Rematriating and reanimating

Ester McGeeney and Ali Ronan

Rematriating

In March we held two workshops in Manchester. The first was an academic workshop: Rematriating the WRAP: Connecting academic and community archives. Centring around the key concept of ‘rematriation’ we explored what it means to bring an archive back to the place it was created and abstracted from. We were a mix of mainly historians and social scientists drawing on our different traditions to explore the following themes of revisit and return, archiving and digitzing, reanimating and accessing.

Rematriation: We were in Manchester – one of the two cities from which the WRAP material was extracted. We are working there over the next year to return the data – to give it back to the communities from which it came and see if anyone wants it. An ambivalent gift. The term rematriation helps us to make complex the process of ‘repatriating’ archives materials – taking objects out of museums and returning them to the communities they came from. Drawing on post-colonial indigenous movements we can understand this process as more than the gifting of materials but a process of (re)building relationships with and within communities.

We are already deep in the process of doing this – working with youth and community groups, to reanimate the data and work out what we can ethically show and do with the original material. Some of these are the 2019 versions of the 1989 communities that the WRAP team worked with but we are finding that the landscape of youth groups and sexual health outreach work has dramatically changed in the past thirty years, as Rachel reflects on in her post Digging where I stand. (re)building relationships has been slow, exciting and painful.

Digitizing and sharing: Jenna Ashton reminded us that it is important to think about why you are digitizing an archive beyond the desire to ‘save’. She called our attention to the desire to digitize and get everything ‘out there’ without thinking about Who, why and what is it for? Jenna also cautioned against the allure of shiny tech and VR, reminding us to pay attention to sensor experience and the digital. Julie Mcleod also reminded us of the need to think about ‘ordinary people’ as well as ‘teccy people’ when considering how best to ethically and effectively show our digital archives to others.

Our work in Manchester helps us to work out who might use the archive or to whom the archive might matter. We will be working with university students, school pupils, youth workers, teachers, community workers, community members and activists – exploring what is interesting and useful, what resonates.

Anonymity: to harm or protect? Andrew Flinn and Niamh Moore’s discussion unveiled the different ways in which anonymity is viewed within oral history interviews and social science traditions. Within the oral history tradition people it is presumed that people will be named. This is an important way of giving people voice and connecting people with places and historical events. To remove someone’s name in this context is to do harm.

Within the social science tradition it is presumed that participants will be anonymised. And this is usually to protect them from harm.

We are currently anonymising the WRAP material and facing challenges in working out what is ethically ok. We are removing participants names and the names of the boyfriends, ex-boyfriends and friends. But we are leaving many of the details about place. It often feels uncomfortable as we try and work out how much of the detail about place should we remove to protect participants anonymity without erasing the rich details about Manchester city life and its communities thirty years ago? Talk about Hulme, Moss side, Moston and Salford tells us much about how socio-economics, community and place shaped sexual cultures and responses to HIV and AIDS in 1989. One young woman tells us that she feels less at risk from HIV from having unprotected sex with men than she does from working with children at a school in Moss side. A community she images as risky due to drug use and prostitution. Although she also (along with other young women in the archive) wonder how their own sexual behaviour differs from that of prostitutes. They are sure it does. But they aren’t always sure how.

Emotional communities. Historian Claire Langhammer has been working with Rachel and reading some of the WRAP interviews. She observed that there is a ‘raw’ emotional quality to the data. She encouraged us to think about historically situated ‘emotional communities’ and ‘affective ecologies’ to help us work with the data and understand the heterogeneous nature of social change in Manchester as uneven.

Claire observed that there is little talk of love in the WRAP interviews but rather an overwhelming sense of anger and disappointment. She shared a moment from the archive in which a young women expresses frustration about the amount of emotional labour she has to do in her relationships. She wonders, in conversation with the interviewer, whether the relationship might not be worth doing. Claire invites us to see this in the context of wider shifts in the 1980s in gender and sexual relationships in which women were starting to see themselves as having greater choice in their relationships, compared to their mothers, and a desire for greater equality, but were not always seeing these choices and desires translating into safe, contented and equitable relationships.

That’s not my Manchester! Rachel Thomson presented an account of 1980s Manchester as captured in the Manchester based magazine City Life. There is a public concern about sexual violence. Manchester is a trendy city and there is a feeling of change – City council privatisation. The arrival of ecstacy. Entrepreneurship. International travel. We see scallies and yuppies and education, gender and class trouble. This Manchester – an increasingly privatised, global and globalised Manchester – was not familiar to many of the participants in the room who had lived in the city in the 1980s. They reminded us of the many other archives – in particular queer archives – that tell different stories about the city and its communities. We were reminded by Liz Stanley of Borges and the powerful deception of the archive in making you think that it is give you ‘the’ story.

Feminist webs. The WRAP project developed out of a web of feminist academics and community activists. It was not a purely intellectual project but as a response to work that the WRAP team and others were doing in community groups where they met women who were angry about the way that women were meant to be solving the problems – by getting men to wear condoms.

The feminist web is an important metaphor for this project we revisit a project that took place as part of a feminist web whilst also using modern day webs and connections to make our project happen. As participants reflected, these are webs with messy boundaries where academics and communities are in conversation, not without tension.

Reanimating

Day two was a workshop for youth workers in which we had a go at reanimating the WRAP data through poetry and craft.

Images from our craft workshop are available here. Below is a summary of the poetry workshop, led by Ali Ronan and some examples of the poems created with/from the archive.

We started with brief introductions to relax the group. The group takes the lead from the workshop ‘leader’ so I was brief and informal in my own introduction and because the day was intense and with lots of questions/memories to discuss – I decided to work more quickly than I usually would. I used ‘flow writing’ to start.

Flow writing:The task was to just write for 2 minutes without stopping about a young woman. It could be you or someone imagined. This exercise was just to get the workshop going and to get people relaxed. I made it clear that there was no sharing of material at this stage. This was important so that people were not feeling vulnerable or exposed.:

Clusters:The next task was Clusters, which is an exercise using a word to link with other words that are evoked. For example: :

Sex –Fun-Funny-Awkward-Secret -Bodies

So the next task was to ask people to start a cluster of words with Sex in the centre. We worked quickly to avoid overthinking the task.

Lists and patterns:I then asked people to create a list/patterning poem by starting with the phrase Sex is …. I kept it simple in this workshop but you can make it more complicated by adding different ideas such as Sex is .. Sex is not… This time I made it clear that we might share some of these lines/lists if people wanted to.

After 5 minutes I asked people to read out one line each, I started and then we went round the table so that a poem was created line by line – some lines were repeated and or echoed which made people laugh in wonder.

Working with WRAP

Then I distributed two short WRAP extracts and asked people to read them and circle ideas and works that sparked a response in them. We then used the same patterning / list making technique with these words to start to write a poem.   I used short ones – just one side of A4

QU:  Do you talk to your dad about this [a sexual experience with someone who refused to wear a condom, which led to Michelle refusing to have sex with him]?
AN:  Yeah, and my mum.
QU:  That’s great. Have you always been able to?
AN:  Yeah, I mean I had a one night stand when I was only 14, and I’ve not told my mum and dad, not for the fact that they would have done anything or said anything, but the fact that I was so ashamed. It’s part of something that I’d rather forget, it’s personal to me. And I think it would have disappointed them both if I’d’ve told them, and if I told them now they’d..(unclear). But that was something that was for me, that I wanted to block away, my little skeleton that goes in my little cupboard. I mean everybody’s got them. But from then on we talked about this, that. They came home and I told my dad. And he said – What would have happened if he had actually have gone through with it, if he’d have worn it [a condom]? I said – Well, I’d have been regretting an act then, not a near act. I said – It’d’ve happened and I would be regretting it, I would have found out the hard way that that wasn’t what I wanted. 
QU:  It might have been fun?
AN:  Yeah, it might have been fun, but that’s..
QU:  Would you feel guilty, or alright about casual sex for the fun of it?
AN:  No, I don’t think, I felt fine, I felt lovely up until the time when he said – I won’t wear one of them’. But I mean that’s all I wanted at the time. And if it had gone through that I would have been quite prepared to continue. But that was all I wanted. But time passed, and I realised that it’s not what I need from a man. I mean if I’m going to do it I’m going to do it properly. You know, have a bit more up top behind it, as well as down below. I mean he was really, we didn’t even talk, and I fancied the arse of this lad, and that was all.

Michelle, (EDD135) Aged 20. The WRAP archive.

Wonderful poems emerged. And we shared what we had written, to laughter and astonishment.

Thank you to everyone.

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