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Tenses of Being: Art Reclaiming and Animating the Archive

Introduction

The word archive is both a noun and a verb. Its denotations: 

noun

  1. a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.
  2. the place where historical documents or records are kept

verb

  1. place or store (something) in an archive.
  2. transfer (data) to a less frequently used storage medium such as magnetic tape, typically external to the computer system and having a greater storage capacity

Yet, an archive is not merely a collection of documents; rather it is a political and critical repository of cultural memory. Considering what and how a society archives–and how the archive is interpreted— is important at a time when histories are being re-defined, positionalities re-negotiated, and modes of exclusion resisted. 

There is an increasing use of the archival in contemporary art. This artistic memory work positions itself against the distortions and erasures of history and pursues strategies for decolonizing and diversifying bodies of knowledge. This paper considers what the archive is (or can be); the processes that artists use to excavate, reclaim, and animate it; and core aims in doing so. A diverse range of artists and artworks are explored. 

Redefining the Archive

Archives are collections of documents or records which have been selected for preservation because of their value, as evidence of activities that occurred in the past, as a source for historical or other research, as recorded memory. For this paper, an expansive view of the/an archive is used. The usage here includes formal and official repositories (such as the national archives), institutional ones (such as academic collections of photographs, papers, letters, and documents), and commercial ones  (such as newspapers and other mass media). It also includes informal repositories (any space for holding memories/ place of memory storage), personal ones (a box of collected things), spatial ones (the city), and aspatial/intangible ones (the body as archive, individual and collective). The scale and scope of the/an archive can range from personal to collective, local to global.  

The archive’s value is additive in relation to history; it acquires value as it is used for historical reference and research. Who is in the archive, who is omitted, whose story is told is the rub/ crux/ problem of the formal archive, and is the space into which memory and alternate forms of archive enter. Saidiya Hartman (2008) asks, “Where the archive [formal, official] is silent, must we be silent?” Arguably, historians may need to be silent; artists need not be.

Reclaiming the Archive

As poet / novelist Ocean Vuong wrote, the past is never a fixed and dormant landscape but one that is re-seen (Vuong 2019, 27). Contemporary art assumes a crucial role in re-seeing and reclaiming the archive, not just for reconstituting/reconstructing history but for transforming past/ present/ future. Black artists dealing with the archive of slavery turn to the other forms of archive to address the silences, absences, modes of dis/appearance and other gaps of the formal archive. This is also true of other artists from peoples who are invisible in/erased; the other forms of archive hold stories of the past that those who are dispossessed can transform via creative practices. 

Reclaiming the archive requires approaches that are akin to queering the archive: 

Queerness is a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there….Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present…. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and how and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.

(Chambers-Letson, Nyong’o, & Pellegrini 2009, i)

Queerness (and I would assert Blackness) is essentially about the rejection of the here and now and “an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (Chambers-Letson, Nyong’o, & Pellegrini 2009, i).  More specifically, queerness is a(n):

  • Ideality –  essentially about the rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world
  • Structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present
  • Longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present
  • Thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing (Muñoz 2009)

Andrea Ray (2018) offers an explanation of why such a futurity is needed:

Linear historical narratives inevitably write out certain groups in favor of the powerful and this historiographic process reveals the production of certain constituencies as dominant and the rest as “other”, or certain relationships as “normal” and others as improper or illegitimate.

(Ray 2018, 25)

The present and the past are not enough. “It is impoverished and toxic for queers and other people who do not feel the privilege of majoritarian belonging, normative tastes, and ‘rational’ expectations (Chambers-Letson, Nyong’o and Pellegrini 2009, xii ).” José Esteban Muñoz posits a “queer futurity” that is attentive to the past for the purposes of critiquing the present;  it is a “backward glance that enacts a future vision.” This polytemporal work is crucial for artists to reclaim and animate the archive. 

Animating the Archive through Creative Polytemporal Engagement

Ray (2018) defines polytemporality as “a synchronous sense of the past, present, and future” which is “meant to disrupt the normative ideas about gender within relationships” (Ray 2018, 10).   A similar concept, what we will call creative polytemproal engagement, can be applied to reclaim the archive and animate liberatory ways. This type of engagement differs from conventional archival research in important ways, akin to Campt’s (2021b) description of her process of writing about art:

Rather than writing about artworks….I write to them about the feelings they solicit, the forms of discomfort they evoke, the emotional work they require and often demand, and the potentially transformative effects they have when we allow ourselves to inhabit those feelings and responses.

(Campt 2021b, 27)

Using creative polytemporal engagement, artists can visualize an archive, talk to it, sing to it, dance to it, inhabit it, or all of the above at the same time and more. In this, artists strive to engage in critical thinking, critical feeling, and critical reflection. 

Art  is a moment of newness, an event, but one that  pushes  back against something—whether  we call that conversation… or medium, institution,  or frame.

(Zorach 2015, 163)

Tenses of Being

Creative polytemporal engagement uses the archive as source material, applying varying methods of marking time and modes of artistic production to reweave past, present and future to (re)claim spaces of possibility. Through creative polytemporal engagement of the archive, artists make evident alternative ways of knowing, other ways of theorizing. These modes of artistic production evoke different tenses of being, which have been theorized and described in a number of ways by others. Four tenses that we will consider here, with corresponding artworks, are: (1) being in the wake, (2) living in the trace, (3) imagining futures past, and (4) embracing the not-yet.

Being in The Wake

For many African American artists, the archive of slavery informs and inflects our practice. Of that peculiar archive, Hartman (2008) notes:

Upon entering the archive of slavery, the unimaginable assumes the guise of everyday practice, which we can never fail to forget as we gape at the grim faces and stripped torsos of Delia, Drana, Renty, and Jack, or recoil from the mutilated body of Anarcha, or admire a naked Diana, so lovely that even “the most splendid apparel cannot give any additional elegance.”

(Hartman 2008, 6)

Christina Sharpe (2016) expands on the problematics of the archive of slavery:

Those of us who teach, write, and think about slavery and its afterlives encounter myriad silences and ruptures in time, space, history, ethics, research, and method as we do our work. Again and again scholars of slavery face absences in the archives as we attempt to find “the agents buried beneath” the accumulated erasures, projections, fabulations, and misnamings. There are, I think, specific ways that Black scholars of slavery get wedged in the partial truths of the archives while trying to make sense of their silences, absences, and modes of dis/appearance. The methods most readily available to us sometimes, oftentimes, force us into positions that run counter to what we know. That is, our knowledge, of slavery and Black being in slavery, is gained from our studies, yes, but also in excess of those studies; it is gained through the kinds of knowledge from and of the everyday, from what Dionne Brand calls “sitting in the room with history.” We are expected to discard, discount, disregard, jettison, abandon, and measure those ways of knowing and to enact epistemic violence that we know to be violence against others and ourselves. In other words, for Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are ‘drafted into the service of a larger destructive force’, thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise.

(Sharpe 2016, 12)

Sharpe gives us the first tense of being we will consider: being in the wake. She notes that “in the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (Sharpe 2016, 8).  She notes that being in the wake, and doing “wake work” requires thinking in “the subjunctive tense of the future real conditional,” which is “not a provisional tense, but one premised on the realization of a different future. It is the tense of ‘as if’” (Sharpe 2016, 22).

One example of such engagement in and beyond the wake are Slave Rebellion Reenactment (figures 1 – 3), which used official, media, and popular archives to restage and reinterpret the largest rebellion of enslaved people in United States history. More than 300 Black and indigenous people marched in formation, in 19th century garments with props, singing in English and Creole to African drumming (Scott n.d.)

Robert Blackson asserts that, “Reenactment is distinctive in that it invites transformation through memory, theory, and history to generate unique and resonating results.”  It differs from simulation, repetition, and reproduction in important ways that result in an “emancipatory agency” and “transformation through memory, theory, and history” (Blackson 2007, 28). 

Figure 1. Scott, Dread. “Slave Rebellion Reenactment,” community engaged performance, November 2019, outside New Orleans, LA.
Image copyright Dread Scott 2020, photographer: Soul Brother.
Figure 2. Scott, Dread. “Slave Rebellion Reenactment,” community engaged performance, November 2019, outside New Orleans, LA.
Image copyright Dread Scott 2020, photographer: Soul Brother.
Figure 3. Scott, Dread. “Slave Rebellion Reenactment,” museum installation of documentation.
Image copyright Dread Scott 2020, photographer: Soul Brother.

Slave Rebellion Enactment invited the type of transformation to which Blackson refers, and which Sharpe calls wake work, which “requires labor— the labor of discomfort, feeling, positioning, and repositioning—and solicits visceral responses to the visualization of Black precarity” (Campt 2021a, 17). The re-enactment project took place over the course of a year; the initial stages of the project involved individual labor in the form of one on one conversations about why this history is important in contemporary society, and collective labor in the form sewing circles to create the clothing and banners used in the re-enactment. The culmination was a two-day, 24-mile march/ performance that “animated a suppressed history of people with an audacious plan to organize, take up arms and seize Orleans Territory, to fight not just for their own individual emancipation, but to end slavery” (Scott n.d.). Documentary photographs, a film, and gallery installations preserve the work; these and the remembrances of the participants add to the originary archive.

Keith Jenkins (1991) posits that the past is not history, and Blackson expanded that notion: 

In a discussion of reenactment, it is important to uphold Jenkins’s separation of the past and history.  He maintains the former isa necessary “construction site” of facts on which the latter is built. Jenkins believes that facts impose no meaning in and of themselves…. Jenkins’s separation of the past and history extends an unspoken epistemological agency to art and memory so that these creative practices might use the past to build and replay their own constructed histories.

(Blackson 2007, 31)

As an artwork Slave Rebellion Enactment  is a constructive act of meaning-making, memorialization, and reparation. It answered two key questions posed by Sharpe:

Just as wake work troubles mourning, so too do the wake and wake work trouble the ways most museums and memorials take up trauma and memory. That is, if museums and memorials materialize a kind of reparation (repair) and enact their own pedagogies as they position visitors to have a particular experience or set of experiences about an event that is seen to be past, how does one memorialize chattel slavery and its afterlives, which are unfolding still? How do we memorialize an event that is still ongoing?

(Sharpe 2016, 19)

Blackson asserts that reenactment is not an exercise in dredging up the past to wallow in failure or pain; it is a bringing to effect the possibilities in the past/present/future.

[The] separation of the past and history extends an unspoken epistemological agency to art and memory so that these creative practices might use the past to build and replay their own constructed histories.

(Blackson 2007,  31)

This possibility for difference encourages reenactment, regardless of its context, to sample from various models of constructing history. Rather than a repetitive struggle of maintaining appearances, reenactment is a creative act, and no definition of the genre should omit this element of artistic inspiration…. The myriad ways the past can be maneuvered to create the possibility for new experience and histories to emerge also carry the potential to inspire as-yet-unthought-of reenactments of these new histories.

(Blackson 2007, 42)

The significance of Slave Rebellion Reenactment is that it crossed and collapsed the past, present, and future of the archive of slavery. It demonstrated one way “the past can be maneuvered to create the possibility for new experience and histories to emerge also carry the potential to inspire as-yet-unthought-of reenactments of these new histories” (Blackson 2007, 40).  

Living in the Trace 

The second tense that we will explore is “the trace,” which is based on Mark Fisher’s  expansion of Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology. Fisher (2012) writes, “Haunting can be seen as intrinsically resistant to the contraction and homogenization of time and space. It happens when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time.” 

Fisher posits that hauntology consists of two temporal categories: the “not yet” and the “no longer.”  Additionally, he argues that we are unable to envision possible futures unless we remember lost futures from the past. Andrew Woods (2016) builds upon this, asserting that the conditions of history are the source from which ideas of the future emerge and that “any aesthetics of futurity must bridge these two hauntological categories” (Woods 2016, 2). Combined, they form the tense living in the trace.

For Black artists, few sites can be more stained by time than a site of anti-Black violence.  There are a multiplicity (overabundance) of these sites in the United States.  On the surface, these appear to be sites of forgetting— the passage of time erasing what occurred there. But the haunting remains. 

Saved (figures 4 – 6) is an example of a creative polytemporal engagement with the archive of a place stained by time. Prompted by the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Laura Nelson and her son, L.W., artist kara lynch coordinated a “living memorial” performance. Originally staged in 2008, lynch recruited performers and used a sound installation of field recordings she made on the original Oklahoma bridge where Nelson was killed. The work is designed to respond to the violence of lynching without doing another violence to those murdered by displaying the imagery; instead they invoke a collective ritual remembrance and reclamation. The work integrated music sung by local Black church choirs, a procession of white-clad figures on the bridge above them, and meditations on and in the space. Rather than reenactment, the result was akin to a funeral procession, a bodily witness to historical tragedy and the spiritual release of it. (Husler 2013).

Figure 4. lynch, kara. “Saved,” living memorial as performed/ installed in Harlem River Park, New York City. Photo by Daniel Johnson.
Figure 5. lynch, kara. “Saved,” living memorial as performed/ installed in Harlem River Park, New York City. Photo by Daniel Johnson.
Figure 6. lynch, kara. “Saved,” living memorial as performed/ installed in Harlem River Park, New York City. Photo by Daniel Johnson.

Saved was not staged at the site of the Nelson lynching in Oklahoma, but rather performed at location in New York (near where the artist resides). This reflects the fact that the stain of some events transcends a specific geography; such events act as a metonymic trace for all such acts. The act of creating this artwork made the trace visible and resisted the significant problem of broken time and forgetting–the  foreclosure of possible futures.  

[R]esist the temptation of self-amnesiacization: a process that divorces us from history and, in turn, from the future. I assert that our artistic and philosophical endeavors to represent and contemplate futurity must burrow to the historical origins from which any possible future must grow.

(Woods 2016, 1)

It referenced the movement of this lynching toward “traceness,” from the initial violent acts and their witnessing, to the reproduction of the violence through images—which included photographs and souvenir postcards—to the use of the act as race propaganda, and ultimately to its placement in the historical archive.

The act of gathering in Saved moved participants from forgetting as a survival strategy to remembering as one. It contained the historical awareness of how lynching has functioned in American history, how it continues to haunt Black people and communities today (it presence today), and how communities can do differently going forward. 

Writer Amitava Kumar (quoted in Chee 2002) presents us with another problem with forgetting: The oppressor can conveniently forget the trauma they have inflicted. One of his fictional character counsels:

Keep a record.  Don’t trust the state. Don’t expect the police to document the violence that is raining on your head.” I learned that while the news cycle was spinning blindly, everything disappearing into quick oblivion, I needed to note it down so that I would remember what happened. And then: What was the next unbelievable thing that they did? And how did it go from bad to worse and even further worse? And, important: Who resisted? Who said something that opened up a space of possibility? … “They will not remember what they are doing to you, but you must.”

(Kumar, quoted in Chee 2002, 6)

Artists Mendi and Keith Obadike’s use sound to surface the trace. Their Number Station Series  uses uses numerical databases of violence (police harassment, lynchings statistics, and slave ship manifests) to as the source for “sonic information”. In Numbers Station 1 [Furtive Movements], they used New York Police Department “Stop and Frisk” data to generate sine tones—tones with a single frequency, also known as a pure tone—that correspond to database numbers. In a live performance, the recorded tones were combined with the artists live reading of numbers from NYPD. In Numbers Station 2 [Red Record] they “sonify data from Ida B. Wells’ 1895 book The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States.” In Numbers Station 3 [Manifests], they do the same with slave ship manifests (Mendi + Keith Obadike, 2015 – present). 

This conversion of archival data into pressure waves triggers a sequence that leads the audience to perceive the data-sound. This gives the events to which the data refer a new and different resonance: As audience members perceive the sound, they perceive (hear and feel) the data. The trace becomes manifest, moving in, through, and around them.

Imagining Futures Past

Woods (2016) presents the concept of past potential futurity, defined as possible futures that failed to become reality, which trigger speculation on what would have happened if history had tended toward one outcome rather than the one that actually occurred. This is our third tense of being, what we will call imagining futures past. 

Paul Miller’s Rebirth of a Nation is a large-scale multimedia performance piece that is an example of art made in this tense. Applying a “DJ technique to film,” Miller remixed the images from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation (using methods of sampling, montage, assemblage, collage), and added a self-composed soundtrack. In it, he mined the cinematic archive, taking a landmark white supremacist film lauded for its technical innovation and repurposed it to speculate different possibilities. Miller (2017) summarized his aim thusly:

Everywhere you go in the 21st century we are informed by controversy around racial politics. It’s something that cinema has somehow been a mirror we hold up to society, and we try and think of maybe different approaches to how you can move forward. By exploring the history of racial politics in cinema, especially with this early DNA of our modern Hollywood System, it’s something I wanted to figure out as a reflection of where America is now and where we possibly could be going.

Artist Sadie Barnette’s installation The New Eagle Creek Saloon (Figure 7) showed that the archive can be an organism as alive as the histories contained within it. (See also Eagle Creek Saloon Zine.) Critic Zoe Zamudzi noted:

The historical archive is so often understood and formalized (and institutionalized) as a relic to some pasthood. It is a space, often, where memories and renderings of history compete for primacy and dominance, and a space from where “official histories” — hegemonic histories — emerge. But throughout her body of work, and particularly in two of her most recent projects, Sadie Barnette demonstrates the production of a vernacular archive that not only subverts the standard or traditional archival form, but also gestures towards futurity.  

(Samudzi 2019)

Critic Essence Harden describes Barnette’s work as the liminal space “between monument and altar.” Whereas monument is about celebration and commemoration, altars are an offering to powers governing the present and the future as they necessarily relate to the past: a temporal relation and interdependency (Harden 2019) that imagines futures past.

Figure 7. Barnette, Sadie, Eagle Creek Saloon ,2019. Installation view, The Lab, San Francisco.

Embracing the Not-Yet

The final tense we will explore is that of embracing the not-yet. In some ways, this tense of being is also the most difficult to enter, requiring the creation of new imaginaries. It is where polytemporality is most salient. 

Ray notes that the polytemporal allows for the yet to come, and that which has been, to all be present with the here and now; in polytemporality, “marginalized voices of the past are heard as an alternate past, but also, in a more utopian sense as a yet-to-be future that is always already present” (Ray 2018, 34-35). 

Muñoz writes extensively about utopia, specifically concrete utopias as the realm of educated, anticipatory hope (Muñoz 2009, 3). Emily Roydson’s concept of ecstatic resistance is useful in this realm. Roydson states that in her evocation of the concept through art and work within collectives, she is trying to do three things:

  1. Develop a position of the impossible and to think about all that is unthinkable/unspeakable. 
  2. Explore the possibility of a new imaginary through works that deconstruct historical categories and history itself and through works that build new systems, structures, perspectives from the ruins.
  3. Think about the sets of strategies that create ecstatic resistance.

Ecstatic resistance can be variously and alternately defined as taking a leap into doing something beyond logic and reason; mobilizing the force of desire; and embracing the simultaneity of meaning, paradox, and struggle. Less reserved, but not lacking in judgment: “The realm of the impossible is political, never naive, and always shifting. Asking what is ‘impossible’ is about the boundaries of humanness, intelligibility and power. I think about the limits of respectability, to directly confront what is forbidden” (Roydson 2009, 111). Ecstatic resistance exhorts us to act as if, creating the spaces that we wish existed–the not-yet. 

Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) is a African-centered theory and practice that uses different forms of creative polytemporal engagement to embody the archive, engage in ecstatic resistance, and embrace the not-yet. Two BQF projects highlight these approaches. 

Mmere Dane: Black Time Belt (Figure 8) is an online archive of resources, maps, lessons, images, soundscapes, and videos all serving to revive and maintain the presence of historic all-Black towns formed pre- and post-Civil War. It is not merely a memorial site but rather it  “functions as a Black Quantum Futurist archive of alternative past-present-future(s) where the towns form a network of Black temporal zones – or a Black Time Belt – protecting these communities from the impacts of temporal-spatial oppression and destructive linear progressive timelines” (Black Quantum Futurism, n.d. – a)

Figure 8. Black Quantum Futurism. “Mmere Dane” online archive [screenshot].

Black Womxn Temporal (Figure 9) is “an online protest statement against limited conceptions about what ‘The Future is…’ that disincludes Black women, femmes, transwomen, and girls” (Black Quantum Futurism, n.d. – b)

The statement recognizes the plurality and quantum nature of the future(s) where Black womxn, femmes, and girls exist and are safe, loved, and valued. Considering the unique, intersectional temporal experiences of Black women and girls and the ways in which we are being actively erased from the objective, linear future, this text, sound, and image series is part of a nonlinear timescape/tapestry/temporal map/toolkit preparing us for the Black womanist, quantum future(s). It is an interactive, open access archive of the temporal technologies Black women, non-binary, gender nonconforming folks, and girls have developed to ensure our quantum future(s) and uncover our ancestral space-time configurations for survival in the present.

Figure 9. Black Quantum Futurism. “Black Womxn Temporal” online protest statement [screenshot].

BQF projects and practices enable one to see hope in a dystopian reality, in which “past futurism, the hopes and dreams of our ancestors, act as important metaphysical tools that serve as agents to help one discover hidden information in the present time” (Moor Mother Goddess 2015, 8). 

Conclusion

The past continues to speak to us. But it no longer addresses us as a simple, factual ‘past’, since our relation to it, like the child’s relation to the mother, is always-already ‘after the break’. It is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. –Stuart Hall (226)

My great aunt left me a family archive, mostly of photographs. Some of the people I know–they are photos of my great aunts and uncles from their childhood well into adulthood. Others are snapshots of their friends, perhaps also lovers and spouses, who I never met. They document more than moments of radiant ordinariness (as Dionne Brand speaks of them; they counterbalance collective histories of trauma with familial histories of resistance. I use this informal archive (of photos, letters, notes on scraps of paper) to  remind me about resistance and spaces of possibility. 

The archive always has holes that, if we are curious, leads to many, many questions.  For my family archive, I often wonder about the mostly idyllic scenes captured in those photos. What pleasures were they engaged in? What prompted them to take these early forms of selfies to mark these moments? What were their daily, regular lives and routines? How long did they have to plan, to save to take/make an outing? How were these moments possible, given the times of Jim Crow and extreme racial violence?  How were they able to be so apparently joy-filled? 

Even for marginalized people, archives matter. As we look to and at the archive, we must shift the gaze (to a radical Black one, queer one, feminist one), and we must shift time.  We must build our own, and we must mine and interrogate the others for the traces of our lives outside of, in spite of [trauma, abjection].  In doing so, we are not (only) seeking the past; we are escaping the present to imagine a future.

The archive always has lessons for us that, if we are wise, we will attend to. We can discern deeper meanings from the tenses of being within them. The theories discussed in this paper, and the artworks that reflect them, are guides for writing, picturing, sounding and sensing ourselves into the past, present, and future.

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