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“Matchmaking in the Archive” Connects Today’s Artists and Queer Ancestors

I’m going to open this not with the beginning, but something later on in Matchmaking in the Archive: 19 Conversations with the Dead and 3 Encounters with Ghosts, a new LGBTQ studies book from Rutgers University Press. After reading it, there is a certain and distinct pleasure in a time jump, in nonlinear thinking, in reaching back and forth across decades as though all people from all time, living and dead, are sitting at one table, sharing a meal, passing dishes round and round, sharing and tasting the same things together. Chris Vargas — artist, founder of the Museum of Transgender History & Art (MOTHA), and so much more — writes in an xessay in the third section of the book:

“When trans narratives, or any historically marginalized peoples’ narratives, are delivered to a mass audience beyond themselves, biographical nuances fall away at best or are misrepresented and violently disrespected at worse.” There is a defiance of simplification that spouts from a queer person’s archives. It is so easy for the dominant ways of culture to slot people into neat holes, to transform living, breathing, contradictory, sprawling and spontaneous humans into being “just one thing.”

Matchmaking in the Archive is a record of and reflection on a massive, long-running collaborative project begun by interdisciplinary artist and teacher E.G. Crichton in the archives of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Historical Society. This project ultimately traveled, exhibiting and connecting people and archives across the world, spanning and forming new ties across continents and time. What Crichton set out to do was to serve as a kind of “matchmaker” by immersing herself in the materials which were curated and donated and left for future researchers, from the lives of members of the LGBTQ community that are stored in the temperature-controlled archives of the Society. Crichton chose to work only with the archives of deceased people (because some people curate their archives while still alive) and to introduce living queer and trans artists to the archives of an individual, with the plan that the artist would then explore a relationship to this person, posthumously and via what they left behind, and then make art about the experience.

The artworks created range across disciplines, from video to photography to woodworking to installations, to collage, sculpture, and more. The second part of the book, also the longest, “Nineteen Conversations with the Dead” comprises 19 essays, one per artist, where Crichton provides a description of the artist’s process and experiences “getting to know” their match. In all cases except one, where Crichton paired artist Elissa Perry with Pat Parker, the artist was previously unaware of their match’s life, creating space for them to explore the nuances and details of the person without bringing preconceived notions to the table. Crichton told the artists, and reminded them when necessary, that they did not have to like their match. Whether we’re looking at the archives of a lesbian who was notoriously loud and flamboyant and high femme and very much the-center-of-attention, the archives of a cop, or the archives of someone who simply refused to pin down or speak to their gender in any recorded way — the artists reckoned with who these queer ancestors really were, whether (or not) they could have been friends, and with all the ways that the lives of our LGBTQ ancestors can be at once achingly relatable and, at the same time, alien and shrouded in mists forms by the necessity of obscuring parts of themselves at times or differences of language and culture that elude translation across generations. Of course, the complications make this all the more interesting.

The complications that emerge in the lives of these LGBTQ family members can be humorous, cocky, mischievous, and rebellious. Crichton, at one point, recalls encountering Pat Parker in person in line for the bathroom at a concert, “Walking back and forth along the lesbian queue, she prompted our vigilance to the progress of the line: ‘Watch for someone to exit, prepare to unzip your fly” and other time management tips. It was hilarious. Parker was our sexy butch drill sergeant, and we gladly stepped in line.” In the archives of Dodi Horvat, artist Maya Manvi encountered a work of science fiction, unpublished, written across 13 notebooks. Manvi writes:

“Looking back, I don’t actually know if Dodi was as preoccupied with gender as I imagined (or wanted) them to be. I often experienced the process of looking through an archive as untethering. Without any sort of formal schematic or guide, I tended to wander, unmoored. The moments, words, or objects I attached myself to often spoke more to what I wanted than to Dodi. So, it’s no surprise that I latched onto how Dodi wrote about gender. With all the cartwheeling they did in their writing to try and circumvent the constraints of gender, I remember feeling like they found the problem as vexing as I did. Dodi’s characters could move between genders, shed them if necessary, and morph into specific genders for different tasks.”

There is an acceptance in the book that, much like we bring our own experiences and worldviews to our interactions with others, so, too, by necessity, the artists bring an element of reconstruction and fabrication to their work with these archival materials. Some individuals left relatively few materials. Artist Tina Takemoto took the sparse archives of Jiro Onuma as an invitation to dive deep into his life as a gay Japanese immigrant in a World War II stateside internment camp:

“In acts of performative empathy, Takemoto learned how to whittle wood and how to make use of materials that were available in the camp, such as tar paper and pine scraps. At one point they reported to me on injuries they sustained in this process; small cuts from the whittling knife, burns from bringing out invisible lemon juice drawings with a flame, muscle strain from testing an invented exerciser strap. Throughout, Takemoto used a kind of imaginative ingenuity to conjure Onuma’s life as a lonely gay man among his fellow Japanese inmates.”

Of course, while there is obscurity and mystery, there are also moments of discovery that the reader of this book gets to experience vicariously. Bill Domonkos was paired with the archives of Helen Harder. Crichton recounts poring over the photographs left by Harder, who served in the Air Force in World War II:

“The black-and-white photographs in her box show groupings of women in uniform, warm expressions indicating they were most likely friends, and I wonder which one of these women broke Harder’s heart. In another photo, from 1945, two couples in civilian clothes are seated in the club Finocchio’s in San Francisco, which was famous for its drag shows. The foursome sits squeezed close together on one side of a table, a man on either end, the two women in the middle. Harder scratched their names in ballpoint pen across the top border: ‘Bobby, me, Toby, Ken.’ At first it appears to be a heterosexual double date, but a closer inspection reveals a view underneath the table of Toby’s hand resting on Harder’s knee in an unmistakably intimate and sexy gesture.”

Not only this, but her archives also include astrology charts and essays on spirituality. World War II was long ago, but I couldn’t help but notice the fact that an interest in astrology seems to have persisted in lesbian culture throughout the decades.

And then there are the lasting relationships. As Lauren Crux said of Janny MacHarg:

“Janny does not linger with me in the sense of loitering. She was not the loitering type, so she never got stuck in there. But I think of her as a friend from long-ago. We knew each other well-enough and liked and appreciated each other—I have a weakness for irreverence and wit, and I admire courage. When I think of her, I always say ‘hello’ and smile and give her an imaginary hug. I see that I am writing as if we actually knew each other in contemporary embodied time.

And I did, through this project, come to know her in certain ways—her music, her poetry, her dress, her gloves. Her alcoholism; her depression; her recovery; her fears. Her laughter. Her love of performing. It was a big relief when tow of her friends told me after my performance that I had ‘got her right.’ I wanted to honor her that way. I still remember the visceral feeling of opening Janny’s archive box. The sense of slightly creepy fear, a wanting to turn away. But then allowing myself to enter in, to get to know someone. Whenever I enter into something new, I enter slowly, cautiously, then jump in. It was that way with Janny.”

This book contains, notably, an essay by Michelle Tea that is still ringing in my ears and is one of the reasons I refer to the people whose archives were used in this project as queer ancestors. This book is context upon context, layers of reflections, busy and teeming with detail, and it leads me back to the start of the book, to the reasons Crichton gives for her interest in LGBTQ archives.

In the opening section of the book, “Resurrection,” E.G. Crichton asked a question many people in our LGBTQ family have posed throughout time, “Who are my heirs if I am not married and do not have children? And where will my prized belongings go when I’m gone? What will comprise my archive, my legacy to future generations?”

Discrimination and diminished financial resources, the devastation wrought on our community by the AIDS crisis, destruction of archives by homophobic or ashamed blood relatives, a lack of cultural competency by straight archivists and historians — all of these factors and more have led to a spotty and patchwork understanding of our queer histories, but archives, and reading about those archives, feels like a direct line, hot and live and electric, into the past, a metaphysical string of neurons forming collective memory. If you have any interest in the history and lives of our LGBTQ ancestors, then, yes, this is a book I recommend for you. I recently had a younger queer friend ask me how sapphic people found each other in the past. I think I will be sending them this book. We have always been here, in all our complexity, in all the multitudes we contain.


Matchmaking in the Archive: 19 Conversations with the Dead and 3 Encounters with Ghosts is out now.

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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction and personal essays and are currently at work on a queer fiction novel and podcasts. They live in Pittsburgh. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nico has written 221 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. As a queer archivist, I was and am still so excited to have pick up this book. Not sure if there is a re-edited version, but on page 2, the writer incorrectly defines ephemera, as ‘clothing and other personal effects”. I guess that’s nit-picky, but I wish this tiny error didn’t happen so early in the book…. oh well.

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