February 2008, Tercerunquinto Artists in Residence New Langton Arts

 Installation View Tercerunquinto Artists in Residence New Langton Arts,
 San Francisco CA

 New Langton Arts’ Archive for Sale: A Sacrificial Act

 Tercerunquinto, artists in residence New Langton Arts

 The exhibition may be over, but what Tercerunquinto have instigated is far from over. That is, if New Langton Arts properly fulfills the challenge that they dared to accept.
 When Langton invited Tercerunquinto to be artists in residence, they might have anticipated that the architectural collective would throw a controversial challenge their way. Tercerunquinto’s dedication to turning the institution on its head and repositioning it in order for self-reflection is consistent in their practice as shown in previous projects. For example, while working with Ikon in Birmingham, England they proposed that a certain part of the building be demolished, the material extracted would then be used to construct a sign for the gallery. During their residency at Langton, Tercerunquinto interviewed staff and spent time in the space determining what exactly was Langton’s most valuable asset. It turned out to be not an object or a building, but an intangible past that is for the most part recorded on ephemeral scraps of paper in the form of budgets, postcards, shipping notices, and artists’ contracts. As a result of this investigation, Tercerunquinto have proposed that Langton sell its archive. The accumulation of these bits and pieces that document exhibitions and performances makeup a complete history that indicates a value could be put on it. No one is sure yet how much it is worth monetarily, however the sentimental value has been quoted as ‘priceless’. As one of the longest running non-profit art spaces in the Bay Area, the history of Langton is exciting and inspiring. Yet recently, like other non-profits, it struggles to keep its head above water. Letting go of the archive might just be the extra weight that will allow it to stay afloat, however the act of sacrifice by definition implies that something is lost, but for the sake of a greater cause. That exactly is the cause is up for debate.

 The content of the archive, contained in a series of cardboard boxes, tell the story of how Langton began as a multidimensional artist run space; it was witness to great artists coming through its doors often at early stages in their careers. There are a few hidden treasures inside – a sketch by Vito Acconci, a tape by Lynn Hershman, among other things. One wonders whether these items can really be worth the amount that Langton needs to resurrect itself as a vital and viable art space in San Francisco. The plight of this particular non-profit has forced its history to live in rotting boxes under dripping ceilings, while the regularly changing organizational structures are reflected in the chaotic system of record keeping.

 Installation View Tercerunquinto Artists in Residence New Langton Arts,
 San Francisco CA

 During the exhibition the archive sat under the gallery lights, the object of visitors’ direct attention for the first time in its life. Like presents under the tree they ask to be shaken, opened, and for their contents to be discovered. However this particular presentation of the boxes assigned the archive the value of an artwork. Its status as an archive became frozen, and visitors were not allowed to touch, throwing into question the accessibility of the archive. What is an archive worth if we can’t witness it, if the public can’t dive into it, pick it apart, and construct our own history of a place? A past can only be valued by is worth today. It does no good displayed as a flaccid art object, and it is no good as an archive if it is not going to be kept in the conditions that allow for it to be maintained for public access. The ultimate question remains to be this issue of value. Some may say ‘burn it!’ Others may refuse to let go. Letting go of a past could be the ultimate sacrifice, but one that allows a clean break and a fresh start.

 The proposal that Tercerunquinto set forth was the topic at hand during a panel discussion at Langton over a month ago. The panel consisted of various professionals who either had an investment in the history of Langton, or in archival systems generally. The debate between panel members and audience was lively, however the most provocative and noteworthy comments came from Megan and Rick Prelinger, whose own browsable, appropriation-friendly library has become an inspirational source for many academics and artists in the area. One of the most pressing questions came down to how or where the archive would be relinquished. Although a handful of people attending the talk felt that the archive should stay at Langton, mostly for sentimental reasons, it was agreed that better archival standards and conditions were needed. As obvious as this may seem, it has always remained at the bottom of the list of Langton’s budgetary priorities. Therefore the question of how the value of the archive would be established became central.

 The act of selling the archive would most certainly lead to its privatization. Institutions like Stanford, whose collection of archives is impressive, create obstacles that make it near impossible to access the information unless you have proper credentials and omniscient knowledge of what already exists in the archive. One could hardly call that information public. Megan Prelinger astutely made the point during the panel discussion that an archive’s historicity is the least useful in all of its potentialities. Instead, we should look to the archive as a future oriented resource for new work, making art production and the archive more closely linked. Prelinger posed the question of whether or not there is a possibility for creative dispersment, treating the archival information as raw material for remix. Value, based on nostalgia, is irrelevant when it comes to archival materials; a new way of thinking needs to be formed that excludes value based on inaccessibility and rarity and moves towards more democratic uses of material. Megan Prelinger’s partner, Rick, who is a board president of the Internet Archive where over 2,000 films from his personal collection are accessible online, addressed further the issues of value of an archive. He suggested that any value of the archive as property is almost immediately overstated. The only justifiable value of the archive can be determined by use and the activity that surrounds it, therefore the archive’s value while being maintained in boxes is most certainly lost. Possibly the most controversial statement made during the night came from Raimundas Malasauskas, who suggested the archive be cloned and sent elsewhere, it’s current value therefore being released from any notion of past values. Through cloning, the archive would lose its identity as a precious item causing it to become something else entirely, reasserting Megan and Rick Prelingers’ points about value being determined by use and availability.
 It will be interesting to see how Langton pursues this challenge that Tercerunquinto has set forth, if they chose to do so at all. Despite the convincing arguments of the panel members, Langton is still faced with the trouble of funding and most certainly are thinking about its monetary value over its use value. This leads to considering what is ultimately lost in the act of sacrifice. Would it be better for Langton to take the money made from the sale of the archive to continue programming for another year or two (if they are lucky)? Or should they disperse the archive and make it available to the public for free, providing the seedlings for new artistic production? If they were to take the latter option, the most sacrificial act, New Langton Arts could return to its origins – as an organization that was first and foremost invested in providing the support and resources for innovative and experimental artistic production.


Kate Phillimore, WM San Francisco





Kate Phillimore

Kate Phillimore received her BA in Literature at UC Santa Cruz in 2003, after which she moved to London where she worked at the National Portrait Gallery and the Department of Architecture and Spatial Design at London Metropolitan University. Kate has since returned to California to pursue an MA in Curatorial Practice at California College of Arts in San Francisco. In her spare time Kate is co-founding editor of Golden Guns Investigations Publications, which will be launched December 2007.  kphillimore@gmail.com

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