Recent ruminations on the archives: on body, care, and time

Editor’s note: This was the author’s attempt to constellate her thoughts on the following events: Customised Postures, (De)colonising Gestures exhibit at the Gajah Gallery Singapore that she saw on January 19th, Archive of One’s Own online talk series by Singapore art center DECK where she attended all sessions except March 6th, and Archives, Communities, and Liberatory Memory Work lecture by Michelle Caswell on March 22nd. The author also linked a paper referenced by Prof. Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez during the Art Studies Journal relaunch on March 21st. 


1) In one area of the Customised Postures, (De)colonising Gestures show at the Gajah Gallery Singapore, fifteen bodies stood. Printed on fifteen 12-foot-long canvas sheets, the photographs of the Bontoc Igorot warriors transitioning into the Philippine Constabulary – all standing erect with their weapons and uniforms – felt real and imposing in this version of Kiri Dalena’s “Philippine Constabulary Sequence 1-3”. This effect is more pronounced if you have seen its relatively smaller version (printed on rice paper sized 21 x 57 inches) in the Snare for Birds exhibit at the Ateneo Art Gallery (AAG).

Dalena’s video work “Felizardo, Taken in 1906” from Snare was also included in Customized Postures, with a similar choice to conceal it in the exhibit layout. Instead of a small room with a curtained entrance like the one at AAG, it was fifteen towering canvas sheets at the Gajah show that provided cover. 

What does it mean to show and hide bodies from the archives, especially from colonial archives that are the bureaucratic incarnate of oppressions from the past?

2) For a talk that centered around the topic of archives as an institution, the speakers – Nydia A. Swaby and Stephanie Syjuco – anchoring the discussion on bodies may seem antithetical at first. We may think an institution is a complex system, while a body is a personal unit. 

London-based researcher Swaby opened the third day of the Archive of One’s Own (AOOO) talk series by sharing how she sees herself as an archive and an archivist. The body is our vessel for moving in the world, taking and carrying memories and experiences. She is conscious of her personal encumbrance as she interrogates the archives as a space. For her, this makes the archives both as an “ethnographic and autoethnographic space.” In other words, the archives is a place to understand a sliver of human society through one’s internal world.

What guides her exploration is asking questions such as, “How do I interrogate the space, considering myself as both an archive and an archivist? What do I do with the feelings or emotions that come up?” 

3) Continuing the discussion, Sean Cham, curator of AOOO, asked them to expound on the role of the body in their archival research and practice. Syjuco acknowledged the disturbing nature of the archives she has worked with.

This calls to mind her 2019 residency at St. Louis, Missouri where she produced “Block Out the Sun” in which she photographed archival photographs, her hands concealing the faces and bodies of Filipinos in the 1904 World’s Fair. Our country’s participation that time was in service of the Americans justifying their colonization: Filipinos were shown as “naked” and “savage,” thus in need of a “white savior.” 

Syjuco offered a way to process these kinds of archival materials. That is, to ingest the archive, and be allergic to it. Rio Creech-Nowagiel, one of the AOOO respondents the following day, rephrased it as the archives as an “irritant or contaminated space.”

Let’s hold on to something tangible to digest the metaphor. The archives as a place, invoked in the general imagination, is usually thought of as cold, dusty, and dark. Dust, for some people, is a typical allergy trigger. To get these irritants out of our system, our body sneezes.

Being allergic to the archives means being careful as we step into it, prepared for potential triggers ahead. For colonial archives, there are landmines of pain, trauma, and other hurt. This occupational hazard is a given, but researchers continue to tread the landscape, hopefully towards liberatory memory work

Being allergic to the archives also means knowing to step outside after. Unlike the instinctual act of sneezing, it is more intentional to discharge irritants from our encounters within the archives. Processing emotions is a necessary act. If left unchecked, these emotional sediments can form into rocks. 

The body is an archive, the archive is a body. The body ingests and expels. The cycle continues.

4) “Activate archives in the care for now” was how Michelle Caswell simply concluded her presentation on “activating records for temporal autonomy” – her first of the three advocated approaches to liberatory memory work. (The other two are as follows: “activating records for the self-recognition of minoritized communities” and “activating records to redistribute resources.” But I digress; this section is about time.)

Caswell’s concept of chrono-autonomy, to say in another way, is to be free from the idea that time is linear. To break the linear time is to break from what Jamaican philosopher Charles W. Mills calls the white time. Linear time – social progression from the past (“native”) to the present (“civilized”) as a step towards the future (“progress”) – is embodied by the original photos used by Dalena in “Philippine Constabulary Sequence 1-3” and the ones partially hidden by Syjuco’s hands in “Block Out the Sun.” Notably, both came from archives produced during the American colonial era.

To interrupt time is to look for what Caswell called corollary records that show that “we have been here before, we have survived this before, we have resisted before, here’s how.”

0) To understand non-normative time is to care

5) On the second day of AOOO, I asked the panel how they think archives can be used for liberatory memory work. Artist Sim Chi Yin encouraged producing outputs other than research which, for her practice, includes books and art installations. It could also take form in community work, like for art historian Freya Schwachenwald, who translates her research to a workshop format fit for children.

Liberation – of anything – is already in itself a severe undertaking. Confronting colonial histories carries a similar weight as well. The two combined, therefore, is a heavy enterprise. Strategies such as the ones suggested by Sim and Schwachenwald are only a few small but mighty ways to address the colossus. 

Thinking of another approach takes me back to the Gajah Gallery exhibit. What does it mean to unpack de/colonization through a commercial gallery context? The question has been on my mind since I saw the show, and until now, I have no direct answer, nor clear-cut judgment. 

Allow me some time to think. For now, by way of concluding, I offer Sim’s preface to her response: 

This kind of work is “not measurable, not immediate.” It is done long term.

Lk Rigor is an art writer in the spheres of photography and archives, as well as the multiple strings that bind them to everything else.

All photographs taken by the author.