documenta one of the world’s leading contemporary art exhibitions, hosted every five years in Kassel, Germany. For 100 days, artists take over the city with their installations, performances, digital art, etc. The documenta archive is responsible for capturing this event and its outcomes. At the crux of their job is the question of how to preserve and document time-based media art and ephemeral experiences - a topic that is very close to heart for us here at Sound and Vision. The two-day Archiving the Unarchivable symposium gathered archivists, curators, scholars and artists to exchange ideas on how to approach these temporal experiences that seem to escape the grasp of archival practices.
Artwork acquisition at the Guggenheim Museum
Addressing the practical challenges of time-based media art preservation, Joanna Phillips (Senior Conservator, Time-Based Media, Guggenheim Museum) walked us through the steps of artwork acquisition at the Guggenheim Museum. Their approach is very much future-oriented - creating extensive documentation reports about iterations of the same artwork in different environments so that it could be authentically reconstructed again. Phillips described how each step, each decision during the acquisition of Mariam Ghani’s video installation A Brief History of Collapses (2012) was documented in minute detail, and the artist herself became actively involved in the process to make technical adjustments and make sure that future installations of the work stay true to her intentions. And it pays off to be so scrupulous and a bit paranoid about how the tiniest things might go wrong - trying to reconstruct an artwork without such documentation is not only a technical and logistical nightmare, it can also easily jeopardise the intentions behind it and distort the experience for its audience.
The conclusion that Westerman and many other speakers came to is that the unarchivable should remain so - unarchived. Trying to fit these temporal experiences into fixed forms only renders them irretrievable and irrelevant. Instead, we should look for traces that can help us understand the social situation they created and, as documenta professor Nora Sternfeld put it, try to reconstruct ‘the moments of affect and intensities’ that took place. If there’s one takeaway message, it’s that archives need to accept that certain kinds of temporal experiences are and should remain unarchivable. It is our role as archivists to focus not only on the events of the past but the opportunities to relive these experiences in the future.
As the documenta archive transforms into a new research institute in the near future, we hope to see further research emerge around new archival practices that these types of unarchivable time-based media demand.