On curating activist objects

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A video tutorial of the Occupy movement explaining how to record a demonstration, a website of Gezzy Park in Turkey posting sketches that show in detail the precarious architectural constructions in the square, or a collection of placards of the Spanish indignados kept in an squatted building later evicted by the police… the uprising of new social movements all around the world since 2010 has made visible the material effort that has refurnished the city with new political forms. It is known that in the analysis of politics we not only should take into consideration the materiality of politics but that material things are political objects too. Social movements are characterized by particular repertories of practices and modes of organization that imprint their political forms. We assume that their material culture has a particular political condition too; the infrastructures and objects mobilized by social movement have a distinctive political condition that we want to explore through the notion of ‘activist object’.

Digital infrastructures have produced intense changes in the forms of organization of social movements, but they have made visible their materiality too. Tutorials, photos, videos, websites, digital archives… account for the everyday activity in social movements and preserve their history in digital repositories, archives and collections. The intensification of documenting and archiving practices is especially evident in the case of the Occupy movement which documented its own existence on the Internet since its beginning. We think that these gestures reveal the reflexive stance of social movements towards the preservation of their own history and material culture and gives expression to the extension of the archive in our society. Documenting and archiving are however only two of a set of practices that are mobilized in the preservation of material culture among activists. Collecting placards, leaflets; documenting ephemeral interventions in photos and videos, building and curating websites and digital archives are part of this effort. It seems that these practices are usually located in sites chosen very carefully and that the circulation of these objects to mainstream institutional sites is full of difficulties; in this situation the activist object reveals the tension between the modes of publicity deployed by social movements and those of more conventional institutions like museums or public archives.

We want to approach activist objects through the entanglement of practices that social movements mobilize in the preservation and care of their material culture; exploring the processes of collecting, documenting, archiving and curating activist objects, both inside and outside the movements. What is the relation between the activist condition of certain objects and the practices that take care of their preservation? Is the circulation of documentation what activates an otherwise mundane object into an activist one? Is the documentation of certain practices (photos, videos, websites…) an activist practice in itself? Which kind of political relationality is enacted by activist objects in their circulation? How to curate and exhibit objects without disarming their distinctive political capacity? What kind of transformation takes place when an activist object becomes part of a museum collection? Might it be possible to collect, document and preserve such objects without deactivating their political potential?

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