My two-month stay in Spain has been an invaluable research experience. The opportunity to spend time in Madrid and Barcelona, to observe and participate in an exhumation, and to interview forensic scientists, photographers, artists, and archivists about the intersection of science, visual representation, and history has allowed me to gain a more nuanced understanding of how memory can be mobilized to discuss the politics of both the past and the present. The information that I have collected over the past eight weeks will be incredibly useful as I begin to define and design my dissertation research project. Even more so, as I begin think about how forensic science and photographic practices are employed differently across different cultural, political, and historical contexts.
In this last post, I want to address a few topics that have come up in recent interviews as well as some themes that have appeared and reappeared throughout the course of fieldwork. While in Barcelona, I have interviewed several visual artists and members of the academic community who share an interest in the ways in which visual media has been and can be used to call attention to or discuss the period of political violence that marked a large part of Spain’s recent history. In almost all of these interviews, the “papeles de Salamanca” have played an important – if not a primary – role in describing local and national memory debates. The Salamanca papers are a collection of documents that formerly pertained to the Archivo General de la Guerra Civil Española in Salamanca. The Archive itself consists in an immense stockpile of thousands of documents that were produced and/or collected by the Francoist regime. Now deemed to be an “archivo de la represión,” this particular archive is thought to be an invaluable source of information regarding the inner workings of the Franco dictatorship. Continue reading
Last weekend, I made a trip to San Sebastián to interview a member of the Aranzadi forensic team (Universidad del País Vasco) that oversaw the exhumation that I attended several weeks ago. Responsible for filming exhumations and creating short narrative documentaries about individual investigations, the person that I interviewed explained how audiovisual documentation has been integrated into standard forensic and archaeological methods employed by Aranzadi in the exhumation of mass graves. As my interlocutor was keen to point out, the narrative capacity of audiovisual storytelling and its ability to document events and collect testimonies have made this type of media a useful methodological tool both within and without the realm of science.
A member of the Aranzadi team filming a testimony
During the exhumation process, audiovisual recording is used first and foremost to document the exhumation process. It is used to create an audiovisual record of how an exhumation begins, how it is carried out, and finally how it concludes. However, “levantando una fosa” is more than the application of archaeological methods. It is an event that requires the collaboration of many different people, most of important of which are the families desaparecidos and those members of the community who have pushed for this kind of revision of the recent past to take place. For those families who are exhuming missing loved ones, the exhumation is an emotionally charged event that is rooted in a wide range of memory practices. It is therefore, an event that often lends itself to the emergence of personal narratives regarding past experience. These narratives may be newly formed. They can also be narratives that are being publicly voiced for the first time. Video is useful here in that it provides a method and a medium for collecting these testimonies. It creates a space in which those most directly affected by violence can reject silence by narrating their experience that will be recorded by an audiovisual technology that will ensure future accessibility. In other words, video helps create a space for narrating experience while also facilitating the creation of an archive of experiences that illustrates the many ways in which social memory can manifest itself. Continue reading
Memorial plaque at Urzante exhumation site
At the end of June, I attended a conference in Madrid that addressed many of the social, political, historical, and ethical debates emerging in response to the excavation of mass graves and the exhumation and identification of victims of political violence in Spain. Organized by anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz (CSIC, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicos), “Bajo Tierra” brought together a wide range of experts from across disciplinary fields in order to discuss the impact that forensic investigations of Francoist political violence have had – and are continuing to have – on contemporary Spanish memory politics. For someone relatively new to the study of the Spanish historical memory movement, the three-day conference was an excellent opportunity to gain a more nuanced understanding of the social and political complexities that surround the application of forensic science to the study of the recent past.
For conference organizers, participants, and audience members, the symposium was also an opportunity to reflect on how different kinds of research protocols have evolved since the year 2000, when public support for exhumations first began to grow, thus breaking the long pact of silence put forth by an amnesty agreement made between political factions during the democratic transition. In this sense, the conference was also an opportunity for those active in the historical memory movement to take stock of the different kinds of achievements made both within and without the realm of academia and to critically discuss new challenges that currently are emerging under Spain’s new, ever-changing memory landscape. Although the exhumations occurring in Spain and the memory politics surrounding them were the main focus of the symposium, the conference also sought to situate the exhumation of “Franco’s graves” within a cross-national, comparative perspective. Due to my own interest in the similarities and differences between post-dictatorship memory politics in Latin America’s Southern Cone and that of Spain, it was interesting to see the ways in which different strategies for historically, socially, politically, and judicially addressing violent pasts in Argentina and Chile have been situated as successful models for addressing Spain’s history of political violence. Continue reading
The application of forensic science to the study of political violence in contemporary Spain has become an integral part of national and local attempts to recuperate and re-narrate an aspect of the country’s history that has often been ignored or simply forgotten: the political violence and forced disappearance of persons both during the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Fascist dictatorship led by Francisco Franco. Focusing on the intersection of forensic science, photographic practice, and memory discourse, I began my research in Madrid by contacting anthropologists, photographers, and art historians to discuss the different ways in which visual representations of exhumations of mass graves have been deployed as a strategy for making memory politics and once-silenced experiences with violence more visible within everyday Spanish life. Many of these discussions revolved around a sense of urgency that was characterized by the need to collect the stories of an aging generation as well as an awareness of the reticence on the part of some to revisit the country’s violent past. This tension between attempts to remember and desires to forget often became the backdrop to discussions about the role of visuality in present-day negotiations regarding the political and social functions of historical memory in Spanish society.
Recently assuming a more visible, public space, exhumations of mass graves have become sites in which personal testimony, private experience, and the politics of narrating the nation’s past have begun to overlap and coexist. In fact, the acts of unearthing unmarked graves and exhuming the remains of fusilados have become the conceptual, as well as literal and physical, processes through which narratives about experiences with political violence during the Civil War and the dictatorship are produced. As material, osteological, and biological evidence of violence is uncovered and made visible, the fosa has become a key site for the production of knowledge regarding Spain’s violent history. Continue reading