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Documenting an Artist: Part 1

One of my favorite archival experiences was when I was working on my Master’s Thesis at NYU. I used the “David Wojnarowicz Papers” located at the Fales Library as a case study about artists-focused archives. It was there I recreated Olivia Laing’s experiment, famously documented in her 2016 memoir, The Lonely City, where she listened to Wojnarowicz’s answering machine tapes. Consisting of roughly thirty recordings, Wojnarowicz is never heard from, instead, we are told of the surrounding events of his week by the messages his friends and family chose to leave for him. Only five tapes were dated, leaving to some guesswork of when the tapes took place in the artist's life. However, these phone recordings displayed an aspect of an archive I never quite experienced before, as it showed a side of an artist that artwork could not: the mundane. What I mean by this distinction is that the archive actively collected material that to any other observer might have been considered not worthwhile or important. However, by doing so, a collection of the mundane gives an understanding to an artist’s day-to-day activities, which can give us significant insight into how they think. 

In preparation for my visit, Belén had gotten out some paper materials to be recorded. One of the binders held over 300 printed-out images of various items, including- shopping bags, sports equipment, and coat racks. I was told these served as “inspirational images,” and were examples of items either used or referenced in the finished work. “I have all these images on my computer” I remember her telling me, “I’m not sure it’s so important to have these.” I argued the contrary, as I saw the decision to physically print out these images showed the artist’s need for some tactility in the creation process. Belén also told me that some of these images were once used in her “Artist’s Wall.” While some of the pages were hole-punched and stored individually, the majority of the images were in little groups, consisting up to twenty pages, in clear plastic document folders. Sometimes these folders would house two separate groups of images, with a clear distinction of where each group starts/ends. It was clear to me that the grouping of objects, subconsciously or unconsciously, was deemed important to the artist’s process. When scanning the physical material, I made sure to record the order that these images were stored in. While these images are essential to give some insight on Belén’s work, I would argue that the mundanity of the subconscious grouping of images builds upon that understanding. Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the collection process in our documentation of an artist.

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