This dissertation is an ethnography conducted with the Los Angeles-based community arts organization called Machine Project. Operating both a storefront gallery in Echo Park and as a loose association of contemporary artists, performers, curators, and designers, Machine Project seeks to make "rarefied knowledge accessible" through workshops, site-specific installations and performances, lectures, and various participatory projects. Machine Project exists as but one instantiation of a larger movement in contemporary art around "alternative spaces," or organizations and projects that resist and/or refigure the discursive structures imposed on art by institutions of cultural heritage and the art market. Alternative and artist-run spaces often operate with a Do-It-Yourself and independent ethos, and are often sustained by its communities of artists and the publics that support them. Many of the efforts of alternative spaces are process-based operations, whether as an exhibition space for experimental forms of contemporary art, forums and workshops on a range of topics, performances, participatory projects, among others. Records created about the events, programs, and operations of these alternative spaces are often elusive, if created at all. Historically, alternative and artist-run spaces have been invested in community building, the public circulation of aesthetic knowledge, the exposing of museums and other institutions of cultural heritage as discursive frames, and public participation. How does documentation serve to support such orientations? If an alternative or artist-run space describes its operations in terms of values like community participation and relational aesthetics, how might such values be folded into the production, circulation, and preservation of its records?
This dissertation is comprised of two primary sections. The first section includes a critical review of the archival science literature, identifying fundamental concepts of archival theory and practice that are directly relevant to the research questions, such as the principle of provenance, evidence, and records creation. This section also includes a chapter devoted to describing and assessing ethnography as a methodological approach for archival research, drawing in insights culled from social systems theory and information theory.
The second section of the dissertation is comprised of observations and reflections on Machine Project and its documentation practices at three levels of analysis. The first level explores documentation issues that emerge out of the organization's collaborations with arts institutions. The second level adopts a finer-grained view and looks at collaborative relationships between artists affiliated with Machine Project. The third level looks to notions of community as they are expressed in a selection of Machine Project's events and programs, and analyzes the documentation produced by audiences and shared in social media spaces. The dissertation concludes with reading of Machine Project's documentation practices through the theoretical lens of the records continuum, which forms the basis for a critique of the records continuum and the burgeoning area of research on community archiving. Following this critique, the dissertation then presents a series of recommendations for future research and describes the metaphorical figure of the "itinerant archivist" as a conceptual intervention and strategy for self-reflection among archival scholars and practitioners.