Contemporary Art and Archives

by Maida Gruden, an art historian, curator at Students’ City Cultural Centre, Belgrade, coordinator of the project ‘They: Live’ – student lives revealed through context-based art practices

Student City, Belgrade, 1970’s, owner: Milan Petković

The international project ‘They: Live’ – student lives revealed through context-based art practices explores the student life on campuses from the end of World War 2 to present day in Belgrade and Novi Sad (Serbia), Zagreb and Rijeka (Croatia), Madrid (Spain) and Podgorica (Montenegro). During residential stays in student campuses, artists, together with curators, will develop art projects directly with students, using archive photo and audio materials on student life from 1945 to present day, collected from former and current residents of student campuses and stored on the collaborative digital platform Topotheque.

The project takes place from September 2020 to February 2023 and it is realised within the framework of the European Union’s ‘Creative Europe’ Programme for Culture and Media. Besides the project leader – Students’ City Cultural Centre from Belgrade, the partners on the project are the International Centre for Archival Research ICARUS Croatia from Zagreb, the Institute of Contemporary Art from Cetinje, the Faculty of Audiovisual Communication at the King Juan Carlos University from Madrid and the Academy of Applied Arts from Rijeka. The associate partners on the project are the Institute of Art in Context from the Berlin Art University, the Centre for Public History from Belgrade and The Student Association of the University of Novi Sad.

More about the project:

Faculty of Philosophy in Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid, 1960’s, Owner: Fondo fotográfico CIU, Biblioteca Histórica Marqués de Valdecilla.

The archive is not a new theme in contemporary art and relations between contemporary visual arts and archives are manifold. The art historian Hal Foster defined archival art as a genre that “make(s) historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. To this end (archival artists) elaborate on the found image, object, and favour the installation format.” (Hal Foster, Archival Impulse, in October 110, Autumn, The MIT Press, 2004,, accessed 10. 1. 2022.). In that sense contemporary visual arts are understood here as practices engaging different media, not only traditionally means of visual expression, but also sound, objects, performance, film and perceive audience or community as an important agent in creation of collaborative art works or art installations.

Archival art is frequently dedicated to a historical person or uses that person’s life and work as a structure and inspiration for a newly created art work. A good illustration of that is the work of Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, who used archive materials and collaborated with members of town communities to create monuments of his favourite philosophers (Baruch Spinoza in Amsterdam, 1999; Gilles Deleuze in Avignon, 2000; Georges Bataille in Kassel, 2002; Antonio Gramsci in Bronx, 2013). The monuments are placed in public spaces and take the form of interactive educational installations, which use archive materials on the historical figures they represent.

Student campus “Stjepan Radić”, Zagreb, 1970’s, owner: Jelka Žurga

The idea of archive is still presently relevant in the contemporary art, as it is in the process of designing exhibitions of contemporary art practices. This refers both to the projects that use authentic archive material and art projects whose theme is archive but allow greater freedom of expression. These projects open up the possibility for an inventive exploration of issues of current importance through inclusion of fictional archive materials in exhibitions. This leads us to conclude that, a curator’s act in archival art is frequently performed primarily as a form of an art gesture, as well as that the areas of artistic and curatorial practices inevitably intertwine. This was one of the reasons why we decided to have joint participation of a young artist and a young curator in the art residencies in student campuses, realised in the framework of the project ‘They: Live’ – student lives revealed through context-based art practices. In their work, they will use the archive on student life to encourage student population to take part in understanding and co-creation of contemporary art. During the process of collection of photo and audio archive, nearly all donors, former and current residents of student campuses, gave a written consent allowing us to use photographs from their private albums for artistic purposes, as a material for inspiration, interpretation or creation of new art works dedicated to student life.

Artists adopt diverse critical and aesthetic approaches to archives. Their archival interventions often involve construction of meaning, power to change a certain state of affairs, opening up the opportunities for new processes of creation of knowledge and providing alternative and contextual meanings, which differ from the official interpretations. Artist often upset the order and authenticity of archives, articulating the relations between the public and private memories and establishing new connections between people, events, time and objects. What makes the project ‘They: live’- student lives revealed through context-based art practices specific is that the public archive collections, used by artists and curators in their participative work with students, are freshly formed from materials that represent private memories. They consist of photographs and audio interviews related both to the theme (life in student campuses) and the period which are historically not sufficiently researched or documented through official channels. In that respect, artists and curators do not view the archive as an official power hub, which occupies the place of undisputable source of knowledge in the conventional sense, but as an archive that is concurrently built up from the scratch. Artistic and curatorial interpretations of this type of archive open up the possibilities for outlining new directions in collection, digitalisation and archiving of the materials that will in future become a part of these collections dedicated to student life.

Students and the punk culture, Rijeka, 1980, owner: Edi Jurković

Archival art not only demonstrates that both archives and art works represent social and cultural practices and forms of memories, which create identities and our understanding of the past and the present, but that they are vibrant places for discussions, establishing connections and opening up possibilities for future creation of meanings. Archival art practices extract the latent, potential energy of archive and create forms of research that point out to the important aesthetic, relational, social and political aspects of archive.

Technically artist can model their art works after the style of archival practices, such as collecting, organising, describing, classifying and storing. The forms of their work can be adapted from archival forms, such as inventories, boxes, storing systems or marking of archival objects. From a broader perspective, in archival art we can see how the projection of social imagination, precisely to places that preserve testimonials and documents, inspires and stimulates contemporary art practice. Moreover, through appropriation of archive materials, it creates an opportunity to voice questions on current challenges of the contemporary society.

Student campus “Prof. Živojin Čulum”, Novi Sad, 2021, owner: Nenad Ranković

The residential programme for artists and curators in student campuses, within the project ‘They: Live’ – student lives revealed through context-based art practices’, will take place during the period of one month from March to June 2022 in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Rijeka, Madrid and Podgorica. Artist in residences will include work with students and work with archives seen from the perspective of contemporary art practices. We hope that all participants of this exciting undertaking will recognise numerous possibilities opened up by multifold relations between archive and contemporary visual arts.


Hal Foster, Archival Impulse, in October 110, Autumn, The MIT Press, 2004,, accessed 10. 1. 2022.

Kathy Carbone, Archival Art: Memory Practices, Interventions, and Productions in Curator The Museum Journal · May 2020,

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