“We’re doing it slow” – Community Archives as Protest Spaces

by Anne Kaun (Södertörn University)

Community archives as self-organized spaces storing and working with ephemera, posters, books, pins, fanzines and other material forms are crucial to protect the voices of the movements beyond mainstream History writing. Community archives have been of importance since social movements emerged in the USA especially since the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. They have, however, gained renewed attention during the last decade and Andrew Flinn speaks of an emerging archival movement, which is reflected not only in a growing number of archives, but also conferences and workshops such as the radical archives conference organized by the New York University in April 2014 and its online companion[1].

This essay addresses not only the why and how of community archives, but more specifically asks if we can and should understand them as spaces of protest. Drawing on the Interference Archive in Brooklyn as a case, I suggest that community archives with their specific forms of organizing should be considered as an extension of protest and social movements stretching from the past over the present into the future not only in documenting the history of specific communities or movements, but also in instituting a form of protest against mainstream politics and culture through their practices of deliberating and organizing the archiving process.

In general, community archives or community histories are “the grassroots activities of documenting, recording and exploring community heritage in which community participation, control and ownership of the project is essential” (Flinn, 2008: 153). The definition of community archives is hence twofold. On the hand they are about collecting and preserving of objects and narratives and on the other they are about the organization of preservation as a process.

In order to develop an understanding of community archives as protest spaces, it is crucial to consider modes of (cultural) production in the context of accelerated capitalism: Contemporary societies are often characterized as information or knowledge societies. Hence, media technologies not only play a crucial role for mode of production, but also for temporal and spatial experiences. They are not only relevant for individual experiences of temporality, but also crucial in terms of the sharing and preserving of memories. Tomlinson (2007) links the discussion of (media) technologies to the experience of speed. During the industrial era, speed was mainly associated with social progress. With the post-industrial era, the acceleration of speed is increasingly dictated by global capital and culture that is facilitated by means of communication. Tomlinson argues hence that we are witnessing a development from effortful speed to effortless, immediate delivery. Vincent Manzerolle argues – building on Tomlinson – that ubiquitous computing is ‘tending towards real-time, networked communication and a collapsing of spatial distance, a tendency of contemporary media to accelerate the circulation of information’ (Manzerolle, 2014: 211), which leads to the condition of immediacy. What these commentaries share is the argument that our experience of time is closely linked to digital media technologies that enable immediate delivery of content and services. It is argued that these technologies – intended to simplify our lives – increase the speed of (information) exchange in society and thereby extend the stress levels in general.

Community archives can be considered as counter spaces or protest space against these current technological logics in different ways. Firstly through their practices of doing things slow in terms of decision making processes, secondly through their main purpose of preserving the past and in that sense countering the dominant focus on presentness and nowness that Canadian media scholar Harold Innis diagnosed for societies dominated by space based media, i.e. media that enhance connection over space, but are less durable in their materiality.

The Interference Archive clearly illustrates the juxtaposition of current cultures of speed and immediacy through community archives. The Interference Archive opened its doors in 2011 with the aim to investigate the relationship between cultural production and social movements. The archive originated from the private collection of Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee, two artists and activists. In contrast to other community archives that specifically focus on one particular community or group, this archive houses objects such as flyers, publications, pictures, records, books, buttons, t-shirts and films created by diverse social movements not only from New York City or the USA, but also for example from Europe, Latin America and China. Besides preserving these artefacts, the archive aims to make their histories from below accessible to everybody and in particular to the communities. The core collective of six people is dedicated to collaborative work based on volunteer labour. Since its opening the archive has presented exhibitions, talks, screenings, workshops and publications. Besides this it considers itself as an open study and social centre welcoming student groups and the interested public.

As one of the archivists/activists suggested during a 4-week workshop on radical artistic practices and the role of archives as practice, the Interference Archive is consciously doing things slow. All decisions are collectively taken after sometimes extensive, sometimes short deliberations. Following the principles of participatory democracy the collective constituting the Interference archive establishes a counter-picture to the dominant culture of speed. Similar to Francesca Polletta’s (2002) analysis of the importance of an extensive meeting culture constituting practices of participatory democracy, the Interference Archive takes the time necessary for collective decisions. In that sense, the archive becomes a space of protest against mainstream political culture and practices.



Flinn, Andrew. 2007. Community Histories, Community Archives: Some Opportunities and Challenges. Journal of the Society of Archivists 28 (2): 151-176.

Flinn, Andrew. 2008. “Other Ways of Thinking, Other Ways of Being. Documenting the Margins and the Transitory: What to Preserve, How to Collect.” In What are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives edited by Louise Craven, 109-128 Aldershot: Ashgate.

Flinn, Andrew; Stevens, Mary & Shepherd, Elizabeth. 2009. Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream. In: Archival Science 9: 71-86.

Manzerolle, Vincent. 2014. “Technologies of Immediacy/ Economies of Attention: Notes on Commercial Development of Mobile Media and Wireless Connectivity.” In The Audience Commodity in a Digital Age, edited by Lee McGuigan and Vincent Manzerolle, 207-228. New York: Peter Lang.

Polletta, Francesca. 2002. Freedom is an endless meeting. Democracy in American social movements. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Tomlinson, John. 2007. The Culture of Speed. The Coming of Immediacy. Los Angeles: Sage.


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