/ / Mia Jankowicz

Polished-up notes for a panel discussion
Mia Jankowicz

Presented at The Women’s Library on Saturday 14 March 2009.

This is a worked-up series of notes informing the panel discussion held at the Women’s Library. Not an essay, and also certainly not communicating the content and vivacity of the discussion held, they more denote a series of thoughts and questions formulated before and during the day of Women and the Archive: A Partial Disclosure, some of which were incorporated into the panel discussion (and some of which had already been addressed by the participants’ presentations). Any such coherence, sequencing, or sense of resolution as might be perceived in this text does not reflect the discussion, which was rather more lively and, of course, multivocal.

Firstly I want to outline the breadth of the territory we are discussing here. Neither ‘the archive’ nor ‘women’ are narrowly defined terms or even singly defined terms; and to narrow those terms as they apply to the four contributions we have today – which I think is the only sensible thing to do – we still have a very wide field of subjectivity, motivation, practice and content to address. In drawing them together there is, however, a certain acceptance that the category of ‘women’ provides a sufficiently unifying lens and as such I will try to bring out some wide linkages that allow us to explore the notion that there is a gendered experience of, and import to, the archive.

Freud’s mystic writing pad, and Derrida’s moment of pressing ‘save’ (insofar as I have followed them both) are presented as two foundational texts in thinking about the archive. In A Note Upon the Mystic Writing-Pad (1925), Freud describes the children’s toy note pad on which a sheet of plastic is laid over a lower layer; when you make writing on this sheet using a stylus, the plastic sticks to the lower layer, making the writing visible. When you raise the plastic sheet the writing disappears; however, the lower layer, not visible to the eye, retains all traces of writing. You could say that it is the moment of contact between the upper layer (the perceiving membrane) and the lower layer (the recording membrane) that is essential to the act of archiving and memory. In Derrida’s case, faced with the thought of the moment ‘proper’ to the archive in his introduction to Archive Fever (1995), he designates as the moment of selecting ‘save’ on his Apple computer; again the moment that the perceiving meets with the memory function. There have of course been any number of discussions and characterisations of the archive since these texts, which is a good thing, as these imply nothing of the externalising of the archive, or its feedback loop back into reality, and I think has little to do with the various enactments and movements – openings up and not breakings down – we’ve seen today.

What complicates this further is the status of each type of material, which is radically different in each case – we have private family documents, collected in a contemporaneous awareness of their biographical importance; we have the cultural production of many women in a specific field of practice, and therefore their intellectual property; we have the voices and ideas of many women artists, but recorded as part of the practice of one; and we have the retrospective gathering of an almost-forgotten personal and political history via a network of relationships.

The Creation and Preservation of Women’s History

I am aware that even in this room, in the accepting of certain taxonomies and the filtering of certain knowledge, what the task of this recorded panel discussion actually implies is a certain mode of cataloguing which is tempting to reflect upon or play with somehow.

This is, after all, The Women’s Library, as Gail [Cameron, Curator of Special Collections] has introduced. In a very basic sense I wanted to start out with the statement that women have always had a particularly marginal place in classical and art historiography (as goes even further in the case of women of colour, even within feminist scholarship). This much we know. There are clearly extremely differing motivations and conditions that these archives spring out of, but I would like to ask what role each of the contributors thinks their archive has in relation to that problem. At the root of all these motivations, or alongside them, is there still urge to recuperate, to offer women’s experience and material to the gaping maw of future history? It might be good to start here with Cinenova, as the project built out of two distributors that were most directly addressed towards that gap. I’d like to build on this basic role and work outwards in a way I can hopefully describe in a moment.

Reflecting on what Marina [Vishmidt] said earlier, the women’s art movement came out of the landscape of a radical feminist movement. The two archives from which Cinenova was created – Circles and Cinema of Women – came out of the women’s and other class and race based movements, a set of movements that do not exist with the same energy or communities today. These agendas have been distilled into processes of administrating the groups that outline social exclusion in the arts. Cinenova, then, evidences a very different social and cultural landscape.

What might be more important, as a provocation, is not to just see the archives as compensatory practices. History as Marysia [Lewandowska] put it earlier is full of gaps, silences you might actually wish to leave. One contentious suggestion I’ll make for the sake of discussion it that the archive might fill in and patch over gaps in order for history to apologise for itself, to make noise on your behalf. It might be helpful here, also to think about the archive as productive engines at the moment of their gathering or recombination. This seems most direct in the Sagar family archive – which, as the story of a particularly important set of people and historical moments, was produced in an awareness of its importance and is subsequently already inscribed in history. The Otolith Group are working in a very established artistic mode with this material [to make Communists Like Us, 2006-present], in that a particular archive enters public display via their processes and attains a certain meaning in combination with several other registers of material.

Thinking further, we can reflect on the way that the archive not only is a production or shaping of content, but also, as a subjective process, it can thus mirror or even produce the archivist herself. In an interview with Anthony Spira, Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, Lewandowska and her colleague Neil Cummings were reminded of when they said: ‘An archival, documentary impulse in the west is motivated by self-promotion rather than self-presentation: it’s a way of writing oneself into the archival process.’ (1) So, one of my first questions is how might this also apply to Anjalika [Sagar] and Kodwo [Eshun] through Anjalika’s family?

A next theme is the ‘use’ of the archive. I want to challenge the idea – as no doubt many people have done – of an archive that only lives through its creation and not its use. I wanted to link up the archive’s creation as a form of use, and in reverse its use as a way of creating the archive. More broadly, the gathering of an archive as a means to activate beyond the artist herself, in a feedback loop whereby revisiting the past, a present consciousness/responsivity to contemporary issues can be generated – this is most obviously noticeable in the work of the Remembering Olive Collective, an archive-in-the-making about the feminist, squatter and Black Panther Olive Morris, that is accompanied by a programme of local history and women’s leadership activities. Even without such conscious programming, is the act of making an archive like this necessarily productive of new energies and communities readdressing such history from the lens of contemporary experience? Can the Olive Morris archive exist without such accompanying activities?

Such a gesture implies the development of community and a politicised group identity that does not turn itself into an object, which returns me both to the comments from Cinenova on the bureaucratising of identity politics, and also to Marysia’s comment about the voice. Marysia’s tactic of recording women art workers’ voices was in part to set itself alongside, as only a shadow of, the dominant visual economy of art. What does it mean to be speaking of Olive Morris today, outside of the more buoyant feminist movements of the time? As Ana Laura [Lopez de la Torre] pointed out, Olive Morris didn’t set out to be a ‘leader’. Kimberley [Springer] spoke of her concept of the ‘Bridge Leader’, someone whose leadership is in the act of linking people up, as Morris did between UK and USA branches of the Black Panthers. This is not a role easily annotated with appropriate importance into the typical storytellings of history. Linking back to what I said before about the weight of historicisation, this process of recuperation is so over determined; when we do inscribe female heroes in history, how do we negotiate a sign system so dominated by patriarchal values and the privileges?

At this stage, a very interesting conversation was struck up in which both Gail Cameron and a history teacher from the audience argued vigorously for the case of people simply wanting to know what happened. Setting aside a postmodern feminist suspicion of ‘truth’, it was readily agreed that there are elements of historicisation that the spirit of women’s history and the Women’s Library itself would not be keen to reject. In responding to this, I affirmed that it was not so much if prominent women should be accorded their places in history, but what languages and systems might serve and be served by this; I also outlined the diverging roles of education and contemporary art. Though the panel discussion was indeed a discussion and not a monologue as this highly edited text implies, this particular interjection seems important to incorporate.

With this problematic in mind, the strategy used by the Remembering Olive Collective of talking today from highly personal perspectives diffuses this burden, and stakes Morris’ importance in ongoing and not static, immovable processes – including the pragmatic issues in research, working around and negotiating a very personal set of relations. Political and personal immediacy, rather than posterity, are thus necessary for moving the project on and building the archive.

The Politics of Openness

My next question is to ask the representatives of Cinenova what licenses their work is distributed under. As a distribution agency, their imperatives are very different to those of, say, Cummings & Lewandowska’s Enthusiasts project (2006), whereby all the collected material was put into the public domain (which seems appropriate given the Socialist contexts it came from).

The representative of Cinenova described feminist distribution methods: As a member’s organisation, they produced themed compilation tapes; they also attempted to make sure the works were displayed in a way that would not undermine the director’s intention. I see this set of tactics of film distribution in almost direct opposition to the pad.ma archive (2): an online archive of documentary footage that is open by invitation. Its contents are fully annotatable down to a single frame, and is thus – once you are a trusted member with access – totally open to unforeseen future use in total disregard for the notion of an original intention. Material is, in a sense, ‘flattened’ by its equivalence, but also can be infinitely ‘deep’ via its annotation. Where should openness stop, where can the intentions of the original author begin and end? How is feminism served by allegiance to ‘original’ meaning?

Traditional authorship and intellectual property comes with all the (extremely well-rehearsed) problems and questions that implies, but on a more pragmatic level: The expounding of Creative Commons tends to be spoken with the presumption that the author is already a figure to whom agency and the privileges of intellectual property have been accorded; that authorship is something that she is already in a position to ‘give up’. Given the marginal or even oxymoronic place of something like ‘women’s authorship’, what’s in it for women to go Creative Commons, for women who largely never had access to the privileges and rewards of intellectual property in the first place?

I would relate this to Marysia and the threshold at which the Women’s Audio Archive sits. Her material remains undigitised, so by today’s standards is still relatively cumbersome; it is yet to be ‘launched’ and framed as a formal archive. The status of the material in this archive depends on how she treats it – does she wish to use it like a private mine for the creation of works, in the way that the Otolith Group do with the Sagar family archive? Or does she wish to digitise, make public, the audio for general use? Each path implies some very specific destinies for the valuing of material: she could retain control over it, picking over the material and extracting the next gem to be recombined in an art work; or the work could be thrown open to the varying tastes, desires, or even indifferences of the public.


In the contributions we have seen today, overlaying the already complex relationship of women to the public and the private, is a very uneven terrain of privacy. This is particularly regarding the Women’s Audio Archive, the Remembering Olive Collective, and the Sagar family archive.

The two biographical archives are particularly interesting to compare. One [the Sagar family archive] is of a life lived largely in the public eye, but which is now remaining a set of private documents; the other [the Olive Morris Archive] is a relatively low-profile life, barely recorded other than in personal memories; yet the resultant archive, through being held at the Lambeth Archives, is intended very much for the public realm. Could we identify a specific class relation in what is given – in both ‘official’ and ‘folk’ histories – to be recorded and kept?

It would be good here to highlight the methodologies of the Olive Morris Archive that for me inherit from a feminist means of knowing, in which the personal and the relational are intrinsically tied up in the research process. The development of the archive, for example, is entirely dependent on relationships of trust to even gain the knowledge in the first place, and the acceptance of subjective experience.

Reflecting this back to Marysia: were the conversations held with women in the Women’s Audio Archive initiated in the knowledge that they would become an archive or get played back one day? [Marysia answered no]. Marysia’s presentation emphasised that this changes the dynamic of the conversation, implying that posterity casts a shadow from the future to the past; the intimacy of what goes between the two women in conversation might get overlaid by the retrospective importance of the women speaking.

End notes

(1) Merewether, Charles (ed), The Archive: Documents of Contemporary Art, London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2006.
(2) PAD.MA – short for Public Access Digital Media Archive – is initiated by a group consisting of oil21.org from Berlin, the Alternative Law Forum from Bangalore, and three organisations from Mumbai: Majlis, Point of View and Chitrakarkhana/CAMP.