The Glass Archive

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This ongoing international project takes fossilised diatoms and other microscopic organisms beyond their usual scientific context, to investigate histories of collecting, archiving, imaging and interactions between art and science.

Work from the project to date has appeared in a number of exhibitions and publications.

“I first became interested in the Oamaru diatomite because of the way in which it retained physical traces of ‘site’. This interest drew on and extended some of my earlier photographic interests — for example my first attempts at photography, taking photographs through a microscope as a thirteen-year-old; my ongoing interest in human-modified and commodified landscapes; and my fascination with the unseen underground. […] I was also interested in the way in which the Victorian diatom craze represented a fascination with ‘visualising’ the world, which also found expression in the development of photography in the nineteenth century, and in the ways in which diatomite from many different sources around the world was commodified and dispersed as raw sample, processed material, and prepared slides.

My work in the project included obtaining slides to photograph (purchasing some of the vintage slides that come up for auction online, and commissioning a number of new ones to be made by a slide-maker who holds a stock of raw and cleaned historic samples); visiting institutional collections here and overseas to look at relevant slides and associated material, ranging from written correspondence to accessioned chunks of diatomite; photographing some of the sites where famous diatomite samples had been collected; researching some of the narratives and stories around the diatom craze; and, of course, photographing the material of the slides themselves.

As the project developed, I began to think of it in terms of ‘The Glass Archive’. Far from being a single entity associated with a particular collection or repository, this archive is based on dispersal — the dispersal of raw and cleaned samples, microscope slides, and even the strata full of microfossils themselves, distributed through the current landscape as a result of climate change or shifting topographies. It incorporates glassy microforms, glass slides, and images underpinned by the glass optics of microscopes and cameras (the devices that make the invisible visible). A product of science, art and commerce, it is part of the history of each.”

From The Glass Archive, photographs and essay by Wayne Barrar, essay by Dr Kelley Wilder, design by Anna Brown (Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University Wellington, and Forrester Gallery, 2016).

Installation view courtesy of SCAPE Public Art