Help! ––I’m at a symposium and I’m trying to learn!

By Meghan Lyon

Last Friday, October 19th, I had the pleasure of observing two symposiums. I attended the first half of The Uncomfortable Archive: New York 2018 Archives Week Symposium, and the the second half of the first day of theWhitney Independent Study Program 1968-2018 50th Anniversary Symposium. These events marked my first encounter with the conference-style symposium. I have attended numerous lectures, but a presentation in the symposium format has a quality that diverges from a unique lecture; each speaker addresses their own content or area of expertise  as well as the overarching concept of the day.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of symposium includes: “a social gathering at which there is a free interchange of ideas”; “a formal meeting at which several specialists deliver short addresses on a topic”; “a collection of opinions on a subject”; and “discussion.” Additionally, it defines a panel as “a group of persons who discuss before an audience a topic of public interest.” The panel would be the object of attention, the body expected to enlighten the audience; it could also be the platform from which information is distributed. From my observation of the symposium as an information environment, I would define it as a learning-based information environment, where the audience is an information-seeking group whose attendance is predicated on the expectation of a conference of knowledge from the panelists. 

The Uncomfortable Archive Symposium, which I observed from 9:30 am through the lunch break at 1:15 pm, was devised to motivate the audience by revealing uncomfortable histories and truths about archives or loosely-defined archival materials. This goal manifested in multiple presentations about obstacles to record keeping and maintenance from autocrats, fascists, and capitalists. The Keynote Address was given by Anthony Clark, who played up the “uncomfortable” concept. Clark is an expert on presidential libraries and archives and discussed the more insidious aspects of presidential libraries—not just as propaganda machines but as active forces in politics, conservatively oriented towards maintaining the status quo of private interest groups. His address examined the unfortunate history and present mismanagement of the National Archives and Records Administration by the former director of NYPL, David Ferriero.

Clark addressed a room full of concerned professionals who were mostly cis-female, mostly white. The audience lights and stage lights were both on and remained on throughout the day; the AC was on, there was carpeting and plush chairs, there were no outlets throughout the seating area, and  there was no wifi and no data service in the hall at the Center for Jewish History. There was a podium for speakers and a table for panelists; I found that every panelist was an individual speaker and the “panel” discussion was, unfortunately, just an audience Q&A directed at the group of “panelists.”

The Uncomfortable Archives Symposium was crafted as a learning environment for archivists and professionals within the field of information. Most audience members were taking notes; actively engaged and trying to learn. However, several days after the Uncomfortable Archives, a peer who was also in attendance bemoaned that there was too little discussion of problems or troubleshooting thereof from within archives; in other words, she gained no knowledge that was useful to her as a professional.  Also, most talks were initiated after a precarious disclaimer: “My comments are my own and not my employers,” a common social media and web-based, personal disclaimer which has migrated towards any format that has the potential to wind up on the internet. This attempt by speakers to protect their professional status could relate to Robert Jensen’s paper, The Myth of the Neutral Professional. In order to keep their jobs, librarians and archivists are pressured to appear politically neutral. At the very least, they must attempt to be sure that they cannot be held accountable as a representative of their employer when speaking publicly. I find the disclaimers’ presence to be unsettling, and feel sorry that the speakers need to present defensively on stage.

Midday I walked over to the Whitney Museum of American Art for the ISP 50 Year Anniversary Symposium; This second observation lasted from 2:30pm – 8pm.

The Whitney Independent Study Program 50 year anniversary Symposium was a very different kind of event from the Uncomfortable Archive; It was not technically a professional event. The intended audience was ISP alumni, but the ISP program is so popular that many others were also in the audience. The 2-day event was both open to the public and free, so it drew contemporary art enthusiasts, fans of panelists, social climbers, artists, museum workers, art historians, current university students, and people in some way involved in the art world who are hungry for continued education. Because of the various points of entry, there was also a more diverse demographic. It was so packed in the lecture hall that overflow seating was made available in the Tom and Diane Tuft Trustee Room on the 8th floor, which is where I wound up for the first panel that I witnessed.

Whitney ISP Symposium from the 8th floor Trustee Room

In the trustee room, there was a monitor playing a livestream of the symposium as it occurred downstairs. This room quickly filled up, although it wasn’t totally full and people wandered in and out. There was an odd phenomenon of 8th floor of attendees clapping when speakers concluded, even though the presenters were on tv.

Another unexpected occurrence (unexpected to the Whitney staff, at least) was that people who showed up at the beginning of the symposium did not leave. This created a major occupancy problem, because people who registered beforehand, or who were ISP alum, could not enter. I believe that the organizers thought that people would come for a panel, or a particular speaker, and then leave—grossly underestimating the major interest in this kind of educational experience. After witnessing this symposium, I would conclude that multitudes of people are craving high quality, free, educational experiences. The panelists in this case were key figures in art theory, writing, criticism, contemporary studio practice, and pedagogy, and it is too often an exclusive few who are able to interact with the brilliance associated with the ISP milieu.

Like the Uncomfortable Archives’ attendees, nearly every audience member had a notebook out, although I would say the note-taking at the Whitney was a little more feverish, on both the 8th and 3rd floors. Eventually, a few people from the 8th floor went down in between panels to try and claim a few abandoned seats.

A panel in the lecture hall at the Whitney ISP Symposium

I made it into the lecture hall for the Pedagogy and Critical Practice panel. The structure of the panels were similar to those of the earlier symposium; each member of the panel gave a short presentation with slides, however, instead of a Q&A afterwards, there was a moderated discussion on the overarching theme of the panel, with a short time for  audience questions. The time-ratio weighed heavily on the lectures, clocking in at almost 2 hours of serial lectures per 20 minutes of panel discussion.

A little earlier in the evening, curator Johanna Burton had referenced  “embodied learning”—which she described as something along the lines of “trying out learning through new experiences.”  I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore  Marcia J. Bates’ paper Fundamental Forms of Information.  I could see note-taking as an interaction with recorded information, “communicatory or memorial information preserved in a durable medium,” (Bates 14)  as well as an enactment of student/teacher paradigm, and an attempt to fill a knowledge-seeking need. The symposium could be examined as a place for the expression of recorded information (lectures) to be

Single-Circle Diagram that says "Information Environment / Learners / I feel grateful to be here ----->"
“Information Environment / Learners / I feel grateful to be here ——–>”

embodied by an audience through listening and interpretation, and then enacted by their future selves as more knowledgable beings.  

Nearing the end of the ISP Symposium, Mary Kelly took the stage. Kelly was the only speaker who did not use a slide-show presentation, and she was so soft spoken yet captivating, you could feel the entire audience leaning in and opening up. I drew a small diagram of the environment and how I felt.


Bates, M. (2006). Fundamental Forms of Information. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57(8) (2006): 1033-1045

Jensen, R. (2006). The Myth of the Neutral Professional. Lewis, A. (Ed.), Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian. (pp. 89-96). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.


Knowledge Creation and Artist Archives: The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, A Two Part Review.

The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. is a unique professional organization, due in part to the wealth of cultural, academic, public & private institutions located in NYC that are home to professionals in the archives field. ART produces educational programs, provides support for professional development, advocates for historical preservation, and gives archivists the opportunity to network at social events. At the start of their fall season, ART hosted a two-part series revolving around art and archives pertaining to David Wojnarowicz. The first programNew Approaches to Artists’ Archives: The Artist Archives Initiative & The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base—was a talk given by NYU Professor and MoMA Conservator Glenn Wharton along with Special Collections Librarian Nicholas Martin at Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU Bobst. The talk was followed by a brief lecture from Hugh Ryan, curator of The Unflinching Eye: The Symbols of David Wojnarowicz, an exhibition at the Mamdouha Bobst Gallery comprised of archival material from the Fales Collection. The second programHistory Keeps Me Awake At Night: David Wojnarowicz Exhibition Tour—occurred the following week at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The tour was guided by Tara Hart, a graduate of Pratt’s MSLIS program who is currently the Archives Manager at the Whitney. The tour also featured an introduction to the Whitney and it’s facilities by the Director of Research Resources, Farris Wahbeh. I attended both of these events, including the networking and “happy hour” portions that followed.

Part I

The Fales Library and Special Collections, located on the third floor of ElmerHolmes Bobst Library at NYU, is a cozy space featuring antique card file cabinets—some of the Fales Special Collections still utilizes the card catalog—and wooden bookcases with glass doors. Behind the bibliographical threshold lay the archives; notably, The Downtown Collection, which holds archival material related to the LES and SoHo art scene as it developed from the 1970s through the 1990s. Within this collection, amongst other treasures, are the David Wojnarowicz papers, ca. 1954-1992. Consisting of 128 linear feet of documents, from journals and interviews, to phone-logs, to art-objects, this collection contains the primary source materials for the topic of the discussion today, The David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base (DWKB), the premiere project of the Artist Archives Initiative (AAI). 

The Artist Archives Initiative is an ongoing experiment in contemporary art which seeks to address a need for evolving information resources based on cooperative efforts between artists and scholars. In pursuit of this goal, the AAI produced the DWKB, not only with the artists’ papers, but by conducting interviews with artists, friends, and others who knew Wojnarowicz; inviting scholars to submit their research and writings; and by choosing MediaWiki software to build the database. MediaWiki software is open-source, allows for low-cost maintenance, provides a strong user community, and has a hierarchical menu that allows researchers to search the database “laterally” through text searches and links within articles to other pages, including more DWKB pages, outside resources, and references. 

I believe this project is an example of a strategic development in the application of archival materials towards increased accessibility, discoverability, and interdisciplinary collaboration. The next project that the AAI has underway is the Joan Jonas Knowledge Base. Joan Jonas is a performance artist who is still very active. She lives closely with her personal archive, and because of this, she can be directly involved in the development of her own Knowledge Base. The iterative aspects of performance art pose an interesting challenge for Wharton and co-creator Deena Engel; multimedia documentation and the potential for years or decades between performances of the same piece, adds an element to the project that was absent from the scope of the DWKB. Additionally, the Joan Jonas Knowledge Base will not be developed with the benefit of content from a pre-existing archive.  

In respect to the ART event itself, the talk with Glenn Wharton and Nicholas Martin was informational, conducted in conjunction with a slide presentation, and allowed for time at the end for questions. It was a pleasure to hear Hugh Ryan, the curator of the archive-based exhibition, discuss his kindred relationship with Wojnarowicz. He conveyed a deep understanding of the symbols of Wojnarowicz’ art that in part had developed through years of studying the materials on display.

Downstairs in the Mamdouha Gallery, two tables had been prepared with concessions; wine, seltzer, fruit & cheese platters, and truffles that were handmade by the Program Coordinator, Amye McCarther. Treats were well-displayed and enjoyed by the event attendees. I made a point to discuss ART programming at-large with several professionals in attendance who gave reviews of past events along the lines of, “high-end”, and “always different, but always good.”

Part II

Meeting in the lobby of the Whitney, ART members and volunteers formed a group around the Director of Research Resources, Farris Wahbeh, who offered an abridged history of the museum, focusing on it’s origins and architectural provenance. Shortly after, the group followed Archives Manager Tara Hart up to the exhibition, David Wojnarowicz: History Keeps Me Awake At Night

Among the first works in sight is an archival object that Nicholas Martin would refer to as “the big loan” during one of my subsequent tours of the Fales Collection—a Rimbaud Mask circa. 1978, which may have been used in Wojnarowicz’ early photo series, Arthur Rimbaud in New York. Archival material represents a sizable portion of the work on display. To name a few examples, there is an audio recording of a 1992 reading given by Wojnarowicz at The Drawing Center; a black and white unfinished film that was borrowed from the Fales Collection; and a vitrine containing a pamphlet from the American Family Association and the annotated Affidavit for David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association and Donald E. Wildmon. 

These documents, again, on loan from the Fales, are evidence of one of Wojnarowicz’ contributions to defending artists’ rights, and a sad reminder of the value that the American court placed on his art. At the end of the text accompanying the documents in the vitrine was a prompt for the viewer to engage with yet another archival component—to listen to Wojnarowicz discuss the trial and his art practice with Terry Gross in a 1990edition of Fresh Air.

It was apparent to me that collections of primary source materials were integral to the present-day curation and exhibition of David Wojnarowicz’ work. Additionally, the presentation of archival materials enabled audience members to hear the artist’s voice and to learn about the politics and realities facing Wojnarowicz and his community at the time.

After the museum, the ART group reconvened for refreshments at a nearby bar. I was able to engage in conversation with McCarther, a practicing digital archivist who once participated in a Joan Mitchell Foundation CALL pilot program in Houston. CALL, which stands for Create A Living Legacy, provides resources to the public, supports late-career artists considering organizing their professional records, studios, and archives, and educates emerging artists who share these concerns in assisting older artists. It’s clear that a program like CALL operates on the opposite end of the spectrum compared to a project like the Artist Archives Initiative. However, it was helpful to participate in industry-relevant discussions and to meet like-minded individuals.