by Jane Connarty
20th September 2009
This essay by Jane Connarty formed the introduction to Ghosting: The Role of the Archive within Contemporary Artists' Film and Video.
Although we might not think of ourselves as archivists, or think of our activities as archival, in many ways, we all have some experience of the activities of recording, collecting, cataloguing and classifying. In recent years archives, museums and libraries - the repositories of vast quantities of visual material and documentation -seem to have proliferated and gained both profile and popularity.
Archival research and genealogy have evolved from rare and arcane pursuits to popular pastimes and the subject of prime-time television. The current BBC television programme Who do You Think You Are? follows the progress of individual celebrities in their search to uncover personal family histories, and provides practical ‘how-to' advice and encouragement for the viewer seeking to research their own family tree or local histories. The re-discovery in 1994 of the Mitchell and Kenyon Collection, a treasure trove of over 800 films of actuality footage of everyday life in Edwardian Britain (1) has aroused great interest from academics and wider audiences. A the three part television series The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon (2005) co-produced by the BBC and the British Film Institute, along with touring programmes for cinemas and numerous publications and DVDs.
The objective of encouraging and broadening access to archives has been given greater prominence within social, cultural and political agendas. In 2004 an annual Archive Awareness Campaign was initiated across Britain, and according to its website, over 6 million people in the UK are presently actively engaged in researching their families' histories (2). In the 21st century the individual and institutional impulse to archive, has it seems, moved from the margins to the mainstream.
The Ghosting initiative harnesses the growth of interest in archives. The publication focuses on artists working with the moving image, and the ways in which the archive itself, or archival or found materials have been central to the practice of a number of artists whose work deals with issues of history, identity, memory. Through extended essays and shorter case studies on particular works, the book draws together a collection of individual voices to reflect upon the relation of the archive to artists' moving image. Creating a site for information, enquiry and discussion it brings together the personal perspectives of art and film historians, curators, archivists and the practitioners. The publication has evolved in parallel with Picture This' initial collaboration with artists Ansuman Biswas, Harold Offeh and Erika Tan, (each was commissioned in 2003/05 to make a new work in response to research undertaken within particular archives). The publication is informed by the ideas and dialogues arising from their enquiries and resulting works including histories of colonialism, imperialism, and questions of representation, identity and cultural difference have also informed the focus of the book.
The themes of history and memory have been central to cultural production and discourse through much of the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Photography, film and the archive are associated with the concept of memory, functioning as surrogate, or virtual sites of remembrance, or as metaphors for the processes of recalling the past. The experience of viewing archival photographic prints or film can have a seductive, even spellbinding effect on the viewer; their material and aesthetic qualities acting as a trigger to memory, evoking a sense of time and nostalgia, or conjuring fantasies of history. Through the 20th century visual spectacle has increasingly mediated our experience of the world. Within the visual arts the practice of working with, and recycling found objects is well established and in film history the practice of appropriating existing footage can be traced back to the 1920s (3). It is not surprising then that many artists have been drawn to found footage, sourced from actuality or documentary film, home-movies, specialist collections (e.g. of medical history, science, anthropology or ethnographic material), as well as the vast audiovisual collective memory banks of cinema and television, and the virtual and real archives that these industries generate. Hollywood's back catalogue provides an almost unlimited pool of raw material for artists and filmmakers whose concerns range from the history of cinema, to the structural analysis of film, visual improvisation, or a critique of Hollywood's role in the creation and perpetuation of social, racial and gender stereotypes.
In the first of five essays, Lucy Reynolds contextualises the discussion of contemporary practice through consideration of the work of a number of key experimental filmmakers and artists working from the 1930s to the present (Len Lye, Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs, Abigail Child, Morgan Fisher, Johan Grimonprez and Peter Tscherkassy). The works of these filmmakers not only reflect a critical or subversive position in relation to the film and media industries, but also bring the language of experimental filmmaking to found footage. Her text highlights these artists' interruption and dismantling of conventional narrative, and examines the potential for found footage work to set up a critical position between viewer and image. Reynolds' essay draws attention to the innovative ways in which experimental filmmakers have not only drawn from the archive of discarded industry by-products, but have also interpreted the film frame itself as an archival document.
Curator, art historian and archivist Eddie Chambers considers Black Audio Film Collective's seminal film Handsworth Songs (1986), which in the twenty years since its creation, has come to gain ever greater recognition, both within the histories of art and film, and as an archival document in its own right. Chambers discusses in detail the particular political and cultural context of the film's production, its radical approach to the documentary genre, its forms and techniques adopted in rejection of the linear chronological narrative and singular, homogeneous Black voice. The text affirms Handsworth's Songs' historical importance, and continuing significance and resonance in 2006.
In Amna Malik's response to the three Ghosting commissions by Biswas, Offeh and Tan, we are reminded of the intensely personal, subjective and fragmentary nature of much material to be found within archival collections. Malik's text unravels a wealth of textual and historical references arising from the particular archival dialogues pursued by the artists, illustrating the profound interdependency of personal and global histories and individual and collective consciousness.
The experience of the individual artist in their encounter with the archive is central to this publication. Artists Uriel Orlow and Erika Tan have each developed a sustained engagement with the archival and bring interdisciplinary perspectives to our discussion. Tan's practice evolves from a study of anthropology and an interest in the relationship between this discipline and the photographic and moving image. Orlow's art and writings explore the different ways in which histories and memories are embedded or inscribed within architectural spaces, landscapes or the human body.
Erika Tan's essay narrates a journey in search of the archival, which begins with the challenge of negotiating catalogues, lists and classificatory systems, and concludes with a thoughtful analysis of the location of meaning in an artefact, and the potential for the archival space to liberate new dialogues and interpretations. Tan's archival exploration is framed by a moving personal reverie that calls to mind the archive's profound association with mortality and the memorial. Consideration of the institution and structure of the archive, its material architecture and mechanics, and its activities of ordering and classifying, are central to Uriel Orlow's practice. His essay introduces us to the concept of the artist as ‘archive thinker', as one who is less concerned with the specific artefact or content of an archive, but rather, is drawn to explore the value and significance of the archive within society. With reference to works by Alan Resnais' short film Toute la memoire du monde, (1956) he considers the material presence of the archive and the translation of its physicality, systems and meanings with moving image work. Through discussions of works by Susan Hiller, Jane and Louise Wilson, he reflects upon the ways in which artists have identified and responded to the archival as perceived or existing in the real world.
The themes and questions elaborated by these illuminating texts, are further extended through the series of case studies which focus on a number of individual works from the 1990s to 2006. The artists selected for inclusion in the case studies encompass a range of approaches including those who work directly with found or archival footage, those who construct imaginary or fictional archives, and those who address the subject of the archive itself. The case studies provide the space to illustrate and consider individual works, further reflecting upon varied and often overlapping themes, concerns and motivations.
For a number of the artists the incorporation of the archival bears relation to documentary or film essay traditions. The archival is incorporated as aide-memoire, as witness to past events, or as material evidence of specific histories that have perhaps been misrepresented or ignored. A number of works demonstrate the ways in which official and unofficial archives offer critical sites within which to consider the role of the visual in establishing and fixing post-colonial and post Second World War histories, the ethnographic gaze, and representations of difference. While referencing or alluding to major historical events or narratives, these works are often anchored within personal and autobiographical enquiries.
The critique and deconstruction of the archive itself as a system of order or knowledge is a central concern, and a number of featured works draw attention to the activities of collecting, classifying and controlling. In some cases the merging of both fact and fiction within archival structures and strategies subverts the objectivity of the archival image, and questions the way in which images today mediate a sense of reality - or hyper-reality. Some of the works featured are evocative of the ways in which we experience and remember events and recent history, heightened through the media of film, video, cinema and television. The mediated images of war, famine, natural catastrophe or terrorist acts, are so embedded withing our own memory banks, as streamed fragments of our imagined global landscape, that even if we might have had the good fortune not to have had direct experience of such events, they have a powerful resonance for us.
Across much found footage work there is a heightened awareness of the medium and fascination with its material qualities. The mere act of re-presenting recycled visual material draws attention to its status as an image (4). Editorial strategies such as re-photographing and editing within the frame, interruption of narrative through montage and juxtaposition, extreme deceleration or alteration of scale or colour of the image, permit new levels of scrutiny and engagement with the content and the physical characteristics of the medium, while simultaneously drawing attention to the voyeuristic relationship of viewer/consumer to the material.
Some of the case studies further highlight some of the ethical dilemmas inherent in the act of appropriating archival imagery. The works question whether authoring archival material offers contemporary audiences a uniquely valuable means of exploring collective and personal histories. The artists also explore the dilemmas of exploration, or misappropriation of footage produced by the original filmmakers, and re-examine the historiy of the conditions of production and the sometimes voyeuristic relationship between camera and subject. A number of works featured may give the initial impression of a relatively straightforward and unmediated appropriation of existing film, with few obvious signs of artistic interference. However, closer study reveals a multiplicity of interventions by the ‘secondary' filmmaker/artist, and the importance of their intermediary role to contemporary readings of the material. Questions around the ownership or authorship of the archival image, of permissions to use, to re-present or to intervene within existing work are also key to some of the works featured. Writing about the currency of photographic archival images Allan Sekula observes that in some ways as a result of their archival status and contents, by their detachment from the original author or purpose, "Not only are the pictures in archives often literally for sale, but their meanings are up for grabs." (5)
Photographic and film technologies have developed in parallel with, and are intrinsically associated with notions of modernity and the still and moving image have become central to perceptions of ourselves as individuals. Lens based media are critical to the construction of collective identities and shared histories, and our sense of the past, present and future. Concerns with the archival and with the historical are intrinsically bound up with an attempt to understand or make sense of the present. Walter Benjamin writes, "History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled with the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]." (6) History then, like memory itself, is not fixed but rather characterised by its inherently fluid, unstable, complex nature, subject to change and to the inflections of the present.
Two works presented as case studies call particular attention to ideas of the future with reference to the archived past. In TheCity of the Future (2005) Patrick Keiller assembles an extensive database of actuality films that document urban spaces in Britain, dating from the first few years of the 20th century. Often continuous shots filmed from the platform of a moving tram, these views of street scenes and the spaces of the everyday present virtual landscapes of the past pictured at a critical point in history. The presence of the film camera and electric trams signal a transition to modernity. In viewing these films in 2006 we bring a certain historical knowledge, or certain premonitions to our reading of these images; an awareness of developments - including various human catastrophes - to come. The material raises questions as to how the individuals captured on film might here imagine their future, and how the present, conditions and limits our own conception of the future.
The Otolith Group link three historical moments: a futile political present caught between the post-independence era of the 20th century, combining the optimism of the space-race and the anxiety of the cold war; and a zero gravity future where humankind has lost its ability to exist on the earth, or the earth no longer has the capacity to support human life. The rhythmically paced editing and evocative ambient soundtrack of Otolith (2003), collide the documentary, the fictional and the autobiographical within a unified and dynamic global futuristic narrative. Both Otolith and The City of the Future highlight the critical way in which knowledge, ideas and fantasies of the past and the future, determine our experience and understanding of the 'now'.
The archive is a critical theme within contemporary culture; the publication and its associated programme of work can only begin to draw out and explore particular threads of engagement between the archival and moving image. However we hope that this offers a useful starting point and that it will stimulate further debate and exploration for artists, filmmakers, archivists and archive thinkers alike.
(1) The films were discovered and rescued by film historian Peter Worden in 1994. In 2000 the British Film Institute acquired the Peter Worden Mitchell and Kenyon Collection and undertook the restoration of the films. The collection subsequently became the subject of a major research partnership between the bfi (BFI?) and the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield.
(2) The Archive Awareness Campaign is led by the National Council on Archives, The National Archives and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. www.archiveawareness.com Raimar Strange, ‘Candice Breitz', The Experience of Art, La Biennale di Venezia 51st International Art Exhibition catalogue, (Venice: Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, 2005). p. 42.
(3) Russian filmmaker Esfir Shub's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) present a chronology of the years 1913-1917 culminating with the Bolshevik Revolution, based on a compilation of archival news, footage and newly shot material, American visual artist Joseph Cornell was influenced by Surrealist contemporaries and perhaps by the ethos of Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades. In Rose Hobart's (1936), possibly his most influential work, Cornell reworks the footage of a silent Hollywood drama entitled East of Borneo (1931). In its use of found footage and collage, as well as the emphasis on dream-like imagery over scripted narrative, the work blurred the lines between film and art, and became a source of inspiration for later generations of experimental filmmakers.
(4) Raimar Strange, ‘Candice Breitz', The Experience of Art, La Biennale di Venezia 51st International Art Exhibition catalogue, (Venice: Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia, 2005). p. 42.
(5) "Whatever the filmmaker may do to them - including nothing more than reproduce them exactly as he or she has found them - recycled images call attention to themselves as images, as products of the image-producing industries of film and television, and therefore as pieces of the vast and intricate mosaic of information, entertainment, and persuasion that constitute the media saturated environment of modern - or many would say - postmodern - life." William C. Wees, Recycled Images, (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993), p.32
(6) Allan Sekula, ‘Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital', (1983), in Brian Wallis ed., Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1987).
(7)Walther Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History XIV', Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Pimlico, 1999). p.252
Jane Connarty is a freelance consultant and curator working with contemporary artists and arts organisations in a wide range of contexts. In 2004 she was Acting Director and Associate Curator of Picture This.
Ghosting developed in response to the growth of contemporary artists’ interest in archives.