By Thera Webb and Marissa Friedman
March 10, 2020, was a big day in Massachusetts. It was the day Massachusetts declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was also the scheduled premiere of Artists & Archives, a new public programming series exploring the relationships between artists and archival materials.
While MIT’s Department of Distinctive Collections (DDC) encompasses almost all collections at the university, the depository I manage, the MIT Program in Art, Culture & Technology’s (ACT) Archives and Special Collections, is a separate entity run through the ACT academic program. The ACT repository houses a number of collections pertaining to the arts at MIT, including the Center for Advanced Visual Studies Special Collection and the Visible Language Workshop Archive. The Artists & Archives talks marked the first formal collaboration between the two archives.
The Artists & Archives talks were created as a joint effort with the MIT DDC to highlight the history of art and technology at MIT and to encourage students, and a broader audience, to think of archives as a resource for more than just traditional historical research. We wanted to highlight the collaborative nature of both art and technology and I had curated small exhibits to go with each event, highlighting archival items in both collections that were relevant to the subject of the talk. The series was set to begin this semester with two discussions: the first by geothermal engineer and progenitor of sustainable art Robert Dell on March 10, and the second by poet and multimedia artist Jasmine Dreame Wagner on April 7.
Both events have been postponed until Fall 2020, or beyond.
Though it was devastating to not be able to present these events as intended, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to experiment with new ways of leveraging technology to provide online access to a curated selection of works by these artists. Instead of simply postponing the events, the public programs coordinator and I are working to create an immersive digital experience incorporating these artists and their works. The repository houses records by a number of artists who worked with experimental materials and methods including performances, bio-art, experimental film and recording methods, and very early computer-based art. By moving the programming content to a virtual exhibition, we will not only allow audiences beyond Greater Boston to interact with the pieces, we will also be able to present these works in a more accessible and dynamic viewing experience than simply having reproductions of documents and artworks on display for a short amount of time.
With MIT closing to all but essential personnel, it was a bit of a challenge to curate the exhibits, since I could not physically access documents. Most of the digitization that has taken place in the archive has been researcher-driven, so while I do have access to a number of operational documents and correspondence, the selection of visual materials is more limited. I recently cataloged over 7,000 slides of artworks, but only had around 50 digitized before we moved to a work-from-home set up.
The biggest challenges for moving the materials to an online portal are working with the limitations of what our website is capable of and identifying what resources we have to devote to digitizing and designing a virtual exhibition that is more than just a static webpage. As a very small program with limited resources, we are investigating simple yet effective ways to design the site that provides an immersive experience that is similar to physically being in a gallery looking at an exhibit.
We plan to launch the new ACT Virtual Museum later this month. It will not only host the two Artists & Archives exhibits, but will also provide a space to explore the connections between the current art being made by graduate students and faculty members, and earlier work produced by the MIT community’s artists and scientists who pioneered some of the earliest art and technology collaborations.
Editor’s note: This piece is the first in COVID (Re)Collections, a new series exploring responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by library, cultural heritage, and information professionals. Stories are proposed by the authors/contributors and reflect their personal experiences and perspectives at the time of publication. Learn more about the series and share your own story here.