Podcast Episode 3: Walking as Counter-Archiving

WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast, you’ll learn about walking as counter-archiving and Afrofuturism.


Welcome to WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation. This series aims to distil WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast, you’ll learn about: walking as counter-archiving and Afrofuturism. WalkingLab is co-directed by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman. You can find print publications of these podcasts at walkinglab.org. While not necessary the podcasts are designed to be listened to while going for a walk. 

I’m Rebecca Conroy, artist and researcher and I will be your host today. 

WalkingLab organizes international walking events, conducts research with diverse publics including youth in schools, and collaborates with artists and scholars to realize site-specific walking research-creation events. WalkingLab acknowledges the traditional and unceded territories on which our work takes place. WalkingLab is accountable to Dylan Robinson’s insistence that land acknowledgements often operate from a politics of recognition and perpetuate settler colonial logics rather than disrupt them. As will be introduced through the podcast series WalkingLab asks walkers to consider where they are coming from in relation to Indigenous peoples and territories where they live and work, and to consider why a land acknowledgement is important to them.

In podcast #2 counter-mapping was introduced. Counter-mapping is an approach that works against dominant power structures. It questions the assumptions produced by conventional maps, and recognizes different knowledge systems. Counter-mapping re-maps the landscape to account for: exclusions and omissions, lived experiences, regionalisms, and local knowledges. In this podcast you will be introduced to another counter practice: walking as counter-archiving. Counter-archives can unsettle linear understandings of time. This podcast focuses on another commissioned and curated WalkingLab project, BlackGrange by Camille Turner. Photo documentation of this project as well as a self-guided audio tour of the walk can be found on the WalkingLab website: walkinglab.org.

In podcast #2 you were introduced to the ways that official maps can exclude and erase Indigenous and Black histories, and serve in the production of imperialism and settler colonialism. Settler-colonialism is an ongoing process of occupation that results in the forced removal and disappearance of Indigenous peoples from traditional territories. Like maps, official archives also displace Indigenous and Black histories. This podcast will focus on the problem with conventional archives and discuss walking as a counter-archiving practice. 

Archives are bound by historical structures of categorization, identification, and state-sanctioned logic and are solely representative of those with power and control. Only particular traces and records of the past are documented as archives conceal, reveal, and reproduce the power of the state. As such, archives predominantly leave out or erase queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour. As Cheryl Thompson argues, “the invisibility of black subjects in Canadian archives has as much to do with past collection practices as it does with present ones. We continue to idealize certain aspects of our collective identity while demonizing others”. Syrus Ware similarly argues that conventional archives regulate what is allowed to be remembered. The archive, he claims, always begins with whiteness. Even queer and trans archives, Ware contends, are marked with erasures of Black and Indigenous lives. 

Counter-archiving is more than a process of diversifying conventional archives. This means it is not simply about adding previously erased or hidden histories to an archive, but a method of interrogating the logic of archives. As Ware (2017) notes, counter-archiving is a practice of interrupting the whiteness of archives. For Ware, this means disrupting the narrative that Black subjects are new additions to existing archives and an insistence that Black lives have always been present. Counter-archives become practices that are more relevant to lived experiences and histories. 

Normative conceptualizations of time are linear, chronological, and tethered to capitalism and progress. Progressive time is equated with humanist notions of freedom, rationality, peace, equality, and prosperity. This progressive time privileges particular versions of humanity, where certain bodies and subjects are always rendered out of time. Elizabeth Freeman (2010) names this normative value of time chrononormativity. Chrononormativity includes a teleological unfolding of events such as birth, marriage, death and also the everyday regulations of watches, calendars, and schedules. Chrononormativity enables some bodies and events to be perceived as historically significant, while others are erased or forgotten. Accordingly Queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have continuously been excluded from official timelines, or archives. As Camille Turner, states, Black subjects are not only erased in official state narratives, when they do appear in archives they appear not as humans, but as property. In the next section the discussion will focus on how Camille Turner’s BlackGrange walking tour is a practice of counter-archiving.

BlackGrange by Camille Turner takes the form of a walking tour that starts with official archival fragments of Black history in Toronto. Combining archival fragments with speculative fiction, performance, meditation, ritual gestures, and song BlackGrange rethinks and re-imagines the present by illuminating histories of the African Diaspora in Toronto’s Grange neighbourhood. The Grange is an area in downtown Toronto and in close proximity to Kensington Market and Chinatown, where the walks took place in podcast #2. BlackGrange intervenes in the logics of official archives: archives that falsely describe Canada as a country committed to multiculturalism and benevolence. The dominant narrative of Blackness presents Canada as a safe place that welcomes racialized others. The production of Canada as a White state is indebted to the erasure of Blackness.

Blending archival material, Afrofuturism, and performance, Turner pieced together fragments that existed of Black history in Toronto, with speculative fiction, performance, meditation, ritual gestures, and song. Afrofuturism and speculative fiction envision an alternative world or future, where time, space, bodies, and behaviours are defamiliarized, ruptured, or expanded. 

Each stop on the BlackGrange walking tour was a significant place for Black History in Toronto, Canada such as the First Baptist Church. This church was founded by travellers of the Underground Railroad, who were excluded from the city’s white churches. Official archival accounts of Canada’s history falsely describe Canada as a country committed to multiculturalism and benevolence: a place that welcomes Black slaves escaping the United States. Black history exists in Canada’s official archives through the history of the Underground Railroad. As Katherine McKittrick contends, this history falsely describes Canada as a country committed to multiculturalism that welcomes racialized others. This logic of benevolence and safety, McKittrick argues, masks an ongoing history of colonialism, Indigenous genocide and struggles, and Canada’s role in transatlantic slavery. Moreover, the production of Canada as a White state is enacted through the erasure of Blackness. 

For most of the stops on the BlackGrange tour, the history of the people and place are not publicly visible. Only one place is marked with a very small plaque and as such much of this history remains erased. BlackGrange not only re-maps this erased and forgotten history onto the Canadian landscape, it questions the mechanisms that enable the ongoing erasure of that history. Katherine McKittrick states that while Canada’s mythology has been shaped by the idea of fugitive American slaves finding freedom and refuge in Canada, Black feminism and Black resistance are ‘unexpected and concealed’. Black people arrived in Canada via multiple means, not just as a passage into ‘freedom;’ and as Turner’s walking tour makes explicitly clear, Canada also legalised the enslavement of Black people. Turner reminds us that ‘eleven of the twenty-five founding fathers [of Toronto] were slave owners; in fact, they were allowed to bring slaves here duty free!’ In fact, the area where the walk takes place, called the Grange, was once the slave owner Peter Russel’s farmland. Although it problematizes the idea of Canada as benevolent, BlackGrange also resists a reading of Black history as exclusively violent or traumatic. For instance, Turner used ritual – such as song, water ablutions, and the offering of fruit and flowers – as ways to move erased narratives from being locked into a victim narrative. 

Ware contends that when counter-archives begin with people of colour, they refuse inclusion and engender a different sense of time. Official archives function by removing ‘things’ from circulation, preserving them, documenting them and interpreting them. In this way, the official archive shapes time into a straight line, beginning with the official account of history. Ware describes this account of history as a ‘past that is not a past’, in that it is neither ‘finished’ nor ‘objectively true’. However, when starting with Black lives, the counter-archive can problematize official accounts of the past, refusing inclusion into the archive, and resisting a focus on damage-centred research. In this way, BlackGrange is an example of Afrofuturism, which will be examined in the final section of this podcast.

Afrofuturism is a cultural and aesthetic speculative worlding that re-imagines generative and irresistible Black futures. Afrofuturism, Audrey Hudson contends, creates Black spaces, imaginations, and futures while acknowledging the past. In Afrofuturism, the idea that the future will supersede the past is unsettled. Instead, the future is haunted by the past. If Black futurity is incommensurable with archival time, then Afrofuturist temporalities become strategies for unsettling and refusing the linear time of the archive. BlackGrange mobilizes a fictional time traveller, who travels back in time, but who simultaneously affirms a future where the archive is open, and where Black bodies are not silenced or property. Entangling fact and fiction in a futurepresent Turner’s walk unsettles time, and the way that linear archival notions of time serve the interests of power. The time traveler creates a speculative future context for the narrators, who then tell stories from the past, but importantly the walk itself is situated in the present. The narrators have travelled back to our time to share their insight and in doing so they demonstrate a temporality that is interwoven and in flux. The stops along the way become a living geography of present day Toronto, full of the still audible (if one listens properly) voices from history. Walking as counter-archiving enacts these understandings of futurity, where the future is not a romanticized ideal, but in constant re-figuration. 

Thank you for listening to WalkingLab’s podcast series on Walking Research-Creation. Don’t forget you can find print publications and references for these podcasts on our website: walkinglab.org. Better yet, subscribe to the RRS feed so you can be notified whenever a new podcast drops!

WalkingLab is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.