The Archive as a Continuous Journey: Reflections on Day 1 of Inward Outward

Sadiah Boonstra
(University of Melbourne/Curator Public Programs Asia TOPA)

The following is a reflection from Sadiah Boonstra, who offered the closing words on Day 1 of the symposium. This text is an expansion of the thoughts she shared.

Struggling for Change: Intersectionality and Decoloniality

From the rich presentations, panels and discussions on Day 1, the image of a lively archive arena emerged in which struggles of coloniality, intersectionality, and identity took place on various levels and in different contexts. What surfaced was that historians, archivists, and the public are searching for different stories, histories, herstories and theirstories. We therefore need and expect different things from the archive, such as an intersectional and decolonial method and praxis to make the stories written more inclusive and produce new bodies of knowledge. Crucial in the power struggles discussed and that arose repeatedly in conversation is the need to uncover existing hierarchies of power and reveal the ways in which memory is politically controlled. Deborah Thomas’ keynote opened the day addressing the violent normativity of the authority of archives; but how to document violence without reinscribing the violence of the system, she asked. Through a discussion of the multi-modal project she worked on with Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn and Deanne Bell, Deborah showed how affective ways of building and engaging with an archive of violence could undermine dominant narratives previously formed.

In the first session on reimagining the archive, intersectional approaches dealt with how archival power hierarchies have created unjust absences in the past and continue to do so, and how we might counter such hierarchies and lacunas. Sebastian Jackson looked at archives and images of racial representation in post-apartheid South Africa, and how the boundaries and possibilities of intimacy and its representation in the digital age are being redrawn. Wigbertson Julian Isenia and Eliza Steinbock argued that Betty Paërl’s radical sex politics, and anticolonial and postcolonial work while siloed into different archival spaces should rather be read “in stereoscope” as they inform each other. Tao Leigh Goffe explored the poetics of blurring the dichotomy between pain/terror and pleasure, by imagining how the archive as a physical space can be reinfused with affect and corporeality. Her visual soundtrack reimagined what could happen when encountering ourselves in the space of the archive, and what space the archive provides for intimacy. Inspired by Jack Halberstam’s claim that “to remember and recognize the anticolonial struggles, other narratives do have to be forgotten and unlearned,” (77) David Frohnapfel posed the question of whether creating spaces of forgetting can lead to new forms of knowledge.

Throughout the day the concept of decoloniality was invoked as an important strategy to dismantle the power structures of archival practices. The question is, however, in what ways are people employing the term and what does “decolonizing” mean for different institutions and people, how is it practiced, and how to develop mechanisms to facilitate multiple perspectives? Charles Jeurgens and Michael Karabinos saw technology as an innovative tool to decolonize the archive and facilitate record collection and distribution. They also regarded technology as a tool for multiplying perspectives and voices heard, and bringing out those suppressed. They explored how digitization implies the transformation of the materiality and meaning of the materials, making available digitally what was analog. However, they highlighted the dilemmas of this process as digitizing collections can reinscribe colonial processes. In the same session, Andrea Zarza Canova, a curator in the World and Traditional Music section of the sound archive at the British Library, reflected on the Museum Affordances project exploring the ways in which the British Library is addressing silences in their collection.

In the act of archiving, how do we make sure we do not transpose the processes of colonialism, of racism, onto a different medium, into different practices? If we continue to use certain kinds of problematic tropes—such as race and gender—as metadata, we perpetuate the system we seek to counter. As archivists, researchers and cultural workers it is important that our praxis does not entrench the errors of the past, but corrects them in order to establish collections in a critical manner, and describe those collections in a more accessible and inclusive way. Terminology is therefore of the utmost importance. Words are not just words, especially when they carry racist and derogatory meanings that symbolize oppression and degradation, and enact violence. There is still much room for archives to improve their engagement with communities represented in their collections, and to work together to, amongst other things and at the very least, confirm their databases don’t make use of violent language.

Emotional Encounters and Subjective Connections

The desperate need for change translates into a call for multiplicity in provenance, narratives, and records in a counter-hegemonic archiving process that is a collective and collaborative undertaking from research through annotation, to distribution and use. These pluralistic layers would contribute to the redistribution of knowledge production via networks and new forms of association. As Deborah Thomas notes, sounds, images, and emotions are all connected and reinforce the mental image held, which means that they offer a different way of consuming archival material. As illustrated in her keynote, engaging with the archive can become an act of citizenship, an embodied practice, and a form of co-performative witnessing producing intimacies; this could establish an affective, emotional framework capable of shaping socio-economic and political spheres. It is here that we can begin to reimagine a different kind of archive and other starting points capable of enabling more democratic futures.

Other speakers, such as Sebastian Jackson, Tao Leigh Goffe and David Frohnapfel also pointed out that archives are ultimately about people and their connection with the personal. This was addressed again at the end of the day by Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken during the roundtable discussion she moderated, asking: How can archives connect to and reflect our emotions, our identities, who we are, and where we see ourselves and our histories? There exists an anxiety to “remember,” to know one’s identity, so archives should allow for and facilitate such emotional encounters.

A different kind of archive would require a fundamental shift from the notion of objectivity which falsely suggests that there is one history that should be told, a history that can be created from the evidence in the archive. Today we should acknowledge and accept sub­jectivity as an unavoidable yet unpredictable, and sometimes incredibly significant, element in the archival process. For example, The Black Archives was created, building its own archive, in the course of activities undertaken to accomplish a specific purpose: redis­covering and telling untold, hidden stories and histories that are largely left out of  more “institutional” archives. This reimagining the archive is about bridging the gap between the archive as an institution and the personal, to allow for subjective decisions, stories, and histories.
Jeftha Pattikawa spoke about diversity and inclusion at the National Archives of the Netherlands. Inclusive action empowers com­munities by decentralizing the production of knowledge, creating the conditions to write and include other histories. In this way archives counter, complicate, and reimagine systems in which narratives are being produced, circu­­lated, and understood. This requires not just a change in access to and description of materials, but also that the recordkeeping infrastructure itself is transformed to include communities and give them agency and own­ership in collecting, selecting, maintaining, and accessing archival materials.

Re-Enactment and Performance as Archival Praxis

In an attempt to correct unequal power dynamics and counter dominant discourses with new and fresh methodologies and perspectives, many institutions and archives too, increasingly turn to artists. Artists approach the archive differently and look at its materials from a different angle, especially when these artists belong to the source communities of the archival records. The involvement of artists is a global trend followed by institutions in possession of collections of various kinds, be it books, manuscripts, visual art or sound and moving image materials. The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision treads on this path and had invited Rizki Lazuardi as its first artistic researcher in residence in the year leading up to the symposium. In his talk “Not a Light Touch” Rizki spoke of the Indonesian context and addressed the “unsaid” of colonial-related aspects of the archive.

What happens in the absence of materiality when the archive does not exist or is crumbling? In the context of Indonesia, the archive as an institution is largely absent as a consequence of the structural neglect of archives of various kinds. To fill this gap and to prevent valuable historical material from complete obliteration, artists and others working in the cultural space started archiving as praxis. They engaged in a series of actions: collecting, cataloguing, digitizing, classifying, accessing, researching, transforming, creating meaning, and so on. They took on the roles of archivists, historians, and anthropologists or rather, they re-enacted these roles. As such we could see the archive as a performative act in which a string of actors perform various roles and take on a variety of responsibilities.

For his residency at Sound and Vision, Rizki explored a similar kind of praxis, using re-­enactment. With a focus on the pest plague in the early twentieth century in colonial Indonesia, Rizki re-enacted the histories captured in the archival records. Inspired by a record showing the burning of a house to curb the spread of the disease he convinced someone to let him burn a deserted house they owned in order to film it. Re-enacting the archival record makes histories visible in a new way. Performing the past is no longer a memory, but part of our present which can be relived to open up new emotional connections and engagements.

As we saw, finding new connections to the archive resonated throughout the day, showing a shifting relationship between archival practice, history, and historiography. The search for new ways of engaging with archives and for building a new kind of institution is a continuous journey. And on this journey, we must continue to critically scrutinize our own actions.


Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.

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