be much more than just active historical repositories; they can look forwards and anticipate exciting artistic progress. The reach of networks like Instagram allows artists to create a buzz around their work before it has even reached public exhibition. Jon Rafman’s fascination with internet culture and virtual worlds particularly suits this kind of dissemination, and was used to great effect for his Dream Journal video series among other works. Alongside a number of ‘work in progress’ posts of digital models and plans, by leaking excerpts of his extended video work intended for gallery installation, Rafman constructs a future archive of his work that both introduces and documents his practice. Thanks to the length and nonlinear nature of the video, these excerpts take little away from the experience of the installation itself (for those able to see it), while giving millions of other people an opportunity to see his work online. It seems there is no reason why an artist’s archive must be restricted to the past and present. The ability to instantly share work with so many people gives artists complete control over their material and the way it is received by audiences.

It is clear that social media has offered a new and exciting way for artists to explore the possibilities of a digital archive. Bringing together the ephemeral, material, visual and abstract, curated feeds on Instagram act as repositories that can record, reveal and anticipate both new and old artworks in a way that no physical archive ever could. There is no doubt that the digital archive is a hugely underestimated tool, and we should celebrate and exploit its potential for artists and audiences alike.

Harry Coday