Freaking the Archive: Archiving Possibilities with the Victorian Freak Show

Ann Garascia, English, UC Riverside

The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth
1960 / Richard Dale McMullan Collection
Boston Public Library

My dissertation proposes a critical practice of archival work I call “freaking” the archive. I perform ethnographic fieldwork on archives to initiate revisions to archival theories, principles, and practices. My project brings together nineteenth-century “freak” performers and contemporary performance art drawing from the freak tradition, tracing them across time and context. This methodology demonstrates how “freaks” breed their own forms of documentation and knowledge making practices to envision new methods for accessing subjects underrepresented in the historical record through traditional research models. According to this research model, archives are no longer unchanging bodies of knowledge but rather dynamic and irreverent ones; and, archival work is no longer built on completion and concretion, but possibility and provisionality. In exploring the limitations and possibilities of archives as agents of cultural contest, “freaking” the archive affirms critical archival practice to be a key tool for queer of color critique in the humanities.