What makes an archive feminist?
When Julia Dwyer and I started discussing what made an archive ‘feminist’ – and in particular one that was about architecture – we came to this problem as people with little experience of archiving. Instead we were interested because of our very involvement in what we were aiming to archive – the works of Matrix in the 1980s – each of us instrumental in different ways in both creating and now re-examining architectural artefacts from that period.
This raised several issues. First, and most basically, it was about how to find the ‘stuff’, often just bits and pieces lying, unarchived, in box files and plan chests or fading on bookshelves or under people’s beds or in disorganised storage. Recovering the material traces of feminist and other radical architectural practices from earlier times and places seems vital , as something to share with current and future generations. But who had the time and resources to do it? And then what could be said about their meanings and associations? How could we interrogate such artefacts in ways that simultaneously allowed them to be embedded in the era in which they were made; and that opened up new readings – ours and others?
Secondly this was about how to make an explicit critique of what counts as ‘normal’ archives in the world of architecture. How central are architectural archives to perpetuating the ‘famous (male) name’ as an individual rather than a team? Who and what is included and who and what gets left out by what is saved? As Naomi Stead and Cristina Garduño Freeman write:
[B]uildings have been approached in terms of their patrons, clients, architectural authors, and design concepts before and during construction, more than their expanded social life (or afterlife) beyond practical completion.“Architecture and ‘The Act of Receiving, or the Fact of Being Received’:
Introduction to a Special Issue on Reception,” Architectural Theory Review 18,
no. 3 (2013): 268.
Third, then, was about what kinds of stories Julia and I wanted to tell. How might this not only include the engagements, perceptions and interpretations of many others of the buildings and projects across time; but also our own various and uneven memories and experiences? How could we resist the conventional archival push, where artefacts are expected to speak of the people who made them, owned them, or used them with the appearance of coherence and a usually ‘positive’ narrative?
For us, it became increasingly clear that, rather than artefacts being assumed to represent a specific historical moment or a particular
story, we wanted to articulate the things that make up an archive as moments-made-concrete in longer, complex processes, which they are affected by, and on which they have effects. This is because design and activism is (always unfinished, contested and multiple) work. It is a process, not a collection of objects.
In writing a conference presentation and a journal article we began to unpick what we meant by this, ending up with 4 types of work involved:
[T]he work of actual doing (how they came to be created); the workJos Boys and Julia Dwyer (2017) Revealing Work. Interrogating Artifacts to (Re)View Histories of Feminist Architectural Practice Architecture and Culture, 5:3, 487-504 p488
of finding ways to generate social change (why they were created); the
experiences of that work as embodied (how it affected our and others’ lives and experiences); and the work that the artifact itself does – how, through what happens to it in the world, it exceeds or alters what had been intended.
We made images of Matrix artefacts (3 each) that we already had, that could represent these as ‘imperfect’ material traces; and we wrote commentaries that offered up complex and even contradictory meanings and thoughts. We wanted to reveal how concentrating on artefacts (and not just feminist architectural ones) often tidies up the processes that proceeded them, making the work involved invisible; and then stops time at the point of archiving and/or exhibiting, so that there is no ‘what happens after’.
These exploratory processes have informed the Matrix Open feminist architecture archive. We want to set the scene for a site where examining objects operating within the sphere of architectural production and consumption can aquire an extended or alternative definition. We want to make a space that takes notice of the ongoing work of negotiating and adapting existing capitalist and patriarchal processes, towards alternative social ends. Matrix is not some ‘foundational’ starting point for this, it is one of many ongoing and multi-faceted radical architectural practices across time and space. When we wrote the chapter in 2016 – 2017, we came to the conclusion that feminist architectural artefacts could be defined as:
those that make, either directly or through their effect over time, critical interventions into normative spaces and practices. Implicit in this is an argument for an expansion of what constitutes the archive of architecture; one that blurs across an assumed separation between production and consumption, between architecture as expert knowledge and as everyday experience.Ibid 2017: 500
Of course, just as with the Matrix artefacts included, MOfaa is also an endless work in progress. It (hopefully) becomes part of the ongoing conversation about what radical archives are for, how they can inform alternative understandings of what counts as history and practice; and how they can “promote the circulation of ideas, cultural inteventions and actvism in the present” (Kate Eichhorn The Archival Turn in Feminism: Outrage in Order Temple University Press p.2).
Jos Boys, July 2020
You can read a proof copy of the article by Julia Dwyer and Jos Boys here.