Archiving the Ephemeral: Enriching Protest Movements with Oppositional (Art)efacts
The Printemps québécois ended 2 1/2 years ago. It was the largest protest movement in Québec history that lasted six months and was punctuated by more than 600 demonstrations, actions, occupations and blockades that dominated public discourse and pervaded private conversations. The Maple Spring thrived as a period of heightened politicization for a youthful generation that is stereotypically qualified as apathetic, self-centred and apolitical. From the first mass protest, until the strike’s unofficial end after the September 4, 2012 election, the province was galvanized in a societal debate that effectively polarized the population to an extent possibly not experienced in Québec since the 1995 independence referendum. During both periods, half of the population sought change while the others opted for the status quo. What these two moments of political activity have in common is that they did not happen in a vacuum without the influence of past struggles and they did not end abruptly with a referendum nor election vote, respectively. The links between past, present and future mobilizations is often made via the artefacts left behind by the movements that created them, and by the availability of these artefacts before, during and after subsequent mobilizations.
Questions I began to ask myself during the 2012 student strike include: What role can protest artefacts have in inspiring the ongoing strike, future social movements and strengthen an activist’s oppositional consciousness? How can the artefacts transcend time and space to become part of a movement’s oppositional cultural heritage?
I attempted to answer these questions beginning in May 2012, by creating the Artéfacts d’un Printemps québécois Archive (Artéfacts Archive), a mostly digital collection of 3000+ visual artefacts from the 2012 student strike: its posters, protest signs, banners, stencils, videos, publications, etc. Its raison d’être is to provide a storage of material for future use to help perpetuate the inclination for dissent during a movement’s post protest debriefing period of self-reflection when oppositional consciousness may be tempted to subside.
Oppositional cultural artefacts are ephemeral objects that rarely outlive a protest movement’s activity. Their specificity give them a limited lifespan due to their relationship to a particular time, at a particular place and often for a specific issue or event. Oppositional artefacts are created and discarded in flux with social/political upheaval, which is why their collection needs to be deliberate and systematic — as a media activism gesture — to help define our collective oppositional cultural heritage. Their preservation is of little interest to public institutional archives mandated to collect, preserve and disseminate a society’s cultural heritage. Institutional archives seek control over the access, interpretation and reuse of an archive’s contents, presumably to safeguard status quo monopolies of knowledge.
If we choose to access our cultural heritage from material traces gathered within institutional archives, we would only have access to a very limited, nonrepresentative selection of artefacts about protest movements and the injustices they address. This is why the creation of our own archives of oppositional artefacts is necessary to access autobiographical representations rather than rely on hegemonic representations as defined by our opponents.
Self-representation, and access to it, can accelerate (r)evolutionary processes by providing movements with ample material for post-protest debriefing and a better understanding how to proceed.
I am interested in the inspired creativity during the preparation for protest: when posters are designed, when protest signs and banners are produced, when strike votes are debated and won in general assemblies, when stencils and spray paint are bought, or when tactics are prepared. I am also interested in oppositional performance: when the posters are wheat-pasted onto walls, when financial districts are blockaded, when banners are dropped from rooftops, when marching against the traffic by the thousands along undeclared routes, when bank windows are smashed. But my main interest, that which gives the Artéfact Archive its raison d’être, is the potential role that collected artefacts can have after oppositional performance, which can vary from a single demonstration or blockade, to a lengthy protest period like the six-month Printemps québécois. This post-performance period is the crucial debriefing phase when a review of the performance happens, when critical analysis of successes and failures is developed and when activists can further develop their oppositional consciousness in preparation for subsequent resistance against ongoing oppression. Considering the intensity and longevity of the Printemps québécois, I argue that its debriefing phase will be long-lasting and will influence oppositional movements for many years.
For an archive to be useful, it needs to be created. The first phase of the Artéfacts Archive project consisted of the assemblage and sorting of oppositional cultural artefacts into an online digital collection. The archive began as a prototype housed on Facebook. As a result of censorship of some of the archive’s artefacts and a desire to have more control of its disposition, I created a BETA version hosted on wordpress.com. Due to its limited design capabilities, I transferred the archive to a self-hosted website with its own URL (printempserable.net). Its development is ongoing with the objective of transforming it from my individual Master’s research creation project into a collective endeavour that better reflects the needs of the archive and the community it seeks to benefit.
The second phase consists of artefact (re)distribution back into the activist community that created them to nourish the ongoing debriefing period. I refer to this phase as archival activation. It began early on during the strike with the Facebook prototype when imagery was shared and commented on throughout social media on a daily basis. It continues within Facebook and through its website as current issues are linked to archival imagery, discussed in blog posts, etc., to link issues addressed in 2012 with ongoing struggles and to boost an oppositional consciousness that was particularly vigorous during the Printemps québécois. Another method of archival activation brought actual artefacts (not just digital visual representations) into public spaces. Three protest banner exhibits, Bannières Contestataires, were organized at three different Montréal locations in 2013 and two separate multimedia installations, Printemps CUBEcois, were exhibited at Concordia University in 2014.
A set of sixty-six Reaggregational Trading Cards was also created to portray the diversity of the archive’s artefacts and to highlight some of the more prominent symbols the strike: the red square, Anarchopanda, Banane Rebelle, Matricule 728, government corruption, Bill 78, l’oie spéciale, the casseroles, injunctions, police brutality, international solidarity, Plan Nord, eye injuries, corporate media disinformation, P6 and of course tuition hikes. These cards were handed out like a game at parties, film screenings, in demonstrations and other gathering places where activists might be inspired to continue their debriefing with an archival nudge.
The first Bannières Contestataires exhibit had twenty-six banners on display at La SAT on March 13, 2013. It helped define the Artéfacts Archive‘s raison d’être. Passionate discussion ensued around the appropriateness of exhibiting protest banners in a museum or gallery context when they were designed to be carried within a demonstration, particularly when protests were ongoing. For some, the word “archive” (as the banners were labelled as collected by the Artéfacts Archive) was synonymous with institutionalized memory, capital ‘H’ history and dust.
What distinguished the SAT event from this interpretation that sees archives as belonging to the past and of eventual interest in the future, was the purpose and context of the event. The Artéfacts Archive is situated as oppositional creative commons that encourages — even facilitates — access, sharing, reuse and sampling of its collection. Many of the banners on display have been reused in subsequent protests. A member of Mères en colères et solidaires who attended the event, came up to me before leaving to remind me that their banner needed to be returned the following week because the collective had plans to reuse it.
It was a one-night gathering of activists to linger around multiple exhibits that included the Artéfacts Archives‘ banners, as well as photographs, alternative media displays, performances and video projections created by and for activists. It was a deliberate convergence to reflect on past protest and inspire future action. It was an activist “safe space” to regroup — reaggregate — in a post-strike context to informally debrief while surrounded by oppositional cultural artefacts that stimulated conversations.
Another, more significant effort of archival activation was the creation and exhibition of the Printemps CUBEcois multimedia installation. The massive (13ft high x 17ft wide) cube was wrapped both inside and out with forty protest banners that were all previously used within demonstrations. A doorway gave access inside the cube to the “Pièce de Résistance” banner within: a mural-size protest scene collage that uses a sampling of imagery from the Artéfacts Archive that were printed and projected onto sewn strips of canvas. The scene covered an entire inside wall and is my own retelling as a striking student at the time. It is an attempt at self-representation, which is key to building upon a movement’s own oppositional cultural heritage.
The Printemps CUBEcois embodied the purpose for the Artéfacts Archive and its potential motivational role on future protest movement choreographies with the cube’s conceptual “safe space” interior, within which activists can meet, speak freely and find the solidarity necessary to consider future collective acts of resistance and dissent. Being surrounded by oppositional cultural artefacts encourages the review of past actions, the discussion of evolving issues and the advancement of arguments. The cube provided a debriefing gathering space for activists to reinforce solidarity, to build collective confidence and, ultimately, to consider future oppositional performance. Ideally, the oppositional cultural heritage, activated via the Printemps CUBEcois, may help link the debriefing phase of the Maple Spring with current/upcoming battles to better battle against the abuses of neoliberal capitalism and resist its systematic oppression.
I offer the Artéfacts Archive to the oppositional movements, to which I belong, that was hyper-activated during the Maple Spring. It is our shared digital collection of artefacts that we should draw from as required. It is a storehouse for our collective actions, ideas and creativity. Although the artefacts are expected to jog memory in anyone who figuratively recognizes themselves in the collection, the archive was not created for nostalgic purposes, nor for History’s retelling of events. History will continue on its way along well trodden paths. The contents within the Artéfacts Archive is our storehouse of oppositional material for future use, to be borrowed, reused, altered or adapted to aid opposition during ongoing struggles or for those yet to come.
Originally published in the 4th edition of Free City Radio.
Images from Artéfacts d’un Printemps québécois Archive