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Gemma Copeland

Dissenting Ephemera

 —  Dissenting Ephemera

Some of my notes from the Dissenting Ephemera workshop at MayDay Rooms a few weeks ago: is an online archive of radical political ephemera, built in collaboration between MayDay Rooms and 0x2620 Berlin.

They’ve spent the last year digitising the MayDay Rooms archive and scraping other archives and now have a substantial body of material to work with. They’ve been experimenting with different ways of structuring, distributing and expanding upon this archive. For this workshop, they invited a range of people working in similar areas to share their experiences and contribute to the development of the platform.

I was super impressed with the archive — it’s running on Pandora, an open source media archive platform which they’ve customised. You can even do a full text search on both PDFs and images. They mentioned that at this stage, the technology behind it is the least of their problems. The challenge now is involving people to structure, use and develop the platform.


Rosemary mentioned in her introduction that all political ephemera requires context — you can’t show it in isolation, it must be positioned within a wider historical context and in relation to other social, cultural and political movements.

We discussed different ways of browsing content: not just by time and location but by historical events, social movements, groups, tactics and issues. Of course, a historical event could be anything from one day to a decade, which is an interesting challenge.

We also discussed enabling users to make their own collections, providing context in a more freeform and subjective way.


Another recurrent question was around distribution and openness.

How do you open up the collections of different institutions? How do you enable interactions and entanglements between different collections? What is the connection between online and offline? How do we find a common syntax so that different archives can talk to each other?


How do you document and archive radical content that is even more ephemeral and fragmented than printed matter, like social spaces or streets? Nick Thoburn gave the example of Inventory Magazine, which documented, recorded and reproduced found texts created by London’s homeless population.

The other example he gave was a book documenting the 2015 Baltimore Uprising, which consists only of screengrabs from Twitter. The book presents the tweets without introduction or context, insisting that you engage with the tweets themselves. The purpose is not to explain or document the uprising, but to prolong it.


A theme that came up through everyone’s talks was that of care and maintenance. A library isn’t a self-organising system — they often survive due to the hard work of a small handful of people. It takes a long time and a lot of diligent labour. How do you sustain these people and these kinds of projects? How do you make something that works for people, and make it desirable for them to actually use and maintain it?


Karen Di Franco from Bookworks spoke about layers of description and subjectivity. She used the example of a photocopied piece of ephemera with handwritten notation on top — how do you document this secondary layer? Does it belong to a different category than an unannotated version of the same thing? How do you describe an iteration on the same object?

The act of archiving isn’t an objective process but highly subjective and open to interpretation. The archivist must decide how to describe and categorise something, what information is included and what should be left out.


Another recurrent theme was around the activation of archives. It’s not enough to just create archives and hope that people will educate themselves — you need to find ways to provide entrypoints and pathways through the content.

Tomislav Medak from Memory of the World asked: what’s the political use of what we do? How do you activate these collections and enable radical education? How do you make an archive accessible to a broad range of people? Translation is an important element of this, but there are others aspects to literacy as well. A syllabus can’t just be a reading list.

Some of the people and groups that were there were Banner Repeater, Nick Thoburn, Memory of the World, Bookworks, Mute Magazine, MAZI and Pirate Care. It was exciting to have all of this experience together in one room, and interesting to see how the same puzzles and themes turn up again and again, in different contexts and across decades.

Seeing all these different attempts at peer-to-peer distribution and radical archiving made me feel more strongly than ever that we need to share these tools and resources, rather than having new projects start up and then burn out.

I’m collecting any related links and text in this Arena channel.

Update, 22.02.2020

I’ve written up what I spoke about in this post.