Past Is Prologue: Artists Who Work With Archives


On Wednesday September 18th I had the pleasure of attending a conference called Past Is Prologue, hosted at Goldsmiths by an organisation called LIFT. The day was advertised on their website as follows:

A day of dialogues and presentations exploring the ways in which artists draw creative potential from archive material such as photographs, film, artifacts and oral histories.

As a volunteer researcher and blogger for Archives+, who also happens to be an artist (I often use archive material and historical sources to inform my creative work), this conference presented an ideal opportunity to find out more about working with archives as an artist, and to meet people with similar interests.

It would take an essay to cover all the interesting material shared over the course of the day, so instead I’m going to focus on a few carefully selected examples. A sample of the events and insights the conference offered.

1) Tim Etchells

Tim Etchells is an artist, writer and Professor of Performance at Lancaster University. In his talk he discussed several projects he had undertaken that involved engaging with archives and the idea of what an archive is. One particular project stood out for me, and this was aptly named Art Flavours.

Tim Etchells

Above: Art Flavours – a project by Tim Etchells (source)

Etchells asked an Italian gelato-maker to create ice-cream based on various abstract concepts, and one of these was memory. How do you make ice-cream that tastes like memory? It’s a task that initially sounds both impossible and absurd.

Osvaldo Castellari, the gelato-maker in question, responded by creating a raspberry flavoured recipe, inspired by the first he had ever learned to make. But wait, I hear you ask, how does this relate to archives, or indeed to Archives+? Well, it demonstrates that memories are archived in many ways – not just in dusty old documents and photographs, but in the foods we eat and make, the sensory experiences we have. Ever encountered a smell, taste, texture, sight or sound which transports you to the past? Brings back memories? This is archiving in everyday life. The memories and histories we invest in experiences and objects. I thought the ice cream example was a beautifully poetic way of demonstrating this. Archives are everywhere and we access them in multi-sensory ways.

2) X Marks The Spot

In one of the breakout sessions, we met research collective X Marks The Spot, a dynamic group of female artists who are based at Studio Voltaire in London, where they have developed art and ways of working inspired by the archives of artist Jo Spence.

Jo Spence

Above: Artist Jo Spence (source)

For anyone who doesn’t know Jo Spence, she was a British artist/photographer who famously documented her fight against breast cancer, and explored issues associated with gender, aging, health and much more, frequently using her body (and photographs of it) within this process. She died in 1992 and records of her life and work have been preserved by photographer and collaborator Terry Dennett.

One of the themes which came out of this session for me was the importance of conversation and collaboration when using and bringing to life material from archives. The artists who formed X Marks The Spot spoke about meeting to discuss both Spence’s work and their own. They also established dialogue with individuals who knew Spence and helped document her work. Without these kinds of conversations, archive material cannot truly come to life, and through the work of X Marks The Spot, Jo Spence’s life and work live on and are transformed; re-imagined in new art and ideas.

During my time at Archives+ I have similarly discovered the value of conversation and collaboration. Researching and responding to archives is never truly a solo endeavor, and we rely on other people to bring alive and transform the materials into meaningful stories. We need someone to donate the material, to store it, catalogue it and access it. Many different people are involved. Each time I blog here, people can comment, get in touch, or start their own investigations. Even if we don’t talk to each other directly, we are all joining in a conversation that keeps memories relevant and, above all, alive.

3) Nayia Yiakoumaki

Nayia Yiakoumaki is the curator of the Archive Gallery at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and she spoke about a project called The Nature of the Beast, in which Polish artist Goshka Macuga worked with the gallery to acquire a copy of Picasso’s famousGuernica painting from the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

The original painting was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1939 to highlight the horror of Fascist atrocities in Europe at the time. The tapestry copy hanging in the UN was famously covered in 2003 when Colin Powell delivered his pivotal speech on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Advocating war in front of an art work that denounced its horrors would have been more than a little ironic.

Colin Powell

Above: Colin Powell delivers his famous speech (source)

Drawing from this politically charged history, artist Macuga mimicked the UN set-up (but with the tapestry in view) to create a space within which group discussions could take place, and in doing so, an environment loaded with particular histories and issues.


Above: Installation at the Whitechapel Gallery (source)

For me this example of engaging with archive material demonstrates that items and images become loaded with certain meanings and associations (historical, political etc) – and this affects the spaces and people around them too. An entire room can change when a particular item is present, and likewise a particular photograph or document can change the feelings and/or behaviour of whoever is in its presence. I posted some time ago aboutsome disturbing photographs I viewed at the Greater Manchester County Record Office. There was considerable debate about whether or not to make them available online, and I found myself deeply affected not just by their immediate visual impact, but also by the historical context that they referenced. Archive material can have a very real sense of presence, especially when there is a strong association with particular events, histories or memories.


The conference raised many questions about what archives are and how we might respond to them, and these include:

How might we store and access information about all of the senses? How might we record a taste or a smell for example? As technology enables us to record more and more of our lives, are certain aspects still being overlooked? Should we try to record everything, or should some things be forgotten?

In what ways might we utilise conversation and collaboration to bring out the hidden stories in archive materials? Do digital technologies make real, physical interactions redundant in this process?

How might we deal with sensitive objects and materials? Can their histories be re-written? Who controls which stories become attached to certain items, and can anything ever be freed from its histories?

One thing we can be sure of, is that no matter what we record in the present, or however we interpret the past in the now, it is those in the future who will shape the legacies of whatever we choose to preserve.

This blog post was written for Archives+ by one of our volunteers as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project.

Reblogged from Manchester Archives Plus blog.

We too attended the Past is Prologue conference about using archives for creative practice held at Goldsmiths last week. This blog post provides an excellent summary of the presentations and workshops from the day, and will definitely be of interest to students and other creative practitioners interested in how archives can inform their work.