MIRIAM LA ROSA: in conversation with NAYIA YIAKOUMAKI

On the 23rd of February 2016, I met Nayia Yiakoumaki – Curator Archive Gallery at Whitechapel Gallery, London – to discuss issues related to archiving and exhibiting practices, on the basis of her research and professional experience. Our conversation touched upon the relationship between time-based media and the archive. In particular, we discussed concepts such as materiality and immateriality, alongside the notion of re-enactment and its manifestation through archival exhibitions.

Miriam La Rosa: According to your experience, how has technology changed and influenced the archive?

Nayia Yiakoumaki: Archives – at least traditional archives, which have been maintained mainly as paper-based repositories – are hugely challenged by the relationship between art and technology including  the management of digital data. Firstly, archivists do not know how to store such works as their apparatus becomes constantly obsolete. Secondly, they do not know how to make them accessible to researchers. The main influences that can be seen in the archive with developments in technology are, primarily, in the material itself. When digital photography was introduced, there was a great impact in the volume of records; these became smaller. Todays digital artworks are either process-based, or ephemeral, sometimes interactive, multimedia-based, and they have a very different structure overall than artworks in other media. The archive has to re-invent itself here, in order to accommodate these shifts in art production. It has to open up and modify its original structure, its tools and its ways of presenting its content to the public. This is a problem which may not have a solution within the limits of the ‘physical archive’ but can only be fully documented in a digital way, by using innovative interfaces, or software.

MLR: So, in the history of Whitechapel Gallery, what are the most influential exhibitions on art, science and technology?

NY: Well, let’s start from the present day and go backwards. Right now, we have a major exhibition related to the impact of computer and Internet technologies on artists from the mid-1960s to the present day. Entitled Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966), this is a show directly related to the subject. In the past, there were exhibitions that were looking into this area more broadly. For instance, we had an exhibition in 1970, entitled Modern Chairs 1918 – 1970, which was directly related to changes in chair design. Of course, as new material and new technologies – which enabled a new area of design to flourish – emerged, the exhibition indirectly had numerous references to the interrelation between a design object and a utility object; hence between art and real life. Black Eyes and Lemonade in 1951 was seemingly about popular art, but when Barbara Jones put it together, her main interest was the relationship between the hand-made and the machine-made object. In this sense, the show spoke about art and technology and the importance of industry in the formation of a folkloric tradition, which was an entirely new point. She characteristically wrote: “All through the exhibition the new and commonplace were seen near the old and safe. And by the end of it most people felt able to accept a talking lemon extolling Idris Lemon Squash and Basset’s Liquorice Allsorts isolated under a spotlight.”[1] We were able to unfold all these meanings when we revisited the original exhibition in the Archive Gallery with the show Black Eyes and Lemonade: Curating Popular Art (2013). The most obvious reference that remains, I think, is This is Tomorrow in 1956, which was again reflecting its time; post-war reforms in design, architecture and domesticity wrapped together with an encouragement for the masses to consume the new products available, the new material such as Perspex or Formica, electrical goods for the domestic environment and so on.

MLR: In This is Tomorrow an interesting factor was the collaboration between architects, writers, designers and artists, which we can consider predominant in the discourse around art and technology. In fact, many contemporary artists, who are not tech specialists, collaborate with people that are specialised in the use and development of, for instance, specific software or programmes. So, the majority of these works are coming out of collaboration.

NY: Precisely. In that exhibition this model was not only tested but also deployed as the only way to move forward and create an effective artwork, which, for lack of a better description, would be ‘experienced’ rather than ‘viewed’. It gave the impetus to all the creative practitioners who took part, to open and challenge their practice and method of working. Rather than the artists working in an insular way, isolated within the methodology of their own practice, they had to find a common ground with the architects, the theorists, the designers and, last but not least, with the technical people they liaised with to make it happen. To a certain extent, this is also the case with the artists included in Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966); unless you have technical knowledge, you cannot materialise such work of your own accord. I suspect there has to be a small team that creates various elements of these works…

MLR: Did you have an impact on Electronic Superhighway, as curator?

NY: No, my former colleague, Omar Kholeif, curated it. He did, however, start a discussion with all the curators in the exhibition department, asking us to suggest artists that we thought could have been relevant. So, in that sense, I did contribute by suggesting two artists.

MLR: The archive would have been a very interesting element to take into account and utilise for this exhibition; also in relationship with the institution’s history.

NY: Yes, this could have been an interesting case if the show was open to such avenues. It is fascinating to observe how the archive reflects all the technological changes within an institution, but also within art practices per se. To begin with issues concerning materiality, for instance, what constitutes the archive, what material it contains, how does it reflect technologies of communication – from handwriting to typing, to using keyboards, and then with fax, email, it gradually becomes more immaterial or, in any case, has a new type of materiality. Currently, together with my colleague archivist Pamela Sepúlveda, we would like to embark on a major research endeavour to see how immaterial practices, such as performance or even interviews and other events, are stored and presented within our archive. We have accounts of events taking place but there are not many records to attest that. On the other hand, we can come across a type of record that seems totally disconnected; such as an invoice from the artist, which of course does not represent the performative event as such, but it tells us when it happened, how long it lasted, if it included props etc. This is to say that, frequently, the remnants of such ‘immaterial’ practices or time-based practices are not necessarily a direct representation or documentation of the practice as it happens, as with other art forms, but we – as curators – can use it equally in an interesting way, for the purpose of our research and exhibition making.

MLR: This is another very relevant point in the discussion around technology-based art. When dealing with immaterial practices such as performance art or time-based media – where no physical objects can be necessarily collected – does archiving practice become the equivalent of collecting practice?

NY: In a way it does; in the sense that the archive is the first place where one can experience the immaterial practice as ‘object’ through its own records. On the other hand, I would insist that there is a clear distinction between collecting and archiving; these two practices are quite different. Collection is driven by particular taste and strategies, while the archive can be everything that has remained, so it can be slightly arbitrary and accidental. However, curators frequently regard them in the same manner. The ways in which we, as curators, utilise collections and archives is comparable, but their original structure is different and this has to be taken into account. Hence, the curatorial outputs from such gatherings of material or information (collections or archives) have a different conceptual basis.

MLR: So far, how do you think the Whitechapel Gallery is dealing with the archiving of immaterial practices such as performance, or time-based media?

NY: In the past, and until fairly recently, these practices were documented in an inconsistent way. Rarely, they were recorded on film or on video, so mostly we would have static representations of a performance done by photographers. Other times, there isn’t any material to give us full information on an event. Especially if the event was not part of the main programme of the gallery, we do not have a record of it at all. For example, I found out by coincidence that many of the live readings and performances for Bill Furlong’s Audio Arts took place at the gallery after hours – for example, Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth with many others reading together and having a lot of debate. This entirely new piece of information regarding the gallery’s history, was brought to light because multimedia artist and writer Brodnax Moore, who was part of the sessions and photographed the events, called me and donated some digital images to the archive. This is when having an archivist and a curator attached to the archive comes in handy for the institution, because we have now inserted this in the gallery’s historical record. We will certainly make some interesting use of this material when the right time comes. In general, in the last decade, we have started recording our public events systematically. Not only here, but in many archives around the world, performances, happenings and actions were not recorded. This gap is nowadays filled, in part, with re-staging performances; we had a whole series, years ago, which we titled Short History of Performance (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4); where pivotal historical performances were re-staged in the gallery from 2002 to 2006. We always invited the artist who had conceived and performed the work and in most cases there was a 30-40 year gap between the original performance and now. These re-enactments were professionally recorded. The curatorial process would start and end in the archive. Research begins from a small remnant in an archive, such as a photograph of the work by Jannis Kounelis Untitled (12 Horses), which was first presented in Rome in 1969, and gradually led to the re-staging where 12 large horses would walk through the Whitechapel Gallery in 2002 to the astonishment of staff and passers by. This event would be fully recorded, of course, and would then become a substitute for the lack or loss of the original. What I just described lends itself as a subject for very interesting discussions, and I can personally see great relevance to such practices. Re-staging a performance and re-visiting an exhibition share many common methodologies.

MLR: The issue of re-enactment is something I am particularly looking at, in relation to exhibitions; through re-enactment, the exhibition itself becomes a medium. Obviously, likewise performance art, there is a discrepancy between the original piece, the timing, the impact and its re-enactment, and this is something very interesting. Is re-enacting exhibitions a common practice for you?

NY: I do not want to re-enact the old as it was, in a redundant way that only historicises it. I am not interested in recreating or reconstructing, unless there is a specific point I would like to make. Nevertheless, within the context of the archive gallery, we constantly revisit exhibitions, events and ideas. This practice is key to my work at the gallery and it functions as a new research platform, with the thrill one has for embarking on a new journey, whilst still carrying some vital heavy luggage. I had been tempted to reconstruct elements of exhibitions in the past, especially when we did the archive exhibition based upon This is Tomorrow. It felt important at some point to create an environment similar to what the visitors would have experienced when they walked into the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. However, I abandoned this idea very quickly, as it was not the aim of the archive exhibition at all. This is Tomorrow happened as it happened in 1956 for a reason…

MLR: The performative nature of the archive, for you, is therefore far more important than the historical one.

NY: Totally. I have been doing this for many years now, so I continuously come across new questions myself about what it is that such a programme can achieve. For instance, while I am declaring the fact that I do not want to historicise, by making these exhibitions, I may be historicising moments that had been previously overlooked. The more I do this work, the more I realise what it is, actually, that I am doing. I think I approach it with my art practice hat on, as well. That is where my two capacities, as curator and artist, come together. On the one hand, every archive becomes a site-specific project. On the other, as curator of a public gallery, I have responsibilities in delivering something that makes sense to a wider public and represents a contribution to knowledge around art.  To start with, our archive is an interesting case study because it was not used at all by the organisation until we devised it as a new curatorial strand. The performative element you mention is when you approach it, you read and interpret it, and then you create something from it. There are never ready answers, every time I go in the archive searching for something in particular, I always come out having found something entirely different but equally important for the project.

MLR: Therefore, you have initiated a new path in the exploration of the gallery’s archive; to be seen not only as place for the storing of data and information, but as a real exhibition space. Your PhD thesis was especially based on a study of the Whitechapel Gallery’s archive, is that correct?

NY: My PhD was looking into practices that influence curatorial decisions such as museum policies in collecting and exhibiting. Originally, my case study and main interest was the V&A Museum. In particular, their institutional policy for collecting versus their policy for exhibiting their collections. Many times, these two policies are quite different, so I was interested in exploring this issue further and this vast museum triggered my interest; that was the beginning. I then had an informal discussion with the general manager at Whitechapel Gallery who said ‘Why don’t you look into our archive as a case study?’ As I did not know what was there, I responded that I didn’t have an interest in this, if I only knew… It took me a few months to start thinking about it more seriously and realise that where I worked was vital for my own curatorial choices; so why not start from there. I looked at the gallery’s archive for the first time in 2002 and the whole project began. I was always interested in the relationship between the work of an institution behind the scenes, and its programme; the curator as a political entity within the archive and the institution. I dedicated one chapter of my thesis to the Whitechapel Gallery’s Archive, a case study on perspectives regarding its curatorial potential… Happily, as things happened, not only did I have a case study as such, but I also had the opportunity to work with artist Goshka Macuga on the development of her project, The Nature of the Beast, and discussed the ideas I was shaping in my thesis. I was not the curator of the project, that was Anthony Spira, but I would say I was the developer. Without intending it from the start, The Nature of the Beast provided me with a real case study, a real possibility where theoretic ideas would come in to practice within an organisation, forming a model on how to work with an institutional archive. This mainly emphasised the relationship between artist and curator and their different approaches, by default, in the archive. The carte-blanche the artist has and the institutional responsibility that lays within the curatorial role.

MLR: Do you have a specific policy for the archive?

NY: We have many policies. A Collection Policy, which is tailored to our needs and capacity. We collect only what the organisation produces and very little coming from outside. We have a Digitisation Policy, a Donations Policy and many others. In regards to exhibition making, we have chosen not to have an exhibition policy as such, but we have so far developed three main curatorial strands, which I normally base my programme on. 

  1. One strand consists in looking back into our own history and archive and revisit it, in order to develop a new perspective about the Gallery and its curatorial practices. By looking back, we enhance what we already know from a historical perspective with new research.
  1. A second is the investigation of works by artists who are interested in archives themselves.
  1. A third one is looking into other organisations or individuals’ archives as a vehicle to further understand/challenge our knowledge/preconceptions by offering standpoints, which are pertinent to contemporary art and curatorial practice.

The Archive Gallery has a certain degree of flexibility in its programme. The projects are all research-based. In the general programme, every institution thinks carefully what is the best moment to show which artist, because it may not be relevant to certain developments in the art world and market. However, the archive exhibitions are always relevant, simply because by realising them we initiate some ground to be explored, so they tend to become quite independent from what is shown in biennials and museums all over the world as a trend. This is something very stimulating.

MLR: In a sense, you can always justify your project through the fact that they are self-reflective toward the institution’s history. There is never a wrong moment. At some time, you put it there and it becomes relevant.

NY: Yes, this is a great freedom we have, compared to other public or private institutions and this was made possible with the research-based archive exhibitions.

MLR: In addition, the archive is the perfect place to debate the tension between materiality and immateriality; you archive documents that are truly material but that often stand for very immaterial practices.

NY: Yes, I am very interested in this aspect of the archive that highlights in an equal way both the tangible and the intangible. Sometimes the immaterial is that which you do not know yet; but it eventually compliments what you already have. I will tell you a story: I recently met with someone who was working here at the gallery during the infamous Tropicalia and Eden projects by Hélio Oiticica, in 1969. We have a lot of documentation about the actual exhibition and about Oiticica; we have theorised Tropicalia as a participatory event and how it was relevant to shifts in Brazilian culture and politics. But we never had a real testimony of someone who was here, experiencing what we were theorising. This person I mentioned came to meet me here and told me that he was the gallery’s only Gallery Assistant. As an invigilator, he was continuously interacting with the audience and, of course, he was here observing all those visitors coming to the exhibition and stepping onto the sand that formed Oiticica’s environments. He gave me a very interesting account of the show from the participant’s point of view. I am going to interview him in a few weeks time. We have nothing similar in the archive and I am very interested in this new ‘immaterial’ and informal component, which not only will compliment the documentation materials we already have, but will offer us a new understanding of the original project.

MLR: Something like that validates and extends other existing information, with the potential of generating new narratives.

NY: And these narratives are not necessarily coincident or compatible. They could be seemingly unconnected but, eventually, form a story. You see, the archive is such a vital place and, here at the Whitechapel Gallery, is really fruitful for me because the organisation has invested in it. Thus, it is continuously energised and activated through the work we do. It would have not been possible otherwise to establish the programme as it stands today.


Notes:
[1] Jones, Barbara, The Unsofisticated Arts, (London, Architectural Press, 1951).

One comment

  1. Thanks to Nayia and Miriam for this, I’ve long been a fan of the archive exhibitions at Whitechapel and the quiet way in which they counterpoint the other exhibitions there. Our MA Curating students were very interested to visit the Superhighway shw and discuss with the curators there.

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