On February 14th, conservators, archivists, curators, educators, artists, historians, and activists gathered in the Bonnie J. Sacerdote Lecture Hall at The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the International Institute for Conservation’s (IIC) Point of the Matter Dialogue, “Viral Images: Exploring the historic and conservation challenges of objects created for social protest and solidarity.” When organizers began planning this event two years ago, they could not have predicted just how timely this Point of the Matter Dialogue would be, in light of increased social unrest resulting from recent political and global events. Appropriately, a pink knitted ‘Pussy Hat’ could be spotted in the audience — a symbol of protest and solidarity from the historic Women’s Marches held worldwide just three weeks earlier.
The program focused on creative and expressive imagery used for social protest. Fine art, photography, and graphic design are all subject to endless replication and adaptation, becoming “viral images” that spin outwards on social media and the news – carrying with them powerful messages and gathering new meanings. Viral images can function as symbols for a specific social cause or an entire movement, can themselves become flash-points for social action, or can serve as documents of historic moments. Ephemeral by nature, they can prove to have long-term influence. IIC’s Point of the Matter Dialogue aimed to address the challenges involved in archiving this form of cultural heritage.
The organizers posed a series of questions as a starting point for discussion:
- What happens to the artwork when the protesters leave?
- Was it ever intended to be collected or preserved?
- Is there a precedent for archiving these ephemeral materials?
- Who is collecting them?
- How do we preserve the intent and impact of these creative works for posterity?
The event included short presentations by panelists and a Q&A, both of which were live-streamed online and can now be viewed here. Before recording began, the program kicked off with a sneak preview of “STREETWRITE,” a musical film written and directed by Blanche Baker about street art and freedom of expression. This was followed by a performance and presentations by Artists Fighting Fascism: Rebecca Goyette, Brian Andrew Whiteley, and Kenya (Robinson). Those watching the video of this program may be interested in learning more about these artists and their work, as they were active participants in the Q&A session and their projects were cited several times by panelists and audience members (specifically Goyette and Whiteley’s recent video collaboration, (Robinson)’s #WHITEMANINMYPOCKET project, and Whiteley’s Trump Tombstone piece).
The panel included six speakers, who represented various stakeholders and decision-makers in this discussion: those who produce, document, collect archive, preserve, and study protest art and viral images. Ralph Young, a Professor of History at Temple University, discussed the history of dissent in America, touching on themes covered in his recent book and courses on this subject. A historical context for the concept of “viral images” was provided by Aaron Bryant, Curator of Photography and Visual Culture at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bryant discussed his approach as a curator for a history museum to collecting images and objects that represent historic events, changing ideas, and social movements (including Black Lives Matter protests).
Michael Gould-Wartofsky, a sociologist and author, related his experience reporting on Occupy Wall Street in 2011, highlighting the key role of social media and viral images for broadcasting protesters’ messages, and the challenges in reconstructing this digital archive. A case study for the practice of archiving this form of cultural heritage was provided by Lidia Uziel, Western Languages Division Leader for the Harvard Library: shortly after the 2015 terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris, the university created an archive devoted to collecting and documenting the visual and textual materials produced in response to the event.
Gregory Sholette, an artist, activist, and writer, discussed his personal involvement in the East Village art scene in the 1980s and the afterlives of artworks created for social movements as they are moved into the museum. In this vein, Christian Scheidemann, a conservator of contemporary art, presented examples of artworks created either as a form of protest or from protest materials and considered the decision-making process involved in exhibiting, preserving, and restoring these works.
After short presentations by the panelists, an hour was devoted to questions from the audience. The dialogue between the panelists and audience members moved beyond the prompts posed by the organizers, and included both practical and theoretical questions. The discussion touched on the life cycle of viral images and protest art, and the relationship of this ephemeral material to fine art. Participants considered the practical problem of how to determine what material to save in the aftermath of historic events when resources for its preservation are limited. Questions were also raised about the social and ethical responsibilities of conservators and archivists, our role in constructing and framing historical narratives, and the impact of our individual and innate biases. This in turn led to a frank conversation about the lack of diversity in the conservation field, a concern that has motivated the formation of the AIC Equity and Inclusion Working Group (NB: Readers may be interested in Sanchita Balachandran’s talk “Race, Diversity, and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis,” presented at the 2016 AIC Annual Meeting). These questions pointed to a number of potential topics for future events in the Point of the Matter Dialogue series.
Thank you to IIC and the Point of the Matter Dialogue organizers for such a productive and thought-provoking program! To watch the full program, click here.
Panelists and organizers for the IIC Point of the Matter Dialogue on Viral Images. (Photograph courtesy of Sharra Grow)
Back row: Christian Scheidemann, Michael Gould-Wartofsky, Aaron Bryant, Lidia Uziel, Ralph Young
Middle Row: Gregory Sholette, Blanche Baker, Rebecca Rushfield, Amber Kerr;
Front Row: Kenya (Robinson), Rebecca Goyette