Tactics for a Transnational Archive
On 4th and 5th February 2023, SiNEMA TRANSTOPIA hosted Tactics for a Transnational Archive, a weekend of workshops led by four invited experts exploring transnational archiving and creative practice.
Attended by a diverse group of artists, filmmakers, researchers and curators, these sessions sought to ask questions about the role of archiving in forming and perpetuating cultural narratives and community building. What is archived and for whom? What tactics can be employed to ensure that archives reflect the transnational societies to which they belong? And how can archives serve the communities in which they are embedded?
Since the founding of bi’bak in 2014, we have built up an ad hoc archive of books, magazines, ephemera and films (analogue and digital) which reflect the transnational, migratory and diasporic cultural histories around which our work is built.
The 2023 re-opening of SiNEMA TRANSTOPIA in a newly renovated space in Berlin-Wedding, represented a moment of rebirth and reckoning. In the process of asking ourselves what function our cinema project might serve in this new location, we turned back to our own past, and began to ask how we might make our own archive more widely accessible.
In considering this question, we arrived at the concept of KIRAATHANE, a term with Arabic/Persian origins which means “house of reading,” but in modern Turkish commonly refers to tea houses where people meet to exchange ideas. One of our aims is for the SiNEMA to embody this idea, to extend the spirit of KIRAATHANE into the public areas of the building. In this vision, our foyer and bar will be a welcoming place where visitors can access knowledge, read, watch and talk interacting with our archive in the process.
To begin this process, we sent out an open call inviting filmmakers, cineastes, archivists, students, artists, locals and scholars to take part in our first KIRAATHANE workshop, a collective interrogation of archival practices and politics in relation to film and moving image.
These sessions were coordinated by artist Bethan Hughes and led by four invited experts – Nnenna Onuoha, Dominique Hurth, Şirin Fulya Erensoy and Mohammad Shawky Hassan – who each hosted a session giving an insight into their own work with archives. Around 30 participants attended the workshop and took part in lively, thought provoking question and answer sessions. In the spirit of KIRAATHANE, these conversations spilled out of the cinema auditorium and into the bar where we continued to share ideas, experiences and questions over lunch, coffee and tea.
Archival Tactics #1 Nnenna Onuoha, Ghosts, Silences and Hidden Things
Nnena Onuoha is a Ghanaian-Nigerian moving image artist and researcher based in Berlin whose research explores silences surrounding the history of colonialism across West Africa, Europe and the United States. Her work centres Afrodiasporic voices and her films revolve around processes of collective re-membering – putting the past together “limb by limb.” Onuoha opened the Archival Tactics weekend by posing a provocative question: “Those people who aren’t included in the archives, if I could speak to their ghosts what would they tell me?”
Onuoha described how as a child moving through Ghana’s Euro-centric education system, when she imagined the past she could not picture Black people in it. Now as an artist, approaching archives from both an academic and creative perspective, she is conscious of the ways in which Black African experiences have been sidelined and silenced in European archives. Quoting Michel-Rolp Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, Onuoha outlined four moments of historical silencing – the moment of fact creation, fact assembly, fact retrieval (or the making of narratives) and retrospective significance (the making of history).
In her own work, Onuoha is inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s method of “critical fabulation,” an approach to archival absence rooted in extensive research, which is then used as a jumping off point into an imaginative “filling in of the gaps.” In Onuoha’s practice as a filmmaker, she is often left asking how to proceed “when the archive fails you.” Ultimately, her solution to approaching these absences has been flexibility and resourcefulness. As she put it to the workshop participants in her presentation, “I don’t know if I have a specific archival tactic for you, other than ‘be flexible.’”
Throughout her presentation, Onuoha showed a series of clips from her films which demonstrated what this flexibility might mean in practice. In Journey with John (2017, Nnenna Onuoha and Srinivas Reddy), Onuoha uses the mockumentary form to confront an under discussed aspect of European history, the 19th century phenomena of “human zoos,” colonial ethnological exhibitions in which people from non-western and/or indigenous cultures would be put on display for public audiences.
In Lagos, Lagos (2018) the artist again takes on silences around colonialism in national histories, this time challenging Portuguese narratives about the slave trade and the “discovery of Africa”. This film draws parallels between two coastal cities, separated by the Atlantic, which share the same name – Lagos in Nigeria and Lagos in Portugal – and in doing so explores the history of movement between the two countries, and the colonial power imbalances which have shaped that diasporic story over the course of 600 years.
The A-Team (2021) takes a more recent approach to the idea of collective memory – and the question of what we, as a group, may selectively forget. In this piece, Onuoha interviews her former classmates about an exchange trip they took from Ghana to Mississippi during their high school years. Over time it is revealed that the classmates have very different memories of what took place during that trip and these memories also hold different significance when viewed retrospectively from the vantage point of today.
One theme that arose as Onuoha spoke was the toll that working within difficult archival histories can have on the artist or academic working in this area. “Working with archives can be heavy, and it can take something from you,” said Onuoha, emphasising the importance of caring for yourself when dealing with this material.
Another interesting observation that arose from Onuaha’s presentation, was a discussion of how archives can be read differently in different places. When discussing Baby Picture (2022), an installation exploring histories of the Biafran war which featured many images taken by western photographers of children suffering from starvation, Onuoha described the paradox between the abundance of press images taken by European photojournalists during the crisis and the relative lack of surviving family archives taken by African photographers from this time. Due to war and forced migration, many families lost their albums, and as such the images of this period that survived are inevitably viewed through an outsider’s lens.
When working on Baby Picture, Onuoha found herself questioning what the work might mean when shown in different contexts – what difference does it make if this film, and the archive images it contains, are screened in European or African contexts? This question also feeds into wider concerns that Onuoha has about her participation being instrumentalised when she works with institutions, many of which have long and unacknowledged colonial legacies – as Onuoha puts it “I have to be careful if my mere presence is absolving people of something it shouldn’t.”
Archival Tactics #2 Dominique Hurth, Grain, Noise, Streaks and Hazes – amplifying the gaps amidst (the infrastructures and taxonomies of) archival material
Dominique Hurth is a visual artist who works with installations, sculptures and editions. Although she doesn’t generally use archival film or photography, she has always been interested in history, particularly national polyphonies and polarities, and her work is often rooted in an intensive process of archival research. In common with Onuoha, she frequently explores gaps and absences in these histories – what Hurth describes as “deliberate or chosen amnesia.”
In her archival tactics session, Hurth discussed her own working methods, describing her process. She usually takes as a starting point a single image or quote, which she examines and re-examines obsessively, before diving into a long process of historical research and writing. Often, she works with newspaper and university archives, but sometimes with those unindexed and unclassified, or which are otherwise inaccessible and require persistence and patience to open up.
Much of Hurth’s work involves interacting with institutional archives, but this does not necessarily mean that these are easy to negotiate or navigate. In entering into these spaces, Hurth is inevitably asking questions about the political forces that have shaped their construction. As Hurth puts it: “by looking at archive material, I inherently look at the institution of the archive.” When working with state archives, she often asks herself where she can find the voices of those who have been silenced historically, or of those who cannot be found or heard anymore. She never directly shows audiences archive images as part of her work, instead translating the archive materials she finds into drawings or aquarelles.
To illustrate this working method, Hurth presented as a case study her book Stutters (2021), which was the product of several years of research into the boxes of the photography collection at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. The collection spans the early years of photography from 1868 – 1917, and Hurth’s focus was the first curator of the collection Thomas W. Smillie. The resulting publication considers how artist projects might break apart the violent taxonomy of the archive, considering the struggle between objectivity and subjectivity that occurs in the writing of captions attached to archival material.
The idea of “convenient forgetting” is very much evident in Hurth’s recent project exploring the history of women concentration camp guards. As part of research linked to the Ravensbrück Memorial Museum, Hurth has been looking into the histories of the women who worked as guards at the Ravensbrück concentration camp using as her focal point the textile history of their uniform. Unlike its male equivalent, the uniform of the female guard has not been widely researched, yet it still occupies a powerful role in the popular imagination, an object of fetishisation and cultural appropriation in film, TV and internet culture.
From this single archival artefact, Hurth has unspooled a wide ranging investigation into the way in which the politics of memory – and of the archive – intersect with gender stereotypes. In taking on this subject, Hurth wanted to question popular assumptions around the women who worked as concentration camp guards, challenging simplistic narratives that position these women as uniquely monstrous, ignorant or otherwise separate from broader society.
Another recent work, Case/Stage (The background of an evidence given by women against women) (2022) expands on this idea, taking a closer look at the first Belsen Trial (1945) and the testimonies of the women involved. Again with this piece, Hurth does not show original archival material so uses watercolours to reproduce images for the exhibition. This decision is partly practical – Hurth does not have the rights to show original archive material in the exhibition – but it is also a conscious choice, offering an opportunity to distort and reimagine historical images, to remove detail, and to sidestep the ethical issues associated with reproducing images that have maybe already been misrepresented or overemphasised in popular media.
Finally, like Onuoha, Hurth reflected on the emotional cost associated with working in the archive, discussing the secondary trauma that can be associated with dealing with materials associated with dark histories. Hurth states that she is always asking herself how her presence potentially breaks patterns of memorial within the archives she interacts with. In a best case scenario, the suggestion is that the relationship between the artist and the archival institution can be reciprocal – the artist makes the material more accessible, and exposing histories that might be lost within the folds of collections, itself an important function of revisionist history writing.
Archival Tactics #3: Şirin Fulya Erensoy, (Re)Making History and (Re)imagining the Present through Archival Practices
Day two of our Archival Tactics workshop began with a session from Şirin Fulya Erensoy, a postdoctoral fellow at Film University Babelsberg, whose current research focuses on video production conducted by audio-visual practitioners in the new wave of migration from Turkey to Germany. Erensoy began her career as an academic, but always remained active in documentary production. Due to the political climate in Turkey, she was fired from her full time university job in 2018 and then spent three years focusing on documentary production and journalism while working as a part time lecturer. Most of her experience comes from working with non-institutional archives.
Erensoy brought to her session two case studies. Her first focus was on bak.ma, a digital media archive of social movements. Bakma (which means “don’t look” in Turkish) originated from the Istanbul Gezi Park protests, but now includes self-shot citizen journalist footage from other social movements from around the world. Erensoy described how bak.ma grew into an activist archive in response to the censorship of mainstream media channels in Turkey. This censorship meant many people turned to social media in order to access accurate information about the protests, and it became clear that an alternative archive was needed to challenge the biased narratives that were being presented via official channels.
The bak.ma archive is crowdsourced and volunteer run, and therefore challenges ideas about who has the right to contribute to collective history. In her discussion, Erensoy challenged the role that institutional archives play standing in the centre of official history making – why would we give these archives so much power, when essentially they have never served the interests of the people? Activist archives also explicitly challenge the myth of the neutral archivist. Archivists, whether officially appointed by the state or self-appointed members of the public, always bring with them biases and agendas, and to pretend otherwise is to misunderstand the human forces which go into the construction of the archive. These questions become all the more urgent when viewed within the context of resurgent right wing politics in countries including Turkey. The question of who owns and shapes history becomes all the more important when faced by oppressive regimes who place the rewriting/erasure of national histories at the centre of an ideological culture war.
Another example of activist archiving presented by Erensoy is the Women* Artists Web Archive, which is dedicated to preserving work by women* artists from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Yemen who are resident in Berlin. This project aims to archive the changes in the artistic landscape in Berlin as they are happening in the present, work which exposes how building an archive and building a community intersect. WAWA is an archive in an active and ongoing process of construction, and like all volunteer run archives it faces many challenges. Erensoy talked about the fact that many of the artists involved have complex diasporic identities, and understandably have raised reservations about their work being categorised by nationality. She discussed the struggle between reconciling the needs of the artist with those of the archivist – artists for example, often do not enjoy tagging their work, but such labels are needed to allow the cataloguing of archives and accessibility to audiences. Erensoy also discussed the labour of archiving and the issues around funding, labour and security that face all archives, but are of particular concern to volunteer run archives such as bak.ma and WAWA.
For contributors still living in Turkey, participation in bak.ma also brings with it security concerns, with some filmmakers and activists facing police raids and the confiscation of harddrives. Ultimately, Erensoy left us with thought provoking considerations about the risks and rewards of activist video archiving, which remains, despite all its challenges, a powerful and necessary challenge to censored narratives by authoritarian regimes.
Archival tactics #4: Mohammad Shawky Hassan
The final Archival Tactics session came from Mohammad Shawky Hassan, an Egyptian filmmaker, writer and video artist who has been based in Berlin since 2019. Hassan’s practice is firmly rooted in pop culture, and as such it raises interesting questions about the kind of work we consider as archive. As Hassan stated at the start of his session “I never really say or think that I work with archives, because I work with Arab pop culture… from a consumer perspective.”
Hassan’s artistic practice often plays upon the nostalgic relationships that we have with the pop culture that shapes our lives. It Was Related to Me (2011) for, examines the invisible stories that exist behind the simplistic and idealised images of a family album. The film explores the relationship between two brothers, mixing family photos from personal archives with soundtracks sourced from pop culture, in doing so bringing new counter meanings to perhaps already familiar cultural artefacts, by for instance, exposing a homo-erotic subtext to an extract from a children’s television programme.
In his presentation, Hassan made a distinction between art that instrumentalises the archive and art that provides a counter memory/history. He is critical of the way some archive based art takes chunks of politically problematic archives and reproduces them, asking “what does it mean to take something and work with it as it is, even if you are incredibly critical of it?”
Making reference to his own film Shall I Compare You To a Summer’s Day?, Hassan discussed how he wanted to make a piece of work about queer love that challenged the conventions often associated with such subject matter, a response to the queer films he was seeing at the time “which were using the same structure and aesthetics and essentially replicating a heteronormative language.” The film asks what it might mean to be both queer and Arab, echoing the storytelling techniques of One Thousand and One Nights and instrumentalising references to pop music in order to draw out a queerness and eroticism lost or buried in the original story. The film is highly referential, but in making something that drew so heavily on cultural reference Hassan asked – “why work with something that is problematic, even if you are changing and adapting it?”
He addressed this tension by making reference to José Esteban Muñoz’s writing on “disidentification,” a survival strategy required by queer people of colour attempting to navigate a phobic majority. Disidentification offers a way of owning problematic cultural texts, allowing the reader to be critical of their prejudices and limitations without dismissing the whole text.
After two days spent navigating the many possibilities and problems presented by archives, this discussion seemed to resonate strongly. As one participant pointed out in the discussion that followed Hassan’s presentation, “we often love things that are close to us, but that at the same time reproduce structures that imprison or harm us.” Muñoz’s theory represents a way in which we might be able to negotiate this tension, reconciling the complexities of our histories and identities with the rich but imperfect opportunities offered by the archive.
Archival Tactics is an ongoing project and archive screenings. If you would like to be invited to future talks and screenings associated with Archival Tactics, please contact Bethan Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org.