July 8, 2020
Has the archive lost its taste and smell during the Covid-19 pandemic?
I’ve been teaching a class on documents and archives for years. Before plunging the students into historic archives, I usher them into the class through an encounter with a powerful contemporary document. For our first class in early February this past semester, we meditated on the video of Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of the NYPD. Close consideration of Por Qué?, a miniature diorama of Garner’s death exhibited at Studio Museum in Harlem by the Trinidadian-Canadian artist Curtis “Talwst” Santiago, immediately opens the students to the potential of art to complement, and often prefigure, scholarly approaches to documents. Art is not just the hook but also the foundation of the course: the first month offers a cross-cultural overview of recent documentary arts across media. By late March, we were finally ready to step into the archive, when NYU abruptly closed its libraries and archives to combat the spread of COVID-19 at an epicenter of the crisis. The course, predicated on archival projects, threatened to implode as we moved to Zoom.
Months in advance, I had started staging a “welcome to the archive” session at the Tamiment Library/Labor Archives, part of the NYU Special Collections. Together with reference associate Danielle Nista, we plotted an entrance into the archive replete with some of its most striking artifacts, just as we had done in previous years. Towering posters from the Spanish Civil War spread over large tables to give students a sense of size and affective impact never matched by thumbnails and dimensions in inches. Eyes and attention were to be recalibrated as students would zoom in on the sketch books containing moving life drawings of soldiers and civilians, created by Meredith Sydnor “Syd” Graham, an African American soldier in the XV International Brigade. The white gloves were readied so we could handle the final yellowed letter received by the mother of James Lardner, a journalist and the last American to die in that war. In a box that I always put on reserve for my students were holdings related to Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alvah Bessie, blacklisted as one of the “Hollywood Ten.” Alongside his tightly filled journals were his belt, cap, and, wrapped in aged tissue paper, an unexplained archival surprise, the black statuette of a Catalan boy. In the past, this multimedia, multisensory entrance into the archive usually ended with the students being offered a deaccessioned historical pin or button. In the Tamiment finding aid, under “type of document,” the pins and buttons are described as jewelry/informational artifacts. Students walked away with this colorful physical bit of the archive on their chests, along with an expanded understanding of what a document can be.
In the past, students have responded powerfully to the multisensory experience of the archive. They wrote beautiful essays on the graphic and affective qualities of envelope tears, handwriting, and cross-outs. They were struck by the materiality of the various media into a new awareness of the embodied nature of reading and research. Many relished this new experience; some resisted it. An art major choreographed and performed a dance that reenacted and exorcised the disciplining of a young woman’s body in the archival reading room. Students compared their archival discoveries with the experience of reading an edited volume of Tamiment letters, which they always found lacking. For most students this was their first “taste of the archive,” to borrow the phrase of Arlette Farge’s classic on the archival experience (Le goût de l’archive). It was a powerful experience precisely because of its contrast to their overwhelmingly digital reading habits.
This spring, however, the taste and smell of the archive were lost to us. In order to avoid our own loss of smell and taste, alongside other common symptoms of COVID-19, we isolated ourselves in our rooms, away from sensory archival triggers, and entered through a Zoom portal. What we entered was not the same archive. For one, it was much smaller, reduced to the few items that had been digitized. It soon became clear that the fabled experience of archival “dust,” of the archives’ tactility among myriad other sensory experiences, would not be ours. Facing the document in situ can result in goose bumps: it’s the encounter with the materiality of writing, with the crossed-out draft of the famous opus, which suddenly reveals stutters, second meanings, hesitations, in a text you thought you knew. Or, more rarely, but this is the fantasy of archival research, that item—a photograph, a draft of a letter written on the back of a laundry list—that has escaped cataloguing, and that just might compel the rethinking of the whole text, or maybe of the whole archive. The abrupt shift to the digital archive left us bereft of all these experiences, pleasures, and fantasies.
Yet my students were neither prone to mourning these experiences they may never have had, nor did they try to fix the problem. For one, there was enough real mourning and fixing and healing to do in their immediate worlds. Some of these projects were created alongside the passing of family members; some class presentations were given amid the dazed fever of COVID-19. Instead of the enforced silence of the archival room these projects were written against the unabating soundtrack of ambulance sirens; instead of the smell of old paper, there were the smells of Clorox and Purell and home cooking. Introducing her final project on the archiving, curating, and broadcasting of Italo Disco in a series of radio shows, Katherine Armstrong explained that her archival project was rooted in the desire “to be a source of happiness and the reminder of cheesier, brighter days,” a task that she felt was “particularly important and pressing right now, given the deep sadness that has ravaged Italy in such little time.” Her class presentation was an artfully arranged performance: she wore “a crinkly polyester short sleeve button-down,” an “absolute oddity, shimmery and fitted at the sides and featuring vibrant red and black paisley print.” It soon became evident that the top was just the icing of an elaborate outfit designed, together with the compilation of music videos she played for us, to take us back to the 1980s. At times Katherine broke into dance to the tunes she played or hummed for us, while at times she shushed her mother, who was energetically leading a business meeting from the same room.
In his classic work of archive theory, Jacques Derrida argued that “archive fever” is rooted in the death drive, and that the attempt to use this ultimate memory aid to stave off death and destruction cannot but prove, in the well-known manner of supplemental logic, the ubiquity of that death. With actual fever raging around and inside them, these young artists made work that is rooted less in the old archive fever or in the death drive than in archive play. In a trend-setting 2004 essay, Hal Foster identifies and welcomes “an archival impulse” in contemporary art. He argues that artists animated by this impulse tend to treat the archive less as an excavation site than as a construction site, and comments: “this move . . . is welcome in a new way, too: it suggests a move away from a melancholic culture that views the historical as little more than the traumatic” (p. 22). This move is also visible in quite a few of my students’ creative projects showcased here. But what these student art projects mostly remind me of is Terri Francis’s practice of “messing with archives.” Francis, a film scholar and the director of the Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University, takes advantage of the unprecedented freedom to manipulate previously untouchable, now digitized, archival material to weave together different stories, and ponder on different subject positions, as when she reframes Josephine Baker as both spectacle and spectator in her short film “Josephine Baker Watches Herself.” My students’ messing with archives is in turn powered by critical bite, iconoclastic exposure, manipulation, awe, reparative work, and the sheer joy of discovering, making, and sharing, without settling into any one ossified position.
The sensory experience of working in an archive has not been annulled, since we continue to be sensate beings. Instead, it has been radically shifted. Archival readings became permeated with different smells, sounds, and affects once they moved out of reading rooms and into motley living arrangements. Even what we may see, with Shannon Jackson, as a constant of archival experience, the “controlled discomfort” of sitting, took on different dimensions during our lockdown. Some of my students were confined to their New York City apartments for months; others, like Devanshi Khetarpal, abruptly lost their student housing and were obliged to embark on journeys across continents and time zones, to wait in interminable border lines and quarantines, so as to be finally able to sit down for their archival research or for our synchronous Zoom class which started, India time, at 1:30 a.m. Through these travails, even the quintessential archival experience of sitting was modified. So it stands to reason (and to sense), that the kind of research done in these diverse locales and the kinds of subjects doing the research have been sometimes limited and sometimes expanded, stretched, and most definitely altered, in ways that I invite you to explore through the works themselves.
Below please find short descriptions and accompanying links to four projects that creatively engage with this shift to the digital archive, through a variety of mediums (still and moving images, sound recordings, photo book, print) that echo the original multimedia richness of the Tamiment Archive.
An artbook that uses InDesign to create a thoughtful and thought-provoking meditation on the timely issue of transfer in the archives, the transfer or displacement that most archives originate in, and the layered digital transfers that current archives undergo not just in the process of their digitalization but also in the process of being accessed and worked with by all of us. Artist statement. (Maura Kelly)
A lyric essay on the process of writing about the archived interview of historical firsts alongside the give-and-take and narrative shifts, findings and losses in the event of the displacement from a personal archive and space due to the pandemic. Khetarpal reflects on finding an articulation of her own personal challenge to narrate and archive the self in the present moment differently in an interview of Salaria Kea, the first African-American nurse to serve among American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, by John Gerassi. (Devanshi Khetarpal)
A 6-minute film that engages with the multimedia aspects of the archive in a way that uses the different media in counterpoint rather than for illustration. Titled Audible Postcards, the film creatively pairs voice recordings with Spanish Civil War–era postcards. An artist statement explains the process. (Albie Smith)
A photo essay on the Spanish Civil War triggered by an error downloading archival photographs, which split the photos in four on her computer. In an artist statement, Yuen explains how she embraced the error, investigated digital and physical tears in the photos, and further artfully split the images in search for Barthes’s punctum. Artist statement. (Cho Laam Yuen)