How I Started – Peter Morphew, the Artist Archivist

An interview with oneself

Scene: Two gentlemen who are not really there, sitting on two chairs on the main stage. A central round table divides them, holding two cups of black coffee, two empty glasses with a large jug of water. Drinks are consumed at the performers’ discretion.

Artist: [Looking at portraits talking to themselves…] I remember these drawings, based on Salt Lake City firefighter portraits, held at Utah State Archive.

Archivist: [Addresses artist…] Should we tell the reader who we are? They might not understand.

Artist: [Ponders… answers to audience] We are the same different person. An artist and an archivist. Actively collaborating, reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon.

Archivist: For those who don’t know, Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.

Artist: They don’t know if they have met Godot, or if Godot exists, or if Godot will arrive, I am unsure if they know why they are to meet with Godot. Or when or if they met one another. Why and what are they waiting for?

Archivist: We exist and interact much like Vladimir and Estragon, we sort of blindly do things together and an intentionality will emerge after the event. We turn themes we encounter into art. [Addresses artist…] When did we start collaborating?

Artist: But audience, I must add! What you’re reading here is not art, it’s not performance art, it’s not theatre, script writing, it’s not an article, nor reflections, could be poetry but it’s not art.

Artist: [Turns and addresses archivist…] On a midnight coach back to Glasgow via Leeds. We had spent the day with Australian friends watching Hull City vs QPR (which ended 1-1). Traveling in the darkness, under a small lamp we started pencil sketching a tea plucker based upon a photographic image we found in the archive.

Archivist: That record we found while working on our first major cataloguing assignment, with the Scottish Business Archive. I felt more like a supermarket check-out worker, describing ledgers, minute volumes, bundles of loose papers with one sentence per catalogue entry! We had limited time to catalogue in excess of 6000 records, amounting to over 100 linear meters.

Artist: The archive originated from the Scottish tea merchant James Finlay Co Ltd, old Glasgow corporate headquarters. Never having time to investigate the records, the information felt like a blur. I saw an Henri Matisse exhibition who was a master of using expressive color, despite using bold simple mark making, the form in the composition was still identifiable. It occurred to me I could create compositions based upon those fleeting moments I actually witnessed a record.

Artist: Inspired, I started drawing with paper, retaining the form as preserved in a photographic print (well, sort of) but communicating the information through a creative process. The items are based upon scenes from tea estates c.1910-c.1920.

Archivist: Delighted with these collages, not so much browsing the James Finlay catalogue! Looking back on the published catalogue, I can see so much additional description is required, record arrangements are questionable, the entire archive could benefit from a large-scale appraisal. In my defense, I was coding EAD (encoding archive description) to include sub-series, sub-files, the reference numbers at times included ten long digits! Not to mention the hundreds of authority files linking the data together.

Artist: [Turning to archivist…] Sounds like a nightmare?

Archivist: I bloody loved it! After a year processing the collection, I loved, just loved, how I knew where every record was placed on the shelf. Even the smallest items, obscure bundles, I just “knew” about this huge collection – it was all in my head.

Artist: This was why I started to draw the University of Glasgow archive repository. The scale of retained information in the repository is unbelievable; this is just some of the matriculation slips evidencing student graduation starting from the 16th century. The information is available online, reducing the amount of staff / visitor interaction with the original records – thus helping preserve the record condition.

Archivist: Think about this, project workers who took the time processing this data, tens of thousands of data entry elements, each element a unique experience, a unique story that has been preserved. Information that has been made accessible to an international audience.

Artist: Coming back to the colour theme, this is why I absolutely am drawn to colour (ermm…no pun intended). Archive collections tend to have an earthy brown or grey color, neutral to dark tones. Mostly owing to the acid free boxes, shelving, low lit rooms. Yet the collective memory retained within this environment is full of color, greys tones when witnessed spark the imagination – an entire world.

Archivist: I have tried transcribing myself, a 1950s basketball audio broadcast held on University of Kentucky archive finding aid. Didn’t take breaks, just tried to listen and write as quickly as possible. As you are all aware, preserving authenticity is a critical theme for archivists; I did ponder if I was having an authentic live experience with the audio information. In the c.1950s, audiences listened to the radio – this is how they experienced sports. I was so immersed in the game – replicating the live experience.

Artist: [Turns to archivist…] Dreadful spellings by the way, you missed a lot of data [Turns to audience…] but what emerged was the key highlights of the game as described by Claude (the commentator). So, I took the text produced and of course, turned it into collage!

Archivist: [Addresses artist…] Do you worry about how the quality of your art is publicly perceived?

Artist: [Addresses archivist…] The same amount as you are worrying about copyright ownership, updating deposit files, inadequate catalogue descriptions, making poor decisions concerning records arrangement! [Returns attention to audience…] By merging the archival professional practice with creativity, it produces unique results, unique ideas, I don’t always know where and what we are going to do with it.

Archivist: Hence at the start, I mentioned we sort of blindly do things together and an intentionality will emerge after the event. Our latest collaboration is a virtual artist in residence, hosted by the James Ford Bell Library (University of Minnesota).

Artist: We have no specific objective, we’re generating data shaped by the heritage collections made accessible via digital tools. We’ve started with a mural, describing the human interactivity with data. How the visual experience can be inspiring for audiences in unexpected ways.

Archivist: [Addresses artist…] You’re resisting the idea we’re thinking about…

Artist: [Sighs to audience…] Recently we took the Digital Preservation Coalition online training, ‘Digital Preservation Skills for Beginners’. A question emerged, how can an artist generate, curate and preserve creative data?

Archivist: [Laughing towards audience…] We’re approaching this idea the same as with any other idea, blindly falling into a creative process and seeing what happens?!?

Artist: But this is what is exceptional about this information management profession, you’ll be surprised by how often you’ll find inspiration here. I mean, seriously, how can we make art about digital preservation rather than creating art to be preserved digitally?

Archivist: We don’t have enough time to share a full biography…

Artist: No point regardless, we’re always doing new things…

Archivist: And appraising the old stuff.

Artist: Our Artist Archivist archive retains hundreds of items, each preserving an encounter with knowledge held within heritage collections, a unique perspective.

Archivist: As per typical of an archive backlog, it’s totally uncatalogued, accessioned with no paperwork, just shoved into a box.

Artist: [Addresses archivist…] When will we be ready to produce sketches pertaining to digital preservation?

Archivist: [Addresses artist…] We’re still reading some journal articles trying to imagine how to convert complex practices into a visual item? I sense and assume you’re excited about this new genre of work?

Artist: [Addresses archivist…] Manufacturing data objects, embedding them within a curated exhibition, made accessible / experienced through online tools, it’s opening possibilities I have simply not considered before. [Addresses audience] We do need partners though!

Archivist: We work best in collaboration, whether with museums, libraries…

Artist: Archives, records managers…

Archivist: Archivists, curators, anyone in the information management profession…

Artist: And if you work in digital preservation, reach out to us!

Archivist: Collaborating with the information management profession to generate unexpected visual arts, that is what we do…

Artist: And yes, we want to work with you.

Peter Morphew, the Artist Archivist

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