Category Drift
Lorna Brown

In the early 2000s, during an Acquisitions Committee meeting at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was struck by an unusual order of business. Ordinarily, our committee work consisted of motions to accept donated artworks into the collection and, following the advice of the curatorial team, recommending artwork purchases. On our agenda that day was a motion to transfer a number of objects - videos, lithographs and photographs - by artist Theodore Wan from the archival holdings of the museum to the art collection proper, in preparation for a touring exhibition of his work, curated by art historian Christine Conley.

“Known primarily in the art world, Theodore Wan made a significant contribution to conceptual art in Canada throughout the 1970s and 1980s, specifically in Halifax and Vancouver. Wan's reputation was secured through a remarkable series of medical photographs that played on the ambivalent status of the photograph as art object and illustration. In these works that bridge scientific illustration, performance and self-portraiture, the artist submitted his body to various procedures, instruments and technologies of medical examination and treatment. He also created a number of engaging conceptual pieces with a humorous twist, including officially changing his name to Theodore Saskatche Wan. In the late 1970s Theodore Wan opened an artist-run gallery in Vancouver called Main Exit and went on to develop a commercial photography practice that fed his fascination with performance, narcissistic spectacle, and exotic dancing − riding a fine line between art and everyday life.”1

Including the video Technique for Vasectomy, c. 1977, and the postcard Name Change, c. 1979, the selected objects needed to undergo a transformation of category in anticipation, I presume, of their elevated status for various administrative processes such as determining their insurance value. This procedure was of great interest to me since it suggested that in this movement from the category of document to artwork, a re-evaluation was taking place and how, over time, objects that are collected for their archival significance accrue additional forms of value. I had no doubt that to the artist, the objects were art from the beginning, but the roughly two-decade delay in their eventual re-categorization had more to do with the instability of the practices used to evaluate his work - as a medical photographer, a commercial photographer, a founder of an ARC - combined with his premature death, and the challenge that conceptual art presented to the museum during that time.

This instance came immediately to mind when asked to contribute an essay on the archiving activities of artist-run centres as part of the Activating the Archives project. Like Wan’s fonds, the photographic, print, video and records archives of many artist-run centres are currently in the process of categorical mobility. Images of exhibitions, ephemera such as invitations, and miscellany such as personal notes and institutional correspondence, when collaboratively created by artists exhibiting in and artists running centres, all fidget uncomfortably in established categories of value. And Wan’s rich, but all-too-short biography indicates another problem of categorization as his diverse interests, initiatives and occupations similarly resisted the category of ‘professional’ artist.

This essay will take forward these threads - the unstable value of objects and the ascription of legitimacy to diverse practices - to examine the complicated matters and materials of artist-run centres, their archiving activities, and what these archives might mean once made public through the medium of the Internet.

Assuming the task of creating and distributing one’s own institutional history is a legacy of the artist-run movement’s desire to have a hand in determining the conditions and definition of art practice. Coming to the fore in the sixties and seventies, Martha Rosler’s conversational reminiscence illuminates this shift:

“When I was trained in art school and university, artists were forbidden to talk. There was a division of labor: art had to be aesthetic and visual, 100% visual, and critics and others talked about your work but you didn’t. You might talk about work with your friends -- but as a public element, artists were silent and there was a canned response that you were supposed to have, which was ‘If I could talk about it, I wouldn’t make this work,’ and that was high modernism…. One of the things that happened in the artists’ revolt that constituted much of the art of the sixties was an effort to grab control of the discourse and write about and talk about what art should be in public, because the market was starting to dictate what art should be, for the public. And once art had a mass audience, which it did starting with Pop, it kind of became a necessity for artists to be able to talk, to reconfigure what art might or might not be about. But what we’ve seen since the market retook control in the last five or six years is that (and this is from a colleague who organizes artists’ talks in art school): now the talks are like ‘Uh, uh, this is my work… uh, uh, this is my work… My work…’ and they are showing slides, or whatever, powerpoints. So this studied adoption of silence and inarticulateness is a highly politicized way of saying “The market is my interpreter.”2

With the absence of a contemporary art market in late sixties and early seventies, Canada’s - and therefore the market’s -‘last word’, any rejection by artists to engage in discourse around their work, would have meant a profound interpretive silence about contemporary practice. Museums and public galleries did not ordinarily exhibit ‘new’ media or practices such as video, performance, installation and conceptual art. For many artists, these forms were a promising means to redefine what counted as a contemporary art object, including its status as a commodity. The continuing absence of a strong domestic art market in Canada has not prevented some artists from a studied adoption of inarticulateness, perhaps due to a lack of historical context for the aims and motivations of the artist-run movement here and elsewhere:

“By creating organizations according to a model of self-determination, Canadian artists attempted to undermine widespread beliefs concerning their abilities to administer institutions - thereby labouring in terrain that was reserved for the cultural elite. The period in which this paradigm of self-determination was initially tested set the stage for the infrastructure in which they would later work during the following decades: however, such a striving for autonomy implied an increasing dependence on granting agencies. Paradoxically, a gift economy still prevails as the mode of compensation for the scarcity of financial resources.”3

Documenting the activities of artist-run centres are a requisite part of demonstrating an ability to administer institutions and to qualify for scarce public funds. These documents are also a currency by which individual artists establish their legitimacy and pursue opportunities for residencies, exhibitions, grants and employment. Far from neutral, these images and texts are built into the economic framework of artistic production and presentation, and are currencies traded, along with curatorial endorsements and academic credentials. Poised between the collecting and exhibiting practices of public galleries and museums and the spaces of artistic production, ARCs contended with the need to picture and contextualize, for example, performance art (differently than works of theatre); collaborative practice (differently than film), site-specific and installation art (differently than architecture) as well as events, writing, and other multidisciplinary practices.

In the comparatively intimate context of ARC production, these collaborative relationships amongst artists can be seen in text and image records that hover between art and document as, in many cases, techniques of objectivity were suppressed to allow for a more telling portrayal of new artistic forms. The images and texts contain a layering of authorship - the artist creating the document and the artist creating the documented work. Formal choices of the documenting photographer or videographer may show traces of their own, distinct artistic practice, one that merges with or colours the authorship of the event or performance.4 These photographs, videos and curatorial texts, then, are an index to the collaborative relationships between artists, maintaining a skeptical distance to established professional documentary or curatorial standards.

Since the nineties, pressures to ‘professionalize’ have borne down upon artists and artist-run centres alike. Artists have become trained through the culture at large, and the reduced capacity of public funders, to aspire to a sustained art-market viability when for the majority, subsistence on multiple forms of employment is the only realistic economic ambition.

As ARCs have persisted into their fifth decade, they increasingly need to compete with public galleries and museums for proof of ‘public engagement’ in the form of visitor statistics, diverse partnerships, and evidence of community relevance. Not purely presentation centres, nor purely production centres, nor strictly research and education centres, ARCs continue to expand their activities and to perform these services. Competing alongside more stratified institutions, they are expected to prove their relevance to (depending upon which source of funding) Canadians, local citizens, provincial publics, as well as demonstrate their legitimacy within artistic disciplines such as art history, cultural studies and education. Like Theodore Wan, their economic context and fluid practices have led to multiple public identities, a categorical impurity that inherently challenges the category of a specialist or ‘professional’. Their critical unease with a professionalization as defined by others has led to both their economic precariousness as well as their strategic innovation. ‘Labouring in terrain reserved for the cultural elite’ has meant that their activities - from accounting to curating to documentating to marketing to publishing - activities that are, in other situations, spread across an institutional hierarchy, are managed by a limited staff of artists. In doing so, artist-run centres intrinsically challenge credentials and standards (art historical, technical, archival), forming multiples breaches of authority as compared to the conventional hierarchies of cultural organizations.

While not addressing the archives of artists in particular, Richard Pearce-Moses indicates a level of gate-keeping within the archival profession:

“There are collateral tendencies to use the word 'archive' minus its North American requisite 's' and to 'verbify' the noun. In many cases, the nonprofessional appropriation of the term 'archives' appears to be part of an attempt by the scholar or database builder to lend panache or cachet and an air of respectability to what otherwise might be little more than a personal hobby or collecting fetish. As archivists, should we simply welcome this popularization of the term 'archives' or should we be bothered by the prevalence of its frequent misuse? Perhaps we should look only on the positive side and see that the growing recognition of the value and importance of documentation that [David] Gracy sought. On the other hand, there is in the popularized use of 'archives' a rather significant threat to the basic goals of the archival profession. Call it paranoia, but I always have the sense that when we see 'archive' used as a verb, or the word 'archives' used in a bastardized way to describe what is clearly a singular, idiosyncratic, and synthetic gathering of documents, we are being confronted with a challenge to our position as professional archivists.”5

No strangers to charges of being hobbyists, and having a complex relationship to theories of the fetish, it would seem that artists are doomed to be confrontational vis-à-vis the basic goals of the archival profession. Straddling a threefold position, Denis Lessard was trained in art history, developed a practice as an artist, mainly in performance, photo-based art and installation and is now a trained archivist. Working with The Office for Archival Review, contracted by the Montreal ARC Skol to conduct an investigation of their organizational archives, Lessard comments on the discovery of ‘artworks’ (original sketches, drawings and collages) within the ARC’s holdings:

“If ‘artworks’ have been left as records originally, they are part of an organic whole; they come with an intention. Not only should we respect the principle of provenance, but also a form of immanence that tells about the creative process and the various activities that surround artmaking as such. Our approaches to processing artists' records should remain informed by the manner in which these fonds and collections have been constituted by the artists themselves and the collectors. A part of the solution might reside in the flexible nature of the classification scheme.”6

In distinguishing the records of ARCs as ‘fonds’ rather than archives, Lessard features the entire body of records that have been created and accumulated as the result of an organic process reflecting the functions of the creator. The fonds, then, contain the malleability of authorship as discussed above, ie. the collaborative practices inherent in ARC day-to-day operations, the category drift to be found in the aesthetic choices of the images and texts collected, as well as the manner in which they have been accumulated, organized and arranged.

The fonds, therefore, should be viewed primarily as 'an intellectual construct.' The fonds is not so much a physical entity in archives as it is the conceptual summary of descriptions of physical entities at the series level or lower, and descriptions of the administrative, historical and functional character of the records creator(s) - as well as descriptions of the records-creating processes (metadata). The fonds is thus the conceptual 'whole' that reflects an organic process in which a records creator produces or accumulates series of records which themselves exhibit a natural unity based on shared function, activity, form or use. It is at the heart of this process or relationship linking the creator to the records that the essence of respect des fonds can be found and must be protected.7

Yet, from a political perspective, in order to meet the principles of self-determination, an art community must have access to the archive and the opportunity to participate in its constitution and interpretation. Having persisted, ARCs are now, in keeping with the desire to have a stake in speaking about ‘what art should be’, self-organizing their historical documents and taking on the interpretation of those histories in characteristically impure ways. If we agree that the public identities of ARCs are multiple, what might each ‘conceptual summary’ articulate?

“The archival fonds of artist-run centres bear witness to a contiguity between the administrative protocols required for the consolidation of an institutional structure and the dialogical dimension of collaborative processes. A close reading of their content allows one to understand the interstice in which the visible and invisible portions of this metaphysical index are negotiated. However, these documents should not be regarded as a material more neutral than artworks - they too succumb to the logic of fetishism. To interpret them requires one to make use of a method and circumvents the speculative discourse that produces relics, while moving beyond the restrictive notion of the source.”8

Bonin here speaks of the dangers to be found in the act of naming an accumulation of objects - whether as fonds or archive - that is, to insert parentheses around a set of practices and activities that are poly-vocal, collaborative and on-going can potentially render it static, artificially complete, and relegate it to the past. It is perhaps this danger that led to the verb activate in titling grunt gallery’s initiative, as it moves beyond speaking about itself, to itself, and shifts its address to the accessible promise of online publishing. Activate calls to mind the ‘documents life cycle’ approach to records management in which archival science assigns, based on frequency of use, categories of ‘active’, ‘semi-active’, and ‘inactive’ or ‘definite.’ Reframing the documents of performances, symposia and the like return these records to a state of flux, engendering new public discourse about their relevance, accuracy and significance. This self-directed interpretation of documents works against the ‘respect des fonds’ directive, and in keeping with artistic authorship, abandons all claims to objectivity. Activating the Archives is also a foray into a medium primarily used for marketing, and a disputed site in economic terms.

“In order to work efficiently and fairly, any market relies on ‘perfect information’ - information that is ‘free, complete, instantaneous, and universally available; At the same time… the actual market structure of contemporary society depends on information itself being a commodity - costly, partial and deliberately restricted in its availability…”9

How then to navigate the paradox occupied by information technology - the legal obligations surrounding intellectual property, the commitment to free access to our cultural history, the commercial, self-promotional residue of ‘the website’ and the desire to participate in the interpretation of one’s own production? At one end of the spectrum, UbuWeb, in its Open Letter manifesto, argues for a space of complete freedom:

Essentially a gift economy, poetry is the perfect space to practice utopian politics. Freed from profit-making constraints or cumbersome fabrication considerations, information can literally "be free": on UbuWeb, we give it away and have been doing so since 1996. We publish in full color for pennies. We receive submissions Monday morning and publish them Monday afternoon. UbuWeb's work never goes "out of print." UbuWeb is a never-ending work in progress: many hands are continually building it on many platforms.10

Ubu’s price of freedom: a reliance on no-questions-asked bandwidth donations from allied organizations, and volunteer labour. Describing itself as an ‘unstable community’, and embracing this instability as “neither vertical nor horizontal but rather a Deleuzian nomadic model,” UbuWeb is a remarkably successful and resilient resource, and its manifesto cites many examples to contest any critique of its marginality. Archivist Margaret Smith, in a project centering on the long-term preservation of UbuWeb, describes the project as “essentially founded in opposition to the limitations and norms of institutions” and “radically unlike any institutionally created digital collection.”11 Due to an inconsistent treatment of objects, the combination of primary and secondary texts, and the lack of descriptive meta-tags beyond the name of the author/artist, Smith identifies the limits of UbuWeb’s effectiveness as a research resource in terms of its enormous size, multiplicity of voices, file types and eras, ultimately declaring it an anomaly. Entering its archive, this researcher has never been particularly troubled by any of the above. But the singular public identity of UbuWeb, articulated through its organizational procedures and oppositional stance, outweighs the multiplicity of the objects it groups, resulting in its ‘anomalous’ curatorial voice.

I bring up the example of Ubu in order to place it in distinction to initiatives such as Activating the Archive. For, as I have argued, the public identities of ARCs are non-singular, strategically impure and categorically mobile in response to the communities in which they operate. As non-specialists, artists working with these archives sort and prioritize expectations according to artist run principles: to present a different point of view than the ‘last word’ of either the market or the academy; to set in motion the accrual of value to individual artist’s work, while at the same time setting in record the collaborative processes upon which artists depend, and to meet the expectations of the proxies of the public - the agencies that provide funds. In performing the service of conveying cultural materials through an interpretive process, “they transform archives into source material, out of which they generate a surplus value of intelligibility,”12 as does Ubu. But ARCs do not occupy an oppositional position to institutions; rather, they have come to be institutions in themselves. This may be a disappointment to those for whom autonomy is a political utopia. But as in works of utopian fiction, within the devilish details dystopia usually lurks.

Along with other members of the public, what demands might artists make of an archive in the future? Access to documents of artworks, certainly, but also first-hand accounts of the conditions and context of the production of art. The professional artist is a non-specialist, for even when enjoying market success, their work relates to and addresses the culture as a whole. In working across their multiple and sometimes conflicting public roles - teaching, running ARCs, or other paid employment - artists should have access to their history of self-organization, its pitfalls and its potential. If the ‘gift economy’ of artistic practice is to become more than a one-way exchange (and without enormous political compromise) the legitimacy of the principles of artist-run culture must be publicly conveyed, along with properly tagged and indexed records. As an outgrowth of artistic practice, artist-run centres and their multiple public identities represent the best chance at a stable yet mobile category of production. In making public their records, in ways that specialists and non-specialists can find and recognize, they challenge the supposed neutrality of techniques of preservation, pose questions about authority and authorship, and, while adding value, at the same time interrogate how value is assigned.


  1.  back

  2. Derek Brunen, “Show and Tell: The Politics of Silence and the Power of Discourse”, Piet Zwart Institute: 2010, 22:25 – 24:30,  back

  3. Vincent Bonin, “Documentary Protocols (1967-1975)”, Documentary Protocols: Protocoles Documentaires (1967-1975), Vincent Bonin, ed., with the collaboration of Michèle Thèriault, Montreal: Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Universite Concordia University, 2010: 56  back

  4. An example of this arose in conversation with Glenn Alteen regarding the video documents of grunt gallery’s performance art programming created by video artist Mike MacDonald. Similar examples include videos produced as part of the Western Front media residency as managed by artist Kate Craig, and the photographs documenting the activities of Intermedia by Michael de Courcy.  back

  5. Richard Pearce-Moses, A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology,  back

  6. Denis Lessard, “Lecture Notes”, Artists' Records in the Archives, Symposium, October 11 - 12, 2011, Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York Inc.,  back

  7. Cook, Terry, "The Concept of Archival Fonds and the Post-Custodial Era: Theory, Problems and Solutions.," Archivaria 35 (Spring 1993), p. 24–37.  back

  8. Vincent Bonin, “Documentary Protocols (1967-1975)”, Documentary Protocols: Protocoles Documentaires (1967-1975), Vincent Bonin, ed., with the collaboration of Michèle Thèriault, Montreal: Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Universite Concordia University, 2010: 28 ” back

  9. John Frow, “Information as gift and Commodity,” New Left Review 1, no. 139 (September – October 1996): Cited in Vincent Bonin, “Documentary Protocols (1967-1975)”, Documentary Protocols: Protocoles Documentaires (1967-1975), Vincent Bonin, ed., with the collaboration of Michèle Thèriault, Montreal: Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Universite Concordia University, 2010: 24  back

  10. The Editors, Ubu Open Letter,  back

  11. Margaret Smith, “Archiving Ubu”,, 2010.  back

  12. Vincent Bonin, “Documentary Protocols (1967-1975)”, Documentary Protocols: Protocoles Documentaires (1967-1975), Vincent Bonin, ed., with the collaboration of Michèle Thèriault, Montreal: Galerie Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Universite Concordia University, 2010: 25 ” back