The Archive Acts Up
How digital archives and social media reassemble and resist the standard histories of queer communities
Digital archives reassemble and resist the standard histories of queer communities by Evan Pavka
Histories of sexuality are rarely, if ever, sexy. Instead, they are commonly marked by violence, silence and limited archival privilege. With few archives dedicated to queer histories spread across the country—the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto being the most notable, with others including the Manitoba Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Manitoba, Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony held at Simon Fraser University and the Archives gaies du Québec in Montreal—how can queer histories past and present, which are increasingly enmeshed with digital technology, be remembered?
Archives in general are centred on two guiding questions: What is important to remember and how? Processes of archiving and remembering are deeply human and are embedded with the same biases and subjectivity that make us what we are. Where the importance of historic material is dictated by the custodians of the archive—museums, universities and libraries, among others—and defined by the heterosexual, colonial and Eurocentric logics they represent, the surge of digital-born material has complicated the how of remembering.
In recent years, many archives have implemented digitization efforts to make their holdings more accessible and to preserve digital objects before their inevitable degradation. Memory metaphors are often applied to these forms of archiving and storage—the “memory” of computer servers, for instance—yet they remain as unstable as human recollection. In time, images disappear, links expire, files corrupt and hard drives degrade.
Alongside these precarious digitization efforts, digital media has become a powerful tool to present revisionist histories of non-heterosexual presence that resist the authority of the parallel, material archive while extending the previously limited control queer people have over their histories and interpretations. These entanglements of authority, control and technology are not a recent phenomenon. “When you look back and see the way in which digital infrastructure was shaped, there’s a long history of the queer and trans communities’ use of online spaces and online technologies,” media historian Cait Mckinney says, discussing her research into the Critical Paths AIDS Project that developed early software linking proto-internet boards to share information regarding HIV/AIDS that the government and medical industries had censored.
It seems fitting, then, that activist engagement with computing would extend to the current expansion of social-media archives assembling, distributing and archiving material on the periphery of queer histories. Butchcamp (@butchcamp on Instagram), run by Lisbon-based artist Isa Toledo and Los Angeles– and Arnhem-based graphic designer Rosie Eveleigh, is one archive that catalogues butch identity through film, media, anime, music and more. The account features posts ranging from a 1928 self portrait of Lotte Laserstein, accompanied by subcultural metadata hashtags #dykesandtheircats #softbutch, to press photos of Canadian crooner k.d. lang in a lime-green sweater embroidered with “HOMO.”
Instagram provides a more complex platform for the culturally frivolous and historically serious to overlap and interact. Unlike the canonized history-makers found in institutional collections, the camp eye of the Instagram archivist makes relevant the cultural tropes, identities and individuals that official structures often disregard. Digital-born material is naturally oriented toward divergent communities and networks of meaning, a focus that in turn grants them cultural significance. Butchcamp is one among a larger cohort of social-media anti-archives, such as Instagram accounts Herstory (@h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y) and LGBT History (@lgbt_history), that attempt to debunk the false authority of institutional holdings, providing alt-historical narratives that remake unseen queer cultural constellations.
Yet the fleeting immediacy of social media and the codified language used within it remains a constant reminder of the fact that the archive can be expunged at any moment—a consequence of the ephemeral media that otherwise fills queer archives, along with all that was lost or resisted archiving along the way. “The ways we engage with the history of queerness and the history of social movements is about the kind of media those movements were using to do their work,” Mckinney says. “There is a real challenge in how we are documenting, or failing to document, all the queer cultural production that is happening in our moment. There is an impermanence to the work and a real tension in wanting to preserve it, but it being impossible.”
While Instagram grants what appears to be an almost infinite access to archival logics—available at any moment to any individual with Internet access—it still succumbs to the heterosexual and patriarchal structure of the physical archive. The platform’s user agreements and regulations dictate the content that can and cannot be shared—notably censored are female nipples or graphic sex acts—unlike Tumblr, which has become home to more explicit and exciting archival projects. Researchers such as Jen Jack Gieseking are even collecting Tumblr posts by trans people as important archives of sexual and gender identities.
Whether physical or digital, receptacles of memory ultimately rely on oral histories to commemorate the community structures from where their holdings originate and to complete the image of the past when and where the archive fails. “People are devoting all their time to the archive, but they need to be out there with their tape recorders interviewing people,” says cofounder of the Archives gaies du Québec Ross Higgins, recalling the 30 interviews he conducted during his doctoral dissertation on pre-liberation, queer male life in Montreal. “What I learned was that we imagine the past as this dark horrible period, but it wasn’t like that. These men were just living their lives and dealing with it. All the documents in the world are not going to tell you that.”
Coming as close to an oral history social media can provide, the Aids Memorial (@the_aids_memorial)—another Instagram-based archive— crowdsources photographs and obituaries of men and women who lost their lives to AIDS. Accompanying captions detail personal and social lives—complications surrounding stigmatization of the disease, engagement with social movements and easily overlooked descriptions of raising children or family memories—extending, humanizing and resisting the often whitewashed grand narratives of queer pasts.
In response to Stefan Cooke’s tribute to his father, Alan Cooke (1933–89), for example, which reminisces on the elder Cooke’s travels down the Mackenzie River and his affinity for listening to Mozart in his Montreal apartment, one commenter remarked: “I felt like I could see a life in snapshots through your story.”
As an archive of trauma, as opposed to things, the account reminds us that histories do not exist in objects or images but in the complex relationships and memories shared between the people they embody. And, that even small moments captured in grainy family photographs are monuments.
For French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the hetero-patriachal archive was a source of power—in the control and dissemination of material artifacts—that social media now challenges in its access, network and instability. These fragile, digital-born anti-archives emphasize that the process of telling our histories, frequently through intangible and appropriated means, is as important as the physical traces left behind. As feminist scholar and writer Sara Ahmed suggests, “Perhaps when you put the pieces back together you are putting yourself back together.” ■
A press photo of k.d. lang posted by @butchcamp, an Instagram account run by Lisbon-based artist Isa Toledo and Los Angeles– and Arnhem-based graphic designer Rosie Eveleigh.