Remediation, Activation, and Entanglement in Performative (Digital) Archives

By Jacqueline Wernimont
October 2017

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the summer of 2013, a team of faculty, special collections librarians, archivists, library technology staff, web development/design professionals, undergraduate students, and graduate research fellows developed and implemented Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race. Performing Archive gathers existing digital resources from Curtis projects and brings them together with new critical and artistic work, as well as new digitizations of Curtis’s twenty-volume work The North American Indian. David J. Kim and I wrote about this work in “‘Performing Archive’: Identity, Participation, and Responsibility in the Ethnic Archive” for Archive Journal in 2014. In January of 2017, I offered a version of the following critical reading of the project at the Modern Language Association meeting in Philadelphia.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I am using the three titular terms in the following ways:

Remediation: “We call the representation of one medium in another remediation, and we will argue that remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media.”1

Activation: leveraging new and old media (as well as personal networks) to forge cross-border connections and active engagement/organizing.

Entanglement: “Knowing is a direct material engagement, a cutting together-apart, where cuts do violence but also open up and rework the agential conditions of possibility. There is not this knowing from a distance. Instead of there being a separation of subject and object, there is an entanglement of subject and object, which is called the ‘phenomenon.’ Objectivity, instead of being about offering an undistorted mirror image of the world, is about accountability to marks on bodies, and responsibility to the entanglements of which we are a part.”2

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Digital-edition or collection creation is a critical design process, one that entails ethical concerns and is an active and ongoing process. As my yoking together of remediation, activation, and entanglement suggests, it is both a matter of form and content. In this particular project, we had a rather complex media ecology that included existing digital assets, along with new ones created from a special-collections holding, and newly generated digital content of several different types.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Below I will be offering my critical reading of Performing Archives, which has been informed by both academic and non-academic critiques of white, settler-colonial archival and digital practices.3 While I will not be citing personal communications here, I do want to signal that in my thinking I have benefited enormously from both anonymous reviewers of my work and others who have engaged in person, sometimes to express both anger and frustration.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 In Decolonizing Methodologies Linda Tuhiwai Smith cites Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s articulation of what a decolonial approach entails: “a transnational interaction from below, that is, from the victims, the exploited, the excluded and their allies.”4 In using a decolonial approach for this reading, I am arguing that “epistemological and social monocultures of Europe” and of Anglo-American academic and social institutions have produced “silences, unpronounced abilities, and absences,” such that it seems as if people have “vanished” when they have not.5 This notion of vanishing was central to Edward Curtis’s salvage ethnography that resulted in the publication of the twenty-volume work known as The North American Indian (1907-1930), and it may well be at work in Performing Archives as well.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 A bit of background (a more complete version can be found in the 2014 piece):

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The project was a three-month pilot funded by a Mellon planning grant focused on consortial digital humanities. The idea for the topic arose as part of conversations about primary source materials that we might use for a Scripps College first-year course. The faculty for this course (I was one of them) wanted a resource that leveraged local special collections and engaged students in a critical conversation about race, technology, and historical identity formation. To meet this goal, the Scripps faculty selected an unusual special-collections resource: one of fewer than three hundred existing complete sets of the twenty-volume The North American Indian, by Curtis.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In addition to the pedagogical motivation to get students into our special collections, we wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to work with existing digital resources to build a robust pilot project that enabled curricular integration and undergraduate research in order to secure additional support from the Mellon Foundation. The digital humanities planning-grant team agreed that the Curtis materials and their use in the Scripps course constituted an excellent opportunity to address all our goals.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Scripps College is a fairly elite, private liberal arts college, with a student population (in 2014) just below one thousand. According to the 2015 student census, 40 percent of Scripps students are “students of color.”6 College Data’s compilation of 2016 student-body numbers indicates that there are no American Indians at the college.7 Consequently, this was a project destined to teach non-Native Americans a media and political history of western Native Americans. While some members of the team are not white, there were no Native scholars, designers, or students on the team. If we considered the experiences and lives of Native Americans as central to the project, which we did, we certainly did not live up to the political and activist slogan “Nothing About Us, Without Us.”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In truth, this is a project that used The North American Indian and its treatment of Native peoples and cultures as an occasion to talk about race, oppression, cultural vs. legal rights, media history, and local histories, and to demonstrate our own skills as both teachers and digital scholars. Additionally, the images and text of the Curtis multivolume set and our digital project were there to educate our students. For some this can seem unproblematic, noble even, perhaps. To others, particularly those who are members of the tribal nations represented in The North American Indian, the project might well look like another appropriation of Native culture in the service of settler colonialism.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Performing Archive includes an article-length piece by photographic artist/scholar Ken Gonzales-Day; a set of data-visualization experiments by digital scholar David S. Kim and team; a scholarly essay on the media histories of Curtis’s images by media scholar Heather Blackmore; several short, thematic mediations by faculty and two student researchers at the Claremont Colleges; and a detailed primer on working with tribes and tribal assets by library and information science scholar Ulia Gossart. It also includes new recordings of the disintegrating wax recordings made by Curtis, along with nearly twenty-five hundred visual media assets and their metadata.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Scalar is an open-source publishing platform that allows for a range of media types from multiple sources. The project represents a technical innovation for Scalar; in the course of our work, the design team developed a new experimental interface, known as “Honeydew,” designed to maximize engagement with a large set of visual resources. This new interface has been particularly powerful for the ways in which it allows us to cut across the twenty-volume set to see trends or themes that emerge throughout Curtis’s work.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Remediation

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Our team was inspired by the notion that “Performing archives refers to a process in which human beings create and handle the archives, but it also alludes to how archives are formative in shaping history and thus perform human beings, [as well as] structure and give form to our thoughts and ideas.”8

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The project team saw this very kind of performative (rather than natural or documentary) work happening in Curtis’s text. As Ken Gonzales-Day reminds us in his exhibit for the book, the photographer often staged the images that he published.9 Various props, like wigs or breastplates, move through multiple photographs and across tribal lines. The North American Indian was a production staged to argue that western tribes were in fact vanishing and that they needed to be documented for the edification of those (settlers) who would remain in their place.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The historical archive of visual, sonic, and material culture compiled by and on behalf of Curtis was his attempt to perform his idea of what “Indianness” was, which for Curtis was vanishing, primordial, and uniform—the variations between tribes and their customs were of relatively little importance. Curtis’s performance of his idea of “Indianness” continues to fundamentally shape non-Native America’s sense of the historical place of tribal culture and practices.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 When David Kim and I wrote about the project, we highlighted the ways that we were thinking of our digital book as something that simultaneously publishes an archive and allows authors and readers to “perform archive” or enact “liveness” with the materials therein. In particular, we were bringing the insights of feminist theory and critical race and ethnic studies to reorient the issues of archival agency, as well as consider the ways in which recent paradigm shifts in the archival practice with respect to Native American/Indigenous materials can contribute to the discussion in the digital humanities about issues of cultural representation and its relationships to scholarly design.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Eschewing the more mainstream priorities of scale and scalability of digital archives, we thought it was important to also recognize what “more and better” does not fully capture: the opportunity to reimagine different and differentiated archival models and practices that digital media and a performativity critique of the archive offer.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 So we understood this project as something other than an essentializing access project. We used performance as critical discourse that enabled us to think not only of the accumulation of cultural material, but also how that material lives and operates in US culture today. Several of the pieces in the project try to understand how Curtis’s work circulates and is commodified today and what the impact of that circulation might mean.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Additionally, Curtis’s salvage ethnography produced the sense that a large array of cultures and individuals could be reduced to a history of disappearance. But were there disappearances that we ourselves were producing? Were there ways in which our data and technologies were always already enacting certain exclusionary ideologies and subject formations?

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 To be able to answer this question fully, we would need a full account of the visual and textual technologies of Curtis’s initial publication, the digital technologies that formed the basis of subsequent special-collections publication at the Library of Congress and Northwestern University, and our Scalar book, as well as the media transformations that were part of the storage and sharing of the audio recordings and material-culture items that we included. We did not make it that far in three months, but it is a project worth undertaking in the future if we are to understand the ideologies and impacts that travel from one mediation to another.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Entanglement

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In addition to remediations of form and performance, we were also thinking about social networks and asking ourselves whose voices were under-represented in Curtis’s work and its reception history. One of our goals was to decenter Curtis by making clear that the infrastructure that supported his work was enormous. To this end, Bill Anthes wrote “Curtis and His Collaborators,” a short essay that troubles the notion of Curtis as a solitary photographer. David Kim also created a network visualization, “The Network of Edward Curtis’s Biography,” that still has Curtis as the central node, but makes clear how many other people were important to the production of his work.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Perhaps the biggest set of entanglements was also the set that we were not really able to begin addressing: the more than one hundred tribal communities represented in The North American Indian. Understanding that we could not contact the tribal councils/leadership for the entire work and forge meaningful relationships in our three-month pilot, we instead undertook a study of what it would take to do such work.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 This work forms the last chapter of the digital book, “Consulting with Tribes as a Part of Archive Development,” by Ulia Gossart and includes discussions on how to engage with the issues around intellectual property rights and tribal rights. We worked through both the legal and archival work on these issues, asking often “who has the rights and what do we do when a ‘rights’ framework doesn’t work for all implicated?” In retrospect, I have pretty complicated feelings about having proceeded with work that leveraged images, songs, and text about Native peoples without having actually engaged with any of the communities it might have impacted. However good our intentions might have been, part of what learning about ethical approaches to this kind of work has taught me is that a college course, particularly for non-Native students, and a grant deadline are not sufficient reasons to have skipped this step.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Activation

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 As Karen Barad notes, memory is not a matter of the past, but recreates the past each time it is invoked. So what did we invoke? What networks, ideas, and images were we activating? Did we really “decenter” Curtis as we had aimed?

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 A visualization of the sheer volume of work would suggest that we were not as successful as we might have imagined; however useful and interesting our essays, data viz, and photographic essays might be, they are overwhelmed in some ways by Curtis’s legacy, which we imported ourselves.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Figure 1. This radial visual is produced by the Scalar interface. The green that dominates represents the media assets from the Curtis books themselves.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 There is a lot of good and important work in the digital book. There are a number of ways in which we began to contextualize not just Curtis’s work but also that of the people around him. We were also able to consolidate an enormous amount of information in a single space, and we brought historical use of The North American Indian into conversation with modern remix and reuse. Unfortunately, we also activated memories of oppression and settler knowledge systems and we organized people working in and around centers of institutional privilege. While we were able to work more horizontally within the university systems (bringing students, staff, faculty, technicians, and archivists together), what we activated was an essentially privileged, non-Native network. While we were a multi-institutional effort, it is also the case that with our partner institutions we almost entirely activated networks of the state, with all of their privileges and past transgressions.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Stuart Hall and Linda Tuhiwai Smith both talk about the remarkable resilience of the Western knowledge infrastructure, including archives, to assimilate/appropriate radical critique without fundamentally changing knowledge structures.10 In effect, in its current state the Curtis project is a really excellent example of small and incremental difference on the top of essentially the same repressive and violent structures.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Part of Barad’s point about entanglement is that it requires us to be attentive to what gets excluded as well as what comes to matter. As noted earlier, “Monocultures produce… silences… and absences.” So, for me this requires that I do more to attend to the Native artists who have directly engaged with Curtis’s legacy and who are not (yet) represented in the site, to do more to get outside of the monoculture of white American histories. As a gesture toward what has been excluded, here are some of the Native artists who have directly engaged with Curtis’s legacy and who are not currently represented in the site: Marla Allison, Cara Romero, Virgil Ortiz, Will Wilson, Zig Jackson, and Wendy Red Star.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Barad has a wonderful thought on why the fantasy of erasure—of fixing historical errors—is not possible even as possibilities for reparation exist: “‘Changing the past’ in the sense of undoing certain discrete moments in time is an illusion. The past, like the future though, is not closed. But ‘erasure’ is not what is at issue. In an important sense, the ‘past’ is open to change. It can be redeemed, productively reconfigured in an iterative unfolding of spacetimematter. But its sedimenting effects, its trace, cannot be erased. The memory of its materializing effects is written into the world.”11

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 So, changing the past—even when that engagement has not really changed much, as I think is true in this case—is never without costs, or responsibility. The production of our digital book invokes a particular past, and that comes with both costs and responsibilities. As the PI and lead on the project, I have responsibilities and it is possible that others have born the costs that I did not anticipate.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Asking myself about the costs and responsibilities that I bear in having done this project is not just a theoretical issue—the digital book is getting used. Since January 2016, it has had thirty thousand page views, roughly nine thousand users, with roughly twenty people returning (bots excluded, although there are a few caveats there). Another of my projects, Eugenic Rubicon, has had about a tenth of that volume of engagement over the same period, for comparison.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 I have not done deep analytic tracking on the site, in part because I am generally not a fan of such tracking, so I cannot say much about who or why people are using the book. Given my own critique of the project as it stands now, and the fact that it is getting at least some usage, I find myself at a bit of juncture—a spot where I feel pretty keenly the responsibility of entanglement and activation. I am also cognizant that there is likely to be an uptick in interest in Curtis in 2018, which is his 150 birthyear.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 I have been thinking seriously about what should happen next. Initially I felt that this project was closed, for all intents and purposes, but I have been invited to give talks on the project several times in the last couple of years. This set of opportunities and privileges have me thinking about the ways I might address my own entanglement and responsibility. I have considered removing the project from digital space altogether, as well as reconfiguring it to make good on the promises of engagement and decentering. While I have decided not to take the project down, in part because I think it is important to have a record of mistakes and imperfect work, I am not entirely sure what the next steps are. I do know that I will not be focused on Curtis’s birthyear, since that is just participating in a history that centers him. What will come—what I will do with others—remains to be seen.

  1. 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0
  2. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 45. []
  3. Karen Barad, “‘Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers’: Interview with Karen Barad” in New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, ed. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012),–new-materialism-interviews-cartographies?rgn=div2;view=fulltext. []
  4. I have pulled together a bibliography recently on decolonial and justice oriented work on digital archives: []
  5. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd edition (London and New York: Zed Books, 2012), 219. []
  6. Ibid. 223. []
  7. “About Scripps College,” accessed June 13, 2017, []
  8. “College Profile: Scripps College,” College Data, accessed June 13, 2017, In 2013, I knew one Scripps student who self-identified as Native American and she graduated that year. []
  9. Gundhild Borggreen and Rune Gade, eds., Performing Archive/Archives of Performance (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2013), 10. []
  10. Ken Gonzales Day, “Visualizing the ‘Vanishing Race’: The Photogravures of Edward S. Curtis,” in Performing Archive: Curtis and “the vanishing race,” by Jacqueline Wernimont, David J. Kim, Amy Borsuk, Beatrice Schuster, Heather Blackmore, and Ulia Gosart (2013), []
  11. Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, 46. []
  12. Barad, “Matter feels, converses, suffers, yearns, desires, and remembers,” np. []
Remediation, Activation, and Entanglement in Performative (Digital) Archives

Jacqueline Wernimont

Assistant Professor of English and Co-Director of HASTAC – Arizona State University

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