Our Bodies, Our Archives

Intro: In this post, current OHMA student Storm Garner muses on Maria Cotera's presentation of the concept of an "embodied archive" using tattoos as an illustration.

What does a tattoo have to do with oral history?


Do you have any tattoos? (If not, replace "you" with someone you know who does.)

Where did you get the idea for the design you chose?

Was it, by chance, a story someone told you?

Or: was it some aspect of your own lived experience, which turns into a story you tell, each time someone sees and asks about your tattoo?  

Would these stories be told and heard more or less frequently, do you think, if they were housed in a public library archive in printed transcript form only?

Would they reach the audiences for whom they would make the biggest impact?

Who might never get to hear them?

What restrictions would you want placed upon them?

These are some of the questions that have been buzzing around my mind since Maria Cotera's talk at Columbia on September 13th, during which she shared some of her strategies for "decolonizing the archive" and encouraged oral historians to become "embodied archives" themselves.

Instead of trusting the privileged gatekeepers of academia to manage the transmission of less-privileged personal and community histories from generation to generation, I gathered from Cotera's talk, we as oral historians could be using interpersonal relationships and digital platforms to help build shared-memory-based communities with our narrators, that they can actually access and make use of, and which would become self-sustaining as an archive in the flesh. Instead of merely filing our transcripts away in airtight archives behind fireproof walls in libraries only accessible to an elite, educated, social-security-number-having few, we could allow for the possibility that the most valuable "hard copy" of our interviews and associated information is stored within us, that we ourselves become changed by each encuentro with another human's personal story, and necessarily change, in turn, not just our own outlook, but everyone and everything our lives touch after the encuentro, in perpetuity.

©Storm Garner 2018

©Storm Garner 2018

About halfway through her talk, Cotera shared a funny anecdote from her first oral history "trip" as a professor, during which she took two U of Michigan undergrads to Texas to sort through her mother's personal archive of the Chicana feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. Cotera recounts, of the two undergrads:

Maria Cotera: ...Their mothers were very concerned when they dropped them off, and I said, "it's fine, nothing will happen, we're staying in my mother's house!"

And so this is when we first arrived and you know we're in Austin, and there's a lot to do in Austin, and I kept going out every night, but they refused.

[laughter throughout the room]

And I would come home--they'd still be looking at archives! I'd be like, "You guys, you can't--you know, you gotta find some time for yourselves here in Austin." And finally on the last night they were there, I forced them to leave the house at five. And I was like, "You're leaving tomorrow, you have to go out and enjoy some of this nightlife!"

They were out till two, and came home--

Riotous laughter erupted throughout the room as Cotera showed a photo of a giant tattoo depicting a new Michigan-farm-girl-appropriate variation on classic feminist iconography that one of these undergrads had had inked into the skin of her torso--an image of a woman carrying a sheath of wheat (it's a baby in the original) with a gun slung over her shoulders.

"The young women had found these images," Cotera explained,  "had xeroxed them and took them in to the tattoo parlor, and asked to have them put on their bodies permanently." But with modifications symbolizing their own personal engagement with the subject matter.  "All I want to point out about this is that for them the archive is not a static object," said Cotera, sending me off into another thought adventure...

If the oral history interview is an encuentro between two lives, what is said (and left unsaid) is a reflection of that specific encounter. Of course practical considerations will often recommend the use of transcripts/ indexes/permanent acts of archiving, in order to give this reflection--deemed by someone of historical value--a chance of outliving the individual lives that gave form to it. But isn't it a pity that the reading of this reflection, later, must be so one-sided?

Consider a researcher, in the distant future, alone in a sterile room, encountering the static object of an archived interview. She had to work hard to get into that room. She had to already care about the contents of the interview, in order to locate and access it, within the archive.

Compare that with any number of in-person encounters Cotera's famous tattoo'd undergrad may have had since that fateful Texas exercise in oral history embodiment. Anyone who's seen her in a tank top (or less) over the years has had the opportunity to ask of her directly: "What is that tattoo? What does it mean?"

And the story she tells each inquirer in response is yet another encuentro. As an embodied, living archive, she can customize her retelling of the Chicana-feminist history she's learned (and archived on her own skin) to each individual researcher she allows into her archive (by removing the outer layers of her clothing--a gesture already deeply encoded with social-trust contracts.) She can answer their particular questions. She can tell the story to those who didn't even know they were looking for it, but who, now knowing, will share the knowledge even further. She can use her already-trusting relationship with the inquirers to make them actually care about this story. An inert stack of papers--even an audio or video recording--cannot do that.

©Storm Garner 2018

©Storm Garner 2018

I have no tattoos, but I have scars--more haphazardly-created "embodied archives", one could call them, I suppose.  I may never have the courage to assign the stories they symbolize to a record, written or otherwise, that would stand alone in a physical archive independently of me, static and defenseless against future misinterpretations. But I welcome the in-person questions that my scars elicit, and I cherish the chance I get each time to share as little or as much of my truth that feels  appropriate to my inquiring fellow human.

With the oral history interviews that I conduct and record, I will likely never manage to give my narrators the same security, agency, and flexibility as my scars give me: I will pin their words to digital code and to paper, where they will stay, once collaboratively fixed, and repeat the same version of the same story ad infinitum, to no one and to anyone. As the embodied backup archive, I will strive to do better.

Storm Garner is a DC-born, Paris-raised, NYC-based survivor, multi-disciplined artist, and an ever-aspiring storyteller of the ineffable. She joins OHMA's 2018 cohort in the hopes of bringing her work and her lived experienced into closer dialogue. She's currently focused on costuming a new feminist opera, and documenting the life stories of the international food vendors of the Queens Night Market.