“An investigative approach grounded in intergenerational participation is key to the preservation of memory”: Interview with Allie Whalen

Popular examples of the use of audiovisual archival materials in documentaries, such as the recent documentary series Break It All, aired on Netflix, showcase a wealth of newly digitized collections that document the unofficial history of Latin American rock music, along with sub-genres such as punk. Most such artifacts are preserved by the communities that comprise these movements. The authenticity of the audiovisual material and the direct participation of community members enrich the content of these archives, but because they are self-managed, they do not always enjoy the same support networks as state or national archives. The role of an archivist allied to self-managed communities is to provide support and resources so that the images and their accompanying stories do not disappear over time.

Audiovisual archivist Allie Whalen has dedicated her career to documenting and piecing together the history of music subcultures in Eastern Europe, Los Angeles, and—more recently—in Latin America. Her work focuses on archival preservation of materials produced within musical subcultures that evolve under autocratic governments, with a particular emphasis on the effects of state repression on the development of radical movements.

Thanks to a Fulbright grant, Allie will continue her research and field work in Uruguay through a training project “on wheels,” culminating in a symposium on underground archives in Latin America. At the end of 2020, Archivistas en Espanglish had the good fortune of talking with Allie during her stay in Havana, where she was completing a project on the Cuban recording industry. What follows is a record of our conversation.

AE- Tell us a little bit about your Fulbright scholarship and your plans for the upcoming year.

Mamá era Punk (1988) Uruguay, direction: Guillermo Casanova

AW- In early 2020, I received a Fulbright scholarship to spend nine months in Uruguay researching the history of punk and underground rock communities during the years of the civic-military dictatorship (1973-85), and how their collective memory has been represented, or underrepresented, in the archives. The idea for the project grew out of conversations with friends and colleagues in Uruguay about the history of the punk scene and my interest in what types of archival materials have survived. From these conversations, I learned that no focused research had ever been done on collections dedicated to Uruguayan underground rock music. It was during this time that I encountered the recently restored Mamá Era Punk, a 1988 short film about the punk resistance movement. I also began reading articles by Beatriz Tadeo Fuica on the experimental use of video by punk youths in Uruguay and the memories captured in documentaries during the democratic transition. I’m excited to begin this research, and I imagine it will develop out of an effort to explore and understand these collections through dialogue with the community of Uruguayan musicians, zinesters, writers, artists, archivists, and historians. Building these particular relationships is also of personal importance to me, as I was born in Uruguay. Having lived most of my life in the United States, this project will be an opportunity for me to return to Montevideo for an extended period.

Mamá era Punk (1988) Uruguay, direction: Guillermo Casanova

AE: How did you first become interested in this topic?

As a graduate student in New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) program, I was involved in the Audiovisual Preservation Exchange Project (APEX) on several occasions. I had the opportunity to travel and collaborate with wonderful people working on audiovisual memory projects, such as Señal 3 La Victoria, a community-based resistance group in Chile with its own television channel, and the Laboratorio de Cine FAC [FAC Film Laboratory], a film and experimental art collective in Uruguay. I owe much of the support I’ve received in my work to the network of archivists, artists, and colleagues I met through APEX.

Punk Archives and Underground Resistance Scenes: Interview with Allie Whalen. Click To Tweet

This project also grew out of my graduate thesis research on the preservation of samizdat (self-published) audio files, exile and the underground in the Eastern Bloc. In 2016, at the conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, I presented an expanded version of my thesis on international underground archives at a session on Do-It-Yourself and community archives. Around the same time, my focus was beginning to shift towards punk and resistance archives in Latin America and the Caribbean, and I began talking with friends and archivist colleagues in the region about possible research projects. My research has also been influenced by an ongoing collaborative audiovisual digitization project between the Library of the University of California, Los Angeles, where I currently work as an audiovisual preservation specialist, and several Cuban cultural heritage institutions in Havana. As a result of these experiences, I have spent a good amount of time studying various aspects of music cultures and archives in Latin America. There is incredible work being done in places like Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, and Cuba to preserve punk, queer, and underground collections consisting of films and videos, music, fanzines, and photos. I found this all so interesting that I began to connect with people I know to organize and find funding for a field study that would include workshops and other collaborative efforts. This project would not have been possible without the support of my colleagues Julieta Keldjian Etchessarry, Julio Cabrio, Ángela López Ruiz, and Guillermo Zabaleta from the FAC Film Laboratory, the Catholic University of Uruguay, and the University of the Republic of Uruguay; also Juana Suárez and Dan Streible from the University of New York, Yasmin Dessem and the department of Preservation and Conservation at the University of California in Los Angeles.

AE- In what ways have you needed to adapt your research methodology in light of the pandemic?

AW- At the moment, I am in Havana working on another project that will continue into 2021, on the history of the independent music production industry in Cuba from 1960 to the present, and its studios, spaces, techniques, and equipment. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) for this project. The idea for this project arose from previous collaborative digitization work with official institutions, and from my experiences with the complexities of traveling to Cuba with similar digitization equipment, which is large and heavy. I knew a few people when I arrived in Cuba, and through them I was able to connect with and interview friends and collaborators from their extended communities. I owe my contacts within this network of artists to the trust, honesty and generosity of my collaborators. I have spoken with producers, sound engineers, musicians, DJs, historians, and archivists about Do-It-Yourself analog and digital music history and recording practices, and through these conversations I have been able to learn about many interconnected aspects of the Cuban underground scene.

Darkening, La Habana, Cuba (Photo courtesy of Ray Mora)

After five months in Cuba, I am in the final stages of my field research and preparing to return to my job at UCLA. My time here has been very noteworthy; I have had the opportunity to meet many creators who shared with me their stories, spaces, and personal archives. In future I hope to visit studios outside the capital in provinces such as Holguín, Camagüey, Sancti Spíritus, and Villa Clara. Both my methods and my approach have changed as a result of doing this research during the pandemic. In the beginning, my goal was to learn about the history, diversity, and processes of underground music production, but the difficulties created by the pandemic have prompted more in-depth research, focused on the challenges of operating and maintaining an independent studio during these times. In the next few months I will begin writing articles about the project, one of which will be published in the ARSC magazine. I invite all those interested to visit my Linktree page where I will post reviews of the project in Cuba and updates during my Fulbright project in Uruguay.

The pandemic has also impacted how and when I can carry out these projects due to the closures of borders and institutions. Field investigations during a pandemic demand greater flexibility, and I feel fortunate and grateful that I was able to spend these months in Cuba. Due to the pandemic, many studios are temporarily closed, some have to operate with limited capacity, and still others are permanently closed and have sold their equipment. Many measures have been implemented in Cuba to stop the spread of the virus, such as isolation centers and the closure of areas with large numbers of confirmed cases. Because of these measures, some interviews were either rescheduled, delayed, or simply canceled. Virtual interviews are a challenge because the Internet in Cuba is slow and expensive. The best option has been to send and receive voice messages. It is not the same as a direct visit to a studio but it is a workable alternative under the circumstances.

AE- What connections have you made or posited between the underground cultures in different countries?

AW- I think the music, resistance movements, and archives throughout Latin America and the Caribbean share a common historical thread. Furthermore, an investigative approach grounded in intergenerational participation is key to the preservation of memory among subcultures. This approach implies a process that embraces and continues independent work with community-based programs like zine workshops, small press publications, and compilations of old music. As I make my inquiries, I am interested in the connections between present-day subcultures and earlier underground communities that developed under the autocratic governments of the 20th century. In summary, these investigations leverage collections found in libraries, archives, and other cultural heritage organizations to establish a historical baseline from which connections between the scenes, styles, sounds, and creative practices of the various Latin American countries—and efforts to preserve them—may be drawn.

AE- In the context of Latin America and the Caribbean, your work encompasses a variety of cultures. How do you foster relationships with archivists and creators among these diverse traditions?

AW- My hope is that working together on these projects will bring together archivists, artists, historians, and other individuals across these cultures who have a common interest in underground archives and cultural preservation. My Fulbright project was designed to build up to a symposium on underground archives in Latin America and the Caribbean, but this type of event may prove difficult to organize given complications of the pandemic. Ideally, the symposium would include presentations, exhibitions, and workshops for individuals active in the creation, organization, and preservation of the audiovisual legacy of the underground. My goal is to publish a collaborative anthology of writings on the history and preservation of underground archives in the region, and I hope that the symposium may provide a foundation for this publication.

Over the years, I have talked with my creator friends about the management and preservation their own archives, and I’ve come to recognize the overwhelming impact of accessibility and affordability on archival practice. My own investigations of underground archives reflect my interest in the ways in which subcultures historically have documented themselves, despite stigmatization, oppression, persecution, and lack of funding. I believe that collaborative research initiatives can generate direct support and representation for the people who have lived, created, and saved these collections, and who continue to preserve them today.

I recently was able to do a virtual residency with the FAC Film Laboratory in Uruguay. The residency was focused on international underground archives, with emphasis on Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States. This project brought together all my work experiences over the last few years, and I was pleased by the positive responses and interactions of the international online community. It was a great opportunity to connect different cultures and disciplines, and to promote and generate more support for underground artists and community archives.

AE- Why do you feel this is an opportune moment to highlight memories of resistance movements as eallxpressed in punk archives?

AW- It is important to prioritize archives of resistance movements and underground cultures because the act of preservation brings with it the recognition, protection, and conservation of communities currently in existence. Punk archives represent the mix of identities and cultures from which the punk scene is built. They broaden the historical narrative of these underground movements through inclusion of voices that would otherwise go unheard, silenced, or neglected. They also allow researchers to make connections between punk and resistance movements and other cultural manifestations. In terms of archivist-creator collaborations, it is not a matter only of preserving stories but also of supporting the creators who keep these traditions alive.


Interview made by:
Cristina Fontánez Rodríguez

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