Archival activism is a new project that I am pursuing in collaboration with Dr Charishma Ratnam, a human geographer at Monash University. We’re joining with alternative libraries and community archives in Naarm (Melbourne) to explore what it might mean to partake in knowledge-making practices that occupy an alternative position to the colonial, nationalist, and market-driven knowledge infrastructures being forged around us.

Archival activism: negotiating, sharing, and constituting migration and diaspora histories, memories, and identities through grassroots projects

This research project explores the navigation of personal, family, and community histories and experiences of migration and diaspora through grassroots memory projects. These projects are many, and diverse—appearing and disappearing across the urban and suburban landscape. They form networks, merge, and generate new sites of criticality and creativity, subverting and reimagining the publicly-funded and mainstream galleries, libraries, cinemas, museums, and music venues that Melbourne is famous for.

While heterogeneous, we approach these projects and organisations collectively as ‘community archives’, products of attempts to document the histories, memories, and identity of particular groups or localities ‘on their own terms’ (Flinn, Stevens, & Shepherd 2009:73). While there have long been ‘migrant resource centres’ and established ethnic community organisations in Australia associated with the ‘heyday’ of Australian multiculturalism from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, community archives are characterised by their specific focus on the politics of memory and identity, and a desire to confront and contest, rather than integrate with, existing institutional frameworks. As Flinn (2007:153) contends, ‘community participation, control, and ownership’ are the defining characteristics of a community archive, rather than the form they take. They are fundamentally political interventions. We think of these archives as a verb rather than a noun, a set of shared practices that circulate around media, migration, memory, and identity.

These shared practices perform, create, and remake collectivities, in ways that challenge what can be seen as their ‘symbolic annihilation’ in dominant historical narratives that circulate through mainstream cultural institutions (Caswell, Cifor, and Ramirez 2016; Caswell, Migoni, Geraci, and Cifor 2017). Outside of mainstream cultural institutions (galleries, libraries, museums, archives), we see artists, activists, researchers, and writers collectively and creatively negotiating with transnational memories and histories, and experiences of hybrid identities through a vibrant network of grassroots digital memory projects. The reasons for the growth in the awareness of these projects are many: a growing awareness that official heritage narratives contain silences, gaps, and mischaracterisations; the increased availability of digital media and technologies to create user-generated content; the ongoing changes to the demographic make-up of Australian society wrought by migration; ‘the as yet un-ended war of colonisation’ (Jakubowicz 2017:63).

In this project, we are particularly interested in exploring the way in which events are memorialised in the digital sphere, and how these ‘memories’ frame and constitute collective action. We will explore this empirically by gleaning insights into how artists, activists, researchers, and writers understand and interact with representations of the past, and using these representations (whether digital or material) as probes for exploring the link between personal and collective meanings of time and place. As Appadurai (2019:564) notes, we see shared collections as ‘not only storehouses of memory’ but ‘aspirational maps’; shared, fluid maps for navigating the future and eking out belonging and identity.

As hinted at above, we follow anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (2003) and view the ‘memory projects’ under study collectively as ‘archives’, adapting his open, interpretive definition. In Appadurai’s (2003:23-25) reading, the archive is a ‘map’, an ‘active and interactive tool for the construction of sustainable identities’, and an ‘important vehicle for building the capacity to aspire’. We think of archives as the result of a set of ongoing, shared practices that circulate around media, migration, memory, and identity. The collectivities that form in and around these archives also creatively resist dominant ways of understanding diverse histories, identities and experiences in Australia that are premised on a logic of classification and governance that typifies both settler-colonialism and multiculturalism (Hage 1998; Povinelli 2002). In short, they reflect the ‘necessity of hybridity’ in contemporary heterogeneous societies like Australia (Ang 2001). This research project explores these community archives, and how those involved in their creation and use deploy personal objects, digital media, and storytelling to collectively navigate and constitute cultural heritage, memory, and identity.