Monday, August 13, 2012

Boxed Up:
Time Capsules, Archives and High Performance

A recent story from Tulsa, Oklahoma, reported on a “ruined” time capsule built in 1957. The capsule was opened this year during Oklahoma’s Centennial celebrations, but it had leaked and the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere inside had been pickled for the past 50 years in four feet of standing water. While the Tulsa capsule was undone by the ravages of time—precisely what it was constructed to keep out—there is one interesting footnote to this spectacular failure. Interred in the capsule were the results of a competition to see who could get the closest to guessing the town’s new population when the capsule was to be opened in 2007. No winner has yet been announced but they (or their descendents”) win the car and a savings account worth $1,000, which all goes to show that the past is always present and it can come back anytime to bite you.

From time capsules to archives is an easy transition—both contain a body of records/documents “pertaining to an organization or institution.”1 One important difference between the time capsule and the archive is that the time capsule attempts to, “store for posterity a selection of objects thought to be representative of life at a particular time.”2 Archives are less picky, and it is well understood that their real significance might not be fully appreciated until some time in the future.

Archive appears to be a flexible term, one that can be used to describe the physical place or locale of the collected material, as well as a conceptual frame that sifts artifacts and intellectual information. Indeed, the archive, time capsule, and magazine are not that different. All sift and sort information, arrange it into a predetermined format, and all have a complicated relationship to the present. The magazine records the now for immediate consumption, the time capsule preserves the now of then for the then of now, and the archive preserves everything for later. All are united in their capacity to store things, to bring stuff together from different pasts and for different futures, and all converge at the collection point of the archive.

Patricia Kelly, a contemporary art historian at DePaul University in Chicago, in an abstract for a chapter in a book about artists’ periodicals, writes about Phyllis Johnson’s Aspen magazine (which published ten issues between 1965 and 1971) and how each issue of the periodical with its mixed media contributions gathered inside a box served as “as a veritable time capsule, providing insight into a fraught historical period.…”3 Indeed, there are two issues of Aspen that do have unique combinations of objects that have come to be viewed as representative of specific cultural and historical moments: the “Pop Art Issue” designed by Andy Warhol and David Dalton (#3, 1966) and “The Minimal Issue” edited by Brian O’Doherty (#5/6, 1967). Here we have a magazine that illustrates one aspect of its etymological definition as a “storehouse”4 while simultaneously functioning as a unique time capsule. Additionally, from the historian’s point of view, the opening of the time capsule offers a tantalizingly ephemeral whiff of the past.

High Performance, Vol. 2, #4, Winter 1979-80
Warhol, as it would later turn out, had a much deeper and long-lasting association with archives. In the middle 1970s, ten years after Aspen’sPop Art Issue,” he began to keep a cardboard box next to his desk into which he would regularly sweep a Wunderkammer of printed matter. At the time of his death in 1987, six hundred and twelve of these dated and sealed boxes were discovered in storage. Warhol was evidently ambivalent about these “time capsules,” as he called them, saying, “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 that they can be used again.”5

In a 1978 diary entry, Warhol considered another strategy: “I really ought to auction off my time capsule boxes … but I would try to make every box a little interesting. I’d throw in one of my dresses, an old shirt, a pair of underwear—something great in each one.”6 Here, Warhol sets in opposition two different ideas about the archive: that somehow they are neutral and that their accumulation of material happens organically versus an archive whose significance and value has been artificially enhanced. Either way, the traditionally coy image of the archive is sexed up by a contemporary gesture.

The archive and the time capsule come together in a unique convergence in an artists’ periodical dedicated to documenting the history of performance art. Appropriately titled High Performance, it was launched by Linda Frye Burnham in 1978 and continued publishing quarterly until 1997. High Performance’s mission was to document and publicize the emerging history of this ephemeral and time-based art, with Burnham insisting that the magazine would be “nothing more than a chronicle of events,” and it would function like a “white box” for the publication of performance documentation: “…a kind of frame for each piece … [as if it were] … hanging in a gallery.”7

High Performance’s documentary publishing model found its fullest expression during its first couple of years in a section called “Artist’s Chronicle” that featured photographic documentation and texts submitted by artists of their performances. Each issue also sought submissions of performance documentation of works performed within a specific time period for consideration for the next issue. The magazine was filled out by this key documentary function and each new “Artist’s Chronicle” now reads like a performance art time capsule.

High Performance, Vol. 1, #3, September 1978
In 1980, two years after High Performance started publishing, Burnham wrote an editorial that proposed discontinuing the “Artist’s Chronicle” section. She claimed that this feature had outlived its usefulness, that taking up 50% of each of the first eleven issues, the format was getting repetitious and that people were even creating performances just to get in the magazine. 8  In the next issue, she acknowledged the uproar this proposal provoked from both readers and performance artists and the “Artist’s Chronicle” was re-instated as an annual feature, freeing up the remaining three issues to experiment with new formats and coverage. As performance art matured, as it crossed disciplinary boundaries, and as a critical and theoretical dialogue was established, High Performance developed a more nuanced approach to what it documented and reported of this newly emerging multidisciplinary art form.

Despite these changes, there is one feature that did not change throughout High Performance’s life, and that was the importance & power of photography to document the beginnings of a new medium. Unlike the Tulsa time capsule, High Performance’s past has not come back to bite it, indeed the magazine's role has only expanded over time, and the results of its documentary mission have been transformed during the intervening years into a primary historical record of a late 20th century ephemeral art form.

High Performance succinctly illustrates the other side of photography's documentary function, and that is the archival role that photographs perform. In recognition of this the Getty Museum in 2005, accepted the donation of the High Performance archives into its institution.9  Thus, this archive, turned time capsule for the years 1978-1997, now sits boxed up in a climate controlled environment deep in the heart of an institution devoted to the acquisition & preservation of works of historical value. The larger symbolic trajectory contained within this 27 year time-period is the movement of this avant-garde artform from the periphery of the art world to its embrace by one of the country's key cultural and research institutions.10

Stephen Perkins 2007

1. The American Heritage Dictionary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2nd edition, 1985).
2. From “What is a Time Capsule?” The International Time Capsule Society: www.oglethorpe,edu/about_us.
3. Patricia Kelly, “Aspen Magazine, Outside of the Box” (abstract), 2007.
4. The American Heritage Dictionary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2nd edition, 1985).
5. The Andy Warhol Museum, Andy Warhol’s Time Capsule 21 (Cologne, Germany: DuMont, 2003), 14. I would argue that despite Warhol’s description of these boxes as “time capsules”, these heterogeneous and indiscriminate collections of printed matter, fall more properly within a definition of “archive” than “time capsule.” A time capsule indicates a much more rigorous procedure for selecting objects to be contained within the capsule. My understanding of Warhol’s criteria for inclusion in a box was that there wasn’t one.
6. Ibid., 8.
7. High Performance, No. 3 (1978), Editorial, 1
8. High Performance, No. 11/12 (1980), Editorial, 166.
9. Phone conversation with Lynda Frye Burnham, July 26, 2007.
10. This text originally appeared in Afterimage, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2007, under the title "Boxed Up: Time Capsules, Archives, and Magazines." This special issue was guest edited by David Brittain around the theme of "Photography and the Archive."