Epistemological Aesthetics: Grappling with Anarchives

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A few images come to mind when most people think of what an “archive” looks like. Books stacked upon miles of shelves in a library, some neatly stacked alphabetically and/or organized by decimal system, others piled on carts waiting to be wheeled back into circulation or scanned and re-cataloged into the institution’s database. Sometimes people think of old artifacts carefully preserved and encased behind glass at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Smithsonian. Occasionally they’ll probably think of digital databases from public libraries or universities that one would have to click through in order to find the most relevant literature to lend academic authority and background context for a research project.

People don’t always think of post-its on a wall that accumulated to reflect a city’s collective consciousness right after an election as a kind of archive in and of itself. They also don’t always wonder about the ways in which street art enthusiasts have taken care to photograph and document a finished piece (or even if it’s work-in-progress) so that they can publish it on their website. They don’t always ponder about how certain museum institutions have exhibits consisting of encased displayed items that were acquired and archived without the permission of certain cultures as a result of colonialism and imperialism. These items are often kept out of reach from the general public — and kept even further away from people who may not be able to afford the cost of an admission ticket — but they are nonetheless catalogued and told from an out of touch and outdated hegemonic viewpoint.

Foucault wrote about the archive as a “totality of the formulations of the conditions of our existence, as the ultimate happiness on earth, the archive serves to organize mental and enforced orders in the shape of appropriate structures and to preserve, with a tremendous amount of effort, the memory of past orders” (Zielinski). Based on the etymology of the word archive as derived from ancient Greek, it means both commencement and commandment. Linguistically and metaphorically, the word itself brought order to a world of chaos as humans throughout time have tried to organize the stimuli and phenomena around them in order to tell stories as a way of survival.

While going through week’s selection of readings, I kept thinking, “What about the anarchive? What is it?” Was it a kind of academic protest movement against the archive as an authority of knowledge? And, as Siegfried Zielinski asks, why do we need “anarchaeology for anarchives” especially for the arts? I stumbled through these terminologies, trying to figure out what they mean and why these words exist to describe two diametrically opposed concepts of what collected knowledge can look like. What is all this anarchy about archives?

According to Zielinski, anarchives do not lay claim to any authoritative entity of leadership. Anarchives do not claim to know from where things originated, nor do they claim to predict or know the direction in which the discourse about any particular topic may be headed toward. Instead, anarchives arise and exist to challenge and provoke the archive. Anarchives are always in an active mode; once they go live, they become an ongoing project that may continue to grow in its significance and/or magnitude. Anarchives also tend to “celebrate the past as a regained present.” This creates a participatory atmosphere in which audiences can also partake in the rediscovery or the revisiting of previously collected items or epistemological works and view them through a different storytelling perspective or narration of history.

A few examples come to mind when I think of anarchives in more recent contexts—whether they’re conceptualized by artists, artist collectives, or individuals connecting across different social media platforms. 

The first example is Subway Therapy by Brooklyn-based artist Matthew “Levee” Chavez. Although he isn’t a licensed therapist, Chavez wanted to create an experience and a space where people can sit with him and tell him what’s on their mind. He would have a table with two chairs laid out on a subway platform and invite commuters to sit down and chat with him, and he would also have Post-Its and markers on the table for anyone who preferred to express their thoughts in this method. Chavez started Subway Therapy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election season, and when the results came in on November 9th, he invited people to write or draw their thoughts and feelings on the post-its, which he then hung up on the wall of the 14th Street station. Chavez would collect each post it and store them in folders, though it’s not clear whether he organized them in any particular order or separated the negative messages from the uplifting, positive memos. Currently, the New York Historical Society is partnering with Chavez to digitally archive the post-its and preserve them as part of a museum collection for future generations to see. 

Another example that reminded me of an anarchive is the artist coalition movement called Decolonize This Place, which strives to provide a more honest and accurate depiction of history than museum curators and historians would traditionally convey to the public. Decolonize This Place arose from the Occupy Wall Street movement and is comprised of artists and academics across different disciplines. On Columbus Day in 2016, the group had decided to “occupy” the American Museum of Natural History and demanded that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt be taken down because of his imperialist policies. They held free educational tours for the public to “challenge and provoke” the museum, making the case that most, if not all, of the artifacts in the museum’s vast collections were obtained from a hegemonic system of colonization and imperialism. 

The attitudes and the language of this imperialist hegemony still permeate the ways in which the exhibits are displayed; the museum curators and historians responsible for collecting and cataloging the artifacts behind the glass cases used language that is considered today to be culturally ignorant and insensitive to human diversity. The layout of the museum itself, if one is to think of the institution itself as an archive, remains largely unchanged—the exhibit on the third floor featuring “Primates” for instance, is right across the hall from where the “Eastern Woodlands Indians,” the “Plains Indians,” and the “Hall of Pacific Peoples” are located.

As someone who identifies as a minority and ethnically identifies herself as Filipino, I felt that this was an offensive and frankly terrible way of organizing the logistics of a museum’s floors. I’m not even going to gripe about the fact that the artifacts from the Philippines should have been grouped with the Hall of Asian Peoples, even though the archipelago is located in the Pacific Ocean. By their logic, then, Japan should have been grouped with the Hall of Pacific Peoples. Alas, it’s not. It just felt odd that artifacts from my ethnic culture were on display, but the labels were written from the vantage point of people who are outsiders to my heritage. In light of these kinds of issues, Decolonize This Place continues to re-educate the public about the other side of history’s coin and remind them of the forgotten and sideswept cultures by staging these sit-ins and tours, thereby disrupting the hegemonic ordering of history and presenting itself as an artist coalition in support of anarchival efforts.

The last example I kept thinking about was the hashtag’s dynamic use in social media platforms, especially on Twitter, to sort, aggregate, and archive user’s posts and status updates. Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #YesSheCan have been used for various social movements since the moment it was introduced to the public as a useful function in social media.

More recently the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter and across other platforms highlights the widespread occurrence of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape that happens each day not just to women, but also to men and to members of the trans community. These endeavors highlight the depth of complexity surrounding the prevalence of these problems in society. These social movement hashtags can be considered as on-going, live examples of the anarchive because they disrupt and challenge our conventional everyday discourse about patriarchal values and toxic masculinity in society.

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