Queer CodeBreakers

‘Queer CodeBreakers’, which launched during LGBT History month (Feb. 2019), was the final event linked to the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award (but it is definitely not the final word on the broader issue which the project is concerned with – community archives and digital preservation). Elle Castle, a computational artist from London was commissioned to create the installation, ‘Queer CodeBreakers’, which invited users to find codes in the library (hidden in objects and in riddles related to queer history) in order to get access to oral histories from the Queer in Brighton collection.

Edited transcripts of the launch event are below…so I will let them do the talking in this instance. Thanks again to everyone who attended and watch this space for part two of Queer CodeBreakers and for more news on work related to community archives and preservation.


Exhibition and launch event at Jubilee Public Library, Saturday 16th February, edited transcripts.

Sharon Webb (edited): I just wanted to welcome everyone here this morning…I won’t keep you too long but just want to give you some context to today’s event and the piece that’s in the foyer, and then I will hand over to Elle, who is the artist and the creator of the piece who will explain more about their installation, and then hand over to Laurence Hill who is Director of the Brighton Digital Festival. Laurence will provide a response to the piece and place it in the context of wider work in this area.

Today’s event, the talks and the installation in the foyer, are the accumulation of chats over coffee, the odd pint, with Lesley Wood, David Sheppeard, who are part of the Queer in Brighton project and part of the LGBT+ History Club, Laurence Hill, the Director of the Brighton Digital Festival, with me: for anyone who doesn’t know who I am, I’m Dr Sharon Webb, lecturer in digital humanities in the University of Sussex, and a member of the Sussex Humanities Lab. My background is software and history. From this odd mix, I’ve been involved with digital archiving, digital preservation over the last number of years. So, through these chats over coffee and pints, we realised there was an opportunity to work together on some of the things that we individually and collectively cared about. So those things were: safeguarding the future of the Queer in Brighton oral history collection, so, where appropriate, give access to the community, and secondly to researchers and students. We also wanted to experiment with how oral history testimonies are presented to the public, so looking at different ways to engage in the community in their collective narratives and stories. Lastly, we also wanted to highlight the precarity of this heritage, not only because of past neglect by memories institutions, because of legislation, because of prejudice, but also because of the fragility and the instability of our current digital environments and the digital storage systems that we so heavily rely upon. So all of these things, then, formed the basis for a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, which I’ve been running over the past year. This event, then, is the last in a series of events through this collaboration with Queer in Brighton, the Brighton Digital Festival, and the Sussex Humanities Lab. So just briefly, I would like to thank the British Academy and acknowledge their funding for this event, and for previous events related to this project.

Before we speak of the commissioned piece, I just want to talk about the Queer in Brighton project and the oral histories. As many of you know, Queer in Brighton oral history collection consists of 70-plus interviews carried out between 2012 and 2014, and it is part of a larger community archiving initiative. Of course, it is part of a long history of archiving in Brighton, and I am of course referring to Brighton OurStory. The Queer in Brighton oral history collection is the cornerstone and the inspiration for the installation in the foyer, which I hope some of you have had some time to interact with. It was created and commissioned by Elle. The significance of Queer in Brighton, then, as Brighton OurStory before, and indeed they still are, is that they’re an attempt to counteract the institutional silences or gaps in the historical record for LGBTQ+ communities.

In particular, these initiatives are an attempt to fill the historical record with the voices and experiences of individuals and their collective action. They are a counter to the historical record and historical narratives based upon medical records – because homosexuality was a mental illness – or criminal records – because it was a crime. Indeed, if we look at Alan Turing the father of modern computing, whose codebreaking feats are an inspiration for the installation, ‘Queer Codebreakers’ created by Elle, it’s telling that, apart from the records on his work on mathematics, AI, and computational thinking, there’s little evidence that gives insight into Alan Turing’s personal life. As Laura Doan states in their work on Turing,

there is a vast archive available to the historian of science to evaluate Turing’s contributions to mathematics and computer science…but very little is actually known about Turing’s private life and even less about his innermost thoughts as a desiring subject. Tantalizing hints appear fleetingly in unlikely places, such as in a letter to a friend in mid-February 1952…’Turing believes machines think , Turing lies with men, Therefore machines do not think’…Signed “yours in distress,” Turing’s anguish is palpable, the conclusion inferring his sexual practices negate his research on artificial intelligence’. (Laura Doan, Queer History/Queer Memory)

The queerness of Turing is not lived out in traces of his life, but in the evidence of conviction for gross indecency, through the barbaric acts carried out on his body and through subsequent reporting and inquest into his death. His everyday history is non-existent, and these histories are, in a sense unrecoverable. They’re simply not documented in any known documents currently at least. The history of Turing is of course representative of a particular time and place. Since this is LGBT history month (Feb. 2109), it provides us with an important moment of reflection. It allows us to think of the histories that have been told and those that never will because they were suppressed, undocumented, silenced or left out of our collective memory and cultural heritage. Thinking about our documentary traces, then, projects like Queer in Brighton, are a means to reconstruct and reclaim agency of our queer histories. They’re positive affirmations. They are positive as well as traumatic accounts of collective histories within our LGBTQ+ community. They’re not medical records, police reports, or trial hearings. They are therefore important, and crucial. However, and this is the crux of the work that I’m interested in, they’re also at risk.

They are at risk because oral histories, their transcriptions, their audio, are digital objects … and digital objects and digital media, despite what we may think, are fragile, open to corruption, degradation, and failure (bit rot is a thing)…websites die, software and hardware fail and become obsolete. The contemporary record is (probably) more fragile than (some) 1000-year-old manuscripts. One famous example of digital obsolesce is the BBC’s Domesday Project, a multi-media, multi-million-pound project to mark 900 years of the original Domesday Book (which was essentially the first census of England) – published in 1986 it quickly became unstable, and essentially useable. While the 11th-century manuscript is essentially still useable today, its digital counterpart did not last 15 years.

Indeed, we could also consider the installation, ‘Queer CodeBreakers’, and the technology it is built upon, versus the paper print outs. The technology (i.e Raspberry Pi and Arduino) that the installation is based on might be more fragile than the printed words the user creates.

In particular, (digital) records most at risk are those of community archives, like Queer in Brighton, and projects which document, preserve and collect marginalised voices in society, the alternative representations created to ensure representation, to ensure visibility, are at risk of loss because of the fragility of the digital infrastructures that support them, as well as the human infrastructures they rely on (i.e. volunteers). So much so, that in 2017, the Digital Preservation Coalition, an international advocacy non-profit organisation, listed ‘Community Archives and Community Generated Content’ as a critically endangered digital species. It is telling that some of the examples of at-risk content include data from marginalised groups, including BME oral histories and subcultural groups.

The collaboration, therefore, with the University of Sussex (SHL), with Queer in Brighton, with the Brighton Digital Festival, attempts to address these problems or at least publicise them, to make community members aware and to look for further collaborations and of course solutions with the digital preservation community. The collaboration makes an intervention in a number of important areas including community archives and digital preservation, and the challenge of making oral history and cultural content housed in traditional archives more accessible to the public – the response to the latter than is Elle’s ‘Queer Codebreakers’.

In August 2018 a digital art commission was advertised. The broad remit of the commission was that it must incorporate archival content of the Queer in Brighton oral history project and should aim to present this content (oral history testimonies) in new, innovative and interactive ways. We asked that the artist evoke a distant reading of these personal narratives and that they should be sensitive to the topics and subjects raised.

Elle was the winner of the commission, and I’m delighted that we are here today. It’s been great working with Elle and Laurence and the team at Queer in Brighton. I won’t say too much about the piece. I will leave that to Elle and to Laurence, but what I will say is that the concept of Queer Codebreakers exemplifies the myriad of ways we experience history. It demonstrates that history can be playful. On the plaque, Elle prompts us to find objects in the library to unlock the stories in the machine, to find the objects where we find ourselves. When I read this, not knowing where the objects were, I went, “Where is the history section?” because that is, or at least it should be, where we find each other. That’s where we see ourselves reflected in, and we see ourselves reflected back. I’m going to leave with this quote from Terry Cook who is an archivist who worked on community archives. He states, “We are what we keep, and we keep what we are.” Thank you. I’m going to hand over to Elle Castle who is the artist for the commission and the installation piece.

Elle (edited): Hello, everyone…So, I guess the talk I was going to give ended up changing a bit when I found out a few weeks ago that the theme for LGBT History month this year is peace, reconciliation, and activism. I wanted to think about the idea of silence, of unity, of harmony actually being negative states, and in particular that both marginalisation and fascism thrive on an uneasy peace. I guess my question going into this was: what fucking peace? What reconciliation?

I want to think about how those three things – peace will be reconciliation, and activism – can be considered accountability, and how we think about past wrongdoing, and ways that we record that, and the fact that, quite often, when we speak our history, particularly as queer people, its threatening both to institutional power and also to structures of interpersonal violence. This was really evident when we were doing the archival work for this piece – things we’ve heard or read that we couldn’t include because of threats some content might face from institutions that represent us, or us personally, or to the people that have contributed things to the archive. And how those structures that do violence upon us, and fascists and others who seek to do violence upon us, thrive on our fear of speaking and acting. And so I guess, I want to talk about intra or inter-community accountability, trying to find some sense of accountability from people in the past who have done wrong who are straight and cisgender, and people in our own community, and healing our own communal wounds. This piece allows us to think about who gets to actually tell their stories, who is still here to tell them. It allows us to think about friends that have died and the fact that, in quite a lot of cases, people are, or have been, afraid to speak out.

I’m part of the Section 28 generation, so in particular, I’ve been thinking about teachers who were homophobic or acted in a homophobic way, and how quite a lot of them have been promoted, and, how they changed their public image to adapt around what was the status quo. There’s a hopeful nugget in this horrible statement – that the fact they’ve changed their behaviour because they’re afraid, and I think that it’s important to remember that the only language fascism understand is violence, and the only thing that prevents fascism from rising is the fact that fascists are cowards, and that we can keep them afraid. I’ve been thinking about the teachers that made us write debate sections about whether or not being gay is something you’re born with or something that’s engendered in you through society, and then forced us to repeat this homophobic rhetoric to get good grades.

If we’re thinking about this kind of pretense of servility and kind – civility and kindness that mostly men are invested in performing, we did draw parallels around that and crypto-fascist tactics. There’s a where fascists will ask you bad-faith questions with a calm “I just want to understand” demeanour and how this is designed to demoralise and exhaust people. Obviously, if you respond to stupid reductive questions, then you will then open yourself up later to being accused of being stupid and reductive. Like, yes, so, but I want to think about in terms of kind of intracommunity accountabilities, like accountability between LGBT people. How? Because we have a paucity of numbers, there is less of us around, we actually can’t afford to be terrible to each other, and then drop that and run. Because I’m sure everyone’s had the experience that, like, your ex-girlfriend knows your girlfriend. And more broadly, the circles we move intend to have enough overlap that you can’t evade people, and how this engenders this sense of necessity to grow, and learn from things that happen, and I think if we think about queerness, and queer love as being love, then there’s no more real love than being able to tell someone when they’ve hurt you, and to be able to mend interpersonal and group connections. Fascism demands you to pretend that you’re not afraid, where queerness allows you to tremble while you’re scared, and they still do the right thing means we will probably win. And, also, because we know that harmony and peace aren’t an absence of conflict; harmony and peace come from good faith and generally wanting to reconcile things.

Laurence Hill (edited):

Thank you, Sharon, and thanks to Elle. That was very powerful and quite difficult to follow, so I will do my best! I’m going to keep this relatively short. I think everybody should have a chance to experience Elle’s work, which is fantastic. As Sharon said, I’m Director of the Brighton Digital Festival. BDF is an annual exploration of digital culture across the city, bringing together businesses, artists, educators, to showcase and demonstrate and critique the digital force that is shaping all of our lives for good or ill. We drew up a manifesto which you can find on the website if you would like to know more. One of our manifesto pledges is that BDF will encourage work that explores Brighton’s identity through its historical connections to radical thought, creativity, innovation, and acceptance of outsider communities. It’s a particular pleasure to be here at what is the final event of a two-year cycle of programming, because, to me, this work and the programme that Sharon has built around it, do exactly what that sentence from our manifesto pledges. One of the most thought-provoking things I’ve read in the last year is a cautionary tale in Hito Steyerl’s book, ‘Duty-Free Art’. She relates the story of a Russian World War Two tanks that was placed on a war memorial in Eastern Ukraine and had been sitting there peacefully for 50-plus years, until a group of pro-Russian separatists, climbed in and drove it away and used to attack a checkpoint. It seems someone had failed to render the war machine capable of its former function and not recognised, that to be part of a memorial, is to be removed in the world. That story doesn’t have a good ending. People died. It raises many interesting questions about the meaning of memorials, collections, and histories. One being the journey in a museum, memorial, or collection, doesn’t have to be a one-way street. The idea of de-decommissioning or liberating something that is in a museum or lodged in a hard drive under somebody’s bed is very exciting, and the digitals that we have make that a possibility and the liberated artifacts can have a real-world impact again.

Recommissioning something that properly belongs to a minority community is, I think, doubly important, and before talking about Elle’s piece, I would like to mention particularly the work of an archivist, Abira Hussein, who has been working with Mnemoscene, a Brighton company, to digitise objects from national collections which relate to Somali culture. By doing so, she breaks those objects free of museum cases and can reconnect that heritage with the Somali diaspora. Please do check that workout. If you get a chance, it is fascinating, interesting, and timely, adding an interesting nuance to the repatriation debate that convinces to rage.

To this piece of work, then. If breaking objects free of museums is critical, then liberating the voices of oral history is doubly so. This kind of born-digital content, as Sharon outlined, is more ephemeral than we would like to believe. Digital content is not endlessly replicable, and it does degrade. Liberating the voices of oral history is not in essence hard to do. You can set up a player, headphones, and a website where people can listen, but, to me, this is deeply un-dynamic, a bare minimum, and the preserve of researchers and archivists who have a particular interest or investment in the material. What Elle has done with the work is not only take them and revivify them but placed them into a context that is relevant to LGBT+ people. Sharon has already outlined the connections to Turing and the framework of queer codebreaking, and what I would add to that is two more things which will connect to this work back to the community from which is born – playfulness and subversion. This work that is playful, finding the objects, the codes, listening, it builds a sense of discovery and joy, bringing those revivified queer voices in the public realm is an act of subversion – engagement with history, liberated from proprietary technologies. It’s a work that honours the community it came from. It honours Brighton’s history of radical inclusion, and, in my role as director of BDF, a queer man and individual, I’m so happy and proud to have a small part in making that happen. I want to say, again, thank you to Sharon and Elle, and to David and Lesley from Queer in Brighton. That’s me!

Sharon: I suppose the last thing is to say, I would like to say a special thank you again to Laurence, David, to Lesley, to Elle, and to members of the Lab as well who have helped to bring these events together. I invite you to go into the foyer and have a look for some objects. You might find them, I don’t know, lurking around some exhibitions related to LGBT History Month. Have a look around, play with the codes, and there is cake, and, if anyone else wants coffee. Yes, thank you for coming out on this early Saturday morning! Thank you.

ELLE: I want to particularly thank Sharon and Laurence, but David and Lesley, for their support through the project. I don’t think anything would have happened without Sharon constantly sending emails! [Laughter]. Yes, it’s been a joy working with all of you, and, yes, I think, particularly, I’m in London rather than Brighton, so it’s nice to make some friends down here. Also, thanks to Andrew at White Coat Captioning for saving our bacon with the captioning at the last minute!
>> And it worked!

Digital Archives in Communities – Practice and Preservation

The first workshop related to this project, ‘Digital Archives in Communities – practice and preservation‘, will take place 20-21st June at the Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex. Tickets are free but limited so registration is essential.

For information on the first workshop associated with Dr Sharon Webb’s British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award please contact sharon.webb@sussex.ac.uk