ORAL HISTORY AND ARTISTS
New Meanings through Distinct Sources
A collection of oral history interviews on the subject of an artist’s life increases the resources available to interpret her or his work. As an oral historian, I always see this as a positive outcome. Hearing firsthand from a curator who spoke to the artist about the work, or a fabricator who lent material expertise, or from a fellow artist whose work comes out of a similar historical context, can generate volumes of new information with which to consider and understand an individual or collected body of work.
Projects that focus more broadly on a community—such as the Guerrilla Girls, or photographers of Williamsburg’s Los Sures neighborhood in the 1980s—can shed light on the impact of economic forces or the sophistication of political expression in work. Such examinations can lead to new theories about the contribution of art to larger debates on topics like citizenship or labor rights, shifting the concept of “expertise” beyond academia and institutional figureheads to include artists and other creative laborers.
Collections with a deep focus, such as the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s project on Rauschenberg’s art and life, have the potential to generate a new level of discourse, allowing the fact that the purpose or meaning of an artwork can develop new significance over time. Oral historians see this potential for change as a welcome challenge to pre-existing conceptions. Strong projects are designed with an openness to discover new information through the interviews—a genuine curiosity and willingness to explore new meanings—rather than to support a preexisting thesis. Interviews conducted with a narrow agenda tend to be a tragic waste of time and resources, and can be unintentionally boring and self-indulgent.
Ideally, an oral history project is designed with a balance of these deep and broad areas of focus, which are reflected in the level of research that precedes each interview. On a related note, it can often be beneficial for the interviewer to be somewhat of an outsider to the subject of the interview. Even while relatives of artists may uniquely spearhead and energize a project about a relation’s legacy, they may not be ideal interviewers because of their proximity to the subject of the project, which could inadvertently skew interviews away from thoughtful criticism and result in a collection of overly positive recollections. Skilled interviewers research deliberately to fill in crucial gaps in knowledge—for example, gaining exhaustive knowledge of an artist’s body of work, or a group’s collective projects—while also utilizing their distance from certain particulars to facilitate responses that are detailed and specific, yet more accessible. A bit of distance can give the interviewer license to request elaboration whenever curiosity, or counterfactual information, arises.
Additional supplemental research can also move the interviewer beyond questions of why a work was created to how, opening many new areas of exploration. How did you choose and obtain your materials? How did you learn the parameters of working with those materials? How did you establish networks with groups of your peers? How did the input of your peers play into your work? Each of these questions could serve as an opening to a much longer exchange, citing specific works or eras of an artist’s output, and even countering the artist’s responses with information about what was typical at the time or place that the artist was making such work. An interviewer should be knowledgeable but also unafraid to ask the most basic questions, moving the interview across both particular and general themes.
Finally, a major component of the oral history process comes after the interview itself, through the act of interpreting what was shared in the interview. People speak to one another, responding to the way questions and answers are crafted, to body language, and to mutual inter-subjective judgments about knowledge, age, gender representation, or class. In short, no interview is a simple exposition of information. A basic tenet of oral history interviewing is to grant each person the right to hold authority over the thoughts and perceptions she or he shares—a potentially frightening prospect within the art world, where the threat of misrepresenting a work’s provenance could have significant and messy implications. Thankfully, these sorts of challenges have been rare in my experience.
Training in oral history methods and practice helps provide the skills to design and implement oral history projects in such a way as to avoid potential disasters: loss of interview recordings, alienating people during interviews, or running out of funding to transcribe and process interview materials. It can also offer tools to navigate other challenges, such as faulty memories, conflicting accounts, and a lack of diversity across interviews. My own training comes from Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts program, which is an interdisciplinary program that provides fieldwork experience as well as theoretical grounding in the field of oral history. The program has granted degrees to over seventy students since its inception in 2008, many of whom are based in New York City and the San Francisco area.
Through my association with Columbia, and also as an independent consultant, I have facilitated many discussions with groups and individuals interested in beginning oral history projects. My general advice is always the same: oral history interviews are distinct sources of information, worthy of careful research, planning, and design. Acknowledge the resources required to mount and complete a successful oral history project, and scale the project to your resources. Each project—insofar as it reflects the artist and the work it aims to explore—will be unique. Taking the time to shape that project, reflecting an adequate balance of breadth and depth, will help ensure its value in the future.