The Information Age: A Climate for Artists’ Archives

Andy Warhol, Time Capsule 262, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

Andy Warhol, Time Capsule 262, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA

We might say, in generalisation, that the contemporary attention to the archive thus appears, paradoxically, as a symptom both of an apparent proliferation of technological memory and of a loss of memory; or at least, as a symptom of the technological and topological shift of memories and forms of memory. -Dr. Sas Mays[1]

We live in a world freshly glutted with information. The proliferation of communication technologies (smart phones, social media, ever-present wifi) and the expansion of easy data storage (multi-terabyte hard drives, cloud storage) have birthed an environment saturated with invaluable (as well as a fair share of valueless) material. This material reflects the individual and collective memory of our time, which, when coherently consolidated, stands as a critical source of knowledge.

Knowledge is power, we hear repeatedly, but the bedlam of information around us is not yet that upper-echelon term we reserve for wisdom-worn data. There’s a significant transformative step that needs to occur before all the material we have the technological ability to gather can be synthesized into something more, something edificatory, something that could actually be called “knowledge,” or “art,” or “legacy.”

The sheer volume of this information overwhelms – it seems to pile up unceremoniously on our desks, bedside tables, computer desktops, and inboxes. As those piles grow, so does our anxiety: we sense the importance of materials, the value of the memories they contain that could be lost or misread or disassociated. Or maybe we don’t recognize this importance at all. But we should.

The impulse to harness the information glut into something of value has had an impressive impact on the art world. Indeed, artists are proffering some of the most brilliantly creative responses to difficult collection and presentation issues (see Colin’s last post on John Latham’s archive). Whether building monuments to past artists (Thomas Hirschhorn), utilizing historical documents for exhibition themes (Okwui Enwezor), framing the life of a fictionalized character (Zoe Leonard), or cultivating information as “found object” or readymade (Ryan Trecartin), the art world has most definitely caught “archive fever.”[2]

While innovative exhibitions such as these are worthy of note and valuable to examine for an understanding of social, creative, philosophical, and institutional perspectives, studio archives in and of themselves also have profound practical benefits for the artist on an individual level in the Information Age, which I’ll now explore.

Greater access to information via archives enables greater visibility, which is essential for the success of an artist. A well-organized and well-presented collection of materials lends to the greater impact of a single work or the collection as a whole while also supporting the commercial success of the artist. Full and findable documentation is essential for press releases, exhibition research, pricing, and authentication.

This need for archived information solutions assumes heightened importance when the works in question are ephemeral (new media, performance art, installations, relational art). In such cases, detailed records of the events and connections to any supplementary materials (sketches, instructions, exhibit guides) can stand as representations, evocations, or memories of the event.

In the Information Age, we need to sort out what’s important from what is not. How do we build knowledge, or art, or legacy from the mountains of stuff? How do we manage and curate the glut? In The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, Sven Spieker notes that “when an archive has to collect everything, because every object may become useful in the future, it will soon succumb to entropy and chaos.”[3] A personal archive can be the solution here, turning an artist’s legacy into a conscious effort that stands with authority in perpetuity. The materials that are collected and recorded are what matter, as they are illustrative in some way of artistic intention and vision.

For an ever-intriguing example, consider Andy Warhol’s archived time capsules, which document the “bewildering quantity of material that routinely passed through his life” and are indicative of his personal life, artistic outlook, and creative processes.[4] The Warhol Museum has a number of YouTube videos showing archivists opening the capsules here.

Further, artists’ archives allow for self-referentiality and creation bred from past works. This may mean a re-working of past content or motifs, or inspiration for projects anew (see Hirschhorn, Enwezor, Leonard, and Trecartin above).

The last point I’ll make about art archives in the Information Age is that they don’t have to be digital. The Wikipedia entry for Information Age describes “a period in human history characterized by the shift to an economy based on information computerization,” citing a “Digital Revolution.” But materiality is essential to art. It follows that materiality is also essential to the art archive. In “An Archival Impulse,” Hal Foster acknowledges the “ideal” of the “mega-archive of the Internet,” but asserts that with archival art [and I extend this to artists’ archives as a whole] the “actual means applied to these relational ends are far more tactile and face-to-face than any Web interface […] They are recalcitrantly material, fragmentary rather than fungible, and as such they call out for human interpretation, not machinic reprocessing.”[5] Digitization certainly has its advantages (that’s for another post), but there’s no reason that a physical (or digital-physical hybrid) archive is not sufficient (or, at times, preferable) for artists’ collections.

In an era of information (over)abundance, the artists’ archive emerges as an essential tool for managing today’s studio, a lifelong career, and a lasting legacy.


[1] Sas Mays “Witnessing the Archive: Art, Capitalism, and Memory,” in All This Stuff, ed. Judy Vaknin et al. (Oxfordshire : Libri Publishing, 2013), 146.

[2] Artspace, “How the Art World Caught Archive Fever,” last edited January 22, 2014, accessed March 1, 2015,

[3] Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art From Bureaucracy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), xiii.

[4] The Andy Warhol Museum, “Archives Collection,” accessed March 1, 2015.

[5] Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 4-5.