Tara Fatehi Irani’s outdoor performance, Mishandled Archive, dismantles and remantles the archive, embodies and rebodies memories, and, in its fragmentary state, gives us something to hold whilst holding us, writes So Mayer, in their stunning reflection on the artist’s work. With contributions from Elhum Shakerifar and Sam Fisher.
What I remember most is the moment when we held hands.
Hannah’s hand was cool from her water bottle; strong, present. It was the first time I’d touched the skin of someone who wasn’t my partner, a family member or a vaccine volunteer in eighteen months.
There is a lot of handling in Tara Fatehi Irani’s Mishandled Archive, or at least there was in the outdoor performance on Sunday 15 August on Peckham Rye. The second performance on that day. Because Mishandled Archive is an archive within an archive, performance within performance: it started as a series of everyday dances by Fatehi Irani to accompany copies of family photographs and documents. The dance move was recorded on the back of the image, which was left in situ in places across the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Iran and many countries around the world, and photographed, the temperature of the location recorded. Her book Mishandled Archive records this, with images and texts arrayed on its landscape-oriented pages that conjure the family photo album while they also dismantle and remantle it.
Mishandled Archive is also live art: a series of performances that are, like the book, a dismantling and remantling of the initial process. The performances bring in collaborators – dancers, a photographer, members of the audience, the space of the performance – and it becomes clear that each original dance was also a collaboration: sometimes with an interlocutor in the present, sometimes with a memory. In a metaphorical sense, these memories are being handled by Fatehi Irani and her fellow performers in a way that pushes back against the white-gloved rules of the state archive. Therein, ‘handling’ is an élite professional task, one that focuses on preservation while often militating against access, even – or especially – against access for those whose familial and communitarian memories and sacred objects are being ‘handled’. So Mishandled Archive is actually demishandling: demystifying the work of collective memory practice, democratising it, returning it into our hands.
When we hold hands, what are we holding? When we can’t hold hands, what do we hold?
“I was going to say that the other thing I really enjoyed was the relationship between what you brought to the performance and what you took from it. And also the fact that you took something tangible as well, that was engaging with these photographs floating in space. And then also, you know these pictures that you could, well, these pieces of pictures that you could take. I picked one up that looked a lot like my uncle, one of my uncles who nobody speaks to anymore, which makes it stranger. I guess it’s also a kind of resonance to the piece, because it’s so much about what’s remembered and the stories that are told about things.
I suppose the other thing I was going to say is that, when I picked that piece of photograph, it made me think of the title of a book by an Iranian writer called Goli Taraghi. One of her first books of short stories is called Khatereh-ha-ye Parakandeh, which means, it kind of means, ‘pieces of memories’ but in in a nicer way. Parakandeh means here and there, or disparate, or pieces of; it suggests that they’re a little bit all over the place, and the short stories are a little bit all over the place but they’re all recalling her childhood, and they’re all actually very funny, despite the fact that the time that they were probably written about wasn’t necessarily very funny. And that’s also my memory of it because I haven’t read them for about twenty years. And it just made me think a lot about the kind of nostalgia of the past and how we, how we think of the past and these shrines we build around the past.”
— Elhum Shakerifar
After the performance, Tara and Hannah wrote to me to ask if I’d write something about it. ‘I appreciate you did not experience the performance with an eye to writing on it’, they wrote, and I realised that I did not. That memory-eye, for me, lives in the connection of pen to paper. I had mishandled my archive in arriving without the materials to transcribe. There was a gap in my memory.
Could I have held hands if I were holding a notebook and pen?
Instead, I reached out to friends who had also been at the performance, and asked if I could (de)(mis)handle their memories, if they would place them into my hands. Thinking about the performance’s opening story about an international phone call from two sisters ‘who preferred to be known by their combined initials ShaDi’ (because I did not experience it with my memory-eye, Tara shared the script with me, an uncanny archive that prompts fragments of recognition while unsettling them, graphic record rewriting liquid memory, I asked friends if they would send me voice notes with their reflections. I thought it might replicate the way that communication can (mis)handle memory and connection; about letters, answerphone messages, even the slight international delay on analogue landlines that has returned as Zoom freeze-and-echo).
When I sent a draft of this to Elhum, she wrote back ‘just an FYI that shadi means happiness :)’. An international phone call with distant family members is a scene of happiness, which is why it acquires poignancy, a sense memory of the heavy plastic receiver held up to mouth and ear, the repeating ‘hellos’. Is it fair to say it has added poignancy or immediacy this year? What about the scene replaying talking to a stranger in the street or drifting around the supermarket? The mention of travelling to Bulgaria? A ‘kind of nostalgia about the past’, a shrine to some enforced idea of normalcy that Mishandled Archive reminds us was never everyone’s normal. Preventable diseases kill asymmetrically, as do invasions, occupations, repressions. These ashes are hot as we handle them.
As I held, I thought: ‘why: added?’ Here is ‘the relationship between what you brought to the performance and what you took from it’, a reminder that our apprehension – my apprehension, my training as a spectator and critic – is steeped in extractive notions of catharsis and the sublime. The desire to take without bringing that runs through the critical canon. Notebook in hand, I extract, I seek an essence. But Mishandled Archive is an archive that refuses the archive, a performance that is many performances. It is pieces.
At the end of the performance, the crew take down the complex webs of photographs from the trees with grace and ease. Things can be untangled. The trees of the arboretum still bear plaques identifying their Latin names and origins. The Peckham Rye Park website notes ‘there are also obviously non-native trees including Persian ironwood and balsam poplar’.
Things can be untangled, but it is work, it needs attention, translation, invitation, repetition. The performance happens over and over because the plaques persist. Between the summer leaves there are now gaps where photographs and ribbons were, an absence of the pieces that revealed the archives carried by the trees. Have we been released, like Puck’s speech at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or undone, roughed up against bark and left skinless?
“The best part of it was just to be among people holding a space under the sky – and to remember how awkward that is. I don’t think I would have been any less awkward before, plus ça change, as they say. But I think as the performance went on, I was only able to become a spectator towards the end because I felt so aware of performing myself as a social body, amongst other social bodies.
I’m not sure whether that’s just my intense Anglo-Saxon repression, a carapace of intense Anglo-Saxon repression, but it made the final section of the piece in the glade when all of the different parts of the performance cycled back within one another, more intense, for being a kind of revelation that I was able to forget about myself for just a moment and lose those edges just a little bit. Yeah, it’s a kind of hopeful moment.”
— Sam Fisher
Mishandled Archive is made up of hopeful moments, from its ending backwards. It ends suspended in cycles that reincorporate the sounds and movements from across the performance into a layered ring composition, a ronde of multiplying voices that reminded me of the combined top note heard when multiple bells ring together, a sensation that drew my eyes upward into the treetops as if following the sound of the performance moving into the sky, both an electrical signal travelling like a voice message and a bird that would alight and sing again in another tree, another place, another ear. Its end is suspended.
That is one of its biggest hopes. Its other is the cracking of the carapace, the imposed and policed social shell that is definitional of imperial British culture, the shell in which what is taken is hidden away; the archive itself. It’s there in the curious engagement by passers-by in the meadow who watch as if they are stealing something, or as if we are stealing something. Some watch frankly and comment openly, joyously, curiously. Some seem embarrassed by us, for us, about the space we are taking up with our movements and multiple languages. Suddenly airplanes are audible overhead. The border between the performance and the world is also policed: not by the performers, but by my training.
Look up. Is it mishandling to become aware of where and when the performance is taking place, to witness from outside one’s own witnessing? Air on skin, the shuffle of feet in grass, why am I standing awkwardly on a tree root, fixedly as if the performance has not invited me to move? The learned practices of stillness and silence, those carapaces required by élite live performance, are hard to shed and can leave us feeling skinless. Can leave us feeling that we have to feel. And that to feel, we might have to be part of the performance with a multi-layered awareness, a discipline, a presence that is also memory, rehearsal, the mechanics of making: the performers’ skill.
Before the performance – or one of the ways the performance starts, before it even starts – is that the performers move through the audience blurring that line. We, the audience are minding our own business. We are unsure whether the performance has started as, scattered in clumps talking and looking at the photographs, we are finding unscripted ways to be among bodies and trees for what might be the first time in eighteen months and that thought keeps repeating, especially when someone you have probably not met before asks you to dance.
Not social dance: they do not ask for your hand, although they place a card into it, a card with a movement description and a cue. You look around, wondering whether you’ve been singled out, wondering how voluntary this is, wondering how to understand the location and words of the cue. Wondering whether you remember how to be a body among other bodies. It’s been a long time. How will you handle the memory arising when you have been suppressing it in order to survive?
For the historian and theorist Diana Taylor, this is always the ethical wager and responsibility of performance, especially insurgent performance by marginalised communities: it evades the formal archive by entering memory through embodiment. A gesture – a raised fist, downturned eyes, kneeling, a shrug – is carried in the body’s memory and, in its performance, carries over into the muscles of those watching so it can be understood, recognised, reproduced. It is fugitive (in Fred Moten’s sense) and unstoppable. It is uncommodifiable and defiant. It only works by being shared, by being available.
‘[In memory of the deceased can everyone please hold their right arm in the air and hang their body from it.]’ reads the script for ‘Swing Swing’, Day 154.
What is your right hand holding onto? Look up.
“I’ve actually been sending voice notes back and forth all day today for translation purposes, for people who need support, and I’m always struck by how formal I am because I’m just like, ‘Get to the point’, and then I get these really lovely, lyrical thoughtful poetic voice notes from people in really difficult situations.
Coming back to my first voice note though, which is about feeling more comfortable with words rather than actions. There were more actions and there was like the act of witnessing. And so much of it was about being in a space together at the same time, regardless of which of those things you were actually engaged in, which also made me think of another kind of literary reference, which I don’t know whether this was within Tara’s frame of reference, I kind of imagine, it might have been to some extent, but it’s The Conference of the Birds by Attar, which is very much this kind of quest. It follows the journey of the bird in a quest for knowledge, and of course the journey is the destination. But the realisation is that actually, it’s the journey in community that is in fact the destination, and the word for the bird that is the enlightenment. The Simurgh actually means thirty birds. Si, meaning thirty; murgh meaning birds. I did think of that, and the notion of, you know, all of us in this kind of journey. It’s hard to walk away from something because it crescendoes. So as you walk away, you’re tingling with the relaxation of joint engagement. Anyway, that made me think of The Conference of the Birds – conference, obviously being an interesting issue with the notion of dialogue, or new voices.”
— Elhum Shakerifar
Confer: Latin conferre, to bring together, collect, gather, contribute, connect, join, consult together, bring together for joint examination, compare; also to confer, or bestow; < con- together, and intensive + ferre to bear, bring.
Confer and collate are the same words, from the Latin verb that declines fero, ferre, tuli, latum. The -late in translate. The -phor in metaphor (from the Greek equivalent verb, ferein). Metaphor, like all language (acts), starts in movement, in the work of the body.
What we carry, carries across. What we bring is what we take. Con-, intensive. What we bring together is what holds us together when the end crescendos. It is what suspends us in the present, the here and air and now that we are always mishandling because to handle is to pin down, to stop, to restrain, to restrict, to remove from circulation. We want to be a little bit all over the place, to move through memory as common ground, freely. Scuff your foot on it, and archive blurs into alive. You have that right, that’s what flies up through the leaves and above the leaves as Mishandled Archive makes space for, with its final, unfinalized notes you carry with you. Some things you can’t hold in your hand can still hold you.
Tara Fatehi Irani’s Mishandled Archive is supported by Arts Council England and Lancaster Arts. This edition of the performance was performed by Tara Fatehi Irani, Maja Laskowska, Amal Khalidi and Theresa Hoffman with live music by Sam Warner. You can find out more about the Mishandled Archive book and get your copy of the book here. Follow Tara on Twitter @TaraFatehiIrani and Instagram @tarafteh.
About So Mayer
So Mayer is the author of A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula Press, 2020), jacked a kaddish (Litmus, 2018), Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and (O) (Arc, 2015). They contributed an essay in Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (Allen & Unwin, 2018) and the introduction to Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás (Ignota, 2018). So is a bookseller at Burley Fisher, a curator with queer feminist film collective Club des Femmes, and co-founder of Raising Films, a campaign and community for parents and carers in the film industry. Follow So on Twitter @Such_Mayer
Feature image: Tara Fatehi Irani’s outdoor performance of Mishandled Archive, August 2021. Photo by Jemima Yong.