As the pandemic began this spring, historians and curators at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art began to do what they do best: browse the relics of history.
They found little information on the 1918 influenza pandemic in their records and decided to make sure future historians had a lot more information about this time of the coronavirus. A team from the Archives of American Art, led by Liza Kirwin, its acting director, set out to create a complete dossier for posterity.
Starting last spring, archival curators and oral historians conducted Zoom interviews with 85 artists to create the “Pandemic Oral History Project”. The first round of interviews, which includes artists such as Ed Bereal and Sheila Hicks, was released on Monday.
“It started at the beginning of May and we were only thinking about Covid-19,” said Ben Gillespie, Arlene and Robert Kogod secretariat for oral history. Then, with the news of the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd murders, he said, “We also realized that this was such an important moment in American history that we really have to hold on to.
While there are a lot of things that represent 2020 – weird objects, ephemeral items related to the pandemic, photographs collected by many or put on social media – this Smithsonian oral history project also offers a guarantee: the recordings are supposed to last.
The project is unusual for a group of archivists who typically work on long, in-depth, documentary-quality interviews that delve into the past – these sessions are all on Zoom and last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. But working quickly to preserve the present also allowed staff to see this year with fresh eyes.
“Time, for me, felt completely empty,” Gillespie said. “It’s like the story no longer exists and I’m just like, swirling in an amorphous aether.”
Josh Franco, the national archives collector, said that because he typically worked with older artists, browsing personal collections and studios to find moments to preserve, this project offered a welcome challenge.
“We understood that we are making a record and that it has something to do with the great arc of time,” said Franco, “but it’s also right, in the moment, that people are talking and panicking together. .
Mark Bradford, a Los Angeles-based contemporary artist who was involved in the project, spent part of his interview comparing this year to a huge storm.
“It’s like a great downpour of rain,” Mr Bradford said in his video. “And you know you run down the street, and get wet, and then every once in a while you come across a basement or something, and you stay there for a minute?”
“Sometimes you look to the left and there will be someone with you,” he said. “And you say, ‘What are you Make?’ and you have a little chat.
Ms Kirwin said: “For me it was like a metaphor for the whole project.”
“It was like we were hiding under a canopy with people and having this kind of exchange at the time,” she said, “knowing that there is a torrential rainstorm and that everyone will get wet. But they had this moment when they connected.