active archive

“Not being an archivist, nor an academic, however I learned how important it was to preserve those memories.” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part two)

The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.

(Archivoz) What language barriers does the project face?

(Juan) When we started, our core team agreed that Qisetna would commit to promoting the cultural heritage of Syrians, which included publishing the stories in English and Arabic. As many of the collaborators were ordinary Syrians, the stories were written and told in dialect, and we decided to respect that. Our team of translators, who are spread all over the world, were aware of this, and our editors acknowledge the local accents of the authors. We make a great effort to respect the integrity of the voice, balancing the style and the standard Arabic used. Our aim is to make visible the diversity of accents and dialects across Syria, which we believe should be preserved and documented for Syrians themselves.

(Archivoz) How does this project work in terms of its structure? What do the volunteers do? If somebody would like to volunteer, how can they become involved?

(Juan) Our initiative operates with a horizontal structure, meaning we make decisions as a team. As a creative producer my role is to propose new activities to the editorial team. Our volunteers are a mix of professionals and students, both Syrian and a wide range of other nationalities. We actively encourage Syrians to participate in ways that benefit them, such as meeting other Syrians, or learning skills in creative writing, marketing, social media, etc. Our volunteers contribute to the project as editors and translators; and recently some volunteers have started to produce digital content for our social media.

(Archivoz) Could you explore the future of the project?

(Juan) Qisetna is anchored in the reality of what is happening in Syria and how Syrians are adjusting to the huge demands of the circumstances they are living under. The power structures are establishing a new status quo in the country. We are continuing to contact individuals in the hope of sharing our concern for the preservation of memories that are otherwise in danger of fading away. We are also connecting with the Syrian diaspora across Europe and beyond, as well as talking to universities and the Centre for Migration Studies in Turkey to assist with translation. Turkey is an important place for us as there are many Syrians living and settling there and we want to increase public awareness. Many Turkish people do not come into contact with Syrians and when they do, they often display xenophobia and racism. There is a massive language barrier because a majority of Turkish people don’t speak Arabic, which means they cannot engage with Syrians. We are planning to translate the project into Turkish, to make the stories accessible to Turkish readers both on our website and social media, thereby promoting social integration. We honestly believe this can help tackle the increasing hostility against newcomers. Our aim is to engage Turkish citizens in the translation and encourage dialogue across communities.

We also have plans to develop our social media presence. For example, we are planning to create a YouTube channel which will feature interviews with Syrian artists living in the diaspora. We hope that the In Focus platform can promote Syrian artists who want to share their experiences, vision, and artistic practices.

Secondly, we are growing our archive in order to preserve Syrian cultural heritage and this allows us to develop new content. We pride ourselves on being different from other archives because we work with current stories and contemporary oral history. We are what you would call a living breathing archive which is constantly developing.

(Archivoz) We are an archivist journal. We know that you are not an archivist project but your project appreciates the importance of preserving oral history of Syria. Could you explore this aspect?

(Juan) Oral stories are told by living individuals about their own past, or the past of other people. Because those who provide the information are generally older members of the family, both their lives and their memories are at risk of being lost to time. Of particular value are the stories, anecdotes and family traditions, songs, and especially information associated with pictures, documents, and other records. We also understand the importance of connecting stories across generations and want to disseminate content using platforms that are used by young people. We recently started a campaign, Syrian Diaries, in which we asked Syrians to share a photo of an object that is precious to them and a short story attached. Qisetna is actively exploring new ways not only to preserve but also to share and disseminate the stories that land on our desks. Podcasting is a new way to engage with global audiences and we are producing digital content to connect Syrians across borders with contemporary artists through our new project In Focus.

(Archivoz) In 2017 you won an award form ARA (Archive and Records Association UK and Ireland). Was that gratifying? Could you tell us a little bit about what the award consists of?

(Juan) The Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG) is a national organisation which aims to support and promote community archives in the UK. Its Community Archive Award celebrates the contribution of community archives within the archive sector and aims to promote and share good practice. Qisetna (Talking Syria) was the overall winner in 2017, and also won the ‘Most Innovative’ category in this year’s awards. In reaching their decision, the judges commented:

Qisetna (Talking Syria) is an extra-ordinary example of an archive both preserving the voices of displaced and fractured communities for the future and acting as an engine of community resilience in the present. This is an archive at its best: raw emotion, portraying real life and its impact on individuals and families, community leadership and involvement, a focus on tomorrow – the younger generation – and an excellent website for outreach and advocacy. This archive will become an outstanding research tool for the future. But it is also – evidently – succeeding in its principal short-term goal of community building. We also commend Qisetna’s website and encourage everyone to take a look. The use of large apps gives a wonderful simplicity and clarity. From the first click, we all felt compelled to keep reading.

(Archivoz) Since the award, has the ARA been in contact with the project? Do you have any archivist volunteers? 

(Juan) We are currently seeking an archivist and this is one of our priorities for 2019. As a small team we have so far always been preoccupied with sourcing stories, editing, translating, and mentoring the contributors.

(Archivoz) Do you have any archive systems or an inventory for your project?

(Juan) We don’t have any. With all our content, we rely entirely on our bilingual archive, and disseminate it through our social media. At present we are talking to several academic institutions which we feel could help with building an inventory for Qisetna, becoming a repository for future researchers.

(Archivoz) Are you aware of the issues and problems of digital preservation? Do you ever consider that?

(Juan) It would be unfortunate if one day the web disappeared! For the past seven years we have been producing data and digital content that is available on the web. Although we produce a monthly backup of our archive and are learning how to effectively preserve and make our content accessible, we have had to learn more about how to secure the content from technological failures or errors.

(Archivoz) Many thanks for your time and the opportunity to explore this amazing project.

<< back to part I of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna

Web: https://www.qisetna.com/

“I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people” Interview with Juan delGado, director and funder of Qisetna (part one)

Today, we have an atypical interview, not with an archivist or anyone related to our sector, but with Juan delGado, a director and founder of a project called Qisetna. Here he explores Qisetna, an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora.

The interview is organised in two parts. The first explores the origins of the project and what it covers. The second considers the future of Qisetna and some archival questions.

Archivoz’s Noemi spoke with Juan to learn about the project and explore how it relates to our sector.

(Archivoz) How did this project come about? Can you tell us about its beginnings?

(Juan) In 2011 I was invited by Artschool Palestine in Nablus to develop a project in collaboration with students of Media at An-Najah National University. I spent six weeks researching and learning about how young Palestinians were living. Despite the extremely oppressive conditions of their lives, these young students laughed in a way that I later understood was a form of resistance: “they are colonising our land and they also want to occupy our minds; but laughing is the best way to keep anger away….’  There, I produced my first project in the Middle East entitled, ‘Fluctuations on Time’, in which I started to collect oral stories from young people, their grandparents, and neighbours based in Nablus.

At that time, I realised the tremendous relevance of making visible the experiences of people who until then seemed detached from me and yet, through listening to their stories, had become closer. It was September 2011, and young Syrians had started peacefully demonstrating for change. I learned also that Syria had experienced the worst drought in the country’s modern history. Hundreds of thousands of farming families were reduced to poverty, causing a mass migration of rural people to urban shantytowns, and the civil uprising turned from a predominantly peaceful protest movement into a militarized rebellion. I started to contact Syrians through social media to try to understand the situation on the ground. My motivation was not political; after my experience in the West Bank, I was increasingly interested in learning about these communities that I knew so little about.

(Archivoz) Could you tell us what Qisetna is and what the aims of the project are?

(Juan) In 2013, I initiated this project called ​Qisetna (Talking Syria)​, which in Arabic means “our story”. Qisetna is an online platform aiming to preserve the cultural identity of Syrians living in the diaspora. At the time, the massive influx of images coming through mainstream media showed the destruction of cities and bombing of civilians by all sides. Syrians witnessed the transformation of their country into a hellish battlefield, while the rest of the world seemed paralysed and failed to stop the massacre. In the middle of this tragedy, we decided to approach Syrians themselves with a determination to listen. Using social media and based on the trust we had already built through our friends and contributors, in late 2014 our network spread into areas that were physically impossible to access.

We organised a creative writing workshop with a group of children based in Yarmouk, a former refugee camp inside Damascus. This project was a collaboration with Bassam Dawood, a Syrian actor and Hakawati (storyteller) who was living in exile in Berlin, and Jafra, an organisation based in Yarmouk. Using Skype, Bassam connected to the place where the children were and during a six-week period he encouraged them to write a story. It was an extremely challenging project as we first had to establish trust, but the children participated and engaged with writing their stories. This proved for us that social media could be used in a meaningful way to connect with individuals and communities that were impossible to reach physically.

Encouraged by the response from our workshop in Yarmouk, we contacted a young man from Darayya, a city outside Damascus. We had learned that a group of young people had been rescuing books from under the rubble and had built a library of hundreds of books. He apologised for not being able to speak as he had just found out that his father had been killed the previous day. This and other experiences of the young people we were trying to reach, pushed us to moments of tremendous despair, forcing us to reflect on our goals and the consequences of working in such stressful circumstances.

(Archivoz) What is the process leading up to publication?

(Juan) Reaching out to people has been my role since the beginning. I’ve always believed in the power of storytelling. I grew up in a Spanish family whose members carried the trauma of a civil war. Like many who survived the war, my grandparents could not talk directly about what had happened, and it was only later that I came to understand how many people were living with the trauma of those days. Many turned to drink or violence as a coping mechanism to deal with something that they did not know how to address.

Being neither an archivist, nor an academic, I nevertheless learned early on how important it is to preserve memories. This is one of the main reasons I started Qisetna (Talking Syria) in 2013. In collaboration with two young Syrians, including a journalist, we decided to rescue the tradition of the Hakawati, which refers to a poet, actor, comedian, and historian rolled into one: someone who tells stories. Its root is ‘haka’, to tell a story, or ‘hikayah’, a fable or story, and ‘wati’ implies expertise in a popular street-art.

We wanted to draw out the Hakawati from inside every Syrian, and create a safe space for Syrians to tell their stories. We wanted them to re-claim their voices, which in many cases have been taken from them by the war.

From the very beginning, we wanted to publish in both Arabic and English. This required a tremendous effort to translate and edit the stories in both languages. However the most challenging part was to source the stories and access potential writers, most of whom are ordinary Syrians, students, farmers, some with no formal education. For this we used social media and word of mouth to first build trust, explaining that our project had no political agenda. We noticed that many people had become suspicious of other Syrians and felt utterly frustrated that their tragedy, their individual stories, were not fully acknowledged by the media.

So the process of reaching out to people required us to pay attention to their specific background. This required that we understand not only our own purpose in asking them to share, but also that we pay attention to the dramatic situation many were living under. Our requests of “would you write a story?” were met with surprise and disbelief. However, we gently initiated this conversation which allowed many to re-establish themselves in their own context; they told me “my country is under war, all rubble…and you, coming to ask me to write a story, to tell you a story…. has made me realise how detached I have become from my own being… I see now that I have been living in survival mode for all these past years since the war started.” This initial conversation is the first opportunity to start building trust by carefully listening and giving time for the person to come to terms with their feelings. Once the person agrees to write or tell the story, we assist by reading the draft and asking questions that will shape the story. Some stories have taken more than two months to materialise.

>> proceed to part II of the interview

Further information:

Twitter: @qisetna

Web: https://www.qisetna.com/

Archive in Practice: An imagined exhibition

 Part one: Archive in Practice

One dimension of photography is that it is concerned with the staging of a struggle against the loss of memory – an attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good.[1] Gerhard Richter

These reflections by artist Gerhard Richter, encapsulate the very reason why I was lured into working with the medium. “An attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good”… Photography frames subjective experience in time. The act of taking a photograph is a highly romantic gesture – it captures a frame in time, which then becomes a fragment, isolated from its whole.

(Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

3.2 The View. 2006 [2011]. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 77 x 46cm. Edition of 3 + 2 AP. (Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

Every single photograph that I have ever taken contributes to an organically growing archive of irretrievable past defined in pictorial representation. This archive is the foundation of my art practice whereby the images within it become subject to constant reinterpretation and reconfiguration.

Acts of Recall, [sort excerpt], 2015, 16:9, colour, 14 min, 36 seconds, video still

By continually retrieving earlier photographs and combining them with more recent pictures, I explore new sets of formal connections and narrative relationships, which then surfaces other imagery or elements. In this way, my work reflects upon the transitory nature of meaning and memory, thereby amplifying the paradox of photography.

Drifting Down, [The Dome], 2012. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnem Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 100x100cm. Edition of 5 + 2 Ap

I am working with an acutely active archive, one that is constantly expanding physically as I continue to take pictures using analogue film in combination with digital printing processes. However, it is the emotional impact of each of these pictures that cause my archive to function and how they evoke and interact with my own memory. The enduring questions are:

How does one preserve content in an archive that is driven by “the felt”, the narrative and the poetic?

 How does one organise and manage the content in an archive that is continually changing in meaning and has endless manifestations, inter-relationships and formal and narrative connections?

All The Gardens I Could Find – Installation View
Blindside, Melbourne, 2016.

 I explore these themes through projects and exhibitions. Through the use of installation strategies I create pictorial and spatial structures that often function as a visual and temporal representation of the archival process and the concept of the catalogue as a completed physical item.

I playfully present photographs from my archive as a composite experience across a gallery space, thematically arranged, described and in constant dialogue with one another. This is realized through using colour, components of text and careful placement of the works in relation to the architecture of the gallery space. I usually include mechanisms for storing, reimaging or archiving like boxes, tables, folders, envelopes, and frames as a way of suggesting that the order is not fixed, and that the material is always in a state of being sorted through and processed – meaning is always in a constant state of flux.

Series 5: Overlaps – Garden Green and Sky Blue. Installation View Detail. Blindside, Melbourne 2016.

  For When All the Leaves Will Fall (Chiang Mai, Thailand) 2016 (2015)
  Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 54x37cm.
  Edition of 5 + 2 Ap.

Through working in collection institutions like the State Library of Victoria and the British Library as my day job, I have been exposed to institutional workflows and archival tools and processes used to manage and preserve collection material and to make it accessible and discoverable for users. I have been inspired by the principles of archival arrangement and description and systems used to store, display and handle collections. This day-to-day engagement has undoubtedly woven into my own methodology.

The second half of this article for Archivoz, takes on the form of an imagined exhibition where archival tools and principles are employed to organize and display the works, as well as to amplify readings concerned with the fragmentary. The concept of the archive is also used as a metaphor for representation of the inner workings of the mind.

The Course of Leaving [Of course I will be Leaving]. 2010.
Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta. 60x40cm

 

Part two: An Imagined Exhibition

A single table is positioned across the centre of the gallery, causing the room to be split into two parts. The dimension of this table permits only just enough space for the viewer to move around it and access the other half of the gallery.

The table’s surface acts as a carrier of meaning. Upon this surface, lay fragments of images – unmounted, unframed and resting in piles, that seem to be assembled into groupings according to colour, pictorial content and geometric forms. The surface layer of pictorial content is presented to the viewer, while the photographs embedded underneath are concealed by the nature of the pile. These deeper layers suggest a personal content that is not accessible.

For Proust, the deepest most profound memories really need to have been “lost” by being gradually covered over by other memories…[2]…. Embedded underneath the surface layers of the pile are ‘the true emotional tone of the past

The viewer enters the space through the whiteness and emptiness, being lured toward the zone of the table by the fragments of deep and vivid colors revealed between sheets of creamy white paper and manila folders that evoke the sense of residue that has accumulated over the years. In this structure, the pile is a metaphor for The Ruin and one of the beauties of a Ruin is its ability to be re-constructed.

The space in the back half of the gallery (behind the table) is roused by activity – large scale photographs, evocative and contemplative are assembled onto the whiteness of the walls – activating them with colour, light and image.

“Archives are seen as rows and rows of boxes on shelves, impenetrable without the codex which unlocks their arrangement and location”[3]. In this pictorial structure, it is as though the contents of the archive have emerged from their boxes and folders in storage and are undergoing a process of renewal, construction and re-construction.

A code of access is provided for the viewer, through the visual dialogue that operates between the piles of information laid out on the table and the photographs on the walls. Memory is used here as a device: through the use of installation strategies like repetition, groupings, rhythms, contrasts in scale – the viewers’ own memory can be evoked.

As the viewer passes through the area around the table to access the back half of the gallery, they will encounter a Finding Aid, which invites them to go deeper into uncovering further layers of content, through the descriptive information listed at item level.

The archive presented here is fluid, flowing, and its content discoverable through the act of slowing down and paying attention to the subtle codes revealed visually through the careful placement of works throughout the space.

 A Room for Ordering Memory. 2012. Installation View. Counihan Gallery, Melbourne.

For futher information: www.melaniejaynetaylor.com 

[1] Gerhard R. (2010). Between Translation and Invention: The Photograph in Deconstruction. In Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[2] Gross, D. (2000). Lost Time – On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.

 [3] Breakwell, S. (Spring 2008). Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive. In Tate Papers 9. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/09/perspectives-negotiating-the-archive