This post was originally published on Patell & Waterman’s History of New York, where the NYU Colloquium on American Literature and Culture and the NYU Workshop in Archival Practice will be posting Q&A’s with our Networked New York conference panelists over the next few weeks. Speakers will elaborate on their work and questions the conference raised for them.
I will be cross-posting some of these Q&As as a preview of our next project, which will include a series of online Workshops during the 2012-2013 academic year. I’ll be sending out more information on that shortly, but in the meantime, I want to linger on one of Marvin’s eloquent thoughts below, as it so cogently expresses much of my intent and inspiration in starting the Workshop:
The archive, as I conceive of it, can comprise much more cultural material than has traditionally been the case. And it should. Archives should be catalysts for change.
In your keynote, you emphasized that the Downtown Collection embraces materials that defy conventional “archival” designation and that in doing so, offers a model for how libraries, museums and other cultural institutions might relate more productively to one another. Can you elaborate on the kinds of interpretive or categorical flexibility you’ve internalized or identified with the Downtown Collection? What insights has it generated about defining “the archive” that might be applied more broadly?
There are two common processing strategies for archival materials: the literary and the historical. The literary model emphasizes the construction of literary works and the importance of biography to literary interpretation. These collections tend to be personal papers of authors, “personal papers” being the term for individual’s collections and “archives” the term for organizational papers. The literary model organizes materials according to various “series” or groups of like materials such as journals, diaries, correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, audio, video, etc. The emphasis in processing is on the draft versions of manuscripts that ostensibly show the process of the creation of a literary work. The historical model tends to be chronological and to look at the “great names” of history as a means of determining which correspondents, for instance, are more important than others when it comes to level of detail in “processing,” i.e. organizing and describing the collections. These traditional models do not work for artists’ papers, for instance—and perhaps never really worked all that well for literary and historical collections. Artists work in very different ways. Objects are much more common in their creative process and serve as source materials. Traditionally, archives have shied away from collecting non-paper-based materials because of storage, lack of preservation expertise, and difficulty in describing such items. Of course, this is a prejudice within the epistemology of library and archival practice that is self-perpetuating. The same rationale removes all media from its context within a collection and all photographs to separate divisions of archives, if the materials are even collected in the first place.
At Fales we process all the materials from an artist’s collection together in the “finding aid” so that the intellectual organization of the artist’s materials is maintained. We separate the materials for storage, of course, but we are committed to maintaining the artist’s intellectual organization. My favorite example is David Wojnarowicz’s Magic Box. [See photo]. Wojnarowicz kept this old orange crate under his bed and didn’t tell anyone about its meaning, even his partner, Tom Rauffenbart. It contains about 80 objects, including a primate skull painted Klein blue, a plastic dog, a cloth snake, a metal globe, a crucifix, and other various objects. If you know Wojnarowicz’s work, you find physical representations of his set of symbols and metaphors that he uses in his painting, photography, films, and writing in the box. This is the very kind of thing that most archives would not accession or would refer to as “realia” and not describe in any detail. For me, the Magic Box is essential to understanding Wojnarowicz’s artistic practice and central to the collection. We borrowed descriptive methods from museum practice to accession each object in the box as a part of the whole, so there is a number for the box itself, a “parent record, and each object within it has a number as a “child.” We are able to blend these styles of description because of the flexible nature of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) that is used now as a standard to create finding aids. For me, each time I bring in a collection that confounds typical archival practice, I am reminded that libraries and archives are grand narratives of culture that impose the epistemology of their time onto materials rather than merely describing those materials. Downtown art questioned these structures of culture. Downtown collections query the library and archive in the same way. To adequately represent downtown work, I have to constantly be careful not to let the systems of the library and archive undermine the disruptive qualities of downtown work. This disruption that downtown work causes should make us look at all library and archival systems for their inherent modes of power and control.
Your talk included two especially striking phrases. First, described the Downtown Collection as offering a “genealogy of outsider practice.” You also talked about needing to see punk’s shaping of the downtown scene as a geography and a metaphor. Beyond the beauty of their language, these phrases also get at the heart of how the Downtown Collection re-imagines the cultural work that archives can do. Can you say more about what these phrases mean to you?
I hope I didn’t say “punk’s shaping of the downtown scene as a geography and a metaphor.” What I meant to say is that I see the Downtown Scene as both a geographic and a metaphorical space. Punk would be a subset of the larger culture of that time period. I have never hidden the fact that I admire critical theory. I find literary work that does not engage with it unsatisfying. At the same time, I detest literary work that is jargon-ridden and intentionally obtuse. Time and again I have found that the work of the post-structuralists is very helpful to me as a librarian who thinks about the larger philosophical issues of how knowledge is created, how it is structured, how it is documented, how we collect it, how and what we preserve, and how power is displaced across time in the preservation of knowledge. The process of accreditation that libraries maintain is rarely questioned, but it should be. The post-structuralists taught us how to look at master narratives, interestingly, none of them looked at the library as such a structure. I’ve spent a lot of time doing just that. I found that special collections and rare book libraries were one of the most conservative and most heavily politicized places in library history. Book collecting and connoisseurship go hand in hand. Many people think of rare book and manuscript libraries as the lofty heights, off-limits to ordinary students, where only the most seasoned scholars are allowed through the locked doors. This was not the kind of special collection I envisioned. I wanted to document cultural moments as completely as possible so that whatever critical fad was in fashion, there would be resources for students and faculty to use for primary research. The downtown scene provided me with the perfect subject matter for just such a project. It also had the benefit of being our “neighborhood” collection and of supporting departments as varied as performance studies, American studies, drama, photography, English, art history, museum studies, and a host of others. To get around the connoisseurship model I devised a strategy for collecting that was based, in part, on geography. Anything that happened in downtown NYC, that is, below 14th Street, was game for acquisition. Of course, not everything below 14th Street was really “downtown” material, so some things that were not a part of the various scenes has been left out. (Post-twelve-tone chamber opera, for instance, didn’t make the cut.) And many things that are not downtown geographically are very “downtown.” Think Dennis Cooper’s papers. So, my vision of downtown is primarily a geographically centered one that also has a metaphorical component. Anyone sharing the same sets of concerns as downtown artists might be included in the downtown collection, even if they were not primarily involved in the scene. The archive, as I conceive of it, can comprise much more cultural material than has traditionally been the case. And it should. Archives should be catalysts for change.
Given your experiences with the Downtown Collection and other collections at Fales, what parts of the story would you say scholars sometimes miss when they use archives to tell the stories of subversive artistic or creative networks? Where should we be directing our attention?
Archives are the fossil evidence of human experience. They are necessarily stripped of the quotidian context in which they were originally embedded. The practical, the daily, the mundane aspects of a person’s life may not be evident from the remains of their artistic practice, but they may be incredibly important to a more complex understanding of the artist’s life, work, and the broader cultural milieu in which he or she lived and worked. My best example is not from downtown, but from the scholarship on Oscar Wilde. Richard Ellmann’s monumental biography of Wilde is a thoroughly researched and masterfully written authoritative tome. There is one major part of Wilde’s life that Ellmann neglected to research thoroughly enough: his daily writing for Women’s Day—his day job. The archival materials about this are at the Henry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. I find it very interesting, for instance, that Wilde may have been the first person to write about women’s fashion as an expression of “lifestyle” instead of merely discussing dresses and current fads. It seems to me perfectly aligned with his own self-fabrication and with the theme of self-created personalities that runs throughout his work. One can conjecture that Ellmann found the story of Wilde’s queerness in sexual terms, more interesting and more important for the focus of his biography, but there is another story about the working, family man that needs to be told along side the more sensational narrative.
At the opening of your talk, you gestured to the artistic and political communities beyond punk whose work gets documented by the Downtown Collection—especially the ephemeral traces and performative strategies of radical feminist and queer artistic activism. What other material traces from other New York-area communities, movements or networks lurk in the collection?
There are many other communities documented in the Downtown Collection. One very important one is artists’ collectives. SoHo was the breeding ground for artists who were trying to break the cycle of the commodity art world. By working together as collectives, groups such as the A.I.R. Gallery, Group Material, RepoHistory, Godzilla, and Artists Space created new possibilities for artistic production and display. Similarly, experimental theater collections such as Richard Foreman’s and John Vaccaro’s papers, and the archives of Mabou Mines, Eye and Ear Theater, Ohio Theater, Ubu Reporatory Theater, and Split Britches provide a window into downtown theater. Another subspecialty is public art. Such collections as Judson Memorial Church, Public Art Fund, Joyce Pomeroy Schwarz, and Creative Time reflect this community. Artists who use media make up another category with collections like Guerilla TV, Jaime Davidovich, Paper Tiger, and Deep Dish Television. Queer communities are represented by papers of Jay Blotcher, Alan Klein, Bill Bytsura, Lee Snider, Fred McDarragh, Frank Moore, Dennis Cooper, David Wojnarowicz, Gary Indiana, David Trinidad, Tim Dlugos, the Gay Cable Network archives, and many others. AIDS decimated the downtown scene. Many of our collections reflect this devastation. Similarly, topics such as gentrification, drug abuse, sex work, police brutality, homelessness, performance art, experimental poetry and fiction, experimental music, installation art, postmodern dance, experimental film and video, and a variety of others are found in the collection. All of these areas have been collected intentionally to show the wide, overlapping, and cacophonous mess that was the Downtown Scene.