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Issue 141

Paul Soulellis: QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK
by Danielle St-Amour

In Issue 3 of the web-based design journal The Manual, published in 2012, educator, publisher and graphic designer Paul Soulellis’ bio describes him as a “recovering perfectionist.” His contribution, entitled “Design Humility,” is described in the subhead as an “embrace of chance and vulnerability.” Addressed to both himself and his peers in the graphic design community, Soulellis’ piece makes a call for the development of a new reflexivity within the practice. He opens with a description of a mycological tour he once took at the old Black Mountain College grounds in North Carolina. He was looking for ghosts, he explains, amongst the mushrooms, and despite a certain softness, doing so with a kind of urgency. “I found myself walking slow but looking hard—at tree trunks, along the bottoms of bushes, within patches of grass, at the edges of things. There was intention, and a focused observation, but still—we were wandering. A focused wander.”

You aren’t meant to do much on a tour beyond observe, maybe listen, hopefully learn. A tour of something with a knowledgeable guide can be a muse, can encourage a new somatic choreography, can be a boon (or a curse) for a busy mind. Soulellis describes his experience of walking through the wooded space of the campus as “a slow ramble: sensing, collecting, and being fully present to changes in light, weather, and sound. Searching, discovering, and acknowledging one’s own presence in the environment but without placing our selves at the center… The value in the focused wander is tremendous.”

This note, teasing out a practice of randomness, self-reflection and humility in design (against the “sleek object”) feels key to understanding Soulellis’ work. A varied practice and life are marked online in reflexive and vulnerable, personal musings, scattered across a variety of locations. Soulellis writes that he closed his successful design studio sometime before he made this call for “design humility,” in this same issue of The Manual —marking the beginning of a new kind of working and thinking about permanence, vulnerability and design.

Soulellis’ practice has produced multiple archives from content dispersed across the web. These are projects wrapped in vulnerability—the printed books he creates from them, of which there are finite copies, risk marginality, the online source material risks the oblivion of deletion. His project Library of the Printed Web (2013–2017), now housed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), was a practice of turning one thing—publications and projects composed of material scraped, grabbed or transformed from the web—into another: an ever-growing collection of documents collected, printed, which he describes as “a semi-annual publication dedicated to web-to-print discourse.” In an interview with Document Journal, Soulellis outlined the Library’s first gesture: “How do we take something that is meant to be seen for less than a second and pause that? How can we slow down our experience with the internet?” In a moment just preceding the protests at John F. Kennedy Airport against immigrant detention and the so-called “Muslim ban,” Soulellis’ friend and collaborator Sal Randolph described the project like this: “The Library is a document of a moment and a sensibility that seems simultaneously contemporary and historical—just by being gathered in this way, the manifold and subtle affects and design choices gather force and become expressive of a period. As I held the books I felt them slipping out of my grasp.”

QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK (2018) (QAW) was initiated after the 2016 US elections, after the acquisition of Library of the Printed Web by the MoMA and fresh within what some have called the “post-truth” era. Printing the web took on a new meaning as whole tracts of policy disappeared from government websites (such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s redaction of any mention of climate change) and social media was weaponized by politicians, lobbyists and other backward-facing agendas. Reactionary reporting, the rewriting and erasing of facts and a thick carpeting of revisionist histories overwhelmed news feeds as information proliferated and vanished at a pace almost too fast to follow.

In an essay that followed Library of the Printed Web #4 entitled “Urgent Archives,” published in 2017, Soulellis reconsidered the tactics the Library had thus employed. Hunting, scraping, grabbing and transforming as practices, as actions, had been changed and revealed in the charged landscape 2016 had wrought. He wrote: “…formal moves like these no longer suffice; we now need to look deeper at the power structures that flow into and out of works of appropriation. Who owns the platform? Who profits as the work circulates?” and “Does the act of appropriation work to reveal an imbalance of power, or amplify an underrepresented voice, or expose a site of oppression? Might the work even repair or stitch together broken relations?”

QAW is an urgent, present response to those questions. Positioned as a recursive thought within the practice of a printed web, QAW is a folded, unbound collection commissioned and gathered of materials that mark this urgency. Its design complicates the project’s status as archive or collection: several tabloid-sized newsprint pages, double-sided posters, variously sized booklets and loose sheets contain work from artists American Artist, Somnath Bhatt, Jeffrey Cheung and Gabriel Ramirez (Unity Press), Demian DinéYazhi´, Jack Halberstam, shawné michaelain holloway, Nora N. Khan, nicole killian, Be Oakley (GenderFail), Allison Parrish, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Nate Pyper and Sal Randolph.

The labour of queer archiving is one of reconstitution, creating, sourcing and grappling with a history marked by silence and erasure. Pulling together a constellation of thinkers and artists, QAW draws from and extends this work, creating a laterally historic meta-image of both “queer” and “archive,” by both performing and rethinking these strategies. Writing from stalwart queer-thinker Jack Halberstam revisits Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Toolkit,” reading her call for both discretion in tool choice as well as an urgent appeal for demolition beyond reconstruction. LA-based American Artist’s text on family trees and Ancestry.com documents a family reunion in Troy and traces the troubling relationship between colonialism, access and Big Data/genealogy corporations for black Americans. Writer and game-maker Porpentine Charity Heartscape contributes an epic piece of post-apocalyptic softly erotic horror fantasy. GenderFail archivist Be Oakley’s manifestos and short-essay posters pay homage to fonts seen on protest signs from the early days of the gay liberation movement, assembled from upper and lowercase letters intermixing without hierarchy. With each of these works, the shifting possibilities of QAW’s physical configuration generates new understandings, relations and conclusions.

Narrative is often applied over or within an archive, and the desire for an individual understanding of a history almost always influences the making of an archive. What gets archived, and what does not, how it is organized, where it is stored, who cares for it, all play to the politics of the formation of an archive. QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK feels like a conscious document of this fact, a refusal and an unfixing. In a moment of rapid change and urgency, you can feel it too, slipping out of your hands as you hold it. It is an archive because it has a slow intention, of care and of narrative; a collection because it is necessarily personal, unstable; and it is work because it’s being done—by holding it, you’re doing it; it’s urgently required.

Wandering can be a way to avoid a prescriptive back-looking while still keeping an eye on shape, form and design as things fold and unfold. It can help to determine the obscure and robust logics that publishing practices—loose and unfixed, framed by dispersion, marked by a series of processes, places, actions—both utilize and create. QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK offers that: a set of vulnerable tenets, an open collection of movable, wandering evidence.

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