Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Unboxed: Artists and the Archive

Today I attended the Unboxed: Artists and the Archive event at the Southbank Centre supported by the Art Fund and Australian Council for the Arts. It was linked to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Hayward Gallery and the growing enthusiasm around artists and curators to use the Hayward's archive to create exhibitions.

Although removed from my work as a performing arts archivist, it was an interesting day to explore how a very similar realm is using its heritage and archives. The audience was a mix of curators, academics, artists and archivists and the presentations were a good mix from each perspective resulting in fertile discussions.

Many strands of archiving and performance art were explored and I wanted to select a few of the tidbits that really captured my interest:

  • how do we inject serendipity into the experience of searching digital archives? They only work due to extensive tagging and metadata mapping so do we ultimately 'kill the romance' (Hammad Nasar) of engaging with archives by providing access to them online?

  • archivists have become comfortable with the fragmentation of their collections while researchers or artists may find this 'incompleteness' frustrating and have a desire to 'complete' the works. Stephanie Rosenthal, curator for the Hayward, commented that curators are interested in archives because they love stories and want to make sure that there is as complete a story as possible told in and by exhibitions

  • the Southbank Centre archive is developing a more straightforward hierarchy for their catalogue than one might expect by keeping the end user in sight and not being side tracked by archival theory, which can sometimes lead archivists into overly complex trees. They are keeping their end users in mind as they are the ones helping them to catalogue in the first place! They have an incredible open archive policy where they have so far welcomed over 150 helpers in the last few years to their new Archive Studio to assist with cataloguing and repackaging projects

  • never trust anything you hear in an oral history - always check the facts! Cathy Courtney from the British Library National Life Stories project shared some of her pointers about interviewing artists. Oral histories are brilliant for documenting the undocumented or undocumentable and we had an interesting discussion around the difference between male and female interviewees and how each gender responds to questioning

  • to whom you are accountable has a huge impact on what sort of exhibition you curate according to Jo Melvin, and, I would argue, the same is true of archivists and what they collect

Besides the many talks from which the above were garnered, we also witnessed a performance piece called The History of Performance, performed by the Barbara Cleveland collective. This consisted of two artists sitting in a circle of chairs and inviting the audience to sit with them. They proceeded to recall memories from visits to the Hayward Gallery and welcomed the audience to participate with their recollections. This was a fascinating performance as people came forward, some cautious to start with, and narrated snippets from their memories of this building. Some people sparked memories in others and some remembered the same event in a slightly different way. We were watching oral history being created and it was being recorded for posterity. This approach could be done with any organisation reaching an anniversary and what was lovely was that we were hearing personal memories, which belong in and will remain in an institutional archive. This mix of the private and the business is unusual and allows the spirit of an organisation to shine through. Oral history provides the mechanism for filling in the gaps of personalities and staff in institutional archives.

Certainly the best view I've had at a conference in a while!

To end on a light note, we had an hour of movement run by Florence Peake. I am not one for physical contact with strangers but it was a beautiful hour, at first very awkward and self-conscious, spent exploring others' bodies and movement. I am not sure that I fully appreciated others' bodies being 'archives' as I think I was meant to because I found myself thinking of people's bodies as very similar as I felt my way around with my eyes closed. Nevertheless, I appreciated a moment of contact and calm - it was certainly a good ice breaker and not something I've experienced at an archive conference before!

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