by Stéphanie Hornstein
The day was dark and damp when a group of professors, students, artists and professionals assembled in St Andrew’s on October 7th for Archive Materials: Feminism, Performance and Art History in the UK--a conference organized by Victoria Horne (University of Edinburgh) and Catherine Spencer (University of St Andrews). A cheery array of biscuits and books greeted those arriving as a mere preview of the plentiful food for thought that the day would bring. Laid out like a blueprint on the table, Derrida’s Archive Fever vied for attention with Hilary Robinson’s anthology Visibly Female and 21 Revolutions, a publication by the Glasgow Women’s Library, sat comfortably next to Kate Eichhorn’s influential book The Archival Turn in Feminism.
Unexpectedly yet rather fittingly, Horne opened the conference with an adapted Fraces Stracey quote on Situationist archives. Acknowledging the dangers of cataloguing—and so fixing—politically motivated artworks, Horne suggested that “the task is to avoid being an archivist of [Feminism] … and instead to become a [Feminist] archivist, or a [Feminist] in the archive.” Iconic petrification is a real threat that the objects of women’s history face as increasingly they are collected, sorted and stored in ways that could neutralize their defiance. Luckily, the talks that followed were anything but dusty.
Paired loosely together, the speakers addressed a surprisingly wide variety of subjects that were all connected by their novel archival approach. Freya Gowrley discussed a spectacular sixteen-sided house in Devon, named À la ronde, that was inhabited and decorated by two unmarried cousins during the late 18th century. The archives concerning the two women, Jane and Mary Parminter, were unfortunately destroyed but the home’s interior remains largely intact. Instead of fretting over lost documents, Gowrley moved to consider the Parminter’s living space and possessions as an archive. In particular, she focused her attention on a specimen table—an archive in and of itself!—created by the two cousins as a record of their continental tour and in commemoration of Elizabeth Parminter, the sister Jane lost shortly after their travels. But, as Gowrley demonstrated, loss—of a loved one or of archival documents—doesn’t equate the loss of a story; far from it.
Mourning too was the impetus for the Watts Gallery archives, the greater part of which were amassed by Mary Watts after the death of her artist husband, George F. Watts. Kerri Offord, heritage collections officer at the Watts Gallery, spoke of the great lengths Mary went to in order to retrieve drawings and letters written by her husband. Having been subsequently torn apart (by descendants) and partially reunited (by the gallery), Mary's collection is an essay in the vulnerability of archives and the devotion of archivists. Less known is the fact that the Watts Gallery archives also hold the creative works of Mary herself—sketchbooks, gesso recipes and even large fresco panels—that were until recently completely obscured by her husband’s career. Offord is in the process of correcting this lack of attention by putting in place the Mary Watts room, which will serve to highlight Mary’s significant artistic contribution.
The next speakers panel, formed by Rachel Smith from the University of York and Glasgow-based artist Georgia Horgan, addressed questions of faulty archives, “unproductive” femininity and the pros and cons of feminist fandom. Smith related her tale as a PhD student compelled to do archival work for the Tate free of charge when she discovered that the archives of her subject of study, Barbra Hepworth, had yet to be catalogued. It was her love and respect for Hepworth—which she described as “productive fandom”—that enabled Smith, not only to do the work, but to view the intimacy it afforded as a privileged. And yet, as Horgan’s presentation made clear, being an enthusiast also has its downsides. Interested in the connection between industrialization and witch hunting in Scotland, Horgan is regularly confronted with condescension on the part of institutions she approaches due to the morbid stigma that clings to sorcery. This stereotype of the thrill-seeking tomb raider, according to Horgan, is partially to blame for the depoliticization of the witch hunting discourse that still nowadays fails to properly commemorate what was in truth the mass murder of thousands of innocents. Finding the archive lacking, Horgan assembled her own, which she presented as an exhibition and series of performances entitled Machine Room at the Collective Gallery in the spring of 2015.
Finally, Hilary Robinson’s recounting of her experience as a compiler and editor of feminist anthologies served as a perfect way to tie up the conference. By sifting through all manner of archives from museums to cardboard boxes stashed in closets, Robinson learned the importance of careful, subjective selection. She believes that anthologies, far from being monolithic, should represent divergent opinions if they are to be effective teaching tools. In publishing as in research, explicitly feminist endeavours will still be met with resistance and this, in Robinson’s opinion, reasserts the primacy of the archive as an activist’s arsenal. “It is a big mistake to think you can Google everything,” she warned.
And so Robinson’s final statement paired with Horne’s introduction urges us to roll up our sleeves and go digging in the forgotten fonds, to play in the stacks, to arm ourselves with ephemera. Feminists, it would seem, have the responsibility not only to occupy the archive, but to redefine it and make creative use of the evidence found in its dusty, hidden corners.
Image is courtesy of the Collective Gallery, Edinburgh.
Copyright © Stéphanie Hornstein & art plus thought. All Rights Reserved