Amelia Foster is a current MLIS student and the Fine Art Collection MLIS Graduate Student Assistant at Saint Catherine University. She works as a freelance writer, artist, and library programmer.
SAA Conference Recap: Reframing History: Opening Up Archives to Artists
Introduction to the Chicago Archives + Artists Project
This panel showcased two projects resulting from the Chicago Archives + Artists Project organized Sixty Inches From Center. Sixty Inches From Center (called “Sixty” for short) is a Chicago-based nonprofit online arts publication and archiving initiative that “supports and promotes art and writing that thrives primarily outside of mainstream historical narratives.”
Sixty’s Chicago Archives + Artists Project launched in 2018 with the goal of increasing representation of marginalized communities in Chicago archives and special collections. This panel included Sixty’s founder Tempestt Hazel, as well as Sixty’s Director of Archives and Operations Jennifer Patiño Cervantes. Presenting artists included Ivan LOZANO, who worked with the Media Burn video archives, and H. Melt who worked with librarian Catherine Grandgeorge in the Chicago Protest Collection at the Newberry Library. Additionally, librarian Analú María López joined the panel to speak about how her experience as an independent artist informs her work as the Indigenous Studies Librarian at the Newberry Library.
To begin, Jennifer Patiño Cervantes introduced Sixty’s focus on challenging the “symbolic annihilation” that marginalized communities experience when archives overlook them. Sixty’s Archives + Artists Project asks artists to think about how their legacies fit into Chicago art history. The program includes artist commissions, creating connections between artists with archives, “Get Archived” events, and more. Sixty spotlights archives that are open to community contributions and thus increase representation.
H. Melt and the Chicago Protest Collection
At the Newberry library, poet, artist, and educator H. Melt’s residency took place within the Chicago Protest Collection. This unprocessed collection includes crowdsourced material from the 2017 Women’s March in Chicago and Washington D.C. Since 2017, it has grown to include materials from the Muslim and immigration ban protests as well as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Granting an artist access to an unprocessed, crowdsourced collection, marked a departure from the norm at the Newberry. “Sometimes you just need to show the messy parts,” said Catherine. By granting H. Melt access to the collection, they became a part of the archives appraisal process. While Catherine was focused on the logistics of housing, preserving, and creating access to the collection, H. Melt brought attention to the particular viewpoints and messaging represented by the collection. While the Newberry has a history of collecting protest materials, soliciting materials through crowdsourcing rather than formal curation was a first for the archives. Crowdsourcing materials has resulted in an unrepresentative collection that skews toward reflecting the archives’ existing primary user base.
H. Melt brought their experience as an artist celebrating trans history and culture to their residency at the Newberry. Their work focuses on envisioning trans liberation and trans futures. Even though the Newberry is publicly accessible, H. Melt admitted to finding the institution intimidating. They didn’t know how to begin accessing the archives, and what’s more, they didn’t imagine the Newberry would hold materials that are relevant to them.
Indeed, throughout their research, H. Melt ran into the difficulty of locating materials related to trans identity. Much of their artwork results in banners and signs that are used at protests or marches. H. Melt decided to create new banners and signs that “filled in the gaps” in the collection at the Newberry as well as at the Leather Archives & Museum, which has historically been unwelcoming to trans people.
H. Melt’s residency resulted in an exhibit that included selected materials from the Chicago Protest Collection exhibited alongside their own work. H. Melt spoke about the power of taking down signs and flags on the walls of these institutions and replacing them with their own, trans-affirming work and messages. They were particularly thrilled to hang a sign that reads THERE ARE TRANS PEOPLE HERE outside the front door of the Leather Archives & Museum, making the message visible to queer and trans people living in the neighborhood of the museum. Ultimately the Leather Archives & Museum ended up purchasing the flag as part of their permanent collection.
As a result of this residency, H. Melt’s work continues to inform the ongoing growth of the protest collection. Catherine noted that the librarians are now more mindful of protester privacy and representation within the collection.
Ivan LOZANO and the Media Burn Archive
Ivan LOZANO’s residency was located within the Media Burn archives. Media Burn is an archive of mostly user-generated content including video and television created by artists, activists, and community groups. Ivan did most of his research through Media Burn’s digitized collections. Similar to H. Melt, he began his residency by searching for representative material in the collections. He said, “I’m queer, I’m a Mexican immigrant, and I’m an artist. I tried to locate myself in the archive and see what it had to say about me.”
What he discovered in the archive was reductive, microaggresive, or discomforting at best. His project ultimately came to focus on a video called Mexican Art Gallery – Green Card lottery winner from the Judith Binder collection.
In this video, Mexican artists are working in a gallery in Pasadena. They have been invited to this gallery to recreate production stills from Charlie Chaplin films using traditional Mexican art forms such as alebrijes. Ivan recounted the video’s several painful microaggressions as two white women discussed the work of the Mexican artists in dismissive and dehumanizing ways. Ivan noted that he found this video particularly distressing to watch in the contemporary context of family separations at the Mexican/U.S. border.
In response, he decided to focus on the work of the Mexican artists in the video, rather than the racist comments from the white women. He researched the Mexican folk artists, including Pedro Linares, to create a new installation. Ivan printed thousands of stills from the video, creating strips with images that focused on the Mexican artist’s calaveras as well as the mother of the family of artisans in the video, who was largely overlooked and uncredited in the film. The resulting installation was created from both collage and hanging strips of film that represent a change of perspective and focus that contrasts with the original film.
Recommendations for Archives working with Artists
Finally, Newberry librarian Analú María López spoke about her work assisting artists through reference services. She noted that the whiteness and white supremacy that permeates the field of LIS results in systems that inherently exclude indigenous people and people of color. Problematic subject headings and racist or inaccurate terms create frustration when individuals are conducting research and seeking representation in archives and collections.
Analú called for opening up archives with a decolonial lens and a praxis of enhancing representation, which she defines bringing marginalized communities to the front. She noted that this is easier said than done, especially in the colonial construct of the archive. The importance of community outreach and authentic relationship building was key in her approach to her work.
Following these presentations, all panelists weighed in with tips on how to open up archives to artists. The challenge of navigating archival language and outdated terms came up repeatedly. Furthermore, both artists emphasized the importance of an open, flexible process because artists often begin a project without an exact outcome in mind. Knowing that exploration is part of the process can help archivists be patient with artists.
Jennifer acknowledged that artists often work with archives, but the lack of best practices result in challenges for these unique collaboration opportunities. All panelists acknowledged that artists are likely using archives in ways that archivists do not know about. There was a call for more communication, especially to give artists increased exposure through archival channels. The panel closed with a call for crowdsourced tips and suggestions for artist and archive collaboration, resulting in this google doc.