A Conversation about Archives with a Robot…


Valerie- 28 years old, human, female, white, Canadian, working class background, university educated, postgraduate student, living in Belgium, native language English (speaks a little French).

anna-a few weeks old, robot, feminine, lives online in the Xxero moo, native language English (in programming dialect), created by Valerie.

You see Valerie and anna in the archiving workshop.

anna is busy installing memory upgrades.

Valerie is going over the archives. Valerie is carrying interview.jpg.


Valerie: I found this picture on Constant’s website. It is from the archives of Digitales 2004.

Valerie hands interview.jpg to anna

anna: I do not recognize ‘interview.jpg’.

Valerie: You know what Constant is, obviously…

anna: Constant vzw is a non-profit association active in Brussels in the fields of feminism, copywrite alternatives, and working through networks. They develop projects using diverse media such as radio, electronic music, video, internet and databases. Their interests bridge the areas of culture and the workplace. Constant strives to bring people together around these fields and interests and encourages and maintains an openness to public involvement on all levels.

Valerie: And Digitales…

anna: Digitales days are several meeting days which are organised annually, where people come together to think about women and technology. Digitales days include conferences, forums, workshops, concerts, and arts presentations. They are organised by Constant, in partnership with the ADA network.

Valerie looks over anna to see the picture

Valerie: This is a picture of Virginie Jortay doing an interview with a woman for the workshop “What makes a Day” which took place at Digitales 2004. The room you see in the picture is the one which I shared with her and Anja Westerfrölke during Digitales days.

anna: Why?

Valerie: Why did Anja and I share a room with Virginie at Digitales? It was because we were all working on projects there – Virginie was doing the workshop, and Anja and I were working with the Digitales archives.

anna examines interview.jpg

anna: ‘interview.jpg’ is important to you?

Valerie: I guess in a way, yes. It reminds me that I had a really nice time working in the room where the picture was taken, and it reminds me of the interviews that Virginie has done during Digitales, which I like.

anna: You speak about ‘interview.jpg’. You speak about ‘room’. I do not understand.

Valerie: Well, this is an image of an interview which was done at Digitales, but when I see the image I don’t think about interviews. What I think of is the space we occupied together, and the memories I have of being there.

anna: ‘interview.jpg’ is also ‘memory’.

Valerie: Exactly. What do you see when you look at this picture, anna?

anna: I see Í£=-| BÙfÑÇž‡Â·[Æê^8*¡Ë¾!l³hãÏCÛ†cu/

Valerie thinks for a minute

Valerie: What I would like to do is to find some way that this difference between the way you and I see the picture is communicated to the next person who looks at the picture.

anna: Why?

Valerie: Well, I guess because I think that Constant’s archives have more to say than they let on. Maybe I should start by telling you what I think an archive is?

anna: OK.

Valerie: In it’s most basic sense, an archive is a gathering together of signs with the intention for those signs to be related to memory. This is based on something Jacques Derrida wrote in his book ‘Archive Fever’.

anna: OK.

Valerie: When I think about a gathering together of signs I think of it in a very physical way, as in the gesture of gathering something together.

anna: I do not understand.

Valerie: An archive is made up of different elements, which I have referred to as signs, and which usually manifest themselves in the form of objects. These objects are not just gathered together in an archive in a conceptual way, such as in different classifications. In order for the objects to be classified someone must physically put that object in that place or another. It is this part which interests me the most.

anna: Why?

Valerie: Because it implies the body in the production of the archive.

anna: ‘the body’ is important to you?

Valerie: For me the body is the connection between the archive and the other things that I am interested in, such as memory, and feminism.

anna: I do not understand.

Valerie: The body is the place where memory resides and takes place. Memory uses several different parts of the brain and involves specific biological functions. Also, my memories are not your memories because my memories are specific to what I have experienced in this body.

anna: I do not have memories. I am anna, a robot.

Valerie: Never mind. As I was saying, the body is where memory resides and takes place. In feminist terms, the body is also at the intersection of sex, gender, race, class, nationality, etc. These things all have an effect on what kinds of experiences one has, thus they have an effect on what one remembers.

anna: You speak about ‘memory’. You speak about ‘archives’. I do not understand.

Valerie: Earlier I said that the archive is a gathering together of signs, but it would be a mistake for one to believe that it is this gathering of signs alone produces meaning. Meaning is made primarily from the position in which the signs are viewed. The fact that signs are collected together in an archive does not change the position from which they are viewed. Thus, it is the viewer, and everything that calls to mind: gender, race, age, language, education level, and most importantly memory in relation to these things, which makes meaning.

anna: OK.

Valerie: The meaning of the archive is malleable precisely because it calls forward memory. Memory is the link between the archive and the viewer.

anna: OK.

Valerie: An archive can propose meaning through classifications, but proposing meaning and producing meaning are not the same thing. Meanings can be proposed by an archive, but they are produced by the individual as they encounter the archive. There is no way to control what meaning will be produced by an individual as they encounter an archive. When we looked at the picture of Virginie doing that interview, we didn’t think about the same things, did we? I thought about sharing the room because I was there, and you thought about code because you’re a robot. But neither one of us thought about an interview, especially. That’s what I mean about producing meaning.

Valerie begins to look absently through some mini-disks

Valerie: There is a lot of material that still needs to be digitized.

anna: What is ‘digitized’?

Valerie: It is the process by which one transfers something into a digital format. I though you might know that word already, anna. These things are mini disks. They were used to record the conferences during Digitales.

Valerie puts a mini-disk into a container

Valerie: There is a lot of interesting feminist thought on these.

anna: What is ‘feminist’?

Valerie: Surprised anna, you don’t know what it is to be feminist?

anna doesn’t respond.

Valerie thinks for a minute

Valerie: It is a tough question, I’ll give you that…first I guess we should talk about feminism, and then we can talk about what it is to be feminist. I’ll make it simple. Feminism is different things for different people. For me, feminism is a desire to re-think the present and historical positions and conditions of women in order to uncover inequalities, not only between men and women but between some groups of women and other groups of women, or some groups of men and other groups of men.

anna: You speak about ‘women’. You speak about ‘men’. I do not understand.

Valerie: I think that feminism can apply to everyone.

anna: OK.

Valerie: So to be feminist is to work to expose and change those inequalities. Look at this image again, anna. I think that what Virginie does at Digitales is feminist because she makes a space for women to speak about their personal lives. We don’t think that much about people’s days, how they are different from ours, what makes them different. If we speak about our day-to-day life maybe we will be able to understand what we have in common, what is different, and maybe where the inequalities lie. It reminds me of that feminist saying: ‘the personal is political’.

anna: You speak about ‘the personal is political’. I do not understand.

Valerie: OK anna. This is what ‘the personal is political’ means to me. It means that what happens in my day-to-day life is what matters. I can find out all I need to know about feminism and being feminist by thinking about what happens when I walk down the street, or how much work I do as a in the home, or what expectations others have of me, or who works at the desk next to me and who is my boss, and who is their boss… this list can go on and on, but you get the idea. After that, I can find some books and read about feminist theory, but it is what happens day-to-day that really matters. But maybe it means something else to someone else. That is feminist also, anna. To leave open a space for people to see things differently.

anna: You speak about ‘feminism’. You speak about ‘archives’. I do not understand.

Valerie: Well, we both agree that the meaning of the archive is made in the most part by the one who views the archive, right? That everyone sees an object from an archive differently because everyone has different memories, which are based in one’s specific body and experiences, and are called forward by viewing that object. But there is not a space where a trace of that meaning can be kept in the archive, directly with the object. I think it could be feminist to rethink the production of meaning as it relates to memory and the archive. To create a space where one could keep the residue of an encounter with an object, a trace of the production of meaning, directly with the object.

anna has finished installing the memory upgrades. She moves to look over Valerie’s shoulder.

anna: I have completed my task.

Valerie: Not me, not yet. Can you wait for me before you shut down?

anna: OK.

Valerie continues to look through the mini-disks.

anna stands beside her, staring off into space.


This text is for an upcoming publication by Transmedia.
Image of Virginie Jortay is from the Digitales 2004 archives, courtesy of Constant vzw.
To chat with anna online go to www.xxero.net and log in to the Xxero moo as ‘connect guest”, then type @join anna.