Collect Your Thoughts: An Artist's Living Things
I’m unpacking. I’ve been unpacking. A month ago, a move from a sublet to an apartment finalized a relocation from city to city, and with it, all of the boxes in storage that I’ve drifted in and out of for the past few months. I am in the midst of processing the closure and exposure of objects and documents I’ve lived within during many formative years. The process of transporting and translating the items that shaped the past into the present is intensely physical and sensual. I’m just beginning to pronounce my new life with weary glances at a closet, a room in disarray. Surrounded by objects in mock order, it feels as though their effect and consequence has completely overwhelmed my agency. I remind myself of my power, excavating the depths of a large box of books and setting aside a pile to give away. Exhausting and filled with delight, this is the terrifying beauty of a reliance on tangibility. I have been re-planted — my roots are sticking out.
After years of archival work ranging from scanning 300 year old plant samples at the National Museum of Natural History to deciphering film and photographs from the early 20th century at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I cannot help but imagine a future for the items around me. This self-awareness during construction of a new living space has heavily influenced my renewed focus on art history and art-making. I’m back to work and self-aware, fully immersed in the emulsification process back into the objects and documents of my past. Inevitably, this movement requires molting — separating and shedding items from your life. As you build your personal library of materials, notes, images, text, sound and ephemera, it is necessary to gradually skim off the duplicates and impersonal items. Still, clutter is no enemy of a blooming archive. These unplanned or subconscious moments of collection will result in the most intimate everyday objects becoming staples in your library. When archiving and art handling become intimate aspects of daily life both professionally and personally, the approach to objects is a paradox involving constant oscillation between practicality and preciousness.
The title “archivist” carries a certain weight of intent: a person who directly unpacks and unfurls history through documents and objects. While the act of archiving and the notion of an archive remain intimidatingly institutional, it is valuable to expand and internalize these practices on the individual level. The emotional composition of our relationship to objects and text is invaluable for artists and art historians alike, despite contrasting approaches to creation. Deeply tied to the accumulation and reflection upon information and imagery as art historians are, artists also possess the power to escape fixed linear readings of history to create their own breathing archive.
Despite its formal associations, archiving occurs largely by accident. Andy Warhol began collecting boxes of hundreds of thousands of items as suggested by his assistant when moving into the Factory. Containing a wild range of intimate and boring objects — nude photos of Paul Richard Shipman, junk mail, dead bees, a tyvek suit adorned with Basquiat drawings, exhibition opening announcements — these ‘time capsules’ are autobiographical and performative. Archiving with the desire for self-reflection allows artists and art historians to expand their understanding of the emotional potential of objects and writing. In many ways, incorporating archiving into everyday practice is an act of self-imaging.
Apart from my attempts to render the transition from art historian to artist tangible, the process of moving from apartment to apartment, city to city, fleeting sublet to semi-permanence, has proven that casual approaches often yield the most striking informational results. The most immediate lessons are graphic, as design cues that once drew us in emerge while rifling through piles of exhibition brochures and maps.
While visuals and tactile objects are essential in my search for inspiration, sound has become an extremely revelatory medium for my artistic research and personal library. I began randomly recording noise about three years ago, starting with an intimate archiving project accumulated during my three-month semester in Tokyo.
Since then, I’ve taken time to sporadically document everyday noise in DC, ranging from cicadas outside my apartment to the sirens and crowds of the anti-fascist protests on inauguration day on January 20, 2017. When combined with video footage from police body cameras from the same day, the memory is intense, especially in the opportunity to view the event from the ruthless police perspective:
Keeping these memories fresh has been essential in both my studio and written work, emerging most recently in a light and video installation exposing this footage to the public. The experience of shifting from art historian to artist became less of a movement from scholarship to studio and more of a realization of the political potential of art practice itself. It inevitably takes time to digest memory, but when equipped with objects or documents as resources, the interpretation of the past remains alive rather than simply reflective. Returning to once-everyday experiences through sound, text or image allows us to more deeply absorb our relationship with our surroundings.
It has become clear that while individuals are framed and defined by the everyday objects and ideas that surround them, we also may find agency in the life of objects, whether they be inconsequential or monumental items. It is the awareness of our influences that reveal the most about the cultural cues that we respond to and are shaped by. As I continue to sort the receipts, videos, sounds, e-waste, plastics, notebooks, sketches, letters, etc., I experience fresh feelings and emotions connected to memories and simultaneously to others’ as well. This stage of reflection may expand to collective levels, suggesting a strong connection between archiving and solidarity. Still, it is just as important to archive purely for yourself and not for the public. Nurture your memories and encourage yourself to revisit and reinterpret your past. Sensitivity to the consequences of archiving unexpected pieces of everyday life is challenge to consistently take note from the past in order to understand a complex and absurd present — a process that is impossible to find through nostalgia alone. Your archive is alive: feed it.
“Dissecting the Archive” is a seven-part piece commissioned by Common Field for the 2017 Field Perspectives as part of the Annual Convening in LA. Read all seven pieces here.