Artists as Archivists/Curators

I recently went to see the exhibition Under the Big Black Sun at MOCA, one of the Pacific Standard Time exhibitions on view around Los Angeles, and was struck by an approach to art-making by several of the artists involving the simple re-presenting of archival documentation. This approach seems so…curatorial to me that I wonder, is it art? I love how this work highlights the overlapping of curatorial and artistic practice. It also resonates with our 21-st century, Web 2.0 approach to authorship and curatorial practice on the Web.

Christopher Williams, Detail from ‘Source…,’ 1981

My attention was grabbed at first my a series of images of JFK sourced form the JFK Library in Boston and presented by artist Christopher Williams. Williams looked in the archive for images on a particular day in 1963 in which Kennedy had his back to the camera–he found 4.  These images are mysterious on their own. They draw the viewer in to decode the larger story that the individual frames come from, particularly because they are drawn from a larger body of archival documents; from a larger historical narrative. This is a particular feeling that, for me, is unique to ephemeral photographs like this. It is a feeling of stumbling upon clues to lost histories, of discovering something in a small, accidentally captured moment that may turn out to be significant.

By selecting, and placing these 4 images together, Williams creates a new perspective on the archive, making a connection to the future in which Kennedy is shot in the back of the head.

Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, 'Evidence,' 1977

Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan, ‘Evidence,’ 1977

The second work that sucked me in to decode the ephemeral is Evidence, 1977 by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan. These artists sourced photographs (with NEA grant money) from various sources–government agencies like NASA, research labs, police departments, etc. Forty-two images from disparate organizations, and completely different contexts are arranged on the wall. Each image on its own is a mystery, and all of them together form no narrative at all, except perhaps the realization of how bizarre human behavior can be. Viewing this work feels like being an alien from another planet, trying to suss out why these humans do such strange things.

Bruce Conner, Still from Crossroads, 1976

Bruce Conner, Still from ‘Crossroads,’ 1976

Finally, there is Bruce Connor’s film Crossroads from 1976. The original film is sourced from the U.S. Government’s documentation of nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. Connor slowed the film down and set it to a modern, synthesizer-y sounding music. I entered the room at first in the middle of the film and thought I was viewing beautiful clouds from above, with a sea below. I didn’t get it. There was no mystery. It wasn’t until I went to read the label at the entrance to the viewing room that I realized the origins of the film, and suddenly the beauty I saw became nefarious.

In the late 1970s, when these works of art were created, the artists did not have easy access to archival imagery in the way that we do today via the Web. They took on the role of curator themselves, spending time with the archives, assembling images into a narrative (or challenging the very idea of narrative) out of these pieces of history, just as a curator would do. It was not common practice then for regular people to curate their own images and create commentary in blog posts and YouTube videos.

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3 responses to “Artists as Archivists/Curators

  1. Cool! Thanks for the link – interesting to think about how Government docs + images provide opportunities for artists. No copyright issues!
    And Fred Wilson – yes, of course, he is definitely one who points out the artistry (or assumptions and biases) of curation. Makes me wonder, what is the difference between an artist-curator and a curator-curator? I think curator-curators sometimes pretend they are unbiased/objective interpreters.

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