Reflecting on practice: artists’ experiences in the archives

This paper examines how the practices of the archive and archiving have been encountered and reframed by contemporary artists. It is now more than a decade since attention was drawn to the presence of a distinct archival impulse in contemporary art (Foster, 2004). Artists’ explorations of new ways of looking at the archive have the highlighted the significance given to the archive, whether official, collective or personal, as the means by which historical knowledge and memory are collected, stored and recovered (Merewether, 2006; Spieker, 2008). At the same time, artists have demonstrated a creative ambivalence towards the notions of authenticity and authority, which have traditionally underpinned the concept of the archive (Okwui, 2008). As the archival is engaged with, interrogated and created by contemporary artists, art has encompassed practices of archive construction, archaeological investigation, record keeping or the use and re-use of archived materials (van Alphen, 2014). This paper explores the theorizing of archives through practice by artists via one particular thread – artists’ experiences with archives whose subject matter itself is art. It illustrates how this particular and self-referential perspective of artists on archives of art practice represents and reflects creative challenges currently facing the archival profession. The ‘archival impulse’ in contemporary art is now matched by an interest from the archives profession in using creative methods to engage non-traditional users, often through an artist-in-residency model as with Bob and Roberta Smith and the Epstein Archive at The New Art Gallery Walsall. The self-conscious mediation of legacy through archive-creation exhibited in the Brixton Calling! project is symptomatic of a wider and cultural archival consciousness that archivists must navigate and negotiate in building collections for the future. The perspectives and experiences of artists in the archives can inform professional archiving practices and the theorization of engagement with archives.

Dr Sian Vaughan is a Senior Lecturer and Keeper of Archives in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media at Birmingham City University. An art historian by training, her recent work has questioned the conceptualisation and methodology of the archive in relation to creative practice, and prompted a wider consideration of doctoral student experience and creative research methodologies.