Workshop Report: Out of the Archives … New Archival Practices: Towards Alternative Historiographies, Voices, and Spaces
By Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh, and Alia Mossallam
From 12 to 14 July 2018, the Exploratory Workshop “Out of the Archives … New Archival Practices: Towards Alternative Historiographies, Voices, and Spaces” was held at Archive Kabinett Berlin-Wedding. It was convened by Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh and Alia Mossallam and organized in the framework of the joint initiative of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung.
The rationale for this workshop stemmed from the conveners’ awareness, as practitioners working on archives in different disciplines, capacities and contexts, of pressing questions concerning these sources and their use. The first of these questions was related to the very nature of the archive: what is archived, why, how, and by whom? The second was related to the legitimacy of those who consume archival material and produce knowledge based on that experience: who grants access, to whom, and why? In other words, who “owns” the archive? The third broad set of questions concerned consumers or recipients: for whom is knowledge produced? Who is the audience? Are they citizens to be educated, targets of ideology, recipients of assumptions regarding what is worthy of preservation, and why?
Based on these concerns, participants tackled questions relating to access, methodology, and dissemination. The workshop brought together twenty-two participants from Europe and the Middle East. One of its most joyful and galvanizing outcomes was the collaboration among artists, academics, and activists on subaltern archives. It intentionally blurred the boundaries between traditional sites of historical knowledge production: the academy, the arts, and civil society, investigating some of the ways that current techniques of archive conservation tend to erase rather than reveal, and exclude rather than include. The workshop renewed the participants’ knowledge of archives in places such as Beirut, Berlin, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, but also outside the capital cities. A particularly encouraging observation concerned the number of women who participated in the workshop (not to mention the four organizers) – an indication of how creative women in academia, art, and activism can be and how far they can push the boundaries of their fields. The three-day event included practicums devoted to making scholars’ own archival materials accessible to the wider public. Six thematic panels provided space for sharing experiences of and in archives.
Sessions and Panels
In “Absence in the Archive”, participants asked how we deal with historical gaps, silences, and absence in – and of – archives. The panelists engaged with the following questions: what do we do when we cannot access archives? What do disappearances or absences mean within the archive? How can we trace those who cannot easily be identified as individuals or members of social groups? The historian and anthropologist Yektan Türkyılmaz (EUME Fellow 2014-15, 2017-19) spoke against reliance on archives as a source of truth when investigating the Armenian genocide, since evidence of premeditation is not only lacking but is overshadowed by the dominant narrative through which stories of massacres and killings can be recognized. Zeynep Türkyılmaz (EUME Fellow 2010-11, 2017-19) recounted her experience playing “hide and seek” with topics and permits as a researcher at the official Ottoman and Turkish Republican archives. Using examples from violent and controversial events in Syria during the Mandate, Seda Altuğ (EUME Fellow 2017-19) interrogated the possibility of “making the subaltern speak” by resorting to multiple archives (colonial, national and private, whether written or oral) and the ways in which social historians can make sense of their silences, contradictions, as well as excesses.
In “Sound and Musical Archives”, panelists discussed sound as a practice and materiality, which can be used against the hegemony of the archives. The discussion raised the following issues: the concept of the un-sound as something that cannot be heard because of the listener’s inability to hear or because of the archive’s structure; voices as echoes separated from the people who utter them; and the policing of sounds and voices. Moreover, do we need to fill all the silences and gaps in the archive? The sound artist, musician and researcher Gilles Aubry evoked situated sound knowledge in Morocco and analyzed practices related to the materiality of sound: measuring, categorizing, and objectifying voices (and bodies). Britta Lange (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) discussed archival silences – such as performative silence and content-related silence – as historical sources and the specific challenges raised by “making history with the silences.” Alia Mossallam (EUME-AvH Fellow 2017-18) traced a single Egyptian folk song found in different archival sources invarious geographical locations during World War I and wondered what stories they might tell about the Egyptian workers’ experiences of war and how voices travel “through voices” and time.
“Fiction and the Archive” examined the role of fiction in archival research, posing questions about the intersection of fictional and historical narratives. Apart from investigating the representation of characters found in the archives, the panel examined fiction as a necessary medium for telling stories when archives are absent or controversial. Lamia Moghnieh (EUME Fellow 2017-19) revealed how she found little archival traces of author May Ziadeh’sstay in the psychiatric hospital at Asfouriyeh, which, however, were brought to life by two novels and a graphic novel, each composed with a different aim and focus. The sociologist Rim Wassim focused on the stories of four activists in Egypt in the 1920s, whose lives and choices defied the hegemonic discourse on nationalism at the time. Wassim discussed the challenges to accurately represent these individuals and their lives through illustrations, especially since her subjects adamantly reject her sources of documentation. Rasha Chatta (EUME Fellow 2017-19) examined the visual treatment of colonial Algeria. Through the example of two fictional graphic narratives focusing on a Pied-Noir family and a Harki character, she showed how fiction can contest silenced narratives of/from the past.
“Visualising Histories” brought together two artists and two scholars who work with visual archives or produce visual(hi)stories. Illustrator and comics artist Joseph Kai showed how the Samandal fanzine team reuses old material – images and illustrations – to create new content. He focused on the use of old photographs, which have then been diverted to create a specific effect (humorous, satirical, etc.). Artist and curator Ala Younis presented a fascinating project on the insertion of female protagonists into an older architectural project titled “Plan for Greater Baghdad”, which was dominated by men. Her project interrogates and critiques the making and use of archives. Ayham Dalal and Dima Dayoub of the “Memory, Place, Heritage, Displacement” project, focusing on Homs, showed how spatial memory of the city and urban knowledge can be mapped and disseminated in times of conflict. They shared the different forms of documentation and experimentation they have used to engage both architects and general publics.
“The Subaltern in State, Colonial and Medical Archives” engaged scholars who work with institutional archives, i.e. police or court records, medical files, colonial documents or state papers. How can we produce and reconstruct alternative histories of the oppressed, such as prisoners, workers or patients, based on these documents? Pascale Ghazaleh (EUME-AvH Fellow 2017-19/AUC) investigated subaltern presences in Ottoman documents: guild members objecting to the injustice of their headman, a concubine accusing her master of having sold her illegally when she was pregnant, cultivators protesting the rapacious ways of a tax collector. Yet, she warned, all archives set the terms on which subalterns may “speak” and argued against fetishizing the historian’s role in excavating and redeeming silences from the margins. Edna Bonhomme (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) explored the ways in which tangible objects are privileged in archival and museum practices, and explained how using an anti-colonial methodology could retell the lives of medical/scientific items from Egypt and Tunisia currently placed in European institutions. Hannah El Hasan Ali (Cambridge University) reflected on her attempt to reconstruct political prisoners’ experiences between 1954 and 1992 in Egypt through research between colonial and private archives, conducting oral history interviews and ‘collecting’ fiction, autobiography, and art. Artist and scholar Heba Amin (Bard College Berlin) explored the ways in which artists use colonial archives to reveal historical gaps and erased histories. Beyond subverting the archive, can artistic practice be taken seriously for inscribing history? Amin looked at particular ways to use and juxtapose unaddressed histories in the WWII narrative in Egypt.
“Communal archiving and histories of struggle” participants reflected on how histories and particularly histories of movements can be archived and documented in the present. Noor Nieftagodien presented the many efforts of the History Workshops in Wits University, South Africa, to document apartheid struggles in townships such as Alexandria. He focused on the ten years of testimony and visual archive collection that took place within the community, and the different formats adopted to ensure accessibility to wider publics (first and foremost, the community itself). Visual artist Jasmina Metwaly recounted Mosireen’s efforts to collect footage of protests in the Egyptian revolution from 2011 to 2013 from as many different people and angles as possible. She presented the challenges of coding the material so that it could be archived and indexed without influencing a particular narrative and making a database of over 500 hours somehow accessible. The Berlin-based artist and filmmaker Kaya Behkalam talked about the “Augmented Archive” – a mobile phone application he created for the Mosireen database. The Augmented Archive plots footage onto a live map, so that one can point towards a particular location with one’s phone and see all the footage associated with the location appear on the spot. That way the archive comes to life; the artist referred to this process as “creating a media archaeology”.
At the end of each of the first two days, presenters and participants joined a practicum of their choice. The idea of the practicums was to engage with various forms of art that can channel, use, or express research materials or findings. In artist Ala Younis’s practicum “A book of transfers”, she asked: “What do we do when we can’t find a vibrant source?” The participants created booklets, using various techniques to reproduce degraded or unclear images in the archive.
The sound artist and scholar Gilles Aubry worked with participants on ‘listening’ through exploring their own sound material – recordings, interviews, music from their own research or everyday lives. Questions as to what we hear and what we don’t hear were raised; the issue of silence, the language of sounds and contexts of music and emotions that can be derived from beat and tempo, even in interviews.
In his practicum “Comics Remix”, comic artist and illustrator Joseph Kai looked at how a visual narrative can be created out of archival material, or any existing visual material. Participants worked on their own storylines, recycling images from visual archives they owned, stills from films, and other visual materials provided by the artist himself. The products were short visual reflections on the different ways historical narratives can be produced in a non-linear and more inclusive way (inclusive of other narratives and possibilities).
The last practicum was convened by two artists, Jasmina Metwally, of the Mosireen collective, and Kaya Behkalam, who assisted them in creating the Augmented Archive app. During this workshop the artists presented some of the footage Mosireen collected of the Egyptian revolution over the years, and familiarized the workshop participants with the software programmes used; particularly highlighting the question of how an online archive can be collectively annotated. Participants then went out into the neighbourhood in Berlin Wedding and interviewed people. The interviews were then plotted against an online map of the area, using the Augmented Archive app.
Results and outcomes of the workshop
The panels and practicums sparked future collaborations and contacts with a new generation of scholars. The encounter generated not only ideas but also opportunities for networking and collaboration, in particular between generations. Participants agreed to find ways of continuing this conversation and seizing an important moment, which presents clear dangers to research and creative endeavours but also opens up many new possibilities for creative solidarities. Beyond networking, urgent questions of methodology arose. Some participants felt that academics still regard their work as more “serious” or difficult than art. One of the artists pointed out that the practice of research also includes speculation, imagination, and filling in the gaps, just as artists do. More work thus needs to be done to interrogate the methods and assumptions that wall off the academy in its own hermetic echo chamber. Art, too, tends to be fond of esotericism and to snub outsiders. How can we render artists’ and scholars’ production legible to wider audiences, while respecting the rigor of their methodologies and practices?
Citation: Rasha Chatta, Pascale Ghazaleh, Lamia Moghnieh, Alia Mossallam, Workshop Report: “Out of the Archives New Archival Practices: Towards Alternative Historiographies, Voices, and Spaces”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.12.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/15573.
Further blogposts on this workshop: