The Archive Acts Up

How dig­i­tal ar­chives and so­cial me­dia re­assem­ble and re­sist the stan­dard his­to­ries of queer com­mu­ni­ties

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Evan Pavka

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.

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