Wildcrafting Our Queerness: Electric Dirt and Anarchist Archiving (Update #5)

The cover of the first issue of Electric Dirt

The outward face of the Queer Appalachia Project (@queerappalachia) is, without a doubt, their Instagram account (@queerappalachia). With an ever-increasing number of followers reaching into the hundreds of thousands, the group’s social media presence enables them to quickly disperse news, memes, art, etc. While my research for my upcoming honors thesis will focus very heavily on all the implications and uses of this social media, for this blog post I want to zero in on a subtler element of the Queer Appalachia Project, their magazine Electric Dirt.

The magazine’s introduction, succinctly outlining the Project’s efforts for inclusion and representation

A large portion of my research is a look into how queer folks in Appalachia create archives of their experiences when institutions of knowledge and power tend to overlook or actively exclude the voices of both queer and Appalachian people—I should remind the audience that the special collections of West Virginia University, one of the largest assemblages of historical Appalachian texts, contains only a single document specifically marked as queer.  This discouraging lack of academic archives, a problem in many institutions of higher learning across the country, not only highlights the still present bias towards the straight and the urban; it also implicitly argues that the lives of queer people and rural people (and especially queer rural people) are not worth preserving, researching, or otherwise caring about. While not as physically harmful as interpersonal and systemic violence against these groups, such a continual academic exclusion nevertheless works against causes of queer liberation. How can a lawmaker, researcher, doctor know how to best help rural queer people if the colleges they attended rarely if ever talked about them?

As queer people and Appalachian people have often historically done in the face of systemic adversity, the Queer Appalachia Project has taken matters of archiving their existence into their own hands.  A prime example of this is Electric Dirt. Opening with the stated goal of enabling “the underrepresented and misrepresented […] to represent themselves,” the magazine’s first issue consists of 200 full color, skillfully printed pages of art, articles, recipes, poems, short stories, interviews, etc. all involving queer rural life in Appalachia.

An example page from the magazine, note the presence of Instagram handles in place of author names

Before getting into a small slice of these entries, it’s necessary to talk about the magazine as its own artifact.  The DIY aesthetics, borne out of necessity, of zine culture often manifest themselves in the shape of small zines held together by staples and glue. While endlessly important, such zines are also rather precarious historical objects, as they can erode quickly through the passage of time.  Thanks to the money collectively gathered through thousands of donations to the Queer Appalachia Project, the group was able to construct Electric Dirt out of much hardier materials while still retaining the independent aesthetics of the culture from which it emerged.  The bright colors, glossy waterproof pages, and solid binding all scream permanence, a defiant act of cultural preservation in opposition to mass academic apathy and antipathy.

Another important facet of the magazine’s structure is the constant presence of Instagram handles on the spine and following each submission, often in place of the name of the author or artist.  By constantly referring back to Instagram, the magazine tells us that it is not the sole source of rural queer texts but rather a small sample of an even larger archive that exists online (I don’t have time to get into the implications of Instagram as a kind of archive but that will be a major component of my research going forward). The reinforcement of multiple locations of queer archival work, intentional or otherwise, effectively decentralizes the archive and the process of making the archive from any one center of power.  This anarchist archiving, if you will, not only records activism but is itself an activist mission of sorts.

For the sake of length, I’ll refrain from going inside the magazine to look at its contents and the ways in which they engage with Appalachian and queer history. That will all be in the next blog post! Keep an eye out for it.

Back cover of the first issue of Electric Dirt