“It finally ended in a wonderful revelation, for before the spectators was the resplendent mausoleum of the King, a spacious and beautifully decorated chamber completely occupied by an immense shrine covered with gold inlaid with brilliant blue faience. This beautiful wooden construction towers nearly to the ceiling and fills the great sepulchral hall within a short span of its four walls. Its sides are adorned with magnificent religious texts and fearful symbols of the dead. […] With the contents of the annex to the outer chamber still awaiting attention added to this new and amazing store of wonders the mere embarrassment of riches confront Lord Carnarvon and Mr. Carter with a serious problem even though no attempt is made to touch for awhile the tabernacle of the King. The immensity of the whole thing makes one gasp.”
“King in Nest of Shrines,” Special Cable to The New York Times, February 16, 1923.
Retaining, preserving, and enshrining the matter of everyday life from mundane keepsakes, weapons, and riches connoting status, stretches back to moments just past the dawn of the consciousness of man. Ancients sent off their pharaohs towards eternal afterlife in comfort with material goods and what was regarded as their well-deserved richness, not to be shared with others or to be seen by earthly eyes again.
As opposed to storehouses of worldly goods enshrined in a tomb, archives do not serve the immortal soul. Past their mortal toil, the dead do not read books, look at photographs, watch films, or listen to recordings. The stuff commonly retained in a lifetime falls into two classes: things we retain for our own purposes, and items we wish to share with others within our lifetimes and for the enshrinement of ourselves for future generations. Here and now, time and critical distance help confer resonance towards what is truly valuable—intellectually, aesthetically, historically, emotionally, and monetarily. Only by setting aside and preserving a legacy near the time of its material creation, can an unvarnished image of a slice in time be reanimated later. The preservation of everything—from trivial to masterful—yields the greatest dividends towards future research, as it is often the most marginal, ephemeral materials that can tease out the in-between: the space that joins one object (performance, thought, or relationship) to another; the point of resonance of stuff, where disparate breaths from inhalation to exhalation to inhalation commingle, where unique histories in the guise of sounds and voices are formed.
An archive is rarely initially formed with intent. The impetus to save, however, is often innate. Collections of rocks, stamps, photographs of childhood meld and transform into documentation of accomplishments, loves, and relation-ships, reflecting a perception of one’s place in the world: a codification of an individual’s uniqueness within the broader context of society.
“What you should do is get a box for a month, and drop everything in it and at the end of the month lock it up. Then date it and send it over to Jersey. […] I just drop everything into the same-size brown cardboard boxes that have a color patch on the side for the month of the year. I really hate nostalgia, though, so deep down I hope they all get lost and I never have to look at them again. That’s another conflict. I want to throw things right out the window as they’re handed to me, but instead I say thank you and drop them into the box-of-the-month. But my other outlook is that I really do want to save things so they can be used again someday.”
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, pp. 145.
John Giorno has a massive, well-documented, and cared-for archive. Perhaps when starting to amass it in the 1960s, Giorno was inspired by Warhol’s obsessive hoarding. It’s a logical conclusion to leap to, considering the artists were lovers. Paging through PDFs for three single years: 1969, 1970, and 1971—which document, in crisp and pristine digital images, 609, 596, and 307 individual objects respectively—vivid stories can be retold. The 1969 file reflects, from the first days of the year, Giorno’s place in the absolute center of the New York poetry world, with the January 8, 1969 press release issued by The Architectural League of New York for his Dial-A-Poem, one of the League’s works in a “series of new and experimental events, dealing with all aspects of contemporary life.” By late June 1969, ten poets could be heard simultaneously over ten telephone lines. In incorporating the voices and poems of Bill Berkson, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, David Henderson, Taylor Mead, Ron Padgett, John Perreault, Ed Sanders, Peter Schjeldahl, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Emmett Williams, and Giorno himself, the project received 1,112,237 calls in four and a half months, as documented in the July 1–14, 1969 issue of Other Scenes.
In the hundreds of clippings about Dial-A-Poem in the archive, what stands out is the fullest range of media outlets that wrote, mostly glowingly, on the project that year. The novelty of dialing (212) 628-0400 and hearing a poem brought a few minutes of underground culture to beatniks, hippies, boardroom, and bedroom communities alike over The New York Telephone Company’s copper wires.
Looking at just three years in Giorno’s papers, one finds an ostensible narrative of how society evolved in a short period of time. The almost quaint qualities of Dial-A-Poem, for example, became subsumed in the press, morphing— by the time the project was reconstituted at The Museum of Modern Art’s Information exhibition in 1970 with over forty-five poets—into an anti-establishment threat rather than an act of inspirational liberation. The narrative of the archive here reflects less the artist’s intent than the forces reacting against intent when viewed through a myopic prism refracting its own light.
At their best, archives tell unedited stories. The value of the saved materials is most useful when an unvarnished history can be revealed at a later date without the underlying narrative created by contemporary editing. The recognition in such archiving is the cliché: “You can’t take it with you.” Rather, you can leave behind an archive that influences the story written about yourself into the book of life Retrospectively, we collect for ourselves, so that we do not forget, and for others, so that we are not forgotten.
Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at MoMA