Practising Archival Alliances: RomaMoMA at Vulnerable Archives

Daniel Baker: Adjacent, 2021, for RomaMoMA Library @ SAVVY Contemporary. Photo: ERIAC

“But don’t worry, coz you won’t rule any more, the future is ours.[1]

Undermining the modernity/coloniality strategy of situating other knowledges and identities in a disempowered past through the act of labelling communities as “traditional” and “primitive” and denying them the right to participate in the present, Mihaela Drăgan, with her performance, Roma Futurism: The Witch’s Seed, reclaims the space of the future. In the ultra-technological future described by Drăgan, the techno-witches control technologies and own the future of humanity, dismantling the historical cycle of oppression through rituals, techno-cursing against European right-wing politicians and practices of healing, and giving rise to new scenarios in which the interaction between Roma culture, technology and witchcraft creates a new egalitarian system, against racism and capitalism.

Her performance in SAVVY Contemporary during the Invocations (a two-day discursive programme) of the year-long project, Vulnerable Archives, unveils and counteracts those processes of exclusion and silencing that the hegemonic powers have put in place to maintain their privileged position, creating a narrative of the self and the other that have been safely stored in museums, libraries and archives that function simultaneously as repositories and places of transmission of a claimed universal history and knowledge.

Mihaela Drăgan: Roma Futurism: The Witch’s Seed @ Vulnerable Archives. Photo: Raisa Galofre. Courtesy of SAVVY Contemporary.

 

In fact, as in the case of the term “archive” (from the Greek arkheia, “public records”, but also “public building”), the terms “museum” (as “the temple of the Muses”) and “library” (from the Latin librarium, “chest for books”) also define both the building and the elements found within them through their etymology.

The status and the power of the archive derive from this entanglement of building and documents. […] the labyrinth of corridors, and that degree of discipline, half-light and austerity that gives the place something of the nature of a temple and a cemetery.[2]

These buildings are turned into monuments that are there to stay, entering the site of heritage and gaining the status of a temple to worship devotedly. Indeed, we are used to approaching these spaces with a mix of respect and religious silent veneration, yet with the fascination of crossing the threshold and entering the repositories of a timeless universal knowledge. Yet if we begin to scratch the surface of these institutions, the partiality of the “universal” comes to light: far from being omniscient repositories of an indisputable truth, archives, libraries and museums in Europe have been (and remain) strictly intertwined with concepts of power[3], identity, heritage[4], and the creation of modernity.

Archives (in the wider sense) function through processes of collection, which are inseparable from processes of exclusion. We can also add the process of “othering” to this dichotomy, in the sense of finding a place (e.g., ethnological museums or colonial archives) and a time (a “traditional”, “primitive” past) for what should remain separated from this “instituted imaginary”[5] of the West and the process of “silencing”, which can happen not only by denying access or omitting certain stories, but also by putting specific criteria in place that automatically exclude them (let us think of the centrality of the written word as a key criterium for the archivable, for instance).

Within the project Vulnerable Archives, SAVVY Contemporary took a page from its own experience within its two archival projects, “Colonial Neighbour” and “SAVVY.DOC”, in order to collaborate with archives and organisations “that engage in strategies of alternative history writing, dissent, self-organisation, and participation via practical solidarity”.[6] Over the several months of the project, we took part in multiple conversations and exchanges with different partners based in Berlin and elsewhere to share the challenges of archiving (including the practical aspects of issues of funding and structures, and access to digitality and methodologies), and to consider possible strategies to confront the policies/politics of exclusion and silencing that prevent certain voices from being heard and certain stories from being told. We shared spaces, questions and materials, organising research groups to learn about and from each other. We nurtured the process of listening and sharing that challenges the hierarchical process of collective memory practised by the governmental archives, towards “a new way to look at the archive as a collective tool”.[7]

In this process of thinking together, the collaboration with RomaMoMA evolved in many directions, tackling questions of the body and the archive, performativity, library spaces and structure, strategies of alliance and solidarity, the impressive performance by Mihaela Drăgan being the latest in a series of interactions. During the Invocations, the public programme was anticipated by sessions of closed research exchange among some of the archival projects engaged in the year-long conversations around the topic of vulnerability. Furthermore, the display of the RomaMoMA Library within the space of SAVVY.doc functioned as a platform for conversations and conviviality.

The concept of the RomaMoMA nomadic library carries the praxis of mutual exchange and relationship, as it situates itself always within the realm of interaction. Instead of being a fixed place where books are collected, selected and consulted, it is activated through being hosted by other archival/library/exhibition spaces: it exists in relation to others, practising forms of conviviality, solidarity and alliances. The nomadic nature of the RomaMoMA library actively breaks the connection with the “sacred” space of the building, removing the architectonical element and suggesting a new form of knowledge: one that is striving not for eternity or universality, but that recognises knowledge as a dynamic process of transformation and change, as a constant journey. The physical structure of the library is permanently reconceived in connection with the space that is temporarily hosting the project, continually redefining concepts of curating, display and audience interaction.

Through this process, the library not only proposes different sources of knowledge, claiming the right of self-representation, but also invites us to think of new ways of understanding the archival and library practice through a constant dialogical exchange with groups and organisations, challenging the hegemonical archival structure and embodying vulnerability as a method, “with the potential of continuous recreative sources of knowledge”.[8] With its origins in a selection of books and writings focusing on Roma Art History and Roma Cultural History, the nomadic library acts as a counter-site to the process of silencing that Roma communities in Europe have continually experienced and suffered.

As I have said, the symbols and symbol-making of Roma are rich and deep, but we are often pushed to positions of silence. And this has usually been wise – the price of being heard is high when the weight of a silencing authority comes down to strike out the symbols that make you. But where our silence exists, the symbol-making of others intervenes […][9]

Through the action of being present in other spaces, the RomaMoMA nomadic library practises an act of resistance against this process of silencing by offering a platform, a space within spaces, in which knowledge is produced together through workshops and conversations, reading circles and artistic activation. In fact, rather than operating as a catalogue to be consulted, the library functions as common ground for different forms of knowledge, inviting everyone to participate, suggest and discuss, towards a collaborative and participatory archive. By including the presence of the RomaMoMA blog, an additional platform of active conversation on the necessity of thinking collaboratively towards a Museum of Contemporary Roma Art is offered to the audience: in this interconnection of past, present and future, the archive should be seen as located in the future, rather than in the past.

In the context of Vulnerable Archives, artist Daniel Baker conceived the work, ADJACENT[10] to host the display curated in the frame of the exhibition at SAVVY Contemporary. By designing a mobile table that functions as a barcode to be scanned by the visitors, the artist places relationship at the foreground: the barcode belongs to the volume, We Roma: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, a text co-edited by Daniel Baker with contributions by both Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (Director of SAVVY Contemporary) and Tímea Junghaus (Director of ERIAC and co-founder of RomaMoMA), and one of the books included in the RomaMoMA Library. ADJACENT, as their work towards a multiplicity of knowledge; ADJACENT, as the range of archival projects in the Vulnerable Archives exhibition; ADJACENT, as two angles sharing a side. Now part of the SAVVY.doc library structure, the work will continue to create new forms of “being adjacent” by always hosting different content and resonating with a multiplicity of exhibitions and programmes, and while fostering new relationships and meanings, towards the creation of a common future.

Not merely to recount

what has been,

but to share in moulding

what should be.[11]

 


 

Special thanks to Onur Çimen and Tom Alterman for your review. -E.Q.


 
[1] Drăgan, M. 2021. “Roma Futurism: The Witch’s Seed”, performance.
[2] Mbembe, A. 2002. “The Power of the Archive and its Limits”, in: Hamilton C., V. Harris, J. Taylor, M. Pickover, G. Reid, R. Saleh (eds.): Refiguring the Archive. Dordrecht: Springer, p.19.
[3] The relation between Archive and Power has been researched by several authors. One of the most important works in this sense is J. Derrida 1995. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. University of Chicago Press.
[4] Hall, S. 1999. “Un‐settling ‘the heritage’, re‐imagining the post‐nation. Whose heritage?”, in: Third Text, Vol. 13, pp.3-13.
[5] Mbembe, A. 2002. Op.cit.
[6] Vulnerable Archives was a year-long collaboration among different partners in Berlin (SAVVY Contemporary), Istanbul (After the Archive?), Milan (Archive Books), and Paris (R22 Tout-Monde). More information on the project can be found here:
Vulnerable Archives. On Silenced Archiving and Dissenting Views”, Savvy Contemporary. Accessed 8 December 2021. See: https://savvy-contemporary.com/en/events/2021/vulnerable-archives-invocations/
[7] Appadurai, A. 2003. “Archive and Aspiration”, in: Brouwer, J. and A. Mulder: Information is Alive. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, pp.14-25.
[8] “Vulnerable Archives. On Silenced Archiving and Dissenting Views”, programme handout, Savvy Contemporary. Accessed 8 December 2021. See:
https://savvy-contemporary.com/site/assets/files/7803/vulnerablearchives.pdf
[9] Atkin, A. 2013. “Reconstruction, Recognition, and Roma”, in: Baker, D. and M. Hlavajova (eds.): We Roma: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, pp.32-48. See: https://philpapers.org/rec/BAKWRA
[10] Baker, D. 2021. “Adjacent: RomaMoMA Nomadic Library Display at Vulnerable Archives”, on RomaMoMA blog. Accessed 8 December 2021. See: https://eriac.org/adjacent-romamoma-nomadic-library-display-at-vulnerable-archives-savvy-contemporary/
[11] Frontispiece of Abbia: Cameroon Cultural Review, published from 1962-1972 by University of Cameroon, and part of the SAVVY.doc Documentation Centre.

 


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