On 10 April 2015, the Australian Centre hosted a one-day symposium about education and archives in the Australian Humanities. There were 22 speakers in attendance, each addressing different aspects of working with and in the archive. A key objective of the symposium was to investigate how bodies of knowledge are managed, accessed, and translated for education, and also how archives perform more broadly in the production of cultural, literary, virtual, performative and artistic works. As the title suggests, there were two main and interconnected threads of enquiry. The first related to approaches in teaching and education in the humanities, assessing what the humanities look like in contemporary Australia, and how this landscape might shift in the future.
The second thread involved an investigation of the role and concept of the archive itself, including tracing how archival research forms dominant cultural histories and narratives, and taking up issues of authority and access. During the course of the day a picture about archives and their role for education in the Australian humanities began to emerge. The redressing of lost or hidden histories in the form of cultural experiences and identities, urban landscapes, historical events, and popular ephemera, was prominent.
The symposium’s objective of re-imagining the archive for education included offerings by Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Kamarra Bell-Wykes, who evoked the idea of theatre as a ‘living archival document’. Kamarra described Ilbijerri’s production of BEAUTIFUL ONE DAY as ‘an immersive history lesson’ communicating what it was like ‘living under the act’ in Palm Island and how the legacy of colonial rule continues to resonate well into the 21st Century. Kimberley Moulton from Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum, spoke about the aesthetic space of the Birrarung Gallery, which also houses a number of significant Aboriginal artefacts dating back to 1826. Kimberly spoke about the consultative and affective processes promoted by the gallery, outlining the methods used by Koorie artists actively engaging the artefacts in creating their own art works. Kimberly gave an impression of the gallery space as an embodied and contemporary site; interested in the specific and deliberate encounters to be had between Aboriginal artefacts and the public.
Heidi Norman presented a case study of the New South Wales Annual Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout Carnival focusing on the challenges, unexpected insights, and delights provided by a community-generated archive. Heidi demonstrated how the ad-hoc nature of managing unofficial documentation, its ethical, financial, as well as administrative aspects, yielded an important insight for the scoping of ‘Aboriginal social and political life’ in N.S.W. Heidi’s gathering of these materials, including candid community photographs of the Rugby League Knockout participants, maps the points of intersection between popular sport, politics and ‘the effects of rule’ on Indigenous communities.
Lyndall Ley Osborne outlined the significance of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (A.I.T.S.I.S) for the teaching of Indigenous knowledge in schools, but also for key cultural institutions and artistic groups, including Bangarra Dance Theatre. Lyndall gave an overview of the breadth and depth of cultural materials that comprise the archive, stating that assessments conducted on the significance of AIATSIS revealed that it is the ‘most extensive and best contextualised collection of Indigenous Australia in the world’.
Melissa Bellanta’s extensive archival work contributed to her social and cultural analysis of the figure of the ‘larrikin’. She found a predominance of the use of the term in narratives of turn-of-the-century police and court reports held in the Trove archival holdings. Narratives of criminality attended the larrikin along with associations of over consumption by ‘the larrikin’ of popular and cultural entertainments. This suggests a particular historical convergence of ideas around criminality with aesthetics and popular culture. Melissa cites evidence of the over policing of youth culture and the moral panic about ‘youth out of control’. Melissa’s approach to this study as one that insists on ‘thinking about history from below’ offers an important methodological view and metaphor, one that considers the hidden hierarchies of research practices associated with archives and challenges presumptions about the top-down formations and interpretations of knowledge.
Nerida Campbell’s presentation, ‘Dark Inspiration: the NSW Police forensic photography archive’, traces the many uses of this collection for ‘student, scholars, artists, musicians, writers and fashion designers from around the world’. What occurs to me as I listen to both Melissa and Nerida is that there is great scope to re-engage with the ‘performative’ aspects of the official documentation. Not only does police photography of criminal figures, their postures and clothing, give an invaluable insight into Australian cultural life during the early twentieth Century, it provides a point of departure for artistic and theatrical reinterpretations of the ‘real document’. Divisions of class, as well as the gendered aspects of “performing” the mug shot, might be deciphered in these materials.The aesthetics of performing ‘criminality’, its applications in the fashion world for instance, including its influence on the proliferation of late-twentieth and 21st Century street styles, present some of the possibilities of interpreting historical photography from an artistic perspective.
The forensic photography archive is made up of over 130,000 negatives taken by NSW Police investigators’ and Nerida showed us the kinds of artistic projects borne out of an engagement with the archival images. San Francisco artist Michael Jason Enriquez created his photographic project titled, Mugshot Doppelganger, using the police photography as a starting point. In this 2012 project, Michael superimposes the faces of famous Hollywood celebrities onto the faces of the N.S.W based criminals photographed in the early twentieth Century Australia producing an uncanny and anachronistic effect. http://mugshotdoppelganger.tumblr.com/ See also the innovative work of Sydney based organisation, Penguin Plays Rough. In 2013 the company used the photography housed in the Justice and Police Museum as a point of departure for the staging of an event at the museum. Penguin Plays Rough stage events around the objective of establishing creative engagements with what they call ‘imaginatively wild literature’. http://penguinplaysrough.com/2013/09/18/1056/
Antonina Lewis draws on the Greek etymology of the meaning of ‘archive’ highlighting the co-implication of the concept with the hierarchical model of knowledge established in the Western legal tradition. Antonina states that it is no coincidence that juridical terminology such as ‘sentencing’ should find its way into the formations of the archive, or archon (Gk). Her proposition being that legislation continues to shape the future direction of archives and the governance of data, data collection and retention, into the current day. Privilege, power and restriction establish the importance of the archival mechanism, however Antonina reflects how the processes of archiving and the conceptual ‘site’ of archival knowledge might be potentially ‘reconstituted as a site of emancipation’. Overall, the presentations reflected the idea that in the 21st Century we have moved beyond the definition and representation of the archive that abides by its original etymology and Athenian, legal logic. The idea of the archive as performing the function of a ‘living document’ is perhaps informed by the type of re-thinking around archival work that has been taking place across a number of fields and disciplines, and is identified as participating in the ‘new archival turn’. The speakers each elaborated on questions such as: How do archives perform as depositories of official knowledge; how might we expand on the idea of the archive to include marginal stories and identities, sites of unofficial culture and consideration of popular forms?
Angela Ndalianis describes ‘the popular memory’ archive in her research about locally written video games of 1980s Australia and New Zealand. The possibility offered by the community-generated archive establishes a democratised structure for the collection and housing of data. The body of knowledge becomes reinscribed in the form of a ‘demotic archive’, established by the collections of a living fan culture. The typically disavowed ‘body’ of the collector must necessarily come into focus in the games archive, as it must consider the embodied experiences of the game-player so central to its production. Angela states that ‘games are dead unless you can play them’; therefore an accounting of the embodied game player becomes key in assessing the usability, operability and significance of such an archive. Many of these games are out of copyright and for this reason it is easier to manage archival knowledge gleaned from a collective memory, without the strictures of copyright law and other bureaucratic limitations. The definition of the archive as an official space of containment and data management gives way to the concept of the archive as a demotic form of popular and collective memory, but also a space for proliferation and bottom-up aesthetic, historical transmission of cultural production.
Katrina Dean and Janine Barrand map the movements from a body of knowledge that initially begins as a personal collection and then requires transformation as it takes public form. In the case of the Germaine Greer archive, Katrina traced the difficulties of moving from ‘a personal regime’, i.e., the notes, diaries, drafts, photographs, and random personal effects, incidentally collected by Greer, to a public archival ‘regime’ that implicitly demands linearity and regimentality. Janine Barrand’s work curating the 2007 Arts Centre exhibition on Nick Cave’s career highlighted the very personal and nuanced work demanded of the archivist as mediator, collaborator, and witness to the artistic process of a living artist.
Professor Julie McLeod offered useful conceptual framing for approaching the key themes of the symposium. She interrogated the politics of knowledge associated with the archive by asking, what do we mean when we invoke the archive, its multiple and hegemonic function as truth, authority, partiality, and how does the archive enact a public pedagogy? Julie’s address prompted a consideration of the ways in which working in the archive implies materiality; the dustiness of the documents and the embodied gestures, often taken for granted when moving through the archive. Julie’s address prompted a deeper thinking around the ‘gaps’ in archival bodies of knowledge in which things, events, embodied entities, are inevitable left out, forgotten, or compressed. The speakers presented a picture of the Australian Humanities as a pedagogical and sometimes anachronistic site, which intuitively calls for a rethinking of what archival practices, outcomes, might achieve in 21st Century Australia.
The speakers reflected the embodied imagining that informs the labour of archival exploration, its transformation into curricula for education at all levels, as well as the cultural production performed across literary, historical and performative genres; all contributing to an expansion as well as interrogation of the kinds of public imaginaries that proliferate freely, are at stake, and inevitably furnish cultural life in contemporary Australia. Themes included the recovery of potentially lost bodies of knowledge, forgotten urban landscapes and the lives lived within them. For example Dr. Stefan Schutt recovered a pile of what appeared to be industrial detritus from a demolished building site, only to learn that the ‘garbage’ contained design proofs for commercial signage contracts, which in turn inadvertently tell the story of lost urban sites, milk bars, shops, preferred brands of tea and more broadly ways of living in historical Melbourne.
There was a chronicling of minoritarian identities, such as Jan Molloy presenting on the Immigration Museum’s newest permanent exhibition, ‘Identity: yours, mine, ours’. The exhibition explores ‘who we are, who others think we are, and what it means to belong and not belong’. The mapping of hidden or lost architectures and landscapes as well as reflection on methodologies of archival practice was discussed during the day. Christine Healey presented on the implementation of Inquiry based learning in the museum, in the form of VTS or Visual Thinking Strategies. Christine explains that VTS was developed ‘during the 1980s by cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and veteran museum educator Philip Yenawine at the Museum of Modern Art, New York’. What struck me in Christine’s description of VTS was again the principle of a bottom-up, or horizontal, engagement with history, in which the student’s reading of the ‘image’ becomes an act of authorial interpretation; one that supplements the canonical historical account, rather than being supplanted by it.
The strategy of queering the archive was explored in the work done in The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archive by Nick Henderson and Daniel Marshall. However the act of queering as methodology might extend beyond the specific intersection of knowledge and sexuality to include more broadly an archival strategy that engages specifically with the gaps in official reportage, documentation, and witness; gaps that fall between, or ghost the official accounts of history often taken for granted. This strategy of employing a performative queering of the archon, was reflected in the engagement with the documented faces and identities of criminals found in the N.S.W Police and forensic archive; the lost urban landmarks and commercial signs that have in the past inscribed a history to a ‘place’; ghost signs that are periodically demolished, or do not conform to dominant aesthetic evaluations of what objects, persons, and cultural materials contain ‘prestige’ or official appeal. The scope and reach of this methodology, which seeks an active engagement with the gaps and dark spots in official cultural narrative reappraises the voices and faces of the criminalised and the marginal, their gestures, stories, clothing. The queering maps the stories of women and migrants, the lesbian and gay lives documented in photos and political ephemera as well as sites that document the minor theatres and venues of artistic production that are not evaluated as culturally significant, by dominant cultural institutions and arts funding bodies.
Caroline Wake presented a ‘premature’ report about her work in the Performance Space Archive. For Caroline this work is an act of remembrance for an under documented and under-theorised tradition in Australian Live Art, which has the potential to map to ‘global debates about the changing relationship between theatre, performance and live art’. Jenny Fewster’s (AusStage) metaphor of ‘catching lightening in a bucket’ providing a salient motif for describing the capture of ephemeral acts and objects whether they be theatrical or performative in the broader sense. The metaphor evokes the potentially difficult if not impossible relationship between ephemeral practices such as live performance and theatre, with their technologies of capture – the archive – that seek to contain them. Jenny describes AusStage as a unique data set about live performance in Australia, a site that represents the ability for researchers to glean and map the kind of verifiable networks concerning all aspects of performance, which then contributes to the production of ‘in-depth analysis and visualisations that reveal hidden patterns’ about live performance practice in Australia. Kerry Kilner similarly positions the AustLit database as being ‘unique on the world stage’ in its capacity to trace the ‘art of story in Australia’.
Is there scope for a horizontal discussion across bodies of knowledge housed in seemingly unrelated archives, which might perform the unexpected and expansive labour of ‘filling in the gaps’ for education and cultural activity more broadly? How might the work of figuring ‘Australia’, its historically shadowed position in relation to global debates around performance and literature, be done across the archive? How do we imagine those negotiations and connections happening? How might seemingly unrelated or incongruent bodies of knowledge, cultural materials, stories, and archival resources speak to each other? I’d like to employ Nerida Campbell’s experience of the archive as ‘dark inspiration’ as away of extending the methodological scope of investigating the gaps; the hidden, inexplicable, antipodean, and forgotten traces of history coded in the document; whether that be a photograph, a commercial sign, a piece of jewellery, suicide letter, lyrics, an outmoded piece of technology.
Megan Perry (State Library of N.S.W) emphasises the important role of the mobility of archives and their key resources and objects. She contends that the mobility of histories and artefacts ‘also speaks to risk, responsibility and reward…’ Curators, education officers, artists, and archivists from organisations such as ACMI, Auststage, Austlit, Australian Lesbian and Gay archives, Performance Space Archive, The Immigration Museum, The Germaine Greer archive and more, contributed to the fleshing out of the conceptual terrain around archival practices; the significance of these practices in the broadening of selection, uptake, and access of materials; the understanding of the intellectual and historical impact of losing touch with these official and unofficial sites of cultural memory, and the affective production they yield in the imaginings and ways of living in contemporary Australian life. We hope to keep this discussion going throughout 2015.