The artist at the centre of the conversation

Mark Waugh

The protocols of reading in our era are strange. We have access to an infinity of sources but often find ourselves drawing together ideas from the spray of the net. Contemplating the place of the artist within the notion of their legacy and archives led me briefly into the folds of; Walter Benjamin’s Archive (Verso 2015). Without irony I thought that text is a cipher for what we have encountered so far with the project Art360. For example I read how he kept meticulous notes of his daily reading in a leather bound journal; of which however only a fragment now survives. Moreover he reveals the lucidly pragmatic approach he has to the dissemination and therefore the collection of his works. Benjamin suggests:

“(D)isregarding the economic side of being a writer, I can say that for me the few journals and small newspapers in which my work appears represent for me the anarchic structure of a private publishing house. The main objective of my promotional strategy, therefore, is to get everything I write — except for some diary entries — into print at all costs and I can say that I have been successful in this — knock on wood! — for about four or five years.”

As a curator direct contact with artists is not always possible. Sometimes even artists die. However artworks have a different type of life as cultural artefact and commodity asset. The disciplines of Art History and Aesthetics were inspired by artworks of antiquity. Jacob Burckhardt published his master work,The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, whilst living in Basel, now a centre of the contemporary art market. Today knowledge of artworks is a commodity to be traded in its own right. ArtTactic and artnet are just two of the traders in data on the indexes of art values.

Following the lead of Benjamin we can locate a logic that suggests that the legacy of artworks is intrinsically linked to their cultural and economic value. The maintenance of a legacy is also the consolidation of a market.

We live in an era perhaps more informed by the implications of Benjamin’s classic essay, ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ published in 1936 before he went into exile. The volatility of the world in which artists make work is likewise reflected in their legacy. Moving between political regimes or merely adapting in the face of escalating property markets, forces artists to make decisions about what they can keep and what they must distribute or destroy. Of course increasingly a digital shadow of their career exists online which Benjamin may have found reassuring.

Instead of the Grand Tour we can take journeys with Google orbiting the cultural territory in which artworks have been made. However we can still quaintly suggest there is no substitute for directly experiencing and encountering the physical objects that artists produce or artefacts such as notebooks, collections of DVDs or images of works by other artists that inspire them. Of course this physicality is increasingly a proximity to a screen or laptop but this encounter with the aura of the studio is the type of thing that curators and collectors of art feel is a great privilege. In the artist studio wherever that might be: a purpose built space or a room in a hotel with a laptop, artists reveal the processes and complex considerations that prefigure the emergence of the artwork.

Art360 is an experiment that aims to understand the ways in which the contemporary artist or their heirs manages the diverse economies that inhabit this space of production and its relationships with cultural and economic markets that develop in relationship to their legacy.

We believe that the living artist is uniquely positioned to comment on how they currently manage access to their work and why and indeed what they hope for the future of their works.

To safeguard the cultural heritage of the future requires that the challenges of making work and preserving it are openly explored. We are navigating a landscape that moves between ‘piles of things’ to Dropbox. The challenges are uncannily domestic in many senses but also very specific to the ways in which artists live both within and at the edge of ordinary life.

Each artist participating in the project is asked to respond to a questionnaire and this is the baseline for the project on which increasingly complex and nuanced consultation and qualitative information will build. We are asking artists to describe in their own words the inventory and storage systems they currently use and how they would like to consolidate these. We are also asking what valuation of their works and archives have been commissioned and how this has resulted in formal legal structure for their legacy.

The artist’s consulted by DACS Foundation in the process to date have very different practices but have in common a desire to have their works. and archives accessible for researchers, curators, collectors and the public. The files are arranged according to different rules and often cover different modes of production.

The things that artists have are typically artworks which have been completed or are in progress, sketches and preparatory materials for artworks and ephemera connected to digital and physical activity related to their works.

Many of the artists to date have been early adopters of new technologies.Liliane Lijn started on an IBM and had the first Mac. This raises the paradox of our era in which the issue of reproduction demands we consider interoperability between software architectures and legacy platforms. Issues which are common in daily life become complex when related to the aesthetics and provenance of works created digitally by artists. The obsolete mediums of the modern age is a very long list. As traditional idioms such as 16mm become vulnerable the ways in which artists react to these questions has to be both pragmatic and conceptual. The Art360 conversation with artists allows them to remember and articulate the real issues that attend to the pressure on them to both maintain and create works simultaneously.

The location and status of the works that they no longer own is occasionally fraught as the owners are sometimes less diligent than the artists in terms of conservation. An artist’s materials are often unique or pushed to the limits of performance therefore there is simply nobody better positioned to advise on the preservation and conservation of their own works. Diaries and other sketches created when the works were made can help inform the care of artworks. Increasingly for more complex works artists create installation instructions which might cover anything from a neon to a repository for live CCTV feeds. The instructions for these works are not usually considered as part of the work but increasingly as the tools of production change making the work function is often difficult or impossible without them. But often institutions of course lose these manuals. The museum even in its contemporary form is largely based on a system of objects which is rooted in the nineteenth century and upgrading these systems are a challenge. This is a concern as the taxonomies of museums are now influenced by a common discourse such as Wikipedia.

Notebooks do of course leave an artist slightly vulnerable. A completed work of art is precisely that. Francis Bacon in his lifetime destroyed many works which he felt were wrong or incomplete. The legacy addressed in Art360 is open at this stage but we are imagining that collectively we will be able to understand the status of the archives and inventories of a sample of living artists and ultimately help develop policy based on this research to protect British soft cultural heritage.

Liliane Ljin said of the complex emotional place of an artwork:

“ I am not very private about my feelings. for my works. I cannot hide myself. I know that some other artists say they don’t want anyone to see what they have written until they’re dead and gone but, although I try and keep my private life separate, I have always mixed things up and that is difficult. My notebooks are inclusive, although I may have the intention of keeping family things separate, in reality, I don’t.”

The life of the artist is a life of complexities and their legacy will always be a reflection of that.

The question of the legacy also asks who has control of the artwork? Indeed once produced what privilege should the artist have? Again Ljin explains that:

“You can remake a work as it was and yes that is a copy but of something that no longer exists. Or you can revisit works that were made in the past and the new works made in the same spirit will be quite different. I don’t believe in linear time.”

The growth curve in terms of storage is growing rapidly as file sizes and resolution of imaging grows. This also brings the questions of security and potentially leads to the issues of licensing content as a means of sustaining the legacy, which returns us elliptically to the strategy deployed by Benjamin of distribution as a way of creating an archive of his writings.

The digital workflows of artists are of course financially demanding, keeping hardware and softwares updated. Sorting and storing photographs, sound files and movie files demand that artists create functioning and flexible systems for the access and sharing of metadata and source materials. All of this additional type of studio is often altruistic in order to let the public access the work of the artist without having to distract the artist from the main task of creating new works.

Maria Chevska said of her archives that the most coherent aspects are those from the production with Blackdog publishing of the book ‘Vera’s Room’.

“My ‘archives’ have existed as various piles in boxes, making a monograph (2005) meant that I worked with a designer to visually compile a representative selection of my work from ten years.”

This is typical of contemporary artists who use catalogues and monographs as an opportunity to edit and contain the limits of their legacy. Meanwhile artists like everyone else have to adapt and test new technologies. So we find Dropbox and Wetransfer amongst the tools used for sharing and organising files. External hard drives that get smaller but bigger in order to contain the expanding file sizes of HD video and RAW image files.

We also find artists are in fact also already dealing with legacy issues and in direct contact with major museums to negotiate. As Barbara Steveni candidly says:

“Well, I am told that archives are now ‘hot’ but John and I did not do archives — this stuff of looking at artists and their archives. I have gone from drawing to walking, I have always been carrying a line, it’s in my notes but often they are not legible, it’s an assemblage.”

So how does an artist negotiate for an assemblage of lines and connections?

For some artists of course all of this type of stuff is just in the way of making new stuff but for others it can be a powerful research tool and indeed a important repository to understand their works within a community of artists. Steveni said to us:

“I try and not throw away anything, I love to keep my exchanges with other artists I am connected with, ‘the engines’ as I call them, the people who take actions.”

What does it take to help artists take control of their legacy? Our first steps suggest it perhaps demands that we understand that this is an issue they take most seriously. It is allowing artists to help us to think through the materiality of being.

“I did the will and had a stiff coffee afterwards,” said Steveni as we sipped a strong espresso. Legacy planning yes she can dig that.

Mark Waugh is an artist, curator and Head of Research & Innovation for DACS.