Archives are the fossil evidence of human exchange and interaction, intellectual and artistic labor, and creativity. As bodies or corpora of material produced, used, edited, and retained by someone or some fixed entity over a period of time, archives are saved, preserved, accessed, and used or, alternatively, neglected, forgotten, and eventually destroyed. Archives are also a space or repository, physical or digital, in which archival materials are stored, managed, and accessed. Archives are a practice, a means of gathering, collating, and documenting evidence of events, lives, and places; developing organizational structures and rationales for the material; ensuring its stability and longevity over time; and making it available for various forms of creative and intellectual engagement.
Why do we build archives? Why do we make such a valuable and resource-intensive commitment to the long-term preservation and stewardship of this material? Archives remind us of what and who has come before. They present us with the opportunity to engage with those pasts in the present and for the future, as Heidegger would have it. There is no possibility of understanding anything wie es eigentlich gewesen ist (as it actually happened), as we can only ever engage with the past in our own time. This raises questions: Can the archive, as an institution, fundamentally question itself, its purpose and procedures, through the practices it develops of collecting, preserving, interpreting, and presenting? Is it possible for the archive to be a site of resistance and institutional critique?
Perhaps paradoxically, the history of institutional critique resides largely in the archives of artists, galleries, museums, and other spaces where art practices are literally documented. It is not surprising that the art world has become interested in archives over the past ten years. Conceptual and postconceptual art sometimes exists only in the traces of production and performance that live in the archive. Yet museums have only recently begun to acquire archival materials much beyond those documenting their own institutional histories. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the rigid focus in art history on the finished, plastic object. In contrast to the situation in other fields, such as literature or music, documentation of the creative process was rarely seen as essential to the aesthetic appreciation of works of visual art.
The task of assembling art archives fell to the Archives of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, and to academic libraries with an interest in contemporary art. The Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University began collecting materials about the downtown New York art scenes of the 1970s to the 1990s in 1994. Its Downtown Collection comprises more than 10,000 linear feet of archives, 12,000 printed books, and more than 80,000 media elements. From punk rock to performance art to postmodern dance, the collection documents experimentation of all kinds in the arts. Established in 1994, the Library and Archives at Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies serve as a primary research destination for scholars, curators, and artists conducting advanced research in the contemporary arts and curatorial studies. With more than 25,000 volumes focusing on post-1960s contemporary art, the Library and Archives also collect the personal papers of prominent curators and the archives of select galleries, artist-run spaces, and initiatives.
Excerpted from Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. Copyright © 2014 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here. To see selections from the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University and the Library and Archives at Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies, visit the Research section of this digital archive.