Archives are big business these days. Selling large accumulations of cultural artifacts and ephemera has helped many an individual or organization with an acquisitive nature to pay some bills. But even more than selling, the business is in the acquiring. Those who buy up others’ archives are counting on significant paydays, most often by charging for access and to make use of the archives, typically through outsize licensing fees. This makes it all the more surprising just how open Franklin Furnace has consistently been with their archive, as demonstrated most recently by the institute’s new book and online collection, Franklin Furnace: Performance & Politics, co-curated by Martha Wilson and Oraison H. Larmon.
Not only is the book, which covers 40–plus works from across Franklin Furnace’s history, available for free to everyone online, it’s also possible to view documents and videos from each of the works contained within. Ranging from photos and short films created by Martha Wilson in the years just prior to her founding of Franklin Furnace in 1976, to materials from early artist book exhibitions (the original collecting focus of Franklin Furnace), to performance works as recent as 2014, the collection gives a taste of the enormous array of artworks that the organization has supported, presented, and/or collected over the decades.
While many museums are pushing to make more of their collections available to the public through the web, very few museums include moving images or performance works in those online collections. Few museums have significant performance collections to begin with, and even when a museum does have performance works, obtaining the rights required to publicly share documentation of live performance can prove a Sisyphean task, as it typically requires contacting any artists who contributed to the work, as well as the original authors of the works, or their estates. For contemporary work it’s much easier to at least identify all the pieces of the puzzle, as artists are much more savvy today about rights and documentation, but for artists making one-off performances two or three decades ago, things can get complicated quickly. And if fees enter the equation, absurdly high profit expectations can stand in the way of individuals and small organizations ever having a hope of sharing the work with the public. These are some of the reasons why the New York Public Library’s collection of performances on film and video took so much effort to bring into existence and requires some hoop-jumping to access.
In an era when performance works in general are receiving so much less attention in the media due to cutbacks on arts coverage and critics, with theater and dance feeling the biggest brunt (these critics quite often cover performance art in its many forms), and when many performance venues have closed down due to financial and real estate pressures, the ability to access this history can help those interested in the past and those artists determined to continue to make performance art in the future.
The works selected for this collection cover an array of styles and topics. I recommend reading the book online in a single tab, with the chronological list of resources on the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ website (a collaborator on this project) open in another tab so that you can go through everything in the archive as you read. One of my favorite videos in the collection isn’t a work of art, per se, but rather a recording of an interview between Martha Wilson and the unnamed host of a Queens College television program. In the video, Wilson explains to the curious host what an artist book is, and then, in a way that evokes the old trope of bringing wild and unusual animals onto late night television, Wilson and Matthew Hogan (then Franklin Furnace’s archivist) show selected artists books to the host. Everything about it is excellent, from the accessible discussion, to the performative format and Wilson’s embrace of it, to the nostalgic aesthetic of the show.
Apart from the individual documents and videos themselves, Wilson’s choice to make so much of the archive accessible reads as a political gesture at a time when ever more of our public culture has been enclosed by those wishing to profit off of it, whether it be Facebook and Instagram capitalizing on the emotive and social content that so many of us post on their platforms, or the photographic record of our culture being hoovered up by Getty Images. It should be noted that Wilson did make the choice in the early 1990s to sell Franklin Furnace’ artist book collection to the Museum of Modern Art. The primary reason for the sale was the relentless series of attacks by the local and federal government on Franklin Furnace in the midst of the Culture Wars of the 1980s and ’90s, which eventually resulted in the space being shut down. In order to remain solvent after the loss of their physical space, Wilson had to get creative and make some difficult choices. You can read a bit about the sale from Wilson’s perspective here. But ultimately, Franklin Furnace retains its open collection policy for artist books, along with physical copies of many of its books.
While they can be incredibly difficult to maintain, independent archives, particularly those that catalogue less-discussed cultural forms and/or material associated with marginalized groups, serve a crucial role in telling stories that are otherwise easily erased or overlooked. By championing work in two perennially overlooked forms, artists books and performance art, often by artists who themselves are overlooked, Wilson’s archive is a repository of what doesn’t easily fit. It sheds light on how totalizing and dismissive larger narratives and assignments of value around art can be. It’s wonderful to see that she’s continuing to build partnerships and collaborations that will help ensure that Franklin Furnace’s archive continues to be viewed.
Franklin Furnace: Performance & Politics, written Oraison H. Larmon and co-curated by Martha Wilson and Oraison H. Larmon, can be found online, and the accompanying digital archive can be found on the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ website.