The Un-archivable and the Sound of Forgetting

by May 16, 2018

(This blogpost is part of a series of that will be posted in the six days leading up to the Museum of Random Memory: The Sound of Forgetting, happening in Cardiff/UK and Cork/Ireland. See all blogposts in the series.)

As we scavenged through public repositories to build the base for our sound installation, we didn’t have any trouble finding stuff. But we struggled to find ways of adequately including or representing memories that are not archived, or could never be archived.

This might be because they are sensory memories that don’t exist in an object-oriented, or archive-ready form (how does one translate the sweet scent of Spring?), or because the memories derive from experiences that are not privileged enough to end up in archives–the more formalised instruments of social memory-preserving. We understand the public archive is a culturally troubling term, but still, we want to use these archives to add material for our sound artists to remix. And the ambition in this instance of the MoRM is to actually address this very issue of how certain stuff of culture is departed, deported, disappeared; to experiment with what might happen, sonically, when we focus on the sound of forgetting.

Here are two brief examples of our encounters with stuff that could never be adequately archived, each for different reasons.

“Two women, one procedure, 48 hours away from home”: In 2016, @TwoWomenTravel, documented the journey of two anonymous Irish women travelling to the United Kingdom for an abortion. Abortion is currently banned in the Republic of Ireland. This documentation consisted of 28 live tweets describing the various steps of the womens’ trip – from the “chilly” walk to the airplane to the uneasy time spent in the UK clinic’s waiting room. Drawing government officials like Irish Premier Enda Kenny into the conversation through the use of @ and #, the series seemed aimed at highlighting to the Irish establishment the silent and anonymous journeys made by dozens of Irish women monthly across the Irish channel to access medical care in the UK.

Abortion in Ireland is a hugely contested and political social issue that throws light on deep religious and cultural divides. Contemporary testimonies of Irish women are perhaps even less publicly welcomed than historical accounts. This memory, sketched in 28 tweets, but lived in a far more personal way, is impossible to datafy. It is data that has been deported, hoped by some to be forgotten but existing in an unseen elsewhere.

This example resonates directly with The Sound of Forgetting. And — it’s an important time to illuminate these unheard stories, as Ireland prepares to vote on a landmark referendum to legalise abortion on May 25th, three days after MoRM Cork.

But how do we use this material in The Sound of Forgetting? How do we translate the poignancy and power of these tweets to a different medium: audio? We could invite audience members to read the tweets, or display them on a screen. But there is something — perhaps many things — lost in this process of translation, as many of us researching social media and society have noted. Content is not the same as its flow in time. Then, there’s the ongoing cascade of comments, likes, links and conversations related to each tweet, the flow of linked articles and others’ stories, that might be lost or undermined by a change of medium.

In other words, the meaning of this tweet series is diffuse, perhaps ineffable. It’s not an archivable object, but more a swirl of constantly emerging information, which in turn morphs the reading of the story. It is not a discrete unit of information, which means that as we try to ‘capture’ the essence of this cultural moment so that it can be used by DJs as part of the mix in the arts installation, it eludes us. It cannot be simply downloaded or uploaded, and lives in the elsewhere, a murmuration of information that resists capture.

The second example of this was what we’ve called “departed data”: How could we even  find pieces of audio that were — in whole or in part — obscured or deleted, or never recorded in the first place? What is required to represent stories that have been damaged, burned, lost or unrecorded: the stories that are not told, the absenting of people whose stories are dis-included from official histories? Where do we find the gaps, unblacken redaction in courtroom records, recognise the unrecognised groups, e.g. in country census data? How do we trace the outline of things that are shifted or removed, like family names lost over generations, as people move across borders and change their names — or have their names changed by officials to make them easier for the locals to pronounce?

Given the character of this material, it was no surprise that it wasn’t easy to find stuff with these lost or degraded qualities, as we gathered material for our Cork-Cardiff sound installation.

In this image from the FCO archives in Hanslope Park, we can see how memories can be turned into a secret. Who profits from this forgetting?

An interesting example of such obscured material is the UK’s Hanslope Park Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) archives. These archives hold mostly-undisclosed documents describing wrongdoings and abuses in the British colonies. Snippets of the archive that have been released contain reports of British officers implicated in atrocities against Kenya’s Mau Mau, a guerrilla group who began a violent campaign against white settlers in 1952. The uprising was put down by the British colonial government by 1960, with the execution, torture or maiming of 90,000 Kenyans. This is a history only recently acknowledged by the British government after confirmation of the existence of the withheld FCO documents.

The documents themselves haven’t yet been opened to the public, or made available in any comprehensive way. The larger archive, said to contain a plethora of similarly damning colonial records, has been migrated to different archives and passed between organisations making it hard to access and subject to different archiving processes and rubrics. It has also been stored in a variety of file formats (like audio and microfilm), resisting easy viewing, counting and organising.

Although these documents are not explicitly redacted, the non-disclosure of the archive, alongside byzantine systems of archiving and file storage, work as a (somewhat) less deliberate way of obscuring the histories and memories it holds. The lingering question for us remains:

How do we represent memories that have been deliberately (or not so deliberately) hidden, that are not with us anymore, that were taken away from memory, or that were never even recorded?

These two cases kindle interesting questions about what counts as memory, what is memorable, and whose memory gets to count. What is representable in sound, vision or text, and what is not. Redacted or undisclosed material is by definition a gap, a loss: it is intentionally obscured and leads to very meaningful “holes” and forgettings. This is an important consideration especially in an era of big data, where people are lured by a widespread myth that massive data sets are representative, when in fact they are everything but. Not only are these massive data ‘harvesting’ efforts always partial and non-representative, they are capturing only a certain type of information: that which can easily transformed into a numeric data point that can be combined with other data points.

Even in more complex archiving practices, where sounds, objects, and images are collected by museums, libraries, and other more formal institutions, the forgotten is endlessly more present in its absence than the fraction that is remembered. As we engage with the experimental space, we bring these (perhaps unsolvable) questions and reflections to the mix.