Artists as ‘memoryscapers’: Using the archives as construction sites [Excerpt]

In Jimerson’s imagery of the archives as a restaurant, the customer is a researcher served by a staff acting in front and behind the kitchen that is the archives. He elaborated the metaphor by imagining that “[t]he researcher remains in the dining room, as a consumer of information, while the most important work of the restaurant takes place out of the kitchen. The reference archivist serves researchers much as the waitress serves restaurant customers.”

In the restaurant, the archivist acts as the mediator between the user and the archives. Whatever meal (information) the customer needs, the archivist should know if they have the ingredients (archival material) for it. However, these ingredients are uncooked. There is no meal, “only promise of food.” Cooking the ingredients or synthesizing the archival materials is still the customer’s responsibility.

Jimerson wrote the book in 2009 but until now, at least in the Philippines, researchers are still the traditional users of the archives. However, we should do more than embracing the power of the archives, but also allowing others to harness it. One way is to open the metaphorical restaurant to other potential customers as well.

Artist as customer

The archives as an institution should consider catering to artists who use the archives in their contemporary art practice. They are driven by what Hal Foster coined as archival impulse. Acting towards it is more than just digging through “excavation sites” of archival materials but making something out of it, using the archives as “construction sites” instead.

There is an emerging interest and scholarship in the United States and Great Britain (Carbone 2017) about artists working within the archives. Artists are non-traditional customers of the archives who also work with and within it unconventionally.

In case studies where scholars examined how artists have used the archives to produce their art, it is usually implied that unlike Jimerson’s researchers in the archival restaurant, artists are left to their own devices, exploring what ingredients and utensils are available in the kitchen. This freedom is crucial in letting the artist discover on their own what stories are prevailing in the archives and uncover what is buried beneath. In the art that will be produced afterwards, the artist becomes an interface between the archives and the public, which can extend the diagram of archivists traditionally acting as the mediator between the records and the users.

Of course, while the artist is working on their construction site, the archivist is still expected to perform their functions such assisting the user if they need guidance around the collection and especially ensuring proper maintenance, among others.

Artists working with the archives

Extracting the essence of archival impulse that Foster forwarded, Carbone (2017) expresses it as artists being “moved by archival things.” In the same paper, she writes in a footnote how the scholarship of artists working with archives is “sparse [but] burgeoning.”

These artists who surrendered to the impulse are, according to Foster, “often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects – in art and in history alike – that might offer points of departure again.” In other words, these “artist-as-archivists” – in Breakell and Worsley’s interpretation of Foster’s text – are the ones who “recover gaps from the past.” In an earlier paper, Carbone (2015) observes that these gaps or silences can be revealed by artists “engaging in processes of talking back to and annotating archival records.” These gaps can “convert[ed] into beginnings perhaps to remind culture of its own wish symbols and forfeited dreams” (Breakell and Worsley). As Steedman has said about the archives, it is a place for dreams, which Featherstone extends to “a place for dreams and revelation, a place of longing where the world can turn on the discovery of an insignificant fragment: a place for creating and re-working memory.”

The archives is a fertile place of working with memory and history. Zapperi equates a desire for memory to a desire for knowledge as an artist tries to reconstruct repressed history. She adds that such activity of going through the archives is not just a “nostalgic operation, but […] a powerful form of reactivation” where the past is not the point of making the artworks, but actualizing the past.

Expanding Zapperi’s point, Siegert says that “[t]he engagement with the archive is not only inspired by a desire to excavate the hidden or hibernating stories, but also to exorcize –metaphorically speaking – the archival demons in order to ‘repair’ the past.” Siegert’s characterization of a work by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda is relevant to other works built using the archives: “[It] is not so much about the representation of the present, but rather the desire to participate in the imagination of future, new identities.”

Using the archives of Bogotá-based sculptor Doris Salcedo as a backdrop, Lauzon presents that the contemporary art’s unique contribution to the future of memory is “a capacity to unsettle our collective relationship with the past while imagining a better future.”

To reify the definitions put forward by the quoted scholars, they usually include case studies in their papers to dissect their chosen artists’ practices in relation to the archives. Their exploration crosses lines of inquiry such as “How do artists approach and use the archives? How do they engage history and memory with records?” which are questions also suggested by Carbone (2017) to expand this scholarship.

Personal reflection

In the process of reading through the articles and watching a symposium, specifically the Getty Research Institute’s Artists & Archives: A Pacific Standard Time Symposium, I tried to derive a common denominator among the diverse artist-archivists. I learned that developing a singular model to capture how artists engage with an archive is a futile attempt, since “[a]ll archives are different, just as each person has their own creative process” (Breakell and Worsley). Behind their idiosyncratic exploration of the archives is the universal spirit of Foster’s archival impulse at play, that each had a realization of the potentiality of archives in artmaking. What’s more important to discern is the artists’ individual motivations, what stories they discovered and what they chose to surface and why.

This was written for Introduction to Archives Studies (LIS211) course in UP Diliman, 2nd Semester AY 21-22. To read the full paper, you may email hello [at]