Radical [vs?] Institution (1) Exploring the Archive

Student Forum members Amber Turner and Jane Scarth spent some time with the ICA archive to think about how this material might be relevant to the current exhibitions of radical collectives, Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years and The Independent Group: Parallel of Art and Life. Their research has developed an upcoming seminar event Radical [vs?] Institution: Revisiting Archives to form the future that will take place on Wednesday 5 June (more information to follow).

Amber chronicles the research process.

pic1Following up our initial interest in the ICA archive we selected some boxes to be delivered to the studio in order for our research to progress. A full day working with the archive seemed daunting because of its current state (loosely organised with an un-detailed database and generally lacking in TLC). However, as we continued to trawl through what seemed like an endless array of material, much of which without name of date, we began to appreciate the ICA’s history as an environment for radical exchange and ideas. This inspired some questions, such as what constitutes a radical institution? Are the terms Radical and Institution mutually exclusive or paradoxical?

How does the process or the act of keeping an archive actually affect the term radical? Does an institution or collective stop being radical? We actually found that one of the ICAs early fundamental values was that it was not initially going to keep an archive at all. The institution was going to be based on the new and contemporary art world, which would not be interrupted by keeping a record of events. Thinking about the ICA’s upcoming exhibition – Independent Group: Parallel of Art & Life and the fact that it is based upon the IG’s activity within the ICA, got us reflecting upon the group’s importance to the institution’s history.

Our interest in what an archive might mean to an establishment or organisation developed, because so far our research had proved interesting. We listened to a talk that took place at the ICA last year, Making Archives Public: Digitisation and Display, which had centred on the uses of archives and their accessibility. In particular, it was interesting to listen to what Naiya Yiakoumaki (Archive Curator, Whitechapel Gallery) discussed, because many of her experiences working with the Whitechapel archive appeared to be similar to our own at the ICA.

She noted that the Whitechapel’s archive (although it is now archived properly and continually utilised by the Whitechapel) was kept in a similar condition to the ICA’s. She found that much of their archive was accidental, emerging simply as a way for staff to make room for other files, as a means of utilising space. So, is the archive often subjective the needs of an individual, based on ideas of what they feel are necessary? Naiya’s discussion brought to light the way in which archives can be used to help stage future exhibitions and to instigate new research surrounding current programmes and artworks. It also addressed how archives trace the popularity of artists or artworks throughout an institution’s history. The key questions of interest were; what happens after an artist or curator has studied an archive or intervened? Making an incision within the archive but also the creation of a new archive by intervening within the main one. Is the archive enhanced by curatorial intervention and the re-archiving of materials?

As we delved deeper into our research we came across some interesting articles regarding the Independent Group exhibition in 1990. It was interesting to note the general unease from the press about the exhibition, some articles reflecting negatively upon it, one even considering what the IG actually contributed to the art world at that time at all. This in itself brought up some significant questions in relation to revisiting and re-contextualising exhibitions or groups such as the IG. Can the return to a past exhibition actually taint or damage it in some way?

The terms of re-contextualisation raised the question of appropriation and the way in which the ICA and other institutions choose to appropriate their own history. Interestingly enough, one article (while referring to the IG exhibition in 1990) considered whether the ICA was “cannibalising its own history”. The idea that we settled on as an overarching theme from our discussions became the relationship between Radicalism and Institutions, questioning how many institutions are or have actually revisited past radical exhibitions. Once more, some key questions have been raised: Why are these institutions re-contextualizing these radical moments in history? What happens to radicalism when it is re-contextualized? And what does this say about radicalism within art today?

Text: Amber Turner

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