A quick update and ‘thank you’ to all those who attended the Photographic Archives workshop at The John Rylands on the 20th Feb – an excellent turn-out (over subscribed!) and some wonderful discussion and talks from speakers and delegates. This is clearly a topic of great interest. I’ll update again sometime this week with a bit more detail regarding the actual content of the day and where we/I hope to take the project from here – stay tuned! ……. For now, visit: http://colourchroma.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/slides-photographic-archives-and-cybernetic-art/ for extracts from my own paper delivered on the day.
The word ‘curiosity’ seems to be cropping up in all my conversations regarding the slide collection – it might be beginning to bore some people. However, I think it’s this particular ingredient which is central to generating an exciting and dynamic subject area and department. We are all guilty of apathy at some point or another, but we should at least be curious [there it is again] about the diverse topics and objects which are available for us to explore and research (or just simply enjoy).
It’s been suggested that the shift from analogue to digital culture means we no longer require such collections – that the internet and beloved ‘Google’ offers all we could possibly require in terms of visual culture. However, although the internet and digital culture may indeed offer variety at the touch of a mouse, the images and artworks contained with such a vast collection as AHVS slide library vastly outweighs that of any online source. Likewise, you will never find such works placed together within one internet site, or indeed text-book. The slide collection is thus a physical, visual encyclopedia. Unlike books or the internet, there is an inclusiveness to a slide collection.
As so eloquently stated by Althea Greenan of the Women’s Art Library, Goldsmiths:
“The process of photographing artwork, processing film, slide-mounting and labeling, suggests that the 35mm slide is a mode of image publication that has no direct equivalent today. The individual slides have physical attributes that add a layer of meaning to art documentation which takes on a different significance when accumulated into a large collection.” [A. Greenan, What can a slide collection do besides represent artwork? (2011), p. 3]
She asks crucial questions of the Women’s Art Library slide collection, which are wholly relevant for to AHVS collection: ‘How does the slide collection personalize the art experience? […] Why keep a slide collection? […]What is different about the experience of art through a slide collection to the experience of art through digital image databases? What is changed when a slide is no longer projectable?[…] What can an art slide collection do besides represent artwork?’ (Greenan, p.5, 11)
It is these kinds of questions I am constantly considering when searching through the collection when thinking about how we can use the slides as a resource within teaching. Yes, we may not always use the slides to physically project images – although there are many which could, and should, still be used; but it is the information which is contained within the collection which interests me – the vast numbers of artists and designers which never get considered because we just ‘forget’ they exist if not included within the teaching timetable
Returning to the ‘c’ word once again: I want students to be curious about their subject area; to want to glean more knowledge than what they already possess have as they hit ‘Google’. Curiosity leads to the unexpected; it leads us to new knowledge. Take advantage of resources which offer such opportunities.
There is something rather exciting about a drawer of slides labelled ‘anon’. ‘Anon’ is that admittance that we have no idea to whom we attribute an artwork; it is the recognition, also, that great artworks have not always been produced by the great known masters which fill art historical texts. Some interesting works may well not be canonized. But, where, then do they fit in a system of ‘value’ and ‘use’ which guides my attempt to sieve through thousands of slides to finds the ‘gems’ amongst them? I cannot rely upon the artist’s name to offer any form of justification for its preservation; I cannot place it within a known movement (anonymous artworks do not count in an historicization of the visual); there are unlikely to be any written articles supporting the provenance of either the slide itself or any supporting information for its content.
I am intrigued by one particular slide, “Status of Death” French anon, Paris. It shows three statues – each a different stage of death. The first of the left shows the body in an early state of decline; the outline of the ribs are beginning to show through the skin; the arm and legs muscles are very wasted; the skin on the face is tightening and starting to peel in some sections. The second central sculpture is the body in its near-skeletal stage, yet it still clings fast to the drapes which hang from its body. A rope is entwined around the legs; the body holds something in its hand, but the miniature image is unclear. The mouth is stretch into a ghastly scream-like position. The final statue is pure white bone. Arms hang limp by the side of the body, there is no expression nor movement; the skeleton is held up by a rod through its back. I have no information on the dimensions of the objects depicted in the slide – are they small, only a foot or less in height, or are they full-sized replicas of the human body?
To some extent, what does it matter that I have no named artist to which I can attribute these works? Death and its status is a universal theme stretching across artworks, artists and styles. Perhaps then the value of this particular collection should be considered thematically? How can certain concepts/ ideas/ philosophies be considered in light of these ‘anon’ slides? In the absence of an artist’s name perhaps we are forced to look again at the object – (names can be distracting).
Yesterday morning I spent time with the ‘Paintings’ drawers – these are colour coded red, there are 281 drawers in this section. They form a large part of the collection. I was rather overwhelmed by them to begin with, but they are an exciting and rather tantalizing collection – every (known) painter is possibly included here, somewhere. The drawers are first ordered by chronological geographical location, then within the drawer by chronological surname.
I started with the first drawer: African: Congo-Uganda/ Algerian// American: Abb-Dav. Just this drawer alone has led me to discover artists and works I never knew of – alongside some of the more well known works. There is an interesting democracy at work in a drawer such as this; artworks which would never be exhibited together here sit side by side; artists who would never come together geographically nor periodically, are divided by letter alone. The collection of slides dismantles art historical categories of style and canonisation, purely through their placement in a drawer space. I like to think it of it as a rather radical challenging of traditional art historical methods. In this drawer African artists meet American artists, each with their own typed or hand-written slide card of title, date and artist’s name, but nothing to suggest value or worth, or an imposed interpretation.
I’ve picked out a few works which caught my eye:
Chéri Samba, The Draughtsman, Chéri Samba (1981)
Chike C. Aniakor, The Allegory of Power (1996)
Thomas Hart Benton, Deep South [one of three murals] (1930-31)
Paul Cadmus, YMCA Locker Room (1931)
Stuart Davis, The Paris Bit (1959)
George Brecht, Silence (1966)
One of the conceptual artist-musician’s “word gestures”: rather appropriately, I can’t find this image online.
To give you some starting stats: the Art History & Visual Studies slide collection consists of approximately 55 slide cabinets containing approximately 160, 000 slides.
Currently underused and (very nearly) obsolete due to ‘technology updates’, the department has been wrangling over what to do with the slide collection for some years – coming to a head in the past 6 months or so. Of course we are all lining ourselves up on one side or another of the debate. The AHVS & Archaeology library, the current location for the collection, requires urgent refurbishment, and there is a desperate lack of study space. In our former building the slide collection was housed in its own room, but now the slide cabinets are taking up vital study areas. Given the slides are, for the large part, not used within teaching perhaps it is time we dispose of such a large and cumbersome – and some would argue, unnecessary – object. After all, we have ‘Google’ and various online portals which offer digitised imagery. This is one side of the argument.
However, the opposing argument is one which applies to all gallery, museum, library, and university collections: the majority of the content contained within any collection generally lays unused until some form of intervention – an exhibition, an education project, a lone and wandering researcher, an artist or writer. 99% of the Manchester Museum’s collection remains in storage – this is the nature of the ‘collection’ and ‘archive’ beast. There is simply never enough space nor methods by which to exhibit all items and ephemera. There are various circling debates surrounding ‘access’ to such hidden materials.
To argue, then, that an archive is obsolete or unnecessary simply because it is not in permanent use seems rather short sighted. What, exactly, is a collection or archive for? How best can they be put into use?
The AHVS slide collection has been built up over a 15-20 year period by existing and emeritus staff. Many of the slides archive objects, artworks, spaces, architecture and exhibitions which cannot be found through a general online ‘Google’ search, nor are they likely to be found in easy-to-hand publications. Granted, other slides are simply reproductions of images taken from books prior to the availability of digitised imagery.
To my mind the slide collection presents a new learning opportunity. Google and other such portals are only as helpful as the prior knowledge typed into the search engine box; an archive or collection offers new topics, themes, images which students and researchers may never have considered. Plus, the very nature of image capturing does have its own history – the slide collection is part of the history of AHVS methods and research, something which students may never be made aware of if we choose to substitute all ‘old’ technologies with ‘new’ technologies simply because it saves a few square foot of space.
So, I’ve thrown a spanner into the works – as a researcher and writer I’ve argued I don’t want to see the slide collection dismantled and thrown into the skip. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t sentimental materiality. I will have to identify those slides which may no longer be of use (whatever that term comes to mean).