For the exhibition Various Small Fires (Working Documents), curator Jose Luis Blondet delved into the small, strange stories within LACMA’s history. The process took him off the beaten path of institutional memory, and hunting down these stories was no easy task. They were obscured by neglect, and even a willful desire to forget unsuccessful experiments. The result is a satisfyingly dense experience featuring art, archival documents, and objects that make connections between LACMA’s art collections, its institutional history, and the wider world they exist in.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jose Luis just before the exhibition closes on February 7. We discussed the process of organizing the exhibition, including the frustration and fun of working on an “archival” exhibition at an institution with a very short history of organizing and preserving its archival record. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Jessica Gambling: When did you decide on what kind of exhibition Various Small Fires was going to be?
Jose Luis Blondet: Initially I thought it would be a very easy exhibition to organize because the material I had found in the archives was so interesting, so fun, so quirky, and odd. I thought, well that’s it, I just show that material and that’s a great show. But then I realized that, precisely because the material was so valuable and so interesting, it wouldn’t be just to display those archival materials without creating a context for them. So I started asking myself, what is an archive? What is an archive in the museum? What is the role of the archive? I realized that the collections are also an archive, our audience is also a living archive, and then we have the proper archive. How can we bring those three elements into a choreography? That’s when I realized that I needed to create a methodology to do this. I will always pair up a document or a story from the archives with an artwork, displaying two instances, two moments from the archive to see what happened there, exploring how can a document can illuminate an artwork and vice versa. So that was really fun. In a way, the documents were dictating how to proceed.
JG: So you found yourself going from the archive to the artwork more than from the artwork to the archive?
JLB: It was from the archive to the artwork. I think the first spark for the show was with the fantastic, beautiful story of a Rembrandt painting that traveled wrapped as a Christmas present from Washington D.C. to the museum as a security precaution. What is the question that this document, this group of newspaper clippings, is asking? How does a painting travel?
I thought of the Airmail Painting by Dittborn, and I thought, This is it. Formally there is no connection between these two objects, but then you start seeing how they talk to each other and what kind of stories they illuminate. I began with that and then I started intentionally thinking what artwork can help [illuminate that] for this story.
JG: Was your starting point the scrapbook or publicity albums? Was that the first place you started looking for those events?
JLB: Yes. And that’s why I also wanted to show the materiality of the archive. Sometimes archival exhibitions are just about data, about information that is hidden in the archive. Well yes, that’s interesting, but I wanted to show the materiality of the archives. I wanted to show the scrap albums, I wanted to show the contact sheets from the photo archive, where that information lives. It’s not just data.
And in that sense, it’s not like one thing came after the other, but I thought a lot about the beautiful book by Susan Howe called Telepathy of the Archives, where she talks about the marginalia, all the notes that she found in the archives of Elizabeth Bishop. She talks about those things that are almost not written. But they are written. She was interested in that too, the archives as a thing, a material thing that I can touch and smell.
JG: There’s a lot that’s not explicit but is evident when you’re able to actually get in there with the materials and do research. What was frustrating about organizing the exhibition?
JLB: Since the museum is in the process of organizing the archive, of centralizing the information, sometimes it was difficult for me to find a piece of information that I knew was in the archive. On the other hand, that was also a blessing in disguise. I am not a professional researcher, I am not someone with a strict methodology on how to do research in the archives. So sometimes the messiness of the archive helped me, because then there was an element of chance. Many stories I found just by chance, like that interview with Alfred Barr in 1960. Even the headline of the article is so unappealing, “New York Directors Commend Los Angeles” or something like that. What is that? So that was really pure luck. It’s not like I was systematically looking for that [article], it was really a gift.
JG: Librarians and archivists call that serendipity and they actually worry that when everything is very well organized and digitized and you can find specific objects very easily without browsing, you miss out on that serendipity. The chance encounters are valuable and we worry that those are going to be lost.
JLB: I think that serendipity happens when you are touching things, when you are looking at folders, when you are looking at the scrap albums, not just with data.
JG: Is there anything, after doing this research and putting together the exhibition, that you’d like to pursue further? What avenues could you not pursue in this exhibition that you’d like to?
JLB: I would love to recuperate the history of performance at LACMA. It’s so precious what we have in the archive, because it’s just fragments. Of course that’s the paradox of performance, which is by its own nature ephemeral. So you only have this tiny piece of information that kind of establishes a connection to something that is already gone. I think the archive is a beautiful way to recuperate that story. I found some intriguing photographs that could be an Alan Kaprow performance or a staging of The Magic Flute, I don’t know, it looks like both. I would like to cross-reference and find more information on that.
It’s also great to see all these glorious names of those who performed or lectured in the Bing Theater, Pierre Boulez, Stravinsky, Panofsky, and Sister Corita.
JG: We do have recordings of a lot of these lectures and performances.
JLB: That’s something I regret I could not include in this show, all the audio visual material we have. I decided to leave it out intentionally because it would complicate the dynamics of that tiny room. For me it was important to think of the visual display of this information. I thought that including audio visual material and headphones and iPads would distract from that material thing that I wanted people to smell and to touch and to see...OK, maybe not touch.
JG: This exhibition was a lot of work to put together.
JLB: I really didn’t know what I was getting into. As an archivist, you will love this. At a certain point—and I am not being overly dramatic—I thought I was making things up. I remembered the story of a dog working as a security guard. I remembered that, I had read that, I was completely sure [it happened], but I couldn’t find it. I was looking for it but couldn’t find it for months. I thought maybe I made that up. So I felt really great, like a sane person, when I found [where I had read that]. It was always there.
Various Small Fires (Working Documents) is on view in the Art of the Americas Building, Level 3, through February 7.