“The People’s Archive” instructional notes

Below are the notes I sent to the Weaving the Streets & People’s Archives team members today, focusing on the People’s Archive component of the project.

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

– Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

“The archivist, even more than the historian and the political scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of the society.  But I will stick by what I have said about other scholars, and argue that the archivist, in subtle ways, tends to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about his ordinary business.  His supposed neutrality is, in other words, a fake.  If so, the rebellion of the archivist against his normal role is not, as so many scholars fear, the politicizing of a neutral craft, but the humanizing of an inevitably political craft.  Scholarship in society is inescapably political.  Our choice is not between being political or not.  Our choice is to follow the politics of the going order, that is, to do our job within the priorities and directions set by the dominant forces of society, or else to promote those human values of peace, equality, and justice, which our present society denies.”

– Howard Zinn, “Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest”

Let me begin with something John Collins has used to describe the Weave blog, which is the act of weaving together “texts” and “contexts.”  In Latin, the word textus means “1. construct with elaborate care; 2. plait (together); and 3. weave.”  Likewise, in Latin, contextus means “1. compose, connect, link, combine; 2. make, join, form; and 3. weave, entwine, braid, twist together.”

In literary theory and cultural studies, “texts” are any sort of phenomena that signify meaning, such as written publications, visual works of art, music, videos, oral interviews, etc. as well as clothing styles, architectural design, community-based murals, solidarity gatherings, etc.  Coming from a printmaking perspective, I myself tend to focus on hand-held physical texts or “artifacts,” such as street art stickers, political posters, flyers, leaflets, and photographs of these items (though in some cases, these physical artifacts are ephemeral by design).

Texts tell stories.  It’s up to you to figure out what those stories are.  One of the goals of WSPA is to identify the texts that you think are important and tell the stories surrounding those texts.  That’s the Weaving the Streets blogging component of our project, the contextualization.

The People’s Archive will also document the creative ways ordinary people make use of public space to express themselves.  The archive is intended to be a varied repository of selected texts that we gather to share with others.  It will consist of physical artifacts, as I described above, that will be scanned, catalogued, and added to the gallery’s Street Art Graphics digital archive (http://www.stlawu.edu/gallery/digitalcollections/streetartgraphics.php).  Take a look at some of the entries to get a sense of the cataloguing that’s been done.  It’s a work-in-progress, so some items are more thoroughly catalogued than others.  Non-physical artifacts, such as “born digital” documentary photographs, video or sound-based interviews, etc., will also be catalogued as texts and will reside on the WSPA group blog (http://weavenews.org/content/weaving-streets).  In some cases, physical artifacts will appear in both the Street Art Graphics digital archive and the WSPA group blog.

For each physical artifact or born digital item, you will be asked to identify:

  • the creator (artist, organization, sponsor, contributor, or unknown)
  • the geographic location where you found it (be as specific as possible).  For those of you with smart phones, you can even write down GPS coordinates for future reference.
  • a 150-200 word description (what it is about, why it was made, and who the intended audience might be).  Description fields are the most difficult but also the most fun.  You’ll do research to unlock the mysteries surrounding your artifacts or born digital items.  For examples in the Street Art Graphics digital archive, check out the description fields in the German “St. Pauli” stickers and the American “night raiders.”

Cataloguing information is known as “metadata,” or data about data.  Each artifact or born digital item will be catalogued using the fields listed above.  In addition, subject fields for each item will be populated by a university librarian.  Subject fields are tricky and need to follow certain guidelines determined by the Library of Congress and others.  That way, our work will fit into the larger body of knowledge for use by diverse audiences.

Alums can mail physical artifacts to me at the gallery, and students in the field can do the same or bring them back to campus next fall.  The gallery will scan each item and use your metadata to add to the digital archive and/or group blog.  John and I will leave it up to you to decide how many artifacts or born digital items you’d like to incorporate into your research, but we’re imagining somewhere between four to six.  This work is known as digital curation, which is like selecting artworks for an exhibition, for example.  Each of you will be curating your own show, so to speak.  You’ll want to choose your four to six items carefully so that they tell the story you want to share with others.  That is your role as an archivist/activist.

I write about street art stickers on my research blog called Stickerkitty, and for your reference I have listed four links below to posts that weave together texts and contexts.  You’ll see how I often come across some unknown thing I find on the streets and then work to uncover the story behind it.

https://stickerkitty.com/2013/01/26/white-power-and-good-night-white-pride-stickers/

https://stickerkitty.com/2012/04/28/thor-steinar-storefront-in-friedrichsain-and-other-protests/

https://stickerkitty.com/2013/05/20/barbies-not-so-dream-house/

https://stickerkitty.com/2013/05/18/mapping-right-wing-stickers/

A few other references to archivism and activism are listed below.

Lile, Grace.  “Archives for Change: Activist Archives, Archival Activism.”  http://blog.witness.org/2010/09/archives-for-change-activist-archives-archival-activism/.

“Occupy Wall Street from the Streets to the Archives” (New York Times, May 2, 2012).  http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/02/occupy-wall-street-from-the-streets-to-the-archives/.

See also Ben McCorkle’s “Annotated Obama Poster” for his analysis of the visual rhetoric behind the Obama HOPE poster at http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/mccorkle12/work2.html.

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