Into the archive! We dive into the act of creative preservation today
In an increasingly digital and interconnected world, the process of archiving visual material has changed dramatically. Keen to learn more about how the practice exists in the modern creative landscape, we speak to four creatives producing unique, insightful and radical archival work.
In its heyday, it seemed Facebook existed solely as a space to upload 250-photo albums of one night out with your mates. Now, any trip onto your Instagram explore page will likely surface an ‘archive page’ dedicated to some niche topic, from folk art to satisfying scenes from The Simpsons. While these instances may be simplified as the rise of an ‘image-obsessed society’, it could instead be argued that such acts speak to the ways in which the act of archiving has altered in a rapidly changing world.
With the rise of the internet, the ability to preserve visual content and the modes in which it can be achieved have proliferated. The storing, saving and curatorial potential of programs, social media platforms and websites has changed the way we think about digital preservation. Now, it seems that the austere, dark-academia-esque perception of archives solely existing within academic institutions, museums and books is both less accurate and relevant. Instead, with greater access to materials, stories and communities, the ways in which creatives are archiving is becoming increasingly more inventive and inspired.
Archiving may be a way to pay homage to past creative styles, drawing considered links between the legacy of trends and techniques, or a means of creating collective pools of knowledge on largely unexplored topics and territories. In some cases it has radical intentions, bringing attention to lapses in historical narratives, illuminating stories, individuals and events that have been unfairly neglected. While in some instances, archiving exists as a form of therapy, allowing creators to integrate important personal experiences and rich family legacies into their creative practice.
Elizabeth Goodspeed is a designer, writer, educator and avid archivist. Her Twitter page is a gold mine for fellow design history fanatics – a place where she regularly shares findings and scans from vintage ephemera she’s uncovered (like pages from vintage cake books and old syrup logos), and where she cannily spots past trends reemerging and rearing their heads in the world of commercial design.
Elizabeth’s journey into the archives arose during college, where she studied a dual degree of cognitive science and graphic design. Spreading herself across two disciplines, Elizabeth recalls feeling “a bit of insecurity”, unsure as to whether she was excelling in either field. And funnily enough, Elizabeth took a logical, almost scientific approach to her creative doubts and turned to archival design. “Looking at design history felt like a way to check the work I was unsure about against proven design solutions,” she says. “If this layout worked for Massimo Vignelli or Paula Scher, it would work for me, too!”
The designer’s love of archiving blossomed and resulted in the creation of Casual Archivist: A Collection of Collections – her degree project at RISD that delved into the many archives she had discovered during her studies. For the past 10 years, the project has persisted in some form or another, whether that’s writing about design history, a newsletter or Elizabeth’s incorporation of archival work into her client work.
“The past will always look rosy by comparison, even if it (of course) had its own issues.”Elizabeth Goodspeed
Elizabeth counts many factors behind the rise of archiving in the modern creative landscape, with one particularly interesting one being nostalgia as a “cultural zeitgeist” – and how this exists as a double-edged sword. She observes a flurry of recent rebrands in the world of branding – like Burger King, Pepsi and many other big corporations returning to their old logos – as a result of society seeking solace in “the comforts of the past”. Especially, that is, in a post-pandemic landscape.
“Our modern world is pretty scary; it’s full of natural disasters, rising bigotry and racism, war and illness. The past will always look rosy by comparison, even if it (of course) had its own issues,” Elizabeth says. “I heard a teen recently complaining that they wish they could have been a teenager in 2009 and how great that would have been – meanwhile I was a teen in 2009 and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back.” Capitalising on this milieu of uncertainty, brands are now regurgitating past aesthetics in order to “evoke certain feelings and emotions”, Elizabeth identifies, all the while paying little attention to the deeper cultural relevance and pertinence of such styles.
With this in mind, when using and building archives, Elizabeth purposefully enacts a more considered, contextually aware approach. To Elizabeth, being an archivist is about “creating new and unexpected adjacencies from existing materials, and also taking the time to critique and analyse all the components within these materials to figure out what makes them work, why they were made, and who made them”.
In a recent zine, How to Live on Love, Elizabeth curated erotic and romantic lettering from her personal collection, penning an essay on the history and significance of the romance genre a “love letter (or better yet, an erotic fan fiction) to the unsung art form of romance lettering and its many anonymous creators,” she says. Allowing Elizabeth to dig into a “nuanced history” and to critically analyse the form, value and production of such work, the project shows how such niche, personal archival interests can be transformed into something that gives an enlightening, and simultaneously new (and, old) perspective to an area of creativity production – in this case typography – that so many creatives engage with day-to-day.
Archiving and spreadsheets might appear as two things that are worlds apart, but for the designer, researcher and educator Mindy Seu they are inseparable. Her vast project, Cyberfeminism Index – a website and now 600-page publication – began its days as an open-source spreadsheet, and is an illuminating example of the potential for archiving to be collaborative, grassroots and radical.
The project houses techno critical theory (a branch of research dedicated to the study of technological change) alongside instances in which the online sphere has been issued to critique, challenge and dismantle social structures, particularly in terms of feminism. As an ‘archive’, the project could be perceived as ‘unconventional’, both in its early format as a spreadsheet and its collaborative nature. Mindy predicts that 60 per cent of its material is crowdsourced, after she created an open call for submissions which rapidly “snowballed”. But rather than being ‘unconventional’, the project instead demonstrates new, more digitally centred ways of archiving and the ways in which such methods are helping grassroots archival practices to flourish. “Grassroots archiving is such an important strategy for people who are attempting to revise histories,” Mindy says. “It helps us come to terms with the idea of multiple truths, rather than a singular objective history.”
Entries throughout the project illustrate just this; how the internet has come to create new truths and histories in terms of feminist theory and practice. Mindy highlights a subsection of BDSM called “data domination”, in this instance enacted by the self-professed “techdomme” Mistress Harley. This specific act of power play involves granting Mistress Harley remote access to your computer, and therefore everything that exists on it – private information, bank details and images. “While it is meant to be a titillating powerplay, it doesn’t necessarily involve nudity, or the body at all,” says Mindy. “It reveals all of these other vulnerable aspects that are carried on our machines, and allows other people to access and divulge them in some way.” Mindy also signposts Nahee Kim’s project Daddy Residency as a powerful example. After planning to have a child through artificial insemination, Nahee conducted an ‘open call for daddies’, with applicants offering themselves to play the paternal role. Mindy identifies that Daddy Residency exists as power play, while also actively interrogating traditional familial structures.
As a whole, what makes the Cyberfeminism Index so impressive is the way it challenges preconceptions of what an ‘archive’ really is, or how they should exist. “When you consider an archive in its most standard denotation, it implies one held by an institution that has structures of preservation that span across generations. And this isn’t really the case with grassroots archiving,” Mindy says. “So while to some, these might feel less ‘legitimate’, they’re also able to gather together and save material that might otherwise be considered insignificant.” Essentially, Mindy’s work raises important questions around the future of archiving, like “who is determining value?” and “what histories deserve to be saved or not?”.
“[Grassroots archiving] helps us come to terms with the idea of multiple truths, rather than a singular objective history.”Mindy Seu
The artist Esiri Erheriene-Essi has been collecting images for as long as she can remember. A child of the 1980s, she could often be found cutting out images of Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue, and saving posters of Salt’n’Pepa and New Kids on the Block for her bedroom wall. This love of accumulating visual material has followed Esiri throughout her life, from delving into the British Archives and BFI’s collections while studying for a media studies BA, and sourcing and cataloguing images during internships on the picture desks of a number of new outlets, including the BBC.
Naturally, when Esiri became an artist, it made sense that her vast archive of vernacular photography played a role in her practice. She began digitally scanning her collection, searching for images on Tumblr and Flickr, and reaching out to small archive creators across the globe. Over the years, Esiri had developed an understanding of just how powerful archives could be – and she set herself on using her knowledge, her collection and her artistic skill to fill in the gaping holes in our society’s historical knowledge. For the artist, the relevance of archiving lies in its ability to both elevate forgotten histories, “remembering the people who have had a hand – big or small – in shaping the world that we live in”.
In practice, Esiri uses images to inspire the subjects, locations and theme of each of her paintings, sometimes physically integrating them into work. The images provide a way for Esiri to uncover discrepancies, silences and what has been lost. “With hindsight, bias and curiosity I take these discordances, what is silenced and I bring them up to the surface. I continuously re-edit the narratives with the hope of robbing history of some of its tyrannical power by creating new scenarios.”
“I continuously re-edit narratives with the hope of robbing history of some of its tyrannical power by creating new scenarios.”Esiri Erheriene–Essi
This philosophy culminates powerfully in the artist’s painting Forever isn’t for everyone. The piece arose during a period of homesickness after the artist was unable to visit her London hometown due to pandemic restrictions. And, to top it off, her young son had developed a repetitive obsession with The Kink’s famously sunny Waterloo Sunset. Such evocative feelings toward the capital drew Esiri to an image she had uncovered in the London archives many years ago: a photograph of West Indian Windrush migrants arriving at Waterloo Station, taken by the photographer Howard Grey in 1962. Esiri had grown up with the grandchildren of these migrants, she explains, hearing their families stories of the culture shock they were faced with when moving to South London.
For Esiri, the image gained further significance in light of the Windrush scandal, when such migrants and their relatives were unforgivingly deported by the UK’s Conservative government. “I returned to this image of a group of tired young women in a foreign land and wondered what they felt with this kind of repayment on their legacies,” says Esiri. In the final piece, the photograph provides the backdrop to a seemingly jovial scene of celebration, three individuals dressed stylishly, two caught candidly in a moment before a kiss. The juxtaposition created by the two scenes is powerful, perfectly demonstrating Esiri’s ability to uncover and weave together unfairly overlooked historical moments, elevating their significance and importance by immortalising them in beautiful pieces of art.
For the photographer Daniela Spector, archiving not only exists as a means of creative expression, but a form of “therapy”. In September 2019, Daniela’s mother passed away. On top of such a traumatic event, in the aftermath Daniela recalls distinctly feeling “the connection to my culture and history wavering”. Attempting to abate and remedy this feeling, Daniela turned to her mother’s personal belongings – the many photos and objects she had collected over her life.
At first, Daniela began simply with the intention of sifting through donate or redistribute items to family members. But, during the process – and responding to what she describes as the “fear of forgetting” – she bought a white poster board and began photographing everything she had collected. Later, she stumbled across an image of her mother she had never seen before; it was a portrait of her framed within a heart, underneath which she had written “Te prohibo que me olvides”, which translates to “I forbid you to forget me,” – a statement Daniela says felt like “a directive from beyond”.
From then on, these images went on to inform her project I Forbid You to Forget Me, a curated visual collection of her mother’s belongings. Some of the images are left untouched, while in others, Daniela has woven messages to reflect the sentiment of the previously unseen photograph she found of her mother. “Through the series, I hope to create a multi-dimensional portrait of my mother that goes beyond the boundaries of time – evoking a sense of connection and inviting viewers to reflect upon their own relationships, legacies and the stories embedded in their lives,” Daniela says.
The project has had a huge impact on Daniela and the way she perceives image making. “It allows you to notice patterns or outliers. It will help you develop your visual literacy, a vital practice if you want to create with intention. The context provided through archives enables artists to situate their work within a broader creative continuum, fostering a deeper understanding of their artistic identity,” she says. This approach and ethos has resulted in a compelling array of projects. Body of Work, for example, see’s Daniela’s subjects turn into a living archive of their work, thus “conveying the significance that art holds in the subjects lives”. Meanwhile, the project Inheritance investigates generational connections through placing children in their parents clothing, delving into “the intersection of identity, memory and family history”.
The largest project, however, is The Modern Carousel. Daniela’s aunt Debby was aware of her interest in archiving, and sent her a box of her great aunt Mary’s belongings: old photographs, documents and film slides – a medium Daniela soon became infatuated with. Later, Daniela stumbled across a box of film slides in a vintage shop, and purchased 5,000 anonymous slides on eBay. From this, her curiosity then escalated into an obsession. Now digitally scanning the images and curating them on Instagram and her website, the project has become “an investigation into vernacular photography – forgotten images remembered in a new context”. She paints a unique history of modern America, one made so interesting in its rejection of linear chronology or a cohesive narrative.
“The context provided through archives enables artists to situate their work within a broader creative continuum, fostering a deeper understanding of their artistic identity.”Daniela Spector
With such a vast, intricate legacy and a multitude of approaches, the process of archiving may seem like a momentous and tricky task. However, the creatives we’ve spoken to have provided some of their best tips for getting started. Both Daniela and Esiri suggest spending time identifying where your interest lies – the more specific the better. “The archive isn’t this neutral or transparent thing of record and truth,” Esiri says, “it should be something that you delve into and discover and play with and contest – and then maybe you may come to a deeper understanding of what it is that you were searching for.”
Elizabeth advocates for expanding your perception of what the archive can be, outside of traditional notions. “I would encourage people to spend time on the weirder corners of the internet, or bookstores, and saving or buying things that stick out to them,” she says. (She’s also collated a handy open-source spreadsheet of interesting existing archives here.) But, Elizabeth reiterates the importance of ‘return’. “Go back and be critical about why something spoke to you, how you might want to ‘use it’ and what about it might help you to create something new to you.”
In much the same critical vein, Mindy advises looking closely at how you may perceive the practice of archiving, outlining how much “ongoing invisible labour” it involves. While she identifies that it’s a bit “sexier” to be the ‘innovator’, being the ‘maintainer’ is just as important a role. “Consider if an archive, index, or repository of that topic has already been started in some way. Sometimes it’s almost more helpful to add to an existing repository to support those efforts rather than making one on your own,” she says. “Ultimately, histories are communal, and that requires a collective.”
For all of the creatives we spoke to, archiving not only exists as a means of creative expression, but a way to explore history through a new, more personal and more critical lens – one much less tied to traditional structures. With such a thoughtful approach to utilising visual material of the past, they’re building a creative landscape that’s not only richer in visual content, but the many stories, histories and narratives that their work is shedding light upon.
From left to right: Esiri Erheriene-Essi: Photo album archive 3 (Copyright © Esiri Erheriene-Essi, 2023) / Daniela Spector: I Forbid You to Forget Me (Copyright © Daniela Spector, 2019) / Daniela Spector: Body of Work (Copyright © Daniela Spector, 2022) / Esiri Erheriene-Essi: The Day Trippers (Copyright © Esiri Erheriene-Essi 2021) / Elizabeth Goodspeed, How to Live on Love (Copyright © Elizabeth Goodspeed and High Tide, 2023)—Photographed by Dylan James Nelson, Printed by Lucky Risograph / Mindy Seu: Cyberfeminism Index (Copyright © Mindy Seu & Inventory Press, 2023) / Daniela Spector: The Modern Carousel (Copyright © Daniela Spector, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.