Sites of Justice: Archive, Art and Street Protest

Published: 24 November 2022

This project explores the evolving role of development and humanitarian agencies in protracted armed conflicts, and the role of legal frameworks and accountability in these contexts.

Dr Galina Oustinova-Stjepanovic talks about her work on justice-making and sites of justice.

What form does justice take when juridical mechanisms such as courts are not available or tainted by proximity to political violence? In addition to legal justice-making, alternative sites of justice-making proliferate.

For instance, justice can be pursued through historiographic research and archival activism as is the case with participatory archival collections that trace historical and contemporary atrocities in places such as Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Myanmar, Turkey, Spain, and the US.

Claims to justice are made in street protests and public performances that co-opt the power of art to achieve equity in the absence of fair law. As an embodied, everyday practice, justice-making and its efficacy depend on materiality of storage boxes where evidence is kept and on aesthetics of privileged artefacts such as documents, monuments, photographs, and protest art. These fungible, non-legal forms of justice-making have their own temporality and evoke agency of human and non-human stake-holders, including trees, divinities, and the dead.

While memory and human rights activists in Moscow (Russia) collect names of the dead victims of Soviet Terror and the detained anti-war protestors into infinite lists, community-based ecological and anti-fascist groups in Novi Sad (Serbia) agitate against urban development projects that would result in cutting down of ancient trees and encasing the city in concrete. As memory activists in Moscow gather around a granite monument to say out loud the names of the killed by the Stalinist state, anti-fascist groups in Novi Sad hinder the construction of a monument to those killed during the liberation of the city at the end of the Second World War as the monument occludes the distinction between the innocent victims and the perpetrators of atrocities.

These examples suggest that, when the official institutions are intransigent, arbitrary, and dismissive, justice is enunciated in modalities outside of legal conventions.

The aim of this project is to investigate plural forms of justice-making ethnographically.

Grounded in comparative anthropological research in Serbia and Russia, the project looks closely at the activism of historians, human-rights advocates, and self-designated progressive protesters who challenge the authoritarian power of the state to demarcate spaces of violence, exile, terror, and to silence either historical or contemporary reality of torture and death.

Participatory ethnographic and archival methodologies are used to capture the affective, material, and experiential dimensions of possibilities of justice otherwise. Through immersive involvement in practices and nuanced conversations with agents and curators of justice-making, the project affords an exploration of forms, articulations, aesthetic and performative force of justice beyond the scope of the law. 

Galina's new monograph will cover archival activism and commemoration of victims of historical violence in Russia, exploring the propensity to remember victims of mass atrocities by their personal names. The book, Monumental Names, is now available as open access.


What stands behind the propensity to remember victims of mass atrocities by their personal names? Grounded in ethnographic and archival research with Last Address and Memorial, one of the oldest independent archives of Soviet political repressions in Moscow and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the book examines a version of archival activism that is centred on various practices of documentation and commemoration of many dead victims of historical violence in Russia to understand what kind of historicity is produced when a single name is added to an endless list. What do acts of accumulation of names of the dead affirm when they are concretised in monuments and performance events? The key premise is that multimodal inscriptions of names of the dead entail a political, aesthetic and conceptual movement between singularity and multitude that honours each dead name yet conveys the scale of a mass atrocity without reducing it to a number. Drawing on anthropology, history, philosophy, and aesthetic theory, the book yields a new perspective on the politics of archival and historical justice while it critically engages with the debates on relations and distinctions between names and numbers of the dead, monumental art and its political effects, law and history, image and text, the specific one and the infinite many.

First published: 24 November 2022