Performing Archive

Conclusion: The Archive and the Technology of Race

David J. Kim, UCLA

As echoed in various parts of this pilot project, Performing Archive is an attempt to unpack the layers of technological mediation, visual practices of/for empirical evidence, and the discourse of race and national identity in the U.S. in the early twentieth century.  Both as an enduring archival material and, in many ways, as an enduring visual paradigm for documenting culture, The North American Indian presents itself as a particularly productive opportunity for discussing the convergence of these overlapping layers, or what has become familiar to many disciplines as the cultural politics representation. As an archive of images of the "vanishing race," Curtis' documentation of his subjects is both the actual "thing" that one can access at the Honnold/Mudd special collections at Claremont Colleges, or the archive in its physical materiality, as well as the material practice of seeing/visualizing race and identity through a particular set of assumptions about embodiment and epistemology. As Shawn Michelle Smith has argued in her "examination of visual paradigms that fundamentally influenced the conception and representation of American identities in the second half of the nineteenth century, [of which] photography is perhaps the most concrete example," Curtis' conscious investment in the intellectual and the artifactual value of "data," "records," and "information," as cited in the introduction of this section, reflects the convergence of the "science of race" and the evidential function of photography that has emerged during Curtis' time.18

In the broader context of the current digital (re)imagination of scholarly production knowledge, of which this project is certainly a part, Wendy Chun's recent framing of such history of cultural politics of representation as "race and/as technology" allows us to more precisely address the meta-consideration of "how of race" and "doing race" in the technological, socio-political and cultural condition of digital affordances and digital archive fever.19  In this (experimental) section of the Performing Archive, even as it "ingests" this archival source of many troubling assumptions and utilizes the current tools and the method of empiricism that is in many ways at odds with the understanding of the contingencies and the relative autonomy of culture, we have made an effort towards, if somewhat speculatively, raising the question of also "how of archives" and "doing archives" in a manner that unveils race and archive as intersecting technologies of mediation and the organization knowledge.  The approach we have taken with the network representation of Curtis' images and his social network is an attempt to unveil the history of visual documentation as technology of establishing the "what of" and the "knowing" of, or the essence of, Native Americans, as well as the history of how the scientific discourse of race has made the category of Native Americans archivable and archived in the early twentieth century.20 The North American Indian put forth certain "types" of Native Americans and it was supported, in large part, by the naturalists, anthropologists and by many prominent political figures and cultural institutions who were interested in the preservation and the circulation of that essence.   Instead of simply replicating Curtis' archive through digital surrogates, we have made an effort to demonstrate "archive-as-process" through network visualization's set of representational strategies.

If the digital does indeed afford us the opportunity to explore new avenues for research, teaching and representing knowledge, what can we do with its archives?  If race is no longer understood as essence, neither biologically nor culturally determined, one hopes, then what do we make of the persistence of, or perhaps the recently reinvigorated investment in, the form of documentation and preservation in our ongoing engagement with identity's material existence? As Chun argues, "[r]ace as technology thus problematizes the usual modes of visualization and revelation, while at the same time making possible new modes of agency and causality.  Importantly, it displaces ontological questions of race [...] with ethical ones: what relations does race set up."21  Because the archive has so often been the instrument for setting up essential, evidential relations between identities and bodies, archival knowledge has been the source of ambivalence for scholars and artists interested in the contingencies of identity categories.22  [footnote]  Instead of clarifying the meaning of this archive, then, we hope to have contributed to the ongoing ambivalent relation to archived pasts by visualizing different layers of its contingencies.

18. Shawn Michelle Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 7.
19. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, "Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race," Camera Obscura 70, no. 24.1 (2009): 8.
20. Ibid.
21. Ibid., 28.
22. For recent discussions focusing on the archive’s implications for contemporary research in ethnic studies and feminist critique, see Dana Williams and Marissa Lopez, “More Than a Fever: Toward a Theory of the Ethnic Archive,” PMLA 127, no. 2 (March, 2012), 357-359; and Jacqueline Wernimont, “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archive,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no. 1 (2013), accessed August 30, 2013,; For discussions on archives and embodiment, see Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); and Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (1986): 3-64; For creative interventions specifically on photography as documentation, see Glen Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of Black Book (1991-1993 ), and Zoe Leonard’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993-1996). The former rearranges Robert Mapplethorpe’s much contested Black Book with references to various cultural theorists’ critiques of the fixity and the fetishization of racialized, gendered and sexualized bodies, while the latter creates an apocryphal photo archive of a black lesbian woman whose life from the early- to mid- twentieth century is imagined through the fictional character of Fae Richards in Cheryl Dunye’s film Watermelon Woman (1996); both works were exhibited in Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008) at the International Center of Photography, New York.

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