design

Upcycling Archives

When I was 17 I walked into the art room at school one day to find a rubbish bag full of old black and white prints sat on my desk. My teacher had salvaged it from a skip on the side of a residential street full of the belongings of a man who had recently passed away. ‘See what you can do with them,’ she suggested. She was unable to give any context to them and so, elbows deep in prints, I began to familiarise myself with this abandoned archive. Eager to see what was inside, I took no interest in trying to organise them into any sort of order. I dug prints out at random and threw them back in again. Despite this, a pattern emerged and my hands began bringing up the same picture of an old man or of a church steeple. Their maker had printed the same negatives over and over again, unhappy with his previous efforts that had produced blurred crop lines and over exposed areas. He had been determined to get it just right.

There wasn’t anything particularly special about the photographs, nor did I have any context to them which might have made them more interesting. However, I was not a natural painter and I didn’t have a lot of talent for drawing, so I was glad to have been given this base material from which to work. Gathering inspiration from artists using ‘found’ photographs like John Stezaker, I used every last print to experiment with techniques I would end up using for the next two years. Having multiple copies of the same photo gave me the opportunity to test out ideas and perfect them if they didn’t work out. I cut into them and out of them, turning previously inoffensive images into confusing and distorted versions of themselves. I sewed into them like the artist Maurizio Anzeri, and in one example, I pierced through prints and used lights and mirrors to create new images.

All of these experiments resulted in a huge body of work produced during my late teens. Developing from my work with the found prints, I began to apply the analogue techniques I’d used to alter my own photographs. I bleached, scratched, and layered my images with paint, tape, newspaper, and old photographs I bought in markets. After physically changing the prints, I would scan them and continue to work on them in Photoshop, manipulating them digitally in various ways. Nothing was left in its original form and every version of each photo I took had the potential to turn into something far beyond its starting point. I eventually abandoned this style of work when I began university. Years later however, I have found myself unexpectedly returning to it. This time I’m using found photographs of a different nature.

Photographic prints layered with paint, bleach and glitter and then digitally manipulated on Photoshop

Working in museums and libraries on digitisation projects has exposed me to a wide variety of online collections. Their potential for artistic use has always been immediate to me. Although the process of ‘finding’ them is less exciting than its physical counterpart, the huge amount of material available at any given time provides a much higher probability of finding something inspiring. Online collections working with relaxed copyright laws or Creative Commons licenses allows for this potential to flourish by providing clear guidelines on how individuals can use them. Digitisation simultaneously preserves and allows for freedom and creativity. With the option to print out or download the images I source, the opportunity is now there for me to experiment as I did with the bag of prints.

The work I’ve found myself producing now is not the same as it was when I was a teenager. I haven’t scratched or bleached anything (yet) and the work is much simpler. With an increasing interest in protest art, I have been working with juxtaposition. As a result, I have begun producing work in the form of zines. Typically self-published and using appropriated texts and images, they have proven to be a perfect way to work with online collections.

The images below are examples from some of the zines I have created. I have used various online collections to produce this work including the Qatar Digital Library and the Flickr account of the National Archives. This work shows the creative possibilities when using archives as source material. However, more needs to be done to encourage this kind of work. I’ve heard multiple times in different meetings and across different institutions, the desire for online collections to be used creatively. However, any real action to engage artists is small and does not reflect the vast size and accessibility that digitisation provides.

One important aspect is making the interface of collections online more accessible for those with something more creative in mind. The Flickr accounts of archives and libraries, including the National Archives and the British Library, are the easiest to use for this kind of work. The focus is on the visual with a simple tile layout of hundreds of images on each page. Once you click on an individual image it’s easy to see the copyright status. Of course, this interface doesn’t suit everything on these accounts. Any digitised documents often get lost in the stream and it would obviously fail to impress academics or researchers if archives were presented in this way. However, it does suggest the importance of making an ‘image only’ viewing option available. In addition, funded off-site residencies, teaching resources for art teachers and documenting and publicising creative uses of online collections through blog posts and social media platforms are all examples of how to better engage the creative community.

Links to online collections:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_archives_of_estonia

https://www.flickr.com/photos/statensarkiver/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/national_archives_of_norway/

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!?showOnly=openAccess&offset=220&pageSize=0&sortOrder=asc&perPage=20&searchField=All

https://www.loc.gov/free-to-use/

https://collections.lacma.org/search/site?page=23&f%5B0%5D=bm_field_has_unrestricted_image%3Atrue

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasacommons/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/graduateinstitute_library/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cabhc/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives

https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/

Guide to Creative Commons Licenses

https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/licensing-examples/

Meaning in a Matchbox

In January 2007 I moved from the UK to India to teach in the department of Visual Communication at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru. Walking through the city I came across matchboxes almost everywhere I went. At a cost of one rupee, these economical and disposable matchboxes are often found empty and discarded on the roadside near truck stops and littering the footpaths around chai stalls and cigarette shops. Purchased from convenience stores, these ubiquitous objects are commonly used in homes to light stoves, the pious havan or diyas for religious rituals and lighting cigarettes or their cheaper counterparts, the beedis.

One of the first matchboxes I came across in Bengaluru featured an illustration of a killer whale with the word ‘Dolphin’ written above it. Another early find had a photograph of three ‘Famous’ kittens in a wicker basket. Later I came across a matchbox titled ‘Jamesbond’ with an illustration of a German Shepard. Coming from a background in visual communication and editorial illustration, where the clear communication of messages was central to my practice, I enjoyed the seemingly random relationships between text and image present on so many of these labels. Over time I collected a variety of matchboxes from across India and as the collection grew commonalities between designs began to emerge, with characteristics that include the duplication and mirroring of iconography, incongruous juxtapositions between text and image, thematic variations, textual iterations and copy-cat imitations of popular labels.

No.6, Yelahanka, Bengaluru, 2007

No.44, KB Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, September 2008

No.698, Defence Colony, Indiranagar, Bengaluru, July 2015

No.737, Brigade Road, Bengaluru, December 2016

For me, collecting and categorising these small visual-tactile objects was one way of making sense of my surroundings and the local visual culture that I found myself engaging with. The imagery on these boxes include Hindu symbolism, historical figures, Bollywood actors, foreign brands and cartoon characters, everyday objects, consumer goods, aspirational items, and a variety of popular and exotic animals. The disparate visuals, meanings and juxtapositions that are present through the collection encapsulate quite perfectly the heterogeneous and hybrid visual culture seen in many parts of India today. As cultural artefacts these matchboxes tell us about national identity, modernity and tradition, gender roles, religion and globalisation and how these themes often merge and co-exist.

Phillumeny, the practice of collecting matchbox labels requires commitment and discipline. The routine process involves photographing each design, maintaining a physical and digital archive along with a record of the date and location of where each matchbox was found or purchased. In the essay ’The System of Collecting’, Jean Baudrillard wrote that “it is invariably oneself that one collects” (1994, p. 12) and as visual signifiers, many of these designs embody personal memories. Collectively the visible scars of the battered boxes tell a story, mapping the places I have been to and the experiences I have had… an early morning trek through Periyar National Park with my father and brother, a 48-hour train journey to Varanasi with my students, cycling and sunburn in Hampi and many conversations with friends and colleagues in Bengaluru.

No.707, Kruti Saraiya, September 2015

No.160, Yelahanka New Town, Bengaluru, 2009

No.44, KB Jacob Road, Fort Kochi, September 2008

While the visual and material qualities of these matchboxes vary between regions, a large number of them are printed in Sivakasi, a town in Tamil Nadu known for producing fireworks. In the ten years that I lived in India my collection grew to over 750 matchboxes. What has kept me going is that new labels are produced all the time and across such a vast country, as India is, I could only ever have a fraction of the designs available. The collection can never possibly be complete and so each new addition does not offer a resolution, but instead adds to the continuing story. It is the notion of absence which is essential to the act of collecting. Baudrillard wrote, “the collection is never really initiated in order to be completed… the missing item in the collection is in fact an indispensable and positive part of the whole, in so far as this lack is the basis of the subject” (1994, p. 13).

In 2018 my interest in collections led me to the British Library, where I work as a digital imaging technician on the Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme alongside a team of photographers, archivists, content specialists, translators and conservators. The skills I have developed in this role can be applied to my own digital archives. This includes photographing the matchbox collection to higher imaging standards and with due consideration towards image size, resolution, consistent lighting and accurate colour. A lot of visual, textual and material information is currently missing from my digital matchbox archive, including the reverse sides of the boxes, which include details about the price, manufacturer and place of production as well as the phosphorus striker strips on the sides that display a variety of patterns. At the British Library we photograph the front, back, spine, edge, head and tail of each book, similarly, capturing the matchboxes from all six sides will provide information about the physical condition of each item.

In my role at the British Library I have been introduced to principles for conserving, archiving, managing and curating collections and this engagement has provided me with ideas for developing the Indian matchbox project. While the metadata of my archive includes numbering and information of where and when each matchbox was found, this can be expanded to include details of the manufacturer, place of production, label description, box measurements, material and cost. I began digitising Indian matchboxes over ten years ago, with the simple aim of sharing the range of unique designs online via my personal website. My long-term aim is to create a dedicated website for the collection, with high-quality images that are searchable and categorised sequentially and thematically. This may provide contextual information on the design, cultural, historical, social and economic aspects of Indian matchboxes along with personal stories about notable items. All of this shows that while I no longer live in Bengaluru, this project is far from complete and my journey through the collection has a long way to travel.

This Indian matchbox project is about drawing meaning from a personal collection of cultural designs that are individually unique and collectively identifiable. The full collection of ‘Matchboxes for the Subcontinent’ can be viewed on my website.

No.533, Doddaballapur Road, Yelahanka, Bengaluru, April 2012

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J. (1994). The System of Collecting.

Copyright

Images property of © Matt Lee

 

“Central to our mission is the encouragement of a deeper understanding of Melbourne’s modern design history”: Interview with RMIT Design Archives

The RMIT Design Archives is based at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia. Its collection focuses on post-war Melbourne architecture and design and represents multiple design disciplines—providing a valuable resource to support design research and practice.

Archivoz’s Evanthia Samaras met with the RMIT Design Archives team to learn about their approaches to managing and promoting their unique archive collection.

(Archivoz) To start, can you please describe your roles at the RMIT Design Archives (RDA)?

Harriet Edquist – Director
I’m responsible for the strategic direction of the RDA, collection acquisition and research.

Ann Carew – Curatorial Officer
I assist with the interpretation, development, documentation and promotion of the RDA collections, and I develop public outcomes, such as public programs, and contribute to fundraising initiatives.

Simone Rule – Archives Officer
I’m responsible for ensuring access to the collection both physically and digitally through research requests and digitisation projects and I also manage the RDA’s website.

Rickie-lee Robbie – Collections Coordinator
I manage the RDA’s physical collections, develop procedures and data standards and I administer the RDA’s Collection Management System.

(Archivoz) Can you please describe what makes the RDA different to other archives?

The RDA is unique in both the scope of our collections and our physical setting—a purpose designed and award-winning building. Design archives and museums world-wide are generally of three kinds—they focus on the built environment (architecture and landscape architecture), on product design (industrial design and graphic design) or on fashion and textiles. Occasionally the last two are combined, almost never all three. Since 2007, the RDA has collected across all three spheres, reflecting the inclusive culture of design thinking at RMIT University.

(Archivoz) Who uses the RMIT Design Archives Collection?

Our collection is available to scholars and students, the public, researchers and industry.

Students from RMIT University and the Melbourne School of Design visit us to access collection materials as part of their coursework. Our model for student engagement is practice-based research. Over the last year, for example, students enrolled in Masters’ programs related to communication design, architecture, interior design and industrial design utilised our collections and attended tutorials in the RDA. As a result, students have leveraged our collection to develop design proposals, products and contribute to their research and studies at university and further afield.

Left: Educator Lorna Hanna with students from the Masters of Communication Design Program at the RDA. Right: Director Harriet Edquist in the repository © RMIT Design Archives.

Also, central to our mission is the encouragement of a deeper understanding of Melbourne’s modern design history and its agency in design practice today. To this end we host public audience design seminars, talks and exhibitions. Plus, each year we open our doors for the public for events such as Open House Melbourne, Rare Books Week and Melbourne Design Week.

Mimmo Cozzolino – Australian culture and graphic design, Melbourne Rare Books Week event at the RDA, 2019. Photography by Vicki Jones Photography © RMIT Design Archives.

(Archivoz) How do you generally acquire collection material?

We acquire collections through direct donation and through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program.

(Archivoz) How do you go about promoting your collection?

Our goal with promoting the RDA is ensuring that we’re a visible presence in the Australian design and art community, and within the RMIT student and staff community.

We promote our collections and programs internally at RMIT University through Yammer, WorkLife (the employee online newsletter) and we conduct tours and information sessions for new RMIT staff. We also collaborate with other collections and archives of the university.

We also participate in external promotion by attending conferences, talks, seminars and exhibitions, and we coordinate our own events such as journal launches, collection viewings and workshops.

Our collection is also available for loan to other museums and galleries for special projects, industry or cultural events. For example, the collection is currently featured in the Cabinets of Curiosities (The Capitol 2019) and the Melbourne Modern: European Art and Design at RMIT since 1945 (RMIT Gallery 2019).

Melbourne Modern: European art and design at RMIT since 1945 curated by Harriet Edquist and Jane Eckett. Photography by: Stephanie Bradford, Melbourne Modern © RMIT Gallery.

(Archivoz) Can you please outline any particular research projects you are working on?

Recently we’ve been involved in projects that highlight our strong holdings in the work of émigré architects and designers. Outcomes of this research include the book Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond (Miegunyah Press 2019) and the exhibition and book Melbourne Modern (RMIT Gallery 2019).

We’re also collaborating with the School of Design and the Melbourne design studio Public Office on a research project around digital archives.

Ongoing is the research associated with our biannual peer-reviewed journal, the RMIT Design Archives Journal, which publishes research from local, interstate and international scholars. The next issue is going to celebrate the centenary of Australian architect Robin Boyd (1919-1971).

(Archivoz) Regarding collection management and preservation, are there any specific challenges that these collections bring as opposed to more traditional paper records-based archives?

Collecting across a number of design disciplines means that there is a huge variety of object types within the collection. As well as paper records we also hold textiles, garments, photographs, drawings, plans, printed ephemera, architectural models and more!

Each object type can have different needs in terms of storage and preservation which can be challenging when housing the archives and also when we are arranging each archive. The collection is quite hybrid and in some ways is managed more like a museum collection than a traditional archive.

Another challenge which comes with the variety, is maintaining consistency in our descriptive lists and in the data standards we use for cataloguing at an object level. When cataloguing single items, we have a minimum field set which ensures that the most important information is being captured, which tends to work across the disciplines.

(Archivoz) Can you describe any stand-out collections or items that you have encountered in the archive?

In each discipline there are stand-out collections and we all have our favourites. The collection is strong in architecture (Edmond & Corrigan, Graeme Gunn); graphic design (David Lancashire; All Australian Graffiti; Alex Stitt; Bruce Weatherhead), fashion (Prue Acton; Thorn & Slorach) and product design (Ian Edgar, Robert Pataki, Centre for Design).

It is possibly unique in Australia due to the focus on automotive design (Philip Zmood) and inclusion of design education material (Gerard Herbst, Victor Vodicka).

Acknowledgement

Thank you, Harriet, Ann, Simone and Rickie-Lee of the RMIT Design Archives for sharing such great insights, information and images with Archivoz and our readers.

For more information about the RMIT Design Archives, please visit their website and follow them on Instagram @rmitdesignarchives.