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Digital archives and activism

Its the crack of dawn on a wet Irish Sunday. A grey pall hangs over a Dublin driven to mourning.  All is quiet. Alina and I silently look over our plans for the day over mugs of hot tea. The studio lights are on and the set is ready for the day's shoot. For the umpteenth time, I observe Alina working with the movement of thought through her body. In her silent contemplation, with the slightest shiver in her shoulders, she is redefining her anatomy, freeing her limbs, negotiating gravity and committing to memory. I marvel at the way she gets movement, with barely a glance at the research material I have prepared for her. We are working on a what I call the 'hosanna' gestures today. I have identified some 90 of them. We will get through them quickly.

I have spent the last 3 years on a long term research project to archive gestures, movements and rhythms of worship to understand their impact on our everyday lives.  I wanted to know how our movements are limited by centuries of worship. Building an archive was a place for me start. Not necessarily where I wanted to dwell. I wanted to build an archive to move forward and away from it. The reenactments, transformations, analysis and commentary that emanated from this exercise were what motivated it.

It has been an intensive three years. I worked with several performers in controlled environments to capture thousands of photographs and videos on gestures and movements in worship.  My initial focus was South Asian belief systems and their various rituals, prayers and liturgies.  The archives are no longer defined by these boundaries.

Take for instance the Sikh bow. This bow is similar across almost all geographical areas and communities that perform it. Standing upright, hands clasped, bend your legs down to the floor.  The Sikh bow is not a 'drop to your knees' type of bow practiced elsewhere. Balanced on your hands placed squarely on the floor, gradually lower your knees to the ground, bending your body to the point where you can touch the floor with your forehead.  Repeat backwards.

To record the Sikh bow in my studio, I  used several video recordings from on and offline sources as reference. I break the gesture down and reenact it  using an all European cast that work closely with me on the project. All photo and video shoots are carried out in controlled settings. Every movement is rehearsed extensively and I make sure that the performers are clear about context and delivery.  By doing all this I push to bring about focus on  the movements and gestures alone.

But why archive at all? My archive, as any archive, structures and limits and aligns with the research questions that motivated it.  But doesn't the  act of archiving happen only when the archive  emerges through a particular voice?  Is it even possible to develop new gestures, movements and  performances and  to problematise the old and weary without the archiving gesture? Isn't the transformative closely linked to the archive?

For me, archiving is an act of design.   By bringing together diverse and evolving gestures and movements of  worship and by fixing, recontextualising and repositioning them, the archived object reveals itself as a thing of wonder and beauty.  But more importantly it allows me to look at the lines I have drawn ( consciously and unconsciously), not only in the categories that have become  part of the ever growing archive, but the partitions that demarks the limits of the archive itself.  For instance, one category that has sprung from this work is a group of movements/gestures that are found in worship houses around the world that might not be part of the accepted range of movements but are nonetheless not forbidden.

So I see myself as, what Mark Wrigley refers to as the activist archivist. I am designing and building an archive to change the way people think about worship and movement in general. How have our bodies been colonised by centuries of external influences on the range of our movements? What is the nature of this gilded cage we wear throughout our lives and how does it get us closer to our gods?

Back at the studio, Alina and I are exhausted after a full morning of work and our conversations drift to the back breaking hazards of leaning back to gaze into the heavens.

1. Unleashing the Archive
Author(s): Mark Wigley
Source: Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism,
Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter 2005), pp. 10-15
Published by: University of Minnesota Press

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