PLAN 76: Article
A Hands-On History Of Time-Based Art

Developing a ‘Living Archive’ of Creative and Artistic Production at MIT

In response to increasing demand from international researchers, faculty and students, a major effort is now underway to create an accessible archive of work originated at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) since its founding in 1967.

Part of the effort is also the development of a system by which future ACT faculty, students and program fellows can easily add their own work to the archives, an effort that coincides with current faculty interest in archival practices and vision of a ‘living archive’.

Established 43 years ago as an artists' fellowship program by MIT Institute Professor György Kepes, previously Professor of Design at the New Bauhaus, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies was designed to encourage social, political and environmental art through the use of new technology as an artistic medium and to facilitate the interaction of artists with scientists, engineers and industry.

(Kepes was succeeded in 1974 by Otto Piene, founding member of Group Zero and among the first of the CAVS fellows; upon Piene's retirement in 1993, the directorship was held by visual arts professor Krzysztof Wodiczko, followed in 1996 by pioneering holographer and Media Lab professor Steven Benton and, for a second time, Wodiczko in 2004.)

The work in the CAVS archive represents a substantial share of the history of the Art and Technology movement of the 1960s and 1970s, an era of increasing interest to curators, art historians and practicing artists. In the past year, the archive has received an unprecedented number of requests to loan materials for exhibition at such venues as the Bienal de Video y Artes Mediales in Chile and the Ludwig Múzeum and the Szépm?vészeti Múzeum, both in Budapest.

The archive contains materials on collaborative and time-based productions generated by or related to the tenure of nearly 100 internationally recognized artist-fellows over the past 43 years. More than 300 film and video works, about 3000 slides, 1000 photographic prints and a total of roughly 600 posters, prints and large format drawings are currently being reviewed, inventoried and preserved. In addition to that, there are 80 linear feet of files containing correspondence, sketches, project notes, prints and additional photographs waiting to be digitized to provide wider access to this historically significant material.

Some highlights of the collection include:

• Notes, sketches, photographs, video and correspondence relating to the Charles River Project, envisioned by Kepes as a means to explore new artistic ways of revitalizing the role of the Charles River; the archive also includes Monument to a River, an extremely rare two-channel video by Chilean artist Juan Downey.

• Flyers, correspondence, photographs, notes and video produced by film and video art pioneer and avant-garde artist Aldo Tambellini and the group Communicationsphere; in the new age of satellites and instant global communications, Communicationsphere explored transmitted information as a form of art through projects involving such technology as picture phones, slow scan transceivers, closed circuit television and standard telephone lines.

• Sketches, photographs, proposals and film and video works relating to the collaborative public artwork Centerbeam, installed in 1977 at documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany and in 1978 on the National Mall in Washington DC; with the participation of over 20 CAVS artist-fellows and 10 MIT scientists and engineers, Centerbeam included laser images projected on steam, solar-tracked holograms, a 144-foot water prism and helium-filled sky sculptures.

While the materials have been kept in well-organized working files over the years, until now there has been no cohesive and accessible inventory or cataloging system to help researchers locate the materials they need. The archiving efforts involve copyright assessment, preservation, cataloguing, storage, digitization and provision for greater public access.

The archives will be housed in SA+P’s new Media Lab Complex, adjacent to studios, classrooms and offices for the new MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), formed this spring by the merger of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies with SA+P’s Visual Arts Program. Rather than a traditional library archive, it is intended to function as a hands-on introduction to the contemporary history of artistic practice and collaboration engaging new technologies.

In addition to organizing the physical archives, ACT aims to develop a digital collection online to facilitate significant research into the archive from around the world. Over time, that database will include as many as 1000 prints, 2000 slides and approximately 10,000 documents.

The Living Archive was initiated about a year ago by Ute Meta Bauer, director of the Program in Art, Culture and Technology, with Ann Whiteside, then head of the Rotch Library, and Michael Mittelmann, then Associate Director of ACT. Initial archiving work was done by visiting scholar Alise Upitis (PhD’08, Architecture) in collaboration with Jennifer Friedman, Collections Manager at the Rotch Library, supported by four candidates from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Boston’s Simmons College.

An initial collection of digitized objects will be available on the ACT website in the spring of 2011. Depending on funding levels, the complete archiving and digitization process will likely take approximately four years. For more information, contact CAVSarchive@mit.edu.