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LA MAMELLE / ART COM ARCHIVES by Darlene Tong

Nothing is clear cut - creating an archive is trying to make sense of the mess — you can quote me on that!

~ Darlene Tong


A wealth of primary documentation has been produced and collected by artists and artist-run organizations. Many new art activities have been time-based, have experimented with form and material, and have taken place outside mainstream art venues. The emergence of alternative art spaces and artists’ publishing in the 1970s enabled artists to create their own vehicles for presenting and documenting their activities. It is essential that art documentation is preserved for future scholarly research as a means to study and understand the intent, the actualization and the impact of artworks. This is the story of how the La Mamelle / Art Com Archives and Collections came to reside at Stanford University Special Collections and the Pacific Film Archives at UC Berkeley, and how it has subsequently been used by students and researchers for curatorial practice and scholarly research.

Originally named La Mamelle and later known as Art Com, the non-profit organization occupied 7,000 sf on the top floor of a three-story building in San Francisco from 1975-1997. La Mamelle was involved in a multiplicity of activities, including publishing and maintaining an artists' space that supported performance art, video production and screenings, exhibitions, bookstore and library. As publishers, we produced a quarterly magazine in print called La Mamelle Magazine (whose title changed to Art Contemporary, then Art Com Magazine), and we experimented with other formats, publishing Audiozine on audiotape, Videozine on videotape, and Imagezine on rubber stamp. Like many other conceptually-based artist publishers during the 1970s and 80s, La Mamelle was interested in alternative forms of making art, experimenting with form and material and questioning the definition and boundaries of art. We regarded our publications as an alternative form of exhibition space that provided a direct means for artists to disseminate work, ideas, and documentation of projects. There was also a focus on artists' use of new transmittable electronic technologies. Early on there was an interest in video, satellites, television and fax and later on, in telecommunications, robotics and interactive online networks. Beginning in spring 1986, the Art Corn Electronic Network (ACEN) was launched on the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link). Art Com Magazine and online artists' works such as John Cage's The first meeting of the Satie Society became available only in electronic format on ACEN.

From its inception the organization was dedicated to the ambitious idea of building an archive of materials documenting not only its own activities but the whole swirl of alternative art activities happening at the time. Fevered by this lofty notion and a packrat mentality, La Mamelle collected new art documentation being generated by artists worldwide, focusing particularly on artists' publishing, alternative artist organizations, video and television, performance art, correspondence art and artists' electronic networking. In a 20-year period we generated an enormous amount of material in a wide variety of formats that became part of the archives/collections.

The building at 70 – 12th Street was sold to a new owner in 1995 who thankfully allowed us to occupy the space for an additional two years to organize the 20 years worth of the organization’s history, including artists’ files, photographs, art organization ephemera, performance art residue, documentation of publishing and video projects, a large artist video collection, and the organization’s business files. With the help of interns throughout 20 years, the organization had collected massive amounts of print and video documentation that reflected artist activities from the San Francisco Bay Area as well as artist-generated documentation from organizations worldwide. It was an enormous feat to review, cull, and organize the materials that eventually became the La Mamelle/Art Com Archives and Collections. The materials in print, performance art residue, photo documentation and copies of everything that the organization had published in various forms were sent to Stanford University Special Collections, 306 linear feet. Pacific Film Archives at the Berkeley Art Museum received the early artists’ video collection that included about 800 tapes produced by artists in the 1970s-80s. They also received broadcast quality tapes that had been distributed by Art Com to television stations, primarily in Europe and Japan.

An important early decision that the organization’s Board of Directors made was to keep the collections together to the extent possible. Some art dealers were eager to buy parts of the collection such as correspondence and signed objects from recognized artists. But the board recognized that the value of our archives for future research would be compromised if the most marketable items were sold off.

The basic categories of the La Mamelle/Art Com Archives and Collections at Stanford include:

  • Organization papers: legal papers and correspondence, manuscripts, documentation about activities, artist contracts, funding proposals. In other words, materials that provide insight into how the organization was run.

  • Periodical and book production files: research materials, manuscript drafts, and images used to produce Art Com Magazine, and the books published by Contemporary Arts Press, Performance anthology: source book for a decade of California performance art (1980, updated 1989) and Correspondence art: source book for the network of international postal art activity (1984).

  • Artists file: alphabetically arranged vertical files on hundreds of artists, including correspondence, publicity materials, articles and manuscripts, bibliographies, photographs and artist ephemera.

  • Artist spaces/organizations file: La Mamelle networked and collaborated on projects with many other artist-run organizations. This file contains information from art groups in the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia, South America, and Asia.

  • Artists’ periodical file: international in scope, periodicals and 'zines by artists with related correspondence and ephemera. Although not extensive in terms of complete runs, the collection includes hundreds of titles and showcases the richness of periodical publishing by artists over a 20-year period.

  • Artists’ books collections: one-of-a-kind and multiples, primarily artists' books produced during the 1970s and 80s, in all shapes, sizes and varied formats.

  • Library collection: books and catalogues pertaining to art activities the organization was involved in, including mail art, video and television, computers and new technologies, conceptually-based photography, language/poetry, performance art, theatre, dance, artists' publishing, alternative spaces, new art criticism/theory, and publications on movements that influenced this period of art, such as Dada, Fluxus and other conceptually-based activities.

  • Events file: primarily from the 1980s to early 90s, contains programs, brochures and other ephemera from art conferences and festivals worldwide, primarily in the areas of video/television, and computers and electronic arts.

  • Artworks collection: primarily artifacts from performance art works, and projects and video productions by a wide range of artists that were presented or sponsored by La Mamelle/Art Com.




The La Mamelle /Art Com Archives and Collections provides a good overview of the activities and attitudes of an era on a global scale and is not limited to only one artist organization. It is a compilation of documentation from many arts organizations, artist publishers, and individual artists worldwide. The concept from its inception was that the archives/collections would show the frenzy of activity, the cross fertilization of ideas, and the international collaboration and exchanges that were taking place between artists and artist-run organizations and publishers worldwide.

It’s now 2020. Placement of the archives at Stanford has resulted in research, student papers, a doctoral dissertation, and exhibitions utilizing the La Mamelle / Art Com archives. Pacific Film Archives has been responsive in digitizing many of the donated works as researchers have become interested in primary video works by artists from the 70’s-80’s time period when performance art and use of video was experimental and challenging. The La Mamelle /Art Com Archives is also in good company at Stanford University where hopefully a creative synergy has been nurtured for future research. Some other archives and papers now at Stanford include: Lynn Hershman Leeson Papers 1976-2004, Helen and Newton Harrison Papers, New Langton Street archive, Buckminster Fuller, and Allen Ginsberg archives, among others.

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This article is a revision and update of some previously published materials.

References:

Give Them the Picture: an anthology of La Mamelle and ART COM, 1975-1984, edited by Liz Glass, Susannah Magers, and Julian Myers. San Francisco: College of the Arts, 2011. An anthology that accompanied the exhibition “God Only Knows Who the Audience Is: Performance, Video, and Television Through the Lens of La Mamelle,” an exhibition based on the publications of La Mamelle/Contemporary Arts Press utilizing the La Mamelle/Art Com Archives at Stanford University, Pacific Film Archives, and artists’ personal collections.

Malloy, Judy. “Art Com Electronic Network: A Conversation with Fred Truck and Anna Couey.” In Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2016.

Pacific Film Archives (BAMPFA), at the University of California, Berkeley. The La Mamelle/Art Com video collection -- https://bampfa.org/about/search/film-video-and-book-catalogs

Stanford University Special Collections, Art Com Records, circa 1970-2005. 306 linear feet. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/4084484

Tacata, Ryan. La Mamelle: early Bay Area conceptual performance art and the alternative art archive. PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2015. https://purl.stanford.edu/qn935ty7877

Tong, Darlene. “La Mamelle.” Grove Art Online, published by Oxford University Press, 2018. Encyclopedia article describes the non-profit arts organization, 1975-1997.

Tong, Darlene. “Artists’ Archives: Preserving the Documentation and Collections of an Artist Organization.” Art Libraries Journal, v. 27(2), 2002, p. 22-27.

Tong, Darlene. “La Mamelle / Art Com, San Francisco – Evolution of a Non-Profit Artists’ Organization.” In Artist-Run Spaces: Non-Profit Collective Organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, edited by Gabriele Detterer and Maurizio Nannucci. Zurich: JRP/ Ringier, 2013, p.154-180.



About Darlene Tong

While art librarian at San Francisco State University, Darlene Tong became active with La Mamelle / Art Com in 1977, primarily focusing on the organization’s publishing efforts. For Performance Anthology: Source Book of California Performance Art (1st and updated editions), she compiled the “Chronology of Literature” documenting the publications and video about performance art in California from 1970-1988. In 1995 when the organization’s building was sold, Darlene spent the next two years organizing and preparing the La Mamelle / Art Com Archives and Collections that were transferred to Stanford University in 1997. Darlene is active on the governing board and publications committee of Leonardo/International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology that publishes Leonardo, Leonardo Music Journal, the Leonardo Book Series through MIT Press.