Let’s go into the archives.
It’s strange and unsettling. It’s tedious and overwhelming. It’s exhilarating and humbling.
Archives are complex because they collect and preserve rare objects and ephemera. The everyday becomes historically significant in the archives, and in such a volume it overwhelms any sensible, linear narrative of past events. And more often than not, small things spark feelings of nostalgia. Like @aol.com email addresses or an urgent fax from 1999 or a handwritten thank-you note.
The archives are filled with endless and endlessly inflected meanings. Source Material: Glenn Ligon at the Walker, a new installation in the Best Buy Aperture, is an effort to recover and articulate a moment in the Walker’s history that passed with brief celebration. It digs into a community-focused project that deserves a closer look.
Organizing an Artist Residency
Glenn Ligon is a renowned conceptual artist who emerged in the early 1990s. He is well known for paintings in which he stencils poignant excerpts from African American literature in black letters against white backgrounds. In these text paintings, Ligon tests the fragility of language and limits of signs, a cerebral tone and aesthetic that dominated the artist’s work for nearly a decade.
In February 1999, Ligon visited Minnesota to deliver a lecture at Carleton College, and during his stay he met with the Walker to discuss a potential artist residency. Supported by funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, curators Joan Rothfuss and Olukemi Ilesanmi began laying out the details of Ligon’s residency. This essay focuses on one of the three projects Ligon undertook during his time in Minneapolis: a youth-specific collaboration with Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC).
Over the course of several weeks in fall 1999, Ligon met with WACTAC, a youth-led group founded in 1994 as a radical way to “create access for teens, to give voice to teens, and to provide creative opportunities for teens.” The artist guided 11 students through an intensive exploration of the idea of music sampling in contemporary art.
He assigned readings, lectured, and facilitated close looking in the galleries, and in the final part of their collaboration, the teens made artworks that “sampled” the Walker’s permanent collection. From April to September 2000, WACTAC displayed their work in the Andersen Window Gallery, a now inactive gallery space that encouraged visitors to interact with contemporary art and culture. The artist-youth collaboration accomplished a significant task: bringing a distinguished conceptual artist into the space of young people in the Twin Cities, with lasting impact on everyone’s development.
It is notoriously difficult to document and exhibit the results of participatory work. People-centered residencies create the most impact through intangibles—personal interaction, group dialogue, collective inspiration, internal transformation… These unseen, interior experiences are most compelling to the person who feels changed. But how does one translate that meaning outside the individual? WACTAC decided that a documentary would best demonstrate the breadth and depth of their interaction with Ligon: they filmed their meetings with the artist, took notes and asked a lot of questions. After the residency ended, the raw footage and documentation from their experience went to the archives, where they remained untouched for several years.
Reconstructing the Syllabus
This wealth of documentation allows us to recreate the artist’s interaction with the teens. The WACTAC students met with Ilesanmi first, the assistant curator who worked closely with Ligon during his residency (today she is executive director of the New York City–based nonprofit, The Laundromat Project). Using a slide projector, Ilesanmi gave a short and detailed lecture about Ligon and his work.
For their next session, the students read articles on the topic of music sampling:
“Digital Psychedelia: Sampling and the Soundscape,” from Simon Reynolds’s Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (Little Brown & Co, 1998)
“Warhol: The Herald of Sampling,” Tony Scherman, The New York Times, November 7, 1999.
Ligon arrived in Minneapolis and met WACTAC. During their first meeting together, the artist led a discussion about the parallels between sampling in the music industry and the practice of sampling in the arts.
The artist and students toured the galleries together, looking closely at and discussing works that resonated with the artist and students.
After grounding the class in the concept of sampling, Ligon guided the students through the process of making their own works of art. WACTAC participants wrote labels for their works, filled out forms officially loaning their works to the Walker, then prepared to have their art mounted in the Andersen Window Gallery. The WACTAC works were installed alongside Ligon’s selection of books from the University of Minnesota’s Givens Collection of African American Literature.
This wealth of raw material met another challenge: in the early 2000s, the Walker facilitated a number of intensive community projects with a number of renowned artists. Nari Ward, Julie Mehretu, Spencer Nasako, and Bill T. Jones are just a selection of artists the Walker hosted between 1999 and 2001. The resulting documentation overwhelmed the artists, curators, and archives.
In 2006, the Walker attempted to cull materials from these influential residencies in Open-Ended (the art of engagement), an exhibition that presented objects from past residencies, facilitated new artist engagements, and collected years of work on a residency-focused website. This ambitious project brought Ligon’s residency to life through online media. As mentioned before, it is difficult to summarize a project that focuses on individual impact and outcomes—especially in short descriptions on the internet…
So, knowing all these shortcomings, why bring up Ligon’s residency again? The purpose is to bend back.
The archives are active and flexible—bending, uncovering, and retrieving. They “remember,” seeing the past through a present lens, offering new information, teaching a lesson in empathy.
Source Material: Glenn Ligon at the Walker takes a journey that will always be incomplete. We could show every email, picture, object, video and still fail to capture the rippling impact of Ligon’s residency. This archival presentation honors what we cannot see or know or understand alongside the tangible material of our memories and the past.