hat are some images, thoughts, smells, and feelings that come to mind when you think about archives? Perhaps you envision rows of shelves lined with books, stowed away somewhere dark and cool. Or you might picture a museum, holding ancient artifacts, bones, and specimens, which tell us stories of the past. When you think of archives, can you imagine a community-generated mapping platform used to collect digitally LGBTQIA+ experiences in relation to physical space? What about a crowded, messy apartment of queer migrants living together in an effort to survive the precarious life of undocumented people? In this essay, I explore the link between infrastructure and intimacy by looking closely at alternative practices of archiving the social life of those living on the margins of society. I ask: How do we disrupt the normative ways of seeing and knowing the world as well as bring into focus the non-normative practices, bodies, and connections rendered lost or unthinkable within History with a capital ‘H’? Further, how do queer archives disrupt and challenge the formation and design of normative and formal archive institutions? I want to look at archiving practices of queer life to analyze how affective landscapes and the intimate management of people’s lives complicate the infrastructural authority of archives.

Archives form part of knowledge infrastructures; they gather, maintain and circulate experiences and information that comprise human life and existence (Trace and Karadkhar, 2017: 491). Lauren Berlant (2016: 403) argues that while institutions are solidified and settled in place, “infrastructures are defined by patterns, habits, norms, and scenes of assemblage and use.” Archiving practices such as cataloging, retrieving information, and allocating appropriate storage space define archives as infrastructures. Their role as informational infrastructures includes the production, administration, and dissemination of knowledge. As Michelle Murphy (2013: 1) elaborates, they inform “social sedimentations such as colonial legacies, the repetition of gendered norms in material culture, or the persistence of racialization.” Stories of colonial expansion and imperial rule in the archive are not only documents of historic events, but also exist as materials with histories of their own. In Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Ann Stoler (2010: 20) describes archives as “transparencies on which power relations were inscribed and intricate technologies of rule in themselves.” This means that information stored in archives has the capacity to shape and support existing and future bodies of power and oppression. The archive acts as an architecture of state power and the records within it structure the social and political fabrics of its people. The act of being archived can be a disciplining force; to be categorized, preserved, and exhibited in a document often reduces the complexities of a lived life. The archive is haunted, filled with the ghostly presence of figures who have been erased, diminished, and silenced from the pages of history. 

Can archives become a space for resurrection? Can the ghostly figures that loom in the archive be restored and given new life? Archives can be dynamic spaces that give life to the tensions of knowledge production, erasure, and survival. According to Ara Wilson, infrastructures shape the conditions for intimate, relational life. She (Wilson, 2016: 248) further explains that, “understanding how infrastructures enable or hinder intimacy is a conduit to understanding the concrete force of abstract fields of power by allowing us to identify actually existing systems rather than a priori structures.” The close analysis of infrastructures can reveal the contours and cartographies of intimate social life and the power relations embedded within. This link between intimacy and infrastructure can be useful in understanding how “alternative archives” and practices of “archiving otherwise,” like queer archives, have challenged the archival silence when it comes to featuring marginalized subjects. Scholars of sexuality and gender describe queer knowledge as “evasive” because sexual meanings and identities continue to evolve, shift, and transform throughout the years (Marshall, Murphy and Tortorici, 2015: 1). It is the “dialectical drama of intimate tracing and historical unraveling [that] produces the archive as a compelling time and space for witnessing the mechanics of queer knowledge production” (Marshall, Murphy and Tortorici, 2015: 2). Therefore, to be able to document the fleeting and ephemeral nature queer intimate life requires tools and methods that animate the life stories and experiences of subjects who refuse to be categorized, labeled, and stowed away on a shelf somewhere. Perhaps, archiving queer life starts with acknowledging the slippery, unstable, and continually flowing histories that make up this community. 

Queering Archival Infrastructure

In “The “Stuff” of Archives: Mess, Migration, and Queer Lives”, Martin F. Manalansan IV discusses what makes a household an archive which displays the often messy and precarious lives of queer migrants. The article focuses on a small one-bedroom apartment located in Jackson Heights, New York City, and inhabited by six undocumented queer people affectionately named “The Queer Six.” However, what makes a household an archive? Manalansan’s (2014: 97) analysis centers on the pivotal idea that “mess” constitutes queerness. “Queering” and “messing up” are activities that highlight “the underrecognized practices, stances, and situations that deviate from, resist, or run counter to the workings of normality” (Manalansan, 2014: 97). Further, Manalansan (2014: 98) explains that the stuff of “mess” is not pathology but rather “a productive orientation toward bodies, objects, and ideas that do not toe the line of hygiene, ‘practicality’ or functionality, value, and proper space/time coordination.” Can infrastructures be ‘messy’?  A “mess” usually connotes a kind of infrastructural failure, and yet, Wilson (2016: 273-274) argues, “that failed infrastructure is the setting for many lives . . . systems [that] constrain and channel but do not determine, allowing the unintended consequences along normative visions.” For “The Queer Six,” this apartment, run down and at capacity, overflowing with things, provides an opportunity for survival. Therefore, analyzing the “mess” that constitutes the lives of these queer migrants reveals how broken down, damaged, and non-functioning infrastructures can be spaces of possibility and new life. Wilson (2016: 273) further elaborates that the study of infrastructures, “have created ways to think about the queerness of matter and things.” The concept of “mess” can be useful in understanding the relationship between people and the infrastructures they interact with. They are not always neat and straight forward, but rather exist in intricate and tangled networks. 

By outlining small ethnographic vignettes of the lives of “The Queer Six,” Manalansan shows how the “mess” in the apartment reveals strategies of survival, moments of joy, and hope, and the precarious realities of having undocumented status. In contrast to the orderly catalogs and neat rows of documents and files that make up a typical archive, the apartment brims with random assortments of things. So, how can chaos and disorder be archived? Manalansan (2014: 99) explains that, “mess is a way into queering of the archive that involves not a cleaning up but rather a spoiling and cluttering of the neat normative configurations and patterns that seek to calcify lives and experiences.” This is important because some lives, like those of “The Queer Six,” do not and in most cases, cannot fit into clearly defined categories of social life. The undocumented migrant lives precariously, suspended in liminal spaces, stuck somewhere “in-between between” survival and death. To archive these perspectives starts with acknowledging “the limitations and exclusionary impulses of state and other institutional archives that seek to ‘officialize’ and tether historical knowledge or understandings of the past in terms that do not engage with views from below” (Manalansan, 2014: 103). Therefore, the undocumented migrant is not someone who does not have documents but rather lacks access to paperwork that cannot capture the inherent “mess” of someone living on the margins of society. Most members of the “Queer Six” have to remain unattached to objects, fixed places, and routines in their life because they are in constant fear of violence, authority, and surveillance. In this way, queer undocumented migrant life is made possible in the “mess” of cramped living situations, with second-hand items, relying on the ruined and decayed conditions of infrastructure. 

Manalansan’s work reveals how undocumented queer migrant life sprouts up in unexpected places, at unexpected times, much like a dandelion growing between the cracks of pavement. The “Queer Six” are forced to survive and make up a living with limited resources which are often ephemeral, material objects not indigenous to a particular group. Part of the issue in archiving queer migrant life is that, “any attempt to fix provenances and origins will ultimately fail, if not be fruitless; the ephemera in the “Queer Six” household are precisely those that are impervious to clear itineraries of ownership and value” (Manalansan, 2014: 105). The apartment, its objects, and its inhabitants as well as the relationships they have fostered with each other and form a queer immigrant “living archive” (Manalansan, 2014: 105). Such an archive refuses to be housed in a formal institution, be printed and stowed away on neat shelves, but rather instigates new ways of understanding the intimate history of people living on the margins of society. 

Another example of queer archiving to document the lives of queer people is the crowdsourced story mapping project, Queering the Map (QtM), a platform that explores issues of visibility, intimacy, and community belonging online. According to the site, its aim is to “collectively document the spaces that hold queer memory, mark moments of queerness wherever they occur, and create a living archive of queer experience that reveals the ways in which we are intimately connected” (queeringthemap.com). Kirby et al. (2021: 1044) argue that one of the features of QtM “is its intentional anonymity [which] disallows identification and inhibits user-user contact or interactions.” When thinking about an archive, often cataloging information requires identifying a subject and the details of their lives to keep a record of their existence. QtM however, is challenging that aspect by allowing users to anonymously submit stories and experiences of their life linked to a specific geographic site. Queering the Map is an important project that visually maps out the possibility of queer existence, so as to say, queer life has existed and continues to exist everywhere. 

As a cartographic archive, QtM has provided a space to highlight queer histories of (in)visibility. Similar to Manalansan’s (2014: 105) outlining of a “living archive,” Kirby et al. (2021: 1047) also explain how QtM, “departs from serval archival norms, including the collection and collation of temporarily situated ephemera.” They (Kirby et al. 2021: 1047) argue that unsettling the standardized practices of archives highlights, “the affective aspect of ‘doing’ archives as ‘moving dynamic process of (un)becoming.” The affective declarations of love, loss, self-actualization, and resilience across the map demonstrate the rich textures of queer life. The map becomes a space of belonging, offering queer people the possibility to feel like their experiences matter, and that they are allowed to take up space, even if it is digital. Kirby et al. (2021: 1053) explain that, “these stories complicate normative public-private binaries through the tentative sharing of innermost thoughts and desires; a space to share or confess private feelings or actions, hard to articulate in person, made lighter by the veil of anonymity.” QtM makes possible the opportunity to be mapped for subjects who are often missing, erased, and dismissed in the pages of the archive. Although QtM is mindful of allowing users and their experiences to be visible, the details of their identity remain invisible which makes this platform a welcoming and safe space. 

Thinking of intimacy and infrastructure, Wilson (2016: 261) argues that digital information technologies illustrate, “infrastructure as a network linking various nodes [which] allows us to recognize the plurality of sites where material systems (and their failures) are entwined with social relations and with a complex interplay of structure and agency.” In the case for QtM, the map makes visible these networks and how people can be linked to places and things. Queerness is made legible through conceptualizing the queer archive as a, “repository of feelings” (Kirby et al. 2021: 1057). QtM has ensured open access to the archive which challenges the notion that archival material can only be authorized and viewed by specific groups of people. The map constructs a queer intimate public, one that is often dismissed, erased, and often unable to come to fruition because of the risk of personal safety. Through the stories shared by users on QtM, we are able to view the moments, feelings, and affective experiences that make up the social life of queer people. 

Infrastructuring Queer Archives

In the introduction of “Queer Archives: Intimate Tracings,” Marshall D, Murphy K.P and Tortorici Z (2015: 8) suggest that queer archival projects, “pulse as bodies do.” They argue that these archives: 

“cruise and seduce and are caressed and taken. They (2015: 8 are evidentiary traces of queer desire and life, and they mark a determination - a rubbery one that changes from time to time and case to case - at the moment to give up something intimate that is somehow traceable” (Marshall D et al. 2015: 8). 

But how do these archives also matter as queer infrastructures? Queer life is as slippery as infrastructure; it changes shape, it keeps moving, it’s leaky and inconsistent at times, and most importantly, it refuses to succumb to the normative flows of life. Projects like Manalansan’s archival work on a small apartment inhabited by queer migrants, and a digital map that traces the affective experiences of queer people around the world, are challenging the way archives are created, maintained, and understood. As information infrastructures, archives are robust networks of people, artifacts, and institutions that generate, share and maintain different kinds of knowledge about the human and non-human world. However, the ghostly figures of those who were diminished and left out of archival accounts deserve to be resurrected and given life. Queer archiving practices can widen the scope of envisioning what is possible for the people living on the margins of society. Looking closely at the relationship between intimacy and infrastructure can reveal how social relationships and power are embedded in complex understandings of materiality. Queer life has always and will continue to bloom and flow in unexpected places; it refuses to be confined, categorized, and conform to templates and guidelines. The archive often reflects patriarchal and colonial visions of history, nationalism, and conventional notions of revolutionary struggle. Therefore queer archival practices are vital to weaving the fabric of complex social life led by those that exist outside of the networks of privilege and power. 




Berlant L (2016) The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times. Environment and Planning. D, Society & Space 34 (3): 393–419. 
Kirby E, Watson A, Churchill B, Robards B and LaRochelle L (2021) Queering the Map: Stories of Love, Loss and (be)longing Within a Digital Cartographic Archive.  Media, Culture & Society 43(6): 1043–60. 
Manalansan MF (2014) The ‘Stuff’ of Archives: Mess, Migration, and Queer Lives. Radical History Review 2014 (120): 94–107.
Marshall D, Murphy KP and Tortorici Z (2015) Editors’ Introduction: Queering Archives: Intimate Tracings. Radical History Review 2015 (122): 1–10. 
Murphy M (2013) Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency. Scholar and Feminist Online 11(3) 1-7.
Stoler AL (2010) Along the Archival Grain : Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton University Press. 
Trace CB and Unmil PK (2017)  Information Management in the Humanities: Scholarly Processes, Tools, and the Construction of Personal Collections. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 68 (2): 491–507. 
Wilson A (2016) The Infrastructure of Intimacy. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 41 (2): 247–80. 


Zarin Tasnim (they/them) is a Ph.D. student in the department of anthropology at the University of Toronto. Their research interests include transnational sexuality studies, queer socialities, and politics.