From a conversation between E.G. Crichton and Janeil Engelstad, June 2011
E.G. Crichton (E.G.): I come to this work as a lesbian who grew up before Stonewall with no sense of history. Because LGBT history has been so invisible, it's something that has had to be excavated. What is surprising is that even in major American cities, where there is a large gay presence that history is still invisible. For instance, I meet young people, all of the time, who don’t know who Harvey Milk was.
Janeil Engelstad (JE): Are you looking for something specific when you select an archive? What determines an archive being included in your project?
E.G: In my project, I have been interested in the lives of ordinary people who don’t have public visibility. So that is what I have been tracking, the fact that every life is interesting in some way and has ways to remember it. There is nothing scientific about it. When I look at the archive of an individual who has died it becomes very clear that there are certain things that I am finding out and that there are many things that I am not finding out. There are big gaps and for an artist, the gaps are almost as interesting as what there are in terms of something to spark the imagination and take off from.
JE: Do you conduct research at archives dedicated to people or groups that do not identify as LGBT, but might include someone who happened to be an LGBT individual as a part of the archive?
E,G: Yes, I look at all kinds of archives. Somebody who is Asian Americna and gay might choose to put their archive in an Asian archive, or someone who is a lesbian might choose to put her archive in the Brooklyn Herstory archive. People have complicated identities. With some individuals their lives literally get spilit. Aspects that reference gayness will go to one archive and another aspect, say being Asian American would go to another archive. An individual archive is always seen in context of the archive that it is seen in. It doesn’t matter if it is a huge state libray or a grass roots archive.
JE: One of the things that I appreciate about your project is that you are helping to establish a history of lives that would otherwise go unoticed. This history represents all of us, no matter what background is, or we love, or who we are. It's a part of our collective history.
E.G: Any group whose history has not traditionally been represented in the history books, which is just about every minority group, really has to find their own history. There is a kind of detective work involved that is pleasurable. There is an excitement about the work and a sense of discovery. It's not like everything is there right in front of you. Someone dies and someone else delivers an archive to the doorstep, or an organization folds and donates all of their records. There is this massive stuff, but it doesn’t mean that it has been indexed, or organized, or even discovered yet as most of the places housing archives have very little financial resources to devote to the work.
JE: Do you ever come across archives where there is material that you cannot use for the project?
E.G: There are many archives that have a stipulation on them (and when I say an archive, it could be one shelve, one manila folder, or it could be a whole bunch of boxes). They vary in terms of what they commerate and in terms of scope, but I have run into a few where there is a stipulation that says this part cannot be opened to 2045 or something like that. I make the assumption that that is about secrecry, about protecting living people. In one case I actually found out that the family of a lesbian were so homophobic that the condition for them to hand over the material was that the archive was that it be secret until everybody was dead. Fear operates for sure. Although interestingly enough, creating archives can also change and transform fear.
JE: Any ideas of who will create your archive?
E.G: We can curate our own archives! You can fill a box awhile you are still alive.
JE: What a great way to shape or even create one’s legacy.
E.G: Yes, but you never know how someone else’s archive may add or subtract from your own story.