Caleb Neelon’s spring NEA keynote

I attended the spring New England Archivists conference on Friday 4/1. Here is a summary of thoughts from the keynote address by Caleb Neelon.

I was looking forward to hearing Caleb Neelon speak to a room of archivists. First off because I’m familiar with and excited about his mural work in Fitchburg, MA (my hometown!) and second because I was curious what an outsider to the archives field would bring to an archival conference.

Fitchburg+Massachusetts+2014
Caleb Neelon, Fitchburg mural, 2014 (image from Neelon’s website)

How did a graffiti/street artist become a keynote speaker at an archivists conference? I assume it has to do with the younger generation leading the spring conference programming committee.

How would he relate to archivists? Well, he focused on the sharing of information among graffiti artists in the 1990s. And he talked about gathering primary sources from graffiti artists for the purpose of writing the book The History of American Graffiti. Both of these activities are of interest to archivists because it explains how a group networked and how the primary sources from that group were created, shared, saved, and eventually published.

Like many networks of artists, hobbyists, collectors, musicians, and even professional groups, the graffiti artists Neelon talked about were connected through a shared activity and then a sharing of information about that activity. Neelon explained that every group of young graffiti artist wannabes in the 1990s read the same 3 books – some of the only sources with published images of graffiti – and they all shared information with other graffiti artists in other locales through zines, that got traded and mailed around the world. It was a network of like-minded, creative, and young individuals writing about, and taking pictures of, their work and the work of others that they knew. It was an informal pen pal connection that would perhaps eventually lead to meeting in person and crashing on each others couches. It existed before the internet started changing the speed at which people shared information and it relied on nodes of “graffiti bums and bong shops”. Neelon encouraged any young people in the crowd to forget about a career at the moment and take the opportunity of youth to travel the world couch surfing and networking with like-minded people. I like the sentiment, but feel that for many in the audience they are either past that age, or just find the idea untenable.

Neelon also explained how he came to have a book deal – basically he was in the right line of work at the right time. By the mid 2000s, Banksy and Shepard Fairey were both gaining notice among the general public and the art market, making graffiti an attractive subject for publishing houses. Neelon got a book deal and started gathering source material for a book about the history of American graffiti. Neelon and co-author Roger Gastman were looking explicitly for photos that had never seen a scanner – those that did not yet exist online. This is a challenge when the average age of the graffiti artists were in their teens, and a generation of artists would be about 4 years before a new group of teenagers would take over. The photos they were looking for were taken with cheap cameras and kept not in the best storage conditions. In the end they found related photographs from 250 photographers, and the book is about 400 pages long.

Neelon pointed out that “Not everybody had a real happy ending to their stories,” and that the years of graffiti writing and working with other graffiti writers may have been the high point of their lives. I think this is an interesting point when considering what is saved in archives and how we create context for collections. Archivists document people’s lives by collecting, preserving, and providing access to the material collected. This keynote made me think of the times in people’s lives when they were a part of something bigger than themselves and how that becomes the part of their life that is remembered and saved. It also made me think of social network analysis software and applications in the digital humanities for visualizing social networks.

When questioned if the work of gathering material could have been done by an outsider, Neelon answered, absolutely not. The trust created by the bond of graffiti was what enabled the book to be written and what allowed Neelon access to the source materials. He pointed out that the material may end up in an institution at some point, but for now it still resides with the community.

Archivists are collectors for institutions, and as such, we enjoy learning about new collections – everything from how the items were created, to how they were collected and organized, to how they are shared or used for new research. In that sense Caleb Neelon’s keynote was an interesting look at a specific collection – but the piece that was missing is the long term preservation of the collection.

For me the big take away from Neelon’s keynote is that if archivists want to engage with collectors and creators that distrust, or are unaware of, archives they must find an ally in that group that can then advocate on behalf of the archives. Collecting without building a strong relationship could result in being shut out from a desired collection.

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