From shuttered mosques to mini golf: the Venice Biennale on the Web collection at the Clark Art Institute

June 12th, 2017

The following is a guest post by Andrea Puccio, Assistant Collections Management Librarian at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Library in Williamstown, Massachusetts.


With themes ranging from the overtly political to the achingly poignant to the downright absurd there are few topics left unexplored by contemporary art. At no time is that fact more apparent than during the Venice Biennale. Sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Art Olympics,” the Venice Biennale began in 1895 following on the tradition of 19th century salons and World’s Fairs. It remains one of the art world’s most prestigious events and is held every other year from May to November attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors and widespread media coverage. 2017 marks the 57th Biennale and includes a primary curated exhibition featuring 120 artists from more than 50 countries, 86 national pavilions, 22 collateral or officially sanctioned events, and countless associated events around the city.


Biennale collateral event website

Website of the 2015 Venice Biennale collateral event “Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf”.


As one of the largest art history research libraries in the country, the Clark has always collected the traditional catalogs published by the Biennale, but in 2007 it was decided to expand the collection. A partnership was formed with a London book dealer to attend the Biennale press preview on behalf of the library and collect any and all materials available. This turned out to include an amazing variety of items beyond catalogs and press kits: brochures, DVDs, flash drives, tote bags, bookmarks, pocket ashtrays, a ceramic pea, a well documented artist-selected salami, and other ephemera. Digital press kits were uploaded from flash drives or downloaded from the web thereby setting the stage for collecting additional born digital material. And with more material being produced solely online with each successive Biennale, not just press kits but also videos, installation photography, and even online catalogs in lieu of print, it became clear that including the web content was critical to maintaining the depth and breadth of the collection.


Icelandic Pavilion website

The website of the 2015 Icelandic Pavilion “The Mosque” which was shut down by the Venice police days into the exhibition. The police order posted to the door of the building is now part of the Clark’s ephemera collection.


Like the exhibition itself, most of the associated websites, blogs, and social media accounts are temporary. Having served their purpose some are abandoned, others repurposed for each successive Biennale without retaining earlier content. A web archive is the only practical way of preserving this material and the Clark launched its first Archive-It collection “Venice Biennale on the Web” in 2013. Practical? Yes. Simple? No.

One of the toughest challenges is the timing. Each pavilion is on its own timetable, some sites go live months before Biennale, most in the few weeks leading up to the opening, some stragglers even after opening day. And though the scope of the collection is restricted to Biennale-sanctioned national, collateral, and special event participant’s sites it is a race against time to track down 200 or more seeds and secure any necessary permissions within that timeframe.


Bahamas Pavilion website

The 2013 Bahamas Pavilion website. 2013 was the Bahamas first national participation at the Venice Biennale.


Another challenge is capturing such creative content. These sites tend to function as an extension of the artist’s vision, or perhaps in some cases, a great excuse to play around with experimental web design. Interactive screensavers, radio broadcasts, embedded video games, live streaming video, proprietary fonts, you name it, we’ve seen it, and tried to harvest it. It is only due to the amazing dedication of the Archive-It staff that almost every piece has been harvested successfully. Until this year the Clark has relied exclusively on the Archive-It staff to run our crawls instead focusing on curation of the collection, QA, and the addition of extensive, standardized metadata. This year we began training to take on full responsibility for future collections and are very excited to do so.


The 2017 German Pavilion’s website which if left open but inactive in a browser fills the screen with WhatsApp transcripts from past performances.


Venice Biennale 2017 on the Web, the Clark’s third Archive-It collection, is shaping up to be as challenging and eclectic as years past. From Tunisian “freesas” distributed by aspiring migrants to looted Iraqi antiquities and Icelandic troll perfume– the bold, the beautiful, and the bizarre of the Biennale will once again be preserved in equal measure.