Artist in the Archive

I spent a lot of the end of 2017 getting lost in the labyrinthine tunnels that sprawl underneath the Library of Congress. Putting on my contractor’s badge and my most convincing ‘I know where I’m going’ face, I’d try to find my way down long angled passageways, up and down staircases, to the room I was going to– which inevitably wasn’t where a normal numeric system would suggest it should be.

Somehow my meetings never seemed to be scheduled in the same building — it’d be Manuscripts in the Madison building, then Veterans’ History Project in Adams before scurrying off to try to find the Poetry department up in the attic of the classic Jefferson Building. I started to feel a real kinship to the book carts I’d see being wheeled along those tunnels; it definitely seemed like I’d made myself into some strange part of the Library’s intricate infrastructure.

When I was asked in the fall to become the Library’s Innovator-in-Residence, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or make. But I was sure that I wanted to change my typical practice in two primary ways: I wanted to start with people (not data), and I wanted to be as public as I could.

For about a decade, I’ve described my working process as ‘data first’. What this meant is that I’d insist to clients and collaborators that the work needed to start with a dataset. I’d usually sequester myself into my studio with that data for a few weeks or a few months, and then an idea for a project would emerge, usually in the form of a working software prototype. This approach has a lot of advantages. Primarily, it ensures that the idea comes from the data itself, and that you’re not trying to shoe-horn the data into some kind of a conceptual framework where it doesn’t really fit. Also, it’s cozily insular, appealing to someone like me who has spent more hours in front of a computer screen than I have in the company of actual human beings.

With all of this in mind I was determined to flip the script — I’d make my project at the library people first instead of data first, starting with conversations and interviews before I turned to algorithms and machine learning systems.

The second thing I promised myself was that I’d be as public as possible in my time at the library. I’d share all of my research, post all of my source code, and involve other people in my process as much as I could. My career as an artist was founded in a world (software art) which tends to value novelty above all else. As such I’ve cultivated, over fifteen years or so, a tendency to hold my cards close to my chest. I’ve released source code, and shared process, but mostly after a project is finished. This time I wanted to share everything with everyone, from the very beginning.

One result of these two promises and all of those underground forays beneath the library is a podcast — Artist in the Archive. Here are the first two episodes (they’re also available on iTunes and Pocket Casts and pretty much everywhere else):

Each of these episodes features a long interview with someone who I’ve met at the Library. In the first episode I talked to Kate Zwaard, who is the Chief of National Digital Initiatives, about the Library’s past, present, and future as a digital institution. In the second, I sat down with the curator/geographer/mathematician John Hessler to talk about the politics of making and collecting maps. Bracketing these discussions are (slightly) shorter interviews with librarians and archivists about special objects and collections in the Library’s holding that they particularly identify with. In the first two episodes, these objects include a 1787 census document, children’s drawings of Sputnik, a post civil war left-handed penmanship contest, and a journal from a 1960s Greenwich Village book & record store owner, Izzy Young.

Like my time at the Library so far, the podcast is meandering and far-ranging. The point of it is to share the things I’m finding, but also to share the sensation of being lost in those long tunnels, underneath a collection that is so daunting in size, and overwhelming in nuance.

I hope that you’ll give it a listen, and I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

Happy New Year!


ps. Huge and heartfelt thanks go to Artist in the Archive producer Greta Weber, and to Becca Farrow who made the cover art for the podcast!



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Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.