Can I Touch the Tender Button?

UT professor and archive expert Ann Cvetkovich says, 'Yes'

So say a couple of earnest journalist/blogger/academic types wanted to document the history of Austin's gay bars. Where would we begin? We took the question to the mountaintop: University of Texas at Austin professor Ann Cvetkovich, the queen of all things archive.

The Austin Chronicle: Where do we start to create a queer archive?

Ann Cvetkovich: So many forms of gay/lesbian/queer history have come through grassroots archives. It's an amazing thing to see queers so understanding of the importance of their history. I think it's also having some kind of queer sensibility in respect to saving stuff, the kind of fan-based cultural collections, being someone who appreciates culture and art means that you collect stuff.

AC: Or nonmaterial memories, stories, etc.?

Cvetkovich: Oral history is one of the hinge-pins – a grassroots phenomenon, but it's also a tool used in more traditional archives. Oral histories are the bridges between personal and more formal collections – someone telling the story of why this weird, personal, idiosyncratic stuff matters.

Starting with things like the history of a bar or a certain club is a good way to begin, because there you have a collective space that brought people together.

AC: What are some of the larger issues of doing work in queer archives?

Cvetkovich: Issues of queer politics and assimilation and respectability: institutionalization. The fact that universities and public libraries are wanting to have queer collections is very significant. There [is the] concern that that runs the risk of erasing some of the fringier, more interesting stuff. So thinking through the resistance to institutionalization, and not presuming that it's always the sign of success.

There's a lot to be said about what's good about institutionally based archives and what can happen with them. Another interesting thing is what happens when you take a queer perspective on a traditional archive.

AC: For example?

Cvetkovich: I'm really interested in the Harry Ransom Center at UT. It's superqueer. I just was over there with a friend, and she had these boxes of Gertrude Stein's stuff that were just astounding. Including a box that had a hat and a lamp shade in it. That is so queer! And then another box that had all these amazing paper napkins and stationary with "A rose is a rose is a rose" on it. And a little tender button, a little silk objet, that I was given permission to touch. ... I said, "Can I touch the tender button?" She told me later that no one had ever asked to touch the button, the tender button, before. That was the first thing that came into my head, that Alice B. Toklas might have made for Gertrude Stein. It's the little fetishist who's like, "Let me touch stuff," which to some extent any person who does archival research is a bit of a fetishist.

AC: What to avoid in creating an archive?

Cvetkovich: Sometimes people, out of a fear of loss, want to collect shit, and there is a lot of emotion behind that, and it can sometimes lead to a certain kind of entombment – the space that's full of stuff, like the old person with the newspapers piled up to the ceiling, the hoarding mentality, where it's not really about using it, it's just having it.

AC: What would you like to see in an Austin-based queer archive?

Cvetkovich: I think of the late Eighties as this period of AIDS activism and also of a certain moment in alternative music culture – whatever that was at the moment. It was an explosion of alternative energy that focuses a lot of attention on other smaller cities. Austin would not be any old town but a very interesting town to consider. This history is for the community here, but at its most ambitious, it's also a story about music and culture and American life that would be of interest across the board.

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Tender Button, archiving, Gertrude Stein, HRC, Harry Ransom Center, Austin Pride, gay Austin, lesbian Austin, LGBTQ

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