Q: How did the Ambivalent Archives network come about?
We initially formed the group in an attempt to find other students and researchers interested in critical perspectives surrounding archival thought. In our respective fields, we had noticed an increasing number of questions surfacing around archives and archival practice, but these never seemed to coalesce around a particular locus.
To address this, we founded a critical theory reading group in the spring of 2023 to probe some of these questions. Through set readings, we considered four related topics in critical archival thought: the constitution of archives, the (im)possibility of the Black transatlantic archive, queer archival feelings, and ‘embodiment’ in the archive. The works of writers including Stuart Hall, Michael Rolph-Trouillot, Michelle Caswell, Saidiya Hartman, Katherine McKitrick, José Esteban Muñoz, Ann Cvetkovich, Tina Campt and Julietta Singh raised a whole host of questions: whose lives and works get archived? How do we sensitively and adequately archive histories and/or intimate experiences of violence, loss, and displacement – or is this impossible? What is the relationship between critical archive studies and the actual practice of archiving? How do we approach archives and archiving from within an institution like the University of Cambridge, which not only hosts numerous historically significant archives, but is currently grappling with its own legacies of violence?
Our reading group demonstrated the collective desire to continue these conversations. We believe in the necessity of continued community for the production of exciting, innovative thinking, and want to use the Network space to facilitate further conversations and research across the university and wider community. For this reason, participation in our network will never be solely restricted to students and researchers; we feel privileged to be drawing upon the immense wealth of knowledge among staff at libraries, museums and collections, alongside the expertise of local residents as well. We are looking forward to continuing to build this interdisciplinary space at CRASSH.
Q: By definition, a CRASSH Research Network has an interdisciplinary question at its core. What is yours?
For quite some time now, archival studies have extended across, and intersected, a number of disciplines; the time that the archive was only visited or considered by historians is long gone. Now, the notion of an ‘archive’ moves far before its traditional material conception, extending into alternative epistemologies and critical frameworks of remembering and recording. The ‘ambivalent’ in our network’s name refers to how we’ve tried to centre the various and dispersed approaches that exist towards the archive from the outset, reflecting the multiplicity of views, disciplines and practices that ‘archives’ encompass. When studying the archive, questions arise such as how history is recorded, what different forms and mediums best lend themselves to being archived, and whose histories (and presents) are deemed valuable enough for them to be recorded. We believe that the archive, as a concept, cannot be studied from just one perspective; it is through the combined and often intersecting lenses offered by fields such as critical race studies, queer studies, and gender studies that we can begin to understand what the archive is, how it operates, and what it can become. As organisers, we work in English, Latin American studies, and Music, and we hope that our variety of perspectives and specialisations alongside those of our participants will help to build a network that can approach the question of the archive in its totality. So maybe the central interdisciplinary question at stake for us is: How are histories made, how are memories preserved, and how can we remain critical towards all of these processes of memorialisation?
Q: Could you tell us a bit more about this year’s speakers and attendees and the perspectives they bring to the discussion?
Given our history as a reading group and the plethora of pre-existing critical work in archival studies, we plan to alternate between ‘reading weeks’, in which we will collectively read works of theory related to archival thought, and practice-based speaker weeks, where we will have invited guest speakers to further our discussions. These weeks are designed to work in collaboration with the topics of our readings to give us the fullest and most nuanced perspectives; for example, in dialogue with a reading week on ‘textual archives’ that considers the potential of literary texts to incorporate, embed, and often disrupt archival materials, we will be hosting a speaker-led event with writers Yara Rodriguez Fowler and Lola Olufemi, who both utilise experimental writing practices to question our relationship with histories of resistance. Similarly, our continuous emphasis on the necessary ambivalence and multiplicity of archival practice will be reflected in our work with collectives, such as the newly established online and London-based project Archive Stories and the online and Bombay-based Museum of Ephemera. These collectives prioritise communal thinking and labour and bring a range of perspectives that we hope to emulate in our own thought and practice. We are also extremely excited to have celebrated feminist scholar Clare Hemmings visit us to discuss her work, which has been very influential in the conception of our network.
Later in the year, we’re also planning a number of creative workshops with invited artists, which will encourage us and our attendees to consider our own (pre-existing or future) archival practices; the first workshop will be run by Dr Andrea Aramburú, Dr Rachel Randall and our own Daniela Meneses, and will consider an archive of photographs of Wet Nurses based in Lima, Peru, and their remit for creative archival intervention. Our second workshop, to be confirmed, will be designed to think about community-based and postcolonial archiving.
Q: How can people learn more about your Network?
We are a group of PhD students across Latin American Studies, Music, and English, who are all variously working on topics related to archival thought. You can read our individual biographies on the network page.