Embodied Memory and Material Archives Interview with Dr. Julie B. Johnson

By Anicka Austin, SGA Blog Contributor,

Visiting Archivist for the Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers, Emory University Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library

During our first in-person meeting in 2019, Dr. Julie B. Johnson shared so many insights about embodiment that I couldn’t write them down fast enough. We formally met during the planning process for an archives-related panel discussion at Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center in collaboration with the knowledge-sharing initiative, Discrit. She, Holly Smith (Spelman College Archivist) and I shared in conversation about the function of archives in ephemeral mediums, particularly for dance-based artists.

Dr. Johnson’s work is an example of what happens when collaborative archival research becomes impactful performance. This abbreviated interview is a look into how she and many collaborators worked with material and embodied archives in the Georgia Incarceration Performance Project (GAIPP).

During GAIPP, students, artists, archivists and community partners worked together to “develop a devised performance out of archival research on the history of incarceration and convict labor in Georgia”. Dr. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin (UGA) initiated the project, inviting Dr. Johnson on as Co-Director and Choreographer and Professor Keith Bolden (Spelman) and Dr. Emily Sahakian (UGA) on as Co-Directors. Kathleen Wessel (Spelman) was Associated Co-Director and Co-Choreographer.

When asked to talk about her interest in archives as part of creative process, Dr. Johnson says:

I am interested in how people and institutions construct their realities. There’s so much information in what is collected and what is missing from the archives. That, in and of itself, is very much part of the story and part of the overall historical record.

I’m also interested in embodied memory because personal and cultural memory lives and moves in our bodies. Accessing that gives us a way to more deeply understand ourselves and each other and the ways in which we operate in our communities and beyond. And when we tap into embodied memory, we can discover things that might not have been at the surface before.

What we discover in written and material archives can give us a blueprint for searching through our own embodied memories. Our embodied memories can help give context, deeper meaning and fill in the blanks of archival material collections.

In Phase One of GAIPP, Spelman students and incarcerated students who were taking college courses at Georgia-area prisons, used their initial research discoveries to create choreographic prompts. They exchanged movement responses to those prompts before digging deeply into the archives at UGA for Phase Two.

We spent a lot of time working with the archivists who had kind of curated a large collection of materials for us to look at and bring into the creative process. Our students were able to see things like letters from politicians of different states during the Reconstruction-era, reaching out to Georgia leaders, asking them how they built their carceral system so that they could replicate it in their states.

They also drew from meticulously recorded reports of corporeal punishment in convict labor camps, photographs of work sites showing how much of Atlanta was built by prison labor and testimonies from the Georgia Prison Commission involving severe mistreatment of prisoners, which were denied by prison administration and leadership.

We made note of questions that came up, the things that stood out to us. Oftentimes, these might evoke certain bodily impulses that we would follow through improvisation, or we would journal write and read back our journals for themes, key words, phrases that would jump off the page, that we would then assign movement to. Sometimes this happened through individual process or through collaborative choreography.

We started to create different scenes around this work [in Phase Two] and organized the movement material into different vignettes. That material got handed off to participants of Phase Three who were responsible for turning it into an evening length production that premiered at UGA in the fall of 2019 and at Spelman in the spring of 2020.

Dr. Johnson is currently working on Idle Crimes & Heavy Work which builds on GAIPP by looking specifically at Black women’s experiences. This work is being done through her creative practice, Moving our Stories, LLC which uses “dance workshops, choreographic practice, creative and scholarly research, and community dialogues to draw on a deep history of embodied storytelling traditions and creative movement practices”. Idle Crimes & Heavy Work is in partnership with Tambra Omiyale Harris, Artistic Director of Giwayen Mata, an Atlanta-based, all sistah, African dance, percussion, and vocal ensemble. The work is made possible through the 2020-2023 Partners for Change Grant from Alternate ROOTS and The Surdna Foundation.

It feels important to connect archival materials with embodied memory, particularly because Black women’s histories, narratives, and experiences so often go overlooked or erased. We look to the archives to see and amplify the stories that are there and to amplify the glaring omissions from conversations around incarceration that seem to focus so heavily on men.

Dr. Julie B. Johnson

Learn more about The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project:

The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project

Reflecting on the Georgia Incarceration Performance Project by UGA Archivist and Exhibition Coordinator Jan Levinson-Hebbard

Learn more about Idle Crimes & Heavy Work:

Idle Crimes & Heavy Work

Additional resources:

No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity by Sarah Haley

Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South by Talitha L. Leflouria

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