Part IV: Walking the Corridors: Williams, Power and McKee.
This is the last installment on ‘Building the Archive’, a symposium designed to highlight, promote and understand the connections between ‘Art’ and the ‘Archive’, or more specifically – Photography and its relationship with its own aftermath; the static stores of libraries, galleries and museums. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable event to write on, and I hope it’s left much to think about.
Golding’s insightful prompts (see Understanding the House) led to three practical expositions, by curators and photographers, of the work they had done with relation to the Archives. First to speak was Val Williams, Director of the UAL’s ‘Photography and the Archive Research Centre.’ She spoke about her commission, in response to the work of photographer George Garland, in the West Sussex town of Petworth. Williams asked various photographers to respond to the Sussex community (interestingly from the outside – in, not as ‘part of’ the community, a move entirely in contrast to the original aims of Garland), collecting their work in a small book at the end of the project. Garland, a local man, saw his documentary photographs as part of a coherent, stable narrative – reflecting a stable, traditional form of life. William’s project couldn’t have been more different.
Williams spoke of the difficulties of commissioning projects, managing difficult relationships / expectations with local councils, residents and even artists themselves. The council were evidently disappointed with the final product, a set of small, unassuming books. I can understand why. The artists asked to participate came from incredibly diverse backgrounds, and presented the sleepy Sussex town in their own, very unique idioms. This seemed an unsuccessful approach. Although fascinating images in their own right, the work of Susan Lipper (for instance) saw West Sussex as though it were a bleak part of the American Mid-West (her own background). In Lipper’s collections of photographs, Bed and Breakfast, there was an uncertain sense of superficiality, a lack of connection with the surroundings, (Baudrillard and Simulacra!) – it was unsure of its own reality, and that of the setting it was representing. How was this speaking to / interacting with Garland’s work?
This was an interesting talk, if anything providing a strong warning against the pitfalls of commissioned works, and could not have been better followed than by Mark Power. Power spoke of the uncertainties involved in producing commissioned pieces, but used this to his own advantage – to create work he was proud of, in an integrally site-specific manner. This took the form of ‘Superstructure’; a book of photographs on the construction of the Millennium Dome. Power only won the commission through many letters, pleadings and photocopies of famous buildings in construction, sent to the organisers of the Dome, arguing for the necessity of a narrative. After several years, they eventually conceded.
It is ironic, for a construction made as a celebration of time, that they were so reticent to have the building’s construction documented for posterity. However the resulting photographs are beautiful reminders of a very specific moment in British history. Power claimed it was work he could be proud of, because ‘it felt like mine’; not a response to someone else’s criteria. His attitude to commissions, he claimed, like the apple founder Steve Jobbs – was to give the public ‘what they don’t know they want’! This was what Power gave to his corporate sponsors; another, un-envisaged angle. Power also showed his collection documenting the reconstruction of the Treasury on Whitehall. This was another paradoxical project, witnessing the destruction of a building; one of the pillars of the British establishment, yet at the same time, by recognising its history – preventing the very destruction he set out to document.
So far in the talks, we have had Williams who to a large extent ignored the archives, the context Garland provided – to the peril of the project. Power, who in a way created his own archives, and the documents to go in them – a narration of the Dome / Treasury’s construction and destruction. And lastly, Francis McKee, the final speaker of the day, who provided a comical, fun and involving conclusion.
McKee is the director of the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow (since 2006), where he has restructured the organisation and use of the building. He has successfully shown how ‘open source’ management / curatorial practice can be an incredibly successful means of increasing participation, use and revenue. This should be what archives are all about! Information for the public, created by the public – accessible and open to all who wish it. Mckee highlighted that they give the space away to artists, free of charge, and in return the CCA gain their audience and programme. This has resulted in 300,000 visitors, 19 exhibitions and 17 residencies. They pay everyone who works at CCA, and consciously do not retain any copyrights. It’s paid for by the tax payer, and therefore should belong to the public. (Well said!)
Since 2011, McKee has also attempted to archive forty years of video material from the ‘Third Eye Centre’ (a centre for avant-garde artists and performers, opened in 1974 and later taken up by the CCA), relating this material to the wider development of the arts in Glasgow. He gave many amusing anecdotes, of life in Glasgow during the 1970s and 80s, as well as reflections on the role of the archive. Through indexing the Third Eye and the CCA video material, this helped them, as organisations, find more about who ‘we’ are. It helped to show what they’d done (‘documenting the legacy’), as well as help define what there is left to do. In my favourite observation of the whole symposium, McKee stated that:
If we have archives, it’s harder to get rid of us!
Archives show we exist, that we have existed.
They help us to find out who we are, and argue why we should carry on existing.
They are sites of dispute.
A battlefield to be interpreted.
Used or abused by anyone willing to interact.
Importantly, archives are sites of creation.
This was a fitting end to a thought-provoking symposium. Here, we have the crux of why ‘Building the Archive’ is so important – it is a practical, present site of knowledge, identity and creation. Let’s hope the construction continues.
Part I: BUILDING THE ARCHIVE: Kirwan, Braybon and Griffin
Part II: RISING FROM THE RUBBLE: Lacon and Whipps
Part III: UNDERSTANDING THE HOUSE: Golding