Stories from Between the Archives
In late 2015, I got out of a long-term relationship with an arts non-profit. Working in the space between artist and administrator, I played on both fields. Between all the projects, events, and administrative sessions, what stood out most about the work was only ever casually discussed and informally remembered—but, the things that even a few years later, I still think about. What transpired between people and projects, the by-products of the work, is what made the programs successful (or not). Often these subtleties were only unofficially recorded - like that one time in 2012 when we were trying to print copies and start a staff meeting, but the copy machine, coffee machine, and printer were all broken -- did we end up finishing that meeting? Make those copies? Ever actually get to drink the coffee?
While the answers to those questions might not be enough to write home about (or an article about), the circumstances nevertheless contributed to our environment and shaped the work I did. The asides during our meetings, while often interruptive, fostered some of the best ideas for fundraisers and project proposals. Discussions between artists during everyday chores introduced new approaches for working with materials. Realizing projects is more complicated than what is on paper - how the grant was written, the quotes in the press release, the Google doc timelines, or the photographs taken at the opening. More importantly for me, it is about the less conspicuous moments that shaped the work we did. I am interested in the unofficial institutional knowledge: things that become second nature: the personal stories, the creative environment, the artists’ anecdotes, shared breakfasts, weather patterns, and summer department meetings at the pool that enhanced the work we did. This is the ineffable part of the organization that I inevitably took with me when I left. Will that ever translate back into the organization’s archive? Should it?
How do you archive the jokes? Those particular moments, phrases, and experiences that bring levity and humor to the serious work of co-creating culture?
I am looking to learn as much as I can from the art and cultural stories of DC through the people who are personally archiving it. Still new here, I reached out to my immediate—and admittedly still limited—network asking to visit their archives or share a DC art story that might not be common knowledge. Realizing the inherent bias of only asking the people I knew, I put out requests online for pieces of the archive. I asked for more names and digitally introduced myself to many amazing people in DC, asking for photos or stories of art times gone by. You know how it goes, there is never enough time for all the projects. Timelines don't always line up until later. The ideas keep on building.
So, this piece is evolving, just as the archive is evolving. By no means a full picture of DC's contemporary art stories yet, this brief photo essay aims to record and archive these stories of DC; highlighting three of the submissions—three personal stories, three moments of art in DC.
PART 1 . “walter hopps will be here in 20 minutes”
"Walter Hopps was one of the curators who was part of a significant pivot in curatorial practice in the 1950s and 60s — away from a traditional academic model, towards a more improvisational way of creating shows. He came to DC in the early 70s and was Director of the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art for a while before moving on to the Smithsonian, and then the Menil Collection. He was a tough guy to find, and often people would show up for appointments, but the staff hadn’t seen him for days. They would politely tell the visitor, “Walter will see you in twenty minutes,” then frantically try to track him down. I never met him personally, though I saw him around the museum when the Corcoran did the Rauschenberg multiples exhibition in the early-90s. I heard that he was very good to DC artists, spending lots of time talking to them in their studios and generally being accessible. Robin Rose told me that in the wee hours of nice summer nights, he and Walter would hang on this bench (by the bus stop in the little park across from the 7-11 on Columbia Road) trash-talking the art world.”
- James Huckenpahler, artist, based in DC
PART 2 . “institutional legacy”
"It's amazing how valueless everything becomes in the final months of a dying institution. Things that were once preserved of reused and repurposed over and over suddenly become trash. My favorite day was When Ken Ashton opened up his museum frame shop during the last week of the Corcoran. Photo teachers and student swarmed the room like a Best Buy on Black Friday. Hundreds of amazing frames that once housed priceless works no longer beholden their institutional legacy. Liberated! They gained a new life housing the mediocre art of all the students screwed by the Corcoran's failure."
- Joseph Orzal, artist & curator, based in DC + Baltimore
PART 3 . “Serial Mom”
“So, back in my very early 20's I heard about a call for extras for the John Waters film, "Serial Mom" while listening to WHFS, the long defunct indie radio station in DC. I was a fan of John Waters and the entire trash genre.
I was very thin with magenta highlights in my hair and in a uniform of a black t-shirt depicting Dali's photograph, "Voluptuous Death" and leopard print mary jane creepers. I was selected among many in the casting call and reported to HammerJacks (defunct metalhead venue in Bmore) early in the morning.
The day consisted of standing around with the biggest room of curated freaks, which was quite enjoyable, eating scoops of spaghetti, elementary school lunch style and listening to L7 play the same riff over and over again as a band called Cameltoe, with visuals to match, as Kathleen Turner pursued her next murder victim. The complicated chase scene took about 10 hours as John Waters meticulously arranged those of us that were standing in the line of sight. You can only see a blur of my hair headbanging in that scene, but it was still a good day. John Waters yelled for people to get in their places and I jokingly replied, "don't worry John, we're all professionals here" and he burst out laughing.
I was called back to be an extra again a few days later for the courtroom scenes. The woman that played the second housekeeper on "Different Strokes" was in this scene as a non-recycling neighbor and I riffed, calling her a "non-recycling bitch". Needless to say, this moment did not get into the final cut. The only moment I can be seen sometimes, is as a willowy figure in the very distant background. I was mesmerized watching Ricki Lake hilariously hitting on her co-star, who played her brother, Matthew Lillard and got my picture taken with Patty Hearst. All these things happened and sadly, the only remnant from this experience is this cut off oversized t-shirt.”
- Dawne Langford, filmmaker + organizer, based in DC
PART 4 . "everybody archives"
This DC archive is ongoing. Do you have a artifact for the archive? A story to share? Help build DIRT and DC’s contemporary art and culture archive.
We want to be your archivists.
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“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.