Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Some Thoughts on Grassroots Archives

Photo scooped from the PUBLIC>ACTION Facebook page.

A couple weeks ago, I attended an open discussion about archiving printed matter at OCAD University, as part of the month-long Public Action residency at their Student Gallery organized by Professor and print-y artist Shannon Gerard and masters student Mary Tremonte.  The roundtable was facilitated by Maggie Flynn, an interdisciplinary artist.  I am happy that Maggie thought to invite me (despite the fact that we had never met!).  It is crazy how much I miss out on, in large part because I'm not on Facebook and don't get the memo about a lot of events around town.

A bluurb about the discussion presented the following questions:

Leave aside for a moment the images of dusty boxes and stacks of paper that cling to the word “archive”. For this discussion we'll think about archiving as any act that preserves accumulated knowledge and collective memory. How can the process of archiving past or present social movements give direction or even instruction for future action? Can collected information serve as a conduit for action? How do we keep track of movement and change in the communities we are a part of? How can processes of archiving reflect the values of the activity being documented?

Up until recently, I worked at a (wonderful) museum.  I also helped run a zine library for over two years, am a longtime record collector, and do some independent curating.  Recently, I served as a consultant with a historical society as to how they could best display and care for their collection of ethnic costumes, photos and printed matter-- my first post-school independent work as a curator/museum professional.  I am only now realizing how much I am 'at home' in archival processes and practices and truly enjoy and am excited by the prospect of a making a life of this kind of work.

Chucking around ideas and experiences of archiving, particularly within the context of activism and grassroots activity made me think hard about the work I've done, specifically the successes and failures of the projects I've been involved with.  I thought I'd unpack some of my thoughts on this in light of this roundtable talk, as well as some of the ideas and points made by others during the discussion.

The Virtues of Autonomy?:  This is a topic I struggle with a lot and it is something I brought up almost immediately during the discussion.  The word 'archive' immediately brings about ideas of authority and institutionalization.  What does it mean to archive independently, outside of the confines of the institution? Alternately, what sort of freedoms or advantages (ie: financial, a built-in audience) do academic and civic/municipal national archives afford archival projects, and those doing the archiving?

I have often claimed that something that makes the Toronto Zine Library (where I was a volunteer librarian/collective member for just over two formative years in their history) special and sets them apart is that, unlike many zine libraries (especially locally), it exists outside of the umbrella of an educational institution.  While this may set them apart, could this be fairly referred to as a strength?  The TZL was (is still, I think) dynamic in that all volunteers had very different backgrounds and experiences, and existed within a broader local community instead of an insular institution.  However, it was severely hindered by a profound lack of money when I was a volunteer.  At the OCAD discussion, I admitted that the TZL had $100 stolen from the library once, and the impact was pretty devastating.  To most organizations, $100 is chump change.  The fact that $100 could either be considered admirable-- that we were able to make a small amount of money stretch-- or pretty damn sad.  If we had more money or put more effort into securing funding (private or from a funding body), we could have reached more people, and likely done more with the collection and the space.

But am I being lazy/uncritical by assuming that 'autonomous' archives are more virtuous than institutional ones?  How can institutional archives be maximized in terms of their reach?  In what small ways can they be liberated?  Does it matter?  How can grassroots archives be more sustainable and perhaps more ambitious?  Again, does this matter?

Processes of Archiving as 'Emotional':  This can apply to anyone who collects or has experienced attachments to souvenirs or keepsakes.  This also makes me think of the meaning of the word curate-- it means "to care," after all.

Learning About vs. Learning From Archives:  One OCAD educator present at the discussion brought up this important point that resonated with me.  We learn about all sorts of archiving projects, but how often do we learn from archives-- the material that is archived, and other people's experiences of archiving?  (If I misinterpreted his point, someone please enlighten me...I'm sure there is much more that can be said about this...)

The Digital Black Hole vs. The Crisis of Space:  In this day and age, what is the bigger boogeyman? Personally, I can't decide...

The Pragmatics of Radical and Conventional (?) Archiving:  
Facilitator Maggie expressed the desire to unpack how radical archivists can archive their own archiving processes (!).  A good point of discussion for sure. Burnout is a reality in activist circles and in DIY endevors that take up a lot of time, energy and effort.  As people float in and out of a particular project, how is important knowledge preserved?  How can past experiences be learned from?

Archiving as 'A Sort of Dreamtime':  What a beautiful idea.  This relates back to the idea of archiving being 'emotional.'  This reminds me of how laborious, meditative art processes bear fruit, providing one with a dreamtime through which to have free thoughts and make new, unexpected discoveries.  Perhaps the same can be said about the process of archiving?

I would be eager to hear anyone reading this chime in on these matters.  The exciting thing about open discussions is all the enthusiasm, ideas and experiences people have to share.  However, I tend to get hung up on the pragmatics of archiving, and the roadblocks that get between archives and accessibility, sustainability, and their ability to 'function:' a term that is up for debate, for sure.