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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Student Response Bank > Essay
Raiders of the Lost Archives

ESSAY by Stephen Bull

At the end of Steven Spielberg’s 1980 film Raiders of the Lost Ark the Ark of the Covenant, reported to contain the tablets on which the Holy Commandments were written, is reopened after nearly 2000 years. After a few moments, angels soar out of the casket only to turn into skeletal demons seconds later. Indiana Jones, the heroic archaeologist who has been chasing artefacts like the Ark all his life, realises that this is one relic of the past that should remain untouched. The film closes with the Ark, sealed into a wooden crate, being stored in a vast warehouse of apparently similar boxes.

Over the last ten years it has become a commonplace for artists to become archaeologists. This has been particularly true for artists working in the medium of photography. Since the early 1990s there has been a notable increase in the practice of ‘found photography’, broadly speaking, the appropriation of pre-existing photographic material to create new work. One of the most famous practitioners of this art is Joachim Schmid. For nearly 20 years now, Schmid has been taking photographs. Taking them from rubbish bins, from the pavement, from family albums. These pictures are chronologically numbered and catalogued according to various criteria: where they were found, their subject matter, and so on. Schmid now has a vast collection of images. When curators wish to show excerpts from his series Pictures from the Street (quite literally, photographs Schmid has found on the pavement), they are asked to name a series of numbers between one and around 300. The curators are then sent the correspondingly numbered images from Pictures from the Street for their show.

Schmid’s work was included in The Artist and the Archive, an exhibition of projects by artists and photographers working with found photography curated by Val Williams in 1998. As the show revealed Schmid is far from alone in his practice. Amongst others, The Artist and the Archive included work by Patrick McCoy who printed images from damaged negatives found on the streets of Belfast. David Moore’s collected series of official portrait photographs of former mayors of Hackney, some faded from years on institutional walls, and family snaps gathered by Mohini Chandra from the Indian Diaspora, displayed turned over to reveal the hand-written comments on their reverse. All of the artists in the show were either making use of established archives (some institutional, others more personal), or creating their own archives from the grouping together and re-presentation of the photographs they had found.

The work by Schmid in The Artist and the Archive was extracted from a commissioned project by Photoworks. The organisation had invited Schmid to create an edit from a collection of photographs made between the 1920s and 60s by the high street photographer George Garland. Schmid selected a series of studio portraits taken during the Second World War and presented them alongside extracts from contemporary newspaper articles. Schmid’s project for Photoworks was one commission in a series. Other artists and photographers were also asked to make work using the archive of Garland’s pictures, or creating new images in response to the photographs. Around this time Schmid was also being commissioned to work with the Daily Herald newspaper archive at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford and to make interventions in the collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

The plethora of commissions of this type that Schmid was engaged in by the late nineties is indicative of how ubiquitous such projects were becoming. By the end of the Millennium it seemed that every museum, every archive, was inviting an artist in to work with and respond to its collection. It is worth considering the motivations of the institutions that commission such work. To many of us the very word ‘archive’ might call to mind images of dusty, regimented collections of irrelevant material; things collected, labelled, ordered, and then hidden away. No wonder then that the curators of the institutions that house them want to emphasise the relevance of their collection to today. Bringing in an artist to work with the collection means that hidden archives are reopened and brought into the light. The objectivity of the institutional archive is called into question by the individual artist; its subjectivities are revealed and a whole new story is told. In the case of photographic archives, a series of ‘decisive moments’ that had remained frozen are reanimated by the artist, like the ghosts that awake from the Ark.

No doubt there is still much interesting work to be made by inviting artists to become archaeologists. Inevitably many more commissions of this like will happen and the artists will continue in their creative responses. But there is also a sense now that this idea has become a little exhausted. A routine seems to have become established. The artist is commissioned, the archive is reopened and responded to, the results are displayed and published, the public is invited to participate. It is this final element that may point the way forward.

At the end of 2000 the outcomes of another Photoworks commission were revealed. The artists Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings had been invited to work with the Design Council Archive’s collection. Two of their responses were an exhibition and book where objects bought from the Poundland shop in Brighton were photographed. These were depicted in the same formalist style that the Design Council Archive’s own photographers had used to portray the saucepans, irons, shuttlecocks (etc) that were considered examples of good design in the 1940s and 50s. The book and exhibition also featured the ‘Stock List’ a huge and complex categorised index of favoured design objects garnered from a nation-wide survey by the Design Council in 1949. The third element of Lewandowska and Cummings’ response, and the element in which public interaction was most to the fore, was the Stock List Browser. This was (and is) a website where the Stock List is again duplicated; this time each category can be clicked on and the item selected is searched for on the web (see Theoretically the equivalent design object in its 2002 incarnation will be summoned from the virtual ether.

Needless to say, it rarely is. The web is not an ordered, regimented archive. No one curates it. Sometimes the analogy of a global library is used to describe the World Wide Web. This is vastly inaccurate. At best the web is a global car boot sale; there is some useful stuff there, but you have to rummage through a lot of junk to get to it. The Stock List Browser neatly reveals this messiness. It also allows visitors to the site to begin to make their own work with the immeasurable, infinite, frustrating ‘archive of archives’ that is the web.

The Designing Britain project takes the idea of inviting responses to archives a step further. There are now an increasing number of visual archives on the web; islands of order in a sea of (dis)information. Some are frivolous, such as where found photobooth images can be scrolled through with the added frisson that you might just see your own discarded visage somewhere in the collection. Others, like those linked to the Visual Arts Data Service are more weighty in their content. Projects such as Designing Britain make explicit the opportunity opened up to all to raid and reinterpret archives of material. Using the interactive possibilities of the web anyone can be an archaeologist; bringing to light and bringing to life the contents of lost archives.

Stephen Bull is an artist, writer and lecturer at Northbrook College, Sussex and The University of Portsmouth.

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