Processing post

The points brought up in all of these readings/talks/interviews support my thinking that the decolonization of archives is much more complex than an ‘undoing’ of archival injustices. It is not simply a matter of repatriation or ownership, a returning of materials to where they come from. The very methodologies used in colonial archiving practice, (for example as Christen brings up, the viewing of indigenous/colonized peoples as a subject of study rather than collaborators), have enduring effects on the categorization, preservation, metadata, and dissemination of these artifacts even in today’s context. Moving forward, I would also like to linger on the question of what non-western archival practices look like. Caswell several times in the interview draws a strong dichotomy between western and non-western archival thought. Particularly with the notion of subjectivity. “Records are supposed to be impartial, which means that the people creating them should have no notion of how they might wind up in an archives in the future.” This is an important distinction because all of these readings argue that archivists should have respect for the intended visibility, distribution and preservation of artifacts during their creation (i.e. the intended illegibility of certain rap lyrics for particular audiences (Doreen St.Felix), or the right to be forgotten).

Mindsets & Toolsets for Self-Archiving

I was struck by the recurring themes of awareness, empowerment and the efforts to provide tools to communities to archive themselves that ran throughout the material for this week. The interview with Michelle Caswell provided several examples of this in her own work and in those of who have inspired her — all stressing the importance “to use the same language [in archival projects] that communities use to describe themselves.” She builds on this in the following article regarding models to employ “radical empathy” and core tenants of social justice in archival practice. These sentiments are expanded upon in Kimberly Christen’s work with Traditional Knowledge licensing and labeling systems for use in the handling of indigenous cultural digital materials. I was particularly interested in the iconography of the TK labeling system that was highlighted in this work — using visual cues to potentially expand the reach of this system through educational/social channels. Burgis Jules, in the “Failure to Care” panel discussion, neatly and succinctly articulated these efforts via his interest in the “usability of data archiving tools as a way to diversify the historical record.”

From the same panel discussion, I am also interested in Doreen St Felix’s comment the griot as a sort of “ghoulish” figure in West African culture/society. This role of musician/historian/storyteller is another example of embodied archival knowledge via the distribution of oral history. I hadn’t previously considered or known about the darker contexts/association of this cultural figure.

Lastly: Evan Hill’s article — focusing on the Mosireen archive project “858” which documents smartphone videos of the Egyptian protest movement in 2011 — makes a keen observation in its conclusion: “We say the internet never forgets, but internet freedom isn’t evenly distributed: When tech companies have expanded into parts of the world where information suppression is the norm, the have proven wiling to work with local censors. Those censors will be emboldened by new efforts at platform regulation in the US and Europe, just as authoritarian regimes have already enthusiastically repurposed the rhetoric of “fake news.””  The subject of intense moderation of major social media and networking platforms is the focus of the highlighted film on this week’s Independent Lens on PBS — The  Cleaners, by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck. (I haven’t watched it yet!)

Addressing Archival Injustices at Weeksville Heritage Center

For this presentation, I want to take up Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s question, “Is it okay for things not to exist for future generations?” (41:00). This question was particularly fraught for Janan Rasheed, who grappled with her own “archival impulse,” and it was also situated within a discussion about Blackness and archives: empowering Black people to create, manage, and dictate the terms of their own archives (Jules), protecting Black cultural production from being made legible or knowable through archives (St. Felix), and using illegibility or invisibility as a means of escape from the surveillance of blackness (Browne). For me, this question is central to this week’s readings in that they all, in one way or another, argue that to address the archival injustices that silence, exclude, or overwrite marginalized voices, those voices, those communities must be involved. They must be able to determine which parts of their stories should or should not exist for their own – and others’ – future generations.

For Michelle Caswell, every step of the production and maintenance of archives should reflect this self-determination. Archivists, then, have a set of obligations: “to center those people who have been marginalized in our appraisal decisions moving forward,” to describe records using “the same languages that communities use to describe themselves,” and to take a “survivor-centered approach…which is centering survivors [in] decision processes” about what is done with archived materials, such as digitization” (Cole & Griffith, 24). This suggests that community involvement must be situated not at a superficial level, after the fact of collection or preservation, but from the beginning and throughout.

I think Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC), a “multidisciplinary museum” in Brooklyn, is attempting to operate along these lines. Weeksville was founded by James Weeks in 1838 and would become “one of the largest known independent Black communities in pre-Civil War America” (The Legacy Project). This community flourished through the work of African American entrepreneurs and land investors and because of its residents, who were deeply committed to sustaining their independence (5 of July). Weeksville Heritage Center’s (WHC) mission is to continue this work, to “document, preserve and interpret the history of free African American communities in Weeksville…and to create and inspire innovative, contemporary uses of African American history through education, the arts, and civic engagement” (What We Do). One of their main programs is The Legacy Project, which is described as “[standing] for the freedom and right to know, document, and defend one’s own history,” with the goal of keeping Weeksville’s “legacy alive and vibrant for future generations” (Legacy Project). WHC hosts Legacy Project events at least every month. Some recent examples include “Embodying Archives,” wherein participants were invited to explore individual and collective memories carried “genetically, spiritually, and physically” through “performances, discussions, and communal movement” and “Archives for Black Lives,” which was a day of intergenerational self-documentation where participants were taught strategies for recording their oral histories and digitizing family photographs. 

On November fourteenth, visual artist Elise Peterson will lead a workshop on digital collage. Peterson’s digital collage work incorporates portraits of artists of color within famous Matisse paintings, and some have been displayed on billboards in the United States and Canada. For The Legacy Project, digital collage is a technique “that offers [the] chance to push the visual boundaries of a design, illustration, or art piece,” but it also seems to enact an intervention, whether in a historical narrative, modes of representation, or public spaces. The Project is a manifestation of Weeksville Heritage Center’s interest in supporting “self-reliance, resourcefulness, transformation, collaboration, celebration, and liberation of Black persons in America.”

Elise Peterson.

Here, WHC seems to align with Caswell’s idea of the work of archives as the work of social justice (Cole & Griffith, 23), as well as her argument, drawing from Geoffrey Yeo’s definition of a record as a “‘persistent representation of human activity that travels across space and time,’” that records need not be material but can also be oral, kinetic, etc. (Cole & Griffith, 23).

By giving Black community members access to archival strategies and technologies, The Legacy Project creates a space of self-determination for Black people within archives; giving them a chance to modify archives by filling silences with newly recorded oral histories, for example, or to create new collaborative archives with newly digitized material. This project is explicit in its orientation to future generations – to keeping these spaces open for them and creating a foundation or toolkit for them to use. Importantly, however, only some of the material generated through The Legacy Project is archived at the WHC’s Resource Center for Self-Determination and Freedom. Clips of oral histories recorded at the museum are available to the public through the Center’s digital collections, but The Legacy Project, operating alongside and sometimes with the Resource Center, does not aim solely to generate material for these digital collections nor to make such material universally accessible, rather it gives Black communities and families the resources to preserve their materials for their own purposes. Here, it is clear that Black communities are centered in the appraisal process, both in the sense that the archive is made by and for them and in the sense that their lives are not simply objects of knowledge but that they themselves are subjects involved in knowledge production, entitled to keep their records from the archive in the first place.

To return to Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s question – “Is it okay for things not to exist for future generations?” – while The Legacy Project’s primary focus may not be archiving records for everyone everywhere, it does have an interest in preserving material for the future generations of its own community. Preservation and stewardship are highly personal in this context, and though the archives produced through the Project’s programs might hold importance beyond the family, it is up to that family to decide whether and how to share them. In this, I also see Doreen St. Felix’s point that we have to acknowledge and accept that there are things we might never be able to access or understand; we have to understand that legibility can be oppressive (1:07:39).

Janan Rasheed also asked, “What are the limitations of radical visibility?” but I wonder, what are the limitations of radical invisibility? I am thinking here of Joy Buolamwini’s advocacy for more inclusive code and coding practices, which, for her, would involve modifying existing systems and using more inclusive training sets. After encountering facial recognition software that could recognize her white colleague but not herself, Buolamwini formed the Algorithmic Justice League to combat bias in the design and development of algorithms. Does Buolamwini’s interest in greater inclusivity and visibility imply greater legibility? By contrast, Nabil Hassein has written “against Black inclusion in facial recognition,” arguing “I have no reason to support the development or deployment of technology which makes it easier for the state to recognize and surveil members of my community.”

Is there a productive space between legibility and illegibility? Should there be? In her book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Simone Browne argued that “protoypical whiteness,” the “cultural logic that informs much of biometric information technology” becomes meaningful only through “dark matter,” or bodies or body parts that confuse biometric technology such as facial recognition (Browne, 162). While she recognizes that the exclusion of “dark matter” from the design processes of these technologies risks reproducing existing inequalities, she also wonders whether there is some benefit to remaining “unknown” or illegible to them (Browne, 163). She points to the potentiality of this illegibility, saying “then and now, cultural production, expressive acts, and everyday practices offer moments of living with, refusals, and alternatives to routinized, racializing surveillance” (Browne, 82).

Robin Rhode, Pan’s Opticon, 2008.

I want to end with these images from Robin Rhode’s Pan’s Opticon (2008), which Browne uses in her analysis and on the cover of her book. In them, Browne argues, the subject’s “ocular interrogation” of the Panopticon and “the architecture of surveillance – corners, shadows, reflections, and light – [covers] the wall with dark matter. … [He] is not backed into a corner, but facing it, confronting and returning unverified gazes” (Browne, 59). For Browne, this kind of looking, which she refers to as “disruptive staring” and which bell hooks has called “Black looks,” is a political and transformative act with, I think, potential for archives and beyond (Browne, 58). 

Sources

Simone Browne. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press (2015) Print.

Bergis Jules, Simone Browne, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Doreen St. Felix, “Failures of Care” Panel, Digital Social Memory: Ethics, Privacy, and Representation in Digital Preservation conference, The New Museum, February 4, 2017 {video} (1:08).

Harrison Cole and Zachary Griffith, “Images, Silences, and the Archival Record: An Interview with Michelle Caswell,” disclosure: A Journal of Social Theory 26 (July 2018): 21-7.

Joy Buolamwini, “How I’m Fighting Bias in Algorithms,” TEDxBeaconStreet, November 2017 {video} (8:45).

Kimberly Christen, “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the ‘s’ Matters,” Western Archives 6:1 (2015): 1-19.

Nabil Hassein, “Against Black Inclusion in Facial Recognition,” Digital Talking Drum. 15 August, 2017. Web.

Activism and Resistance in the Archive

In Cole and Griffith’s interview with Michelle Caswell, she explains her understanding of archives and archiving as “infused with a social justice ethics” (Cole and Griffith 24). Unlike in a museum context where the form and aesthetic of an object is prioritised, the archive inherently contextualises the material. I understand this to be the opportunity and space for resistance and social justice. For example, in archival metadata the same language and terminology used by a community can also be used. While this allows for those in the community to access this information, depending on the context and archival institution, the decision to use a different language or specific term can in itself be taking on a political stance.

In Christen’s article, independent web portals and digital archives in which tribes have control over databases and the creation of records are said to “deliberately position Indigenous communities themselves as the owners and custodians” (Christen 4). This deinstitutionalized archive and Caswell’s post-custodial archive, have been criticised for its structure but also its status as an archive has been called into question. Is an archive just a collection of records? What is it about these archives that threaten the authority and legitimacy of an institutional archive?

 

Radical empathy in the U.S. – Mexico border

On the 3th of October of 2013, a boat carrying migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana sank on the island of Lampedusa in Italy. After these tragic events, the International Organization for Migration started a project in order to track and keep a record of migrant deaths. Today, the Missing Migrants Project estimates that around 28,000 migrants around the world have lost their lives since 2014.

The odyssey that these migrants have to endure takes them through unimaginable areas. Across deserts, jungles and oceans, thousands go missing. The word “missing” here can be applied to multiple scenarios:

  • Missing because they are unable to establish contact with their families, even though they may be alive
  • Missing because they have been detained without access to means of communication
  • Missing because they (or their families) choose not to seek help because they can get deported
  • Missing because their remains may never be found, or get properly documented or identified.

One of the most difficult challenges we face in the world is helping the families of these migrants. If we fail to do so, we are condemning thousands of people to oblivion.

During her intervention at the Failures of Care keynote, Doreen St. Felix references the essay “Venus in Two Acts” by Saidiya Hartman, where she tackles the subject of impossible speech — speech that, according to St. Felix’s interpretation, “occurred in history but was never able to have been recorded”. Hartman urges us to think about how can we recover those voices.

This question, framed within the context of missing migrants in the U.S. – Mexico border, adds new levels of complexity as it incorporates multiple local, state and federal administrative bodies. Each actor with their own rules, their own databases and their own records. How is it possible for these families to navigate this never-ending bureaucratic maze?

On October 2017 the International Committee of the Red Cross published a policy paper where they enumerated a series of recommendations in order to facilitate the search for and identification of missing migrants. In said paper the Red Cross suggests, among many other things, the following: standardize data collection “for the sole humanitarian purpose of searching for and identifying the missing person”, setting up effective channels of communication that support the families during their search, provide them with access to services, and lift “any specific and legal barriers” that the families may face in the exercise of their rights.

There is no question that the goal of the Red Cross is a noble one. Reading the policy paper one can see that there is a clear concern and commitment to respect and defend the families’ dignity. Access to information and records of missing and deceased migrants is fundamental for these families. Nevertheless, the solutions by such international organizations, more often than not, adhere to a rights-based framework. This lens is necessary and it can certainly help, but in order to be fulfilled, we need to set in motion a larger set of bureaucratic procedures that involve multiple branches of Government. This process can take years and can be drastically altered depending specific electoral results or the funding that certain agencies get so they can help this families.

Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor warn us of the shortcomings of such an approach, they state that a rights-based methodology “ignores the realities of more subtle, intangible, and shifting forms of oppression that are also pressing social justice concerns”. Although, one can argue that the forms of oppression that certain migrant communities endure in the country are far from subtle.

A clear example happened a month ago during a meeting in Boulder, Colorado, between the Forensic Border Coalition (an organization comprised by forensic scientists, scholars and human rights activists); Paula Wolff, a lawyer representing the FBI; and representatives of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. After six years of trying to make this reunion possible, the FBC asked the U.S. Government to grant them access to the National DNA Index System (NDIS) in order to help identify the remains of the migrants that have died or disappeared across the U.S.-Mexico border. Paula Wolff replied that, even though she sympathized with the families, and there was no disagreement on what must be done, “the only issues are working on how it is to be accomplished”.

Not only is the FBI limited by the law on what database information can be made public, the law also states that, in order to have access to the NDIS, “all DNA samples submitted to the database must be taken in the presence of law enforcement”. Nevertheless, the majority of these families do not want to approach the authorities because of their own legal status and fear of violations of privacy and surveillance. Unfortunately, given the harsh conditions of the desert, a DNA sample means that it is often the only viable way of identify a body. This rights-based framing of the problem jeopardizes the safety of this community, therefore, we must ask ourselves if there is an alternative solution that can help us establish dynamics of affective responsibility in order to help these families.

In the early 2000’s, forensic anthropologists Bruce Anderson and Robin Reineke started collecting information of the relatives who called the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, Arizona. This was not part of their job description but they realized that it was something important that they had to do. Reineke joined the office as part of her research for her dissertation but she continued with this work. In her words, once they talk with one of these family members, “it’s impossible to not feel responsible to carry on the search”. In 2013 she founded Colibrí Center, an institution that believes in radical empathy and is creating alternative channels to help these families.

During their first years of operation, Colibrí Center created a large database and helped families in their search, but a year ago, after receiving a grant from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, they started collecting DNA from family members that needed their help. The new capabilities of the organization brought with them the necessity to elaborate systems that guarantee the safety and protection of the community they are trying to help. The Center keeps its database private, they do not inquire about the legal status of anyone that works them, they schedule appointments to collect DNA samples at locations that they do not disclose publicly, the tests are free and the names of those who are tested are not shared with the police.

In order to find if there is a DNA match, Colibrí works closely with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. The County’s Office has created a DNA database of more than 1,000 cases of unidentified individuals. The DNA samples collected are shared with a private lab where Colibrí also sends their samples “in the hope of producing blind matches between the unidentified and the families, matches that the medical examiner then confirms. Once someone is identified, Colibrí works to notify the family and to facilitate the next steps in the process.”

Colibrí Center has traveled to multiple states in the U.S. and even to Mexico in order to help these families. They have now created a solid network that is based on social justice. With their archival work they have become, in the words of Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, “record-keepers…caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users”, and the community they serve.

Sources:

Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives,” Archivaria 81 (Spring 2016): 23-43.

Bergis Jules, Simone Browne, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Doreen St. Felix, “Failures of Care” Panel, Digital Social Memory: Ethics, Privacy, and Representation in Digital Preservation conference, The New Museum, February 4, 2017 {video} (1:08)

Hay Andrew, “Group seeks U.S. DNA to identify missing migrants”, Reuters. October 5, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-missing/group-seeks-u-s-dna-to-identify-missing-migrants-idUSKCN1MF2QI

International Committee of the Red Cross, “Missing Migrants and their Families”, ICRC. August, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/document/file_list/missing-migrants-and-their-families.pdf

Colibrí Center, “DNA Program”, Colibrí Center. Accessed November 12, 2018. http://www.colibricenter.org/programa-de-adn/

Colibrí Center, “Colibrí’s Commitment to Protecting Privacy & Security”, Colibrí Center. May 25, 2017 {video} (3:00). Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BKkRpm1wbk&t=13s

 

 

 

The Limits of Memory

I found this week’s reading assignments interesting because they highlighted that archiving itself can be a revolutionary act. Expanding upon the notion we have been working with that ‘archiving is memory’, the simple act of documenting and archiving populations and events, especially disenfranchised or ‘non-mainstream’ populations, provides a voice for the voiceless within collective ‘memory’. As Caswell states, “Fundamentally to me, the
act of remembering and forgetting is about creating a future in which resources are more equitably distributed. For me, archival labor should be infused with a social justice ethics.” The ‘act of remembering’ is in itself a powerful tool, and a tool the archivist can use to turn ‘memory’ into something more permanent and tangible.

Looking at topics like the Arab Spring or indigenous peoples can give us a look into the type of populations that in an earlier time would be undocumented or even forgotten. In both the analog and digital ages our ability to archive has been limited; limited by technology, by public or private interests, by political or religious taboo, etc. Referring to the Arab Spring Even Hill states, “One broken link at a time, one of the most heavily documented historical events of the social media era could fade away before our eyes”. Just as our human brain is limited in the quantity and detail we can remember, so is our ability to ‘remember’ in our archives – both in analog and digital environments.

Inviting “the other” + invisibility politics

Having been raised by a single mother, my understanding of domesticity is imbued with certain “feminist ethics.” I was particularly moved by Caswell and Cifor’s idea of radical empathy, one that involves a kind of hospitable guidance of “the other” in archival interventions (2016, p. 25). At the risk of extolling midwestern friendliness, I take this invitation of the other to mean the potential to bring together disparate, perhaps even incompatible, articulations of “care.” Failed attempts to ethically preserve cultural knowledge reveals the collective tendency to efface the granularity of these archival materials. However, the power relations enfolded into politics of invisibility complicate the right to privacy. As Doreen St. Felix notes, some work is produced with an intended illegibility: “not every artist wants everyone to understand.”

What does become clear in the digital landscape is that cultural material produced and preserved online faces more questions than those cared for in historically private spaces like the home. We cannot domesticate the Web.

Poetics of Information, Friday, 11/16, at NYU

The Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts
Nov 16, 2018, 9:30am – 6:00pm

See the website listing

The Poetics of Information is a one-day symposium bringing together writers, artists, scholars, and critics to consider the place of information as an aesthetic, conceptual, and creative force in contemporary culture. Topics to be addressed include vastness and repetition as aesthetic principles, algorithms and the creation and consumption of music, conceptual writers in their engagement with information, and the place of computation in literary studies and creation. Organized around a series of interdisciplinary discussion panels, the symposium includes prominent writers, conceptual artists, photographers, poets, critics, and scholars. These include Craig Dworkin (University of Utah), Robert Fitterman (New York University), Emily Fuhrman (Columbia University), Trevor Laurence Jockims (New York University), Shiv Kotecha (New York University), Damon Krukowski (Artforum, Pitchfork), Shannon Mattern (The New School), Holly Melgard (New York City College of Technology), Nick Montfort (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Allison Parrish (New York University), Zabet Patterson (Stony Brook University), Liz Pelly (Baffler, Pitchfork), Ben Ratliff (New York University), Paul Stephens (Bard Prison Initiative), Dennis Tenen (Columbia University), David Turner (Penny Fractions, The New Yorker), and Penelope Umbrico (School of Visual Arts).

The Poetics of Information has been organized by Trevor Laurence Jockims (TLJ3@NYU.EDU) and is free and open to NYU students, faculty, and the general public.

Symposium Schedule

9:30-10:00 am Welcome

10:00-11:15 am Repetition and Vastness
Moderator: Trevor Laurence Jockims (New York University)
Panelists: Robert Fitterman (New York University), Zabet Patterson (Stony Brook University), and Penelope Umbrico (School of Visual Arts)

11:30 am-12:45 pm Music and Algorithms
Moderator: Ben Ratliff (New York University)
Panelists: Damon Krukowski (Artforum, Pitchfork); Liz Pelly (Baffler, Pitchfork), David Turner (Penny Fractions, The New Yorker)

1:00-2:00 pm Lunch Break

2:00-3:15 pm Poetics and Informatics
Panelists: Shiv Kotecha (New York University), Holly Melgard (New York City College of Technology), Nick Montfort (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Paul Stephens (Bard Prison Initiative)

3:30-4:45 pm Poetic Computing
Panelists: Emily Fuhrman (Columbia University), Shannon Mattern (The New School), Allison Parrish (New York University); and Dennis Tenen (Columbia University)

5:00-6:00 pm Closing Lecture and Reading
Craig Dworkin (University of Utah)

What’s In A Name?

In September 2017, during a Twitter Q&A session, #AskACurator, hosted by the British Museum, curator Jane Portal tweeted: “We aim to be understandable by 16-year-olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing – so we have to be careful about using too many.” The Museum has since issued an apology. 

This type of cultural imperialism in the Western world is so ingrained in archival practices that museums can sometimes feel like less of a place to acquire cultural knowledge and more of an institution of capital-gaining cultural appropriation and superficial gandering. That tweet demonstrates some of the themes in this week’s readings, namely the discussion about the lack of including a community in an effort to create an archive pertaining to their heritage, and the effort to name items in the vernacular of said group. This also raises a question mentioned in the Digital Social Memory panel, who is the audience?

When a name is changed or taken away it strips the cultural significance of the item; it replaces the bodies and histories attached with a centerpiece, a decoration; it panders to those who are not affected by the misrepresentation. I wonder what is the full range of dangers or limitations of uninformed naming practices in archives? What are the politics of inclusion when an archivist so steeped in their own hegemonic viewpoints only considers the audience and neglects the bodies which created the content?

Flickr: Collective Photographic Memory

I was struck by the connection between the readings and a controversial announcement by online photo sharing platform Flickr earlier this week: In February 2019, the platform will delete any pictures in excess of 1,000 photos per user, unless they upgrade to a paid account. Since 2013, the site had offered 1 terabyte of free storage per user, or around 100,000 photos (assuming 10 megabyte per photo, which is larger than most).

For a long time, Flickr was a safe haven for some great, many mediocre and countless terrible photographers whose oeuvre I won’t mourn. However, seeing their “photographs as records, first and foremost, not as aesthetic objects or art”, as Caswell argues, demonstrates what’s at stake: I don’t know how many of the platform’s ~ 7 Billion images will be deleted in February but, and here Evan Hill joins the chant, “at stake is nothing less than our collective memory.”

The Stakes of Geologic Survey

 

© 2005 — Ron Reznick

The image above displays a survey marker from the United States Geologic Survey. It is part of a network of markers that is cross-referenced with a database that contains details on the ground composition below. These markers were placed by land surveyors who would walk the land, stake out boundaries and record whatever environmental data they could find, rock types, soil types, tree species and so on. Effectively these surveyors were assembling elaborate inventories of the land in terms of natural resources that was anchored to this survey marker as reference point. This created a knowledge infrastructure that enforced the on-the-ground communication of settler boundaries with scientific universality. Today the survey marker is, of course, an outdated technology in the geosciences. Now, state geologic surveys are more likely to use remote sensing and GIS, but there are ways in which the logic that arises from the object of the survey stake remains.

This practice of collecting, storing, and institutionalizing environmental data is and has always been a deeply colonial process. In Victorian Canada, for instance, the project of cataloging plants and minerals through botany and geology was intimately tied to the process of asserting power over the hinterland. The Geologic Survey of Canada, established in 1842 as an active scientific arm of British imperialism, was, in fact, more about the inventorisation of natural resources and the establishment of territory in such a way that put these resources under imperial rule (Bélanger 51). In the US, the Public Land Survey System, developed shortly after the revolutionary war, put in place a cadastral system that prepared the land for colonial settlement. The surveyors staked out rectangular blocks from the east out to the west that divided the land into 1-mile sections and six-section townships. This prompted the transition from public land to private ownership. In fact, there is something to the very act of staking out that claims ownership and separates inside from outside, as mine from yours.

I am interested in the survey marker or the survey stake as a media technology and how it stores and communicates information with a bias towards the simultaneous accumulation of data, territories, and its resources, particularly by bringing mineral deposits under corporate or state control. As a media technology, the survey stake affords certain kinds of calculations, perceptions or epistemologies and is, therefore, shaping the survey system as a process of collecting and archiving environmental data. The point I want to make is that a criticism of colonial discourse, like Laura Ann Stoler argues in “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” should take into account archiving as process rather than simply as a universal source to extract information from. But, in order to do so, we must also challenge the physical technologies that create the conditions and mechanisms through which certain types of information are selected and stored, and communicated — and the types of information that these techniques cannot register and therefore preclude from the institutionalized, modern scientific knowledge system.


Environmentalism often uses environmental data from geologic surveys as an authoritative source, to raise awareness, foster a sense of urgency, and serve as a call to action, but without looking at its processes of production. Of course, to read too much politics into environmental data is a dangerous bet when you want to argue for a strong and widespread environmentalism, particularly in today’s political landscape that is haunted by rumors of a post-truth politics. But the archive of environmental data, like any other, should be considered for the ways in which it collects, stores and communicates information — from what it isolates and what it emphasizes — and it should be negotiated with its colonial histories. In Stoler’s words, “scholars need to move from archive as source to archive as subject” — that is, attend to the ways in which documentation happens rather than its uninhibited extraction (90) because the colonial archives’ rules and mechanisms for selection of documents that are archived were created to reproduce a certain power discourse, or reproduce certain imaginaries (97). Similarly, by a process of quantification, the survey technology isolates the lucrative elements of resource to bring them under biopolitical control. We should be suspicious of the environmental archive if the epistemological apparatus of state geologic surveys was fashioned to produce nature as a standing reserve of natural resource.

To be sure, what Foucault calls the historical a priori can also be approached from the discourse’s technologies for archiving and measuring. Foucault argues for a concept of the historical a priori of the archive, by which he means the historically sanctioned group of rules that form the conditions for the emergence of new statements in a discourse. The a priori is not imposed on the discourse, he notes but they are caught up in one another, reinforce each other and evolve together as a group. In Foucault’s words, “[The historical a priori] has to take account of the fact that discourse has not only a meaning or a truth, but a history” (127)

But if discourse has a history it also has a technology. As we have seen in the intellectual furnishing and containers week, the materiality of the container shapes the way in which we understand the document, and what can be collected and stored in the first place. This system that creates the conditions for what Foucault calls the statement-events, or discursive acts, in short the system of enunciability’s location and practical workings remain somewhat in the air in Foucault’s text, while I would argue they are in fact located in the physical media with which we collect, store, and communicate. Indeed, what is often grouped together as German media theory calls this the ‘technical a priori’.

Articulated initially by Friedrich Kittler, the technical a priori is the idea that the past is recorded on a prior level, that is, through the physical media for documentation. This means that the technologies of measuring and recording are the “true first archaeologists of knowledge” and as such are also historical documents themselves that can yield an understanding of the ways in which knowledge has emerged through history. Kittler’s argument was not necessarily counter Foucault, rather the technical a priori was, in Bernhard Siegert’s words, “an attempt to overcome French theory’s fixation on discourse by turning discourse from its philosophical head onto its historical and technological feet.” (3) This elicits an evaluation of the affordances that technology yields for understanding, and to think about more concrete ways in which power is inscribed in our daily knowledge infrastructures.

We don’t see a survey stake every day, but all reporting on climate change holds data gained through a survey technology of some sort. I am arguing that we should be conscious of the types of understanding of environment that these technologies afford, what their techniques of representation emphasize and what they isolate. It becomes urgent to find techniques and technologies of ordering environmental and geologic data that attend to the ways in which environments are caught up in markets, politics, and socialites. So my question is, if these technologies shape what can be stored in the first place, and the broader ways in which we understand the document, should the survey, in so far as it isolates the environmental processes from its political and economic histories, be the universal scientific archive that defines the rules of environmental discourse?

Works cited
Foucault, Michel. “The Historical a priori and the Archive.” Archaeologies of Knowledge. Pantheon, 1973. pp. 126-131.

Siegert, Bernhard. “Cultural Techniques, Or, The End of the Intellectual Postwar in German Media Theory.” Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real. Translated by Geoffrey Winthrop Young. Fordham University Press, 2015. Pp. 1-18.

Stoler, Laura Ann. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance.” Archival Science. Vol 2. No. 1-2. Pp. 87-109.

Epistemological and Political Subjects

What strikes me about these reading is thinking about how temporality can transform archives. The structure and means of organizing an archive reflects the environment that communities are building. We have seen this in other archives we’ve explored this semseter, especially in archives that reflect colonial natures. So it no surprise that we see the archive radicalize within the last few decades in line with radical feminism. I wonder however, what radical taxonimical features, we are injecting into archives that either will fade with time, or even will be amplified with retrospection.

Processing: Archives

First, a digression: only after years of studying and being exposed to various Asian and Romance languages that I came to really think about the enormous European bias in the designations of languages/dialects. The former contains connotations of higher status or prestige, while the latter denotes something more local, less important. Languages are worthy of preservation, while dialects are not. Romance languages can be mutually intelligible and yet considered distinct “languages,” while Chinese “dialects” can be mutually unintelligible and yet never achieve the status of “language.”  The main difference is perhaps that the distinct romance languages have distinct written texts (and yet so similar) while the distinct Chinese dialects share the same written text.

Diana Taylor’s article not only challenges the privileging the written over the spoken and points out its Eurocentric bias, but also further argues for a programme of “performance studies” that takes non-textual modes of communication, such as singing, dancing, and other modes of performances, as serious conduits of meaning. As Ann Stoler’s article argues, the written archive as a repository of meaning is not neutral, inert; history is not waiting in the archives to be discovered by historians. Neither the archive nor the “repertoire” of performance-based production of knowledge and meaning is neutral or inert. And yet the written archive has come to be the most dominant mode of communication of knowledge for its material properties make storage and retrieval possible for a very long time. Our claims to knowledge/our capacity to know, therefore, hinges on the materialities of the archive, all the way down to the techniques of language itself. Taylor is against the disciplinary divisions among dance, music, and theater, but it also appears that we should also re-incorporate these non-textual modes of communication back into the core curriculum of liberal arts education in general.

embodiment within the archive

In “The Archive and the Repertoire,” Diana Taylor explores the ways in which written knowledge in the archive has been prioritized above embodied performance as a way to transfer knowledge. While I agree largely with this claim especially in the way it pertains to the systemic destruction of certain indigenous rituals, dances, and ceremonies during the Spanish conquest of the New World, there were other statements made about the archive that seemed to me a bit inflexible and stagnant. On page 19 Taylor delves into the myths of the archive – that the archive supposedly “resists change, corruptibility, and political manipulation.” Yet on the very next page, she relies on these ‘false’ images of the archive in order to establish all the things embodied performance can do that the archive can’t. “As opposed to the supposedly stable objects in the archive, the actions that are the repertoire do not remain the same.” (20, emphasis mine). The “supposedly” hints at her understanding that objects, in fact, do not remain the same in the archive either, but this set-up ultimately places these two knowledge transmission systems in a binary of one as dry, the other fluid; one as stable, the other as adaptable; one as stationary, the other as movement. Again, while I understand the purpose of this piece is to explore the importance and possibilities available through embodied performance, establishing the archive as something that lacks embodiment doesn’t seem accurate to me. The way the body moves through the archive, the way hands must handle fragile items, the sifting through files, not to mention artists who engage the archive in their work or create performances centered around archival materials (perhaps Lena H. could speak to this a bit more than I could?) are all interesting routes that could explore the particularities of embodied practices within the archive.

epistemological + political subjects

Stoler and Taylor both contextualize archives in the power imbalances and systemic oppressions imposed from colonization and its enduring legacies. Taylor separates the archive from the repertoire, the latter for embodied and lived forms of knowledge. She argues that Western epistemologies are founded on the equation of writing to memory and knowledge. The dominance of language and writing means these mechanisms for knowledge come to stand in for meaning itself. Yet it is not perfectly clear that written forms of knowledge are archived versus embodied knowledge being repertoire-d. Even through colonization, writing did not entirely displace embodied practice. Even colonizers bring (and enforce) their own embodied practices too. But writing became the dominant mechanism of legitimization of over other epistemic and mnemonic systems. This is how, as Stoler argues, we should think of the archive as the supreme technology of late 19th century imperial state.

So what happens to our understanding of “knowledge” (and whose knowledge) as we have moved from dominance of technologies based on written texts to digital ones? Videos and images are not the same as performances and acts, though we may treat them as alike. Robertson identifies this tension in digital archiving of lesbian porn/erotic publications from 1984-2004. It was both documented and embodied, though was very likely intended for a small and time-bound audiences of queer zine-readership, before anyone could imagine reverse image search engines and permanent googleability.

Foucault reminds us again that the realm of thinkable thoughts available to any one of us is limited by our discourses and our ability to determine something as knowledge. The archive functions both as the “law of what can be said” and the rules by which these delineated “unique events” accumulate into understood patterns. We can neither exhaustively archive all of a given society, culture, time period, nor can we adequately describe our own from within. What gets recorded in archival institutions passes for collective memory on the side of the powerful, and “structural amnesia” for those memories that do not serve them (Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard). History reminds us of the importance in looking to the form of archive, as well as the content. In my research on voice recognition technologies, looking to the mechanisms of digital archiving itself hopefully provides one avenue to do this.

on distribution, contextualization and fear

The blog entry by Tara Robertson „digitization: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should“ highlights some key points concerning the digitalization of analog material. With the example of the “lesbian porn magazine” (in quotation marks because this designation is controversially discussed in the commentaries) she discusses the ethic implications on digitizing these sensitive pictures of woman, who agreed to having their pictures printed in a magazine mainly distributed among the lesbian community in the 80s. Through digitization the content of these magazines become, in Robertson’s view, now with a few clicks available to everyone globally and that is, due to her, certainly not what the photographed women signed up for.

Two things I found very interesting in this short piece, the first one is distribution and the second one is context. Robertson seems much more concerned with the first one. Even though it is technically possible that the digital version of this magazine could be accessed by everyone with an Internet connection one has to specifically know what to look for. In my personal case I have never heard of “On our backs” and therefore I never would have looked for it. Even though I can understand the reservations when it comes to the availability online it is still limited to people situated in a specific discourse, I would say. From the historical point from where Roberson its speaking it almost seems like that there is a certain protection of personal rights in the printed medium.

Linked to that I want to elaborate on what I called context earlier and with that I mean contextualization. One can cut a picture out of a magazine, but it will still refer to its origin: There will be something printed on the backside, the quality of the print and the paper. With digitization it is a different thing, I would argue. With a single screenshot and some cropping the picture is stripped of its context an can be easily distributed in completely different contexts and assign a different understanding of what is in the picture as well. This is maybe part of the discussion in the commentaries about calling it “porn” or calling it “erotic publication” – it depends on the context and the context is what can’t be guaranteed when it comes to digitization.

To support my understanding of the topic and, I have to confess, a big part of curiosity was in it as well, I looked for the “On our backs” in the Independent Voices Archives, but I could not find it (I just found a feminist magazine called “Off our Backs” without of course any erotic illustrations) – Ironically Robertson is drawing attention on something she wants to handle with care when she Is writing a blog post about it.

What Roberson argues, that these women, who chose to participate in creating pictures of having sex in ways that differ from “the norm”, must be protected from the judgmental society of bosses, coworkers and families, that in my understanding could be one reason for taking pictures like that in the first place: To widen the perception of what is “the norm” when it comes to sex. Along these lines, Robertson should have used this space on her blog, I my opinion, to revolt against a society in that women standing in for their sexual preferences and identities are still stigmatized and need to fear the revelations of their “non-conformist pasts”.

Community (of) Practice

In “Digitization: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should” I found the theme of provenance, particularly of importance. I agree with the sentiment that participators in this adult magazine were unaware that they would one day be included in an archive available on the internet, a distribution much wider than they expected. 

Initially, I thought “Perhaps making this available offline within an academic setting for scholarly research provides a context for the work that doesn’t exploit the subjects or stray too far from their initial expectations of distribution?” However, who is to say that this needs preservation? Who made the decision that this even has epistemological relevance? Where are the voices of the community which the content was initially created for? Here, the archivists failed to acknowledge the community which would stand to be affected by this, both the intended audience and the participants.

In regards to one of the “setbacks” of citizen genealogy, as mentioned in the article by Jarrett M. Drake, there is little accountability when it comes to the validity of information. I don’t see this as a problem. If the information in an archive is curated by those who hold ownership over the artifacts which affect their own community, does it matter what is a truth or mistruth? In instances such as these (as I have come to find out through my own genealogical research) sometimes, especially for marginalized people, the stories we tell ourselves have a greater level of validity than the “truth” itself.

Contentious Archives: The Afghan Films Archive and the Israeli Archive of Executions

Ann Stoler writes that “to understand an archive, one needs to understand the institutions that it served” (Stoler 2002, 107). By understanding that archives are linked to, or part of a larger institution or state power, it becomes clear that archives are not simply stores of histories holding information which has been deemed important and valuable, but part of a larger web of power and bureaucracy. While archives do play an important role in preserving information, they are also responsible for how this information is positioned in the context of history. In “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Stoler describes the link between archives and state power as one which is mutually dependent. Through an ethnographic approach to studying archives, the relationship between archives, politics and forms of governance is made obvious and therefore showing that the organisation, accessibility, and information within the archive always has political significance. By using Ariella Azoulay’s article “Archive” and Mariam Ghani’s long-term research project “What We Left Unfinished” I will look at the influential role archives have in knowledge creation but also their role in forming, sustaining, and asserting political and state power. Often acting as an extension of the bureaucratic state, the decisions regarding what gets archived and how it gets archived are telling of the political issues and contestations of the times. Through these two examples, it can be seen that moving information into, and around, the archive is not passive or arbitrary but often a protective and/or violent means of controlling information and its circulation.

In the article “Archive,” Ariella Azoulay details the creation and leak of over two thousand classified documents from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). These documents were leaked by Anat Kam, an Israeli citizen who was carrying out her “compulsory military service” (Azoulay 3). These classified documents detailed the targeted killing of three Palestinians, revealing that the IDF had violated a ruling by the Israeli supreme court. These documents also revealed information regarding other Palestinians the state had executed as well as the plans and instructions for operations in the West Bank. Following the end of her mandatory service, Kam leaked the documents to a journalist who published the findings, which then resulted in her arrest. This is an instance in which the state’s utilisation of the archive and the process of archiving was used to document violence but was also a violent act in itself. By keeping this material in an archive, the intention was for it to be taken out of circulation but also through the mechanisms of the archive, allowing the killings to remain documented and preserved but inaccessible and hidden from public view. Azoulay has dubbed this collection of documents the “Israeli Archive of Executions.” Her article analyses the ways the bureaucracy of the archive creates a physical and conceptual distance between the visitor to the archive and the information held within. She says,

“If we follow the footsteps of those entering the archive, we shall discover that the way to file any document in it, let alone search for a document, is lined with a rich constellation of accessories and mechanisms that in themselves already serve as sentries.” (Azoulay 2)

This constellation of obstacles inherent in navigating the archive ensures that without some prior knowledge of what is within, there are certain things which will remain secret and inaccessible. The process of archivisation can therefore be used as a political tool; it allows for information to be documented and recorded but buried within the archive and relegated to the past. Stoler writes that “colonial archives were both sites of the imaginary and institutions that fashioned histories as they concealed, revealed, and reproduced the power of the state” (Stoler 2002, 97). The archive acts as the metaphorical and literal manifestation of the state’s political interests and in the case of the Israeli Archive of Executions, the archive was used to hide violations of court rulings but also war crimes committed by IDF officials.

Although the presence and existence of these documents have been made known, their content has largely remained out of reach. The function of the archive, being to preserve and protect information, was used for violent means.The same mechanisms that allow for violence to occur and be hidden however is also what protects documents and information from destruction.

Mariam Ghani’s project “What We Left Unfinished” is a long-term, multimedia research project that aims to reconstruct political narratives and aspirations that were unfinished and abandoned by using five unfinished Afghan feature films which were filmed between 1978 and 1992 but never edited. These unfinished films reveal the important issues and tensions that existed during various political situations. Ghani explains that through a reconstruction of these unfinished films, “we can reconstruct not the truths, precisely, of how the state existed and acted in those moments, but rather its most important fictions: its desires and fears, ambitions and ghosts. In the imaginary presented by most finished films of the period, we see the ideal People’s Democratic Republic that could have been, but wasn’t; in the unfinished films, the reality – a utopian project secured by violent force – lingers like a shadow, just barely concealed behind allegories and codes.” (mariamghani.com)

Ghani uses fictional films to investigate the political climate during different eras and regimes because it is through this medium that ideals and utopian imaginations of the future and of politics were able to be expressed and explored. It is also for this reason that the archive was a target for destruction by political forces. Despite merely being a projection of an ideal, the archive was a threat to state power.

In order to protect these films from destruction, a collection of negatives was hidden behind a brick wall between the years 1996 and 2002 (Ghani 48). The wall was was covered by a poster of Mullah Omar (former leader of Afghanistan) which successfully prevented its destruction. The physical hiding of this material was in order to prevent its destruction during a time of political turmoil under the Taliban regime. Here, Azoulay’s conceptual understanding of the archive as one which is able to hide material is literal and physical. “In some ways, the whole archive was temporarily filed in the invisible dusty drawer, and only very gradually did it emerge from this position of retreat over the subsequent decade (2002-12)” (Ghani 45). Many of the films that were not hidden were burned and destroyed. It is therefore interesting to see how the physical conditions and violence towards the tangible materials have caused a conceptual and ideological shift in the archive; what was hidden for years, is now understood to be the heart or the central element of these archives. The identity and holdings of the archive were directly influenced by the political climate. Returning to the quote from Stoler about how archives are both the sites of the imaginary and the institutions which determined and shaped history, the Afghan Films Archive was a target for destruction as it held films which depicted and represented alternative political futures and forms of governance.

Both of these examples are of archives containing “contested knowledge,” the materials held in these archives were seen to be of high value and significance as they contain material which were products and reflections of the state and if made public, would be a threat to its power (Stoler 87). The classified IDF documents and the Afghan Films Archive were targets of violence because of their potential to cause political and social disruption. These archives utilised the system and process of archiving to either engage in, or protect from violence, revealing the highly charged nature of their holdings.

 

Sources

Azoulay, Ariella. Archive. Issue 1. Politicalconcepts.org

Corallo, Regina. “The Human Dimension of Archives.” SCOPE. November 29, 2015. Accessed November 06, 2018. http://www.scope-mag.com/2015/11/human_dimension_archives/.

Ghani, Mariam. “What We Left Unfinished’: The Artist and the Archive,” Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, ed. Anthony Downey, l.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, New York: 2015.

“Mariam Ghani Screens Films from the Afghan Film Archive as Well as Her Own Unfinished Film.” Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). January 11, 2017. Accessed November 06, 2018. http://empac.rpi.edu/events/2017/spring/watering-flowers/mariam-ghani.

Silverstein, Richard. “Kamm Agrees to Plea Bargain, Israel’s Assange Gets Nine-Year Sentence.” Eurasia Review. February 07, 2011. Accessed November 06, 2018. http://www.eurasiareview.com/07022011-kamm-agrees-to-plea-bargain-israel’s-assange-gets-nine-year-sentence/.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science, 2:1-2 (2002): 87-109.

Vered, Luvitch. “Kam: History Forgives Those Who Expose War Crimes.” Ynetnews. December 4, 2010. Accessed November 06, 2018. https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3874912,00.html.

“What We Left Unfinished (in Progress).” Mariamghani.com. February 08, 2018. Accessed November 06, 2018. http://www.mariamghani.com/work/366.

Voice to the voiceless

I thoroughly enjoyed the readings for this week and I was particularly inspired by the words of Diana Taylor. Taylor’s work made me reflect on Mexico’s relationship with its Pre-Hispanic history and how we relate to it. In dealing with out past we tend to have a conflicting and contradictory relationship: oftenly rushed and diminished in our primary education; part of our language, cuisine and traditions; exalted by our Government internationally, yet ignored and oppressed by it internally.

And what about the archives and museums? A good part of them were built and conceived with a Colonial mindset that still permeates and reaches many aspects of our lives. How can we reimagine our archives? Is it possible to rebuild these structures in a more organic way where we give the indigenous communities the power to tell their stories?

The Mexican Government owes a great debt to its indigenous communities. Giving them the resources they need in order to reclaim their identity free from Colonial infrastructures is of extreme importance. We should reinvent our archives and we should do it by giving voice and agency to those who have been silenced.