Whatever the intention of the artist was in starting the collection, one of the major differences between an artist’s collection and that of a non-artist’s is whether or not the collection results in exhibition. Once the collection is exhibited, it becomes a piece of artwork—the viewers need to pay admission fee to the museum, they are not allowed to touch the display, and are prohibited from singling out an item and purchasing it.
While participants may be required to pay admission to swap meets and the vendors could be particular about the fashion they display their collection, the main audience of the exhibition, be it a small vending stall, is still collectors. The vendors assume knowledge from the visitors to some extent, and they interact with each other face to face. In another words, the exhibitor and the audience are both on the same platform. The nature of the collection is more versatile than that of an artist’s: it is not sacrosanct and the number of the items could change, and so could the value of the items.
Similarly, a collector displaying his collection will not make him an artist. He could be an authority in the field, and the items on display may not be on sale. The collector may not always be present at the exhibition site, and the relationship between the collector and the viewer may be more distant. Yet, the nature of the collection still remains to be a hobby: it is usually not regarded with any values outside the field. A few pieces from a collection of rocks may gain attention from geologists, but the collector himself will not be called a geologist. A collection of antique furniture could be praised for its beauty even from those ignorant of the field, but the collector will not be called an aesthetician.
What makes a collection an artwork, then, is perhaps the uniqueness in the categorization of the collected items. “Archive of Contemporary History” by Karsten Bott is a collection of everyday artifacts. The amount of the collection is in itself overwhelming. And since the collection is so vast and cannot be labeled easily, it does require some interpretation from the audience. However, what makes Bott an installation artist is the uniqueness of the display and the categorization of the items.
Bott claims to spend a lot of time inputting data of his collected objects to the database, creating links and cross-references. Though the categorization is not shown with the display, the continuation from one object to the other next to it is somewhat obvious, whether it is neat lines of objects related to plumbing, or a group of plates that comprise a part of a huge display that viewers see from a bridge. Most items are not unusual when taken out from the collection, and therefore the value of the collection is not the rarity of the items. Rather, it is the context that the collected objects create in the display that matters, and Bott himself is very aware of this effect: “I put a structure on the collection of my archive that defines things other than alphabetically. I am humanizing these things. It’s like a giant polka.”(The Cincinnati Enquirer, Sunday, May 5, 2002)
The effect of unique categorization is more explicit in Bott’s book, “One of Each.” The title already illustrates his ideas about categorization, with some mockery. Selecting 2000 items from over 500,000 items he owns, he attempts to create a sense of compiling an exhaustive encyclopedia by choosing objects that best represents the category. His idea of classifying the objects is more apparent since the items are labeled in the book, and displays how he defies and mocks the conventional categorization. He brings his personal perspective into the exhibition of his collection, and he makes viewers to accept that perspective.