One of the main questions in the days before digitization was what to keep and what to discard. Any correspondence, even envelopes or parcel wrapping, had an almost mythic status. An envelope alone, with its hand-written address, airmail sticker and stamp, seemed somehow precious; inside, a letter written on thin airmail paper, signed by the artist.1I think of Dieter Roth, and how it’s easy to imagine him actually signing everything. He didn’t of course, but the way he represents the figure of the ‘prolific’ artist is really just an image of the truth of all artists: that their power, whatever it is worth, is in the authorial glance that turns matter into material. The rule was not to write on- or damage these fragments, but to assemble them in categories as read correspondence, drawn exhibition proposals in pencil bearing exhaustive explanations in ink, or collated, detailed artists’ instructions. Anything that showed even a hint of process was kept.2Anything that processed even a hint of showing was kept. Filed material included slides and photographs, and videotapes to be kept safe in dark and dry conditions. There were light boxes for viewing transparencies, and VCRs and monitors to watch filmed footage. A fax machine was an essential part of the office, as was the answer machine, there to record messages after hours. Both were coupled to a single landline only able to process one form of communication at a time. An obsolete photocopier was lent for a period but never saw active service.3The artist Martin Westwood’s exhibition Object not Found for the Cabinets series (2009) examined the codified absurdity of the workplace with its well-rehearsed and repetitive actions and exchanges: emptied public gestures that filter through to the private world of the individual, tainting and marring every intimacy. Among other exhibits, he bisected a photocopier and installed each half in a display cabinet. The life of the office runs along narrow, prescriptive lines, providing a simplified ontology, whose goals are focused entirely on productivity and profit. It is thus a half-life, both real and unreal in equal measure; it displays the hallmarks of something authentic, but without the tangible rewards of lived experience. The office, far from being separate, or oppositional to a life led elsewhere, replicates this other existence, but in a stripped out manner: a kind of life-light, without the intoxicating ingredients of reality.
The job of collecting material started with the practical task of naming the file, finding a location for it in one of the several vintage filing cabinets in different shades of green (dubbed suitcases).4In contrast to the ‘portable museums’ of Duchamp’s Valises, these suitcases are unportable, maximal, inverse museums. They record the negative space of work, all the experiential armature that permits a work to stand in the world. From that point on, it would act as a collection point for disparate materials, to be added to and subdivided into further files as its inventory grew, for instance:
Although many of these items have long-since been digitized, the archive continues to both accrue and produce more material. After all, all gallery activity demands administration of one sort or another. Every real event leaves a witness in the archive in the form of documentation; its ghostly presence expands as the memory of the event diminishes.5The offices kept beneath ground; the digging down that must be done to make space for the accounts of that which happens above. Andy Roche, whose work is within this archive somewhere, with an image of snakes and food, told me about a job he once had that brought him into contact with the multiple floors beneath the skyscrapers of Chicago. Some of these undergrounds interconnect, forming a subterranean city of sorts. He, like other workers of a less visible kind, could travel between the towering buildings without being at ground level at all. Another friend, who I met at the same time as Andy, and whose artist father is mentioned in another footnote to another text, once told me about a dream she had: the writer Paul Auster was taking her on a tour of the underground train networks of three cities, London, New York and Alexandria. Only two of these cities have underground train networks. The other, Alexandria, has an underground library; the remains of the Great Library from the 3rd century BC. It was built beneath a Serapeum temple; Serapis being a composite ‘god’ constructed from symbols of the many interconnected cultures of the ancient world.