Personal art archives: why, what for and to what end

CYLAND Audio Archive
CYLAND Audio Archive

by Anastasia Nagornova, School of Advanced Studies (SAS), University of Tyumen

In the frameworks of the CYLAND Intern Program

Nowadays, it is hard to define clearly what a contemporary art museum or archive is. Their function has changed: museums not only preserve masterpieces of art, but also ephemera (booklets, postcards, leaflets, etc.) which have no particular value; artwork archives are no longer interested in physical objects of art, but rather creative concepts and ideas, personal documents and interviews. In our age of digital and media art, even an artist is not exclusively an artist who delivers artworks to the art market, but also a keeper of his or her own works. In fact, he or she performs the tasks that a museum was supposed to perform – to gather, preserve, and exhibit artistic objects. 

One might say that self-archiving is not a fundamentally new practice, since authors always have been interested in preserving their work (just think about self-publishing or samizdat in Russia!). However, self-archiving is taking on new forms today, which not only involves gathering and keeping, but also making extensive use of cultural items and working closely with more prominent and authoritative organizations, which was not the case before. 

One of the main reasons for the development of self-archiving is that traditional museums and archives are not sure how to work with new types of art and materials anymore: how can an artwork be preserved without transforming its meaning, but at the same time keep it innovative and relevant to the audience? Is it possible to reconstruct and represent the artwork and not destroy the concept of authorship itself? Personal archives minimize these problems, but if so, who is an artist or, more broadly, an author today? What are the relationships between a museum and an author? What role do personal archives play for a media artist? To answer these questions, I will examine and discuss three personal artwork archives: the John Latham Archive, Irina Aktuganova and Sergey Busov Archive, and Gubanova&Govorkov Archive. They differ by the principles of collecting and archiving cultural items. The John Latham Archive is an example of creative archiving. It does not contain artworks, but mainly documents related to Latham’s work and personal life. The Irina Aktuganova and Sergey Busov Archive collects various documentation that could be useful for scientific purposes: journal articles, event posters, leaflets, and so on. In this sense, this is a classical archive. Finally, the Gubanova&Govorkov Archive includes both artworks and their critical conceptualization, without paying much attention to additional materials. But before discussing these archives, let’s consider what value self-archiving has for both the author and society.

The benefits of self-archiving

The simplest and most obvious value of a personal archive is that it keeps artworks safe. Of course, it is possible to use social media, websites, or hard and external drives; but because they are constantly updated and often crash, they are not a reliable tool. Personal archives are more secure, and data can quickly be recovered. 

Katie Carey’s experience is quite illustrative here: she had a long process of recovering her works from a hard drive which “got immediately fried” when she “plugged it into an outlet of an old Victorian house while on vacation.” She says, “I always assumed that I would be making work indefinitely and would be capable of making similar work if I wanted to recreate an unphotographed work. It’s all too easy to assume that the gallery sites that host photographs of installations of my work would still be around if sometime down the line I wanted to use them for my own portfolio. Instagram and other social media platforms give you a false sense of security that they will always be there to pull images from in the future. With my website on auto-pilot, I fell into a comfortable naivety that the internet is a permanent place of archival information. However, that’s far from the truth.”[1]

Since personal archives include the author’s materials such as opinions, views, commentaries on work and daily life, etc., they establish direct and intimate interaction between the author and the audience, which allows the proper organization of the archive without any misunderstandings about the content. Thanks to these archives, the whole personality of the artist is revealed, so that his or her works can be more objectively presented and interpreted. 

In this sense, Catherine Hobbs argues, “Personal archives reflect not only what a person does or thinks, but who they are, how they envision and experience their lives.”[2]

Finally, personal archives have historical and cultural value: they can tell us something important not only about the artist and his or her circle, but the record-keeping system itself, art and cultural studies, and the history of the museum and gallery.

Challenges and difficulties

Of course, working with personal archives has its own difficulties, too. First of all, there is the problem of searching for resources. This may concern both financial budget and technical supply, things that authors do not need to worry about if they work with corporate or governmental (generally formalized) archiving organizations. So, in this sense, authors’ possibilities are limited. Second of all, if we look at personal archives from the museum’s perspective, it becomes clear that this collaboration implies a lot of paperwork. The goal is to get the copyright from the artist (or, if this is not possible, from his or her descendants) and other persons if this archive includes their documents, make a contract and a special document, conceptually describing how to preserve and exhibit artworks and materials. Additionally, working with individuals can be much harder than with organized institutions, because personal communication is always accompanied by a particular level of subjectivity.

Examples of personal archives: methods and principles

Personal art archives can be much more artistic and creative. Thanks to their much smaller size, they are more manageable in terms of usage and financial support, so that they give an artist a particular level of freedom allowing experimentation and pure, non-biased artistic expression. For instance, the John Latham Archive is a perfect example which challenges common understanding: it positions itself as an “event.” John Latham is a British conceptual artist who worked with paint, sculpture, installation, performance, films, etc. In his archive, you can look through Latham’s personal notes, letters, drafts, messages, and sketches. When the visitors start exploring the archive, they are provided with three links (AA, MA, IA) or three approaches of viewing the documents. To use the AA method, you must rely on intuition: it is based on Latham’s Time-Base classification system that gives each document special signatures, expressed using sounds. It requires carefully learning the system to play the game and retrieve the documents. MA shows the material randomly: it works as a slideshow emphasizing the visual aspect of the archive and relies on the visitor’s first impression and potential response. Finally, IA is a much more structured way of searching the archive, as it allows the usage of keywords, indexes, formats, decades, etc. All these ways of entering the archive are not accidental – they correspond to Latham’s favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, and represent the characters of each brother, that is Alyosha, Mitya, and Ivan. Alyosha (AA), the youngest son, is charismatic and sensitive; Mitya (MA), the eldest brother, is impulsive and passionate; Ivan (IA) is thoughtful and organized. By choosing one of these approaches, the visitor is involved in a more engaged and convenient form of exploration, thus establishing close relations with the author himself. As Athanasios Velios says, “the website itself introduces the visitor to John Latham’s ideas before any content has been examined” because “it is tailored around the artist, not around an archiving tool.”[3]

An interesting example of a personal archive is the Irina Aktuganova and Sergey Busov Archive. Irina Aktuganova is a Russian art historian and designer, a curator in the field of technology art, art & science, and science museum design. Together with Sergey Busov, physicist and director of the St. Petersburg Techno-Art Center, she created an interdisciplinary archive that includes various materials documenting photo and video records of particular events, projects, and artworks, catalogs, periodicals, reports, and so on. The archive features items of Gallery 21, Cyber-Femin-Club, Gallery of Experimental Sound GEZ (GEZ-21), and Philosophical Café and Agency 21 art galleries and organizations.

This archive is important because it reveals the usefulness of personal archives for researchers. For instance, a scholar interested in gender studies will find lots of materials here about contemporary feminist movements in Russia, related conferences and events, cyberfeminism, etc.

A special feature of the Gubanova&Govorkov Archive is that it has a detailed description of the artworks. Elena Gubanova and Ivan Govorkov are artists who work with painting, sculpture, and videoart. They have been collaborating and exhibiting together since 1990. In their archive, the visitor can find photo and video records of various installations, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other materials related to their art. These items are often conceptualized, which means one can look at both the artwork itself and information concerning the history of the artwork, what inspired its creation and how it was made, its current state and location, and its larger meaning. For example, the 7th Floor, Walk-Up installation is accompanied by the following text: “A staircase is a functional item, providing vertical connections. It is often used as a symbol, emphasizing the importance of climbing, and as part of a religious ritual. In this installation, the artist depicts a ‘box’ with projections of staircases going indefinitely up and coming down. They are reflected in the mirrors of the ceiling and the floor, so the movements on them change their direction. The audience appears to be in perpetual motion, remaining still just for a few moments. This is important for the artists, as a person can experience a moment of quiescence in the process, which could be a gateway from the boredom of the known and the mundane.” This is a very clever strategy: usually if you want to find conceptual or critical information about an artwork, you have to search for it in websites or scientific databases. Larger record-keeping platforms cannot be so thorough and keep every piece of information about a particular artwork, as there is too much of it. This also makes it possible to avoid overinterpretation, which is often the case with artistic objects.

Why We Need Personal Archives

As I have tried to show, the role of the author is to be both a creator and a preserver of art. Personal archives are great ways to do this. They are reliable, and may be quite artistic and unique, saying more about the artworks and the author’s ideology and views. Personal archives will help museums and galleries adapt to the new conditions of digital and media art and develop a new shift in the record-keeping system. In conclusion, I would like to say that in writing this essay I had definite intentions. Even though self-archiving is becoming a widespread practice, it is still not all that popular. I believe that artists should create their own personal archives and care about their heritage themselves before museums take an interest them. In this way, even the most complex artworks can be fully saved and preserved.

[1] Katie, Carey, “How to Build a Digital Archive of Your Artwork,” Artwork Archive, accessed December 24, 2020,

[2] Hobbs, Catherine, “The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals,” Archivaria 52 (February 2001): 128.

[3] Velios, Athanasios, «The John Latham Archive: An Online Implementation Using Drupal». Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 30, no. 2 (2011): 12-13.


Katie, Carey. «How to Build a Digital Archive of Your Artwork». Artwork Archive, accessed December 24, 2020,

Dušan Barok, Julie B. Thorez, Annet Dekker, David Gauthier, Claudia Roeck. «Archiving Complex Digital Artworks». Journal of the Institute of Conservation 42, no. 2 (2019): 94-113.

Gere, Charlie. «New Media Art and the Gallery in the Digital Age». Tate Papers, no. 2,

Hobbs, Catherine. «The Character of Personal Archives: Reflections on the Value of Records of Individuals». Archivaria 52: 126-35.

Velios, Athanasios. «The John Latham Archive: An Online Implementation Using Drupal». Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 30, no. 2 (2011): 4-13.