Wednesday, 13 April 2016

On exposing the archive, and being held static in time

(Fair warning: this piece is full of waffly writing and some awkward language. I will refine with time and feedback, but I wanted to get this out more than I wanted to edit it.)

On the 8th of April we hosted 'Four Waves of Feminism' at The Dowse, a one-day conference that re-presented a group of talks given by artists, curators and researchers from the Making Women Visible conference earlier this year at Otago University, and bookended these with two panel discussions, one looking back to earlier moments in New Zealand's feminist art history, and one exploring the current energy around feminism in our art scene.

I said in my opening remarks that we had chosen the title Four Waves of Feminism as a nod to the emergence of a new, internet-fuelled era of feminist consciousness and activity, and also  to the different decades and generations the presentations covered. The metaphor of waves also appeals to me, as I feel like each generation (or more accurately, each hub of thought and action) of feminism has acted like a wave: rolling in, carrying ideas upon it, sometimes joining together, sometimes tussling, depositing traces, and occasionally writing over each other. In employing this metaphor I was very much thinking of how Lita Barrie's 1985/6 paper 'Remissions: Toward a Deconstruction of Phallic Univocality' and other pieces of criticism had argued the case for artists such as Jacqueline Fraser and Christine Hellyar (artists whom I became very familiar with early on in my studies and through visiting exhibitions from the 2000s onwards) and dismissed as essentialist the work of artists like Juliet Batten (far less prominent in the art history I was taught and the art I saw).

The day didn't try to be didactic or to drive towards a statement about what feminism means today. Rather, it was an attempt to surface and share information and perspectives. It was driven by the same desire to better understand where we have been and where we are now that led me to kick off the timeline of the feminist art movement (still not the right title - as Tina Barton raised at one point on the day, are we talking about feminism as a subject, a mode or as a tool?) that I felt earlier this year.

The day was very densely packed with presentations and I've yet to really process it. On reflection, we shoe-horned too many presentations and panels into this one opportunity; as Matariki Williams discusses in an excellent assessment of the day for Tusk, there wasn't time to discuss everything that was quickly raised and moved on from.

Two interlinked strands of thought have evolved from me since Friday, which I want to explore here. One is around history and the archive: why things are saved, why they might submerge or disappear, and how and to whom they are made available in the future. And the other is the way people change over the duration of their lifetimes, and the tension when we want to treat (or use) people as an artefact.

In doing so I've organised my snippets from talks according to how they've fitted into the development of these chains of thought, not how they were presented on the day: some talks do not appear, but that doesn't mean they aren't in my mental mix.

Ahi Rands, speaking about the work and archive of performance artist Linda T, evoked the activist catch-cry: Nothing about us without us. It was a phrase that certainly resonated with people at the event, but one that for me summed up the struggles of not only those being spoken about, but those doing the speaking.

There are pragmatic difficulties inherent in undertaking even relatively recent art history: of tracking down dates, places, titles, names, contact details, of negotiating permissions and access. The women's art movement in New Zealand included a number of networks and collectives, with core and more transient members, some of whom have stayed connected with the art world, some of whom have migrated elsewhere, and some of whom have died. Some participants remain close to that time and their work then; others have distanced themselves from, no longer feel close to, or simply struggle to recall the events and emotions of 30 or 40 years ago. The challenge for the art historian in particular is to what extent they chose to work in collaboration with participants from the time, and to what extent they chose to historicise the period, working with documentation and primary material and the accompanying body of theoretical thought. This is a tension of the archive: the degree of separation you chose to enforce between the object and its original maker and context. While it wasn't voiced directly on the day, I got the feeling from conversations in breaks that an archival/academic or theory-driven approach was definitely not the favoured approach for many of the younger members of the audience, compared to a preference to consult with participants from the time.

Kirsty Baker presented on the Wellington Women's Gallery (1980-1984), based on her MA thesis research. Talking to Kirsty later on in the day, and asking her what triggered her to select this topic (she is a Scottish transplant to New Zealand), she told me about visiting the Wellington Media Collective exhibition at the Adam Art Gallery, seeing the Women's Gallery mentioned there, feeling somewhat shamed that she didn't know what this was - and then realising that many people she spoke to had not heard of it either. (Over the weekend I read Marian Evans' (one of the co-founders of the Women's Gallery) piece 'They Might Have Completely Forgotten Us' on the way the gallery was portrayed - or not - in the exhibition.)

Kirsty made a elegant point about visibility and prominence, using a quote from Juliet Batten. She was kind enough to email it through to me:
In the decades prior to the Gallery's opening, the Western discourse surrounding New Zealand art was concerned predominantly with an effort to characterise a distinctive national identity. The prevalence of landscape painting, along with the painterly portrayal of New Zealand's 'hard, clean light', were observed to be central to this development. The increasing dominance of this type of painting was compounded by Gordon H. Brown and Hamish Keith in their 1969 book An introduction to New Zealand painting, in which they insinuated the weight of their qualitative judgement into the discussion. Writing 20 years after Brown and Keith, Juliet Batten - an artist and educator heavily involved with the Women's Gallery - highlighted the narrowness of their judgement, stating "much has been written about the quest for the 'New Zealand' identity in art: in fact it has been written about as if it were the only identity search going on in the visual arts in this country."* 
 In question time, a point was raised from the floor: perhaps not all those involved in the Women's Gallery wanted to be mainstreamed? This point made me think of a talk I heard by Latoya Peterson at a MOMA panel discussion titled 'United States of Fluidity' when I was in the States last year. You should definitely watch the talk online, where Latoya talks about appropriation of culture, and especially black culture, in areas as diverse as high fashion and Korean rap. At the end of her talk, whilst noting that "everyone wants to be seen, everyone wants to be noticed, ... everyone wants to be appreciated", she quotes bell hooks:
Concurrently, marginalized groups, deemed Other, who have been ignored, rendered invisible, can be seduced by the emphasis on otherness, by its commodification, because it offers the promise of recognition and reconciliation.
In the Q&A following the presentations, Latoya said one of the most powerful things I heard on my trip: Culture always loves to sell your revolution back to you. The impact of hearing this inside the walls of MOMA - the pinnacle of recognition, and also the ultimate site of the smoothing of any narrative for the public digestion of millions - was massive for me. It made me question whether the mainstream museum impulse to "recognise and reconcile" marginalised groups and stories by making them accessible and understandable to a wide audience can avoid either the dulling of edges or (perhaps worse) the removal of the integral nature of difference and resistance from activist and dissident groups in particular. What do you lose when you arrive?

Roma Potiki, a panellist from earlier in the day, also raised the point that for some women, participation in the Women's Gallery was a potentially dangerous activity, and that being outed (for instance, in the case of women who explored a lesbian identity in this safe space) could have resulted in the time (or even now) in personal or professional damage. Again, the tension of the archive: does the act of saving something for the future presuppose the notion that its future involves becoming public?**

Caroline McBride gave a short presentation on the Auckland Art Gallery's early concepts around an exhibition of their feminist art archives, including the Juliet Batten archive and the Feminist Art Network archive.  Given the general tenor of the day, this possibility created a lot of excitement. (One of my hopes, as a co-organiser, is that the day would be one full of sparks, as people connected what they already knew with new information. Given that the history of feminist art and activities in New Zealand is a scattered and partial one, it seemed to me that by drawing together speakers from different generations could help create this situation. I was delighted to see it happening, and experience it myself, and I know from talking to Caroline that the context she has for these archives held by the AAG was enlarged by the day.)

The AAG also holds copies of the Women's Art Archive interviews conducted in the early 1980s by Lita Barrie. The idea of presenting these interviews - and the challenges of tracking down all the interviews and gaining permission - is fascinating in light of some of the above points. In her talk, Caroline noted how struck she was by the way individuals and collectives had committed from their beginnings to documenting and recording themselves. Was it done, she asked rhetorically, from a fear that their voices would disappear as soon as they began to be heard - that visibility was a tenuous thing?

This may have been one driver. Another is that rediscovery and presentation of past female artists was a key activity in feminist art history (see Linda Nochlin's germinal 'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?' on this) and thus the assembling of evidence was a tactic in increasing women artists' - past and present - profile. Yet another, perhaps, is that self-examination, documentation and analysis had entered artistic practice and some disciplines (such as anthropology or sociology) as a valid undertaking, alongside forms of performance art that also intersected with feminist practice. Take Mary Kelly's Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) as perhaps the most famous example from the time. I think there's an intriguing piece of work to be done around this documentation and its drivers in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand.***

Again, I wondered during Caroline's talk whether display in such a public domain as the Auckland Art Gallery was what these original contributors had in mind. To be preserved does not automatically mean 'in order to be made public one day', and even to be published even means something different in the internet age.

I'm particularly alert to this at the moment thanks to a piece written by Canadian librarian (and for a short period, my colleague at the National Library of New Zealand) Tara Robertson, on the digitisation of On Our Backs, a Canadian lesbian porn magazine that ran for 20 years from 1984. The magazine has been digitised by Independent Voices, an incredibly admirable undertaking to digitise special press archives, and especially dissident or radical publications.

As Tara writes, on the one hand her heart leapt to see something she could relate to recognised and made available in this way. And the correct copyright process had been followed. However:
... there are ethical issues with digitizing collections like this. Consenting to a porn shoot that would be in a queer print magazine is a different thing to consenting to have your porn shoot be available online. ... Most of the OOB run was published before the internet existed. Consenting to appear in a limited run print publication is very different than consenting to have one’s sexualized image be freely available on the internet. These two things are completely different. Who in the early 90s could imagine what the internet would look like in 2016?
The art historian in me wants access to everything because detail and context is delicious, and because it's how I can build a full picture and come to a nuanced understanding of what I'm studying.

The museum professional in me has a greater regard, perhaps, for the right for objects, ideas and information to be restricted in their access, because different individuals, groups and cultures place different value upon the importance or correctness of sharing them widely.

Laid over this is the situation when public institutions are the chosen repositories of material, for the long-term safety but also the mana that they hold. At same time, these institutions tend to uphold the values of access and dissemination of knowledge and culture. This of course is the tension we've been banging on about with Tiffany Jenkins' latest book and her arguments against repatriation and for mandated general access to museum holdings.

These values are mutable as well, and change over time: to think that the feelings and expectations that surround an object (a taonga, an oral recording, a portrait photograph) remain preserved at the point when they entered the archive is to misunderstand changing relationships over time, either from the originating individual or from their associates and descendants. Okay then isn't okay now; not okay now might be okay one day. It's vexed and there's no one answer or easily applied logic and that's why its vital we have develop shared understandings of expectations and culture (including the expectation and culture of the museum) so we have a firm basis to honour these agreements throughout time.

Tina Barton gave perhaps my favourite presentation of the day, for its unexpected playfulness. It was an examination of her own archive: of the period when she returned to university, aged 26, and did the new Women in Art paper at Auckland University (taught by Elizabeth Eastmond and Cheryll Sotheran). Tina showed us pages from the diary that all students in the paper were encouraged to keep, and read us sections, simultaneously wondering at and gently ridiculing that special headiness of being a post-grad student who's both fired up by and questioning their topic.

Tina has unearthed this diary for the purpose of Four Waves, having not looked at it in many years. She said she felt distant enough to assess what she had created with some objectivity: she's not that person any more. On the other hand, she was somewhat horrified by the notion that someone might use that diary in an assessment of her current practice. Later in the day, in conversation with Roma again, we talked about how some participants in early feminist activities had moved on in their lives: they may no longer hold those same views, or feel them with the same energy, or even recall them with great clarity after the passage of several decades. There's another tension here, of wanting to treat (or use) people as storehouses of information and memory, to access the power of first-hand knowledge.

I read, just before the event, Michelle Dean's wonderful essay on the poet Adrienne Rich in the New Republic. In it, she quotes a letter from Rich to a friend, about James Baldwin:
James Baldwin is as dead as Medgar Evers. Was he always, or did he die a slow death? I haven’t reread any of the early essays or that first novel that seemed so good to me five years ago. Maybe our perceptions are getting sharper. Maybe he sharpened them, blunting himself in the process.
As with Tara's post, with Latoya's presentation, and the talks called out above, those words got into my head. Maybe art history is written and experienced through a constant process of sharpening and blunting. Hopefully with Four Waves we've contributed to the sharpening, for a while at least.

* The Batten quote is from an essay of hers titled "Art and Identity" in David Novitz and Bill Willmott (eds.) Culture and Identity in New Zealand (1989).

*Of course archives have protocols such as embargoes and permission levels that can determine when and by whom material can be accessed. As noted above though, any decision made at the time of depositing cannot plan for all future eventualities.

**Now that I have said this, I daresay someone will point out to me that it's already been done, in which case, hooray.

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