Cencorship prevention: a new home for ‘Imagerie’ prototype archive

The object of study for my research-creation project is the popular imagery created within the current Québec student strike: its posters, banners, placards, comics, photo montages, videos and other creative actions. The pilot project consists of the assemblage of this popular imagery into a preliminary living archive of visual artifacts.

As a set of living artifacts, the prototype archive —as a starting point for my future research-creation project — is not proffered the status given to institutional or state archives that, as described by Achille Mbembe, “converts a certain number of documents into items judged to be worthy of preserving and keeping in a public place, where they can be consulted according to well-established procedures and regulations”1. In this archive, little if any judgement of its worth is made because all visually mediated popular imagery related to the student strike is deemed of interest to the archive.

Mbembe’s notion of an archive’s “instituting imaginary” relies on its trade with death, or “elements that testify that a life did exist, that deeds were enacted, and struggles engaged in or evaded. Archives are born from a desire […] to thwart [their] dispersion […] and the possibility, always there, that left to themselves, they might eventually acquire a life of their own” and wreak havoc by “stirring up disorder in the present”2. In oppostion to this trade with death, this prototype archive3 has no relation to death because it is created during the life of a social movement filled with vigour. The archive is created as an intervention within it and is itself an indictor of its robustness. The archive’s contents are not gathered nor made public in exchange of its owner’s death. It acts rather as an endorphin stimulus to foment “feelings of exhilaration brought on by pain, danger, or other forms of stress”4 like the perpetual stress of political, societal or state confrontation. This so-called “endorphin rush” that the prototype archive hope to stimulate and the research-creation project will attempt to document, is to provide the movement with “a sense of power and control over [itself] that allows [it] to persist with activity for an extended time.”4

A more specific role of this prototype archive is to coax and illustrate a stirring of the present and invoke a wreaking of havoc to unsettle its three levels of sedimentation as described by Michael R. Hill5 by not relying solely on artifact donations, by actively curating digital and real artifacts from multiple sources, and by avoiding worth judgements during curation to avoid any erosion of the archive’s contents and, hence, make it available to the student movement that created the artifacts. A fourth level of sedimentation not considered by Hill is the constant stirring of artifacts within this prototype archive back to the student/social movement so that it may be mashed-up, adapted and recycled with rabble-rousing inspiration. Their circulation could create an affective source of collective forward momentum that nourishes the movement in a cyclical loop of self-representation and renewal: its endorphin rush.

Stuart Hall writes, in relation to fans at football matches, that “banners and slogans, with faces and bodies painted in certain colours or inscribed with certain symbols, can also be thought of as like a ‘language’ — in so far as it is a symbolic practice which gives meaning or expression to the idea of belonging”6. For a social movement to maintain its advocates, and indeed attract others to its cause, the symbolic language expressed in its popular imagery needs to inspire belonging for those marching on the street and attract curious bystanders interested in change.

As a first step of my final research-creation project, the objective of the pilot project is to begin the ongoing process of assembling an archive and establishing preliminary categories to distinguish genres of visual artifacts that will influence future systems of codification. The pilot project will also provide an opportunity to house the collection in a single temporary location that renders its contents accessible to the student movement it represents. I will evaluate a particular application’s usefulness for the project’s requirements and identify specific attributes desirable for the final project. The sorting process will identify multiple signs of representation that will require later elaboration and divulge signifying constellations for future semiotic and/or discursive analysis.

This is a prototype archive to begin mediating memories; not memories of a distant past but those of an evolving present and a potential future. As a striking student expected to fulfill academic requirements, this project embodies the dialectical relationship between my academic responsibilities and those within the current student movement. This project is an ongoing action, a creative intervention by a student activist currently on strike.

Assembling & Classifying the Imagery

The pilot project began with the collection of a limited selection physical artifacts (posters & placards) pilfered after demonstrations, removed from university walls and gathered during student association general assemblies, which I photographed before depositing them into the archive at the Centre de recherche en imagerie populaire (CRIP)7. The quantity of striking CÉGEP and university students and the distribution of each of their institutions throughout Québec, and the quantity of banners and placards within demonstrations I participated in rendered their acquisition as physical artifacts unrealistic. Because of this, I began documenting their existence with photography from within the demonstrations I attended, and consulted various websites and social media platforms to mine otherwise unattainable popular imagery. Although I continue to gather physical artifacts for the CRIP, my focus changed toward the digital and photographic representation of the popular imagery from the student movement, and began assembling the files into my computer.

The first sources, as central informational points of student organizing, were the websites of the student federations (FEUQ, FECQ and CLASSE)8. The posters produced by these federations and their respective associations have two primary distinctions: 1- they announce specific events (ie., general assemblies and demonstrations) which provide an historical account of ongoing student activities, including upcoming events; and 2- they inform students of the issues related to the ongoing strike. A classification schema began with a “posters” folder, within which accommodate the undated posters, as well as, a series of dated sub-folders to house posters by month and year of the events they announce.

A wider sweep of online sources, revealed a plethora of creative imagery that was being produced by other ad hoc groups9 that have no formal affiliation to any particular student association. It quickly became evident that other groups/individuals were creating their own non-institutional popular imagery related to the strike, adding to the creative landscape and imposing an expanded system of classification. New folders were created to house the growing popular imagery’s diversity. The artifacts related to demonstrations were placed in the folder “banners and placards”. The digital creativity of visual artifacts never intended for print reproduction, required their own “digital” folder. Posters pasted to lampposts, walls or elsewhere required another folder to emphasize the role of the poster and its mode exhibition: “pasted”. Stencils painted in back alleys, beer brewed specifically in support of the strike, installations in public parks, t-shirts, performances and other creative actions captured photographically needed a category of their own that defied specificity: “other”. As media coverage grew and public debate increased, so did the number of editorial comics published in newspapers, requiring a “comics” folder. To add historical perspective to my collection, the CRIP provided images of posters from past student strikes in Québec deserving its own folder: “historical posters”.

By assembling the popular imagery in one location, I was able to appreciate its production and recognize its volume. The sorting and classification of its artifacts divulged the strike’s history and revealed its momentum. The prototype introduced the movement’s systems of (self)representation: its language, imagery and symbols that codify meaning within the movement that allow it to collectively act in certain ways and recount its own narratives.

Housing the Archive and Rendering it Public

With a sufficiently sorted yet modest collection of about 250 visual artifacts, their transferal to a single publicly accessible archive was the next step of creating the pilot project. A Facebook ‘community’ account was chosen to house the prototype archive for several reasons. Its omnipresence as a social media communication tool and its use by student activists to organize and discuss the ongoing strike made it an ideal application to temporarily house and redistributed its contents back to the movement. Facebook (FB) also enabled both the discovery of new imagery (and hence its acquisition) and facilitated the redistribution of the popular imagery back to the activists that created it, as well as, to the larger student/social movement. The collected images were deposited into separate photo albums to match the established classification within the photo section of the account.

Every day, I mined images from FB accounts and other related websites, saved the image files onto my harddrive, then uploaded the new imagery to the archive. I promoted the archive on my personal FB wall with daily postings. I selected an image-of-the-day to lead others to the archive and develop its fan base.

The transfer from a file-based archive on a computer harddrive to an online visual and interactive archive changed the collection significantly by allowing each album to be viewed as a corpus for the first time. Semiotic patterns emerged as symbols, thematics, styles and creative influences revealed themselves. I gathered the visual imagery from the evolving student movement, and sorted each album by dragging images alongside others that shared common attributes. Images with prominent red squares were placed alongside one another. Issues of police brutality or demonstrator-police relations were united. Where visual representation of specific political figures (Jean Charest, Line Beauchamp, Michelle Courchesne, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, etc.) were prominent, they too went together. Imagery by particularly prolific creators were assembled. Within the monthly albums, the posters were placed chronologically.

facebook_censor1

Facebook was a less-than-ideal location to house a permanent archive for several reasons but particularly because of its censorship practices. This became evident when I received a notice that one of the images (above) was removed from the collection because “it violates Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.” FB’s strict and particularly conservative policy on the display of nudity and what constitutes pornography — in combination with its encouragement of “reporting abuse” — makes housing a permanent collection that is antithetical to mainstream and mercantile culture vulnerable to recurring censorship and risks having the archive “permanently disabled”. I decided to re-upload the image to FB and denounce the censorship to the archive’s fan base, which was followed by a withdrawal of access to my personal and archive accounts for 48 hours (see image below).

Although FB was a bountiful source of imagery related to the strike, the exuberant sharing by innumerable users on its platform made it difficult to determine the imagery’s source, its date of creation and its relation to a specific event. During the upload phase onto FB’s platform, filenames were altered, removing their associative moniker to their source files. My hasty acquisition of imagery, to keep pace with its creation, to catch up with the backlog of content and to stimulate an ‘endorphin rush’, inhibited any codification strategy. During the creative phase of the final archive, attention to these details will need to be accentuated to improve its codification and ultimately its search and informational value.

facebook_censor2

The final research-creation project archive will need full control of its content. It will require database features to facilitate queries and adequately store tagged information about each artifact. An interactive interface, such as those used by recent web documentaries10, may be an interesting approach to the final archive, to prevent instituting its imaginary.

Systems of Representation and Signifying Constellations

Without attempting a semiotic nor a discourse analysis of the prototype archive’s popular imagery, I gathered the visual artifacts into albums, within which they were sorted along common systems of representation, which revealed a series of signifying constellations. These will inform my final research-creation project with a starting point to initiate a semiotic approach to analyse the poetics of the popular imagery and understand how the artifacts’ visual language produces meaning. They will also provide a point of departure to investigate the effects and consequences of student movement (self)representation during its “construction of identity and the marking of difference, in [its] production and consumption, as well as in the regulation of [its] social conduct”11

Besides the obvious red square that signifies the student strike stronger than any other symbol, other well-known symbols are used within the archive’s popular imagery, like the combative raised and clenched fist or its adaptation with the digitus medius raised giving the finger to detractors. The omnipresent casserole that made its presence after the passing of Bill 78 signifies non-student solidarity with the student struggle and expresses opposition to the repressive law designed to divide and weaken the student movement.

The combative relationship between the students and the state became conspicuous throughout the archive but was particularly apparent in the ‘posters’ and ‘digital’ albums, which revealed these two important signifying constellations. The demonization of Prime Minister Charest on dozens of posters and his ridicule in dozens more images in the digital album reveal that he is the central adversary of the conflict, with his Minister(s) of Education and Minister of Finance featured as secondary but equally reviled antagonists. The other arm of the state — its police — whose often violent relationship with the students was maintained during daily demonstrations and reinforced by the visual artifacts. Their riot gear is prominent in the imagery, as are their tools of repression: shields, batons, teargas, tie-wraps, gas masks, pepper spray, etc. Their presence and behaviour are also well represented: images of violent arrests and others of students with hands cuffed behind their backs. Rows of police, some of whom are pigheaded, confront protestors. Figures with injuries to their right eye are reminders of errant shrapnel from a dispersal sound grenade in response to the first serious injury of the strike.

These initial signifying constellations revealed that a more in-depth semiotic and discursive analysis of the archive’s visual imagery would have considerably more to reveal, which is an objective of the final research-creation project.

An Endorphin Rush

One of the student complaints against tuition increases is university administration mismanagement of its budget. Concordia University is often cited for having disbursed excessively high severance packages to a series of high-level administrators whose positions had been terminated prematurely12. A July 9, 2012 article in the Journal de Montréal reported that a vice-rector received a new luxury car as a contract stipulation courtesy of Concordia University13. This was a salient issue at the beginning of the strike but one that now receives little attention. The article led me to a placard I collected during the March 22, 2012 demonstration and later photographed for the archives. It reads, “Mon recteur est riche en tabarnak” (“My rector is rich as hell”). I became excited by the find and inspired by the memories it triggered of the strike’s first massive demonstration. Former indignant sentiments resurfaced and my desire to further the student strike was invigorated.

I immediately responded to the FB post of the newspaper article with an image of the placard and a link to the album within which it is archived. Within twenty minutes, a FB friend was compelled to send me a direct message and a link to the “Schtroumpfs ! Unis ! Jamais ne seront vaincus !” (“Smurfs! United! will never be defeated”) website. I had seen the first pages of the comic’s Smurf adaptation of the student strike, but had not yet read the entire 72-page album since its completion and had yet to see the particular panel referred to by the link: page 23B14. The panel’s image shows a half-dozen Smurf characters walking along a street, reading the posters that had been plastered onto the Smurf cottages the previous night. In front of one poster, a Smurf points at its text drawing the attention of another Smurf wearing a red square. The poster reads, “Mon recteur est riche en tabaschtroumpf !” (“My rector is rich as Smurf!”). It was an adaptation of the placard. I was thrilled by the reference and quickly shared the link (and the panel it led to) as a comment to initial FB post.

The multiple levels of remediation that the placard underwent since its original display on March 22, illustrates a process — via its multiple stirrings and de-sedimentation — to stimulate an endorphin rush that potentiates prolonged creative involvement, which is essential for the ongoing student conflict.

I returned to the Smurf album and read it in its entirety, and felt my own intoxicating rush by its adapted retelling of the student strike. The prototype archive, and its progeny as my research-creation project can be a living tool for sharing, sampling and recycling the popular imagery of the student movement. By avoiding sedimentation, by giving the visual artifacts secondary, even tertiary lives, the archives may indeed wreak havoc and stimulate sustained action.

– This text was written within the MA Media Studies methodology class: Media Research Methods

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1 Mbembe, Achille (2002) “The Power of the Archive and its Limits”, in Refiguring the Archive by Carolyn Hamilton et al (eds). Boston : Kluwer Academic Books, pp 18-26. (p20).

2 idem (p22).

3 Imagerie d’un printemps érable http://facebook.com/affichesGGIposters.

5 Hill, Micheal R. (1993) Archival Strategies and Techniques: Qualitative Research Methods Series, #31. London : Sage Publications.

6 Hall, Stuart (1997) “Introduction” in Hall, Stuart (ed.) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications (p5).

7 http://crip.uqam.ca. I have been collecting posters for the CRIP since 2001 and published a book with them that recounts the history of social movements in Québec via representative posters from their collection. Jean-Pierre boyer, Jean Desjardins, David Widgington (2007) Picture This: posters of social movements in Québec (1966-2007). Montréal: Cumulus Press.

8 La Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec and la Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec: http://1625canepassepas.ca/materiel/ and la Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante: http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/materiel-dinformation-2/materiel-dinformation/ (viewed June 30, 2012).

11 Hall, Stuart (1997) “Introduction” in Hall, Stuart (ed.) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications (p4).

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