Special Issue Essays

Radical Archives

Edited by Lisa Darms, Kate Eichhorn
November 2015

Introduction by Lisa Darms

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As an archivist working with the archives of experimental artists and collectives, and as the founder of the Riot Grrrl Collection (which documents the feminist, punk youth movement of the early 1990s), I am often asked to comment on the theme of “Radical Archives.” I always wonder: What does radical mean in this context? Usually, radical refers to extreme political or social change. In the United States, it’s primarily synonymous with the Left, but in fact could refer to any extreme break with tradition or the mainstream. A radical is generally thought of as a revolutionary, someone willing to take extreme or even violent action to effect social change.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 What, then, are the radical archives under discussion here? Does radical refer to the content of archives? To the activities of the archives’ creators, and the actions documented by archives? To the formats and genres being collected? Or can radical refer to extreme or activist practices in the archivist’s basic tasks of acquisition, arrangement, description, preservation, and access?

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 One can just as easily ask (as we did in our CFP for this issue), what are archives? This query is not as straightforward as it first seems. “The Archive” is a subject that theorists have been mining deeply for decades; but this theoretical archive has tended toward the abstract, seldom engaging with actual archival materials, and even more rarely with actual archivists. As co-editors of this issue, Kate and I felt that a radical approach to discussing radical archives might begin with attending to what creators, practitioners, and users of archives think archives are. We particularly hoped to receive submissions from archivists about how their practices of selection, acquisition, arrangement, description, preservation, and making archives accessible are, or could be, radical (especially in ways that may be invisible to the theorists most likely to write about radical archives). While we received very few submissions from archivists examining these specific practices, the essays here represent a broad set of perspectives from archivists, artists, critics, scholars, poets, and community historians who connect their own work and experiences in archives (be they professional, scholarly, or artistic) to more theoretical readings of The Archive.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Many archivists and academics focus on how radical or minority communities—whose archives have, historically, not been collected by institutions—could actively preserve their histories.1 These communities have been self-documenting for decades, creating their own archives, libraries, and oral histories. Over the past few decades, many archivists affiliated with institutions broadened their own collecting of these communities’ materials; they have employed a “documentary strategy” to “fill the gaps,” and function as “activist archivists” rather than mere records custodians. As an “activist” approach to collecting has moved from radical to more standard practice, archivists are focusing less on justifying the need for active collecting and more on how we can become better collaborators (the subject of the essay by Lee, Page-Vanore, and Stankrauff in this issue), and how the concept of “filling the gaps” can itself be problematic. Currently, the most radical approach to creating community archives is the postcustodial model, in which the focus is no longer on the physical transfer of collections to institutions, but rather on archivists managing records that will remain in the custody of their creators.2

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Archival description, like institutional collecting, can be at odds with the spirit of radical archives. The need for descriptive standards and controlled vocabularies seems incompatible with the indescribability of non-standard materials and the right of activist or oppressed cultures to self-describe, whether those descriptions cohere with professional standards or (more likely) do not. Language is quick to change (and in activist terms, generally for the better), but standards are inherently stodgy and slow to develop. Yet the stodginess of descriptive metadata is, in my opinion, innately radical because standardized language is what enables people to access archives. A radical approach might involve crowdsourcing descriptions that live alongside controlled vocabularies—an approach that also ends up being a creative solution to the drastic underfunding of archives. (One of my favorite examples of this is Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center’s zine cataloging competition, Raiders of the Lost Archives).

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 While issues around community archives and descriptive practices remain central to the practice of radical archives, I’m still curious about what it means to be a radical archivist. Is such a path open to those of us—the majority of professional archivists—who work for institutions? Coming from a background in punk and do-it-yourself (DIY) activism, it has taken me a long time to adjust to working within institutional hierarchies, and to the glacial pace of institutional change. I’ve struggled with my own knee-jerk impulses to “speak truth to power,” and wonder if sometimes I accomplish more by remaining silent. Archivists don’t generally work within the culture of critique created by the (admittedly severely eroded) tradition of tenure that academics do. We are engaged in perpetual battles to convince our organizations to fund us adequately so we can be ethical custodians of the materials in our care and effectively serve our publics. We usually don’t bite the hand that we hope will feed us. Perhaps this partly explains why so much of the work on radical archives has been by or about artists (including three of the essays in this issue). Artists have a long tradition of seeing their practice as an emancipatory or politically liberating one (despite the art world being as much of an “institution” at this point as any corporation or university). As more archivists accept an activist model in collecting and describing archives, can we also be more radical in laying bare the workings of our own institutions? Should we?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Before I became an archivist, I believed that “to archive” was primarily to impose order and meaning. My curatorial decisions and the ways I choose to describe collections do exert a defining control over archives and the historical narratives they enable. But through working so closely with collections, I now believe that the innate qualities of an archive are not rigidity or bureaucratic order-making, but rather fluidity and even a kind of productive chaos. Or, as Tara Hart writes in this issue, “Archives are always reconstructive, always already incomplete.” There is never one narrative in an archive; there are always many.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 But aren’t fluidity and incompleteness at odds with the archival project? In fact, I think the covert function of an archive is to make things more complex, to complicate, to serve as a counterbalance to the reductive and endlessly repeated sound bites that constitute much of what we are told is “history.” This brings me to the apparent contradiction in the phrase “radical archives.” While “radical” can refer to drastic or violent change, the basic job of the archive is to preserve. The drives for both ceaseless change and preservation seem irreconcilable. But “radical” also means (from its Latin origin in “having roots”) fundamental. The word “radical” therefore encompasses both permanence and fixity as well as fluidity and change, much as the phrase “radical archives” itself does.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0  

 Introduction by Kate Eichhorn

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 When approached about co-editing this issue of Archive Journal, it was with some hesitation that I made the decision to proceed. “Radical archives,” along with “activist archives,” “artist archives,” and “queer archives,” have received more than their share of attention in recent years, so I wondered what new perspectives might be brought to bear on any of these concepts.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The invitation to co-edit this issue also came shortly after attending a two-day conference on the topic of “radical archives” at New York University in the spring of 2014. The conference, hosted by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, was an ambitious endeavor that sought to bring scholars, activists, artists, and professional archivists into dialog. What unfolded at the conference, however, was somewhat indicative of the current state of the field. While many activists expressed suspicions about institutional archives and their apparent inability to adequately manage the records of so-called radical movements, many archivists expressed concerns about their invisibility in contemporary scholarly, activist, and artistic discourses on archives. Somewhat predictably, too many theorists and cultural producers attending the conference did, in fact, present papers and performances that paid little or no attention to the labor of archivists and the material and economic conditions under which most archives operate. Instead, as I’ve witnessed at similar conferences around the world for over fifteen years, a surprising number of presenters and performers chose to celebrate “the archive” and all the things that “the archive” apparently encompasses (politics, desire, longing, death, memory, history, and list goes on) in lieu of grappling with the material questions that archival practices invariably raise. However illuminating many of the discussions at the Radical Archives Conference were, I worried about replicating the conference’s oversights in an issue on this theme.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The call for papers that Lisa Darms and I eventually constructed in the fall of 2014 reflects a shared position that some important questions have been largely missing from the dialog on “radical archives” (at least outside the archival profession). Despite the fact that we approach archival questions from very different professional standpoints, we both agreed early on that if there is something new to add to the growing dialog on “radical archives,” it should be a sustained discussion about archival practices and standards. This is not to suggest that issues of content are secondary; the content of archives matters and will continue to matter. As Katie Madonna Lee, Catherine Page-Vanore, and Alison Stankrauff remind us in this issue, some communities—for example, queer communities located outside of major urban centers—continue to grapple with the fact that even establishing an archival collection can be hampered by a lack of documentary traces to collect. Our position is not that content is secondary, but rather that any discussion of “radical archives” also needs to take seriously questions of archival practice, including the questions foregrounded in our call.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Upon deciding to co-edit this issue, we also agreed that any additional contribution to critical dialogs on the topic of “radical archives” should entail an interrogation of the term “radical” and its attachment to both “archives” and “archiving.” After all, while there may be some general consensus on what radical archives are not (for example, see the Vatican’s representation of archivists and archives in the “trailer” to their 2012 Lux in Arcana exhibit), it is far more difficult to determine what “radical archives” are.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Although I continue to adopt “radical” in relation to my own work on archives, admittedly, the term “radical archives” has come to represent a sort of “catachresis.” By definition, a catachresis can refer to any term or figure of speech that has been stretched to such an extent that it has taken on an entirely new and even opposite meaning. The catachresis is, at its essence, a misuse or perversion of language. As Gayatri Spivak suggests, the catachresis may also be used to describe those words or concepts that refer to a group of people, yet point to no one (for example, concepts such as “the worker” and “the community” historically have not rendered people visible, but rather have done the opposite, eliminating the need to look for the subjects who fall under these labels). I would like to suggest that over the past decade or so, the repeated and widespread use of the term “radical archives” has also achieved the dubious status of “catachresis.” To recognize that the concept of “radical archives” has become so bloated with possible meanings through its repeated use that it now comes undone when put into circulation, however, is also to put the task at hand here into perspective. In short, agreeing to co-edit this issue on “radical archives,” we were not simply committing to collect essays that might take up the theme of the call; we were committing to collect essays that might explicitly address the catachresis that “radical archives” have become.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Here, it is important to emphasize that editing an issue of this nature is a type of curatorial project, yet one with peculiar restrictions. By virtue of the fact that Archive Journal is a refereed journal—one where submissions are subject to peer review—the scope of the submissions was predetermined. After all, for obvious reasons, outside academe there is little reason or willingness to subject one’s work to the peer-review process. As a result, it is no surprise that there were fewer submissions from archivists than we had hoped. Although the essays that did arrive in response to our call, and the ones represented in this issue, largely reflect the constraints imposed by the context, when read collectively they nevertheless orient us to several key issues in archival research and practice—two of which I highlight below.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 First, even as Zeb Tortorici’s essay endeavors to write against the position embedded in our call for papers (an implied plea to cautiously step back from the apparent seduction of the archive), his is among the contributions that grapples most directly with the questions posed in our call. Specifically, Tortorici maintains that there is much to be gained by continuing to permit ourselves to be seduced by archives—that is, if we (researchers) are aware of the terms of the seduction. “To let ourselves be seduced by the archives and their absences,” Tortorici writes, “is to seek to extract additional meaning from that which we find in archives; but that process of extraction is more effective if we understand all that we seek through them, and all that we are never quite able to locate, uncover, or grasp within the archives themselves.” In a very different way, Tara Hart’s contribution to this volume also calls for a heightened awareness or self-reflexivity about how we approach archives. Speaking to both researchers and archivists, Hart reminds us that any discussion of “radical archives” must take seriously the extent to which archivists have long “valued the creative and subjective labor that underpins the creation of archives to themselves.” With this, Hart’s contribution reminds us that the recent celebration of “radical archives” may in fact not point to anything new, but simply brings into relief uses and practices that have always been part of archives in and outside institutional settings.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 What follows here, then, is an eclectic collection that by no means makes a singular statement about “radical archives,” nor is it one that necessarily represents our own positions on what “radical archives” or “radical archiving” might be. Rather, one might read the essays gathered together here as representative of the diverse and at times contradictory ways in which scholars, activists, artists, and archivists have imagined and represented “radical archives.” While the issue only begins to address the catachresis that is “radical archives,” I hope that readers will discover, as I did as one of the issue’s editors, insights and cautionary tales that support a much needed re-assessment of what we insist on labeling “radical archives.”

  1. 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  2. A weakness of the term “radical archives” is, I believe, to equate the terms “radical” and “minority.” []
  3. “Postcustodial theory of archives,” Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, Society of American Archivists, 2005, []
Radical Archives

Lisa Darms

Senior Archivist, Fales Library & Special Collections – NYU

Radical Archives

Kate Eichhorn

Assistant Professor of Culture and Media Studies – The New School

Signs Taken for Wonders

By Glenn Harcourt

Partnership in the Preservation of Rustbelt Queer History

By Katie Madonna Lee, Catherine Page-Vanore, Alison Stankrauff