Beauty from Chaos: An Archives Anatomy Lesson

The last few blog posts have covered Colin’s and my own interactions with collections at our internship sites and have casually employed archival terms like “series” and “hierarchy.” Realizing that such concepts may or may not be cloudy to our readers, we thought it would be a good idea to hash out what we mean when we use them (and also offer some ponderings on what they mean for art archives) a little more concretely.

Ebendorf papers

Robert Ebendorf papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The collection I’m currently processing comes from North Carolina’s own Robert Ebendorf. In an early research stage, I read a 2014 interview with Ebendorf by Bruce Pepich, the director of the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin. Here, the artist discusses his creative process and makes the wonderfully succinct and charming comment, “My work has been and is about making order and beauty out of chaos.”[1] In a meta-moment, I was struck by how much this statement reflected my own work in art archives. While the degree of “chaos” of an artist’s papers varies from low to “oh no,” the sentiment of making order and beauty from that ingest is both accurate and poignant. As I’ve said before, our aim is toward accessibility and honest representation, so our organizing schema must be both fairly standardized and adaptable. This is where our buzzword comes in because, most often, archivists manage this through series.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) defines series as “a group of similar records that are arranged according to a filing system and that are related as the result of being created, received, or used in the same activity; a file group.” That filing system is most often hierarchical, which means that the top-level categories offer the most basic divisions, and every subsequent division is more specific but still honors the divisions and characteristics in its preceding level. A single document is called a file or a record, and exists in a folder (which may be real or virtual) and may stand alone or perhaps with related materials, at the lowest level of a hierarchical arrangement.

To illustrate with an example, let’s consider the Una Hanbury papers at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (AAA), for which I processed an addition a few weeks ago. The collection is arranged into seven series: personal papers, business records, project files, subject files, estate, printed material, and photographs. These series titles come from the standards for intellectual arrangement at the AAA, which offers a set of 19 series for describing artists’ and galleries’ papers from which the final series are chosen based on the original structure and content as received from the donor. The standardization here thus comes from the controlled options and the adaptability from the customized selection.

If, within a series, there is still a stark split between different kinds of records, the AAA may use a subseries to further divide the material. In the Una Hanbury papers, the original archivist created subseries within the series of Photographs. Here you’ll notice that photographs of art are separated from photographs of the artist (6.1 Works of Art vs. 6.2 Una Hanbury).

If a collection is large and varied enough, there may be need for sub-subseries, which is exactly what it sounds like — another division for an additional level of specificity — before arriving at individual folder titles. This rarely occurs at the AAA because collections are usually sufficiently navigable after a subseries division. At the lowest level, the folders are titled and numbered for finding and referencing material. The finding aid is written — which is basically an outline of the hierarchy with some summaries and notes of clarification.

So you can see why we so often use hierarchies: they’re navigable and clear and can be physically manifested in folders and boxes because every item exists in one and only one place. The overarching structure of the collection can be clearly imagined, internalized, and navigated by a user. However, this benefit is also a drawback: if an item can only exist in one place, then interdisciplinary material is forced into a single location, and its ties to another concept or entity may be lost, or at least obfuscated. If a single loan book for Exhibition A in Museum A, for example, also has sketches on the verso for Artwork B and a scratched note about Gallery C on a back page, these latter bits of information won’t get represented in hierarchical placement. Likely the loan book will go into a series on Business Records with a folder title of “Exhibition A in Museum A.” Artwork B and Gallery C might get a mention in a scope note, but even so their information is separate from material relevant to B and C elsewhere. An additional drawback of standardized hierarchies is that, even when customized, they almost always demand rearrangement of the original order created by the artist or gallery.

The good news is that, while hierarchies work pretty well for now, there are more options emerging for information organization that could, somewhere down the road, be incorporated into archives systems. I’ll discuss two possibilities below, but the structures and options are sure to change as the library science and knowledge organization communities experiment and re-evaluate user needs and information systems (and as the archives community responds to these developments).


Where hierarchy uses a tree structure, faceting uses a matrix. Think of when you’re searching for books on Amazon, which employs both hierarchies and facets. Hierarchy starts from a broad base (books) and then narrows into more precise categories (fiction>historical fiction) as it branches out, but a faceted system employs multiple access points and can be informed from several directions (author, date, genre, rating, topic). You can search these options all at once to focus in on exactly what you’re looking for or discover connections you hadn’t anticipated.

For an art archive, faceting could mean having documents searchable at once by type, form, and content. Searches across correspondents mentioning the same exhibition, for example, could illuminate connections to a reader without her having to look through every letter in the collection.

Linked Data

Rather than a tree or a matrix, linked data is a network of hoppable hyperlinks and connections for discovery. This could manifest as part of the semantic web, where data is linked to enable query of information, construction and discovery of relationships, and even the automated reasoning of those connections through established vocabularies.

For an art archive, this would enable linkages between intra- and inter-institutional collections, as well as to art image databases, library catalogs, museum websites, and artists’ pages. Born-digital material (time-based media art as well as artists’ social media and web presence) can also be integrated into this kind of system.

While neither faceting nor linked data translate well to the physical format (where the one object-one location is binding), if combined with digitization and optical character recognition, we could possibly log all the information and enable intellectual reorganization (on multiple levels) virtually while maintaining in perfect order the creator’s original physical arrangement of materials (which archivists know to have inherent value).

I’m dreaming and projecting a lot with these last bits on faceting and linked data, but I think they are worth keeping in the back of our heads. When we think about trying to make beauty and order out of chaos, as Ebendorf so eloquently mused, we welcome new discoveries and interpretations. Ebendorf said that in gathering and recombining materials, he gives them “new life as part of a work of art.”[2] So it is with our own gathering and arranging of papers that we give documents (and the artist) new life as part of an archive, its own form of a work of art.


[1] Caroline Gore, Lena Vigna, Bruce Pepich, and Robert Ebendorf. Robert W. Ebendorf: The Work in Depth. (Racine, WI: Racine Art Museum), 24.

[2] Ibid.


Call for Applicants – Archiving for Artists

Archiving for Artists (October 3, 2015) North Carolina Museum of Art

We invite all North Carolina visual artists to apply for Archiving for Artists, a day-long workshop to be held at the North Carolina Museum of Art on Saturday, October 3, 2015. This workshop is designed to empower artists to develop sustainable practices for personal and studio archiving.

Archiving for Artists will cover strategies for organization, preservation, and documentation that will help make your archives an integral and useful part of your artistic practice. Having good documentation of your artwork and career will make it easier for you to apply for grant funding, prepare to sell your artwork, and manage the legal aspects of your artistic practice. In the workshop, you will get hands-on experience with a variety of tools and strategies in both large and small group sessions, including best practices for both digital and physical media.

Archiving for Artists is free, however, only twenty-five spots are available for the NCMA event in October. If you are interested in participating, please apply using this online form: We are committed to accepting a diverse group of artists from a wide variety of backgrounds, all career stages, and different visual arts media. Please note that we will host a second Archiving for Artists workshop for North Carolina artists in the fall of 2016 at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C.

Archiving for Artists is made possible with funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and additional support from the University of North Carolina’s University Library, Art Department, and School of Information and Library Science. We also wish to thank the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Mint Museum for their support in hosting Archiving for Artists.  If you have any questions regarding this program, please contact Heather Gendron ( or visit our website for more information:

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!

Finding Aids & Finding Stories

Illustration files from jewelry and fashion design projects. Mary Ann Scherr papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Illustration files from jewelry and fashion design projects;
Mary Ann Scherr papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Cheers from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, in Washington, DC, where I’m very happily researching and processing artists’ collections. This summer, Colin and I are completing internships at the Learning from Artists’ Archives partner institutions. While I’m at the AAA, Colin is at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC (which he’ll be posting about in the next couple of weeks). Working in these institutional contexts enables us to witness and partake in art archives management with experts in the field, gaining a firsthand look at developed and developing standards for dealing with the particular challenges of art archives.

The Archives of American Art

A little background: The Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art (AAA) is the largest, most renowned, and most widely used research center for primary documents of the history of American art. Its holdings include over 20 million art world records, which manifest in the form of letters, diaries, scrapbooks, sketchbooks, business records, interviews and oral histories, manuscripts, project files, teaching files, printed material, photographs, and artwork from artists, scholars, critics, collectors, dealers, galleries, and schools (to name a few of the many possibilities).

My appointment here is with Collections Processing, which is essentially the step that a collection takes after curatorial ingest and before arriving in a researcher’s hands. This involves refoldering and reboxing material into acid-free containers (for long-term preservation); arranging material into hierarchical organizations (maintaining as much as possible the inherent order, narrative, and style of the artist’s original system); documenting the full collection according to AAA’s standards; and writing a finding aid. Our goal is to make information about the collection accessible in a clear and logical way so that scholars, researchers, the public, or whoever has an interest in the artist’s documents can have an idea of what is included and where to find it.

Before we look at an artist’s collection in more detail, I think it’s important for me to proffer the caveat that there is no “normal” artist’s archive. The documents that make up a collection are unique to the methods, materials, processes, and inspirations of each artist. And rightly so: an archive is most useful if it can be a reflection of the artist’s vision and legacy as (s)he sees it. Researchers want to gain an authentic understanding of the artist. And just as each artist is unique, so is each collection. That’s where the value lies.

Thus, this post surveys a specific collection not as a be-all and end-all of archival ideals, but as a singular example of how the materials included can reflect a story and process (or multiple) of the artist.

The Artist

Mary Ann Scherr is a jeweler and designer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. At different points in her career, she has worked in toy design, automotive design, illustration, fashion, and metalwork and held various positions, from Associate Professor of Metals at Kent State University in Ohio to Chair of Product Design at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Scherr gained the most renown for designing what she called “body monitors,” which were works of jewelry that noted and responded to such things as the pulse of the wearer or the oxygen level of the surrounding environment. Prominent patrons include the Duke of Windsor, Liz Claiborne, and Chelsea Clinton. Scherr donated her papers to the Archives of American Art in three installments in 2001, 2005, and 2008.

The Collection

The Mary Ann Scherr papers measure 2.0 linear feet and date from 1941 to 2007. Listed below are the series titles with a select sampling (2 or 3) of the records included in each.[1] For more details, see the Finding Aid to the Mary Ann Scherr Papers.

Biographical Material: the certificate and awards program for Scherr’s receipt of the American Craft Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award; a video-recorded North Carolina Governor’s Award interview for Achievement in the Arts (on DVD); assembled photographs, news clippings, and resumes of the artist, her husband, and each of their children

Correspondence: a letter from a clinical care specialist at the Society of Otorhinolaryngology and Head-Neck Nurses regarding a necklace she designed to cover stomas post-tracheotomy; correspondence with the Smithsonian’s own Renwick Gallery about Scherr participating in a craft discussion at the museum (in 1992)

Writings: an academic paper written by Scherr and George S. Malindzak, Ph.D., of Northeastern Ohio University’s College of Medicine entitled “Personal Monitor Cosmetology: An Aesthetic Approach;” a nomination essay to the National Metalsmiths Hall of Fame

Personal Business Records: notification of the work “Worry Bracelet” entering the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1980); a legal patent for her heartbeat monitor jewelry; pen and graphite sketches in jewelry project files

Printed Material: a pack of craft-themed playing cards from the 2006 Discover Craft NC Exhibition; the exhibition catalog from the Seventh Biennial Beaux Arts Designer Craftsman Exhibition; various clippings from newspapers, magazines, and web articles referencing the artist and her work, including an article on the commercial cookie jar she designed in the 1950s that was sold at Andy Warhol’s personal estate auction in 1988

Photographs: photographs of the artist at work, in her studio, and during her Today Show interview in 1985; photographs of her jewelry on models and standing alone

While the above forms just a small sample of the documents in Scherr’s collection, I want to emphasize that each plays a meaningful role in illustrating the history and legacy of the artist. The family files in Biographical Material, for just one example, are essential not only to inform our understanding of the artist’s personal life (which is significant in and of itself) but also to color our perception of her professional life. Indeed, her husband, Samuel Scherr, was also a designer, working in industrial design and marketing with Samuel Scherr Partners, Fulton + Partners, and as an individual consultant. The two collaborated, exhibited, and even received awards as a unit. These connections are elucidated here, with echos throughout the collection affirming, shaping, and refining this relationship.

The lesson here is to remember that as an artist, you’re curating your own story and legacy with your archives. The things you document will be unique to you as an artist and an individual, and what you choose to include is entirely at your discretion. The nuanced anecdotes and larger narratives that emerged to me as an art historian as I processed the Mary Ann Scherr papers were many, from which I could see a wealth of outgrowths for research and exhibitions: all fruitful, all interesting, and all coloring and continuing an artist’s legacy. The archive could foster an entirely different experience for a family member or a fellow artist. But this is what we’re working to foster when we create, preserve, and share our archives: insight, engagement, and discovery.

[1]Series, i.e. Biographical Material, Correspondence, Writings, etc., are the largest hierarchical groups of filed documents. Generally, collections are divided into series, subseries, folders, and files. We’ll dig into these details a little more in future blog posts.

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).

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 Barragán Archives: A Case Study in Legacy

Jill Magid. Der Trog, 2013. Installation: Facistol (pine lectern inspired by Luis Barragán, mounted reproductions from Luis Barragán’s personal archive), architectural model. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of Yvon Lambert, Paris and RaebervonStenglin, Zurich.

Jill Magid. Der Trog, 2013. Installation: Facistol (pine lectern inspired by Luis Barragán, mounted reproductions from Luis Barragán’s personal archive), architectural model. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of Yvon Lambert, Paris and Raebervon Stenglin, Zurich.


The personal archives of Mexican Modernist architect Luis Barragán reside at the Fundación de Arquitectura Tapatía Luis Barragán in Mexico City while his professional archives dwell across the Atlantic in Switzerland. This latter collection was purchased by the Swiss furniture company Vitra in 1995 at the behest of the newly created Barragan Foundation, headed by Federica Zanco, an architectural historian married to Vitra’s president.[1] Zanco has also acquired Barragán’s design copyrights and the archives of his official photographer, Armando Salas Portugal, and is working toward creating a complete catalogue raisonné of the architect’s oeuvre. [2]

Zanco has come under criticism for how closely she guards the rights to these collections. Image and book production of Barragán’s work are strictly controlled, to the point that visitors to Barragán’s home in Mexico City can only photograph the house with the permission of the Foundation. That is, even though the Casa Luis Barragán is not owned by the Foundation, reproductions of it (even amateur photographs) are. In a post-colonial era where the art world is dealing with calls for repatriation of artworks to their original countries and cultures, the division of Barragán’s collections brings this issue into the archive world as well.

Enter Jill Magid. An author and performance artist from Brooklyn interested in systems of power, Magid initiated a project (ongoing) called The Barragán Archives, in which she explores the social and political tensions of an archive geographically, culturally, and legally divided. As part of this project, Magid fashioned the Art in General exhibition Woman with Sombrero in New York. With the help of a copyright consultant, she artfully navigated the Barragan Foundation’s denial of rights for images or works on loan.

In a creative and provocative dance around copyright, Magid included photographs and ephemera from Barragán’s personal archives in Mexico City, email correspondence between Zanco and herself (displayed on an iPad because Zanco did not permit the message to be printed), enlarged-to-life-size photographs of Barragán’s furniture (in place of the real objects), and framed images from books already printed with the books hanging outside the frame.

Jill Magid. My letter of September 16, Your letter of September 16, 2013. Letters, Refectory cross (modified) inspired by Luis Barragán. 2 letters 8.5” x 11”; 1 iPad, Platform: 4.5′ × 2′. Image courtesy the artist and Art in General. Photography: Steven Probert.

Jill Magid. My letter of September 16, Your letter of September 16, 2013. Letters, Refectory cross (modified) inspired by Luis Barragán. 2 letters 8.5” x 11”; 1 iPad, Platform: 4.5′ × 2′. Image courtesy the artist and Art in General. Photography: Steven Probert.

An accompanying performance piece, Woman with Sombrero, Women with Sombrero, featured Magid reading an ironic love letter (an appropriation from Barragán’s personal archive) reimagined as a letter from herself to Zanco while photographs from Barragán’s personal archive were projected onto her. Additional performers portrayed Juan Palomar of the Fundación in Mexico City and Daniel McClean, Magid’s copyright lawyer. Palomar’s character read from a letter lamenting the “cultural neutrality” of the Barragan Foundation’s alteration from an “á” to an “a” in the spelling of the architect’s name.[3] The actor playing McClean read from Magid’s real legal consult transcripts and countered Magid’s pointed questions about fair use and copyright while she gested in question, “Is performance fair use?”[4]

In my last post, I discussed some of the ways personal and studio archives can function for artists and how they’re growing in importance as data and material multiply in today’s information age, i.e. how an archive is beneficial. In this post, I introduce this case study on Luis Barragán’s archives to raise and contextualize some issues of legacy, audience, and access, i.e. how curation of an archive is beneficial.

While much of the conflict with Barragán’s archives has to do with its divisive placement and copyright holdings, it’s also a very impassioned study of legacy. Anne Barlow, the curator who worked with Magid at Art in General, identified the “key questions” of the exhibit as exploring “ownership, access, what is public and private, national identity and repatriation” through an artist’s legacy.[5]

Art is an exceptional vocation in that it allows a person to dedicate his/her work and life to the creation of meaning and make a tangible contribution to the documented artistic (as well as social, political, etc.) culture of the time. It’s important for the artist to remember here that:

  1. Oblivion is not inevitable (indeed, it’s unlikely given our expanding modes of memory-keeping).
  2. The artist’s role in the future doesn’t have to be a passive one. You can actively engage in the creation and curation of your own legacy.
  3. Your legacy exists even as you do. It’s not just an after-you’re-gone insurance setup for finding your materials. It’s a concerted, concurrent compilation of your work, accomplishments, and goals.

With these three things in mind, I hope it’s clear how the curation of your legacy matters. Your work, your materials, your inspirations may likely stand to represent not only your personal aesthetic endeavors and editorial perspectives but also the people and practices of your time, now and in the future. Gallery owners, exhibit curators, scholars, and fellow artists may want to use your materials in a month, a year, or fifty years.

What the Barragán case illuminates is the importance of intentional archiving (as well as the necessity for respecting that archive – notably, Magid hired translators to ensure that her readings of Barragán’s Spanish letters didn’t miss nuanced language differences).[6] I have not been able to find documentation on Barragán’s personal agency in choosing who was to yield control of these archives after his death in 1988 — which just reinforces the importance that the artist be active in his/her legacy, making conscious and informed decisions, to avoid this kind of divisive battleground.

That being said, the conversations Woman with Sombrero initiated about identity and ownership of art wouldn’t have manifested in such a way had Barragán’s materials not been settled into these archival collections. The fact alone that his work is organized and public enables this kind of continued dialogue of his work. While his architecture continues to grace the skyline of Mexico City, influencing the city and design, his life’s work can now manifest in a new capacities and in new conversations.

[1] Anne Barlow, “Jill Magid’s Woman with Sombrero: A Poetic Interrogation of Artistic Legacy,” Journal of Curatorial Studies 3, no. 2 & 3 (2014): 374.

[2] Colby Chamberlain, “Jill Magid,” Artforum International 52, no. 6 (02, 2014): 218.

[3] Kylie Gilchrist, “Jill Magid Explores Architect’s Contested Legacy,” Art in America, November 13, 2013, 68, accessed April 2, 2015,

[4] Barlow, 376.

[5] Ibid., 374.

[6] Ibid.

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.

North Carolina is a Great Art State!

"Visitors" a photo of the NCMA galleries by Jake Kitchener on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

“Visitors” a photo of the NCMA galleries by Jake Kitchener on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’m a little embarrassed to say that, before interviewing with UNC-Chapel Hill for the job I’m in now, I really had no idea that North Carolina was such a great state for the visual arts. North Carolina not only has art museums and galleries in every corner of the state, it’s home to one of the few state art museums in the country – the North Carolina Museum of Art. Of particular interest to our grant team was the NCMA’s focus on North Carolina artists, whose works are in regular rotation in its galleries and are permanently installed in its Museum Park.

Given our shared interest in the legacy of North Carolina art and artists, we were thrilled when the NCMA agreed to partner with us on the Learning From Artists’ Archives IMLS grant and to serve as a host for this important program for North Carolina artists. In his letter of support for our grant proposal to IMLS, John Coffey (Deputy Director of Art, NCMA) wrote:

“It is crucially important that the creative activities and production of artists be documented and preserved and the information made available to scholars and the public. In this way, art history is made.”

We couldn’t agree more!

Last month, our team met with Stacey Kirby (Conservation Technician) at the NCMA to kick-off planning for the NC artists’ studio archives outreach and training day to be held there on October 3rd, 2015. Stacey was a great host and jumped right in to help the team develop ideas for programming. As an accomplished artist in her own right, Stacey brings a valuable perspective to the group as someone who strives to document and preserve her own studio archives. Her experience and expertise as a conservation technician is also proving to be quite valuable. We had an interesting chat with Stacey about the role of artist interviews in the preservation and conservation of artworks.  If you are interested in this topic, I suggest you read the book “The artist interview: for conservation and presentation of contemporary art, guidelines and practice” (2012).

Colin and Stacey in the throws of program planning.

Colin and Stacey in the throes of program planning.

Kim, Denise, and Will hard at work developing program ideas.

Kim, Denise, and Will hard at work developing program ideas.

We anticipate a full-day of hands-on workshops and short presentations on a variety of helpful topics for artists including:

  • how to build an archiving process into your studio workflow
  • tips for documenting your techniques, materials, and processes
  • the value of oral histories and preservation interviews
  • digital preservation (e-mail, websites, images, and other digital files)
  • physical storage (artwork, paper files, etc.)
  • tips on placing your archives with an institution

The day we’re planning will be open to artists in North Carolina. Watch this website for a call for applications that will be posted in late June/early July.

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.

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.