Glenn Wharton knew he wanted to become a conservator immediately upon hearing that you could actually touch the art if you were willing to study chemistry and the physical sciences. He developed his skills over the years, going from the fields of archaeological and sculpture conservation to the avant-garde arena of contemporary art, which presents numerous challenges when it comes to time-based media, which can include video, performance, and electronic works. This latter interest led Wharton to the Museum of Modern Art where he was the Time-Based Media Conservator for six years from 2007–2013 where he was tasked with documenting media works for future exhibitions, figuring out how to reformat certain media to keep it operable in the future.
In 2015, Wharton joined his colleague Deena Engel at New York University to establish the Artist Archives Initiative, a forum to promote the research and dissemination of knowledge about the display and care of contemporary art. The initiative is also strategic, responding to the art world’s growing need for a thorough network of documents and research to aid future exhibitions and the reengagement of interest in previously forgotten artists. It therefore makes sense that Wharton’s first subject would be David Wojnarowicz, who after many years of relative obscurity now has three major exhibitions happening in New York City, including one large retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Hyperallergic spoke with Wharton to discuss the new initiative, its future, and why David Wojnarowicz deserves his time in the spotlight.
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Hyperallergic: The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base is an ambitious project for preserving scholarship on a relatively unknown artist. How did the project come about?
Glenn Wharton: I worked at MoMA for a number of years as a time-based media conservator. My job there was to build documentation and creation an institutional capacity to reinstall, reperform, and reconstitute variable works like installation, performance, and media art. When I left [MoMA], I asked myself what I could do in the outside world to create similar information resources for artists that are publicly accessible rather than those that are just for museums. I then linked with Deena Engel, a computer scientist, to establish the Arts Archive Initiative. We’re research partners. Our project is equally about the content as it is the artist’s work.
H: What drew you to the Wikipedia format for the initiative?
GW: We chose the media wiki software for the David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base for a number of reasons. After researching a number of software options, we chose it because it’s open source with an already-strong user base. More importantly, it’s very versatile and can be altered around our needs. Most databases are hierarchical (meaning they have a menu), but we wanted to create a resource where people could search laterally and vertically.
H: What’s interesting to me is that the media wiki software is also used around the internet by many television and video game fanbases. Adopting the format for artists, it’s almost as if you are now creating online fandoms for these people.
GW: [Laughs] Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that. I think scholars, curators, conservators, and other researchers focused on underappreciated artists do constitute a network of people. What we are excited about is the opportunity for outside researchers to contribute to the wiki.
H: Speaking of underappreciated artists, why did you choose Wojnarowicz for the first project?
GW: I was looking for an artist whose work presents specific curatorial conservation problems that a database could better sort out. It also happened that Wojnarowicz’s papers are at New York University. There was also a lot of interest in the past few years leading up to the three big exhibitions that opened this summer in New York. Wojnarowicz was an artist whose work has been altered over time since his death. We wanted to address concerns about digitizing his films and pairing his audio tracks to video. We wanted to help future curators and conservators to understand what they can do according to what the artist would have wanted.
H: What do you make of this Wojnarowicz moment? Why do you think that the artist has suddenly become popular with curators, museums, and gallerists over the past three years?
GW: It’s the art historical process. Art from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s is now entering history. A new generation of scholars are combing through the art of prior generations to identify artists who were really important and made contributions that were somehow excluded from art history. As we look back, Wojnarowicz was an amazing and important artist-activist who made an artistic and political contribution. In retrospect, it’s not surprising to see that his star is rising.
H: What other work must be done before the Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base is complete?
GW: Mainly, we would like to include research from the artist’s gallery, PPOW Gallery. It would be wonderful to work within their archives and incorporate that information into the wiki. And there are still a lot of people around who knew Wojnarowicz or worked with him. We’ve interviewed several but there’s a whole lot more out there. There are also artists, collectors, dealers, and friends who know something we don’t. We haven’t been able to get to everything because of our limited timeframe around the project.
H: Is there a way outside scholars can help?
GW: There’s a “How to Contribute” tab on the wiki that describes how researchers who have something to contribute can email the knowledge base manager to get involved. That manager would consider the contribution along with a team of advisors. Then, we get in contact and help edit the contribution or take it further. We’d like to work with someone to get their work up to the quality we need at an institution like NYU.
H: On the website, you note that the wiki is especially looking for further knowledge about Wojnarowicz’s time in places like Paris, México, New Jersey, and New York’s East Village. This sounds like a perfect opportunity for students stationed in those areas.
GW: Absolutely. It’s online publishing, but we would consider working directly with a student who has a project and access to archives. If they want to complete the project for a course, for instance, they could let us know. We would help a student finish their paper and present a finished product. There is a mountain of research needed about Wojnarowicz. As you say, he’s just really being rediscovered now. He’s an artist ripe for an MA thesis, a PhD dissertation, and many books.
H: It sounds like you’re very passionate about Wojnarowicz’s work. What’s your favorite work by the artist?
GW: “One Day This Kid … ” most touches me. It may be less colorful, but it’s really a powerful work. I was born the same year as Wojnarowicz. I started learning more about him through the amazing biography by Cynthia Carr. I really started to identify with him as a gay man born in the same year — having a different life but still living at the same time period. When I discovered that work of art and its text … it just filled me with tears.
H: What is next for the Artist Archive Initiative? The website says that Joan Jonas is next. What should readers anticipate about that project. Will it contain the same wiki media format or are you open to experimenting?
GW: Right now, I can’t disclose exactly what we are doing for Joan Jonas because our computer scientists are still doing the research. I do, however, think it is very likely that we will use the wiki software again because we find it so versatile. Plus, we are now working with a living artist. She’s also a very different kind of artist whose works are performance- or installation-related. For a work like “Organic Honey,” for instance, we have to consider the many different ways Jonas has performed the piece over the years. We are attempting to develop a visualization of that where we can enter and learn about any one of those media-related performances of “Organic Honey.”
This interview had been edited for clarity and length.