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Author Archives: Patricia Belen

Artistic Practice in Archives

Artistic engagements with archives have inspired and informed my final project. The notion of speculative work as described by Kazanjian in “Scenes of Speculation” is directly related to artistic practice. In the article, the example of the letter written by a formerly enslaved black American settler in Liberia in 1858 shapes and questions our understanding of freedom – to recover the past and to look toward the future. Freedom is not objective, rather, it unfolds, changes, and is open-ended. 

Odumosu’s example of the photograph of the Afro-Caribbean crying child in “The Crying Child: On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons” is another scene of speculation which has the potential to unearth representations of colonization. Odumosu asks “how can we extend concepts of caretaking and custodianship beyond institutions toward reparative strategies proposed by artists, activists, and other agents of change?” The image of the crying child has been found alongside other photographs in albums of Dutch families of the Caribbean in the early 20th century. Different meanings arise depending on the other photographs surrounding the child, one album shows Caribbean people dressed in their Sunday best, another album shows the crying child alongside a posed and confident “nice girl”. In this case, the acts of curation and cutting/pasting (as in a collage or photomontage technique) reflect similar artistic practices done by artists. Artist La Vaughn Belle’s intervention of placing her own family photos beside photographs of the Danish West Indies from the Royal Danish Library collection (including the crying child) become a reformative act, a way of building community, and connecting her family to history, “The narratives embedded in the images become collapsed, converted, contested and re-imagined in the simple gesture of juxtaposition and/or adding captions to the images.” Belle has created her own type of archive, one that has more meaning than viewing digital material from the library collection on its own.

I recently visited a small exhibition at the Met, “Pictures, Revisited”. On view was Lorna Simpson’s 9 Props. In it, Simpson recontextualizes portraits taken by photographer James Van Der Zee who took pioneering portraits in Harlem in the early 20th century. Instead of portraits of people, Simpson fabricated the objects in Van Der Zee’s portraits, photographed them as the subjects and included descriptive captions describing Van Der Zee original portrait and the object’s place in it. Through this work, Simpson critiques what can’t be seen in either photograph – issues of class, race, and culture. This work depends on, and even demands, the viewer’s engagement to imagine new narratives. Although she doesn’t refer to it as an archive, I consider Simpson’s 9 Props to be a type of archive – gathering, re-making and re-assembling historical images. 

Following these examples, my final project attempts to recreate these artistic practices and translate them to a digital stage. Considering archives can take many forms and have different aims, there is room for experimentation in how we build archives for particular audiences. Perhaps, instead of the main consideration being which platform to choose (Omeka vs. WordPress, for example), we can also contemplate how the viewer interacts with the archive, ways of engaging the viewer, how to use emotion as part of the archival experience, and how the physical form of the digital archive relates to the content itself.

Expanding Definitions of Archives

My ideas around archives, what they are, what they look like, what they include (and don’t include) have been shaped by the readings and experiences of the semester. Coming into this class, my limited view of archives were things (objects, books, papers) that were organized in boxes, stored in libraries, accessed by researchers, and sometimes digitized for the public. Although I have used archives before and have even been involved in organizing archives, I am a dilettante when it comes to actual archival work. I was never exposed to the various forms of archives or thought about how their organization could structure knowledge. 

One of the early readings “What Do you Mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers” introduced theoretical archival concepts by Foucault, Derrida and Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst – that the archive has a role in society, it is an idea, it is the entirety of history. This expansion of the definition stayed with me. When I visit a museum, I now look at exhibitions as archives. The curator’s job of assembling works, placing them in specific positions on the walls, providing historical context in the object descriptions, is a type of archival work. Exhibition catalogs, art books, and other types of non-fiction books can therefore also be considered archives – they gather objects, provide information and knowledge in the form of essays and writing. This translates online, as well, as shown in the Colored Conventions project, which separates the records from the exhibitions. Certainly, the records themselves are important, but for someone like myself who was unaware of these political meetings, the exhibits provide knowledge, understanding, context, and meaning. 

But, it is not only the act of archiving or what is archived that is important, it is also how it is accomplished. I am reminded of readings such as “Archival Encounters: Rethinking access and care in digital colonial archives” and other projects we reviewed such as the Black Women’s Suffrage Digital Collection and the Barnard Zine collection whose creators shared their processes of care in dealing with sensitive materials. They showed that empathy and not necessarily objectivity is crucial to assembling and maintaining archives; that there is bravery in confronting past injustices; that archives provide questions and not answers.

Lastly, throughout the semester, I’ve been taking note of various descriptive words about archives that have interested me. I list them here with no explanation and will let the words speak for themselves: recognize, redress, reorient, produce, reproduce, acknowledge (not obscure), question (not define), quantify, qualify, interrogate, recover, discover, disassemble, reassemble, deconstruct, reconstruct, reconfigure,  articulate, enrich, remix, decentralize, provoke, rethink, reform, speculate, interpret, complicate, challenge, restructure. 

The Pulter Project

The Pulter Project
The Pulter Project; http://pulterproject.northwestern.edu

Overview

17th century poet Hester Pulter’s manuscript of 120 poems on topics ranging from politics, mythology, royalism, war and death, and an unfinished romance was stored and unread for over 250 years at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, UK. In 1996, graduate student Mark Robson, rediscovered the manuscript while working in the library. Subsequently, two scholars of early modern literature, Wendy Wall (Northwestern University) and Leah Knight (Brock University), along with an international team of collaborators, embarked on the Pulter Project to:

  • Make Pulter’s poetry public by adding her work to the canon
  • Create an ongoing, collaborative process by which audiences can see the making of Pulter as a poet and writer using multiple editorial voices in a digital landscape

Audiences

The Pulter Project is unique in that it uses technology and scholarship to explicitly pursue multiple audiences simultaneously. The website presents each Pulter poem with multiple views: 

  • The “Elemental Edition” is intended for general readers of all levels who want to read the poems. The editors have added punctuation and minimal scholarly annotations and notes to create a basic springboard to further work on Pulter’s poetry.
  • The “Amplified Edition” is accompanied by more extensive editorial notes by experts for more advanced scholars.

One can view both editions side-by-side in a comparison view. Concurrently, one can view the original manuscript page and companion readings for the poems in poetry, literature and science, religion, literature, and women’s writing in sections titled “Curations” and “Explorations”.

Creators

The Pulter Project founders Wall and Knight had access to the original manuscript and conducted a workshop to explore different ways of editing, contextualizing, anthologizing, and digitizing Pulter’s poems. They collaborated and partnered with Northwestern University, Northwestern’s Media and Design Studio, and Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, as well as established a digital team, and an editorial board of scholars in early modern writing, manuscript studies, poetry, early modern science, politics, poetry, and gender studies. Wall and Knight photographed the original manuscript and transcribed the poems to create the “Elemental Editions”.  A uniform set of editorial principles and style guidelines were established to aid in the “Amplified Editions”.

Technologies

The project was created using a customized model of the Versioning Machine (VM) software from the University of Maryland which allows the project to present multiple—sometimes very different—versions of the same poem side-by-side. VM requires the XML coding language (human and machine-readable), so all of the poems are encoded according to the P5 Guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). High-resolution images provided by the Brotherton Library are zoom-able. The website’s introductory page features animation and a professional “teaser” video. Another video on the “About the Project” page is longer but filmed in a similar format, featuring animations of period engravings, footage of the manuscript object and interviews with the project founders.

Conclusion

The Pulter Project is an innovative use of technology for an archival project which future projects can be inspired by. The first short animation and teaser video presented at the outset are mysterious and intriguing and invite the user to explore the website further. The video does a great job of showing the manuscript as an object that has survived centuries, an aged and imperfect historical object. The two “Editions” associated with each poem attract different audiences and allow multiple access points to Pulter’s poems. Interactive elements such as hovering over a word to get its definition, and the ability to have comparison views open and draggable to alternate positions makes the user feel like they are in control of the website and how the information is perceived. The additional scholarship found in “Curations” and “Explorations” is a wonderful opportunity to explore themes further. Another feature that makes this project unique among archival projects is that the user can see the collaborative process and editorial decisions involved in making verse accessible, a process which is often invisible.