Archival Re-Imagining Through Sound
Janice Ngan & Britt CampbellThe recording of “Archival Re-imagining” begins with musician Susie García, then moves into a dialogue between Janice Ngan and Britt Campbell. The dialogue includes excerpts from a 15-minute binaural soundscape developed by the Versos y Besos Collective as a medium for public engagement. The annotated transcription below includes minor adaptations developed by the authors. Slight variations between the audio and narrative are intentionally designed in order to increase clarity and provide additional context.
Listen & ReadRead more about the authors' views on sonic transference in their essay "Versos y Besos: The Responsibility of Sonic Transference."
Britt Campbell: Janice and I first connected over music, Bishop Briggs specifically. Janice, having gone to High School in Hong Kong, knew about this up-and-coming artist, and I was surprised to find someone to converse with about her specific song titles and forthcoming album. This chance encounter was the start of a multi-perspective and hemispheric think tank of radical storytellers: a poet, curator, museum thought leader, sound engineer, mariachi, and cultural specialists. Collectively, we chose to embrace the power of anthrophony: sound produced by human beings as a liberation technology for cultural and social justice.
Janice Ngan: Yes. This takes us back to Desert X 2019, a biennial site-specific contemporary art exhibition held in the Coachella Valley of Southern California. Britt and I served as bus docents, driving close to two hours almost every weekend from Los Angeles to Palm Springs over the course of three months, between February and April. Why had we sought out an unpaid volunteer opportunity 120 miles away? Desert X 2019, although not perfect, provided a new praxis for art viewing experiences. Having worked in the gallery scene myself, and Britt having worked for an LA museum for about six years, we observed in the cultural and social landscape of Los Angeles that “power relations within museums and galleries are skewed towards the collecting subject who makes decisions in relation to space, time, and visibility; in other words, as to what may be viewed, how it should be seen, and when this is possible.” We hoped Desert X would provide a new art viewing relationship between object and viewer in removing the collector from a position of power.
BC: I’ve deliberately chosen to base my practice of Community/Audience Engagement in a Museum of the American West whose mission is to tell stories. This is because I often wonder: who gets to author history? To visit a museum is to engage with cultures of the past and present through works of art, education and public programming, methods of conservation, and historical records. More often than not, the authors of history in museum space are only reflective of the past or current knowledge and power systems. The cultural inequity in the restriction of storytellers begs the question, are museums capable of telling honest and accurate stories about the cultural objects within their collections? In 2018, I created and produced a series, Autry After Hours, a temporary public space within a museum that centered community storytellers to reimagine race/gender, critique inequities, and to tell untold histories. Yesomi Umolu, director of the 2019 Chicago Biennial, and director and curator of the Logan Center Exhibitions at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, articulated this change in museum praxis earlier this year by asking, "[w]hat would our museums be if they divested from entrenched hierarchies within their collections, programming, and workplace, and invested in a culture of transparency, collaboration and mutual understanding?”
Autry After Hours was deemed participatory, fun, and successful because it attracted visitors we had not previously welcomed. They lived 5-10 miles from the museum yet had never ventured in. They either had not heard of the Autry or did not see the museum as a place where their stories were told. The museum was not relevant to their pasts, presents, or futures. I saw what was called an untapped audience as an engaged community in need of space, infrastructure, and access to tell dynamic stories. I wanted to open access to communities of cultural workers, performance artists, and local community arts organizations, and offer different models of knowledge sharing and content re-interpretation. We could reject “historical representation[s] that bring into play past or distant regions from beyond a boundary line separating the present institution from those regions.” I wanted the community, rather than myself, to start, select, and dictate the stories they wanted to tell. I tapped three LA thought leaders to curate their own working collectives to create and produce the 2020 Autry After Hours series as an experiment. Janice Ngan was one of three curators who agreed.
JN: Who gets to author and tell the stories of history and its diasporas? During my graduate studies, I worked on a research paper on how museums need to help connect humans through the arts to tell more than one single story. I was inspired deeply by author and literary leader Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who spoke about the danger of a single story. Single stories disable the possibilities of the subject possessing different traits as their viewer. Single stories take away the possibilities for the subject to feel anything but pity from their viewers. Single stories inhibit the possibilities of equal human connections. Being invited to participate as one of three curators of the 2020 Autry After Hours series, I was informed that I could base my project on artifacts within the museum collection, and that ignited my interest in archival storytelling.
In my exploration, I discovered Doña Manuela Garcia. In 2021, the Autry Museum planned to open the exhibition What’s Her Story. “What’s Her Story: Women in the Archives reveals compelling stories of women found in the Autry’s collections. Featured are stories of Bertha Parker Cody, Manuela Garcia, Clara Forslund, and an “Unidentified Woman,” whose lives were documented in archives made by other creators: friends, colleagues, government agencies, and other institutions that produced written and visual records.” From the institution’s standpoint, Manuela’s was a musical archive in the hundreds, yet little was known about her except her role as an “informant” for a man named Charles Lummis. A California icon and founder of the historic Southwest Museum, Charles Lummis was more than a collector: He participated in creating a national narrative of discovery and exploration. Manuela Garcia was Charles Lummis’s most important informant. She had a repertoire of songs that surpassed 200 or 300 in number and she recorded about 110 for Charles Lummis.” With this lead, our mission to add Manuela’s voice to her own story began.
My original intention was to curate an evening of storytelling by pairing a live music and spoken word performance alongside custom-made parametric speakers that would breathe life into Manuela’s century-old wax cylinder recordings from the museum’s archive. I wanted to bring people together for a shared experience, amplified by music and sounds that asserted their role as tools to generate empathy and connection.
When COVID-19 hit, I, like many others, had to make the decision to pivot from an in-person event to some form of a digital virtual engagement. I wanted nothing of a passive nature, but rather something immersive and engaging. This shift opened many doors and opportunities to collaborate with others and gave birth to multitudinous inspirational and meaningful conversations. We started down a path of thinking with one another even in each other’s absence and the disconnection ubiquitous in our new “normal.” With thanks to our newly formed partnerships and twenty-first century technologies, we were able to divulge a lot about Manuela Garcia. As I continued forward, I knew that I didn’t want to only amplify her voice, but I also wanted her to be visible. I felt a palpable sense of intensity to share how she was the first Mexican Californian woman to be recorded on wax cylinders, the earliest commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound; to introduce her expansive collection of folk songs that lived in the archives; to illuminate her life, honor her story, and empathize with the feelings behind her music. I wanted to think with her, even in the absence of her story in the archival records. I wanted to tell not just her story, but to carry the flame of her culture: language, ceremony, traditional arts, skills of the first-generation of Angelenos at the turn of the twentieth century and to create an ambience that embraced such assimilation.
Through a multi-perspectival and hemispheric approach, we learned of different ways to unlearn knowledge, decolonize the archive, and innovate contemporary museum praxis. It started out with inviting Amy Shimshon-Santo, our poet, to interpret the wax cylinders and write about Manuela Garcia through hearing her voice. After that, as I tried to find my way through the shift to virtual, a friend shared a music file of a song where you had to put on headphones to listen to it. It was played in a 3-dimensional surround-sound style, where you got to feel the music. I think this file was shared many times, and with many others as something of a remedy to the mass cancellation of live music festivals. It brought me so much joy to listen to it as LA was going through a lockdown, and I was transported to this immersive listening experience while I was in quarantine.
This brings us to another part of our collective with my dear friend, John Hendicott from Aurelia Soundworks, who specializes in immersive 3D sound for VR, film, and gaming. From working with and learning from him, I came to the idea of creating an auditory experience that people could listen to while at home that made them feel like they were in the museum space. This experience would incorporate Amy’s spoken-word storytelling performance and feature live recorded music that was mixed with Manuela’s century-old recordings. In the journey to tell Manuela’s story, we only had a few pieces of materials to work with since there was no access to the archive. We had pictures of the wax cylinders, a check Lummis wrote to Manuela, some correspondence between them, a picture of her notebook and its first page. Which brings us to Susie from Las Colibri, our collective’s mariachi who interpreted that first page and adapted its lyrics to a mariachi melody. Through this experience, Susie García actually came to realize the many parallels that she shared as a singer with Manuela, and Susie now identifies herself as a culture bearer. With lack of access to the archive, Amy had the idea to connect with the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) to further our research and possibly find out more about Manuela Garcia through its special collections. LAPL Librarian Ani Boyadjian connected us to Marissa López, a scholar in residence there; López pioneered our interactive digital map that pinpointed various locations Manuela was a part of, including her home on Olive and Spring Streets, her work as a bookkeeper at Singer Sewing Machine, the LA Business College where the Los Angeles Times reported Manuela receiving her degree in 1889, and many other locations accompanied by Manuela’s relevance to them and their parts of LA’s history. Last but not least, I must mention Delia Xochitl Chavez, our cultural specialist based in Mexico City who, through her research, found that a song in Manuela Garcia’s repertoire, “El Sauce y La Palma,” was published by a man in Mexico in 1951. However, through our project and the knowledge we gained, we were able to recognize Manuela in this part of Mexican musical history, as she had written the lyrics to this song in her notebook in 1901.
This project became a blessing in disguise; it breached tangible geographical barriers and took the shape of a beautifully empathetic blending of thoughtful curation and public engagement. The 15-minute binaural soundscape sheds light on the pleasant surprises that kept arriving to us when we decided to reveal the incredible life and musical journey of Manuela Garcia, an ancestral cultural bearer. We learned about her roots, family background, and immigration story to the United States during the 1800s. Having had the opportunity to explore Manuela’s voice and music was a unique approach to learning and understanding the origins of societal issues that remain prevalent in our world today: domestic violence, immigration, oppression of voices, and the erasure of histories.
I came to realize that it was only through the collaborative processes in this project that we were able to achieve this. My idea went beyond an analogue evening performance, to generating a digital sound footprint of her story. This was a true blessing. Manuela Garcia gifted us by allowing us to remember her. To create this storytelling soundscape, our team came together to give voice to her stories, squared up to confront the silences of her voice within the archives, braved the challenge to expand her voice, and create an inclusive and polyphonic space for women’s voices.
BC: I believe by operating within the museum institution I can be a changemaker and future museum leader who contributes to community-defined cultural and social justice. Museums today amidst a social and political backdrop of two global pandemics, COVID-19 and racism, are finally moving away from the rhetoric of being a neutral space. History is defined as a chronological record of significant events, such as those affecting a nation or institution, often including an explanation of their causes.History is, consequently, the product of relations of knowledge and power. Everything you have heard in this interview and soundscape is the product of storytelling as a liberation technology. We researched, we creatively inquired, and we recorded new knowledge and power relationships that are community negotiated. We succeeded because our soundscape re-inserted Manuela Garcia to amplify the Mexican-American community into the history of Los Angeles during the transition of the city from a Mexican territory into a U.S. territory.
I had no idea when Janice selected Manuela Garcia’s wax cylinder recordings that sound would reveal a culture bearer with stories waiting for texture. I’ve come to know that sound moves more culturally responsibly than trade routes, borders, immigration, or other divisions of nation building. Sound obliterates the construction of private and public space: it bleeds, penetrates, and proliferates. Sound collapses time. Thank you, Manuela, for collapsing into us all and allowing our voices to be captured with your legacy.
Read more about the authors’ views on sonic transference here.
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- Eileen Hooper Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 1992), 15.↵
- Yesomi Umolu, “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice,” Art Net, June 25, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/limits-of-care-and-knowledge-yesomi-umolu-op-ed-1889739.↵
- Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 7. ↵
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” filmed July 2009 at TEDGlobal, Oxford, UK, video, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en. ↵
- Liza Posas, “What’s Her Story: Women in the Archives,” Autry Museum of the American West, Accessed May 1, 2021, https://theautry.org/exhibitions/whats-her-story-women-in-the-archives.↵
- Liza Posas, “Manuela Garcia Sings: Now Streaming,” Autry Museum of the American West, May 29, 2020, https://theautry.org/research/blog/manuela-garcia-sings-now-streaming. ↵
- “Making A Big Noise: The Explorations of Charles Lummis,” Autry Museum of the American West, Accessed May 1, 2021, https://theautry.org/exhibitions/making-big-noise-explorations-charles-lummis.↵
- Liza Posas, “Manuela Garcia Sings: Now Streaming,” Autry Museum of the American West, May 29, 2020, https://theautry.org/research/blog/manuela-garcia-sings-now-streaming.↵
- Amy Shimshon-Santo, “Versos y Besos: Born in Los Angeles on Los Angeles Street,” ASAP/Journal Open Access Platform (October 18, 2020), https://asapjournal.com/versos-y-besos-born-in-los-angeles-on-los-angeles-street-a-poem-for-manuela-garcia-amy-shimshon-santo/. ↵
- “About Us,” Aurelia Soundworks, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.aureliasoundworks.com/about-us/.↵
- “About Us,” Las Colibri, accessed May 1 , 2021, https://www.lascolibri.com/about-us.html. ↵
- Susie García, “Versos y Besos: The Female Voice Between Borders,” ASAP/Journal Open Access Platform (October 18, 2020), https://asapjournal.com/versos-y-besos-the-female-voice-between-borders-susie-garcia/.↵
- Marissa López, “Versos y Besos: Mapping Manuela,” ASAP/Journal Open Access Platform (October 18, 2020), https://asapjournal.com/versos-y-besos-mapping-manuela-marissa-lopez/.↵
- Delia Xóchitl Chávez, “Versos y Besos: Our Shared History: The Revolutions of the Wax Cylinders,” ASAP/Journal Open Access Platform (October 18, 2020), https://asapjournal.com/versos-y-besos-our-shared-history-the-revolutions-of-the-wax-cylinders-delia-xochitl-chavez/.↵
- Picturing Mexican America. “Manuela Garcia Soundscape.” SoundCloud audio, recorded October 5, 2020, at Aurelia Soundworks in Los Angeles, CA. https://soundcloud.com/user-488851876/manuela-garcia-soundscape.↵
- Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, Grasping the World: The Idea of the Museum (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 7.↵
- Brittany Campbell and Janice Ngan, “Versos y Besos: The Responsibility of Sonic Transference,” ASAP/Journal Open Access Platform (October 18, 2020), https://asapjournal.com/versos-y-besos-the-responsibility-of-sonic-transference-britt-campbell-janice-ngan/.↵