Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and the Artists' Response to the Archive

…Artists themselves are, on occasion, great collectors of material and ephemera. To all intents and purposes these artists are themselves not only archivists, but archives and repositories of knowledge and information. This text will seek to explore some of the ways in which Piper and Rodney sought to utilise this material, in the making of their work. I'd also like to consider the ways in which they attempted to reinscribe history. Not rewrite it, but unpick it and reassemble it, being mindful of the ways in which certain people have been written out of history, or been the victims of historians' (and society's) prejudices and ignorance.

'History' is of immense importance to certain artists, as can be witnessed by the fascinating ways in which they historicize contemporary events, or utilise archival images within their practice. This text will also, in part, be a consideration of what notions and constructs such as the 'archive' and 'history' meant to Piper and Rodney. It is also my intention to consider the idea of 'history' as cultural memory and the ways in which this counters abusive or discriminatory hegemonic accounts of history.
When it comes to ideas of the artist as archivist, Donald Rodney would take some beating. Rodney, who died in 1998, was a prolific collector of newspapers, magazines, books, gadgets, and much much more. In fact, Rodney was a collector of stuff, stuff that took many forms. Amongst the 'stuff' he had amassed was a collection of globes of the world. All sorts of sizes and all sorts of ages. Being bed-bound and hospitalised for weeks and months at a time did not prevent or limit Rodney's compulsion to get his hands on and collect an almost bewildering assortment of material. For her contribution to the catalogue to accompany Rodney's 9 Night in Eldorado exhibition 1, artist Virginia Nimarkoh created an exhaustive inventory of the 'Contents of [his] Bed space, Kings College Hospital, 29.5.97'. Nimarkoh divided Rodney's impromptu, bedside archive into a number of sections: Books, Computer Games, CDs, Equipment, Magazines, Materials, Newspapers and finally, Videos. Rodney's newspaper stash included the previous day's Evening Standard, as well as recent and current copies of The Guardian and The Sun newspapers…
...Arriving at Trent Polytechnic in 1981, Rodney met, in the year above him, Keith Piper. Embracing both the aesthetics of pop art and the ideology of 'Black Art' (that is, a socially dynamic visual art practice, closely aligned to militant political and cultural agendas of progress for Black people), Piper's practice even as a student was sharp, witty, powerful and engaging. Piper had argued that the work of Black artist/art student should speak to 'the Black experience'. To this end, Piper's work touched on the experiences of Black people in the United States, Africa, and elsewhere in the world. Rodney found himself charmed and persuaded by Piper's position and practice, the two going on to collaborate on a number of occasions. The work and the exhibitions they produced together represented a decisive meeting of minds. In 1987, they issued a statement called 'Piper & Rodney On Theory'. Its opening paragraph read 'In Britains (sic) art schools, where the mythology of individual self-expression is held at a premium, collaborative activity is discouraged. Apart from throwing a spanner into bureaucratic machinery geared to assess the virtuoso, collaborative activities begin to counter many of the negative effects of an individualism which leaves the art student isolated and vulnerable. Supporting collaborative activity has therefore never been in the interest of the art school hierarchy, as many students expressing an interest in working collaboratively have learned to their cost.'...
9 Night in Eldorado South London Gallery September 10 - October 12 1997. Kesewa Hennessy, in conversation with Donald Rodney explained that the exhibition title was 'named after the Jamaican tradition of people meeting, drinking and reminiscing for nine nights after the death of a family member'. And that furthermore 'it represents the nine nights Donald was unable to attend after the death of his own father.' [The feature on Rodney was titled 'Sweet as sculpture' and was part of a regular series of interviews that went out under the weekly heading Answer the Question. The Voice newspaper, September 1 1997].
The full version of the above text by Eddie Chambers appeared as “Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and the Artists' Response to the Archive", which was uploaded onto the Axis web site in 2006. Not currently online.
Image: Keith Piper and Donald Rodney, 'The Next turn of the Screw' (detail), 1987
Photo credit: Eddie Chambers