About Colin Post

Sch of Inform and Libr Science

Research Reflections: Preservation of New Media Artworks in the Care of the Artist

Over the past couple months, I have been conducting research into how new media and installation artists think about the preservation of their artworks, including those that are in the process of creation, as well as those works that remain in their custody. The preservation of new media artworks is a fascinating and complex research area, and, as with many topics in digital preservation research, this is a quickly moving target. Namely, this is because new media artworks break the mold for art conservation practices for static, physical artworks like paintings or sculptures, meaning that conservators, archivists, and other art information professionals have had to start from scratch to develop innovative preservation and conservation strategies. A number of difficulties that new media artworks pose include: 1) rapidly obsolete hardware and software, rendering portions or all of the artwork inaccessible after just a few years; 2) interactivity and a lack of fixity, making it difficult to separate the ‘work’ from its reception, or to even consistently define what the ‘work’ is; 3) complex combination of analog and digital components, many of which may be site-specific or configured for a certain exhibition space.1

Over the past 15-plus years, leading arts institutions have begun to develop flexible solutions to address some of these challenges, including documentation models attuned to the complexities of new media art,2 tools to help artists and conservators negotiate variable preservation strategies,3 and emulation platforms to re-present work dependent on defunct hardware or software.4 While these developments point towards a potentially viable approach for institutions to preserve new media artworks in their collections, researchers have yet to thoroughly address what happens to these kinds of artworks that never make it into a museum collection. Although contemporary artists increasingly incorporate new media technologies into their creative practices, still relatively few institutions collect or exhibit new media artworks.

As a result, these artworks largely remain in the personal archives of the artist. Without the resources of an institution, how do artists store, maintain, and preserve these artworks? What factors might artists consider in deciding whether or not to commit time and money towards preserving a work? These are some of the questions that have been driving this research project. Currently, I am wrapping up the data collection phase of the research (which has included interviews and studio visits with eight artists in total, as well as collecting artist statements, photos, and other information about artworks off of the artists’ websites), and starting to move into data analysis and writing up my findings. So, this is a perfect time for me to reflect on the research so far and posit some initial thoughts. In the rest of the post, I’ll offer brief sketches of three artists’ preservation practices, and then close by suggesting some broader implications.

Lile Stephens builds sculptures and installations by re-purposing parts from various electronics, which he describes as his “raw materials.” For Stephens, his artistic process is a form of inquiry into issues in science, engineering, and computing, with his artworks more as byproducts of these investigations. For a recent exhibition, Stephens explored flight technology, constructing a sculpture that linked a model plane built out of electronics to a Google Earth flight simulator.


Lile Stephens, Flight Simulator

Works like these are difficult for Stephens to maintain, but a primary reason is that they take up valuable space and there is often little incentive to keep these kinds of sculptures intact once they’ve been exhibited several times. Stephens expressed that it is nearly impossible to sell such complex sculptures, nor would he feel comfortable selling this work to a collector or institution without the resources to preserve it over time. After Stephens has thoroughly explored a particular area of investigation, he also becomes less and less interested in maintaining older work for potential re-exhibition, and would much rather devote time and energy to creating new work that explores new intellectual terrain. Stephens documents all of his work, putting photos and videos on his personal website as well as on countless hard drives, and also often retains schematics, plans, and other archival materials related to previous works, but in many cases the work itself ceases to exist as a physical object. True to his own aesthetics, Stephens will often strip past works for parts, and use these for new projects.

Stacey Kirby is an installation and performance artist (and was our invaluable point person at the NCMA for our first artist archives workshop!). Kirby uses a variety of analog and digital techniques to create installations that engage participants in conversations about where the personal and the political meet. We discussed in great detail how she is currently maintaining a piece called The Power of the Ballot, for which Kirby has created her own voting precinct out of 100 carefully designed cardboard Banker’s boxes.


Stacey Kirby, The Power of the Ballot

While the cardboard makeup of the installation presents one set of physical preservation challenges, a broader concern is how to preserve the performative and interactive aspects of the work. For the full version of the piece, two performers staff the booth: one inside the booth taking ballots and one outside the booth interacting with participants. Ideally, Kirby herself performs the part of the voting officer, discussing voting issues with viewers of the work, but this has not always been possible in the work’s exhibition history, nor would it be possible if the work were to be collected. Kirby has devised strategies for this, including thoroughly documenting past performances, which could be used to inform future installations of the work. Perhaps the most important strategy though, is Kirby’s own flexible attitude towards the work. She doesn’t strictly define what The Power of the Ballot is, but makes room for variability. As Kirby describes, “With my work, I’m showing it over, and over, and over again. It’s typical for hanging a painting on a wall and showing it over again, but this has a new life every time. It’s the same piece, but it keeps growing in a way and evolving in a way that is unique to my work.” Over the course of installations at CAM in Raleigh, the Nasher in Durham, and SECCA in Winston-Salem, Kirby has allowed the piece to grow and has learned valuable lessons about what particular aspects are essential to the work and what aspects can be adapted given the constraints of a particular space. This variability will enable the overall work to be preserved for the long term, even if particular components (like the digital files used to design and print the ballots) need to be replaced or reworked.

Daniel Smith is a sculptor working across digital and analog mediums, creating forms that can be printed out but can also be viewed virtually through venues like Smith’s own VR exhibition space Paper-Thin. As expressed by nearly all of the artists I interviewed, space constraints are a huge challenge for Smith in maintaining his work over time, as Smith has limited room to store physical manifestations of the objects he creates. One strategy for this is to create modular works that collapse down into more manageable shapes.

Daniel Smith, Computer Numerical Control Drawing and Carving Machine: Self Portrait

Daniel Smith, Computer Numerical Control Drawing and Carving Machine: Self Portrait.

For Smith, modularity is also a necessity as the CNC machine he uses to print out his digital objects can only cut out pieces of a particular size, meaning that larger works need to be assembled from these smaller components. Smith expressed several different instances of how he has adapted his creative process to account for these logistical difficulties, such as creating a sculpture that was the exact size and shape of the storage area in his hatchback car. Smith faces many specifically digital preservation issues as well, particularly with his VR work. VR technologies, according to Smith, have such a “high barrier for entry” as to discourage artists from adopting them and exploring their potential for art making. There is a limited community of practice of artists for these technologies, and even this limited community is fragmented, which does not bode well for the long term preservation of these works, which depend on complex software for both creation and access. For Smith, Paper-Thin is the start of a solution to this issue; he hopes that this online space can foster a community of artists using VR for art marking, serving to both raise the profile and importance of VR artists in the art world and to develop a critical mass of users for this technology so as to better address preservation issues as they arise.

These three profiles hopefully demonstrate the wide range of challenges that new media and installation artists face in the ongoing preservation of their artworks. Although I’m still working through the data and have yet to arrive at any well formulated conclusions, one thing that I have noticed again and again is the important role of the artists’ personal archives the preservation of their work. Artists use their archives to store documentation of performative or site-specific artworks, spare parts stripped from previous works, and supplemental documents from the process of a work’s creation or exhibition. Often, the artists don’t make any clear distinction between these materials and their body of stored artworks, all of this falling under the shared heading of the artist’s “archives.” For the preservation of new media artworks, this has some real implications. Perhaps institutions cannot just think about the ongoing maintenance of discrete artworks, but need to more seriously consider the preservation of artworks as more loosely defined groups of archival materials.


[1] For one of the earliest articulations on the challenges of preserving new media art, see: Howard Besser, “Longevity of Electronic Art,” 2001, http://besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/howard/Papers/elect-art-longevity.html.

[2] DOCAM, “Presentation of the Model,” accessed September 13, 2015, http://www.docam.ca/en/documentation-model.html.

[3] Alain Depocas et al., Permanence through change: the variable media approach = L’Approche des médias variables : la permanence par le changement (New York; Montreal: Guggenheim Museum ; Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, 2003).

[4] “Seeing Double: Emulation In Theory And Practice,” accessed September 13, 2015, http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/press-room/releases/press-release-archive/2004/643-march-3-seeing-double-emulation-in-theory-and-practice.

Building a Personal Archive with Cornelio Campos

In early August, I met with the artist Cornelio Campos at a coffee shop on 9th Street in Durham, North Carolina. I had a collaborative project to propose to him: building an archival collection of his personal papers documenting his career as an artist, and in turn donating the materials to the North Carolina Collection at the Durham County Library for long-term preservation and use by the community. Cornelio was immediately intrigued by the idea, but had one big question—what exactly did I mean by “archive”? Like many people, Cornelio had a vague notion that an archive is a corpus of old letters, photos, and newspaper clippings, but did not know much about the specific work that goes into arranging, preserving, and providing access to and archival collection. Throughout the meeting, Cornelio described all of the stuff that he had accumulated over the years, and expressed a deep understanding of how this body of materials spoke to his development as an artist, but was unclear as to how we would go about turning this stuff into an archive.

Cornelio Campos installs "American Dreams/Sueños Americanos" at the Global Fed Ex Center, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

Cornelio Campos installs “American Dreams/Sueños Americanos” exhibition at the Global Fed Ex Center, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

For the rest of the meeting, we talked in more detail about what this project would entail, and for the duration of the project, we have kept a larger conversation going about what an archive is and what Cornelio’s personal archival collection means to him. I explained the steps that we would go through to build his archives: we would sift through all of the papers, photos, and other materials he had saved, appraising them for archival value; using archival storage materials from the North Carolina Collection, we would arrange everything into folders and boxes in an order that made sense to him; we would then describe the collection, creating documents to help future users access specific materials; finally, we would transfer his personal archival collection to the Durham County Library for long-term preservation.

As the project has progressed, we have had extended discussions of both particular archival processes, as well as broader, conceptual questions about archives. We have talked about how to create a finding aid, and the function that this document serves in helping users to understand of the scope of the collection and to access particular folders. These discussions have then led directly into doing: we talked about finding aids, but then Cornelio and I worked together to write the finding aid for his own collection line by line. Cornelio’s active participation in all stages of the process has not only given him agency in the construction of his archival collection and therefore control over the shaping of his legacy, but has also allowed him to develop a rich understanding of archives, serving to address the question Cornelio posed to me at our initial meeting. As archival materials are tightly guarded by archivists and attentively maintained within closed stacks, it is no wonder that archives are a mystery to those without any insight into what goes on behind the scenes. However, this project has equipped Cornelio with new knowledge and skills, helping him to think archivally about his personal materials.

Colin Post and Cornelio Campos working on Cornelio's archival collection.

Colin Post and Cornelio Campos working on Cornelio’s archival collection.

In addition to topics like finding aids and preservation-friendly photo sleeves, Cornelio and I have also had the opportunity to discuss bigger archival issues. On several occasions, Cornelio has expressed to me his excitement about this project and the potential value that his materials will have when they are transferred to the Durham County Library. Many students, peers, and friends of Cornelio have asked him throughout the years if there was any way they could look at fliers and photographs from past exhibitions and any other archival materials he might have. While he has not been able to provide access to these materials in the past, he will now have a single, publicly accessible place to direct individuals interested in researching his career as an artist. Before this project, Cornelio’s personal papers were scattered around his house, making it difficult for even Cornelio to locate a photograph from a particular show or a piece of correspondence with a gallery. Now, these accumulated documents come together to tell a story of Cornelio’s development as an artist—a story that Cornelio himself has had a hand in shaping.

Maintaining this personal archival collection at the Durham County Library will provide many immediate benefits to Cornelio and others interested in his work, but we both hope that this project becomes part of a larger effort to document the Durham arts scene. The North Carolina Collection is committed to preserving archival materials that speak to the political, social, and cultural history of Durham, but before establishing this relationship with Cornelio, the NCC had very few collections from local visual artists. Perhaps many local artists are like Cornelio, accumulating materials over the course of their careers, sensing that these items have lasting value, but not wholly realizing that institutions like the NCC are resources for the community to preserve and share these very kinds of personal archival materials.

"Realidad Norteña" by Cornelio Campos

“Realidad Norteña” by Cornelio Campos

With this internship, I was able to start a conversation between the archivists at the NCC and Cornelio, where both sides were able to see the long-term value of Cornelio’s personal materials. As a result of this relationship, hopefully other artists in Durham will take notice and feel that their own personal archival collections might belong at the Durham County Library as well. Cornelio has thrived as an artist in large part because of a supportive community of other artists, galleries, and arts advocates. With the addition of archival materials from more of these individuals, the NCC could truly document not only Cornelio’s career, but the broader community of Durham artists as well. The relationship that Cornelio established with the archivists at the Durham County Library could serve as a model for other artists to follow, adding to the richness of the documentary heritage of the Durham arts scene for present and future users.

As Kelsey Moen mentioned in the last blog regarding the Archiving for Artists workshop, many artists remarked that thinking and talking about the archival value of their personal materials with archives professionals positively impacted their self-image. Like Cornelio, many of these artists participated largely in local arts scenes, and without the reputation of a nationally or internationally exhibiting artist, did not consider that an institution would prize their personal archival collections as valuable cultural heritage materials. As my project with Cornelio illustrates, establishing lasting and mutually beneficial relationships between an artist and a local archival institution can be as easy as starting a conversation, although both parties need to be ready to listen and to gain an understanding of the expectations and needs of the other side. I believe that my project with Cornelio has been a success because both the NCC and myself have treated Cornelio not just as a donor of significant, archival materials, but as a partner in all stages of the process.

The Initial Spark: Building Archival Donor Relationships at The Mint

So far in the blog posts about our summer internships, Kim and I have been discussing our work with archival collections—processing artists’ materials, constructing finding aids, and organizing papers into acid free folders. Care of collections is a key aspect of the archivist’s job, but just as important is the role that the archivist plays in establishing and sustaining relationships with donors of archival materials. These are the individuals and organizations who donate their personal papers for long term preservation, storage, and access in an institutional archives like The Mint or the Archives of American Art. This role is multi-faceted, including meeting with donors to help them appraise their personal materials, as well as explaining the role and purpose of archives, and what handing over personal materials to an institution actually entails. This relationship is built on trust and mutual understanding of the needs and expectations of both the archives and donor.

In this post, I’ll discuss a series of donor information packets that I’ve been working on at The Mint, which will play a part in initiating this relationship between The Mint Museum Archives and potential donors of archival materials. For this project, I created four information packets, each addressed to the unique needs of a different group of potential donors: Mint staff, affiliate organizations, artists, and a generic packet for individuals or organizations connected to The Mint in any other number of ways. The goal of the information packet is to familiarize donors with archival processes at The Mint and to outline the myriad reasons why a potential donor might consider donating their personal papers or organizational records to the archives.1

Former Mint Exhibition Director, and ceramic artist, Herb Cohen. This image is used to illustrate the Staff information packet.

Former Mint Exhibition Director, and ceramic artist, Herb Cohen. This image is used to illustrate the Staff information packet.

While the packets for the specific groups differ from each other in important ways, all of the packets are organized into the same four sections. In the overview section, the packet discusses the mission of The Mint Museum Archives and how this fits into the overall goals of The Mint Museum. This initial section emphasizes the importance of archival donations from all of these groups in order to build a more complete picture of the institution. In its history and ongoing activities, The Mint is a diverse institution, constituted by the varied activities of these different groups: artists create the work that fill the museum’s galleries; staff members curate exhibitions, lead outreach initiatives into the community, plan education programs, and keep the building itself in operation; and affiliate groups augment the activity of the museum in countless ways, from fundraising to growing collections. Crafting four distinct packets allowed me to emphasize in turn the particular importance of each group to The Mint.

The next section of the packet addresses why an individual or organization might want to donate their materials, laying out the potential benefits to donating your materials to The Mint, such as ensuring professional care for the long term preservation of historically significant documents and enabling access to and use of these materials for future generations. Although the general benefits of donating materials to an archive are similar across the different donor groups, I was able to touch on benefits unique to each donor group as well. Artists can archive their personal materials with the same institution where many of their artworks are held, augmenting the potential for historical insight into both their creative lives and artworks. As the activities of affiliate organizations so often dovetail with those of the museum, housing organizational records at The Mint Archives places these materials in the context of The Mint’s records, allowing for the relationships between affiliates and the museum to be reflected in the archives as well.

The next section covers what kinds of materials each group might donate. Each archival collection is unique, and so no list of materials can be comprehensive, but each packet sets out a broad list of possible items, including many kinds of materials specific to the different donor groups. Artists might donate sketches for artworks or videotapes documenting their artistic processes, while Mint staff might consider donating meeting notes or professional correspondence. This section helps potential donors understand what an archives is looking for, and what might be considered “historically significant.”

The information packet is only the first step in establishing a relationship between the donor and the archivist. The final section of the packet, on how to go about donating materials, urges potential donors to set up a meeting with The Mint archivist to further discuss the specifics of their personal or organization materials and talk through the logistics of appraising and moving their materials for archival ingest. The information packet plays a critical role in spotlighting The Mint Museum Archives and, by speaking directly to different groups of Mint stakeholders, promotes the importance of donating materials to the archives. The information packet may plant the idea of donating to the archives, but after this initial spark, the donor needs the personal interaction with the archivist to truly establish a productive relationship and know that their materials are going to the right place. The archivist can then address concerns and questions unique to the donor’s archival papers, go over deed of gift agreements, and set up arrangements for future acquisitions of materials still in active use. The donor relationship continues long after the initial donation, and hopefully the information packet provides a strong foundation for this relationship.

Working on these donor packets proved to be a significant learning experience for me as well. In the process of researching and drafting the packets, I gained a better understanding of the many stakeholders that have played a part in The Mint’s history. Each of these groups has a unique association with the museum, and as a result each will have a different kind of relationship with the archives. The archivist needs to navigate different kinds of relationships with different kinds of donors, an insight that this project illustrated for me.

As a final takeaway from this project, I also learned how nearly every project in a museum requires collaboration across departments. Once I finish drafting the information packets, I will send these documents to the graphic design team, which is part of the Communications Department. They will take my text, as well as some images that I picked out from the archives, and design the final product: an aesthetically pleasing, print-on-demand information packet to hand out to potential donors. Just as the archives would not be able to create this polished final product without the help of graphic design, no department in The Mint works in isolation. As an intern, this project was a great experience, not only to learn more about the ins and outs of the archival profession, but also to better see how an archive fits into the vibrant and complex work of an art museum.

1 For my research on this project, I looked to existing donor packets created by the Harvard University Archives, the Society of American Archivists, the Simmons College Archives, and the Northwestern University Archives. These examples were extremely helpful as I created the donor packets attuned to the specific needs of The Mint Museum.

Newly Minted: Reflections from a Museum Internship

An event at The Mint Museum Randolph, c. 1970

An event at The Mint Museum Randolph, c. 1970

I’m glad to join Kim in sending salutations from my summer internship at The Mint Museum Archives in Charlotte, NC. I’ll echo her sentiments from the previous post that these internships are a great way to learn more about how arts related archival materials are described, preserved, and made accessible by professionals in the archives and museum field. In this post, I hope to expand on the points that Kim made about processing artists’ materials, but from the quite different perspective of a museum archive.

The Mint Museum

Following Kim’s lead, I also think it would be helpful to offer some background information on The Mint Museum and The Mint Museum Archives. Driven by the tireless efforts of Mary Dwelle and the Charlotte Women’s Club, The Mint Museum was established as North Carolina’s first major art museum in 1936. The museum repurposed the historic Charlotte Mint building, which was designed by noted architect William Strickland 100 years earlier as the first branch of the US Mint.1 The museum has grown over the years, now occupying two locations with strong collections in the areas of fashion, American art, decorative arts, contemporary craft & design, art of the Ancient Americas, and contemporary art.

Initially funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), The Mint Museum Archives was established in 2012 to document the history of the museum and manage the records generated and used by all of the museum’s departments, reflecting the museum’s collections, exhibitions, programming, and community outreach. In addition to materials created by the institution, the archives also collects materials of/from individuals and organizations important to the history of The Mint and the Charlotte arts community. By preserving this record, The Mint Museum Archives not only preserves the past, but serves as a resource for ongoing creativity and innovation in the museum’s activities and the broader community.

Registration Department Exhibition History Collection

One of my big projects thus far has been to construct the finding aid for the Registration Department Exhibition History collection, which serves as a great example of how the archives preserves the history and activities of the museum. Although the records from The Mint’s earliest years are a little bit thin, this collection gathers together the documentation for nearly every exhibition held at the museum from 1936 to 2014. Each file contains the material traces of every aspect of an exhibition: correspondence with artists and other museums planning the show, sketches of where pieces hung in the galleries, copies of exhibition catalogues, biographical materials on artists and details about the artworks, more correspondence after the fact reporting on how the show was received, photographs of works featured in the show, and many other kinds of documents.

This collection not only illustrates how The Mint planned, promoted, and managed exhibitions, but also how these processes have changed over time. Modes of communication shift as telegrams and typewritten letters give way to word processors and e-mail. Changes in stationery and kinds of paper alone tell an entire media history, revealing layers of information beneath the immediate content of the documents. Mint curators go back and forth with organizations, such as the American Federation of Arts, via post to book traveling exhibitions, or reach out to an artist that a friend of a friend has suggested might be interested in exhibiting work. With the earliest materials dating to long before the establishment of accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, the collection speaks to the development of professionalism in museum practice.

In addition to documenting the history of exhibitions from the perspective of the museum, this collection also captures the lives and activities of artists. Exhibitions are key opportunities for an artist to present herself to a viewing public, who may or may not be familiar with the artist’s work. In conflict or collaboration with the curator, an artist can leverage an exhibition to advance a particular aesthetic position, or craft a certain narrative about themselves and their art. Although this dynamic relationship between museum and artist is manifest throughout much of the collection, there are also quite a few special, unique stories preserved within the file folders.

Letter from Josef Albers to Mary Dwelle, Exhibitions, Registration Department Exhibition History Collection, 1935-2014, The Mint Museum Archives, Charlotte, Accession no. 2014.7

Letter from Josef Albers to Mary Dwelle, Exhibitions, Registration Department Exhibition History Collection, 1935-2014, The Mint Museum Archives, Charlotte, Accession no. 2014.7

In one of the first files that I described for the finding aid, containing documents pertaining to a 1940 exhibition of the work of Josef Albers, I found a handwritten letter from Albers to Mary Dwelle, making arrangements for a lecture to accompany the exhibit. The note is written on Bauhaus letterhead, with “Bauhuas Dessau” crossed out and Black Mountain College written in. The brief correspondence documents Albers’ lecture, but it also obliquely tells the story of his exile from Nazi Germany to North Carolina, attempting to start a new life at Black Mountain, but even still with the shadow of violence lingering.

Another story emerges out of the materials from a January 1956 combined exhibition of the work of modernist painter Lyonel Feininger and his three sons Lux (painter), Andreas (photographer), and Laurence (musicologist). The unprecedented exhibition of this especially creative family is fascinating in itself, but the story takes a tragic turn when Lyonel unexpectedly passes away on January 13, 1956, just when the exhibition was getting under way. With the news of Lyonel’s death, the correspondence between The Mint and the Feininger family becomes somber and consolatory—although this tragedy transforms the exhibition into a fitting tribute to the artist, with his legacy embodied in the work of his sons.

Clipping from Feininger Exhibition, Exhibitions, Registration Department Exhibition History Collection, 1935-2014, The Mint Museum Archives, Charlotte, Accession no. 2014.7

Clipping from Feininger Exhibition, Exhibitions, Registration Department Exhibition History Collection, 1935-2014, The Mint Museum Archives, Charlotte, Accession no. 2014.7

While this is an institutional archives, the repository is open and will also be of interest to the general public. The Mint’s history is also interwoven into the cultural history of Charlotte, the Southeast, and, most broadly, the history of art. These examples from the exhibition history collection demonstrate the ways in which a museum plays an integral role in the art world, a liminal space between artist, curator, and viewer. The story of artworks and artists must also include the stories of how objects are shown, received, purchased, stored, deaccessioned, and recycled, all processes that involve the interaction of many different individuals and institutions. The records generated by museums speak to these fertile connections and communications, and so The Mint Museum Archives not only preserves the history of the institution, but of everyone and everything that passes through its walls as well.

1 Unfortunately, I can only scratch the surface of The Mint’s rich history. For more information about The Mint’s early days as a minting facility and its development into a museum, see: The Mint Museum of Art at Charlotte: A Brief History by Henrietta Wilkinson. Also, visit The Mint Museum Archives!

What’s Trending? Using Social Media Platforms as Archiving Tools

Screenshot of Bogosi Sekhukhuni's Tumblr, documenting a recent exhibition

Screenshot of Bogosi Sekhukhuni’s Tumblr, documenting a recent exhibition

Let me just get this out of the way right from the beginning: social media platforms are NOT stable repositories for archiving materials. While I will lay out some huge challenges in relying on social media for personal archiving, I also think that these platforms offer artists many creative tools to supplement more sustainable archival practices. Artists can use social media platforms in many innovative ways to meet a variety of needs: to publicize their work and reach a wider audience; to keep track of sources for future pieces or works in process; and as a running chronology of a career, including shows, collaborations, and important sales.

For many reasons, social media platforms such as Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter are an archivist’s mortal enemy. Much of archival unease with social media platforms can be summed up with one word: control (or lack thereof). By control, I mean a multifaceted issue, including intellectual property rights, access, and participation in decision making for materials. Property rights are a particularly thorny question, which I can only briefly touch on here. Websites all have their own Terms of Service that determine who has legal control over uploaded materials, and to what extent. Depending on the site, the type of content, and the particular use, the creator’s level of ownership can fall anywhere on the spectrum. Social media content is only part of a much larger debate about intellectual property on the web, which is still very much under contention.1 How these debates play out and manifest policy and practice will present sweeping changes for legacy in particular: how will your heirs access your social media content? where do these materials belong in estates and wills?2

Important questions all, but social media platforms also have immediate implications for personal archiving. Once you upload or post something onto a social media platform, you are placing a lot of trust in that company to preserve and manage your data over time. Cal Lee discusses the “many risk factors associated with reliance on web service providers for persistent access to personal materials,” including companies going out of business, changes in service offerings, deletion of inactive accounts, and loss due to server crashes and insufficient preservation methods.3 All of that should not scare you out of using social media, but it does serve as a gentle reminder to always keep your own copies of digital documents on personal computers and external hard drives.

Clearly, social media platforms should not be anyone’s primary personal archive. Yet, there are powerful reasons why we continue to use social media, despite all of the risks involved. For artists’ personal archives, there are a number of creative possibilities that actually make social media platforms a useful supplement to other archival practices. One of the main reasons that artists use social media is for promotion of their work: for example, getting the word out about upcoming shows or connecting with potential buyers. For anyone that has promoted an event over Facebook, you know that the number of people who have accepted invitations is not a reliable indicator of who will actually show up to the event. Still, Facebook events are ubiquitous for a reason, as they are an easy and quick way to advertise. Unlike stapling a flier to a telephone pole, Facebook events also reach a more or less targeted audience.

Facebook events can also serve as inadvertent sites of documentation for events. For a number of poetry readings and art openings that I have attended in the past few months, the Facebook event page has become a de facto place to post photos of the event, make comments about takeaways and impressions, and to keep in touch or make further plans after the event has concluded. As participants interact through the events page, “liking” photos or responding to previous comments, a social, polyvocal record of the event emerges. While the Facebook event is not designed to have much use after the fact, it could serve as a very useful way to build an archive of shows. For your next opening, consider having a few designated people to post photos onto the events page. Although past events can be hard to access, each event page does have a permalink that you can bookmark for future reference. While this should not be the only place to store photos and other documentation of shows, keeping a running list of past Facebook events could be an innovative way to archive how you have promoted yourself in the past and interactions you’ve had with admirers and patrons of your work.

Social media platforms can also function to keep track of sources of inspiration for future work, or to talk about current pieces in process. Blogs, such as WordPress or Blogspot, have increasingly supplemented (or in some cases supplanted) the artist’s notebook as a place to track ongoing thoughts about process, current work, or other reflections. A multi-media poet and friend of mine, Jordan Konkol, uses a WordPress blog to archive images, snippets from a text, and links to web documents that are all informing his current practice. Not only does this serve the present purpose as a tool to create new art, but the blog creates an archive of how this practice has changed over time. Much like the events page, the blog also has the added dimension of social interaction: the comments section of a post can become a forum for discussion with collaborators or followers of your work in a way that a physical notebook obviously cannot. WordPress is also far more sustainable than other social media platforms, as it is an open source and well documented system. If you have your own website and have some familiarity with web programming, you can even download WordPress and integrate a blog into your existing site. This avoids many of the challenges outlined above, as you still have direct control over your materials, rather than uploading them to a third-party site.

Tumblr could also serve in innovative ways to build an archive of your career over time. In contrast to WordPress, Tumblr is driven by short, image-heavy posts, creating more of a visual stream than discrete blocks of text. This format is especially appealing to artists. Bogosi Sekhukhuni, a South African new media artist, uses Tumblr to post images from exhibitions, links to the work of other South African artists, and publications about his work. His Tumblr becomes something like a visually immersive catalogue raisonné. Going through his Tumblr, the viewer immediately witnesses how his career has built up and developed over time. While it is fairly difficult to gather specific information about times and locations for the shows and publications documented on Sekhukhuni’s Tumblr, the platform does serve as a visually striking supplement to a more standard curriculum vitae.

Most of the uses for social media outlined above offer creative channels for publicity and innovative ways to document work. However, these social media platforms fall short of providing means for long term preservation and still face the challenges outlined by Lee. If Facebook decided to delete event pages after a certain point, then all of the documentation built up for those events will be lost. Social media is becoming an increasingly bigger part of our personal materials, and archivists in many institutions are struggling with how best to preserve this content over time. Not only do social media platforms present challenges for control, but it is also difficult to capture the complex context and interactivity that is so important to social media. One tweet doesn’t mean a whole lot, but all of the incoming tweets for a trending topic do.

That being said, several tools are currently available—and more in the process of being developed—to preserve social media content for the long term. ArchiveSocial is one tool that many institutions are employing, but the cost is prohibitive for most personal archives. Colloq, a tool being developed by Rhizome and funded by the Knight Foundation, could be a low cost, widely available option for individuals to archive their own social media content. Archive-It, a robust tool for crawling websites and building web archives, can also be used to capture social media sites capture social media sites. There is no single best way to preserve social media content. For now, my suggestion is to be flexible, try out different tools and approaches, and keep up to date on new options. Try to get in touch with a local archivist at a nearby college or arts organization. They may have further suggestions or literature to consult.

There are many innovative uses for these platforms to supplement your personal archive, with new functionality constantly being added. While archiving is typically not built into the design of these sites, creative individuals can find ways to tweak functions to meet archival needs. However, these innovative possibilities should not give us license to abandon tried and true documentation methods and archival principles.

1See the work of Lawrence Lessig for a good introduction to these issues, particularly the works Code v2) and Free Culture.

2For a full treatment of this discussion see Evan Carroll and John Romano, Your Digital Afterlife (Berkely: New Riders, 2011). http://www.yourdigitalafterlife.com/

3Cal Lee, “Collecting the Externalized Me: Appraisal of Materials in the Social Web”, in I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era, ed. Cal Lee (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011), 215.

The Space Between Two Voices


Amalia Ulman, from Excellences & Perfections, 2014, Instagram photo, New Museum

The artist interview is a crucial resource for contemporary art history, scholarship and criticism. BOMB Magazine’s excellent series, “Artists in Conversation” is one example of a venue for these kinds of interchanges. The arrangements of these interviews, where artists interview other artists, efface the ethnological power relationships of observer and observed as both individuals in dialogue are equal participants in a shared practice. The dynamic here is collaborative and exploratory rather than a flat exchange of information. For instance in an interview between two sound artists, Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello, the pair discuss how the punk scenes of their respective adolescences have shaped both of their practices in distinct ways. They build upon these fundamental experiences and trace how their ideas on sound, texture, production, and art have developed through school and into their careers. They weave an intricate narrative, full of digressions, anecdotes on teachers and other artists, and reflections on past shows, gallery spaces, and scenes.

This conversation is engaging precisely because both participants begin from a similar place, allowing each to open up to each other in surprising ways. The interview captures this space of intimacy, documenting valuable information about the artists’ techniques, aesthetic approaches, thoughts, intentions, and personal histories. The role of artist interviews in contemporary art history is clear, but are there also specifically archival functions of the artist interview? The interview, in both oral and written forms, is an important component to the artists’ archive, creating a dynamic and polyvocal record that augments and supplements silences in the gaps left by other kinds of archival materials. While the topic is too big to cover in one blog post, I want to begin to explore the issue by touching on a few specific functions the interview can have for an artist’s archive.

One key archival function of the artist interview is to discuss and document specific artworks, especially works that are performative, multi-media, or otherwise ephemeral.1 These works do not leave any physical record, and so interviews about these works can fill in a silence in the artists’ archives. As an example of this, Amalia Ulman recently discussed her social media-based work Excellences & Perfections with Rob Horning. For this piece, Ulman staged a several month long performance over her Instagram account, where she completely changed her style of dress, the way in which she took and posted photographs—in short, her entire online persona—to analyze the ways in which identity is provisionally and perpetually constructed through social media, emphasizing the persistence of gendered and sexualized power relationships even in this sphere of supposed self-expression.

The piece occurred through time, through comments to the photos: through the sequential posting of one photo after another, the performance took place. The medium of the piece was the workings of the Instagram platform itself. Not only is there no physical trace of the work, but even the spare digital trace is fragile and entirely dependent upon the context of the Instagram platform. One way to document the piece is through the interview cited above, which creates a conceptual inventory of the work’s components, intentions and attentions, and effects through conversation. As the interview progresses, the pair increasingly digress into the aesthetic, political, and philosophical context of the work. Why is this work that so smartly adapts social media so powerful in this specific moment? A viewer encountering the work in 2015 would take this context for granted, but the interview archives this indispensable context as part and parcel to the work itself.

Horning and Ulman staged this conversation through a shared Google doc, an apt venue given the concerns of the work. To distinguish one voice from the other, each participant adds to the doc in blue or black font. The interview does not happen in a time or a place, but rather accrues in the shared virtual space of the doc. For many of us, the sheer volume of Google docs bandied about day in and day out is perhaps overwhelming, and the novelty of simultaneously editing a document has worn off, but this particular doc is marked off as special. The space is both intimate and open: a document shared among a few people, but with a knowledge that this a public record. While retaining the character of a dialogue, with back and forth between two unique voices, the Google doc also allows for greater elaboration, where conversation bleeds into essay. The result is somewhere between a Platonic dialogue and an online message board. The form of the interview echoes the work it seeks to document, achieving a many layered and rich archival record.

Another function of the interview is its openness to revision, transformation, and adaptation. Every time a story is told, it changes slightly, either in tone or emphasis, or even in major plot points. The interview dynamically creates these narratives through the interaction of two or more voices. Improvisation, reaction, and exchange motivate the composition the interview record. While more stable forms are necessary components of the artists’ archive as well, the interview complements other record forms in its ability to change over time (two interviews conducted five years apart will be radically different from each other, for example) and to capture complexity, contradiction, and nuance.

This kind of dynamic transformation is certainly at work in a Rhizome editorial posted by Dragan Epsenscheid last fall. In this post, Epsenscheid tells the complicated story of the Rhizome Artbase—but as a revised transcript of a talk he gave at the 2014 conference Digital Preservation, this time through iPhone-esque chat bubbles. What begins as a talk about the Artbase quickly morphs into a micro-history of online cultures, replete with emoticons, Geocities, and the peculiarities of Google autocomplete. Epsenscheid creates an oral record of his personal relationship to net art, Rhizome, and digital preservation issues, but also demonstrates that this record is constantly transforming. Throughout the narration, Epsenscheid embeds live tweets of others commenting on his original conference talk, blurring the original talk with this modified transcription, and further embellishing his own story with many different voices. As with the interviews discussed above, Epsenscheid also leverages the form of the oral transmission to engender a unique and all the more piercing record. While this is not a standard interview occurring between two individuals, both the talk and the post developed out of the talk reflect an active engagement with the audience. As with a standard interview, this record emerged out of exchange and interaction, and reflects the nuance of these many different participating voices. The chat form also mirrors how online cultures and internet art have developed and where these histories occur—an exchange in a chat room, over social media, or in the comments section of a blog post.

There are many practical concerns that must play into the artist interview,2 which we’ll cover in a future blog post. What I hope to emphasize in this post is that the artist interview does not necessarily have to follow any one method, structure, or form. In fact, experiments with form and method can result in richer interview records, more fitting to the particular artist’s archive or particular artwork documented. Regardless of how and where an interview is conducted, this kind of record plays many important functions in the broader archive, from creating a trace for lost and ephemeral works to vividly capturing the narrative of an artist’s personal and professional development.

1 Look forward to at least one future post for more on how the archive can meet the challenges of preserving digital (and analog!) art practices.

2 For a great book on all of the practical and logistical issues of how, when, and where to conduct an artist interview, see Beerkens, Lydia et al. The Artist Interview: For Conservation and Preservation of Contemporary Art and Practice. Heynigen: Japsam Books, 2012.

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: http://christianhubert.com/writings/desiring_machines.html. 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.