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Archive as Method
An #OpenCurating Interview with Chantal Wong, Hammad Nasar, and Lydia Ngai

By Latitudes

Asia Art Archive (AAA) was founded in 2000 with the mission of documenting, securing, and making easily available information on the history of contemporary art in Asia within an international context. Based in the Sheung Wan district of Hong Kong, the nonprofit organization holds hundreds of thousands of physical and digital items. AAA aims to stimulate dialogue and critical thinking about how the region’s art histories are told and to “facilitate understanding, research, and writing in the field, enrich existing global narratives, and re-imagine the role of the archive.” Through its website AAA offers access to a wealth of digital material including scanned images, correspondence, artists’ personal documents, audio and video of performance art, artist talks, lectures, and events. A broad range of initiatives including the journal Field Notes, research grants, residencies, symposia, exhibitions and teaching workshops address the core of AAA’s commitment “to create a collection belonging to the public, existing not in an enclosed space, but in a space that is open and productive, generating new ideas and works that continually reshape the Archive itself.”

In this concluding interview of the #OpenCurating series, Latitudes (Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa-Luna) discuss art, technology, and the changing archive with AAA’s Chantal Wong, Hammad Nasar, and Lydia Ngai.

Latitudes

Asia Art Archive shares some features of “the commons” in that it is an open and freely accessible resource. Furthermore, AAA is counteracting the notion of scarcity by digitizing documents and putting them online, and as you describe, “AAA’s activities … are not about ownership; the Archive believes in preservation through sharing.” Yet you obviously have to make critical judgements about what are worthwhile resources to collect and share in the first place. What do you think is happening to the cultural institution’s traditional role as a “gatekeeper” of knowledge in this respect?

Chantal Wong:

The commons is actually a model which we referred to when developing our copyright guidelines. So yes, we do share features. The main difference between us and Creative Commons is that the material covered by CC is necessarily licensed by the authors. A small percentage of what we make available online is created by AAA, but is digitally reproduced and circulated by AAA. As you mentioned, AAA does not insist on keeping original documents—although there is an ongoing internal discussion around the value of the original—for two main reasons: the privatization and capitalization of archives (American universities buying up vulnerable archives restricting public access to these documents), and the second, pragmatically, the amount of resources necessary for the conservation of this material. If we were to acquire original documents, as an institution, or “gatekeeper,” we would have to critically address the value we would imbue upon the narratives we house.

AAA was founded and constructed as a network, and as a collaborative project. AAA’s content is developed through ongoing conversations with our team, the researchers, advisors, our peers and friends doing field work, and a wide network of curators, academics, critics, and thinkers. This ideology is implemented on multiple levels including our database back-end, the mechanism which enables the website to run. Our oversees researchers, based in Delhi, Baroda, Beijing, Manila amongst other locations digitize and upload directly onto the back-end and are encouraged to leave remarks, comments, doubts, and annotations in designated data fields—which they choose to make visible for the librarian only or to disclose to the public. This generates a dynamic environment of discussion and dialogue, where ideas or information can be exchanged immediately between the overseas researcher and the team in Hong Kong. As straightforward as this sounds, the archive is usually a top down bureaucratic exercise.

In a similar vein, we have also started to involve external annotators into the enrichment of data sets for each record through the back-end. This means that single or clustered records can be enriched by multiple scholars and experts outside of AAA, from anywhere in the world. For any one item, we can juxtapose a contextualization or description by a historian, the owner of the archive, and individuals directly related to the document (photographer, author, etc.).

Hammad Nasar

You are right to point out the critical judgements we need to make to decide what to digitize. We have no quest for “comprehensiveness” in what we are trying to do. So we have to choose. And our choices are not driven simply (not to say that there is such a thing as a simple choice) by judgements around the material itself. But also around what the material can do. For in the context of Asia with its specific conditions of weak knowledge infrastructure (but also physical infrastructure, in many cases) we have to think of archive as a verb, as well as a noun. To think about what we can enable, and not just what we can do. To think in terms of the options certain material or programs open up.

Latitudes

Do resource users participate in decision-making about what comes into the collection?

Wong

It is difficult to differentiate between users and collaborators of AAA as the number of rigorous researchers in the field is not huge. We have around thirty advisors whom we are in contact with, and provide feedback in regards to our projects/propositions and some of them are both users and advisors. We have three vague strands of focus which include significant individuals, important spaces and themes which include performance, pedagogy, and so on. All these are prioritized by varying degrees of ephemerality or vulnerability.

Another major factor of consideration is how useful they are as a “pressure point” or as “point of inflection,” in other words their potential to reflect upon a number of other parallel or counter phenomena. It is important that what comes into the collection is only a starting point to trigger further debates; they are in no way conclusive.

Which is why the conferences, meetings, and our journal Field Notes, are really important platforms to generate these kinds of debates and to catalyze ruptures or more diverse contexts to enrich the collections. We want to extend the parameters of what AAA and its contents are and can be. So in response to your question, it is not a formal democratic process, but an ongoing evolutionary one where the organization, its dialogue and interactions with its users, publics, advisors, etc., bring to light narratives and opinions that otherwise wouldn’t emerge or be made visible.

Nasar

There is also a desire on our part for others (in particular the academic and scholarly communities) to think of us as a resource for their own projects – for research, for teaching, for speculation. We have a number of our academic advisors who engage us in ongoing dialogues with whatever they are doing in their academic lives and outline trajectories where we can overlap. As a natural extension of this, we see the same kind of desire from research institutes and institutions trying to figure out how to “do global” – where we are much more interested in having ongoing dialogues rather than participating in the sort of list-making activity that a lot of exhibition or collection-driven research can easily slip into.

In some small way – through making primary material available in digital form for free on the web, we are also leaning in against the economics of doing academic research, where scholars have to buy their way out of teaching commitments, fund long and expensive trips to do field work. The ability to do field work in their living rooms – at least for part of their research needs – is a development of immense promise.

Latitudes

We’re increasingly seeing contemporary art museums engaging beyond the artworks in their care to display and install archival materials and research processes themselves. The merging of collections’ and study-centre databases (as MACBA have recently done) reflects a conceptual realignment in which artworks are seen less as isolated objects and more, as Steven ten Thije described in a previous #OpenCuratinginterview, as “contexts.” Although AAA comes at this from a different trajectory, not being primarily based around display, could you reflect on what its relationship is with this newly porous sense of classification between archive and artwork, and the notion that, rather than being an inherent quality, art might now be produced through the act of selecting and displaying things?

Wong

AAA’s collection contains both archival documents and images of artwork, which to me raises an interesting tension and debate: what is archival material what is not, should AAA include images of artworks, is it the role of the museum to generate images of artworks? We look for ways to work around certain media such as performance document, or video art, or digital photographs. As a content provider, and resource, perhaps we need to look past these segregated categories, arbitrary value-based systems. To have access to both images of and texts on, for instance, ink painting is richer than just documents or secondary writings alone. I think for the purpose of context and genealogy we need to be clear about nomenclature and document type (a photograph versus a slide of an artwork) but not be bound by these categories.

Nasar

I have a partisan view in favor of images of both art works and their installations in key exhibitions, as meaning-making comes at least partly from the contexts of display. And these can change not just through different art historical insights over time, but also through different juxtapositions. Also in contemporary art practices over the last few decades, process-driven practices and archive-driven practices have become increasingly visible (at least in the slice of the art world that likes to think of itself as critical). And I would argue that the archive or the document is also an artistic form. In fact this is an area we are looking to explore with artists as part of an upcoming program of talks.

Latitudes

In the interviews with the Walker Art Center and MACBA web teams, we talked a great deal about the task of creating relationships through collection or archival content, through journalistic stories or user-generated itineraries, for example. Apart from the search-engine facility of the site, could you talk us through the main ways the website in particular aims to create entry points into what is a vast back-end?

Wong

Some of the main tools to navigate the back-end include tree structures, a digital filing system, for each of the Special Collections which are developed in conversation with the archive’s owners. For instance with Mao Xuhui and Zhang Xiaogang are ordered chronologically whereas Roberto Chabet’s is organized by his own artworks and his institutional affiliations.

Another entry point is the “Shortlists” bibliographic tool around themes in the context of contemporary art in Asia. These lists of recommended readings from AAA’s collection are compiled by individuals with expertise in the related subject to compile and accompanied by an introductory essay. Our website has also been constructed to allow the cross referencing of material through features like “you may also be interested in” that links up and highlights thematically relevant or connected events. Similarly, through a system of keywords on the collections but also through Field Notes, you can connect to other resources on the site through keyword association.

Not to mention a larger strategy to make the collection live through mapping projects, conferences and research grants that encourage investigations and new interpretations into the holdings, discursive platforms which help to offer new contexts to the material.

Nasar

One of our (many) priorities going forward is to develop more powerful visualization tools to help not just external users but also our own colleagues develop ways of navigating that are more intuitive.

Latitudes

AAA’s extensive programs of talks and symposia, workshops and education projects, exhibitions and residencies clearly create many amazing ways into the archive for the physical visitor. How have artists engaged with the collection as researchers, whether commissioned by you or otherwise?

Wong

AAA has been hosting residencies since 2007. To date we’ve worked with seven artists or collectives and their projects have ranged from Wong Wai Yin who spent six months performing the tasks of an AAA researcher, building up a collection of material on Hong Kong art that she identified as a gap in the collection. Through the process she collected correspondences, interviews with friends in the art community, and build up a personal collection on “Wong Wai Yin” including school report cards with comments like “this student is an independent thinker, but she lacks enthusiasm for school” from teachers and childhood drawings unearthed by her father. Along a similar vein, Song Dong’s project recounts thirty-six years of history including socio-political history, personal experience, and art history—from a personal perspective in the form of hand-drawn wall calendars. Artist/architect duo MAP Office methodically visited every monograph and exhibition catalogue at AAA and created an atlas of real and imaginary territories found in the Archive, dissolving the conventional borders of Asia in an installation as well as a series of performances by referenced artists. These are the more formal engagements into the collection by artists. More spontaneous collaborations include Heman Chong’s Moderation(s)workshop which saw a group of eight artists, curators, archivists (including Latitudes and myself) spend a day consulting the archive and engaging in tracing material around three keywords – Influence, Itinerary and Moderation. Of course, a number of artists visit the archive for personal research, to help them develop their teaching curriculum, or simply to browse through the periodicals and publications. Some even use AAA as an office, which we don’t discourage.

Latitudes

New material is constantly coming into the archive, from all over Asia. Does this continue to be a process of territorial “mapping” at ever finer scales, or is the map already made, so to speak? Does the process then become more like news-gathering?

Wong

This is a question that never ceases to plague us, it is not only an ideological question but one that organizes our everyday operations. There is no simple, black-and-white answer. At the moment, in a corner of the library hangs a map with a controversial line around the “borders” of our area of focus traced with a pink highlighter (we still haven’t identified who took the marker to the map): the line excludes Iran, Russia, and Papua New Guinea and includes Indonesia and “the -stans.” Of course on the one hand it is a question of resources and priorities: where is archiving most urgently needed? How can we best focus and make the largest contribution? This may sound arbitrary, and in many ways it is, but archiving is necessarily a question of priorities and selection. So what do we actually do with material from Turkey, and do we list the names of “non-Asian” artists in biennials? These are all questions that plague us.

But we are not just an archive on Asian contemporary art for Asia, we believe in the potential of the narratives of art that happened in Asia to reflect upon narratives outside of Asia. Case studies in Vietnam can be applied and studied in Latin America, and vice-versa. The histories that we are bringing to light are a way of diluting the dominant narrative of modernity, and sharing the possibility of multiple narratives of modernisms.

At the moment we are working on the third issue of Field Notes, tentatively titled “Mapping Asia,” that aims to unfold this very concept and to open up the possibilities of reimagining this space beyond or adjacent to Asia, fictionalising its historical construct, and bringing visibility to the conditions and subjectivities that it has produced.

Nasar

There are at least a couple of levels at which to engage with your question. The first is around how we digest what we are continuously adding to our collection as it comes, invariably and quite naturally for particular places over time. How it builds up a denser picture of a particular place or scene. How it is additive. The second is at the cumulative effective of these multiple places. What kind of “Asia” does that construct?

This second question is particularly tricky. In what kind of mapping of the art of the 20th and 21st centuries is London (for example) not part of such an “Asia”? We are interested in these almost Borgesian notions of mappings. We are open to—and in fact delight in—the violence that this does to neat national, regional, and civilizational narratives of art history.

The answer to the first lies in developing some tools that we can update periodically – the shortlists are one, others can include timelines of significant exhibitions and institutional ruptures. This is a work in progress for us.

Latitudes

A question related to the previous two: Do you think spatial or temporal formats such as exhibitions and talks offer ways of using and presenting the archive which are valuable because of their “finishability”? In contrast to the intimidating scale of the archive, or the relentless flow of information and choice offered by digital experience, they create something which can be “completed” and “knowable” rather than constantly expanding?

Wong

I’m not sure that exhibitions or discursive programs are necessary “finished” (at least not the ones I find most inspiring), but through the propositions they make, rather open up possibilities for continued expansion through a sharing of ideas, contexts and debate.

For instance, in the exhibitions presented by institutions like the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the National University of Singapore Museum, or the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, these museums have used documentation and archival material in their capacity to open up discussions and points of relevance. The added contextualization through archival documents provides independent access points for audiences. One may not know the art historical context of a certain performance but if you juxtapose it with, for instance, a newspaper clipping of a political event, suddenly one can relate this gesture to a specific political moment in time.

Nasar

As a curator who never “finished” an exhibition (mine just kept evolving, being revised, re-fashioned) I am also skeptical about “finishability.” I think what exhibitions and discursive programs do offer are points of entry into, and “lines of flight” out of the Archive. And that can be quite liberating.

Latitudes

AAA has recently launched a call for submissions for “Open Platform”, a program taking place during the course of Art Basel Hong Kong (23–26 May 2013) offering “researchers, curators, writers, artists, students, academics, and art organizations to hold open meetings that might further their ongoing projects, catalyze new ones, or simply be an opportunity to make connections”. These ninety-minute meetings are not recorded, and the only requirement is that the topics of discussion reference the concerns of AAA and its collection. How has this initiative worked in previous years and how do you anticipate it will work in 2013? How are the results communicated?

Nasar

This is, in some ways, new for us. Previous realizations of Open Platform took the form of a public panel discussion. This year we are trying something quite different. We are opening up our space and Rolodexes to enable conversations and meetings: some that we will be part of, others that we may not. We don’t know what may come out of this. And have no intention of even attempting to communicate an outcome. We see this in the spirit of two ideas I described earlier: the archive as verb, and the notion of AAA as a generative node within a network. We have some hopes attached to this of course: for some new friendships, for some denser conversations, for some ideas to meet and mate, and for us to get some sense of the urgencies that are driving people, and the roles that the Archive can play in addressing them.

Latitudes

Will the “My Archive” feature allow web visitors to “favorite” content? Are there concerns about burdening the website with social interaction?

Lydia Ngai

My Archive is supposed to be the user’s personal space on our website, they can select to keep records from the library collection and updates on our program on the AAA website in their own space for easy reference or to revisit, which is a refined and powered up “favorite” function.

I do not see why we would see social interaction as a burden to our website. I see social interaction as an indispensable feature AAA should embrace and enable, which is in line with the idea of preservation through accessibility. If we want people to access our resources online, of course we must interact with our users online.

Latitudes

Could you share some of the discussions you’ve doubtless had about the conservation of materials and digital capital, both in terms of where you store your data—do you trust the cloud and outsourced storage?—and whether you encourage users to bookmark or download?

Wong

We simply know it’s safer to trust ourselves. So we have our own servers, our own back-end, our own back-ups of back-ups of back-ups of digitized archives and our collection. We also believe that technology changes, but will likely continue to expand in its potential and reach, so as all the content is already digital, when necessary we will be able to convert the content into the next generation of media. But at a fundamental level the idea of the digital and reproduction is a major consideration of AAA’s—is it our role to house original material, or do digitized copies suffice? Can we predict whether decades down the line what will remain, the printed and bound form or the digital copy? This raises the question around digital born material and the proliferation of self-documentation and preservation (access to technology and increased awareness of history). Rather than doubling efforts and documenting phenomena that is already being captured, which was one of the main roles of our national researchers, AAA is redefining its relationship to this kind of data.

Ngai

We are aware of the cloud technology; it is true that the technology is getting more mature everyday, and it might be able to provide more secure control over data in the cloud in the future. But for now, we only put news and records in the cloud to enable effective searches into our collection, but we do not put digital contents in the cloud storage. Some of our data storage is off-site, for preservation purposes, which is remotely controlled by our IT staff.

Except for the AAA produced information products, like Field Notes and Shortlists, we do not provide downloadable contents. We did provide some downloadable documents in the previous version of website, but we have started systematically replacing and removing all downloadable contents, and centralizing the online viewable contents through Collection Online, which only allows viewing online.

Latitudes

A related question on the technology side – do you see possibilities for shared services or solutions with partner organizations in a similar way to the Getty Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative? Are you in discussions with M+, for example?

Wong

We’ve spent a lot of resources and a number of years developing our back-end and database system and we very much hope, and are strategizing, how to share the tool with other emerging initiatives. Some of the strengths of our system include the shared annotation that I mentioned and the tree structure. At the moment, we are still in the process of refining the system which is still in its beta phase, but one of our goals over the next few years is definitely to open up or link up our system to others so that multiple platforms can be crossed searched. For instance we’ve been in conversation with the Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA) to see how both resources can be linked up. We are also looking at models like Shelfari as third party platforms to share resources. One of the major challenges is how to engage individuals and organizations with limited resources to commit to contributing to this platform for the long term, so it is necessary to find a user and resource friendly option. Perhaps one day Asia Art Archive will not be a single institution but a dynamic network of knowledge, narratives, and exchange.

We haven’t developed a formal working relationship with the Getty, but we are in communication, and very much in touch with one another’s work. Many members of our team have visited their archives and offices in Los Angeles and they have visited us in Hong Kong.

M+ is the institution being built within the West Kowloon Cultural District project (a smaller Abu Dhabi with homegrown “brands”) dedicated to 20th and 21st century visual culture. In fact Claire Hsu, the co-founder and director of AAA, and the Chair of its board, Jane DeBevoise, were members of the Museum Advisory Group in 2006–2008, and together with twenty other art professionals, developed the concept for M+. They purposely decided not to use the word “museum” and give equal weight to the “plus” to signify a move away from the importance traditionally placed on the display of the object within the museum to one where research, knowledge, the library, the archive, the audience and learning occupy equivalent weight. In fact, what we spoke about earlier – rethinking the idea of value within the museum.

It was also recognized that considering Asia’s short museum history, this was a chance to begin from a very different perspective of what a museum today could be and the story it could tell. This concept is now in the hands of a team of curators to be translated and we believe that there is great potential for collaboration and exchange of material and research going forward. Claire is still on the M+ committee and we collaborated on AAA’s residency with Song Dong, co-presenting the exhibition with them earlier this January.

Nasar

Actually I already like to think of us as moving towards (if not embodying) this idea of a dynamic network—or the generative node I talked about earlier. Shared services as an idea is almost a no-brainer, the challenge is to realize it by navigating the practicalities of accounting and IT systems, of governance structures, of differing priorities. The start comes from an attitude towards sharing and collaboration, and the acknowledgement that sharing is hard, takes time, effort and lots of practice. We are practicing. Promiscuously.

“In what kind of mapping of the art of the 20th and 21st centuries is London (for example) not part of such an ‘Asia’? We are interested in these almost Borgesian notions of mapping. We’re open to—and in fact delight in—the violence that this does to neat national, regional, and civilizational narratives of art history.” —Hammad Nasar

Comprising 85% donated materials, the Archive is a communithy effort that has grown from a single bookshelf in 2000 to a collection of more than 37,000 records

Photo courtesy Asia Art Archive

The AAA library in Hong Kong

Photo courtesy Asia Art Archive

Field Notes, Issue 2, “Archive as Method”

Edited by Chantal Wong and Janet Chan

Photo: Mai Zhixiong, courtesy Hu Fang/Asia Art Archive

Review by Akla Raghuvanshi and Sumit Thapar of Hundred Years from the NGMA Collection, curated by Geeta Kapur

AAA began digitizing the personal archives of Delhi-based critic Kapur and artist Vivan Sundaram in 2010.

Photo courtesy Asia Art Archive

MAP Office, Atlas of Asia Art Archive, 2012

Photo courtesy Asia Art Archive

Tehching Hsieh and Lee Weng Choy at “Action Script,” a 2010 symposium considering the practice of performance art in Asia

Photo courtesy Asia Art Archive

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