Below is a very rough draft of my talk at Console-ing Passions 2012. Ideas in this presentation need a lot of flushing out, but here it is…
No More Potlucks: Media Archeology as Feminist Archival Intervention
This presentation focuses on the archival trajectory of Canadian queer feminist DIY journal of
arts, nomorepotlucks.org. Specifically, it looks at the significance of the project’s digital traces
for speaking to the artist, activist, and academic communities it has represented over the course
of the last eight years.
Nomorepotlucks.org was launched in 2003 and served as a virtual posting board for queer
feminist events in Montreal (Canada). At the time, it was a hand-coded static html website,
where new events replaced past ones, showcasing only the current as a means to connect
people to events in the city. The posting board was decidedly local. In 2005 the site shifted to its
first content management system (CMS) but retained much of the same purpose. However, as a
CMS, past events were ‘archived’ and remained on the site as new events were added. In 2009,
nomorepotlucks.org was revamped conceptually and technologically to become an online and
print-on-demand journal of arts and politics, showcasing a new issue every 2 months. In those
years it shifted from open source CMS, Drupal to WordPress, primarily as a growing concern for
the project’s preservation.
As the cofounder of the journal and as the web developer and technician for the project, I
explain in detail the archival trajectory of the project and its political implications. In particular, I
attempt to tease out the ways in which archival strategies are always in part a product of the
politics of the social movement they emerge from.As a creative feminist intervention, I invite reflection on the kind of archival analysis that invariably creates for the archive as much as it draws (archaeologically) from it. This
presentation therefore revolves around the notion of archival intervention as creative
contribution, and attempts to give concrete examples of media archaeology, as a queer feminist
methodology and tactic (Cvetkovich 2002; Ketelaar 2002; Takahashi 2007; Chun 2008; Parikka
My talk will be in two parts – one part which I will read to you and one part as a kind of media archaeology demo.
What I hope to demonstrate (if not reiterate) in this short presentation is that archival theory is not a corpus reserved merely for the day-to-day practicalities of archivists. Rather, I want to underline how it is also deeply implicated in the processes of media researchers, scholars, activist, artists, and practitioners: those who make use of the archives, intervene from within, and critically engage in its possibilities and limitations. This relationship — between use, intervention, engagement, and the archive — becomes central to questioning the role of the archive as source, as long intimated by those dealing most closely with issues of ownership, exile, and representation in relation to archival theory. Such issues of power may resonate, but too often get disconnected from larger technological discourses.
What I propose here is that as a result of theorizing the archive in this way—adjoining political voices with technological practicalities—we can move toward an increasingly self-reflexive approach to archiving that accounts for the documentation of research processes, and deliverables, as not only integral to methodology, but as elemental to rigorous scholarly output and critical production practices. Within this revised and revived framework, the archive has the potential to shift conceptually, from repository, place, database, and source, to trajectory, performance, or what Wendy Chun calls the enduring ephemeral, where “raw and abstracted material created as part of research processes and which may be used again as the input to further research – carries with it the burden of capturing and preserving not only the data itself, but information about the methods by which it was produced”. Determining the bounds of the archive — as enacted, embodied or performed — rather than solely conceived as place, space, or repository — is inextricably linked to the possible knowledges produced about it, and the legitimacy of voices, histories, politics, and testimonies it enables. It is also, however, about what falls out and fails, and what these perceived failures reveal about a researcher’s subject-position vis-à-vis the archive. These are preoccupations particularly well addressed, through a media archaeology framework – even and especially as media archaeology remains open to interpretation–; which is, according to Jussi Parikka: “much more than paying theoretical attention to the intensive relations between new and old media, mediated through concrete and conceptual archives; increasingly, media archaeology is a method for doing media design and art.” This attention to ‘doing’ media and design is particularly important for the point I’m trying to make through nomorepotlucks.org, an example that I hope will demonstrate that the archive can be an ongoing and creative endeavour circulating through the queer networks that activate and maintain it.
By way of nomorepotlucks and various design projects I am involved in, I have become interested in the movement and mutations of digital culture. I’m less interested in dichotomies of materiality and immateriality, or in the distinctions between traditional physical repository and database, which are often – still – the more common points of contrast in relation to the archive’s potential. Instead, my interest is focused on different modalities of access, and the possible reworkings of the politics of ownership of the archive: to occupy the archive, and to inhabit it instead.
If the archive prioritizes the future, it not only anchors but also justifies its position as mediator and safeguard, and with this, the notion that human interaction with artefacts run many risks that are counter to the preservation of an original and arrested moment – through tampering, decay, errors and so on. Preservation, to this end, has meant a necessary distance between precious originals, for the sake of long-term access; — however it is rarely made explicit when this end point is expected to be, and for whom this later access is reserved.
Several examples show the ways in which preservation has meant inaccessibility, and has been justified through a rhetoric of future potential that is inherently greater than what a present connection can seemingly ever afford.
The Lascaux caves in southwestern France, which are estimated to house vast murals of drawings that are more than 17 000 years old are now being taken over by mold because of preservation efforts that try to control the humidity of the caves. The Lascaux caves have been closed to the public since 1963. A website allows viewers a virtual tour, and there exists a replica of two of the caves that people can visit, located about 200 meters away from the original caves.
Similarly, the Bettmann Archive is a collection of 19 million or so photographs and images owned by Corbis (Bill Gates) since the mid 1990s. Corbis moved the archive into the Iron Mountain National Underground Storage Facility, located 70 m/200 feet below ground in western Pennsylvania, in a space deemed to be at optimal temperature for long-term storage. Only images considered to have commercial resale value are digitized and made public (less than 2 percent of the collection). The rest remains underground under lock and key.
These are just two examples but they are sufficient to at least highlight the paradox we’ve come to largely accept — that preservation privileges so called long-term historical value, which must by definition be out of the reach of the present. While long term preservation is important in many cases, it is largely a framework that relies on the perceived scarcity of material and often singular objects, and as such, may not be fully equipped to account for digital culture – for which mutation, viral proliferation and ephemerality should arguably be informing the framework.
I think this becomes an opportunity to do archival work differently, in line with postcolonial feminists politics that counter the archive’s proposed linearity and quest for a singular truth. As Anjali Arondekar puts it, questioning the archive as source still “coheres around a temporally ordered seduction of access, which stretches from the evidentiary promise of the past into the narrative possibilities of the future” (2005, 5). To think of the archive as a creative act, then, is to consider means by which to assemble stories, as a mode of ‘doing’ that records its own performance. And, as Ann Laura Stoler puts it, where fragments have the potential to speak differently depending on their configuration. This is the kind of archival potential we have tried to activate through nomopotlucks.org – a Canadian journal of arts and politics, as portraits of proclivities. In short, I’m proposing that a publication – and all its offshoots (especially its intangible ephemeral offshoots) constitute an archive that privileges mutations through circulation, and situates the communities through which the project circulates as its inhabitants.
Articles and arts works from nomorepotlucks are reprinted in other journals, in course packs, republished or pulled from personal blogs, academic papers or larger art projects, tweeted and retweeted, favorited, and posted on a Facebook wall, copied and pasted in part or in full into new venues for dissemination and so on — which together constitute the inhabited archive, where movement through social media and personal networks preserve both the project’s momentum and identity.
As the cofounder of nomorepotlucks.org, and as the person who does the technical and design work for the journal, I’m — in many ways — in a privilege position to also “archive” it, because a lot about what makes technology interesting for me, archivally anyway, is in the politics that shape access. But the flipside is that I might be too close to the material to even be able to assess the significance of its archive. To archive is always in some ways to assume value. Despite this ambivalence, my goal is to initiate a conversation about what a media archaeology approach might uncover for nomorepotlucks, and in so doing, tease out the ways that archival strategies are always, in part, a product the politics of the social movements from which they emerge, but also of individuals within a movement who are specifically “located.” Positioning oneself within the archive – as a feminist tactic in itself — brings awareness to how the process of archiving invariably creates for the archive as much as it draws (archaeologically) from it. And I’m obviously not the first person to make that point (but I’m skipping over the Derrida and Foucault references today).
So, if you have a laptop or mobile device, type in: “nomorepotlucks.org” – or look up and follow along on the screen, and I’m going to circulate a print copy of the journal as well, so you can see what I’m talking about. I’m also — in thinking about the panel as “opening the archive” going to pass around a USB key with an almost complete collection of the articles, including the latest issue, but not including the video or audio files.
I’m doing this so that we can later talk about what this kind of archive does, what its limits are, how its content circulate, or fail to, and what role the network (or community) plays in the performance of preservation and access at various levels. We can also include in that conversation issues of access, copyright and creative commons licensing—each ideals of ownership–which is the reason some of the audio and video doesn’t circulate as freely as text.
I will be showcasing early iterations of the site, coded in html in 2003, via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. For the second iteration, created using CMS Textpattern, I will navigate the site by way of backs up copies made onto CDs in 2004 and 2005. Following this, the site shifted to CMS Drupal, which is no longer available online, but for which I’ve exported the database for perusal (in PDF, SQL and XML versions). But first, I will show the current version, featuring issue # 22: Record. If asked what Nomorepotlucks is, most likely the latest iteration of the project speaks loudest.
3 main takeaways from this presentation, up for discussion:
1- media archaeology allows for a recognition of the archive as a process that necessitates exposing one’s methods for research, recovery, and excavation.
2- the idea that the archive becomes an act of creation – it is part of the creative process and part of the design thinking and doing – rather than an afterthought, or concern for the future.
3- preservation can be positioned as a kind of archival awareness that is equivalent to inhabitation, rather than a statement about ownership and control over culture, or of and over time, and/or of proprietary archival spaces. Inhabitation is about an embodied notion of preservation – which literally means “to be present in” and to occupy.