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I am lucky. I had all the JPGs, PDFs, and PNGs I needed, utilitarian scans and snapshots from archives across the country, before the libraries shut down. So instead of sitting in cold rooms at large wood tables, I have spent the last year navigating a sea of digital files for a slow-moving project I’ve been working on about the history of support networks for artists. Even compressed on hard drives and desktops, the sheer quantity of research material still feels like something “unsettling and colossal,” as scholar Arlette Farge put it in her 1981 book The Allure of the Archives.1 “Faced with it,” wrote Farge, “you feel alone, like an individual confronting a crowd.”2 This feeling is paradoxical, considering that Farge, who spent years in Paris’ judicial archives, worked toward finding and giving voice to marginalized people, building a new, wider chorus of experiences. In my case, the goal of spending time in the archive is to understand how art workers and artists can and have connected with and sustained one another. So why is it so lonely?
This loneliness is a kind of myth, the product of centuries of treating certain stories as more important than others, and making numerous special collections accessible only to people with advanced degrees or “institutional affiliations,” as the application forms required to access archives often put it. In fact, so many of us are looking to long-forgotten archival material to piece together the anatomies of relationships, support structures, and co-dependencies. So, too, are a growing number of researchers and archivists building indexes, databases, and archives that not only emphasize the connections between different artists, thinkers, people, and projects but also reflect the researchers’ own deep desire for making connections. These undertakings are corrective in that they dismiss the top-down approach of many research institutions (where materials are acquired often only after the lives they document are deemed noteworthy). They also exude optimism—albeit one freighted with the labor-intensive nature of this work—because they suggest that slow excavation and observation can be a way of dismantling the destructive closed-mindedness of worlds that already exist while laying the foundation for a different one.
The Scalability Project: Cacophony of Troubled Stories, a six-month online exhibition hosted on the feminist, New York-based A.I.R. Gallery’s website, isn’t exactly an archive, but it manages to invite its viewers into deep research while celebrating collectivity—impressive given how isolating online deep-dives can feel. The exhibition, perhaps more aptly described as a sensual, multi-genre syllabus, does not attempt to mimic the click-baiting, scroll-inducing qualities of the internet, a relief in this moment of OVR (online viewing room) and NFT hype. Rather, in its combination of interviews, images, essays, and videos, the exhibition reverts to a more basic, populist possibility of a website as an accessible store of information. There are 12 participants in total—more than half of whom make visual art. The other half present ideas, largely via interviews, yet the little citation orbs that populate the website link to numerous other PDFs, websites, and sources that complement the curated information. Visitors can navigate vertically by scrolling through the list of contributing artists and thinkers, or the page can be navigated laterally by clicking on floating, glowing orbs (blue for texts and interviews, yellow for artist projects). Once you have clicked, you will undoubtedly need to watch or read—even Tabita Rezaire’s otherworldly digital paintings are accompanied by the artist’s poetic essay. Engaging this exhibition could take hours, if not days. In fact, attempting to engage this exhibition quickly is bound to frustrate.
As its title suggests, the exhibition sets out to explore scale in addition to citation, and its curators—designer-scholar-archivist Mindy Seu and archivist-curator Patricia M. Hernandez, alongside A.I.R.’s current director Roxana Fabius—are particularly interested in flipping the growth-is-good, go-big-or-go-home connotations around the term “scalability.” “This is not the masculine, techno-utopian rhetoric of disruption or of moving fast and breaking things,” they write on the exhibition’s home page, “but the methodical, deep labor that comes from ‘looking around, rather than looking ahead’…”3 Though they jab at capitalism and its discontents here and elsewhere, the project and its participants devote most of their energy not toward criticizing the way the world works, but describing, theorizing, and speculating about how to live in a different kind of world.
Anthropologist Anna L. Tsing’s 2012 essay “On Nonscalability,” linked to on the exhibition website, inspired the project’s title, and Tsing is a powerful presence throughout the online experience (power, in this case, manifests through the multiple orbs that lead back to her words or ideas). Like many of the participants, Tsing posits closer looking as a way to imagine our way out of the mass-produced, development-driven scalability that is “constantly abandoned, leaving ruins” as it spreads.4 Writer and activist adrienne maree brown, who participated in The Scalability Project through an interview, tells the curators that she has “been relinquishing scale,” by “letting go of the idea that we all have to get on the same page. Instead, I say, let’s get on many different pages, but let them be small, intimate, authentic pages, and then let’s make those pages compelling.”5 There is something satisfyingly seductive about imagining these diverse, compelling pages floating around in proximity to each other—like being at a party where everyone is fabulously, weirdly dressed, and wearing their personalities on their sleeves. To keep this heterogeneity generative and to keep the conversation from being co-opted (from becoming the “master’s tool,” as brown puts it), these people on their different pages must cite each other. “A lack of citation, a lack of people actually naming where the ideas come from, perpetuates weak relationships,” brown says.6
Just as co-opting the ideas of others without citation can be a way to hold power, or citing established voices a way to claim proximity to power, generously citing peers, mentors, and family members, and obscure voices in addition to established ones, can suggest a more inclusively raucous, open reality in which ideas are shared, rather than used to prove a hierarchy of knowledge. A.I.R. Gallery itself, The Scalability Project’s host, was founded in 1972 to widen the possibilities of who could participate in the conversation around contemporary art. In its early years, it was New York City’s only feminist cooperative gallery, though its membership was disproportionately white and its leadership constantly at odds. “Working together? It was much more like fighting together,” joked co-founder Barbara Zucker in 1979.7 The Scalability Project’s curators are intrigued by these kinds of messy navigations, and have all tried to document and record the difficulties and possibilities of feminism before. Patricia M. Hernandez and Roxana Fabius co-curated Dialectics of Entanglement: Do We Exist Together? at A.I.R. in 2018, revisiting a 1980 A.I.R. show called Dialectics of Isolation. Three artists—Ana Mendieta, Kazuko Miyamoto, and Zarina—had organized the 1980 show to explore second-wave feminism’s repeated exclusion of women of color. The 2018 exhibition included older and current work by the original artists interspersed with work by younger artists also grappling with questions of race and inclusion, in an attempt to pull a still relevant history into the present—an archive and a reconsideration.
This descriptor could easily apply to the Cyberfeminism Index, an ongoing project by the third Scalability co-curator, Mindy Seu, a designer and scholar who has made internet archives a central part of her practice. A growing online compendium of cyberfeminist art and ideas, currently hosted on the New Museum’s website, the minimally-designed Index attempts to offer a deeper, more intersectional idea of feminism in cyberspace than the one that gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s. Like Scalability, the Index is vertically and laterally scrollable. It can be navigated chronologically, top-to-bottom, or by clicking on one source, and then the next related source, and so on. This structure makes it deliberately difficult to engage only with white, Western feminism without also engaging with other perspectives. From the early cyberfeminist manifesto of the VNS Matrix, a collective of white Australian feminists—“we are the virus of the new world disorder,” they wrote in 19918—you might land on Radhika Gajjala’s “Third World Critiques of Cyberfeminism” (an interrogation of “the notion of ‘technology as the great equalizer’”9), and then on to the book Gajjala co-edited in 2008 about how South Asian diasporas are using technospaces to explore gender, religion, art, and more. This kind of cross-referencing happens liberally throughout. The project, initially compiled with the help and feedback of over 60 collaborators, has a persistent “submit” button so visitors can help expand its contents, meaning that it will inevitably shift to reflect the concerns of those who engage with it.
Other newly formed archives similarly reflect the interests of participants and collaborators. Hailey Loman co-founded the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) in 2013, with, as its website explains, “a special focus on underexposed artistic modes of expression.” LACA is currently located in Chinatown’s Asian Center, where it has plain utilitarian shelves and flat files. It collects performance ephemera, drawings, letters, and art objects that would likely not end up in an archive otherwise, or at least not yet, before their worth to history has been established. LACA has a fully digitized, searchable collection, and just browsing it can reveal objects you might not have otherwise known existed: an audio mix by the artist Ekstra Bonus, and an ephemeral sculpture called Community Rooftop Garden House by Miggie Wong. Wong’s work was donated by John Burtle, an artist who has over the years closed and reopened a gallery on his arm in which the artworks are tattoos designed by other artists. He has donated over 200 works from his personal collection (by known and lesser known artists). The gallery Commonwealth & Council has also donated generously. In this way, LACA becomes a record of care—those who value its mission support it, and thus shape its collection. It is not a monolithic archive; in fact, it can be confusing to try to make sense of why certain objects are included, and inevitably, the process of making sense takes time, just as building and organizing the archive does. Just by continuing to exist and expand, LACA makes a long-term commitment to groping around for a different way of recording and supporting creative life.
It isn’t that the time-consuming nature of these efforts—like The Scalability Project, Cyberfeminism Index, and LACA—makes them good. Rather it makes them refreshingly transparent. The arduous slowness of this work—of trying to collect the records and organize different histories—tends to contribute to the feeling of loneliness. Like so many others who have spent their lives trying to change the world—activists, community organizers, community artists—archivists and researchers interested in other stories mostly spend their time on unsexy labor: finding and entering data, digitizing files, reading, citing, cross-referencing. World-building, and world-changing, is a slog. But these projects underscore the idea that this work is already collective, and present infrastructures for keeping it so.
Catherine Wagley writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 24.