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Listening to the Colonial Archive

Project leader:
Anette Hoffmann (IKW)

Cooperation partner:
Ruth Sonderegger (IKW)

Funded by:
FWF – Austrian Science Fund | Lise-Meitner (M2231)

FWF | Lise-Meitner Fellow
Anette Hoffmann, Institute for Art Theory and Cultural Studies
Projektlaufzeit: 1.5.2017 – 29.2.2020

Archives and collections of objects testify to the research on formerly colonized areas and people. People who were the ‘objects’ of study have been represented visually and in writing by researchers, travelers, missionaries and colonial officials. The bias of these archives as the often times only source for the reconstruction of colonial history, especially for the histories of European knowledge production, has been much discussed in recent years. Voice recordings, which were produced and archived from the end of the 19th century, have rarely been included in the debate. The neglect of the numerous collections of linguistic, ethnological and musicological voice recordings distorts our understanding of the colonial archive and ignores crucial acoustic sources.

With historical voice recordings, critical commentary of speakers from colonized regions, on research practices or political events entered European archives, but often remained untranslated. Recently digitized recordings present hitherto untapped sources for the study of racist research practices. This means that for the first time, the study of these practices can include the commentary of those who were under investigation.

The research project Listening to the Colonial Archive is based on a selection of 350 linguistic recordings of African prisoners of World War I, held by the Berlin Lautarchiv. These are the result of a large-scale research project that sought to collect all languages spoken in German POW camps (1915-1918). The systematic approach and documentation of the collection facilitate the study of early European scholarly phonographic collection. The recordings hold astounding commentaries, and narratives, but also reveal connections to other archives. The acoustic trace of one Senegalese speaker, for instance, directly leads to the research with POWs by anthropologists in Romania. The prisoner confides his wish not to be deported to Romania on the recording, which led to the retrieval of his trace in the archived registration of Austrian anthropologists.This and other examples show the importance of acoustic collections for the retrieval of otherwise marginalized comments and narratives. The project studies the genres and contents of 70 already translated recordings in seven African languages in relation to (then) contemporary, visual and written representations of interned Africans.

In recent years, Anette Hoffmann has developed methods for analysing voice recordings, which will be applied in this project. These translations and interpretations of the historical recordings with African POWs provide hitherto unknown sources for the understanding of the experience of captive colonial soldiers. The project showcases the immense, so far barely recognized potential of historical voice recordings for the documentation of colonial critique.