Archivists: World Shapers and Window Makers

Every archival document has the capacity to act as a source of knowledge about the past, but a very particular, precious, and unique source. Archival documents are the only evidential window we have on the action-oriented past, because they arise in the course of our acting in relation to one another and to events in the world.

–Terry Eastwood, “How Goes it with Appraisal?”

During my previous job as a processing assistant, I loved to view each record as a little window into another world.  I would stare into each photograph, letter, or manuscript and wonder.  I would wonder what those people in the photograph looked like before they became little black-and-white pictures.  I would imagine what the air must have felt like around them and how the politics during their period affected their lives.  I would wonder if they loved someone or something.  And I would try to connect all the records in a collection like worlds in a universe and sculpt a story with them.  I always wished I could jump right into the photograph or become the hand that was penning the letter.  I wished that I could see and feel this other world, this world whose only connection to mine was through a little window that I would soon place into a protective sleeve and then into an acid-free box.

This trip to the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh allowed us to jump into another world. We were not just archivists, silent documenters and preservers of the world around us.  We were making active decisions that both affected history and the way people would remember it.  Each picture taken, camera angle chosen, and question asked potentially provided a different view of the world we were in. In other words, we were world shapers and window makers.

As window makers, we were lucky to have guidance, experience, and a clear strategy.  We were under the direction of two experienced archivists, Dr. Mary Choquette (UMD) and Kathy Carbone (CalArts).  All of us had at least one year of library school under our belts and therefore had a foundation of the basic principles and techniques behind the archival process.  Lastly, many of us (myself included) had archival experience.  We worked as a group to come up with a recording plan that would most accurately represent the show, an oral history technique that would allow us to gain needed information from the interviewees, and a cataloguing and metadata strategy that would best describe our archives.

As world shapers, we participated in Fringe festivities, attended shows, and interacted with the subjects we documented on a daily basis.  We made friends, both with each other and with the CalArts folks we worked with.  We ate, drank, and traveled together.  And many of our memories will only be within us.  But some of them have been captured, and it excites me to think that one day, someone might go through our collection.  And that person might look through our photos, read our blog posts, or watch our recordings.  And she might catch a wonderful glimpse of our world.

Below are a few of my favorite windows:

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ar(t)chives

I have dabbled in the arts all my life: danced ballet from toddler to teen; took up the cello around the time my Hogwarts letter got lost in the mail; studio art was always my favorite elective in grade school. Still, these various pursuits hovered around the hobby level for me, never quite progressing into a life’s passion. Regrettably, they have dropped away like other pastimes: relic slippers and cello case collect dust, glazed-clay projects molder on a shelf in my childhood home.

But I didn’t wander (totally) aimlessly through college. I followed a passion for language through an undergraduate degree in Russian, and found a burgeoning one in archival science. With a work study-turned-career path in archives, not to mention the first half of an MLS degree, I have a pretty clear notion at least of where I want to go in the near future.

It is thus that in my life, until this summer, art and archives have been like two separate groups of friends, ones from disparate phases of life which you find difficult to imagine sitting down together for drinks. (And when this does happen – speaking from experience – it really can be a bit like worlds colliding, at first.) However, I am pleased to say that I’ve found the awkwardness of a compartmentalized life collapsing on itself absent from the past two weeks of abounding art- and archive-related phenomena. In fact, I have relished the union of the two in my consciousness.

An archivist might metaphorically think of her dealings with records as a kind of communication: the record speaks to me; I learn about its history, and the history of the time whence it has come; records are messengers, reminding us of humble beginnings and forgotten details. But for two actors to perform the records – this takes the history lesson to a whole new level.

Demarco gallery at Summerhall

Demarco’s gallery at Summerhall. The soil on the floor featured in the performance.

I hadn’t heard of Richard Demarco until about a week ago, when most of our group attended a special performance involving his collections at Summerhall in Edinburgh. Demarco’s Travels was not merely an art gallery exhibiting pieces from the archive of a prolific artist. It was a space embodying the spirit of the Richard Demarco Gallery, which in its 26-year life doubled as a performance venue during the Fringe. Performers Louise and Jodean, alongside narrator Noel Witts, of PALM presented a selection from Demarco’s archives in the most brilliantly authentic manner: they took the audience on a journey which transcended time or space with a live, physical interpretation of his records.

My experience with archives before this summer has been relatively limited – working in climate-controlled spaces, methodically processing records, ensuring certain standards are realized in order to protect the records of the federal government. I have learned that different care is required with photographs than with textual records, and different still with sound recordings; not all records are created equal. At the Fringe, at Demarco’s archives, I have now seen that art, and performance in particular, require a different care to sustain life. Sure, with a dry place to rest and a modicum of attention paid, Demarco’s collection will probably survive. Perhaps it will find a more permanent home, its future will become a surer thing, and the inquiring generations to come will have them to explore. But where it concerns the wider picture, the provenance of each drawing, each poster, each note in Demarco’s own hand – these become invaluably enhanced when viewed through the lens of performance art.

After a brief introduction by Noel about Richard Demarco and his history, he led us upstairs to where the “show” would begin. We were met by Jodean and Louise, two ladies skilled in dramatic speech and vision, and who led us on a most peculiar journey through several selections from the archive. Our group of about 10 people moved with them as they moved through the space of the stairwell, the gallery and a hallway. They spoke to us of destinations and uncertainty, of people and places; I began to feel like a part of the show as the performers navigated the space in close quarters with our group, and often seemed to address us directly, as though we were all on the “stage” together. It was super trippy, and I absolutely loved it.

My abandoned hobbies notwithstanding, I try to experience art whenever I can: in my pocket, headphones snaking out and up to my ears; college theater now and then; a poem a day keeps the dullness at bay. And now, having been mesmerized by an archive come to life through performance, I feel a better sense of that need records have for something beyond the folder, the box, the stacks where they reside indefinitely – the need to be found, examined, used; rejuvenated, re-purposed; displayed, enjoyed, shared. I spent an hour with Richard Demarco’s archives, and left with a strong desire to forge part of that surety, to make sure the performance didn’t end on 10 August when Louise, Jodean and Noel headed home from their Fringe run, that their successors will take up new gems in the collections and enact them for new audiences. That hour did more for me than any traditional gallery or reading room has ever done, and I’ve come out of it wanting to do the same for my own work in the future.

Further reading:

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Satori na h-Alba a dhà

we displaced all our rivals

and adorned our weapons systems with their names

we learned that the earth remembered

a thousand million sunrises

in complex hydrocarbon chains

and that with ingenuity

we could grow our own plants

of concrete steel and silicon

to fabricate our own memories

of noontimes near to hand.

It’s not as though you can just

uninvent an invention’s manufacture

but as we no longer die of smallpox

we must no longer die of war.

 

– Edinburgh 7 Aug 2013

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“we displaced all our rivals” composed with a Pilot Precise V5 XFine pen in an Ecosystem notebook serial # HM27010RB in Edinburgh, 7 Aug 2013.

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The Fringe is not an anarchy but can seem like one when contrasted with an event of similar magnitude such as the Games of an Olympiad, or the Paris Salon. Indeed, the Fringe is similar to the Salon de Refusés, the group showing of art rejected by Emperor Napoleon III’s Salon that spawned the Impressionist movement and changed French painting. The Fringe, with its refusal to adopt a central committee responsible for choosing what was in the festival and what was out, outgrew the Edinburgh International Festival to become the largest English-language performance festival in the world. People and perspectives from around the world seek the attention of those who come to watch as well as others who come to perform; everyone at the Fringe, it seems, spends some time as a flanêur of the type that Baudelaire embodied and Walter Benjamin attempted to capture in the Arcades Project.

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The flanêur stands apart, and through his or her gaze regards the life passing by on the street as theatre. Both Marcel Duchamp and John Cage had the operating belief that the spectator completes or realizes the artwork, that by lifting a moment out of the unnoticed everyday and giving it the right attention, it becomes theatre. Empires going back to the Romans did this by forcing the conquered to perform their rituals as entertainment for audiences. At the Fringe, all are there by choice, and everyone ends up participating in some way; there is no emperor to command.

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[Note: "na h-Alba" is Scottish Gaelic for "Scottish." "a dhà" is Scottish Gaelic for "two." "Satori" is a Japanese term for a form of enlightenment associated with Zen Buddhism]

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Satori na h-Alba a h-aon

I am not a stranger in this world

I’ve got my home right here

and no my home does not lie

along some policed border between word and flesh

the paradox lies in your conceptions

accepting the duality without accepting

being on the losing side of it

how then shall we find our way home

if there is no sure difference

between us and the mountain and the river

she asked as she folded her umbrella

yes, beyond the institutional memory

of approximations there is the smell of rain

and the ritual warmth, perhaps, of tea.

 

– Edinburgh 4 Aug 2013

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“i am not a stranger in this world” composed with a Pilot Precise V5 XFine pen on a single page of an Ecosystem journal serial # HM27010RB, Edinburgh, 4 Aug 2013.

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The conversation between two people, no matter how ritualized that conversation might actually be, cannot be reduced to an algorithm. It is not possible to enter a secret code, flip a switch, and be able to perfectly predict all that will be said between two people as they talk. Conversation requires listening, even when that listening is done in the dark watching an actor on stage. This is not to say that there are no formalisms that guide the theatre; there are many, and they evolve. Audiences today at Venue 13 and elsewhere become quiet when the house lights go down and applaud when they come up, but these are cultural conventions, not biological imperatives, and did not always happen. Formalisms now include algorithms implemented by computers, such as the programmatic reproduction of an encoded video digitally projected behind an actor to supplement the action on stage or of encoded sounds synchronously played over several speakers to create a sense of space and suggest things present but unseen.

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Indeed, there can be a sign we see, and an interpretation of that sign we make, which can through stagecraft allow us to be a part of that dreamlike world where the correlations that connect those signs and interpretants are not cardboard props and projections of videos, but are a world we share for all too brief a time with the actors who make that world vivid for us. It is different than watching a movie. For the magic time when the lights are down and the play is on, we breathe the same air as those actors in that world they are staging for us.

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And around us, the world goes on, not waiting for us to notice.

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[Note: "na h-Alba" is Scottish Gaelic for "Scottish." "a h-aon" is Scottish Gaelic for "one." "Satori" is a Japanese term for a  type of enlightenment found in Zen Buddhism.]

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“Free” as in Speech

Free Fringe venue "The Blind Poet"

The gorgeous “Blind Poet,” one of many venues offering free performances at this year’s Fringe.

It’s not cheap to do a show at the Fringe and a return on the investment is far from assured. And as the festival’s profile and popularity has risen, there have been complaints that it’s lost something of its ‘Fringe’ spirit, with more and more mainstream acts making it ever harder for the ‘little guy’ to get noticed. In response, several festivals-within-the-festival have sprung up offering free use of venues to performers providing they in turn admit patrons to their shows for free. Peter Buckley Hill (impresario of Fringe shows such as “Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians”, “Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians II” and “Some Comedians Without Peter Buckley Hill”) seems to have been the first one to manage to convince venues (mainly pubs) to offer performers space for free, with the venues benefiting from the arrangement mainly through increased drink sales. “PBH” still runs a free festival today, with “Laughing Horse,” a newer entry, as his chief competition. Both groups offer free space to performers and require them to offer free admission; performers make all of their money from donations.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Cariad Lloyd of returning free Fringe show Austentatious asks “if [the Free Fringe] becomes this incredible money-maker, what if all the really successful comedians take all the spots, leaving no one to try stuff? Where will the new people go?” Myself, I think they’ll think of something: these folks are what make the Fringe what it is; as long as they keep coming, audiences hungry for something new and different will find them.

I just hope they don’t forget to donate.

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The Artistic Evolution of “Whispering in the Dark”

Last time I left off, I was just about to attend the dress rehearsal of the show I’m working on, “Whispering in the Dark,”  which is about two lesbians in 1950′s New Zealand who commit matricide, are torn apart, and meet again in the afterlife. Things went better than expected, though the crew did run into some technical difficulties and had to make a few compromises with the media they were displaying.  The actresses had to adapt to the situation as well, and the show went on!  Though everything started running more smoothly with the next two performances, the show certainly didn’t remain static.  The director, who also wrote the play in collaboration with the two actresses that star in it, made different artistic decisions each night.  Lines were said differently, the actresses moved differently, media was cut or added, and new lighting and sound decisions were made.  Seeing the show performed differently each night provided an interesting look into the evolution of this production.  I had the great fortune of conducting an oral history interview with Caitlin Teeley, one of the actresses in the play and the person who first thought of the idea behind the story.  Click the media player below to hear what she had to say about the evolution of the show and her relationship with costar Kat Ortiz.

Caitlin Teeley Performs in "Whispering in the Dark"

Caitlin Teeley Performs in “Whispering in the Dark”

 

 

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Getting noticed on the Mile.

There are almost 3,000 shows on the Fringe this year. Nobody can see them all. You could run from space to space all day, every day of the festival and barely scratch the surface. So how do you decide what to see? Reviews? Word of mouth? Well, if you’re like me (you’re probably not, but for the sake of the argument) there’s nothing like an original, eye-catching, or just plain enthusiastic sales pitch. And if marketing’s your bag, you can’t go wrong on the Royal Mile.

During the Festival season Edinburgh’s “Royal Mile,” particularly the pedestrian walk A flier-covered pillar on the High Street, Edinburghon the High Street, is filled with performers, promoters, and of course postcards!  Everywhere you turn someone is waiting to present you with a flier and tell you about their show.  “Want to see some people make up a musical?” “It’s the coolest Greek tragedy on the Fringe!” “Have you ever seen a man swallow a whole cushoo nut?” (I was momentarily impressed by this one until I realized that ‘chushoo’ was just how Scottish people pronounce ‘cashew.’)  But some performers decide to go just a little bit further than glossy fliers and clever slogans, and the demonstrations, performances and tableus that fill the royal mile daily make for some of the most interesting street theatre I’ve ever seen.  I’ve taken some video and photographs of some of the most interesting ones.


The cast of "Look Back in Anger" argues and irons on the high street.

The cast of “Look Back in Anger” argues and irons on the high street.

Actors performing a song from "Kiss of the Spider Woman"

Singing in the rain: the booked stage was too slippery for the cast of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to perform on, so they made do on the cobblestones out front.


Anyone else snag a shot of a great Fringe promo they’d like to share?

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“Goose”

Fringe Programme "Goose" Entry

Fringe Programme “Goose” Entry

One of the best parts of my experience within this “Follow the Fringe” course was being lucky enough to work on the performance “Goose.” After seeing the show once, I was hooked. The impressive writing and acting from Michael Yichao made it so that I was excited to see the show every single day. Sarah Shoemaker’s performance as the goose was memorable and the movement she created for the piece was spot on. The show transports you back in time to when you were thirteen, and the nostalgia really draws you into the piece. Now that I’m back home in the US, I find myself quoting some of Michael Yichao’s words, or going through pictures of the show and smiling, it’s effects resonating with me even though it’s been five days since I last saw it.

Below are some of my favorite pictures from the show, and if you happen to be in Edinburgh, I cannot recommend this piece enough!

 

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Michael Yichao, Playwright/Actor on “Goose”

Recently I sat down with Michael Yichao outside of Venue 13, where he is performing in “Goose”, a play he wrote and is currently acting in at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as part of CalArts Festival Theater. Yichao very kindly agreed to talk with me for a little while about his background and his process with “Goose.” He is a lovely person and had a lot of insight to share.

Sarah Virgo of ThreeWeeks Edinburgh gave “Goose” a five-star review, writing “I could have listened to Yicaho’s [sic] monologue-style thoughts for hours”, and I completely agree. Having seen the show several times throughout the documentation process, I was most struck by the power of Yichao’s writing. It is a poignant and moving stream-of-consciousness style narrative related by 13-year old Dallin, a character who is wise, funny, charming and vulnerable all at once.

The full interview will be included in the archive at the University of Maryland and at CalArts, but for now I’d like to share this short clip with you, in which Yichao talks about what it’s like to play a 13-year old and about his writing inspiration for this piece.

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