ARCHIVAL RESPONSIBILITY Andy Cooperman ©2011
So a goat, a condor and a tire and walk into a bar…..
I have a good friend, an artist, whose creative flame was stoked--if not lit--by the work of Robert Rauschenberg. He (my friend, not Rauschenberg) and I have had this discussion many times. I have argued that it is the responsibility of the maker to fully consider and fulfill their archival obligations. If you are selling work, my argument goes, then you are entering into a contract with the buyer to provide work that is well made, stable and durable. The client or collector is shelling out a lot of scratch for an object that is corporeal and the implication is that with proper care and use it will grow old gracefully, perhaps acquiring the patina of age, but remaining intact and much the same as when it was purchased.
My friend argues that we are artists and as such we should not limit ourselves. That the people buying our art understand the inherent realities and that they buy it less as an object and more as the product of an artist. What lasts anyway? Computers fail or become obsolete, cars have a definite lifespan, even our mates aren’t the same at 60 as they were at 25. Everyone accepts this. Why should art be any different?
I still maintain my position, more or less, although it has softened. I’m not sure that I can hold any other maker to high standards of craft and durability, of material compatibility and stability--the archival mandate as I see it. But it has been difficult for me to dial that back in my own studio. I feel that it is my responsibility to choose my materials soberly and apply them well. It’s one thing for a collector to return with a brooch that has been obviously butchered by a shoulder seat belt or savaged by a three your old (how’d the slobber and cheerios get in there?). That’s on them. But it’s quite another thing to have one of my pieces disintegrate in its display or on the wall. That’s my responsibility. Unless… the client or collector understands the mutable nature of the work. I have another friend who has worked extensively in gut and this artist makes sure that the collector understands that the piece will change, perhaps dramatically. This maker has explored the ideas of impermanence, decay and entropy throughout their career. Like a family member, a gut piece will age: it’s designed to and the collector understands this as part of the work.
I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by a museum curator (who understands jewelry and craft) about this topic a little while ago. I asked about archival responsibility, since the museum had several pieces in its permanent collection that included organic elements--fur, leaves, seedpods, etc. How does the museum deal with this? Does the nature of this work impact it’s collectability? He answered “no” to the latter and explained that they considered all this before acquiring each piece and understood that there would be a maintenance cost associated with the work as long as they owned it. Furthermore, the museum has an agreement with the artist that the artist will periodically maintain the work and replace failed elements with “spare parts” that they have stockpiled. Good answer.
But I still feel compelled to cleave to my standard of archivability; sometimes to my disadvantage. Too slavish a devotion and --my friend is Right-- it limits you. Maybe a sense of archival responsibility is a difference between art and craft….
and the “trades” too. My Rauschenberg buddy had his house extensively remodeled by a really wonderful design/build team. Great work, sweet and edgy design. In the kitchen the designer chose to use stamped steel (“tin”) vintage type ceiling tiles as a backsplash behind the sink. Throughout the first floor run nice oak floors that my friend and his wife opted to continued in front of that sink. Wood and steel: two materials pretty incompatible with areas that are constantly wet. The floor is trashed and the steel is rusted through where it meets the countertop. The other day my friend shook his head, bemoaning the decision to use wood in a wet area; they’ll have to replace it.
“What about the tin tiles?” I asked. That too, he admitted. I wondered out loud if the designer shouldn’t pay that cost since it was such an obviously poor choice to begin with. The designer didn’t see it that way and neither did my friend. But this seemed pretty straightforward to me. After all, wasn’t it the designer/builder’s job to vet materials for suitable for each specific application? I think so. But I am growing increasingly unclear about how this applies to making art, or Craft for that matter.