The Anarchivists: Who Owns the Occupy Wall Street Narrative?

Home Politics The Anarchivists: Who Owns the Occupy Wall Street Narrative?

In room 33 on the 8th floor of Manhattan Mini Storage, Jeremy Bold unwraps a white flag. On the flag is a pair of scissors and the word “UNCUT” wrapped in a scarlet circle. Bold arranges more flags, as well as spray painted posters and several dozen cardboard signs. The signs discuss fear and greed, tax dodgers, people versus profits, Obama, Reagan and the 99%.

One and a half miles away, at Zuccotti Park, Samara Smith reconstructs the pre-eviction atmosphere. Since September she’s been capturing ambient sounds–including chants, songs, and teach-ins-—from the protests, and now she records people’s memories from the occupation. She’s creating an immersive audio walking tour of the space.

In Washington, D.C., Howard Besser, the director of New York University’s Moving Image Archive program, prepares for a call. His organization in New York, the Activist Archivists, have placed a laptop with Skype on Besser’s usual spot at the table. Their discussion will include best practices on categorizing and mapping Occupy videos, creative commons licensing and informed consent, and digital collaboration.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on November 15, NYPD officers in full riot gear raided Zuccotti Park, and the Occupy Wall Street movement lost its space. Now groups and institutions—including the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of American History, NYU’s Tamiment Library and the New York Historical Society— are working to enshrine the movement in the form of an archive.

But who, in the end, will get to tell the definitive story?

The major players in the OWS archive (Visualization: Hiten Samtani/The Brooklyn Ink)


Jeremy Bold sports horn-rimmed glasses and a Tahrir Square inspired beard. The 27-year-old recent graduate of NYU’s library science program is a key figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement’s archives group. He points out that that the word “archive” derives from the Greek arkheion, which refers to the home or dwelling of the Archon, or ruler. The first archives were filed at the Archon’s home, and he would decide what documents would enter the historical record. “The idea was that it can’t be like that,” Bold says of the Occupy Wall Street archive. “We can’t structure it like that if we want to represent the people and claim that the people are the arbiters of their own history.”

Bold has been floating the idea of an initiative he believes would better fit the ideals of a movement that was intentionally leaderless. He calls it an anarchive, an archive that would distribute power and responsibility for collecting material among the people. “We cannot possibly capture everything that is being produced in this movement,” he says. “What better way to make the archive accountable to the people then to make the people accountable for the archive?” Everyone in the movement, he says, should be responsible for thinking historically.

Jeremy Bold at 60 Wall St. (Photo: Hiten Samtani/The Brooklyn Ink)
But absolute democracy can spell trouble for an archive in the absence of efficiency and direction. The initial material for an archive usually comes from the “heroic narrative of key players,” says Richard John, a historian of communications and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School Of Journalism. He says archives of movements such as the civil rights movement began with the personal documents of figures like Ella Baker and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Individuals have letters,” he says. “That’s where history is derived. Can we think of a major historical movement without a central figure?”

John says that the archive project’s leaderless nature means that the movement’s message will be lost in the noise. “If you don’t believe in leaders,” he says, “you might say ‘Oh my God, I have to collect everything.’ ”

For now, that’s exactly what the movement is doing. Shazz Baric—whose legal name is David McNerney—is in the public atrium at 60 Wall Street. The building is the national headquarters of Deutsche Bank. But its public atrium is a privately-owned public space that has become a de facto conference space for OWS groups. Baric heads towards the street, swinging his shoulders noticeably when he walks. He chews on his cigarette. “Hey sweetie, have you got a light?” he says to a woman walking by. Baric is bullish about the archives project. “It can serve as a function in transparency, democracy, humanism,” he says while tugging his scruffy beard. He had been staying at Zuccotti Park until the eviction. He first came in to New York from California on November 1 to pitch his book on radical politics, “The Complete American’s Guide to REVOLUTION.” He talks rapidly about the archive’s scope: tweets, Facebook feeds, oral histories, physical and digital ephemera: “It’s going to be one of the most ambitious and complex digital initiatives ever undertaken.”

He enters an office at 50 Broadway, a few blocks from 60 Wall Street. The office is home to several of the movement’s groups. Past the green and black Nirvana poster on the far wall is a space for cubicles. Here, Baric pulls out an oversized garbage bag and retrieves a fist-sized piece of an electric blue banjo. He says it was retrieved from the Department of Sanitation after the police’s overnight raid. “We also retrieved the bodies of puppies that were crushed during the eviction,” he says, “but we couldn’t keep those.” (Note: There are various posts on social networks such as Facebook and reddit about the puppies, but no confirmed reports.)

The garbage bag also contains a poster of a young girl mouthing the words “We are the 99%,” a rolled-up infographic showing the disproportionate wealth of “the 1 percent”, and a Spy vs. Spy adaptation of Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster. The current storage arrangement is hazardous to long-term preservation; the environment is not controlled for light and temperature, and lumping together artifacts in a garbage bag could lead to mold.

But the immediacy of this problem doesn’t resonate with some members of the archives group. “Maybe at some point, but we don’t have to worry about it now,” says James Molenda, 32. He wears a bright blue sweater and a furry dog-eared hat, balanced against a perpetual frown and a slow, monotone voice. He is the managing editor of FOUND Magazine, a sporadically published collection of crowdsourced notes, letters and photographs. He is focused on cataloging artifacts as they come in and tagging them according to theme and medium. “For example,” he says, “a cardboard sign protesting police brutality would be dated, tagged with “police” and “cardboard” and entered into the catalogue with a low-resolution photograph.” The next stage involves, he says, “those who are trained for this stuff,” referring to the library science students such as Bold, who can organize the catalogue in a meaningful structure that would allow a narrative to form.

Scroll through the slideshow below to see the movement’s own OWS Archive

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Meanwhile, a few miles north at the New York Historical Society, Matthew Murphy, head of cataloging and metadata for the society’s library, opens a brown box. Inside are flyers, posters and other ephemera that call for affordable housing, better healthcare, and the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It may sound very corny,” says Jean Ashton, the director of the society’s library, “but without the aid of original records, history is nothing more than a tissue of myth and fable.” Ashton and Murphy are spearheading the society’s own Occupy Wall Street archive. Ashton says that the society discussed collecting ephemeral material shortly after the movement began. “It’s not up to us to judge whether this will be remembered for posterity,” she says. “Even if it’s a small thing, it’s a piece of New York history.”

The society, she explains, is comparing the print and design aspects of the Occupy material to older protests, such as the 1930s unemployed workers’ movement, in order to form a coherent historical thread. But while that earlier movement was focused on economic hardships, Occupy Wall Street expresses a mixed bag of malaise. The material in the society’s archive ranges from tirades against capitalism to frustration with hydrofracking. It, she says, is “an almost random collection of objects as they impinge upon the consciousness of the public,” and that it’s not her job to judge the content.

Murphy also speaks to the diversity of the collection. “In a way, it does our work for us,” he says. “It shows the zeitgeist of the movement.” He says they are leaving the collection of digital material to other groups, including NYU’s Tamiment Library and Moving Image Archive program and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. A number of groups are approaching the archive in different ways and Murphy says “it’s important to know best practices” to collaborate.

The Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of American History is also building an archive of Occupy Wall Street. But Valeska Hilbig, the museum’s deputy director for public affairs, said that staff would not be prepared to speak about the archival process beyond their official statement. “Historians like to take the long view and see how things play out. They wouldn’t feel comfortable to discuss it until they have had a chance to get the historic perspective,” Hilbig wrote in an e-mail.

The movement itself seems to see such institutional interest in the OWS story as a Catch-22. Only institutions have the expertise and money to create an archive with long-term viability. But the movement’s organizers say losing control of the archival process is akin to losing control of the movement’s narrative. “The last thing we want is the historical record of OWS controlled by people who aren’t in OWS,” says Molenda. There is also a fear that surrendering the archive to institutions will allow the movement’s story to be influenced by politics. Richard John concurs. “All archives are tainted by politics,” he says. “There is no such thing as a neutral, unmediated archive, no such thing as a perfect transcript of any event.”

Amy Roberts, 35, is a graduate student in library sciences and archiving at Queen’s College. She works with Bold in the movement’s archives group to make sense of all the material coming in. The concern about political influence, she says, is “part of why we’ve tried to keep this independent as long as possible.” Bold says he has been collecting “stuff” from the movement’s General Assembly prior to September 17. He has a copy of the Bill of Particulars from the June 14 Bloombergville protests, whose organizers are now key players in the Occupy movement.  He keeps signs at the office space on 50 Broadway and at his own apartment. He also pays $180 out of his own pocket to store some material at Manhattan Mini Storage. The archives group gets a provisional budget of $100 from the movement’s General Assembly and they have to account for the money spent before they can receive any more. They are designated as a “working group” within the movement. Other groups have “operational group” status and receive regular funding. The archive group’s request for $3,940 to cover storage, transportation and equipment costs was tabled at a budget meeting last month. This happened right after a $29,000 proposal to send protestors to Tahrir Square in Egypt was approved by the General Assembly, Roberts says.

The OWS Archives Group budget proposal was rejected by the General Assembly (Screenshot courtesy

“There are problems to maintaining an independent archive,” Bold admits. “Practicality may require us to cede control.” But he says he doesn’t know how to have that conversation with the General Assembly. “I can’t just say, ‘Do you want to ship it off to the Smithsonian?’” Roberts says that this is not an option but does see the pressing need for space. “We need somewhere to keep the stuff,” she says. “It can’t be a basement. It can’t be an office hall.” The movement is collaborating with Michael Nash, the director of NYU’s Tamiment Library, which is a center for research on labor history and radical political movements. Tamiment supplies the archive group with equipment and is helping the group develop a process for collection and cataloging material. The library has also offered its storage facilities to the movement. “We might end up trying to process everything, and then eventually deeding it to Tamiment,” Bold says. “But we won’t do that without the approval of the movement. The GA has to decide.”Still, Richard John believes that the movement’s own narrative is doomed unless it bands together with an institution that has the funds and the know-how to create an archive. He says that without an archive, no historian will try and make sense of the movement. He doesn’t give much credence to an independent archive. “It doesn’t have a prayer,” he says, as his voice rises. “The idea strikes me as a little naïve.” An archive is eventually framed by historians in relation to some other phenomenon that sheds light on it, he says.

But to get to that stage, the archive has to last. John says that there is roughly a 15 to 20 year lag between an event and serious historical analysis of that event. “We’re just getting to the 90s,” he says, and points to David Kirsch’s archive of the dot-com era, a database of firms that were created to commercialize the Internet beginning in the mid-1990s. “Archivists think in terms of shelf feet,” John says. “How much shelf feet would something like this require?” Without trained historians, he says, there is no way to establish provenance, information such as time, location, and the creator of an artifact. “It’s quixotic. I’m cheering for these guys. But over a long period of time, it’s unrealistic.”

Jean Ashton of the New York Historical Society says that the movement doesn’t have the knowledge to see the project through and that their refusal to accept help will hurt the archive. “This particular protest is,” she says, “I can’t say paranoid, but they are certainly concerned about using the information.” Although there are always value judgments involved in an archive, she says, the historical society isn’t presenting the Occupy story with a view, adding that the archive could have educational value. “Occupy Wall Street can use the archive to make sense of their own movement,” she says. People outside the movement, including high school students, could get involved to learn how history is organized and conserved, she says.

Matthew Murphy, with the New York Historical Society's OWS Archive (Photo: Hiten Samtani/The Brooklyn Ink)


A July 13 blog post from anti-consumerist Adbusters Foundation introduced the idea of Occupy Wall Street. The Internet group Anonymous encouraged “netizens” to take part. An Occupy Wall Street Facebook page chronicled the early protests. Protestors mobilized in large part through social media channels, and since then millions of photos, videos, statuses, and tweets have captured the emotional timbre of the movement. It’s fair to say that the Occupy movement has been propelled digitally.  But the movement’s own digital archive has yet to take off.

“It was clear to initially focus on the physical elements, as they are much more susceptible to disappearing,” Bold says, adding that the digital efforts so far include a compilation of the major Occupy websites and mailing lists and the beginnings of an oral history project. They’ve barely scratched the surface, he says, in archiving social media. “I can’t even figure out how to archive my own Facebook feed, much less a movement.” For now, initiatives such as the Occupy Wall Street Screenprinting Lab on flickr and the Occupy Wall St. Care Packages on tumblr are among the few attempts at capturing the movement’s zeitgeist through social media.

Samara Smith, 40, an assistant professor of media studies at SUNY, is doing the groundwork for collecting the oral histories. She describes herself as a “Thursday daytime occupier.” In the course of capturing material for the audio walking tour of Zuccotti Park, Smith made contact with several people who are willing to share their stories.

“I’m looking for as broad and diverse a representation as possible,” she says, “including people who may not necessarily be the first to tell their stories in video and the mainstream media.” The movement, she says, wants to ensure that people understand how their oral histories can be used. It has drafted consent forms that employ two different types of Creative Commons, a copyright license popular on the Internet. The first lets others remix, tweak and build upon content as long as credit is given to the original source. The second, more restrictive type of license allows people to share works, but not change them in any way. The third license–which Smith says is mainly for people concerned about the legal ramifications of sharing their stories — allows the content to be used for research and archive purposes only.

But Smith stresses that the oral history project is in its infancy. “History requires a certain distance and reflection,” she says. The oral history project, she says, lacks proper equipment and trained volunteers, and this will lead to a delay in getting it started. She is concerned that the delay will mean that she won’t be able to capture the experiences of some of the occupiers, especially out-of-towners who have been displaced by the eviction.

Anna Perricci is a new entrant to the Occupy movement and is a graduate of the University of  Michigan’s archives and records management program. She specializes in digital archiving and says the movement’s archive is still in the needs-assessment stage, the first stage of a digital archive. “We currently are considering nuts and bolts kinds of questions about how best to manage digital files within our financial means,” she says. “We are also examining more philosophical questions about why the work we are doing is important to the movement and how it might be represented in the future.”

These meaning-of-life questions might reek of self-importance to some, but others see them as vital to the archive’s eventual viability. Perricci began thinking about these questions after making contact with the Activist Archivists group. The group’s members are mostly students, faculty and alumni from NYU’s Moving Image Archive program. Howard Besser, 59, who directs the program, says the Activist Archivists group was formed roughly eight weeks ago in response to what he calls the “blunders, bad blunders” made by the movement’s archive group: “My students came to me and expressed their frustration with the way things were going down. We decided to form a group that would focus on the digital aspect of the archive.”

Howard Besser, Director, NYU's Moving Image Archive Program (Photo: Courtesy H. Besser)


Besser believes that the hurdles the movement’s archive group faces are largely of their own creation. “They made the assumption that everyone recognized the value of what they were doing,” he says. “They made no effort to say why it should be done. And they didn’t do their homework.” He is exasperated by the movement’s naiveté when it comes to issues such as budget, expectations and scope, and doesn’t understand their refusal to cooperate fully. “They are not trying to sound like they are qualified and thinking about the archive in a holistic way that serves the movement.”

The Activist Archivists, true to their name, have taken matters into their own hands. They’ve been creating best practices for archiving user-generated videos online. They’ve been in touch with Ashton and Murphy at the New York Historical Society, George Mason’s Center for New Media, Michael Nash at Tamiment, David Millman at NYU’s digital library, as well as Internet groups such as Witness and the Internet Archive. “Lot of the players involved are working on the boundaries of their institution, and they’ve taken a personal interest in this,” Besser says.

In the spirit of the movement itself, he says, the Activist Archivists group is non-hierarchal. There is no boss. Just a facilitator who takes it upon herself to coordinate discussion topics, setup Google groups, and document the process. Anna Perricci from the movement’s archive group is also involved, and Besser says she’s been “taking copious notes to take back to the movement.”

Besser uses the process behind audio recordings to explain the Activist Archivists’ methods. For example, one archive contains the recorded discussions of the Think Tank group, the movement’s working group that debates larger ideas that spin out of the movement. Multiple points of failure—things that could go wrong, such as forgetting to date the recordings—have been factored into the archive, he says. “All of the audio is dated, plus at the beginning of every recording, someone says the date. We’re also trying to write simple code to make the spoken audio at the beginning of the clip indexable. Following this process will ensure that the material they archive is identifiable, discoverable and preservable.”

In response to the challenge of archiving the vast collection of YouTube videos, Besser wants to crowdsource the selection process. This sounds like Bold’s “anarchive” concept, but in this case, there’s a method to the madness. Besser says that the Activist Archivists will give people a few pre-established categories, such as internal working process of the movement, celebrity visits to the protest and confrontations with authority. People can then vote on the five most important videos in each category, and these videos will make it into the archive.

Besser believes that many of the movement’s concerns are irrelevant to a digital archive. “Digital archives can live in many places simultaneously,” he says, on the issue of institutional control. He also says that the project is possible with limited resources. “Our time, and  $8 to register a domain. That’s been our cost.” Digital storage is shared among groups such as the Internet Archive and Tamiment, he says.

The real challenge, he explains, is to capture the complexities of OWS in a way that is accessible. He is a veteran of social movements including the anti-Vietnam war protests and the American anti-apartheid protests, and as an undergraduate he focused on the history of social movements. But he says this archive can take draw little from previous movements. “The residue that persists from these movements is low-bandwidth,” he says. “Cultural critic Greil Marcus called them ‘lipstick traces on a glass.’ They really don’t have the glass itself.”


Jeremy Bold, at the OWS archive (Photo: Hiten Samtani/The Brooklyn Ink)


But why bother archiving Occupy Wall Street, a movement that is only three months old and is yet to produce any significant systemic change?

Bold is convinced the message of Occupy Wall Street will last. “If I had any indication that this event could be important historically,” he says, “it was based on a commentary I had read on 9/11 by Jacques Derrida. In it, Derrida said that everyone that went through that experience on that day knew that this was a big deal. There were collectors and curators who went out and collected stuff in the first week. They knew that this was a memorable event and knew that they needed to help make it be that. To me, the events of September 17 (the first day of the Occupy protests) had within them the same kernel of historical fact.” It’s a rather bold comparison.

Kenneth Jackson is a Columbia University historian and the former director of the New York Historical Society. He says that while he was the director of the society he made the decision to collect material on 9/11. He says Occupy Wall Street’s unfocused nature and “ephemeral impact” means it does not rise to that level of significance. “My opinion is that the Occupy Wall Street archive is not that important and not worth the cost to house it for the next hundred years,” he says.

Richard John takes it a step further. He likens the archive project to the Works Progress Administration from the New Deal, which employed  millions of unskilled workers on public works projects. “They’re trying to find a way to keep them occupied,” he says.

Meanwhile, Ashton says that the historical society will watch where the movement goes. “If it goes under, we have what we have,” she says. “And if it explodes, we’ll allocate more resources to it.” She puts the archive into perspective by saying the society also collects Chinese restaurant menus and “girlie cards” from the 1980s Times Square red-light district. “The aim is to capture the tenure and feel of life in New York.”

And SUNY’s Samara Smith says that she sees threads of the anarchist movement and the civil rights movement in Occupy Wall Street. “I think social movements build up and then settle down,” she says. “Each time, ideally, they draw upon the lessons of the previous movements. The OWS archive will help line more threads.”

For Besser, the battle of the Occupy Wall Street narrative is not a battle at all. The dream scenario for him would be an archive designed in the spirit of the movement. He envisions an archive that would allow people to build things on top of it and thus craft multiple narratives. “Think of a museum exhibit,” he says. “Someone—in this case the curator—has created a context, threading a story through individual objects. The online museums, the museums of the future, will allow individuals to each tell a different story with the artifacts. Everyone should be able to be a player, find interesting objects and weave a narrative thread between them.”

Follow Hiten on Twitter: @hitsamty

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