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?


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.” (

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.



Azoulay, Ariella. Archive. Issue 1.

Corallo, Regina. “The Human Dimension of Archives.” SCOPE. November 29, 2015. Accessed November 06, 2018.

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.

Silverstein, Richard. “Kamm Agrees to Plea Bargain, Israel’s Assange Gets Nine-Year Sentence.” Eurasia Review. February 07, 2011. Accessed November 06, 2018.’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.,7340,L-3874912,00.html.

“What We Left Unfinished (in Progress).” February 08, 2018. Accessed November 06, 2018.

The Anti-aesthetic of the Archive

From the talk by Susan Breakell, I was drawn to the idea of the archive as both a product and raw material. While archives are a resource for information to be drawn from, it is important to acknowledge that they were created and processed. Mattern describes how the “anti-aesthetic” of the stacks, informs our conception of the archive’s epistemological object” which is enforced through the use of gray, dull boxes and housing (Mattern, 2015). Working in an archive, I have become increasingly aware of how processing materials and writing finding aids is about presenting material in a way that performs objectivity, the intention being to present facts without opinion. I think the material and intellectual objectivity of the archive is what allows for one to have an affective experience. The bland, monotonous aesthetic of the archive enhances the feelings one can have when discovering something seemingly alive and charged in the dusty archive.

The use of archival material and archival (anti-)aesthetics in art brings out not only the content of the material but often illuminates the fact that archival material is not dead or dormant. Despite archival material already having been processed, it is through another layer or method of processing and display that the material gains a new meaning and context. As seen with the various ways artists reveal or uncover previously unseen material, it seems that archival material always requires mediation or recontextualisation. Is it through the different ways of utilising archival material or through different models of the archive itself that the ways we can and are allowed to engage with archival material be changed?


Blurring the Physical and Digital Space

The importance of tactility and the physical space of libraries and archives stood out to me in this week’s readings, particularly after the two field trips. It was interesting to read about Aby Warburg’s library and the Prelinger library, both organized based on the founders’ personal interests and also a reflection of how they see and understand their collections. Megan Shaw Prelinger compares the physical experience of browsing the stacks to the act of exploring a landscape. This informs the geospatial organisation of the library but also draws attention to the fact that physical research allows for connections and associations to be made that digital research currently does not.

In thinking about digital research or digital collections, the idea that the digital could incorporate or mimic the physical experience of the browsing is intriguing. Because digitisation creates greater accessibility, I think adding this element of the physical experience to the digital is worthwhile and could drastically change the process of research. As research and collecting is a subjective experience and act, how would this change the algorithmic digital space?


Week 2 : Ecologies of Information

In “The Black Stack,” Bratton writes that “the real nightmare, worse than the one in which the big machine wants to kill you, is the one in which it sees you as irrelevant, or as not even a discreet thing to know” (Bratton, 2014). I found this fear of the rapidly changing digital world to be intriguing because an issue that came up in all of this week’s readings is the question of who knowledge infrastructures serve and who it sees as irrelevant and ignores. The pieces by Star and, Hess and Ostrom address the fact that all infrastructures, material or immaterial, online or offline are “subject to social dilemmas” and therefore those who are marginalised or outside the prescribed norm continue to be so (Hess and Ostrom 3, 2007). When it comes to digital or technological development, there often seems to be a disregard for the social issues already present and the potential consequences of the development (the example I have in mind is Amazon Go). In terms of changing, replacing, or improving infrastructure, I am curious about the question brought up by Star, “When is an infrastructure finished and how do we know that?” (Star 379, 1999).