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Archiving Collectives

The fastest-growing area of collecting at Fales is our Downtown Collection, which seeks to document the full spectrum of performance, literature, art, activism and music that flourished in downtown New York from the mid-70s to the early 90s. Because of the cross-disciplinary and multimedia nature of most, if not all, of the work from this scene, the archives and personal papers in the downtown collection present many challenges to standard archival practice and concepts. The materials themselves often defy categorization, new collections are often messy or idiosyncratically arranged, and the storage challenges presented by 50 foot theater backdrops, taxidermied alligators, or ventriloquist dummies, to name just a few, are numerous. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about the challenges presented by the collective provenance of many of our downtown collections, particularly in a field that is so preoccupied with “the creator’.

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We have many collections at Fales that are the records of collectives or collaborative projects. These include the A.I.R. Archive, which preserves the records of Artists in Residence, Inc, the first all-female artists’ co-operative gallery in the United States; avant-garde theatre archives like the Mabou Mines Archive and the Collective: Unconscious Archive, and the records of the lesbian feminist theater company Split Britches; the archive of the alternative media activist collective Paper Tiger Television; the art collective Group Material’s archive; and, most recently, the Guerrilla Girls Archive. (The last four are unprocessed).
These archives each have their own story: some were well-maintained in relatively stable conditions and delivered to Fales as coherent and discrete bodies, while others were accumulated after many years of being stored in disparate locations and conditions. One of the more unusual stories is that of Group Material. Because Group Material made the decision to function “nomadically” after their first years, giving up their exhibition space, there was no single location for the organization’s records to live. This meant that what is now “the archive” for Group Material came to Fales in bits and pieces, problematizing both the process of accessioning and the concept of original order. As Group Material founder Julie Ault writes in her illuminating essay Case Reopened: Group Material, “what remains tangible for the archive, thirty years after GM’s founding, is a mixture of several individuals’ saving habits stimulated by idiosyncratic, conceptual, and practical factors.” While most collective archives are compiled by individuals before they are donated to Fales, they are still marked by their multiple creators’ “idiosyncratic” saving habits.
While “corporate bodies” have always been accepted as archival creators, it seems to me that organizational archives are generally (albeit unconsciously) conceptualized as originating from a single “site”. While the physical site may change, the site as creating body is generally understood to be relatively stable. Collectives are by nature transitory and complicated, often typified by changing membership and evolving or conflicting ideologies. Not only are the records they produce complex and sometimes messy, but the way they are conceived of by their own members can also vary. Some problems are fairly pragmatic: Who is the copyright holder for collective works? When an archives is purchased, who gets the money? What happens if some members want to place the archives at a repository, and others don’t? Others problems are more symbolic: Who gets to tell the history of an organization?
One of our most recent acquisitions is the Guerrilla Girl Archive. This small collection contains materials from the mid-80s to the present, documenting the Girls’ actions in the art world as well as their internal planning. GGpatchsmall.jpgInterestingly, ours is not the only Guerrilla Girls Archive – the Getty Research Institute acquired a much larger Guerrilla Girls Archive in 2008. These two archives represent an ideological split in the organization, some of which seems to have arisen over disagreements about how and where to place archival material. While in a sense both archives are documenting the same story, they are at the same time telling different versions of that story. But there is a final complication about this collection, and that lies in the anonymity that was so crucial to the Guerrilla Girls’ operations. Many of the documents in the Fales archive are signed by aliases – the names of women artists, many underappreciated, that the Girls adopted – but some contain real names, which means that these materials may “out” members who would prefer to remain anonymous. How I will make these materials accessible is still an open question, and one I plan to work on closely with donors.
I have always felt that one of the most powerful aspects of archives as sites of research is that they by nature tell multiple – even contradicting – narratives. The archives of collectives, while posing some challenges to archival practice, also serve to make this multiplicity more apparent; ultimately, the more voices we include in our repositories, the more we support the telling of more complex and nuanced histories.
Lisa Darms, Senior Archivist, Fales Library

One thought on “Archiving Collectives”

  1. Hillel Arnold says:

    Fantastic post!
    I think you’re absolutely right that we need to reconsider the concept of the creator. The SAA definition, “The individual, group, or organization that is responsible for something’s production, accumulation, or formation,” is pretty minimal, and certainly doesn’t cover any of the cases you mention here.
    I’ve been thinking about this today, and it seems to me that so many of the other “fundamental” concepts of archives really hinge on this concept of the creator as a unified entity, one which (especially in the case of corporate bodies) functions according to some kind of logic. Original order, description and access are all affected by this notion.
    EAD (and EAC) have allow names to be recorded as Personal, Corporate or Family names. I’m wondering if we need to add Collective to the list…

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