Juxtaposition: The Case for the Radically Open Archive
My interest in archives stems from their potential to put unexpected things next to each other, not unlike the joy of the library shelf. The book you want might not be there but on the shelf above are two more that put what you were looking for in a new light. Yet, the archives I work with are less fixed than this wonderful cataloging system. I create radically open archives to which many people can contribute, by creating the vessels and organizational structures that enable the possibilities of juxtaposition.
I often describe my work as creating spaces for dialogue. What kinds of spaces? What counts as dialogue? The answers are open for debate but both are necessary for a functional civil society. Archives can be one of these kinds of spaces. The way that objects talk with each other is a kind of dialogue. Another kind is the conversation generated by people’s responses to the way these objects sit comfortably, or uncomfortably, together.
For me, the purpose of a radical, or people’s, archive is to make visible the fissures, cracks, and contradictions in things we think we know. Equally, the archive, and especially the archive that incorporates personal objects, testimony, and oral history has the possibility of helping visitors, viewers, or perusers make highly personal human connections that might be surprising.
A good example of this is one of the public archives my practice, Buscada, has created. Written about as “deceptively simple” (Zimmerman & De Michiel 2018, 23) the Triangle Fire Open Archive asks us to see a particular history—that of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—in multifaceted ways and to see its relevance for the challenging contemporary moment. It connects intimate and global meaning in a “microhistorical” approach (Zimmerman & De Michiel 2018, 25). The fire on March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Waist Company factory in lower Manhattan, was the worst workplace disaster in New York until 9/11. At Triangle, workers were locked in and 146 people died—mostly young women and girls who were recent immigrants—either in the fire itself which spread over two floors of a crowded garment factory or from jumping out the windows of that factory, 8 and 9 stories up, to the street below.
The fire and its effects were so visible, happening on a Saturday afternoon a block from Washington Square Park where middle-class New York was enjoying its weekend, that it could not be ignored. Nor could the fact that the fire was entirely preventable, and that for years workers had been calling attention to the dangerous working conditions at Triangle and other garment factories in New York, including having staged a giant walk-out just two years before—the Uprising of 20,000. In the wake of Triangle, labor protections were changed, unions formed with a galvanized membership, and Frances Perkins, who would become Secretary of Labor in the FDR administration (and the first woman in the U.S. Cabinet), said it was the spark for the New Deal. In New York, we walk on sidewalks, and past fire hydrants, and under fire escapes whose very existence, dimensions, and regulation can be traced to the fire.
So, the fire is part of the present, even as it happened in the past. Yet, what one contributor to the project, an OSHA representative, described as “the problem of dying at work” is still a reality, more than 100 years later. It is less common in the United States, though not unheard of, and the examples elsewhere are numerous. You don’t have to look far for horrifyingly similar examples: in 2012 at the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh 112 workers died in a fire and from jumping to their deaths. In the same city on April 24, 2013, the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building killed 1,100 people.
The Triangle Fire Open Archive is made up entirely of objects contributed by the community—a “community” that includes relatives of fire victims, descendants of garment workers everywhere, union shop stewards, OSHA representatives, city governments, performance artists, current-day labor rights advocates, academics, school children, garment workers from New York’s Chinatown who remember their own strikes, union members all over the country, New Yorkers in general, and many more.
It is a community initially brought together through artist Ruth Sergel’s radically open coalition to remember the Triangle fire on its centennial, and because Triangle and the ways its issues shape our present reality had shaped their lives in some way.
The objects contributed by this community live in our online archive. In the photos I made for the archive at our in-person gathering sessions, these objects are often held in their owner’s hands. Other objects that people have uploaded themselves are scans of family photos, texts of poems, legal documents, audio recordings, videos—our definition of an “object” is very broad. Each is accompanied by a small text description that the contributor has written to explain why this object has significance for understanding Triangle.
The objects can be searched by name, tag (chosen by the person who contributed each object), or date, but can also be browsed through curated collections we make on the homepage, and through the four large theme groupings, of which each object falls into only one: “People”, “Memorial”, “Politics +Activism”, or “Cultural Response.”
In their sometimes anachronistic juxtapositions, the objects contributed by this community show the depth of this event’s meaning. For example, in the section grouped as “People,” a portrait of Rosie Weiner, who died in the fire, that was contributed by her great-niece, can sit next to a newspaper clipping about Max Steuer, one of the attorneys who defended (and obtained acquittals for) the criminally negligent owners of the Triangle factory, which in turn sits next to several images of people’s family members who were garment workers at Triangle who happened to be out sick on March 25, 1911, or who were workers at other factories. These last are usually accompanied by their contributors’ wranglings with “what if”, and their own mortality, or possible non-existence, had their ancestors been at work at a slightly different place or time.
In the “Politics + Activism” grouping, a sign from the 2011 protests against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attempts to end state workers’ rights to collective bargaining sits next to a newsletter contributed by Mei Yin Tsang and Alice Ip from the 1982 Chinatown garment workers strike, workers from the ILGWU Local 23-25 which formed in the wake of Triangle. They explained in their contribution text, “This newsletter is to help organize and educate the members about their rights – how to become a citizen, how to vote. In order to fight for your rights, you’ve got to understand what they are.” These two objects, in turn, sit next to a collection of New York Mayor William J. Gaynor’s 1911 letters about the fire, expressing his pain, shock, and horror.
The structure of the Triangle Fire Open Archive means that any viewer will be led to new questions and challenges, will find “truth” a multi-faceted and contested thing, and will be asked to add their own voice, story, object, or perspective to the debate. In this kind of archive the juxtaposition of multiplicity helps a truth come forward—a usable truth for our time, always changing in its relevance.
Bendiner-Viani, Gabrielle, and Kaushik Panchal. "The Triangle Fire Open Archive." Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition. Accessed October 10, 2018. http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/open-archive/
Bendiner-Viani, Gabrielle. "Making Meaning Together: The Triangle Fire Open Archive and Open Museum." Urban Omnibus. December 12, 2017. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://urbanomnibus.net/2012/09/making-meaning-together-the-triangle-fire-open-archive-and-open-museum/
Manik, Julfikar Ali, and Jim Yardley. "Bangladesh Finds Gross Negligence in Factory Fire." The New York Times, December 18, 2012, New York Edition ed., sec. A. December 17, 2012. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/world/asia/bangladesh-factory-fire-caused-by-gross-negligence.html
Sergel, Ruth. See You in the Streets: Art, Action, and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016.
Westerman, Ashley. "4 Years After Rana Plaza Tragedy, What’s Changed For Bangladeshi Garment Workers?" NPR. April 30, 2017. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/04/30/525858799/4-years-after-rana-plaza-tragedy-whats-changed-for-bangladeshi-garment-workers
Zimmermann, Patricia Rodden, and Helen De Michiel. Open Space New Media Documentary: A Toolkit for Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.