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Archival Workshop at MoMA

A notebook, a letter, a photograph, a musical score with a set of instructions from 1962: what do these objects tell us today? How and why do we organize and rank them in order of importance? What is their significance to the histories of music, design, and performance art? In the following exchange, documented during a workshop at MoMA’s archives in Queens in June 2012, MoMA staff and visiting specialist Uesaki Sen from Keio University Arts Center in Tokyo tackle these questions as they work with a set of objects drawn from both Keio’s collection and the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection at MoMA. Each speaker presents his or her unique experience in dealing with art and archival objects. This debate makes clear some of the challenges museums face in caring for, organizing, and understanding these works.

Discussed here are the challenges of developing curatorial strategies that allow the performative nature of these works to play out and of providing access to the works while also caring for them and enabling their meaning to continue to provoke.

Read the short presentations and add your voice to the debate. What would you like to see happen with musical and Fluxus scores in the Silverman Collection?

Author

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Michelle Elligott

Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections The Museum of Modern Art Michelle Elligott is Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections at The Museum of Modern Art. Ms. Elligott joined MoMA as a Mellon Fellow in 1995; she became Rona... Read more »
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Miki Kaneda

Lecturer, College of Fine Arts, School of Music, Boston University Harvard University As a scholar and teacher, Miki aims to increase meaningful conversations between researchers and practitioners of sonic and visual arts in order to address the... Read more »
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Julia Pelta Feldman

Fluxus Project Archivist The Museum of Modern Art Julia Pelta Feldman has worked for the past two years as processing archivist for the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives, which will open for research... Read more »
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Gretchen Wagner

Curator The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Gretchen Wagner is the curator at the The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, MO, a position to which she was appointed in October 2012. Prior to this, she was... Read more »
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Archival Workshop at MoMA

A notebook, a letter, a photograph, a musical score with a set of instructions from 1962: what do these objects tell us today? How and why do we organize and rank them in order of importance? What is their significance to the histories of music, design, and performance art? In the following exchange, documented during a workshop at MoMA’s archives in Queens in June 2012, MoMA staff and visiting specialist Uesaki Sen from Keio University Arts Center in Tokyo tackle these questions as they work with a set of objects drawn from both Keio’s collection and the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection at MoMA. Each speaker presents his or her unique experience in dealing with art and archival objects. This debate makes clear some of the challenges museums face in caring for, organizing, and understanding these works.

Discussed here are the challenges of developing curatorial strategies that allow the performative nature of these works to play out and of providing access to the works while also caring for them and enabling their meaning to continue to provoke.

Read the short...

Show More

A notebook, a letter, a photograph, a musical score with a set of instructions from 1962: what do these objects tell us today? How and why do we organize and rank them in order of importance? What is their significance to the histories of music, design, and performance art? In the following exchange, documented during a workshop at MoMA’s archives in Queens in June 2012, MoMA staff and visiting specialist Uesaki Sen from Keio University Arts Center in Tokyo tackle these questions as they work with a set of objects drawn from both Keio’s collection and the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection at MoMA. Each speaker presents his or her unique experience in dealing with art and archival objects. This debate makes clear some of the challenges museums face in caring for, organizing, and understanding these works.

Discussed here are the challenges of developing curatorial strategies that allow the performative nature of these works to play out and of providing access to the works while also caring for them and enabling their meaning to continue to provoke.

Read the short presentations and add your voice to the debate. What would you like to see happen with musical and Fluxus scores in the Silverman Collection?

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Archives Session, Group

All images © 2012 Paula Court

Julia Pelta Feldman: Organic and Artificial Archives

These materials form a small part of the the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection. They are from a group of personal papers formerly belonging to Akiyama Kuniharu, musicologist, critic, composer, and one of the founders of the Jikken-Kobo (Experimental Workshop).

In archival work, we sometimes speak of two types of archival collections: organic and artificial. An organic collection is a group of documents that accumulates naturally from the activities of its creator—whether those are the personal papers of a scholar, like Akiyama, or a museum, like MoMA. An artificial collection, like the Silverman collection, is deliberately assembled and acquired piecemeal. It is curated, in a certain sense. As is often the case with artificial collections, the Silverman archive comprises organic collections that have been assembled—and sometimes mixed together—to create a whole.

While the distinction between these two sorts of archives sounds fairly straightforward, it can quickly become complicated. For one thing, the Silverman archive includes the organically produced records of its illustrious creator, Jon Hendricks. The many publications and exhibitions that he produced are a worthwhile research subject in their own right.

On top of that, the many smaller organic collections in the archive, such as the Akiyama material, have been organized and reorganized by their successive owners, and so the integrity of these original archival groupings has often been compromised. An “organic grouping” can consist of several boxes of eclectic materials or just two letters.

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This gives some idea of the complexity of my task as the processing archivist for this collection. I am constantly weighing the identities of individual objects, within the contexts of their archival groupings, against the order created by Jon, whose goal as curator was to research and make clear the historical significance of these items.

Additionally, when discussing archival versus curatorial methodologies, I believe we are dealing with two different conceptions of what “context” means for an object.

There is the kind of context that exists in an essay or an exhibition: this could be described as historical context. When you place an object in a group of other objects in order to make an argument, you assign—you fix—a certain meaning to that object. Different exhibitions and essays may place the same object in different contexts, suggesting different meanings. In each context, that object is assigned a specific role by the curator or historian.

When archivists speak of context, they refer to the original group of materials of which a particular object is an inextricable part. This retention of what we call “original order” preserves the existing relationships and evidential significance that can be inferred from the context of the records. “Context” indicates something essential in the life of the object itself, not something imposed from the outside. This essential context is the stratum from which all other meanings arise. It allows infinite interpretations, exhibitions, essays, and discussions. But if the essential context of an object is either unknown or unheeded, those relationships—that context—is shattered. Some of its meanings are lost, and no matter how much historical context is heaped on top of that object, an essential part of its identity evaporates.

Michelle Elligott: Archival Systems and Absences

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It’s very important not to impose “systems” on documents. When I speak of documents, I’m usually talking about unique, primary source materials: letters, business records, diaries, and photos. And certainly, within our archives, usually all these things are mixed together. Also with ephemera and posters, and sometimes published catalogues. But I’m not only looking at a collection of ephemera or invitations—the Museum Library has a great collection of artist files where people throughout time have collected things on various artists. Put them together in one file, and you have flat, egalitarian, one-after-another documents that are about artists, which is great. But in a way, that wouldn’t meet the criteria of an archive according to archival methodology. We talk all the time about how this collection is both a traditional archive and also an artificial collection; it is a meta-archive on top of multiple artificial collections.

Also, I liked Sen’s idea of “absences” in his project documentation. I wanted to think about that not only as it applies to documentation but also in terms of curatorial practice, because in presenting an exhibition, we are not simply trying to represent what is there. I think, with some frequency, that we try to represent what isn’t there.

I am thinking of two examples. One is the 1969 exhibition that we did at MoMA PS1. About five of the works we wanted to include could not be shown, so “curatorially” we found ways to represent that absence. In one case, we substituted a different work from a private collection, and then we had to explain why it was there. It was kind of a strange, bizarre thing to do. People may remark, “substitute one work for another?” but it is a way to deal with this idea of absence.

Secondly, when we weren’t able to show Joseph Beuys’s Sled, we commissioned a piece by a young artist, Stephanie Syjuco, who works using appropriation. She made a Joseph Beuys sled by borrowing all the individual elements of the piece from her friends and calling it Borrowed Beuys. In that way, she was referencing Beuys’s idea of social sculpture. It was a way to use curatorial methods to deal with absences.

And then, lastly, I loved how Sen showed me the flyer of the announcement card and film programs at Sogetsu Arts Center and how one has no inscription while another has an inscription, and how that changes the meaning of the work. With printed work, we often think that a multiple is always the same. We have a great example of that here at MoMA in the form of postcards that Jan Dibbets made for a performance he did. There are eleven of these Jan Dibbets postcards in the MoMA collection. Ten of them are in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books. One of them is in the Archives. There are at least two levels here that we can talk about: Is it art, or is it archive? Is it documentation, or is it conceptual work? But also, we can talk about what would change if you change the definition and change the location of the object.

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Jan Dibbets, offset printed postcard. 1969.

As it turns out, to answer or not answer both of those questions, the ten copies that are in the curatorial department were never sent through the mail. So the artist actually doesn’t consider them the work of art. They were sort of a source material. The one that is in the Archives was actually sent by mail to MoMA curator Kynaston McShine and has the stamp of the postmark and the address label. When you talk to the artist, it’s only the ones that actually traveled through the mail that he considers a fully executed or fully achieved work of art. So that one is in the Archives. Then people could say, “Oh, if that is the only work of art, shouldn’t that be in the curatorial department?” But if you do that, right now in the Archives, it is with all of the other related materials. There was a whole interchange between Kynaston and the artist, and so you have that context. And you understand the relationship, which tells you more than just that postcard living in isolation ever could. Furthermore, you have all of Kynaston’s other papers, so you see how that can interplay when you talk about the hyperlinks out to the other artists, the other things he was interested in. Then, finally, Kynaston’s papers are within the greater aggregate of the MoMA Archives.

Gretchen Wagner: Curatorial Strategies of Absence and Repetition

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Julia Feldman, Michelle Elligott, and I have been working together on the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection. In 2008, the initial acquisition was the shared responsibility of MoMA’s Library and Archives, the Department of Drawings, and the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, each of which practice their own distinct object designation and cataloging methodologies. While incidences of categorization would arise organically in the course of the life of the museum, the Silverman Collection has given us a chance to think analytically about some of these questions and, moreover, to work together for the first time to address whether we have a stance on some of these questions. Maybe we don’t need to. Perhaps things live just where they live, or maybe not.

We have been working together to identify where something will “sit”; that is the normal cliche that everyone uses, and we have come up with several different categories of things—and of course, all these items slide, as they are very slippery and fluid, nor do they always behave in the ways we want them to behave. For example, two “copies” of the same item: one has been sent or one has been postmarked, whereas one hasn’t, or one lived for twenty years in George Maciunas’s studio and another lived for twenty years with Willem de Ridder in Amsterdam. They are technically the same thing, but their differing contexts lend them different meanings. So those are contexts that we haven’t had the time to fully investigate yet, but that we have nonetheless tried to turn into categories.

Jon and I collaborated on an exhibition here at MoMA that presented the idea of Fluxus editions and the particular concept of the multiple art object conceived in this context: Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962–1978. It was a very focused, small show with three rooms, but we tried to create a picture of what a Fluxus edition is in all its varied permutations and formats and in the implied interactivity of many of the objects. In that exhibition, to get at the character of Fluxus editions, something that was recognized or that became apparent was potential absence: “How do I articulate that someone could do something with this?” How someone could activate it, could handle it, could perform with Brecht’s score cards. Of how to make that full picture.

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I still come back to the idea of the absence—of putting absence on display—because I was thinking about what gap could be filled. To articulate what it meant for George Maciunas to design some of the editions the way he did—to be very portable carriers for information, to be easily distributed, and to be something that is interactive—I turned to the idea of repetition and iteration. So that there was a way of showing things in multiple, in multiplicity, so that the visitors could potentially get the sense that there were many actions to be lived out through one object, because you could show different dimensions of it. We also invited artists in, once again, to bring the actual “practitioner” into the space and allow them to manipulate a single object in many different ways. For instance, two Fluxkits, each differing in content, were arranged by six artists (Dora Maurer, Shiomi Mieko, Allison Knowles, William Pope.L, Anna Ostoya, and Cory Arcangel) at different times during the exhibition, with each individual approaching the material from a distinct perspective. Conceivably, a visitor, on repeat visits, could encounter various aspects of the kits and discover that as collectively conceived objects, they embodied many differing approaches to the pursuit of experimental practices under the unifying umbrella of the Fluxus moniker. It was very important to me to demonstrate the many personalities of Fluxus, to complicate the established art historical interpretations of the moment. Reiteration allowed for the nuances and polyvocality of the Fluxus crowd to play themselves out. Those were the two things I wanted to bring forward: the ideas of absence and repetition as two factors to consider not only for display but also for establishing long-term institutional categorization, which, for better or worse, cannot be avoided within the context of an institution such as MoMA.

Read the contribution of Jon Hendricks, Consulting Curator of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection: Watch Out! All Is Not What It Seems to Be.

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Archival Workshop at MoMA

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6 questions

Posted on 26 Feb

“When archivists speak of context, they refer to the original group of materials of which a particular object is an inextricable part.”

How can such a group of materials be distinguished from everything else that happened to be around at the moment the original group came into existence?

Who decides at what point the critical moment of origin occurred and how long it lasted?

By what criteria are individual materials given more or less priority within the group?

Why should the archival object be considered an inextricable part of this group?

How is it determined that the original context of an object, as it is inferred from a particular group of materials, reveals anything essential in the life of the object itself, rather than containing lots of things about the unacknowledged biases of the context in which we ourselves are situated?

Lastly, why is there so little material from the MoMA archives reproduced on this website? It seems like a good place to post it.

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“When archivists speak of context, they refer to the original group of materials of which a particular object is an inextricable part.”

How can such a group of materials be distinguished from everything else that happened to be around at the...

Show more »
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Thanks for your questions; maybe I can hazard an answer. Archivists and researchers rarely have the opportunity to make these types of decisions: history makes them for us. We often joke that an archive consists of "what doesn't get thrown out" - it's not an ideal grouping of items specially selected for their historical importance, but rather a haphazard collection of things that happened to escape the rubbish bin and find their way into an institution. That coincidental arrangement is often our best clue as to how these materials were used and what they meant to their creator, who was not thinking of them as historical documents but as functional elements in his or her everyday life. That's why we value original order so highly, precisely because it shows a snapshot of history as it was lived, rather than what any given historian or archivist finds important.

The individual materials that researchers, historians, and curators value in an archive will surely change over time - and of course, this is a wonderful thing. But that means that if we rearrange an archive in order to privilege any one interpretation, we do so at the expense of all future interpretations, as future researchers will not be able to start with that material's original context. The original order represents the closest we can get to that lost moment of history. Of course, you're absolutely right that our interpretations speak at least as much to our own culture as to the past; that's why original order is crucial, so that we can keep reinterpreting and finding new meanings in the archive.

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Thanks for your questions; maybe I can hazard an answer. Archivists and researchers rarely have the opportunity to make these types of decisions: history makes them for us. We often joke that an archive consists of "what doesn't get thrown out" -...

Show more »
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I am interested particularly in Fluxus performance scores, such as those by George Brecht and Benjamin Patterson.

Has there been discussion on how to digitize archival materials from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection for public use?

How can MoMA enable these performances to be revived from the analog back into contemporary digital culture through online access, reuse and sharing via social media? What are the possibilities for online transcription of Fluxus scores and archival materials? DIY | History/ Transcribe from University of Iowa Libraries

Are distinctions as "organic" and "artificial" that may impact the ordering of physical archival collections, resonant once assets are digitized? Jon Hendriks post of February 15th seems to challenge these notions further.

How can the essential dynamism of Fluxus works be made manifest in the acts of processing of these collections for the public good online? Has the archival staff considered live streaming the cataloging process, holding open workshops online or tweeting images and links of ongoing research?

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I am interested particularly in Fluxus performance scores, such as those by George Brecht and Benjamin Patterson.

Has there been discussion on how to digitize archival materials from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection for public...

Show more »