Arnolfini Gallery Steward, Roxy Brennan, and Deborah Withers, trustee of the Feminist Archive South, discuss the role of the archive in feminist history, activism and art.
In researching the work of Mierle Leaderman Ukeles ahead of the current Arnolfini Exhibition I became very conscious of the importance of remembering. In her Manifesto for Maintenance Art, Ukeles talks of a “flushing up to consciousness” of the maintenance acts we do every day. Not only is this an elevation of the mundane, it is also a political act, highlighting labour injustices in our society; an act that needs to be maintained by exhibitions, archives and other forms of remembering. I was even more conscious of the importance of protecting marginalised histories having volunteered this year with the Feminist Archive South, sorting through material gathered by Ellen Malos over the last four decades around the Women's Liberation Movement. I asked Feminist Archive South trustee Deborah Withers to tell me a little bit more about Archives and there place in feminist history, activism and art.
Tell us about your role at the Feminist archive.
I became trustee of the Feminist Archive South in 2012 working with a team to care for the collections and ensure that researchers, artists, community groups and anyone else who are interested in the history of the feminism from 1958-2000 use it. I have also written grants for the archive, and update the website.
What do you think a feminist now can learn from a feminist in 1969, and why is it important to archive political movements such as feminism?
I think the most important thing is to enable people to have a relationship with the archive material in the FAS, to ensure that feminists can learn from the experiences, activities and ideas expressed by women in the early days of the Womens' Liberation Movement.
At a very basic level, collecting documents that relate to a period of historical time (like for example, the WLM, but also many other kinds of feminist activism that are collected in the FAS) makes it less likely these histories will be forgotten. This is the main reason why it is important to document political movements like feminism, because even if the political aims of feminist social movements were not realised at the time they were articulated, archiving them creates the potential that those materials, ideas and historical actions live again at a different time – one perhaps more amenable to their articulation. But the crucial part of unlocking this potential is to ensure the archive is used, even if some of the materials appear fragmentary and chaotic.
Do you have any thoughts about the role of archives in art?
It is interesting to think of this question in relation to the Mierle Laderman Ukeles exhibition currently showing at Arnolfini. As a retrospective, it draws exclusively on Ukeles’ archives of her work – and wandering through her exhibition is similar to a trip to archive because you encounter text, images, video, newspaper clippings, questionnaires and letters. The materials are presented according to their relevant area or performance (as you would expect of an archive), but there is no prior narrative that frames your encounters. It’s up to you to make your own mind up about what is happening as you move through the material. As you drift through Ukeles’ work the little details draw you in and titillate you, like the image of her in front of a massive pile of rubbish, or the naked enthusiasm of the department of sanitation in response to her interest in the ‘sanmen’s’ lives. Including all these different materials really brought the artist’s actions to life for me, as you can glimpse the momentum of a project like Touch Sanitation as it unfolded. We can access the historical time of the project as it was in process, as it was happening, rather than when it has happened. One potential role of archives in art therefore is to enable people to have a different experience of historical time that does not frame the event as ‘over’ or having passed. Archive materials are carriers of historical time that become alive through their re-circulation/ re-interpretation. They are unfinished conversations that we need to remember to pick up again, display and act from.
Tell us a bit about Ellen Malos and what you've learnt from working with her and her archive.
Ellen is very much a stalwart of Bristol feminism. She was there at the first ever meeting of the Bristol WLM in 1969, alongside Lee Cataldi, Monica Sjoo and Pat V T West (Monica and Pat died in 2005 and 2008 respectively). The first ever women’s centre in Bristol was in the basement of her house, and she was responsible for developing research and policy around the emerging field of violence against women from the 70s onwards.
I’ve known Ellen since 2007 and have had the pleasure of listening to her speak about her memories of the Bristol WLM on many occasions, and I always can learn more from her. As part of the recent Feminist Archive South project to catalogue Ellen’s papers, we held a workshop about the history of Women’s Aid in Bristol. It was incredible to learn about how Ellen and her fellow activists essentially created policy to protect women and children from domestic violence out of absolutely nothing – remember that it was just assumed that a man could use violence against his wife because she belonged to him. I was struck in particular by Ellen’s patience, and her ability to negotiate and remain polite, even in very challenging circumstances. It is important to remember that many of the ideas and laws we perhaps take for granted were the result of tireless work by Ellen, and her activist colleagues. As the whole of Ellen’s collection has now been catalogued, you can go and learn more about this fascinating struggle should you want to.
For more information about the Feminist Archive South including how to access the materials click here.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art Works 1969 - 1980 is showing at Arnolfini until Sunday 17 November. Full information can be found here.