Barbara Steveni’s concept of the archive is critical to an understanding of her art practice and life. She coined the term ’activating the archive’[1] in which the records, ideas, models of thought, actions, spaces, questions, memories and stories of her past work would resonate and have currency.[2] The potentiality of the work is therefore set in the present and future and the archive becomes a starting, rather than an end point.

Steveni’s work on APG and O+I generated hundreds of boxes of organisational documentation, comparable to a business archive. They include constitutional documents from Companies House and the Charities Commission, minutes, accounts, contracts, reports, feasibility studies, and correspondence. However, as Steveni states ‘I have made my life a work’[3], and her archive is a hybrid of the professional and personal. Meetings are documented meticulously, not just as minutes, but often including details of everything people said, the way it was said, her view of what was said at the time, as well as retrospective thoughts on the discussions. Steveni documented other conversations in great detail, writing by hand what was said and by whom. There are examples of her written recordings of conversations with John Latham and others, and also her diaries set her art practice against the domestic.

Although Steveni was the founder and creator of the idea behind the concepts of APG and O+I, in addition to leading both organisations, she was hidden behind the acronyms. This was partly an unconscious suppression due to gender inequalities, but the traces of her work, which constitute the archival record of her practice, are a testament to her considerable and largely unacknowledged role. When she was preparing the APG archive for its transfer to Tate archive[4], she began to recognise the importance of her role as the creator and living embodiment of the archive: ‘I gradually found myself talking the archive. I started to see it, the material I was looking at, as stories and I found myself telling these stories and realised I was a kind of database of memories and knowledge about the documents I was reading and looking at’.[5]

Steveni began sifting and recreating, using the archive as a source. This led to her reactivating her practice through the archive in her work from around 2002, principally in the work, ‘I AM AN ARCHIVE'.  Steveni views this work as an extension of her practice through APG and O+I, as a continuous performance in which she proposes a new role and function for the artist in society. There is an interactive symbiosis between her practice and the archive and no distinction is made between art and archive.[6] The processes of organising, meeting and reporting on projects and her fastidious documentation of events become the traces of these actions in the archive and a resource for further actions.

The archive itself covers a period from the 1940s to the present with the major part of the records dating from the late 1980s to the present. The archive is in the process of being transferred to Tate Archive. It includes the following original documents:

·      Documentation of The Artist Placement Group  (APG). Material which was not acquired by Tate Archive and includes minutes, accounts, notes, writings, photographs and material relating to APG projects.

·      The complete papers of Organisation + Imagination (O+I) which is a continuation of the work of APG from around 1988 up to 2008. This documents all the company/charity papers, meeting minutes, projects and events, financing and fundraising of O+I in great detail, showing all the processes for establishing projects and placements. These include the continuation of APG projects such as ‘The Civil Service Memorandum’ and ‘The European Network’. It also includes a large amount of correspondence with artists, notable politicians, and public and private company executives.

·      Records of Barbara Steveni’s practice, particularly those relating to her work ‘I AM AN ARCHIVE’ which examines the nature of archives. These records mainly dates from the 1990s and 2000s.

·      There is also a significant series of Barbara Steveni’s writings in the form of diaries, notebooks, notes, lectures and publications. An important aspect of these records is Barbara Steveni’s practice of recording conversations, meetings and ideas, almost verbatim which document little-seen relationships and processes of enacting her work.

·      There is a large series of photographs, in colour, and black and white documenting almost every aspect of her practice, and there are a number of audio recordings, films and videos.

[1] Steveni used this term to describe how the archive of the APG should be used in the symposia she organised on the APG archive: ‘Art and Social Intervention: The Incidental Person Symposia’, Tate Britain, London, 23 March 2005

[2] Steveni uses the word currency to mean contemporary relevance.

[3] ‘An Interview with Barbara Steveni’, Barbara Steveni and Victoria Lane in All This Stuff: Archiving the Artist, eds. Vaknin, J., Stuckey, K. and Lane, V. (Libri Publishing, 2013) p.75

[4] This process happened 1998-2004 and her assistant was Barnaby Drabble.

[5] All This Stuff, p.67

[6] Steveni had specified during the sale of the APG archive to Tate, that it was an artwork.

For more information: Voices of art

Text by Victoria Lane and Judy Vaknin