No surprise: There's been a lot going on lately, almost too much to absorb, much less remember.
Much of Colorado — not to mention the world — has shut down, and it's struggling to reopen, even as public-health officials attempt to manage the spread of the coronavirus. Police killings have sparked a worldwide uprising against law enforcement. People are grieving and struggling, all while the cultural institutions we go to for comfort and to process our reality are shuttered.
Through it all, archivists and historians face big questions: How will we remember this moment? Will the archive be inclusive? Whose stories will be kept for historians to consider?
The Denver group ArtHyve is working to collect the memories, stories and histories of people living through this turbulent moment with the Ourstory archive.
Westword caught up with ArtHyve founding members Jesse de la Cruz, Hannah Miller and Sigri Strand to discuss the new project and Arthyve's work.
Westword: Tell me about ArtHyve and the Ourstory project.
ArtHyve Founders: ArtHyve is a community-built archive aimed at countering archival methods that have historically valued the stories and histories of privileged voices in arts and archives. We are about collectively creating an archive that is representative of the diverse creative spirit of our city while amplifying the voices that have been omitted from our history. ArtHyve is countering cultural erasure by highlighting the impact archival absences have on how we understand society.
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We are asking Colorado creatives to think about their own legacies while they are still alive, and to actively preserve their stories for future generations, because we believe that they (we) are as important as what has been traditionally saved in archives. We are particularly driven to preserve the stories of artists who are underrepresented in the arts and in art history. We amplify BIPOC, womxn and LGBTQ+ stories that have gone untold for too long. As we like to say, we are who we archive.
The Ourstory archive was created in response to the sense of urgency we are experiencing in this moment in history. With so much changing due to the pandemic and the growing Black Lives Matter movement, there are huge cultural shifts, political unrest and calls for justice in the air. We knew we needed to act, and to reach out to the arts community to document our response during such a significant time. At a time when news, the media and messaging from leadership can seem slanted, contradictory and untrustworthy, we are seeking to collect firsthand information, primary resource materials, directly from community members living and experiencing this shift. Artists and community members are invited to submit creative works in various formats (image, audio, production, text…) that reflect their experiences as they relate to cultural happenings around us. We want to hear from you. Years from now, historians, future artists and the general community will have firsthand accounts of how our city and state was responding during this time.
As archivists, what are your thoughts about this historical moment? What's happening, and do you have any tips for how we can wrap our heads around it?
This time in our history will be studied, reviewed and re-created through documentary films, literature and research far beyond our time — it is that significant. Yes, we are archivists by formal training, but we are using our education and background to inspire, teach and motivate community members to have agency in who and what gets archived. We are removing gatekeepers, challenging the authority, and reshaping how we understand historical events.
In his novel 1984, Orwell declared: "Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past. The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon."
Are you collecting from anybody, or artists specifically? If so, why?
With Ourstory, we are collecting creative works of all kinds, made during this time. You don’t have to identify as an artist; our focus is on how the story of this time will be told and retold, through the lens of creative expression. When looking back on history, we are able to deeply connect with cultures through their artworks, music, architecture.
We believe that the arts have been, and continue to be, a great mediator, the lens through which we understand our collective humanity — the way we understand ourselves, and each other, over time.
What role do archivists play in interpreting moments like these?
Our role is less about interpretation and more about preservation and representation. Interpretation is left in the hands of curators, researchers and scholars who refer to these primary resources. At ArtHyve, we act as futurists, thinking about what stories will be preserved and retold to our future selves.
How has ArtHyve been holding up through the shutdown?
Like most people, a lot of us on the ArtHyve board used this time for some much-needed self-preservation and reflection. Half of our board are working single mothers, so most of us are juggling full-time jobs, homeschooling our children, and attempting to carve out time for ArtHyve.
Are you working with any of the other archival projects looking at this time period in town? History Colorado or the Western History Department at DPL, for example?
We partner with Denver Public Library and Hana Zittel on our annual Art and Feminism program. Michelle Jeske at Denver Public Library and Abby Hoverstock and Jamie Seemiller at Western History and Genealogy have always been supportive of us and what we do. We do not currently have a joint program, but we all share the same mission and values, and we are all working toward serving our community.
Numerous libraries are developing community-driven archives projects, particularly around the COVID pandemic. We (Jessie and Hannah) are fortunate to have the opportunity to establish similar projects at Regis University, where we are faculty members in the library. Regis is a Jesuit institution, which means it embodies a mission that has strong ties to social justice and, among many other things, holds us accountable for being in service to others. We are working toward launching a community-driven archives project that will capture the voices and experiences of the Regis community.
Geeky question: How do you ensure the archives aren't lost when they're online? What sort of backups do you have? Anything analog?
We are creating an archive with the intention of providing enduring access — we want this to be available 100 years from now. Maintaining a digital archive is harder than most people think, as it is not just about access, but also about preservation. In accordance with best practices, ArtHyve maintains three copies of all digital content. The content is backed up in three different locations and on diverse storage solutions. It may seem a bit doomsday-ish, but if a cloud service provider goes out of business, if there is a natural disaster, if there is a security breach, maintaining separate copies ensures ongoing access. We also aim to digitize physical and/or analog archival objects as another method of both preservation and access.
In your statement about the project, you mention the limitations of social media as an archive. Can you talk about how that has played out with past historical moments? What happens when so many people trust those corporations to preserve memory? What is at stake?
Many of us use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media sites to share our collective stories. These platforms provide temporary reference to events while supporting for-profit media companies. Unlike archives, these companies’ platforms are not built to archive and preserve our stories for future generations by providing ongoing, permanent, open access. The content that is uploaded to social media platforms is subject to removal at any time. Furthermore, these companies are mining personal data while utilizing algorithms to curate the content subscribers see in their feed, including advertisements, all in the interest of making profits. This manipulation of access to information skews memory and history. It is the role of an archive to provide access to information without restrictions. At ArtHyve, it is our role to collect stories that are reflective of our diverse communities and to build collections that are open for users to interpret.
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Are you collecting beyond what people are donating? For example, are you scouring social media posts or gallery catalogues or whatnot? Why or why not?
We are not archiving social media posts or gallery catalogues. A primary tenet of the work we are doing at ArtHyve is the belief that communities should be empowered to choose how they are represented in our historic record. We are not curators of our collections, and are therefore not collecting the stories we encounter on social media. However, if we were to receive content from community members donated via Instagram, we would accept it.
We are developing a program called Citizen Archivist in which we will hire, train and collaborate with a diverse pool of community members who also represent their respective communities. A team of Citizen Archivists will capture images, oral history, videos and interviews to provide archival evidence of community happenings such as protests, public performance, community exhibitions and music festivals.
For more information, go to the ArtHyve website.