Friday, January 14, 2022

Interview with Tia Ebert for 'Some Archives'

Recently I was lucky enough to be interviewed for
Some Archives, an artist book designed, printed and edited by Tia Ebert. Some Archives features four interviews exploring the social and creative potential of archives in Aotearoa New Zealand. A PDF of the publication will be made available in July; in the meantime, here's my section (reproduced with permission).

T: I’m really interested in your trajectory from graphic design and screen-printing posters for bands to working in an archive, could you briefly explain that journey?

JD: Moving from graphic design to archives wasn’t planned in any way, but I’ve come to realise they have a lot in common – especially if we think about archives and design as storytelling or the production of narratives. Growing up I’d always wanted to be a graphic designer, and went straight to Ilam School of Fine Arts after finishing high school. Discovering punk music and anarchism, and working a number of jobs (including night shift in an electronics factory) opened my eyes to social movements, and after leaving Fine Arts I set up a screenprinting studio called Garage Collective. For two years I worked fulltime designing and printing gig posters, artworks for bands and not-for-profits, and great work by other designers. It was great! Especially as I’d been told by a designer in my fourth year that such work would only ever amount to being a hobby.

And then the archive bug bit me. In 2008 I designed and screenprinted a poster celebrating the centennial of the 1908 Blackball Strike. Arriving in Blackball for the event, I was thrust into a working-class world of work refusal, solidarity and radicalism I never knew existed in New Zealand. I thought I’d try and learn more about it. So I visited the archives. Before long I was studying to be an archivist and eventually landed a job in Wellington, where I worked helping people access the holdings at Archives New Zealand. That was 2012 and I’m still working in the area today.

Your love for 80s hardcore records relates quite specifically to the act of collecting, which one of your non-users mentioned in relation to the Enlightenment - “the weird idea of collecting as a thing in of itself: a noble pursuit to collect stuff”… Is there some kind of connection to be made from here to your position today?

Archives and the work of archivists are varied. In a small organisation, a single archivist might do a bit of everything – collection management, appraisal, description, preservation, access and digitisation, for example. My work has mostly focused on access, rather than collecting. I think that idea of being able to collect everything, to own and harness knowledge, is inherently colonial – the need to possess entails a certain aspect of dispossession and exclusion, especially when we think about institutions in their classic sense (the traditional museum or archive, for example). What I love about 80s hardcore is the Do-It-Yourself, participatory nature of the music and its ephemera – gig posters, set lists, flyers, shitty recordings, blurry footage. I feel like that upends so many ways of being in the world, and what’s interesting is that it has spilled into the creation and care of its archives. I’m thinking here about the full catalogue of live shows Fugazi has made online. I feel archival institutions are finally catching up to the idea of decentralised access points and participatory ownership and creation of records, especially thanks to post-custodial thinking and praxis – the idea that an institution doesn’t actually collect, but provides skills and resources so that communities can do it themselves. That’s exciting, and it’s the kind of thinking that has been embedded in hardcore from the beginning.

As someone with a background in graphic design, do you think “research through design” (or any other creative practice) is supported in current archival structures? Is the validity of this research comparable to academic research in archival spaces?

I’m limited to what I’ve experienced myself, and the type of research I do. Probably the closest thing in the institutions I’ve worked in is the current craze of Agile. Government departments love Agile methodology, which is billed as a design methodology used in project management – especially digital projects. For all its buzzwords it is actually refreshing to work in such a way, which does remind me of sitting in on a design critique. There’s also been projects in collaboration with designers and artists. Whether structures across archival institutions allow for research through design probably depends, like all structures, on the relationships between its people and issues of power – time and money, especially. Archives are often time-poor and literally poor: underfunded and understaffed. Which might also lend itself well to research through design.

What was the motivating factor for you to undertake research into non-user understandings of archives? Was there anything which surfaced through this research that was surprising to you?

I was lucky enough to study under the Canadian archivist Wendy Duff, and she taught a paper on archives, advocacy and outreach. I was hooked. But it also fit my design background and the practice of communicating visually. So when it came to choose a thesis topic in my final year, I wanted to look at something understudied that related to access. There were (and are) very little studies on people who don’t use archives, ie non-users. So that became my topic. I was surprised that, for all its grandiose statements of public memory and keeping government to account, public archives in New Zealand hadn’t really thought about why someone might not use archives, let alone if people knew about them and what they held. Finding that people only really make use of institutions they know about seems pretty obvious, but nonetheless, the paper has been useful for a number of archives engaging with the public.

In reference to Sue McKemmish (from Colonial Continuum), “the very form of the archive provides evidence of the power relationships and social values of the society that produced it”, what do you personally see as the benefit in making these structures and values visible?

To paraphrase Robin D.G. Kelley, writing about white supremacy and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, holding a mirror to something isn’t that dangerous because it only reflects the surface. What’s needed is an X-Ray. In all of my work I've tried to get to the root of something, which is the original meaning of the word ‘radical’. Making hierarchies and uneven power relations visible means we can see them, name them, and then hopefully dismantle them. Marx wrote that capital, first and foremost, is a social relation. That’s a round-about way to say that how we act and interact with each other determines structures of power. Especially if we understand structures as ways of relating to each other that have solidified over time. Understanding this means we can start to relate to each other in less destructive and more humane ways.

Who do you see archives being in service to in our current time?

If structures are ways of relating to each other that have formed over time, then archives and the stories they provide can either prop up those structures, or help wear them down. Archives don’t exist in a vacuum, however, so if archives are to do more than just provide an information need for people, they need to be seen as being part of a bigger picture – as sites for the production of narratives. What narratives we choose to tell or remember become important to that bigger picture. Hence the huge interest in the new Histories in Schools curriculum at the moment, and the role archives will play in that.

The fact that archives can’t tell every story is a worthwhile idea to explore when thinking about the archive as subject. What do you think is the benefit of understanding the decision processes surrounding the acquisition and care of materials as well as the facilitation of access? (The theory of the archive vs the labour of the archive)

The benefit is knowing how silences are produced and reproduced in the stories we tell – stories that affect our past, present and futures. I wrote something for Overland Literary Journal about silences and the activity of remembering and forgetting, which was an ode to Haitian writer Michel-Rolph Trouillot. For Trouillot, silence is ‘an active and transitive process: one ‘silences’ a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active.’ He emphasises that history is constantly produced, that what we understand as ‘history’ changes with time and place, and that what is said to have happened as the recall of facts is indeed a process filled with silences. He goes on to show at least four moments where these silences are created: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). I’m sharing this in full because it’s been such a useful way for me to think about archives, stories and narrative in so many aspects of my work.

Historically, many archival records have been created and preserved by colonial settlers about indigenous subjects - how might institutional archives better support documentation and history preserving efforts lead by indigenous people?

This is a massive (and heavy) topic that is evolving as we write, ranging from adding intuitive metadata that reflects indigenous ways of being, through to repatriation of archives, data sovereignty and basically getting out of the way. As I mentioned earlier, archives don’t exist in a vacuum. Institutions can either support or prevent what Moana Jackson calls re-Māorification, the promise of indigenous people determining the space, content and practice of institutions according to indigenous autonomy and independence. I’m not sure colonial institutions can be made or moulded into anything different than a less harmful colonial institution, but that doesn’t mean Pākehā working in such spaces shouldn’t try. As Tangata Tiriti with a huge amount of power, the onus is on us to change or get out of the way.

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