“Beginning from the Marginalized Subject”

In her essay “Standing With and Speaking as Faith: A Feminist-Indigenous Approach to Inquiry” Kim Tallbear writes of her scholarly struggle “to share goals and desires while staying engaged in critical conversation and producing new knowledge and insights.” Working through this question, she cites Gautam Bhan’s notion of “continuous and multiple engagements with communities and sites of research rather than a frame of giving back.” A problem with ethnographic research, she suggests, is the ever-present necessity of the goal to “give back” to research subjects. To address this, the author proposes shifting the research process into a relationship-building process with colleagues (instead of subjects) so that data gathering might instead look more like information sharing. Using Harding, she writes that we must create “hypotheses, research questions, methods, and valued outputs, including historical accounts, sociological analyses, and textual interpretations” which “begin from the lives, experiences, and interpretations of marginalized subjects”. For Tallbear, placing ethics and positionality first becomes a methodology for knowledge production.

It occurs to me that Michael Rakowitz’ project paraSITES might function well within the terms of Tallbear’s ethical methodologies while also raising some questions for me about the process through which I hope to approach my ‘extratextual’ project. In the late 90s, Rakowitz began constructing lightweight, inflatable living spaces for homeless people. These paraSITES fed on warm air from exterior ventilation ducts on buildings to function as heated habitats for the homeless.


The artist worked with homeless people when creating custom dwelling spaces based on the needs and wants of folks in his local community. He spoke with the homeless, allowing them to craft their own living spaces; letting the project develop from the experience of the subject. Rakowitz aims to provide shelter for his ‘subjects’ by producing custom, warm, cheap, and lightweight sleeping sites.


Although I think the work is important, I wonder about some of the ethical issues that Tallbear brings up. An important part of Tallbear’s methodology is eliminating insider/outsider binaries. But how can an artist or scholar, like Rakowitz or myself, ever begin to legitimately claim insider status within a homeless community. Tallbear’s essay is inspiring on many levels for the ways in which it calls for a more (inter)active researching role and seeks to reposition relations between subject and object. However, I am still left unsure about the ethics of my varying projects in relation to ethnographic studies of homelessness. It seems that mixing Bhan’s call for “continuous and multiple engagements” with subject communities and Tallbear’s proposal to “begin from the lives, experiences, and interpretations of marginalized subjects” might function together as a more accessible method as I approach homelessness in my work.

Interference Archive


During our very first systems fellowship meeting, I remember getting into groups to discuss our goals and aspirations. I chose to be in the ‘making’ group and brought up an archive collective in New York, Interference Archive. I had never really explored the archive in depth but it occurs to me now that it is an ‘extratextual’ project. The Interference Archive is located in Gowanus, Brooklyn and functions to preserve and exhibit the (often ephemeral) cultural products of social movements and political unrest. Opened in 2011, the space consists of a variety of objects, including posters, flyers, publications, books, t-shirts, buttons, film media, and audio recordings. The objective of the archive is to preserve histories and material culture that is often marginalized in more mainstream institutions. Their mission states,

As an archive from below, we are a collectively run space that is people powered, with open stacks and accessibility for all. We work in collaboration with like-minded projects, and encourage critical as well as creative engagement with our own histories and current struggles.

Interference Archive was created by a core group of four artists, activists, and scholars, Kevin Caplicki, Molly Fair, Dara Greenwald, and Josh MacPhee. It is completely volunteer-run, free, and open-access. The original set of objects grew out of MacPhee and Greenwald’s personal collections but has now expanded through acquisitions and donations. The physical space functions as an archive but also works as an exhibition space, a research space, and a social event center for education and outreach; talks, courses, film screenings, performances, and workshops, utilizing primary source materials located in the archive, take place regularly in the space. It also caters to artists and scholars as the archive publishes booklet and prints posters. Because it is free and open to all, the archive serves a board audience of activists, artists, scholars, and community members.

Since 2011, Interference Archive has expanded its core collective to ten primary organizers. The creators might measure their successes as linked to community outreach and accessibility. Of most importance to the group’s mission is the collection and preservation of otherwise overlooked (ephemeral and therefore consciously forgotten?) objects, histories, and artifacts. The project might offer a repeatable cultural technique in that it shows that archives do not need to be privatized. It allows us to think through the possibility of an open archive. It also allows a reframing of the ephemeral. The bulk of the artifacts in the Interference Archive (otherwise disposable remnants of social movement history) are objects that are often unlikely to be preserved. The archive revalues these objects. The project also seeks to center stories often marginalized in traditional narratives of American history. The field of art history can benefit from these techniques because they celebrate a broadening of the traditional processes of collection and preservation and also reposition ephemeral objects as valuable artifacts.