High up in the Van Pelt library, a group of ICA curators sits expectantly around a table where several archive boxes are lined up. Pale and silent as ghosts, carefully labeled, reinforced with metal for durability, these boxes contain bits of ICA’s official records, but most of us have never seen them. They have existed at a distance, like uncles whom one is always intending to visit. Today, though, we are making good on our good intentions.
Next year ICA will turn fifty, a good moment for taking stock. We plan not only to revisit our history, but to make significant pieces of it available on our website. Today we have asked Penn Manuscripts Cataloger Donna Brandolisio and Curator of Manuscripts Nancy Shawcross to be our guides on an excursion into the past—a dry run for a more thorough exploration to take place this summer.
“I just happened to pull Machineworks first,” Donna says, pulling a box toward her.
Machineworks was an ICA exhibition from 1981 featuring mechanistic art by Vito Acconci, Alice Aycock, and Dennis Oppenheim and curated by Janet Kardon. In each of the several Machineworks boxes, documents from the exhibition are neatly filed in pale buff folders with a title and a number penciled in tiny letters on the tab. Donna hands piles of folders down the table. We hold them warily, divers at the edge of the boat. Then, opening them, in we plunge.
Letters typed on onion skin paper flutter softly. Contracts and schematic drawings pull away from marketing ephemera, while photographs cling stubbornly to their plastic sleeves. For a while there is the collective, concentrated silence of a room full of people reading. Then:
“Here’s a handwritten dinner invitation,” Alex says. “It looks like a punk flier.”
“Here’s a postcard of a steam engine,” Ingrid says, holding it up.
Kate finds a checklist and a bill from the Holiday Inn. There are handwritten letters from artists to the curator, Oppenheim’s on stationary with his name in bold red curvy lettering. There are photographs of the show being installed, a missive in the form of a poem about pigeons, an advertising flier. There is a note apologizing for bad behavior at the opening.
As a non-collecting museum, at ICA we often say that our archive is our collection. But the fact is that we are less conversant with our history than we might be. Certainly we know the highlights— Andy Warhol’s first museum show in 1965, the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition that helped spark the culture wars, and so on—as well as most of the shows from the twentieth century. From the beginning, the mission of ICA has been about looking forward, but at some point it’s time to consider what all those forward glances add up to. Which were prescient, and which misguided? What did the future look like when envisioned in the past?
In the conference room, paging through the material, it becomes clear that the original idea for Machineworks was an exploration of artists and cars, but that at some point this idea was abandoned in favor of a show about machines.
“But why?” Ingrid wonders. She turns pages, hoping in vain to find something that explains how the ground fell out from under one idea and came together under the new one.
This, of course, is the nature of an archive: interesting snippets, pages of dullness, provocative gaps. Given this, how do we proceed? Which papers should we refile, which set aside for digitizing? What will give a lively and useful picture of what the Machineworks show—or any show—was like? What might students want to look at? Or scholars? Or artists? What will represent us the way we see ourselves?
Coming into the library today, it was the exhibitions we were thinking about—how best to represent, or memorialize, them. But the archive itself is a living presence: being in this room makes that palpable. As Donna says of the painstakingly and thoughtfully organized files and boxes that make up the ICA records, “It’s a life. It’s an organism. It’s not just papers to me.”
There is something appealingly quixotic about this project: attempting to create a legible representation of an archive, that is itself a representation of an exhibition, that was an attempt to convey something essential about an artistic moment on which the light has dimmed.
Maybe the best way to think of it is as a distillation, as when a maple tree gives sap, boiled down with much labor, becoming at last a drop of perfect sweetness on the tongue.
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