Search and Serendipity

21st October 2021
by Conall Cary,
edited by Aideen McCole

Cover image: Search and Serendipity

Artist Conall Cary got in touch with the 100 Archive late last year while researching archives of art and visual culture as part of his MA in Digital Cultures at University College Cork. His interest in the archive as a site of research for artistic practice and the online accessibility of archives (or lack thereof) led him to us, and he interviewed the 100 Archive as part of his masters thesis which looked at artist attitudes towards archives and models of online presentation of archival material. Here’s how he got on…

At the onset of the pandemic, I was researching the ways in which online archives and collections of visual artworks could be structured to best suit the ways in which ‘traditional’ visual artists tend to conduct research. I was also calling for urgency in addressing the existing lack of searchable online visual arts content in Ireland. Suddenly we were all locked down at home and locked out of galleries, museums, and cultural institutions. The very thing I was arguing needed to be urgently addressed was by necessity now urgently being addressed! 

What I was learning through my research became a hurdle for all of us: at the time news of the pandemic first hit our screens, not a single art college had a permanent online archive of works, and only two colleges had in-depth online degree shows (now most all of the larger institutes offer an online showcase of some kind). Only a quarter of all county and city arts offices had any visuals of any kind displayed online, while only five had any type of archive (of those, only one of which was visual and not text-based). There were no widely known national, regional, or local online archives or collections of visual artworks that artists could submit works to and conduct research from. (This of course does not include the 100 Archive, which stood out in the research as a beacon of centralised visibility and quality content amidst a sea of scattered invisibility!)

While the need for quality online platforms of visual content no longer had to be argued for with the same urgency, I still wanted to somehow quantify a demand for these platforms within the visual arts community. I also wanted to explore how we might structure these archives and collections to facilitate artistic research online.

To do this I conducted a survey with artists associated with the Visual Artists Ireland network, as well as most third level fine arts/visual arts students in Ireland. The survey asked participants to select how often they used social media for the purposes of artist research, as well as the online collections and websites of galleries, museums and educational institutions. It asked artists about their search behaviour, their attitude towards public archives and collections, and the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and the current pandemic on their online research habits and behaviours.

Here are some highlight takeaways that came out as a result:

— The majority of artists reported that they used established collections and archives of ‘recognised’ organisations and institutions more than informal channels such as Instagram when conducting research online. 

— Nearly 90% of all artists surveyed felt it should be a requirement for publicly-funded arts groups, organisations and institutions to maintain a searchable archive of projects, exhibitions, talks and events.

— Almost identical numbers replied that regional and national archives would be beneficial to their artistic research practice, and that they would happily submit works to such platforms if they existed. 

— 76.5% of respondents identified their search behaviour when conducting research online as ‘browsing with intent’, as opposed to either focussed or unplanned behaviour.

The survey showed that visual artists rely heavily on ‘official’ websites and collections, and it also helped quantify the high level of interest and demand within the visual arts community for more online archives and collections of these kinds. It also helped define a serendipitous ‘browsing with intent’ search behaviour, which is important for how we think about the structuring and UI of online visual collections.  

Part of the joy of the physical gallery space is that we can turn a corner and be surprised by a previously unnoticed piece, or see things in a new light when viewed from a different approach or angle; we have a multitude of pathways in which to traverse and view an exhibition or collection in person. The challenge for the visual arts sector is the creation of online visual arts content that is imbued with a similar potential for serendipitous exploration as that of the physical gallery or space, and which ties in with the ‘browsing with intent’ search behaviour that over 75% of artists identified with when searching for content online. 

In order for found content to work as quality research material it should also be made available as ‘generously’ as possible in terms of size, quantity, and copyright clearance. Thumbnail sized imagery, while good for grabbing attention and leading direction, doesn’t really work for a more in depth ‘close reading’ research based examination of a work(s). 

These two terms of ‘serendipity’ and ‘generosity’ (terms highlighted frequently in the works of M. Whitelaw and M. Dörk) can act as guiding principles to be applied where possible to any online collection of visual artworks. The combination of generous representation and serendipitous search functionality encourages discovery and exploration; revealing the unexpected and unsought, while allowing content to function fully as quality research material once found.

Permanent archives give us quality data sets from which we can trace trends, perform cultural analysis and gain valuable insights into our culture and history. In addition to the societal and cultural importance of archives, the findings from the research show how important dedicated visual archives are to the artistic research process, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 situation. Irish visual archives such as the 100 Archive allow creatives to be inspired and influenced by their own community and help to foster a national awareness and appreciation of the works that are created in Ireland on a daily basis. Another important aspect of an archive is its ability to showcase the established and emerging side by side, its equal placement of famous and obscure, popular and forgotten. This self-levelling, democratic platform for visual representation is important not just to the arts community, but also to our culture and society as a whole. 

Irish visual archives such as the 100 Archive, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the National Irish Visual Arts Library, the National Gallery of Ireland, the Artist-Led Archive, the Chester Beatty, the Digital Repository of Ireland, the Digital Archive of Artists' Publishing, Publicart.ie, Belfast Exposed and many others offer exciting searchable online visual arts content in Ireland, and I hope that in the near future we will be spoilt for choice online for where we can find and be inspired by the dynamic and unique world of the Irish visual arts. 

When I think of my most important moments as an artist, they are the moments I never saw coming; when I was ‘set free’ from my initial plans through the act of stumbling upon something unexpected. My vision for visual archives are that they are portals for this type of unexpected discovery; that they allow us to find things we didn’t know we were looking for. As Mark Forsyth says in his brilliant 2014 publication The Unknown Unknown: “Lord, deliver us from what we already knew we wanted. Give us some new desires, the weirder the better.”

If you’re interested in delving deeper into Conall’s research, you can view his online publication (optimal on desktop or tablet) while the full dissertation can be found on conallcary.net. If you have questions about the research or would like to get in touch with Conall, drop him a line at conallcary@gmail.com.

Header image by Cathal Duane

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