Living Archives

2014

I participated in French & Mottershead’s DIY11 ‘Living Archives’ workshop programmed by Live Art Development Agency, which I was hoping would flood my current creative bottleneck with great ideas from past work. The focus of the workshop turned out to be more financial than creative, with the organisers intent upon securing a gallery-based, visual output for years of live art ephemera and documentation. For years I have felt like the only artist in the live art crowd who wants to be represented by a commercial art gallery, so it was nice to find out I’m not alone. It was wonderful to spend the weekend surrounded by artists (some of whom I’ve admired from a distance) and see the stuff they have held onto in boxes and filing cabinets and hear their stories. It was also satisfying to share our financial woes and learn about to how they make ends meet.One participant who only makes work through commissions told an anecdote of being filled with anxiety after bumping into another artist who funds her work with a part-time teaching position, making only what she wants to make. He worried that her self-directedness meant that she was the real artist and immediately ran home to get a grasp on what he might make without a contract. Another participant spoke about his own creative impasse and a feeling of being trapped by his own success, of being known for one thing and wanting to engage with art in the playful and visceral way he had as a teenager. The idea that feelings about one’s own work change over time came up; something that embarrassed you or that you hated at the time, might be looked upon with enjoyment years later. So maybe its best not to throw all those MiniDV tapes away. The arbitrary nature of why institutions have archived some projects and not others was also discussed. Some artists wished to safeguard their legacy while others were content for it to die with them.

We met with an archivist from The Photographers Gallery and the director of Hales Gallery, which was interesting, but not necessarily what I was hoping for or needing. I guess I should have read the description more carefully. To sum up what I got out of those meetings, here are some bullet points:

  • Put archival material into acid-free boxes and label everything
  • If you want to be super anal about your archive, make an inventory
  • Don’t use plastic sleeves; ink will just rub off the paper and onto the sleeves over time
  • Back up, back up again and keep the second one in a separate location
  • If you want gallery representation, you must be willing to go out and schmooze (find out which galleries you like and try to establish a relationship with them and their artists, invite them for a studio visit only after you’ve been going to their openings for long enough to seem like a regular.)
  • Or you can go the Vivian Maier route and stuff everything in a public storage locker.

On day one when I had 45 minutes to talk about my work and what I had brought with me, I spoke about my project Once More with Feeling (because it involved an archive) and my private love of making family albums. The group got very into talking about the ethical implications of making reenactments with and without permission and I realized a better term for what I did at that time is homage. Andrew Mottershead asked me what I wanted by doing these things, which was a really useful question and one I hadn’t asked myself in a while. I have some admirable reasons (i.e. to prove there is something worth celebrating about being female), alongside trying to make a name for myself. A participant made the apt observation that I had spoken about one project that was ambitious, large-scale, public and therefore weighed down with politics (of permission and remuneration), while the other was so private and personal that it had none of that. So I feel like maybe I need to decide which one I prefer; shall I be a very ambitious and public artist or stop caring, get a better paying job and continue to fill my spare time with ridiculously ornate family albums? When the middle ground is this comfortable, why choose? Plus, wasn’t part of the appeal of being a performance artist (and a feminist), the thrill of blurring of the boundaries between art and life, the personal and the political? Can I find a way to make my albums into relevant, public art works or just enjoy this private passion? An uncertain and most likely underpaid future looms before me as my archived press releases melt onto the plastic sleeves I’ve mistakenly placed them in.