An Archive of Unnamed Women

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Participants sign the Archive of Unnamed Women guestbook

Sabrina Starnaman and I just launched our newest project, An Archive of Unnamed Women, which we present as a workshop at conferences, in classrooms, and with libraries/archives.

This fall we brought our Unnamed Women project to the Lawrence Public Library in Kansas as part of Digital Frontiers. We also workshopped with attendees of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers in Denver. We are looking forward to additional workshops in 2019 and to growing our archive. This first iteration is based on the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection.

Here is the workshop proposal, in case anyone out there is interested in having us deliver a workshop or hosting us to work with your collection:

We are feminists whose work engages the historical treatment of women in media arts and technology through a media art project that engages a broad cross-section of community members to ask critical questions about the way that women have been cast into the shadows of digital archive collections. This recovery and remix workshop brings photographs of unidentified women from the 1830s to the 1950s into critical discussion about how and why these images have gotten shifted to the background of the archive through algorithms, archival practices, and gendered power relations writ large. The goal of this project is to bring the community into the liberation of these women from digital obscurity, as well as starting a dialogue with the holders of such archives to transform the status of women in the archive from its recesses to the forefront.

An Archive of Unnamed Women includes a browser-based digital archive of photos of unnamed women found in the collections of the New York Public Library, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and a physical archive of named participants. Visitors who search our archive of unnamed women are presented with their photographs and, upon clicking for more information, a juxtaposed description drawn from a parallel collection of women’s writing about women. Joined in the database, the resulting imagined narratives relocate the women on the screen as subjects of literary examination. Our re-presented archive is a speculative feminist recovery and remix project for workshop attendees and internet users.

At the start of our workshop we present a handmade quilt holding a digital screen at its centerpiece. As guests sign into our vintage guest book, their hand-written names appear in the center of our quilt. The quilt becomes an archive of named participants.

Blurring the lines between art and archive, this project furthers discourse about the digital archive as an authority of knowledge curation.

Workshop Outline:

  1. We share what we learned by combing through one hundred eighteen thousand photographs in the NYPL Digital Collection, one at a time.
  2. Sign-in. We perform the ritual of a social gathering, replete with a guestbook to account for our presence, before describing unnamed or unidentified women in our database.
  3. Participants use the database, with more than four hundred images and the same amount of quotes from literary works written by women between 1837 and 1937. Searching our archive is a poignant and playful activity for the searcher and onlookers, alike. The quotes are juxtaposed on the unnamed women in our collection at random. Participants create a 5 by 7 inch art print as a take-away using our portable ink jet printer and archival paper. We create a second print for our physical archives.
  4. Book-bind. We create an artist book that includes each print made to reinterpret the workshop as part of a growing archive of participant-made art with a physical book that reflects the critical exploration that occurred.

Proposed duration:

We have completed this workshop in 90 minutes with fourteen participants—it was tight. Ideally we would have 2 hours or more, especially if the enrollment is greater than 15 people.

Technical and space requirements:

Technical: We require internet access and a place to plug in our portable printer.

Space: We require desk space for a laptop and a portable printer, as well as desk or table space for binding a small (5 by 7 inch) book with an awl and waxed thread. Each participant should have a seat. The quilt that we bring can be hung on a wall easily (plastic hooks on Command strips).

Key words:

Digital Archive

Feminist Remix

Photography

Internet Art

American Women’s Writing (1830s-1930s)

Book-making

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