Thursday, 31 January 2013

Jez Collins on 'activist archivism'

During discussion at the “DIY Preservation” round table held yesterday as part of the ‘Re/soundings: Documenting music and memory’ event in Rotterdam, Professor George McKay (University of Salford) questioned the use of the term DIY to describe the kinds of heritage institutions that I am exploring in this project. His argument was that “DIY is about grassroots, alternative culture and politics” and so using ‘DIY’ in the context of these archives and museums “depoliticizes” the concept.

I was really pleased to see Jez Collins (Birmingham City University) address this criticism in the paper he presented today at the POPID conference. In his paper, titled ‘Multiple voices, multiple memories: public history-making and activist archivism in online popular music archives’, he described the founding of these places of grassroots popular music preservation as “a political act”, explaining that they emerge from a “distrust of ‘official’ archives and a failure of mainstream heritage practice to narrate their experiences”. Jez is an ‘activist archivist’ and his position on the politicality of DIY institutions of music heritage management draws on his own experiences as the founder of an online archive, the Birmingham MusicArchive. The online archives he discussed in his paper are, as he put it,
“created, curated, and populated by public history makers and activist archivists [who] challenge the traditional gatekeepers of popular music heritage and dominant popular music historiography”.
In question time, Les Roberts (University of Liverpool) asked Jez to expand upon the idea of the political nature of DIY heritage practice in terms of how “activist archivism as a political act plays out”. In responding, Jez drew the audience’s attention to the work of Andrew Flinn (University College London) and colleagues who argue convincingly that ‘history-making and archiving are ... never neutral or disinterested activities’ (see Flinn’s 2011 article published in the journal InterActions). Flinn’s work also informs this project’s understanding of DIY institutions. As my forthcoming article with Alison Huber notes:

“... Andrew Flinn’s identification of the ‘community archive’, or what he defines as ‘the grassroots activities of documenting, recording and exploring community heritage in which community participation, control and ownership of the project is essential’ (Flinn, 2007: 153), [highlights how these places] ‘often attempt to actively transform and intervene in otherwise partial and unbalanced histories’, thus ‘contributing to a democratization of heritage and history making’ (Flinn, 2010: 40).” (Baker & Huber, forthcoming, European Journal of Cultural Studies)
Beyond this scholarly context, Jez also returned to his own experience as an activist archivist, stating:

“The things I want to talk about [on the Birmingham Music Archive website] aren’t recognised by the institutions of my own city and are also absent in broader narratives in institutions around the country. Groups [like the BMA] form along the lines of shared interest because ‘official’ institutions aren’t reflecting their story.”

For Jez, the politics of such an act are clear, even if it is along the lines of “personal political” rather than necessarily “overtly political”.

I will continue to ponder on McKay’s reservations. At the very least his question highlights that the term ‘DIY’ needs to be unpacked more thoroughly and its use in relation to these archives and museums more clearly teased out. As is explained in a forthcoming article in European Journal of Cultural Studies, when Alison and I were naming the places of our research ‘DIY institutions’ we thought ‘DIY’ seemed:

“...a useful and recognisable signifier of the ‘bottom-up’ activities of the community-based enterprises we [were concerned with], in which people have taken initiative and started these archival and museum collections themselves in ways that encapsulate the spirit of ‘DIY’” (Baker & Huber, forthcoming)

 But the ‘politics’ of these places was never far from our minds. As we go on to write:
“... in calling the archives and museums explored in our work ‘DIY institutions’, our intention is to connect to and draw on some of the ways in which [] other kinds of more informal, community or activist archives have been defined [by Flinn for example], but in an expansive way that best fits the popular music heritage framework under our consideration. In other words, an ‘interest in music’ and/or an ‘interest in preserving music’s material culture’ in our examples doesn’t (always) equate with an ethos of activism, or even Zinn’s (1970/1997) call for ‘the people’ to document their own history in archival form. Rather the emphasis here links more closely to an ethos of getting on with it, taking initiative and, quite simply, doing it yourself. Like the archiving projects of Flinn’s research, the agendas of the institutions under examination have their basis in the community; moreover, the parameters of these DIY collections are determined by the volunteers and emerge from within their own expertise. However, this is complicated by the fact that we have found in some cases that community emerges from within the archive itself, rather than being only a reflection or outcome of something that pre-exists its foundation. So although we don’t mark them as necessarily ‘activist’, these communities of volunteers and enthusiasts who assemble around a shared interest in popular music and/or its heritage and labour in the DIY institution are equally ‘able to strategically represent themselves rather than submitting their archives to be filtered through the words and space of state-based institutions’ (Moore & Pell, 2010: 261).” (Baker & Huber, forthcoming)

This starts to point to the complexities of understanding what “politics” might mean or involve in relation to these institutions. Of course, part of the problem is nomenclature more generally – finding the “right” term is fraught with difficulty, as Flinn discovered in calling the sites of his research “community archives”. What is meant by ‘community’? What is meant by archive, even? Questions he tackles in his publications. And so, as this project progresses I will be unpacking the use of the term ‘DIY’ in this heritage context, and will be considering in more detail the ‘politics’ of these places – even that of the Victorian Jazz Archive, the institution McKay used to emphasise his point about the depoliticising of ‘DIY’.

Jez’s paper opened a really interesting session on ‘Archiving and Preserving Popular Music’ which also included papers by Gerome Guibert  (Universite Sorbonne Nouvelle) who talked about a French DIY institution called Ethnodoc , Thomas Herscht (Mediacult) whose discussion of Austrian popular music archives included mention of the Archiv Osterreichischer Popularmusik (the SRA, a place I visited in 2010) and the Trash Rock Archives , and also Line Vestergaard Knudsen (Roskilde University) who spoke about a ‘participatory archive’ that has been developed as part of the activities of the soon to open Danish Rock Museum