How can artists creatively re-purpose or re-contextualize their legacy materials and envision their legacies through the construction of archives?
The session was constructed around presentations by four artists who have already invested in their legacy or launched projects that re-envision archiving as a creative process. These presentations provided models that inspired discussions and illuminated key questions about the processes, purposes, advantages, and challenges of artist-driven archiving. The projects that were presented included oral histories of New York dance; installations and exhibitions using archival materials; a performance work that incorporated a physical and digital archive of audience contributions; an artist’s collaboration on a book of writings and images covering her career; the re-mounting of past works using archival sources; the curation of web resources; and the writing of personal artist statements and memoirs. All of these projects revolved around either the creation of new archives of materials, or the processing and mining of existing archives.
Some of the ideas and questions raised in this conversation were:
- The essential goal of artist-driven archiving is to create an archive that reflects the artist’s body of work, creative process, and unique vision. As one participant asked, “When we are archiving, are we archiving works or are we archiving to lead to understanding of what that artist has done?”
- One crucial question is how to define and establish boundaries for the artist’s archive. What personal or administrative materials are relevant, and what should be left out? What is the artist responsible for saving, and to whom is the artist responsible?
- One artist currently engaged in archiving suggested that the process of creating an archive should also be documented, because the archive is shaped by decisions, often influenced by discussions between artists and archivists. Archives can also change over time, and transparency about the forces shaping them is important.
- Reflecting on legacy materials and the creation of an archive can change an artist’s understanding of his/her work—for instance, it can spark recognition of continuities and themes running through the work.
- There can be conflicts between needs and values of artists vs. archivists, which need to be negotiated. For instance, artists may place greater value on documentation that is technically imperfect if they feel it captures essential qualities; and their feelings about accessibility are less likely to be driven by preservation concerns. Something missing or imperfect can drive the artist’s impulse to create.
- Archiving can be folded into the process of creating a work, as in a project for which audience members were invited to submit ideas for dances, and the contributions were compiled into a physical and digital archive along with documentation of the works created from them.
- Artists are very interested in lineage and connections; archives rarely capture these well, because artists’ archives tend to be isolated in separate institutions. How could an archive enable the discovery of those connections? The group raised the idea of an archive as a space, either physical or digital, for people to discover connections on their own.
- Exhibitions, installations, documentaries, books, etc. can be ways for artists to re-contextualize their work and re-purpose their legacy materials, and to engage new audiences who might not come to their performances but could be drawn to another venue such as a museum.
- There is a balance for artists between relinquishing control over their work after their lifetimes, and ensuring that their voices are heard, that they have the opportunity to tell their own stories.
- One issue raised by artists archiving their own work is sustainability: for instance, the problems around preserving websites, and the need for consistent resources, storage, etc.
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