Process vs. Product. New Paths for Archiving in Contemporary Art
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The Study Center of Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) opened in December 2007 with three main objectives: to gather a seminal collection of documents (bibliography, archives, audiovisual materials, etc.) related to the practice of contemporary art, to disseminate this collection, and to foster research in this field, in particular using as a basis this collection of documents as well. By definition, these objectives place the Study Center in the interstice which open between traditional museums and traditional libraries, since we are expected to preserve and systematize (as in libraries) but also activate and disseminate (as in museums) collections which share, in their very physical materiality as well as in their relationships and resonances, conceptual and aesthetical features that are usually associated to library and museum materials, respectively.
Now that the Study Center has been running for more than three years, the moment has come to make public and discuss the initial conclusions that we have drawn from our professional practice in the work of defining and building up bibliographic and documentary collections. It must be stressed that these conclusions are far from being definitive: one can only hope, and wish, that the processes of analysis that generated them will be continued, leading to fresh reflection and, therefore, new conclusions and new work methods, since the role that documentary collections and documentation centres themselves play as regards contemporary artistic practices is far from being definitively established.
The embryo of the resources that now form the bibliographic and documentary collection conserved by the MACBA Study Centre was provided by the old MACBA Library, which was established in 1993 and opened to the public in 1995, when the Museum itself opened its doors. The library collection was started by small donations from different institutions and regular purchases, and it was provided with a small reading room next to the staff offices of the Museum. Despite the limited nature of these resources, the publications collection grew rapidly, and very soon both the space and the staff – two librarians – became clearly insufficient to manage the library and catalogue new acquisitions.
From 1999, the idea of establishing a study centre that would bring together not only reference publications, but also artists’ books, special publications, personal archives and documentary materials of all kinds, began to form part of the Museum’s plans for expansion, at the same time as interest in documentation linked to contemporary art was clearly growing, as could be seen in the presence of documents displayed alongside artworks in the Museum exhibition rooms and in the acquisition of the first documentary resources. These resources ranged from artists’ books to documentation produced by such groups as Video-Nou and Tucumán Arde, amongst others. As the project for the future Study Center took shape, custody of these documentary materials was shared between the old library and the MACBA art collection, which is where, for instance, many publications by artists such as Hans-Peter Feldmann and Dieter Roth, amongst others, ended up.
In 2005, Barcelona City Council granted MACBA a twenty-five year concession to use a building adjoining the Museum: a three-storey construction designed to become the provincial media library, and therefore, due both to its physical characteristics and its location, ideal for conversion into the documentation centre. The whole process was finally culminated on 13 December 2007 with the opening of the MACBA Study Center, whose mission was defined as “enhancing the development of the Museum, and extending the scope of its activities beyond the organisation of exhibitions to serve as a centre for research, debate and mediation, a social arena and a space for dissemination.”
The work carried out by the MACBA Study Center entails the development of a new field of action which shares the basic discursive lines that define all of the other services and activities of the Museum, namely presentations of the MACBA Collection, temporary exhibitions, public and educational programmes, publications, etc. In turn, the two major collections around which the Study Centre’s heritage is structured – the Library and the Archive – act as complementary prolongations to the MACBA art collection, which brings together works belonging to the Museum itself along with permanent loans from other bodies, such as the MACBA Foundation, the Government of Catalonia, Barcelona City Council, certain private collections, etc. MACBA’s heritage is thus seen as a continuous line formed by materials in a large range of formats and supports, divided amongst these three branches (MACBA Collection, Archive, Library) according to the most appropriate policy for use and reference in each case. In other words, the Study Center’s collections are not seen as subsidiary or secondary to the art collection; rather, they complement, expand and strengthen it, establishing ties, not of dependency, but of mutual bonding with it.
There are, therefore, broad areas of contact between these three MACBA sections: the Library, the Archive, and the Artworks Collection. These can be accessed through direct consultation (Library) or through Special consultation paths (Archive, Collection). The Library hosts reference bibliography, while the artists books and artist archives are in the Archive, and works of art are preserved in the Collection. But, obviously, there is much friction at the borders of these groups, and things could be arguably ordered in a different way.
This concept with regard to the Museum heritage has direct consequences at technical level: in order to strengthen the links between the MACBA Collection and the Archive area, MACBA adopted the decision to employ a single database to catalogue both the art and the documents. This not only improves our management of artworks and documentary material when brought together in an exhibition context (as well as all the formalities involved, such as storage, insurance, restoration work, loans to third parties, carriage, etc.), but also, and above all, to suggest a richer range of transversal readings of their respective content, both internally (the MACBA team of curators) and externally, thanks to the search engine that, once it enters into service in January 2012, will enable users to browse both collections simultaneously.
The Library collection is the result of joining the resources held in the old MACBA Library and the Alexandre Cirici Contemporary Art Documentation Centre, which was established in 1984 by the Government of Catalonia’s Culture Ministry and which belonged to the Santa Mònica Art Centre in Barcelona until 2005. The present Library, born from this merger and constantly enriched by new acquisitions, contains some 70,000 volumes specialising in international art after 1945, including exhibition catalogues, monographic studies, essays and other reference work, as well as a large number of specialist international magazines – both current and historic –, alternative publications, magazines, video art, films, audio recordings, etc. To this must be added the Museum’s research collections, which include nearly 30,000 files, each devoted to a different artist or group and containing documentation generally referred to as “ephemeral” (flyers, invitations, etc.), along with photographs, press cuttings, photographs, etc.
As for the Archive, the initial collection with which it was launched in December 2007 was the result of an in-depth review of the resources in the old Library and the MACBA Collection, which had been previously enriched, as mentioned, by numerous artist publications, a varied array of documents related to artists and artist groups, and other documentary materials. Building on these beginnings, the Archive resources were expanded through acquisitions of different types: purchases, donations and long-term deposits. Among the varied types of documents held in the Archive, some collections are particularly relevant, such as the artist publications (artist’s books, periodicals conceived and designed by artists and a large range of multiples and editions), as well as the archives and personal libraries of key figures in the art scene, such as artists, art and photography critics, photographers…
The mission of the Archive is also to conserve and make available to users the documentary traces left by MACBA itself in its activities, establishing and actively enriching the Museum’s institutional archive. This collection covers two broad areas: firstly, the administrative archive, whose conservation and consultation is largely defined by legislation passed at different levels of the administration – State, the Government of Catalonia and so on; and, secondly, the archive of public activitiy, which records the activities generated by MACBA by way of documents which are not administrative. Traditionally, this second area contains promotional materials produced by the Museum to communication its activities, as well as its publications, audiovisual recordings of events on the public programme, documentary recordings of exhibitions, etc.
3. Archive of products, archive of processes?
The structure taken by the Archive and Library collections is complex, as it derives from a theoretical concept according to which the categories of “artwork” and “document”, understood in their classical sense, do not apply. In practice, the relation of continuity between those collections and the MACBA art collection, and the fact that the archive and the collection are described with entries of one single database, are two factors that help to resolve certain important problems. Amongst other things, this fluid relationship avoids the need for endless, futile discussion aimed at ascertaining whether certain research collections are “works” or “documents”. Rather, it emphasises their hybrid nature, their combination of the two categories. On the other hand, in some cases this approach also makes the work of managing the three areas – Archive, Library and Art Collection – more complex and requires the technical teams in each to work in close coordination.
The concept of continuity between collections is not the only factor conditioning the method used at the Study Centre in pursuing its mission. There also exists another factor that exercises an equivalent impact on the practical approach taken to managing bibliographical and documentary collections linked to contemporary artistic practices. In this case, it has to do with the hazy line that divides what we could call “working processes” and “work products”. This factor, which can lead to in-depth reconsideration of classical classification methods and types of description, is particularly relevant in certain specific cases. These include, particularly: the personal archives of certain artists and groups whose practice short-circuits traditional distinctions between art genres or between the categories of “work” and “document”; and the very archive of public activities and content of such an institution as MACBA and, specifically, its methods for documenting the Museum exhibitions.
The process of “dematerialisation” of the art object that began to take place in the field of artistic creation in the 1950s (though it had notable antecedents amongst the first avant-garde movements of the 20th century), which finally resulted in the disappearance of the end product of creative activity, that is to say, the “artwork”, is one of the factors usually mentioned as crucial in the importance that documentation has gradually acquired within the context of contemporary artistic creation. This dematerialisation, which is evident in such practices as performance, happening, etc., has had profound consequences whose effects are noted even today. In terms of classification and description, one of the main consequences of this process is the fact that the work is stripped of its status as object and, in consequence, the product of creation having disappeared, the relations between the different elements involved in the creative process take on crucial importance. In other words, it becomes an imperious necessity to make clear, through classification, the description and visualisation of elements in the Archive, the relations between the documents themselves, and between these and their context, apart from their intrinsic physical characteristics and their content. If this is not the case, then these relations can tend to become shadowy or to disappear completely. By providing a number of specific examples we may help to clarify this question.
The Video-Nou / Servei de Video Comunitari group, which was active in Barcelona from 1977 to 1983, was engaged in exploring the different fields in which video could be applied – the social, the artistic, the documentary, the educational and the professional – with a view to providing a public service and encouraging social activism. For their part, the members of the Grup de Treball (1973-1975) adopted a radically critically stance in rebelling against the prevailing art system and defending social and political engagement in art. The artistic and documentary legacy left by both groups are deposited at the MACBA Study Centre, formed, grosso modo, by a large amount of audiovisual material, pamphlets, flyers, posters and many, many typed, photocopied and printed texts, which can practically never be considered “unique” or “original”, since they were conceived with the explicit intention of circulating them around a large number of hands.
The versatility with which some artists jump from one genre to another has a direct relation with the difficulty of in classifying and describing their legacy based on series of classical descriptions, such as, for instance, “manuscripts” as opposed to “visual work (original)”, which, in turn, is distinguished from “visual work (edited)”. At present, the MACBA Study Centre is engaged in incorporating into the collections a legacy that represents an outstanding illustration of this problem. This legacy comprises the library, personal archive and artworks of Joan Brossa (Barcelona, 1919-1998), a poet, playwright and fine artist in equal parts. It contains three-dimensional objects, as well as visual poems both published and unpublished, theatre manuscripts, poetry and prose, originals and printed versions of posters, correspondence, photographs, press cuttings and a vast amount of miscellaneous documentation, all interlinked by numerous relations and creatively recycled time and again in different formats.
A third case that presents complexities when it comes to processing it according to classical classification parameters is the production of such artists as, for instance, Antoni Miralda (Terrassa, 1942) and Pedro G. Romero (Huelva, 1964), who use the archive in their work, not just as a conceptual anchor but as a material element in itself. The different materials that have been added over the years to Pedro G. Romero’s Archivo F.X., a project that is subject to a permanent process of expansion, pose significant (and deliberate) difficulties when it comes to classification, as they share features that would enable them to fit meaningfully into the three sections into which the resources managed by MACBA and similar libraries are divided: library, archive or art collection. Similarly, the personal archive of objects related to food, at once a mundane and profoundly anthropological element, that Miralda has accumulated over many years and numerous journeys, maintains such close relations of continuity with his project Food Cultura that it is difficult to distinguish where one piece ends and the other begins. Very much the same thing occurs between these and other works by Miralda, such as Honeymoon Project (1986 – …) and Holy Food – Santa comida (1984), to mention just two of this artist’s best-known pieces.
Within the context of defining and launching the MACBA Institutional Archive, the Study Centre has undertaken the task of rethinking the implications and meaning, in both theoretical and practical terms, behind the activity of archiving exhibitions. Exhibitions are discursive devices that are furnished with their own codes, whose keys are often not transparent to the public, nor are they considered an object for analysis by the institution that produces them and presents them as a fundamental and particularly visible (and, at the same time, ephemeral) part of its activity. We can point to the increasingly important role that was allotted to art curators over the course of the 20th century as one of the factors that have contributed to the process of sophistication and specialisation undergone by exhibition languages. This may also go some way to explaining the growing interest in the history of exhibitions in their status as cultural objects: their impact on artistic historiography, the codes to their language, their shortcomings and their successes in presenting creative activity in the rooms of a gallery or museum.
Aware of these considerations, the Study Center has launched a review of the methods used by our and other similar institutions to archive the documentary “trace” that all exhibitions leave behind them. The ultimate goal behind this process is to include in the documentary archive generated by all exhibitions presented by MACBA all those documents that, in the medium- and long-term, can facilitate the study of aspects in the process of creating exhibitions, and not just to evaluate them in terms of final result or product. This work of analysis and reassessment, which is still currently ongoing, will result in the inclusion in the MACBA exhibition archive of types of documents hitherto considered “provisional” and, as such, not duly taken into consideration in terms of the institutional archive, at least by MACBA. They include, for example, the succession of draft lists of works or their organisation in the exhibition rooms. However, one also hopes that the results generated by this methodological renewal will also include, once more, the establishment of a way of describing the various documentary elements that clearly illustrates the different relations between them and their status as parts in a work process that has, to date, been largely ignored in favour of final products, such as flyers, invitations, the photographic report on each different exhibition in the organisation shape finally given to it, etc.
Study of all these cases leads to a clear conclusion: that the classification, description and visualisation of documentary legacies and collections such as these require more (or different) resources to those provided under classical systems if they are to reflect the complex network of relations that give meaning to elements with such different status and characteristics as those that form these resources. In terms of their conservation and classification, this requires preliminary work of analysis and conceptualisation that can, in the end, turn the final result into something much more complex than a mere repository of documentary units organised into series; something that, ideally, should be capable of including diagrams that show the relations between elements, reflecting the ambiguous nature of the materials that conform them (work versus document, etc.) and provide reference systems that, using creative methods for the visualising of data, adapted to all kinds of consultation methods, from the traditional (in the archive, before the original objects) to those based on online searches, as well as all types of formats for presentation and exhibition in the space.
Carrying out this work of conceptualisation and, above all, putting it into practice, is a major challenge. However, it is also an indispensable undertaking if we are to equip the working methods used at documentation centres linked to contemporary artistic practices with the ability to capture the wealth of different readings that the documentary materials preserved in their holdings can suggest.