Category Archives: History Lesson

A Plea For Peace From The Archive


In theory, archives preserve the stories of history’s winners and losers without forwarding an ideology or serving a fight for power. Over the last few months, the archive stories that struck me most related to the aftermath of misdirected political decisions and times of social turmoil. The first story, about volunteers who relay the trauma of Hiroshima survivors, made me think about the long term impacts of war. The second, a look inside remnants of Cold War era East Germany, seemed poignant given the current fears of a growing police state in the U.S. Both stories brought to mind the importance of archives in military and political history.

Summer 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the only two nuclear weapons ever used in war. Coverage in the New York Times introduced me to a special oral history project in Japan that involves denshoshas – volunteers who tell the stories of aging Hiroshima survivors. Before telling stories on their behalf, denshoshas spend at least three years shadowing the survivor. Giving the past a messenger keeps memories alive and human. The same way families pass down stories from generation to generation.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe is their first Prime Minister born after World War II. It is one thing to read about war in history books and another to have experienced war first hand. The Pacifist movement that came from the traumatic events of the war may be threatened by Abe’s reach for more military action with allies. In the U.S. I’m seeing a lot of politicians talk flippantly about the use of military force and weapons. In an Iowa stump speech, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz spoke brutally about bombing ISIS. “We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” This draconian tone underlines the need to consider history, and the repercussions of military action on civilians.

Wars leave behind stories of people and survivors. Wars also leave behind stories about governments. The Cold War archive at the Wende collects these messages together and preserves them. While others were leaving the old German Democratic Republic, Justinian Jampol went deep inside, collecting remnants of the old Socialist Unity Party in East Germany. Jampol crept into abandoned nuclear bunkers and found propaganda and secret police materials. The Cold War archive now lives in Los Angeles. L.A. is an unlikely home for European spyware but many donations came from perpetrators who fear being outed in Europe.

“People don’t like to think about our past and sometimes how we behaved,” said Jampol. “But we need to because it’s only by that process of discovery can we understand ourselves and remember why we did the things we did.” The survival of these stories could serve as cautionary tales; proof that oppression and war have long lasting effects. We like to think these stories are history, but the language and proposals of today’s powerful say otherwise. Archivists should collect stories of those persecuted around the world and collect the voices of governments as they try to sway the public and create their own versions of history.

Artwork by Natalie Pantoja based on pin archived at The Interference Archive.

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Unreliable Narrators

Jonathas de Andrade, Tropical Hangover, Journal Entries

In contemporary art, the archive is frequently explored as a tool to cope with and understand history. Here, I’ve picked two projects that explore identity through documentation: one from Margia Kramer in the ‘80s, one from Jonathas de Andrade in 2009. Each explores the idea of myth making, storytelling, and the deliberate construction of history with misinformation disguised as truth.

Broad Museum Jonathas de Andrade, Tropical Hangover

Artist Jonathas de Andrade used journals and photographs that are not originally connected and threads them together to create one narrative. I recently saw his work, Ressaca Tropical (Tropical Hangover), on view at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University. Ressaca is a word used to describe the moon’s influence of the tides and is slang for “Hangover” which brings to mind that familiar process of piecing events together after a wild night out. Found images and journals are presented on the wall as a timeline building a visual history of the city of Recife in northern Brazil. Much like our memories, there are gaps in the story and what Andrade pieces together is sometimes unreliable. Read more on this project here.

Kramer, Seberg, FBI

Activist artist Margia Kramer’s publication Essential Documents brings attention to FBI files that were part of a slandering mission undergone against actress Jean Seberg after the actress donated money to the Black Panther Party. Seberg is remembered as a fashion and film icon, but the less recounted part of her story is the harmful FBI investigation. Kramer’s work catalogs that trauma and tells of misinformation provided to the press by the FBI. Soon after Seberg’s death Kramer made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the release of those FBI files. FOIA requests are an important part of Kramer’s work and her way of of building a critical consciousness around government surveillance and handling of information. Read more on this project here.

Both artists are using primary source material (i.e. letters, photography, government documents) which we take to be trustworthy and unassailable, to show how the authority of the documents should be questioned. Not only are our memories flawed but items kept in an archive have the potential to be misconstrued too.

Images borrowed from top to bottom: The State of L3, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, and the Franklin Furnace Archive.

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Meet The Cubies

The Cubies' ABC Front Cover

The groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show will forever have a place in art history as America’s grand introduction to Post-Impressionist art. Addressing those avant-garde artists is The Cubies’ ABC, written and illustrated by married couple Edward Harvey Lyall and Mary Mills Lyall and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons/The Knickerbocker Press. Though the book was intended as a criticism of modern art, I find its clever rhyming passages and imaginative illustrations to be playful and fun.

Scanning the book’s pages, you’ll see three Cubies experimenting with still lives and sculptures, yawning at traditionalists, literally eating words, and letting loose with a reckless abandon befitting the children’s book setting. Most notable for me is the lively vocabulary abounding in Mary Mills Lyall’s verses. With words like anatomical, limpid, ad libitum, and quixotic, you’ll want your dictionary handy.

The book was digitized by Internet Archive and is also available on Open Library. If you haven’t spent much time on Open Library, you should! Find more unexpected gems and keep me in the loop about digitized books that stop you in your internet tracks. Read more about the book and its reprinting here.

The Cubies' ABC

The Cubies' ABC


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The Original Instagram

Vintage Photo Booth

Sparked by these vintage photo booth pictures (and the recent heat wave), I have been revisiting photo albums of my adolescence. I am nostalgic for my days counseling at a day camp in Brooklyn, playing the Ouija board with friends on the stoop, rainbow sherbert, mid-summer crushes, and outdoor rock concerts. Recent findings have shown nostalgia can actually be beneficial in treating depression and anxiety, so I don’t see the harm in letting myself succumb to these warm summer feelings. More than old movie stubs and party Polaroids, what could be more nostalgic than the photo booth image?

The vintage photo booth pool is a compilation of scans and uploads from over 200 myriad Flickr members. The uniqueness of the photo booth image comes from its signature size, border, and serial strip. Photo booth pictures follow the theory of the rule of thirds, a guide to artistic composition which cuts an image into a grid. Often there is high contrast (a feature those who use Instagram know and love) and like Polaroids, tiny skin imperfections are hidden. It is no wonder that love the old chemical photo booths and their tiny rewards.

Näkki Goranin, for The Telegraph, wrote a fascinating history of the photo booth starting from the first photo booth vending machine by Siberian immigrant Anatol Josephop. The history is remarkable with guest appearances by Fred Astaire and Andy Warhol.

Goranin’s article ends the story at modern day photo booths, which have, like everything else, gone digital. Sadly, the days of darkrooms in vending machines are dying, but the magic still lives in these old photographs and the lovely people who collect and digitize them.

Vintage Photo Booth

Vintage Photo Booth

Plus, take a look at this catalog of photo booths in movies and television…and one more history of the photo booth with more on its various manifestations in pop culture.

Images: top identified as Pamela Des Barres; middle from anyjazz65, bottom from Hula Seventy.

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