Abstract - The Unspoken Archive: New Media Representations of the Middle Passage

This paper will consider how alternative practices of archiving the middle passage are performed in three new media works: Keith Piper's Relocating the Remains (1997), Stan Douglas' Nu?tka? (1996) and Rosângela Rennó's The Vera Cruz Dialogue (2000/2004). Keith Piper's hypertext piece archives the unrecorded/able histories of the middle passage, while Stan Douglas describes the colonial encounter between a Spanish and an English ship off the coast of Vancouver island while significantly leaving the presence of peoples on the shore silent and haunting. Finally, Rosângela Rennó documents a Portuguese ship's first encounter with indigenous people from Brazil, using the sea and the unreadability of the image as an index of the incompleteness of a European narrative of encounter. All of these works call attention to how the unconscious and the unspoken are inextricable from the historical process of recording and collecting facts, and deploy digital space as an archive of the intersection between place, the irrational, the unconscious and the historical.
New media, especially hypertext has the potential to create a new historical methodology in its ability to present image and text in fragmentary form. The privileging of the fragment resonates with an alternate reading of modernity from the perspective of colonialism and slavery: histories marked with violence, suppression and the fragmentation and dispersal of experience.
I will argue that these types of archives within new media form the possibility to explore unofficial and suppressed histories of the middle passage and first contact. Part of the unconscious of modernity is formed by colonialism and the slave trade and is constantly suppressed by its official accounts; histories of the movement of bodies across the ocean must take these ambivalences into account. These works highlight how the unconscious and the unspoken are inextricable from the rationalizing impetus of modernity, and how the sea is made a marker for the excess of signification of modernity's colonial impetus. An historical project in new media highlights the temporal structure embedded within digital media. Temporality in new media, especially hypertext allows interactivity, repetition, loops. And yet in that process it contains in its constant movement from frame to frame, an amnesia in the jump between frames. There is almost a negation of temporality in hypertext's presentation of the immediate that stages an amnesia but also the awareness of something lost. This reiterates Michel de Certeau's delineation of the historical project as a fragile collection of facts, archives, and sounds in a constellation of danger. But to let the objects, the coalescences however ephemeral to exist, turns it into another type of narrative, subject to its own medium.