In this post, guest blogger Zelmarie Cantillon provides an overview of a recently published book by Deborah Withers called 'Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission: Theory, Practice and Cultural Heritage'. The principal focus of this book is the Women's Liberation Music Archive.
***Digital cultures and tools have significantly altered the ways in which heritage may be constructed, curated, communicated and engaged with. While it is widely understood that modes of historical preservation such as archives work to transmit particular values and knowledges, the technical processes of this transmission are often overlooked. In her book, Withers considers how transmission of feminist knowledges (what she terms feminism’s ‘already-there’) operates in a digital context, drawing on her experience as co-founder of the online Women’s Liberation Music Archive.
Music-making during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) was ephemeral, anti-commercial and practice-based. The women involved produced few ‘finished’ recordings, let alone professionally-recorded tracks, and had garnered little exposure beyond an audience of feminists who were already directly involved in the movement in specific places and times. Since popular music heritage is conventionally thought to be grounded in materiality, Withers suggests that these more ephemeral practices can be deemed ‘intangible cultural heritage’. Central to this kind of heritage are performative practices and traditions (for example, storytelling, dance or music-making) which are passed down (transmitted) to future generations. Intangible cultural heritage is always flexible as traditions are continually re-enacted, re-shaped and transformed through practice.
The Women’s Liberation Music Archive (WLMA) is an example of a digital repository for intangible cultural heritage. Withers explains that she was compelled to start the archive out of a feeling of frustration with the inaccessibility and inactivity of WLM artefacts in physical archives. Using freely available digital tools like Wordpress, SoundCloud and YouTube, Withers was able to start her own archive with co-founder Frankie Green, a musician from the WLM era. Choosing a digital medium was especially appropriate for a repository of this kind – both the content and form of the archive are processual in that the artefacts are incomplete, rough works-in-process, and the blog is dynamic and characterised by a temporal ‘liveness’. This is what Withers calls an ‘archive of process’.
In a broader sense, the digital sphere offers the possibility to increase visibility of marginalised groups and cultures which have lingered on the periphery of cultural memory, at risk of being lost and forgotten. A digital archive can be created by an enthusiast with little to no archival training or funding, and with a significantly larger potential audience than a physical archive. Further, and of particular importance to feminism, the grassroots digital archive allows for self-determination and independence from institutional constraints. There are, however, limitations to digital archives. While digitisation may temporarily extend the life of analogue materials, rapid advances in technology mean tools and file formats can quickly become obsolete. For example, Withers recalls errors she made as an amateur archivist, such as making low resolution scans of photographs and digitising audio into low quality MP3 files.
In any case, preservation is not the only concern for community-based archives like the WLMA. By placing the archive in the digital realm, the archivists are re-circulating and transmitting feminism’s past so that it can be used. They are making traditions, practices and knowledges available to be re-interpreted, re-enacted and transformed in the present and into the future. As Withers argues, this access and engagement is essential for the continuation of feminist thought and activism.
Withers, Deborah M 2015, Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission: Theory, Practice and Cultural Heritage, Rowman & Littlefield International, London.