Thinking Outside the Acid Free Box

Film Star 1960 by John Latham 1921- 2006

John Latham, Film Star, 1960, Books, plaster and metal on canvas, 160cm x 198.1cm x 22.8cm, Tate

What are artists’ archives? With this post, and others to follow, I will map out the many different shapes, intentions, and processes that can make up artists’ archives. It’s about more than boxes and folders—I’ll explore many different creative archiving possibilities for artists. Sure, beneath the shadows of post-structuralism and desiring machines,1 any kind of archive resists easy situating—but I want to contest that artists’ archives deserve special attention in the discourse of how we go about preserving and shaping our histories. More so than archives dedicated to documenting other aspects of the cultural record, artists’ archives are various, both internally so and from one to the other, requiring many methodologies and a radical rethinking of traditional archival functions.

Artists’ archives can and do fit into institutional repositories, but they also exist in the “expanded field” as Neal White describes.2 John Latham’s archive, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, exists in a multi-modal online environment. Artists also investigate the idea of the archive in their work, incorporating the tropes and gestures of the archive into artistic practice so that any distinction between the artwork and its archival documentation is effaced. From an office trailer that preserves and propagates information on the development of urban space to a continuous beacon of online search terms, the archive is a central figure, an inventory of techniques, for artists working in all media. In both of these examples, the artwork is the archive, demonstrating to the viewer or participant the importance of information—how it is preserved, arranged, presented, and to what ends it is used. In this series, we’ll be interested in creative archives, artwork that functions as archive, and all manner of practices that challenge easy distinctions between artwork and its archive.3

To delve further into this ambivalence of the archive as both process and product—both the practice and the traces—I want to further consider John Latham’s archive. While composed of many kinds of materials typical to most archives, such as correspondence, notes, and drafts of writings, the arrangement and access to these materials radicalizes them beyond any easy signification as “archival”. Visitors access Latham’s archives through an online environment with three distinct portals. Each portal is named after one of the three brothers Karamazov, and the visitor’s choice of portal will shape how they access and interact with Latham’s archive: the portal Mitya presents the visitor with a randomized slide show of documents, each passing by after a few seconds; the portal Ivan provides a more systematic arrangement of the documents into a grid, thoroughly indexed and oriented for researchers; the final portal, Alyosha, also presents the materials in a grid form, but the normative indexing system is replaced by a time-based search interface, where the visitor sifts the materials according to different conceptions of time, from bio-physical to geo-physical.

Latham’s idiosyncratic and visionary conception of time was crucial to both his conceptual and material artistic practices. His spray paint pieces, for instance, cannot be divorced from how Latham theorized and conceived of time, which is not as a static, linear progression, but as polysemous layers, with which art has the ability to interact and manipulate. For artists whose work is conceptually and performatively driven, the arrangement, description, and access to his or her archival materials then takes on increasing importance. To follow the typical box and folder, series and sub-series, standard violently flattens that artist’s aesthetics, beyond any recognition. The goal of all archives is to adequately represent the context of the documents—how they were used, how they relate to each other, and how they interacted in the broader patterns of the life and work of the creator. To be of use to the art historian, the curious individual, or even the artist herself, in the case of artists maintaining and using their own archives in order to support older works and inspire new creation, the archive has to operate in a way that is conceptually consonant with the artist’s practices, even if that means untried and experimental archival methods.

In Latham’s case, the archive employs novel methods for access, arrangement and description, reflecting the notions of art, participation, chance, and performance central to Latham’s own practice. The archive becomes a bearer of his artistic legacy. I don’t mean legacy in the juridico-technical sense as the foundation for one’s estate; nor do I necessarily mean legacy in the more common sense of how the artist is remembered, although artists’ archives do play a vital role in building and maintaining legacy to both of these ends. Rather, I mean legacy as an ongoing enactment of Latham himself, his creative energies, beliefs, aesthetics, and engagements with the world around him. The visitor to Latham’s archives encounters the material traces of his life as catalysts to events. The archive is enlivened by Latham’s own sense of time, space, and experience, driven by a deep understanding of the aesthetics of Latham’s conceptual artist practice. In this way, Latham’s archive becomes a continuously renewed artwork, each visitor a collaborator.

The spirit of collaboration is further augmented by the ongoing operations of the Flat Time House, which was Latham’s studio and home until his death in 2006, and now serves as a gallery, a center for alternative learning, and a residency space. Latham’s archive, then, is not just the documents that he left behind, or even how they arranged in their online environment, but also the new work, dialog, and community that continues to emerge as a result of Latham’s legacy in the broad sense. I understand that not all artists or archivists will have the resources to attempt all of the experimental archival techniques that they might desire to implement or to establish archives in the “expanded field”, as in the case of Flat Time House. Regardless of their situation, artists and archivists can begin to think of archives outside of the traditional standards. Artists’ archives are by their nature various, and we will do well to study, discuss, and learn from each varietal.


1 Check out Christian Hubert’s entry “desiring machines” in his Weird Science index of terms for more information on this concept: My point here, though, is that in the contemporary intellectual culture, all structures are potentially destabilized and hierarchies are seriously in question—even archives. This doesn’t have to be debilitating, however, as archivists and artists can draw upon ideas like “desiring machines” and “assemblages” to imagine new ways to creatively preserve cultural legacy.

2 Neal White, “Experiments and Archives in the Expanded Field,” in All This Stuff, ed. Judy Vaknin et al. (Oxfordshire : Libri Publishing, 2013), 47-61.

3 The genealogy for this creative, open way of thinking about archiving is complex, and would itself command an entire blog post (at least) to adequately outline. However, the general impetus would have to be located in the broader intellectual climate of postmodernism in which all established systems of power were questioned and deconstructed. In the US, this questioning of archives was really initiated by the translation into English of Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever in 1996. For a couple very good accounts of the role of postmodern thought in the changing notions of archives, see the following articles: Terry Cook, “Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts,” Archival Science 1, no. 1 (2001): 3-24 and Tom Nesmith, “Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of Archives,” American Archivist 65, no.1 (2002): 24-41.