What inspired your thinking around and interest in Black archives as the focal point of this residency?
I was asked to think about issues around Black cultural productivity with the Center, and I wanted to find a way into the subject that would facilitate a sort of rhizomatic exploration across the expanse and diversity of that landscape. Looking at what is recognized, documented, preserved and “metabolized” by institutions provides an opportunity to discuss fundamental elements like the formation of cultural narratives, individual and collective legacies, and the dynamics of racism and resistance.
Though the archive is not my area of practice, it brings together many subjects of my research, advocacy work, and professional interests. I encourage my students to look at institutional histories and how their origins are manifested in organizational structures, assumptions, and practices in order to think about how new models of thought and practices that center equity can be created, as previously suppressed or undervalued bodies of knowledge and histories emerge.
In the last couple of years, racial reckoning, decolonization, the public battles around even the idea of truth, and the intellectual movement to understand Black power in cultural terms have combined to generate a new energy around archival engagement. During this period, I was also thinking about the passing of so many Black culture-bearers, among them were Camille Billops and James Hatch. Throughout their 50-year union, they collected and cared for letters, objects, media, books, and ephemera representing the scope of Black cultural production. Camille was a sculptor and filmmaker, James a professor specializing in Black theater history and a playwright. They were marvelously generous artists. Their loft in SoHo was a repository and a salon where they interviewed, transcribed, and published in their journal, Artist and Influence, conversations with people working in every aspect of the cultural ecosystem: artists, curators, writers, designers, stage managers, producers, philanthropists, collectors, and even people like me.
Camille always advised the artists and cultural workers she encountered—no matter their age, celebrity, or visibility—to “take care of your stuff.” They collected voraciously and with a consciousness that this was more than a personal project. They knew it would have resonances they wouldn’t live to see—ideas, books, art. They made arrangements for the collection to be placed with Emory University, where it now resides. They’ve influenced my thinking that this kind of work represents not only a legacy of care but also of imagination.
How do you see your time as Visiting Scholar at the Center unfolding?
So far, this has been a wonderfully perambulatory learning experience. If my expertise were historiography, I’d have started this time by proposing to pursue a thesis—a specific issue or problem within the subject to research and address. Instead, I’ve had the luxury of exploring with a “north star” but no fixed map. So, I started out following my curiosity—and knowing just enough to know what I didn’t know. The space to read and to interact with folks outside of my usual professional constellation on this basis is proving to be tremendously informative. I’m having a wonderful time asking elementary questions, guilt-free. Each research conversation I’ve had has given me a more nuanced idea of the ethics, mechanics, and potential of the archive as a resource.
For example, I originally envisioned a single public conversation about “archival infrastructure.” Because of what I’ve learned since then, I’m planning separate talks about archival practices and methods and another about how technology has impacted those practices and methods and created new areas of public-facing potential. The public conversations for the Center community this spring are organized around three broad sub-themes: archives as a generative source for new creative work and critique; as an emergent force in expanding and complicating traditional “canonical” framing of artistic production in academia and institutions; and as I mentioned, the infrastructural aspect, for lack of a better term at the moment. The encounters will include people who are rethinking practices and creating new repositories, archivists who are surfacing materials in established collections and databases for the first time, and artists, curators, and presenters.
Do you have any specific goals for this engagement? What do you hope are some outcomes of this time with the Center?
I think that many people who participate in the arts in various capacities outside of academia know how important archives and records are but have a very general idea of how they work and what the scope of their potential may be. I hope one of the primary outcomes is to make that more legible and provoke thinking about public impact. There are many different levels of engagement with the subject and different levels of conversation to be had. They can’t, of course, all be contained during my time at the Center. During the summer I’m planning to work on some culminative projects. I’m not sure what that will look like yet—a distillation of the conversations, a compilation of resources perhaps. Actually, I expect to wind up with something fairly open-ended that makes connections and sets a stage for ongoing conversations and mutual education and capacity-building that will be beneficial to the Center’s intellectual community and thought partners.