As I am sure has been covered much today, in one way or another, archives and archivists are not impartial, neutral or objective. I think that archives have the power to make memory and the power to withhold or forget memories.
Archivists Joan M Schwartz and Terry Cook have written that archives ‘have been about power – about maintaining power, about the power of the present to control what is, and will be known about the past, about the power of remembering over forgetting’ (2002, p.3).
What if you are being forgotten daily? What are you losing daily?
Building up my knowledge of black dance and archives feels a daunting and heavy place. A heavy place sometimes best ignored because it is too vast and I lack too much. The lacking is felt and both my fault and the fault of those before me.
Imagining a past, my past, the any pasts of all of us, feels ungraspable. There is a scene in Samuel Delany’s 1966 sci-fi novel Babel-17 where an uptight male Customs Officer meets a ‘discorporate’ – this is a being who has died but can still exist, and able to hold more information than a ‘corporate’ living human…comes in handy for navigating the cosmos but can leave a living human with an impossible task…The passage is them meeting…
And she moved closer to him, her hair holding the recalled odor [sic] of. And the sharp transparent features reminding him of. And more words from her, now, making him laugh….And her interruption was a word or a kiss or a frown or a smile, sending not humour through him now, but luminous amazement, fear, excitement; and the feel of her shape against his completely new. He fought to retain it, pattern of pressure and pressure, fading as the pressure itself faded. She was going away. She was laughing like, as though, as if. He stood, losing her laughter, replaced by whirled bewilderment in the times of his consciousness fading –
…memories of, of. (pp.39-40)
I like this passage. It seems geared towards the production of a feeling or a doubt rather than an object or certainty – much like the live performance that interests me does.
What I also like about this passage and what stuck with me is the way the language relishes in it’s incompleteness and how that directly reflects or empathises with the characters own inability to hold on to memory.
I have been thinking of memory as a symbolic version of myself further back in time. A time I can draw on that is beyond my ‘real’ lifetime.
Because the archives of people of colour are insufficient, my ability to conjure up these memories, falters and stalls. My imagination is rendered incomplete. I suggest that I can only imagine what someone before me has already known…? Or already traced…?
The amnesia concerning black dance in the UK is by definition more than the personal encounter – like in the Delany passage. It is a social – at times deliberate – forgetting. It leaves a collective searching in its wake. It is a searching that misleads. It is a searching that certain groups of people realise and engage with and/but is a searching within all of us on some level. Those who have benefited from the privileging of information or history over others, and those who have not, all lack the complete picture. None of us are even close.
I will be talking in absolutes today I guess. Positing myself as myself, as everyone, as no-one…I can never quite articulate the sense I have that personal experiences are because of/within/entangled with socio/political/economic frameworks and so any perception I have of myself sits alongside context like a permanent fate. I will use the terminology person or people of colour because at the moment, it is a definition that my tongue doesn’t rebel at.
I had many versions of this talk in my head. One was an idea to find something a female person of colour based in the Uk, and making dance work in the ‘50s or ‘60s said or wrote or was recorded saying. I would find this passage and then ask female dance makers (or those involved in dance’s dissemination – academics/producers) to record themselves saying the words and send me the audio file. I would then compile these contemporary voices into one ode to the past.
I was going to ask:
I started searching for a primary or secondary source. I couldn’t find any.
Admittedly, it was a series of google searches rather than libraries. But much can be found in a quick google search and the fact that I couldn’t find any I think is pertinent. I did find some men. But no women. Some ballerinas performing in the 40s but they were from the US not the UK. I found a female voice in Abinna Manning, a soul girl in the 1970s who – as part of interviews on UK club culture, recalled dancing to Van McCoy’s The Hustle saying, ‘There were some really good dancers who could command the whole dance floor. They were mostly boys and we would always move over to let them perform.’ (Farley & Galloway, 2015)
I had another idea…
I found things that celebrities of colour had said about their own legacy – e.g. Muhammed Ali, Oprah, Beyoncé….Maybe Beyoncé IS legacy (but that’s a whole other conversation)!
Composing single sentences broken up over the course of 10 minutes. The gaps, the silences larger and more prominent than the content, or even the voice of a person of colour.
But I thought that might be quite frustrating to listen to. And as much as it is frustrating to have to have an event separate from other (white) discourses around dance archive – an archive that is so fleshy and full and often led by choreographers themselves, I didn’t fancy making people feel frustrated this afternoon.
Anyways, cultural forgetting can happen very quickly.
Something I did find in my search was the dance festival Hip. Hip was noted by londondance.com as ‘one of the few Black dance festivals in the UK’ (unknown,2003). Instigated by Brenda Edwards, Hip ran from 32000 and I think until 2003 but I am not sure…
I was shocked that I didn’t know about this festival. I was saddened by how quickly it faded from my sense of collective memory. Up until now it hasn’t been part of my imaginings of London in the early 2000s. I miss it and I wasn’t even there!
The last dates I could find for Hip was 18th – 30th November 2003 and it was programmed at The Place.
What has a London venue done for contemporary dance since? I almost wrote, ‘What has a London venue done for BLACK contemporary dance since?’, but thought ‘No! Fuck that!’ Enough with separation and announcing differences that shouldn’t matter. Missing out the voices of people of colour does a disservice to the entire field and separating out ‘black’ choreography from ‘white’ choreography just makes me angry and I don’t have time in my day for that at the moment. (Maybe in January I can be angry again.)
What I am, and what asks like this one from Deborah Baddoo, to speak here at an event around black dance and archive, confront me with is is a big old gap. A big old gap onto of a big old gap laid upon another gap which, mockingly falls into another gap. It’s exactly the kind of gap the establishment and the white supremacist patriarchy build their empires on. The foundations are laid on bones and ghosts. Thankfully, bones disintegrate…ghosts aren’t all there. One day the foundations will fall.
I imagine this gap like looking into a deep vacuum….It’s like looking into a vacuum while knowing in an alternative universe some place without a human hunger to divide and order power, the same vacuum is instead full of stories. So the experience is one of feeling all the erasure of all those stories while at the same time feeling these stories never existed for you. Its a painful, glitchy paradox full of presence and absence.
To return to Delany’s unfortunate Customs Officer:
‘The emptiness of his theft recollections was as real as any love loss.’ (1966, p.40).
This loss, this amnesia filters down into the very personal impact of not being able to see yourself/myself from when I was born in London. From second one, when I came out of the womb so white, the nurses didn’t believe my Nigerian mother was my mother. My heritage ignorantly, casually but indelibly unseen, unbelieved, forgotten.
I wish to express a vulnerability amidst all the stuff of history. All the endeavour and wish for a solid, sold history. A place or rather many places to anchor ourselves in time. To learn about ourselves by properly documenting our past. I guess underneath this is how?
I wanted to conclude with some other questions:
Can we recover a past?
If we are so seldom written about, or what is written about is more often than not contained within notions of ‘blackness’, where are we going to expand to?
Whose responsibility is it to keep records? An individual artist? Or does this add to an already exhausting list of things to be concerned with when trying to live with care and make work…
We already curate so much digitally, information is in abundance and identities, gestures, trends, travel across geographic borders and at such speed. We engage with and emit projections and symbols of the self. Photographic documentation is unimaginably vast, you can confirm your opinion by typing into google and the internet will reflect back a community…So then, does the archive as a resource for presenting clear, temporally linear narratives cancel itself out? Is a sense of development or progress important anymore? How do you archive complexity?
What about an archive where different knowledges and numerous histories aren’t in competition?
What if alongside concerning ourselves with archiving a history already forgotten, we build an archive as a place to share strategies for coping with this erasure?
Maybe amidst all these traces and lack of traces we can invoke Grace Jones in Corporate Cannibal (2008) singing, “You can’t trace my footsteps as I walk the other way”
Perhaps black dance archives can morph, just as she morphs, undefinable, crossing genres, disrupting, controlling the objectification of our bodies and knowingly exposing the power plays we know we are a part of, in order to transform into our own kind of other?
Schwartz, J. M. & Cook, T. (2002) Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands.
Delany, S. (1966) Babel-17. Ace Books, New York.
Farley, T. & Galloway, R.. 2015. The Dancers: In Their Own Words An oral history of the forgotten dancers that set London on fire in the late ’70s. [ONLINE] Available at: http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2015/09/the-dancers-in-their-own-words.[Accessed 4 September 2016].
londondance.com. (2003) News: Hip 2003. [ONLINE] Available at: http://londondance.com/articles/news/hip-2003-id-290/.[Accessed 4 September 2016].
‘Dance, Diaspora and the role of the Archive’ conference took place on Saturday 17th September 2016
 See Uri McMillan’s short essay “‘You Can’t Trace My Footsteps As I Walk The Other Way’: Grace Jones, Black Camp, and the Aesthetics of Slipperiness” in Black Portraiture[s] II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-staging Histories (2015) for a detailed analysis of Jones’ aesthetics within this music video.