A Balancing Act: Reflections on Day 2 of Inward Outward

The following is a reflection from Esther Captain, who offered the closing words on Day 2 of the symposium. This text is an expansion of the thoughts she shared.

The first edition of the Inward Outward symposium took place over two full days of presentations, screenings, and debate. When curating this symposium, the program committee—of which I was a member—envisioned several groups of participants coming together, who on paper could generally be thought of as academics, archivists, activists, and artists. To me, the symposium beautifully illustrated the intersection of the roles that many of us embody, and the ways in which these are not fixed but regularly overlap. We saw this in action with a PhDJ, scholars who were dancers, filmmakers who are scholars, activists who are academics and the like. We have a multiplicity of professional and private identities that we can choose to take up and embrace or that we may want to reject and cannot detach ourselves from, often existing as some combination of the two, that can both inspire us into creativity and fill us with pain.

Browsing over the notes I took during the symposium, they give an impression of the topics we explored together—some of them extensively, but most of them to be discussed in more depth later, as if we were to set an agenda for future symposia. For me, it became even more clear that privilege allows those who have it to expend less energy on navigating the world generally, and in archival and academic spheres specifically, less energy in terms of the emotional labour these spaces, and the encounters and experiences in them, regularly demand. I found pleasure in the alternative approaches to archival work that were offered at the symposium, such as queering archival spaces, unmuting silences, freeing voices, and remaking legacies. It was inspiring to talk about the reparative space in archives for care and healing, and to envision a third space for granting accessibility and community building by doing archival work. Some participants suggested silence and forgetting as empowerment, as a refusal to speak the master’s language, a reference to the seminal work of Audre Lorde, while others considered the strategy of “affirmative sabotage,” to use the concept put forward by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I found myself still hesitating between rejecting and embracing haunting memories of a colonial past. And I certainly felt, like other participants, that in my archival encounters I was also doing grief work.

In trying to understand the power relations involved in dealing with coloniality and the wish to decolonize, it seems useful to bear in mind that our questions with regards to archiving and historical storytelling come from different spaces and at different paces. Different spaces, as some of us work in “official,” sometimes “national” archives, museums, heritage institutions, research departments, universities, and the like during the weekdays where it might be difficult enough trying to “change things” being the lone maverick, lacking critical mass in the shape of colleagues who support the aim of decolonizing structural hierarchies. For others, work exists as creating, running, and continuing to amplify alternative spaces, smaller organizations, or assemblages that carve out their own paths and challenge systemically-sanctioned institutions. We find different paces as some people and organizations have just recently embarked on the journey of “decolonization,” thinking through what it might entail in the practices of their specific institutions. While others have decades of experience focusing specifically on these issues and are faced with much repetition in this endeavor, sometimes choosing to not engage in a debate as an act of self-preservation from combat fatigue, protecting oneself from having to explain or be exposed time and again. Thinking through the specificity of space and pace also foregrounds the idea of experience, and for me, raised more personal, embodied questions to reflect on: What does it mean to find yourself depicted time and again as the highly visible “other”? Or, what does it mean to find yourself invisible, or absent? Such experiences, for me, can clearly raise tension and discomfort as they are so highly personal. Indeed, some moments of discomfort were felt during the symposium when speaking and listening from different spaces and paces; but these moments can also be extremely generative when they are worked through, processed, and lead to more questions.

We have different bodies, histories, and experiences of self, and come from different locations, and as such have different experiences and genealogies that we are informed by. This acknowledgement serves as an invitation to further explore the importance of positionality, as brought up by Eliza Steinbock during the closing conversation of the symposium; how do our identities shape our understanding of the world, and in the context of the symposium, how do we approach archives, audiovisual materials, coloniality, race, and violence? As discussed together, audiovisual archives are not passive containers of material waiting to be explored. Quite the contrary, we saw the performative character of archives, as a liminal space endowed with the power to open up, give access to (or deny it), act, and perform.

We should think of our accountability and responsibility towards audiovisual archives, but also our complicity in sustaining the existing power relations within them. How are we to consider ourselves as implicated subjects? For sound archives, it raises the questions: Are we able and willing to listen, and who do we hear? For moving image archives: Who and what do we see and what is missing? How do we look and how do we frame? And what are the technicalities, the intricacies of archival practice, that sustain violent, racist imagery and framing? In conversation we acknowledged the fact that some colonial archives have taken material so out of context by denying the agency of marginalized people, that the tapes, reels, discs, and documents have merely become a cemetery; for some of this material it is necessary to revive and reanimate it, so it can come back to life, for others, the question of the violence enacted through its access is an increasingly important ethical question. Colonial archives, known to cause damage and produce haunting memories, also contain secrets and desires. There is much intimacy involved in working with archival audiovisual material, as it is an embodied practice: of ourselves as researchers and practitioners on the one hand, and of the subjects in the archives on the other. In that sense, archival work is relational and intersubjective, asking for embodied ways of understanding. Engaging with this undercurrent of archives contains a spiritual dimension and also the potential power to heal.