Saturday, March 06, 2010

Dancing with the Dempsey Dumpster

UPDATED 3/6/10 @ 5:14 PM

One cannot begin to describe how difficult it is to seriously build and maintain an archive.

First of all, once you go interdisciplinary with your contemporary art and writing practice and fall in and out of many scenes over the course of multiple decades, sometimes even pioneering those scenes and thus, out of necessity, becoming an activist cultural producer who networks like crazy, this can then lead to the accumulation of all kinds of archival material that eventually calls out for more attention to detail. My archive grows and grows and exhibits itself to me in BOLD CAPS that always say the same thing: MANAGE ME.

In my case, this archive is ridiculously broad in that it includes letters, manuscripts, drawings, collage works, digital prints, photos, video tapes (VHS, Beta, etc), audio tapes (cassettes, DAT, etc.), 16mm and 8mm film, DVDs, CDs, floppy disks, zip disks, hard drives, endless media articles and features covering work produced in all of the above forms, various pieces of hardware kept on hand as the only way to make some of the work run, art stickers, flyers, posters, postcards, xeroxes, DIY (maga)zines, books (print and e-book), performance documentaries, QuickTimes of heretofore unseen erotic art shot on HD, napkins (yes, a series of art works self-consciously made on napkins), a handwritten novel-in-a-day, and a hefty bag full of mail art from the 80s (these are especially precious -- I totally dig their scale and the way they indicate how I became a practicing remixologist).

And this is only the beginning: the laundry list goes on. What's surprising is that I'm not even a pack rat. This is just the result of deciding that if I am going to make new work and struggle to locate audiences that will eventually go out of their way to experience my creative output, then it would be counter-productive to throw it all away as soon as I have finished working on it. If the work gets exhibited, published, and/or performed in public, and if material as well as digital artifacts to those outcomes emerge as part of its historical context, it seems only prudent that I keep more than just the work itself in the ever-growing archive.

Still, though, I cannot help but ask myself: Does ALL of this ephemera REALLY create a cultural and historical context for the work and do I REALLY need to document/archive not just the artworks but the creative process itself not to mention whatever networked feedback might have accompanied each work's release into the world? I certainly don't want to do that (and by that I mean I don't want to spend my time doing it: I barely have enough time to follow through on my continuous creative impulse to generate new art/writing).

But therein lies the dilemma. Why, for example, would I just ditch all of the digital files, DVDs, images, writings, catalogs, media articles, etc. related to my recently released Immobilité project? And if I keep everything as part of my archive, then it's important that I take the archive seriously and make sure it "speaks" for me. This means properly boxing, labeling, and even notating what is the what.

The thing is, I know people whose lives have become overloaded with having to make sense of or otherwise execute the estate and archives of their famous artist or writer parents and I don't want that to happen to my follow-up team.

Of course, it's a HUGE assumption that anyone will even give a shit about my archives.

But when I look at the special collections landscape and see how it is shaping up, and particularly how the conventional archival process is being challenged like so many other fields by the Digital Everything Culture, I can see where the unique qualities of my archive, where the avant-garde literature scene meets the Internet art scene meets the electronic literature / hypertext scene meets the more mainstream art world scene could be of value to the right collection.

So what does this all really mean?

Well, one thing for sure is that it means that I have to do some things that I do not particularly like doing. Going through ones vast archives is simply not fun. How could it be? There is very little creativity going on there. I always want to "make it new" ("Creativity is the principle of novelty") and am having difficulties thinking of ways to do that while painstakingly going through endless boxes, files, tapes, DVDs, CDs, etc. I don't even want to touch those stacks of zip drives.

Sometimes the process has its better moments. Like when I find a torn off sticker from where? an NYC subway? that has some written graffiti I tagged on it and that says Reel Pol "i" ticks and that's used as a bookmark in an old issue of Film Culture featuring the work of Paul Sharits. Or when I unexpectedly unearth one of the mail art works that indicates to me my twentysomething fascination with NYC-styled Reagan Yuppie Culture in the Age of AIDS. All of a sudden, opening a shoebox full of mail art works from the 80s becomes more than just a cliched trip down memory lane -- rather, it situates the work in its cultural/historical context indicating where/when I paid my dues (lower Manhattan) in the most pleasant of poverty-stricken ways.

Or what about the first draft manuscript of a major work-in-progress (OK, another novel) that pseudo-autobiographically portrays the life and times of David Star who also, looking back and trying to make sense of his retrospective at the Guggenheim sometime in the near future, attempts to teleport his consciousness to the vibe of NYC-styled Reagan Yuppie Culture in the Age of AIDS? Does the fact that I printed it up and then made pen marks in the margins make that version a more "valuable" part of the archive than, say, the next version that got saved with a different title as a MS Word doc with no corresponding print-out?

But the thing that becomes clear to me is not the value proposition of this archive as it exists today or may look ten or twenty years from now. No, what is clear, is that I actually am unable to work on this monster without falling into the cliched trap of going down memory lane which, for me at this moment in my postproduction flow, is like going down a rabbit hole of time that wants to suck the creativity out of me.

"Back then," I think to myself, reading through the draft manuscript of this major (says who?) work-in-progress that takes place partly in the 80s, "some us thought we were experiencing first-hand the final death knell of American culture, that we would soon be entering an age of artist concentration camps, and that the disparity of rich versus poor was the worst it was ever going to be. But now we live in a post-G.W.Bush plutocracy greased by a hegemonic oil-garchy with no end in sight and although the concentration camps never materialized, keep your eye on the tea baggers and their "going rogue" inclination to suck the propaganda balls of anything Rush Limbaugh dunks down for them to eat."

But I digress. The bottom line is that this archive project is a total time killer. If I can finish it in two years, then hopefully I can just add to it as stuff accumulates and continue on with my merry prankster way of making DIY art for the few who choose to connect with what it is I am doing. But if I wait until later to get to it all, if I put it off because I have better things to do like release my next feature-length film in the Foreign Film Series (already near final cut), or focus all of my attention on my forthcoming comedy album, or start production on the third work in the aforementioned Foreign Film Series, then I'll never get this monster (i.e. the archive) under control, and that would be a cruel thing to do to the follow-up team that will have to deal with it all after I do my victory dance in the End of All Time Zones.

Unless, of course, they (the follow-up team who survives in the digital afterlife) just decide to ditch it all in a Dempsey Dumpster.

In which case, why wait? The thought has crossed my mind -- almost daily -- but I can't get rid of the impulse to save save save. Apple-S -- is that an aesthetic impulse? Literary? Biological?

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Blogger jeanli said...

love this post. and how we use the word archive these days with such alacrity. People used to talk about collectors, or even packrats;) But now we say archive and assume the importance of the things collected, sum of which = our lived lives. I always laugh at myself when going though boxes fo my 'archives' adn find the most ephemeral of items, never meant to last more than a shred of time, yet filed away as if they were freaking marble tablets. My daughter is about to graduate , as so many youngsters are, from school with an MLS, specializing in preservation. I guess someone's got to manage all this information in the future. And while I think the activity of sifting through artifacts reveals latent creative juxtaposition, serendipitous yes! as well as an arena for taking stock of our time on this earth, I must admit that when my apt in NYC almost burned down and I said goodbye as I perched on the fire escape in the cold I felt very light, and giving, and not sorrowful at all. Everythings in motion. Ephemeral=of the day. Who the hell am I?

3:14 PM  

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