‘Researching Protest Memory’ workshop at University of Sussex

The Protest Memory Network’s very first workshop, on ‘Researching Protest Memory’ took place on the 30th and 31st May. It was organised at the University of Sussex by Dr Pollyanna Ruiz, Senior Lecturer in the university’s School of Media, Film and Music, in collaboration with Sussex Humanities Lab. From the outset, it was a thoroughly innovative event, combining panels of speakers with an array of immersive and educative activities, with the enthusiasm it inspired among delegates evident from their tweets over the two days using the workshop’s #protestmem hashtag.

Day One

Delegates arrived at registration to be greeted withthe opportunity to make their own protest-themed badges. The workshop then began with a quickfire round of introductions, in which delegates briefly discussed their research interests and methods. The first panel began with Dr Hannah Awcock discussing the geographies of protest stickers and their re-purposing of local slang and historic images. She was followed by Dr Anna Feigenbaum, who explored the role of data in researching protest, including the usage of alternative sources due to the absence of official recording methods, and the need to tell empathetic narratives but also make the same data speak to policymakers as well. Finally, Dr Sam Merrill spoke of the need for hybrid methods in the researching of protest memory, to focus on memory as production as well as product, and for researchers to become better versed in digital methods.

This was followed by a workshop hosted by the university’s Text Analysis Group (TAG) Laboratory, considering issues around researching protest memory on Twitter. During this session, Dr Alexander Butterworth and Jack Pay spoke to delegates about some of the ethical issues that arise from researching protest on Twitter, and whether new regimes of data protection compel processes of forgetting. Yet they also highlighted the possibilities offered by the format, including topic modelling and the overlaying of Twitter data over existing maps of protest.

The final panel of the day commenced with Dr Louise Purbrick discussing participatory arts programmes, considering in particular the collective re-making of Picasso’s Guernica for a protest in Brighton, and the mobility of this textile banner between gallery spaces and streets. This was followed by Professor Alison Ribeiro de Menezes and Carmen Wong looking at the role of food in the memories of Chilean women exiles in the UK, examining how they embroidered protest slogans were embroidered on handkerchiefs then baked inside empanadas, and bore the brunt of memory and emotional labour in the absence of effective commemoration by the Chilean state. The day’s events then concluded with the ‘Subversive Sussex Walk’: a guided tour through Brighton’s radical histories.

Day Two

The first panel of day two of the workshop began with a presentation by filmmaker Winstan Whitter, discussing his filming of grassroots initiatives to save threatened spaces such as the Four Aces Club in Dalston from council-led gentrification, and the role of his films as both testament to those spaces and initiatives and as campaigning tools in themselves. He was followed by Lizzie Thynne, who presented on the subject of the 2014 film Pride, describing it as both a warm social comedy and poignant tribute to the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners movement and stressing its role in inspiring new intersectional political movements, but also its problematic treatment of lesbians amid its celebration of gay male and straight female liberation. Finally, Professor Anna Reading described her experiences of both researching and participating in activism, from working with underground feminist networks in late 1980s Poland to her collaborative Moving Hearts project celebrating and seeking to bring together London’s migrant communities.

The subsequent workshop session showcased the work of the Leverhulme Trust-funded ‘Business of Women’s Words‘ project, exploring the intersection of activism and commerce within feminist publishing, and led by Dr Margaretta Jolly in partnership with the British Library. Research fellows Dr Zoe Strimpel and Dr D-M Withers presented on their work for the project, focusing on Spare Rib magazine and Virago Press respectively, before delegates were engaged in a mapping exercise, using listings from Spare Rib to plot the locations of feminist correspondents, groups and enterprises in 1970s and 80s Britain.

After lunch, delegates were taken to The Keep, home to the University of Sussex Special Collections, as well as local government and history records. There, Mass Observation Project Officer Kirsty Pattrick spoke about the Mass Observation Archive, and its ongoing role in capturing public opinion and all its nuances. This was followed by a presentation by Dr Rachel Tavernor on her own work exploring dissent in the archive and responses to the international work of non-governmental organisations, including a 2014 Mass Observation directive she produced soliciting panellists’ views on global charity and activism. Therafter, delegates were taken on a tour around The Keep, providing a behind-the-scenes view of how archival materials, and their embedded memories are collated, stored and preserved.

The workshop concluded with a ‘fishbowl debate’, giving delegates a chance to discuss and listen to others on key issues in researching protest memory. Subjects raised included that of mnemonic labour and capital, as well as how to define social movements, protest, and memory, and whether the latter concept would be better supplanted by that of remembrance. It was a fittingly engaging conclusion to an enthralling two days, which more than whetted the appetite for the next scheduled network workshop, which will take place at the University of Loughborough in September 2018.