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Sheffield histories to be uncovered in living archives through art and community

Dig Where You Stand’s Alex Mason discusses archival practice, connection and belonging.

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Dig Where You Stand (DWYS) is, as discussed previously in Now Then, a project that melds archival work with artistic responses. Based in Sheffield, DWYS naturally requires careful thought and practice. It’s testament to Désirée, Alex, and Cheryl’s ethos that every part of it has been deeply considered. Each choice feels purposeful.

Alex Mason is the project manager for DWYS. He’s also a researcher in race, higher education, and the arts. He co-ordinates all activity for the project, facilitating the community that DWYS is fast becoming.

I’d like to start this piece of writing with where myself and Alex’s conversation ended up. We both remarked that the books we were discussing, Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives and Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, had been sitting next to us the whole time. Each of us would often pick up the book we referenced, not always to flick it open and go to a particular line, but just to hold it.

Alex said, “I think during the admin and logistics of a project like DWYS, there are discussion points around power and positionality, and violence. Whilst admin and logistics seems sometimes quite banal, it is completely part of that conversation. And so I'm super conscious of doing this responsibly and in reflecting the ethos of the project in those logistical aspects. I’m literally putting the mechanisms in place for those artists to go into the archives. I need to make sure that I'm on it and thinking responsibly about how I'm doing that work.” Alex details that his careful approach to even the logistics of a project is necessary because it allows him to ensure that “structurally marginalised groups are able to meaningfully engage with the project.”

Alex then describes how he keeps his stack of books next to him “as a bit of a reminder, I suppose, not to cut corners” when it comes to sending emails and organising meetings.

I share that I often do the same. Whatever I’m reading that directly informs my work, I feel the urge to keep the books close, even if I don’t need them on that particular day. Alex admits that he hasn’t considered how or why he keeps the books next to him, but we both agree that they serve as a reminder to ground ourselves in the heart of our work.

By the very nature of its work, DWYS is emotionally fraught. Working on the project, whether that’s artistic responses to the archives, facilitation and mentoring of artists, or sending emails to organise workshops, the project wouldn’t function without the likes of Désirée, Alex and Cheryl being able to ground themselves in the why in order to make the how and what happen.

Weaved into the fabric

Sharpe and Hartman’s bodies of work are an engagement with archival work, specifically in relation to Black Americans. In The Wake examines a range of representations of Blackness. As Duke University Press state about her work, by:

Activating multiple registers of "wake"—the path behind a ship, keeping watch with the dead, coming to consciousness—Sharpe illustrates how Black lives are swept up and animated by the afterlives of slavery, and she delineates what survives despite such insistent violence and negation.

It’s an emotionally and intellectually demanding work that sets out visions of existing in grief and melancholia – as well as beyond them. After all, Sharpe begins the book detailing the deaths of a number of family members in close succession during the time she wrote the book.

While Sharpe presents theories and modes of analysis, Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives takes a different but just as invigorating approach. Wayward Lives revolutionises archival work through Hartman’s approach of taking whatever scraps she can find in archives and weaving them into narrations that span the lives of queer and radical Black women. Both books are sensitively crafted, offering beautiful interpretations of archival work with rather different approaches.

Alex explains that he’s read both books several times over, and found In The Wake more “academic” whilst Wayward Lives was more “direct or clear, possibly.” To Alex, In The Wake is an “intense and affecting piece of writing, which provides some theory that can be really helpful for thinking through the archives and how to manage them, negotiate them responsibly, and to acknowledge all the harms that can happen in the archive.” Hartman, on the other hand, “feels like it pulls you in like a story more. And that kind of got me thinking about the modes in which we write and the audiences we're writing for, which I guess determines how we're able to talk about the archive.”

Mindful of the necessity of a plurality of approaches and invitations to engage with DWYS, Alex explains that “the final exhibition won't be a standard conventional exhibition – it's not going to be held in a gallery. And as it currently stands, it is not even going to be held on one particular site – it's going to be spread throughout the city. It's going to be immersed within the fabric of the city, effectively. The idea is that it's something that you will encounter in your every day.”

After all, the histories being uncovered in archives in Sheffield and South Yorkshire by the commissioned artists working on DWYS will uncover local stories.

“I think the other thing about Hartman and Sharpe is that they focus on the ordinary and the everyday. That artistic approach allows Hartman to really hone in on things that will be missed by sociologists or missed by other methodologies, because the moments that she really goes in on are ones that seem quite minute. They don't seem particularly historically significant, they may not have led to any massive, wholesale change. But the artistic approach, the artistic eye, I suppose, sees the value in it and sees the meaning behind it, and sees the point of capturing it and presenting it to others.

“I know that [work like Hartman’s] allows you to hold those moments and to extrapolate the beauty, the power, the emotional resonance of those moments that are otherwise missed.”

Limits of empathy

Already in my own engagement with DWYS I have found attending workshops and speaking to Désirée and Alex to be an emotional experience. I can feel their passion and love for DWYS and I find it hard not to imagine the moment, or series of moments, that reaching the final exhibitions will be for them and the commissioned artists.

Alex tells me, “Often the thing that people talk about is the value of empathy in literature and for social justice. The ability to build a nuanced depiction of an individual who otherwise is stereotyped means that the reader who may not be familiar with that type of person, in their day-to-day, suddenly will feel a connection, and then feel that empathy that leads to some sort of change.

“But I’m moving away from empathy. A lot has been written against the limits of what empathy can really do. What does that materially actually mean? What does it ever really affect? Does it move anyone to make change when they weren't going to do that previously? I think there are limitations around what it can achieve.”

Instead, Alex outlines the importance of connection and, for want of a better word, belonging. “The importance of this work to me is mostly around people of colour being able to engage with this heritage that has been otherwise obscured, forgotten about, not picked up, certainly not platformed in a way that's easy to access. And in that regard, you're not really talking about empathy, because that is a given – we're looking back at our own communities – I think what you're looking at is a sense of connection to a past that doesn't seem like it belongs to you in some sort of way.”

“Connection to your ancestry speaks to a really deeply felt need for diasporic communities to have a sense of where they come from. I don't know that the word ‘belonging’ captures all of that, but it is trying to speak to it.”

Dis/connection

Connection, however, is not the only reason to reach for archival work, Alex says.

“I saw someone on social media talking about Saidiya Hartman. They were talking about why readers seem much more keen to go with Wayward Lives, and are much less keen to pick up Lose Your Mother.” The latter involves Hartman tracing a slave route across the Atlantic by travelling to Ghana.

Alex explains, “There is a sense in Lose Your Mother of not being able to actually have that connection that you're seeking when you research your heritage and your ancestors. Lose Your Mother was showing you what happens when you can't affect that. Not for want of trying – it just doesn't happen.

“Hartman talks about an experience I think a lot of diaspora people have when you go back to your homeland, and you actually realise that they have no real regard for you. And, in fact, you make them quite uncomfortable in some ways.”

Whilst archival work is partly about reaching towards the past, and many use archives to find family connections, it feels important to acknowledge that connections don’t always need to be familial or familiar in order to be valued. There is value and insight to be gained from dis/connection.

Here, perhaps, is where Hartman and Sharpe’s work speak to each other most excitingly. For many reasons I wouldn’t want to know about my direct line of ancestors, but I hunger to know more about the places I have ended up that I feel connected to. The parts of DWYS that ignite me the most are when we uncover connections to those who may have been forgotten, to those Black and Brown people who may not have reached into the future, to meet us here in the present.

It’s precisely here that DWYS are able to grapple with the discomfort and tensions of archival work – of not finding what you expected – and reckon with both the limits and freedoms of disconnection.

“With Dig Where You Stand, we're really conscious that, yes, we're going to draw the stories out, and we're going to present new narratives to people that never engage with them. Hopefully that makes people feel connected to their heritage in the region and genuinely showcases a different racialised history of the area.

“But there are limits to that, and actually there will be plenty of people that are still unable to forge any sense of connection. You have to kind of deal with the fact that we're going to be staring into the abyss for most of the time, and we can't do much about it, really. It's going to be quite upsetting when that happens. To know that no matter what we do, there are massive black holes in all of this, both in terms of what's available, resource wise, and just in terms of the way that you're able to forge a connection with the past that we're trying to discover.”

Alex poignantly shows how connections are not only made by reaching into the past, but also into the future.

“Whilst there's always difficulties in navigating the archives, this project is bringing a group of people together to do that work. There's something quite precious in that we're all in there together, forging connections amongst ourselves, even if we're not always able to do it with the material that we're looking at.”

As many conversations between us do, we soon turn to Stuart Hall. Alex recalls reading Stuart Hall’s Consulting An Archive – how archives are coloured by our current situations and, therefore, as Alex explains, “always a projection of now.”

“Stuart Hall says that an archive is always living. It's always thriving, it's never complete, because the next generation are always bringing something different to it. And I think that's a really invigorating thought, actually – that nothing is ever finished. There's always more work to do.”

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