Experiencing Archives

Judy Vaknin and Victoria Lane of the Art Archives Consultancy

DACS Foundation’s Art360 Project foregrounds artists’ archives and addresses the issues of how the archive can be instrumental in providing an artistic legacy. This is part of an ongoing discourse about the significance of archives and the mutability and contested nature of the concept.

Jacques Derrida gave his lecture ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’ at the Freud Museum in London in 1994.[1] His work had a compelling effect on perceptions of the relationship between archives and memory and how the archive functions socially. It provided a critical framework in which interpretations of the archive and practices based on these can be explored. A shift occurred — from a focus on the final artwork towards an exploration of how and why art was produced — from product to process and the archive became the means of demonstrating the ‘becoming’ of art and the artist, as it could provide a multitude of perspectives and contexts.

Re ROOTED Hull Time based Arts Timeline by Simon Poulter 2017

Re ROOTED Hull Time based Arts Timeline by Simon Poulter 2017

As archivists, who mainly work with artists’ archives, we come from a different starting point. We begin with what are often seen as mere by-products or a mass of inconvenient dusty papers accumulated and produced during the artist’s everyday working life. We, as archivists, would accord this archival material much greater significance…as the material traces giving evidence of past action which can function as a prosthetic memory. In fact, it is relatively common that what we would define as an archive, is completely unrecognised as such by the artist or their family. In many cases, the idea of an artist’s archive is misunderstood as a description of the artworks, a catalogue raisonné. This can be part of an archive, but only provides the metadata[2] about the art — not the process of how the art came into being.

So, what is an archive? According to the official definition by professional archivists, archives are: ‘Materials created or received by a person, family or organisation, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in them or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator’.[3] They are comprised of unique, unpublished material — a primary source, in contrast with secondary sources like library material, which consists of published material.

Archival Vitrine at the ReROOTED exhibition Hull 2017

Archival Vitrine at the ReROOTED exhibition Hull 2017

An archive can include correspondence, diaries, sketchbooks, writings, lectures, slides, photographs, reference sources, such as collections of postcards, press-cuttings, private view cards, posters, catalogues. It also includes all digital material produced by an artist such as e-mails, reports, funding applications and digital representations of their work. These materials combine to show the working practices, relationships, personal life, interests and inspirations of the artist. What becomes apparent through these traces, are the contexts in which the artist produced their work and how and who they worked with. It shows the interrelated network of associations.

One of the first rules of archiving is to retain original order. This is in order to preserve existing relationships and significance that can be inferred from the context of documents. Knowing how someone organised his or her records gives clues about their working practices and personality. So it’s important to be careful to keep documents as they have been arranged by the artist.

Archives are catalogued very differently to books or museum items. Archival cataloguing methods recognise that archives do not exist as single items; they are catalogued as a hierarchy from the general to the specific — from the whole to the part. The story of the relationship between documents is preserved in this way. The international standard for archival cataloguing is known as ISAD(G).[4] The appraisal, arrangement and cataloguing of archives require skills and knowledge which depend on professional training and experience and specific archival software is required that can accommodate the hierarchical and inter-relational nature of the catalogue.

Along with helping to ensure the physical preservation of the artist’s archive by transferring it to acid-free packaging and boxes and storing in environmentally controlled conditions, as well as preserving original order, the archivist’s traditional role is, as far as possible, to put the material ‘on ice’. To provide a truthful arrangement of material that can tell the artist’s story for future researchers.

Anne Bean and Richard Wilson inspecting object retrieved from Paul Burwell’s Boathouse in Hull 2017

Anne Bean and Richard Wilson inspecting object retrieved from Paul Burwell’s Boathouse in Hull 2017

However, this role is changing and the interpretation of the archive is also going through a transition, particularly in the art world. Lines are blurring between the archive and the art work; the artist and the archive; the archivist and the curator. The opening and arrangement by archivists of the contents of Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules was presented as performance; Barbara Steveni’s I AM AN ARCHIVE presented her as a living archive; Michael Landy’s mechanical destruction of his own archive as performance; archives, such as letters and sketchbooks, are now presented alongside artworks in most major art exhibitions, to provide context and information, but also as art objects in themselves.

It’s more common for an archivist to work on an archive after the death of an artist, but in recent years our experiences of working with living artists has transformed our work and made us more aware of the transformation of the archive during the process of cataloguing and preservation. We try to work with artists or their family as much as possible and record moments of recollection and connections that we would otherwise have missed. The artist’s engagement with the processes of our practice allows us to add new layers to their archive and in many cases, helps us to reexamine our own role.

This reinterpretation of the archive is exciting and challenging, but we also champion the value and importance of the traditional role of the archivist in preserving the legacy of artists for future generations.

To contact Judy Vaknin and Victoria Lane to discuss any of the above content, please e-mail: info@artarchivesconsultancy.co.uk.

[1] Published as ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’, first published 1995 by Éditions Galilée, first English translation by Eric Prenowitz 1996.

[2] Metadata is data about data, see: http://www.language-archives.org/documents/gentle-intro.html and http://www.niso.org/apps/group_public/download.php/17446/Understanding%20Metadata.pdf for further details

[3] Society of American Archivists, Glossary http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/a/archives accessed 8/12/16

[4] See: http://www.icacds.org.uk/eng/ISAD(G).pdf