The Academic Feminist: Summer at the Archives

Welcome back, Academic Feminists. I’m excited to
present the first in a three-part series: Lisa Darms riot grrl collectionSummer at the Archives, because, well, if you’re an academic feminist, you probably can’t think of a better way to s
pend the summer! Kicking things off is an interview with Lisa Darms, Senior Archivist at the Fales Library & Special Collections at NYU, and editor of the recently released book, The Riot Girl Collection, published by the Feminist Press.  Darms talks about her archival work in the context of coming-of-age in the punk scene, discusses the role of theory and absence in the archive, and shares some of her current and former inspirations as an “activist archivist.” Check back next month for an interview with the curator of the Visibility Project, an online project dedicated to archiving the stories of Queer Asian American women, trans, and gender non-conforming communities.

1. Kathleen Hanna has called riot grrrl culture a “gateway drug” to feminist history. Was this so in your case? How did you come to feminism?

I’m very fortunate that both my mother and father considered themselves feminists throughout most of my childhood. When I was a teenager, my mom worked at a feminist bookstore collective called Everywoman’s Books, and after my parents divorced when I was in my 20s, my mom came out.

Despite my feminist childhood, I often say that Riot Grrrl came too late for me. I got into punk very young, and at first felt right at home in this subculture of freaks and outsiders. But I veered off into a sub-scene that was more of a microscosm of patriarchal culture at large; “DIY” seemingly only applied to boys, and other girls became my competitors for male attention. Perversely, I think participating in the extreme gender roles of this punk-skate scene was a form of rebellion; one that ended up damaging me.

When I left my hometown to move to Olympia in 1989, I continued to go to punk shows, and worked through the psychic legacy of my hometown punk experiences through photography and theory. I became very interested in pornography, sex work, and sadomasochism as sites of both real danger and potential power, and read anthologies like Pleasure and Danger and Powers of Desire, magazines like On Our Backs, and theorists like Michel Foucault and John Berger. Riot Grrrl should’ve been a natural fit for me, but when I heard about the meetings I was intimidated and didn’t go. Now, I think it’s probably because it’s exactly what I needed most. I got more into Riot Grrrl zines and music after I graduated and moved back to BC in January 1993. I returned to Olympia in 1994, which is when I moved in with Kathleen Hanna.

2. What drew you to archival work? How did your personal experience with riot grrrl culture shape the way that you curated the archive and edited the book? Can you share one of your favorite pieces? 

Archives is my second career. In my twenties, I worked as a photo printer, and got an MFA in photography in my early 30s. I taught photography as an adjunct and tried to get a tenure track job, but failed. During my 3 years in art school, I found I was spending more and more energy on art history courses, and less and less time in my studio. I love research and I always have, and an archives career seemed like a way to salvage my photography experience while working in a system that supported scholarship.

My background in punk and in feminist and queer communities, as well as my experiences as an organizer of the first Ladyfest definitely inform my work as a curator of archival collections, and I consider myself an “activist” archivist. The archival profession once saw itself as serving a passive, custodial function: History accrues naturally, and we just store it and make it accessible. But as we know, for activist or minority cultures that were not self-documenting or whose work was not valued and preserved, what accrues is absence and historical erasure, not historical presence. Now, many archivists are proactive about starting new areas of collecting, and if no records exist, in collaborating with communities to create them, as in oral histories.

However, absences often tell their own stories. The People of Color Zine Project collaborated with me and with scholar Mimi Thi Nguyen to bring her collection of 90s zines by people of color into the Fales archive. Mimi writes eloquently about how such positive, inclusionary interventions can at the same time make the history of exclusion of people of color from many Riot Grrrl communities invisible, which in its own way rewrites history.

As far as a favorite document, I’ve always connected strongly with Kathleen’s “Trust” flyer and “Slut” flyer, both of which were designed to be folded (and handed confidentially from girl to girl), but also function as posters. I love the simultaneously public and private nature of these fliers, and I think they represent a unique aspect of this movement that sought to be both intimate and inclusive.

Flyer, Kathleen Hanna, Courtesy Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU Flyer, Kathleen Hanna, Courtesy Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU
Flyer, Kathleen Hanna, Courtesy Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU Flyer, Kathleen Hanna, Courtesy Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU

3. I saw that Ann Cvetkovich blurbed The Riot Grrrl Collection. Has her work on the archive been influential to your own? Which other scholars and archivists have been influential to your work?

I admire Ann’s work, and in a truly unlikely coincidence, I actually just ran into her in a small thrift store on Vancouver Island, where we both partially grew up. Ann has done research at Fales, and we’ve had several good conversations over the last couple of years, but in general, my work as an archivist isn’t influenced that much by theoretical writings about The Archive. Ann keeps it real, but I think there’s a lot of theoretical writing (especially coming out of the art world) that takes a very authoritative position about “The Archive,” but whose authors have never worked with archival collections. I think encounters in archives almost always make scholarship and theoreticization more complex and interesting.

I’ve been influenced by writings by Canadian archivists, like Terry Cook (and admire colleagues like Barnard zine Librarian Jenna Freedman and Sallie Bingham Center Librarian Kelly Wooten) but I think most of my professional inspiration comes from outside of the profession and outside of academia. Chris Kraus for example, has been a very important writer for me. Her work is a model for both valuing personal expression, and for community building outside of purely commercial paradigms, which I think is germane to archival practice.

Finally, working as the archivist for the Fales Downtown Collection has provided me with a model archive for a scene where art-making, performance, and queer activism were all coexisting in ways similar to Riot Grrrl, while also giving me experience in preserving unusual formats (videotapes, t-shirts, printed ephemera, skateboards!) and conceptualizing them as researchable documents.

4. Circling back to the first question, people now call feminist blogs the “gateway drug” to feminism. What does this mean in terms of the archival process? Do you think that having this work online – instead of in printed form like zines – will make a collection like the one you’ve edited and curated possible in 20 years? What would a feminist blog collection look like?

I don’t consider myself an expert on blogs, but I can see how their preservation as an archive could be problematic. First, of course, for technological reasons — archivists are working very hard on solving the problems of the preservation of electronic records, but the constant, ongoing obsolescence of file formats and online platforms makes preservation very complex. Additionally, we’d want to preserve the context and original interface of individual blogs, which are as much part of its meaning as the text is.

But I think for our discussion, it’s the concept of community — of an audience that is identifiable and limited in some way — that makes an analogy with something like the Riot Grrrl Collection hard to conceptualize. As a curator, how would I decide what was and wasn’t part of my Feminist Blog Collection? The Riot Grrrl Collection is built on a manuscripts tradition, and consists of a number of discrete collections created and collected by individuals who were active in the movement — their zines, zine masters, artwork, source materials, letters, lyrics, notebooks, t-shirts etc. While a Feminist Blog Collection has equal value in terms of research, who are its agents, and what supplementary texts give a fuller picture of this form of feminism in the 2000s? I’m very interested in how the appraisal and curatorial functions of archivists are changing in this sort of “flat field” of online cultural production.

Interested in learning more about the issues discussed here? In addition to the links above, below are some of Lisa’s picks:

Related to Fales Library & Special Collections

The Martha Wilson sourcebook
The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene, 1974-1984

Up is Up But So is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992
Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century
Close to the Knives
Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz journals online
David Wojnarowicz: A Definitive History of Five or Six Years on the Lower East Side
Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
Show & Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material
Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985

For Inspiration

Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975
King Kong Theory
Valie Export – Archiv
England’s Dreaming
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Writings by Chris Kraus

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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