Reconstructing the Archive







"What Hadn’t Happened": A Multimedia Memoir



"Do you just tell stories?

Only dreams and stories, because they are the enjoyment of living values, can receive the interstices without the panic effects of people who believe themselves to be in danger of losing hold."

—Isabelle Stengers

Artist Statement

Up until now, much of my work has been devoted to breaking apart stories or avoiding stories or appropriating people’s voices to create new, fictional stories that they were never intended to tell. In this sense, the project you will encounter here may be my first attempt to actually tell a story about something that actually happened—or, perhaps more accurately, to tell the story behind a story of something that never happened at all. And, in some ways, it may be one of the hardest things I’ve done.

I can’t introduce this essay without first acknowledging its relationship to my earlier work on “The Olive Project,” an interactive documentary published in the Spring 2011 issue of Kairos journal. An experiment in composing family history, “The Olive Project” grew out of an oral history interview that I conducted with my paternal grandmother, Olive Patton, in May 2009, less than a year before her death to pancreatic cancer. When I initially approached my grandma for the interview, I had no intention of ever sharing her story with anyone, beyond a close circle of family and friends who knew and loved her as I did. And, in many ways, the design of “The Olive Project”—with its frustrated web of associations and disjunctions and repetitions, with its refusal to resolve or cohere into a satisfying whole—reflects my deep discomfort with the idea of opening my grandma’s private memories to a public audience in the first place, despite her generosity in allowing me to do so. At the same time, the project also reflects what I’ve come to see as a larger, more paralyzing fear: my fear of storytelling itself—the very real possibility of failure, of not getting it “right,” of telling too much or too little, of whether to tell at all.

Buried deep in the maze of “The Olive Project” is the one story—or the shattered fragments of a story—that I’ve always felt most afraid, yet most compelled to tell: the story of “what hadn’t happened” to my grandma’s little sister Gloria. The essay that follows represents my first, fraught attempt to take up the remains of this painful family secret; to recompose them as a story across media, materials, and genres; and to work through my own methods and motives for doing so.

Part personal essay, part audio/visual memoir, “What Hadn’t Happened” follows in the vein of recent film memoirs like Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary Stories We Tell. In this film, Polley uses family interviews and archives to reconstruct the life story of her late mother—and, in the process, examines her own experience of unearthing and sifting through the complexities of an intimate family secret. Like Polley, in this project, I use my storytelling practice as a means to reflect on and in some way compose a sense of personal ethics that guide the very story I’m telling. Like Polley, where I find my family archives lacking, I experiment with performative methods to enhance the visual narrative, working to collapse the temporal-material boundaries between past and present, memory and invention, evidence and enactment. And like Polley, I think, I never quite come to a place where I’m entirely comfortable with what I’m doing—but I go ahead and do it anyway, and I look for meaning in the struggle. This approach to storytelling as inquiry and as ethical performance is an area I hope to continue exploring.

In a broader sense, my work in “What Hadn’t Happened” speaks to a rising interest in the creative potential of archives, not only in the field of rhetoric and composition, but across the arts and humanities more generally. Like Jody Shipka, Alexandra Hidalgo, and Trisha Campbell in this volume, I’m motivated by the possibilities of using found materials and archives—whether from estate sales, our grandmothers’ closets, or the forgotten annals of our disciplinary histories—as the impetus for new creative and performative works. Inspired by the material poetics of writers like Anne Carson (Nox, 2009) and Susan Howe (That This, 2011), my work here explores how archival materials—or their digitized facsimiles—might be woven into the fabric of the writing itself, as a constitutive method and an expressive sensory encounter. By taking up writing as a reflexive practice of writing with things, I’m interested in considering how the things themselves—as material traces of unresolved pasts—might help us to reimagine the shape and movement of the stories we tell.

At the same time, my work here is also defined by an acute awareness of what the archive lacks, by its absences as much as its offerings. In many ways, the story I’ve set out to tell is radically constrained by the gaps and insufficiencies of my family archives. There are clear practical limits on what I can actually say—with any certainty or in any detail—about an event that unfolded quietly in the life of an ordinary family on a remote farm in northwest Minnesota over 80 years ago, given the few scattered scraps of memory I have at my disposal. In this sense, “What Hadn’t Happened” is concerned as much with what has been lost to time and to memory as it is with what has survived it. This dilemma of archival incompleteness is, of course, not particular to my work on this project. Rather, it is an inevitability at the heart of all efforts to write with archives, whether in the service of traditional historiography or toward more experimental aesthetic forms. Indeed, as Jacques Derrida has famously argued, loss and destruction are deeply constitutive of the archive itself. Working from this premise, I am interested in how the archival fragment as a compositional material might help to make this sense of loss felt as a sensory encounter—or what film scholar Jaimie Baron calls “the archive affect.”

Central to my work, here and elsewhere, is a commitment to the inventive potential of constraints—and, in particular, the material constraints of recorded language, whether in written or oral form. While the notable gaps in my archive provide one obvious level of constraint to the work, perhaps more significant is the extent to which I work within these constraints to further delimit my practice. In “What Hadn’t Happened,” you might say that I imagine myself less as a writer of my family’s history and more as a summoner, an arranger, and a composer of its material remains. Instead of standing back and recounting the story in my own words, as I have come to see it, I take up the words and voices of others, and I allow them to define the story’s material and discursive limits. In the audio portion of the essay, this move takes a conversational form, inspired by the symphonic radio documentaries of the great Glenn Gould (The Solitude Trilogy, 1967-1977). And in the visual narrative, I use a method of text-based collage in an effort to recompose and in some sense rectify the official record of the event.

The impulses behind these decisions are both aesthetic and deeply ethical; they are perhaps a disavowal of the distance between the two. In the end, they are a loving attempt to give voice to a story that is neither simple nor settled, while honoring the silence of those who, for many reasons, either could not or cannot be heard.

A note on permissions: All content in this projectbelongs to the author or is being used with express permission and is attributed accordingly.

Works Cited

Baron, Jaimie. The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1995. Print.