Sensing the Archive:
Exploring the digital (im)materiality of the moving image archive
Shrunken film strips, faded footage, distorted sound, and a harsh vinegar scent; such lamentable deterioration exposes the material vulnerabilities of audio-visual heritage which often determine the work of archivists and conservators. With constant changes in the technology of access have come profound changes to the world of dusty boxes, narrow strip-lit and high-stacked aisles, and data stored in obscure and obsolescent formats. Mass digitisation has transformed the ways in which we can access, understand, and interact with histories stored in audio-visual media. Digitisation highlights the tangibility of the medium, and the fluidity of the material. Archives have always had their absences and lacunae, but digital materiality – or immateriality – produces new instabilities that require novel ways of approaching audio-visual heritage.
This playlist accompanies the newly published Frames Cinema Journal Issue 19, to give a short primer on the issues, methods and implications of the sensory properties of archives, archival instabilities and the digital turn.
The list include selections from the editors, as well as Guest Editor, Catherine Russell, and recommendations from contributors, many tying into their articles from Issue 19.
From Guest Editor Catherine Russell (Concordia University): The Colour of Love (Peggy Ahwesh, 1994)
The Colour of Love is a delirious adventure in the archive, delving into the nether realm of a manufactured dream scene that is destined now to never be forgotten. The cinephiliac beauty of lovemaking that flirts dangerously with violence, accompanied by Astor Piazzolla’s vigorous tango music, allegorises the performance of desire as a desire for cinema. Or is this a case of the image desiring the viewer, asking us what it is that the images want?
Available to watch on Vimeo.
You can read Catherine Russell’s introduction to Frames Issue 19 here.
From Holly Willis (USC’s School of Cinematic Arts): Machine Hallucination (Refik Anadol, 2019-2020)
The immersive 30-minute experimental cinema experience titled Machine Hallucination was created by media artist Refik Anadol and his studio team by gathering 100 million images of New York from social media, reading them via machine learning, and then subjecting the results to various forms of image manipulation. Presented at New York’s Artechouse, the project offers a visual metaphor for the contemporary archive, moving away from the notion of the image as static representation to the post-image, the image that is data instead of representation.
Available to watch through Refik Anadol’s website.
You can read more from Holly Willis in: Images Big and Soft: The Digital Archive Rendered Cinematic
From María A. Vélez-Serna (University of Stirling): Colombia: Unfinished pasts
These short films showcase a range of approaches to the histories of Colombia through experimental non-fiction. These formats allow filmmakers to situate their own experience within the fragmented and multiple versions of a violent conflict that has dominated the last six decades. As the country grapples with memory in the fragile path to peace, these reflections engage different types of archival sources to surface the interrelations between times and places, while refusing to package pain or beauty for easy consumption.
Laura Huertas Millán’s The Labyrinth. Source: SAVVY Contemporary available to watch on Vimeo.
Juan Soto’s Oslo (2012) available to watch on Vimeo.
Camilo Restrepo’s Tropic Pocket. Mutokino / Collectif Jeune Cinéma, 2011. Available to watch via Kinoscope.
Juan José González Narváez’s video essay El Artificio del Archivo en el Cine de Exploración Personal Colombianoavailable to watch on Youtube.
You can read more from María A. Vélez-Serna’s in Resisting extractive uses of the archive in Colombian experimental non-fiction
From Maryam Muliaee (University of Colorado Boulder): The Price of Oil (Mani Mehrvarz, 2019)
The Price of Oil (2019) is a 20-min animated film, and an example of archiveology that plays with the sensory properties of archives. It recycles materials from both digital and print archives for a music piece with the same title. The music piece, originally written by the American composer Frederic Rzewski and performed by Wooden Cities, is inspired by a contemporary disaster in which the “Alexander Kielland,” a floating platform used to house oil-drilling workers in the North Sea, capsized, killing 139 people. The film took a year of archival research to curate and collect materials based on the narration – an interplay between two characters, an oil dealer in the Rotterdam market and a worker/survivor of the disaster.
Available to watch on Vimeo.
You can ready more from Mariam Muliaee in Moving (Recycled) Images: Ruined Archives in Copy Art
From Claire Henry (Massey University): Other (Tracey Moffatt & Gary Hillberg, 2010)
Other (2010) collages Hollywood film and television clips to convey how the erotic charge of otherness has been forged through cinematic gazes of exoticisation, from first encounters to sexual encounters. Building from scenes of tentative approach to passionate desire, Other distils the stereotyping and objectification of the ‘Other’. One of eight thematic montages, Australian filmmakers Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg also collaborated on Love (2003), dispelling the romance of love scenes, and Doomed (2007), detonating the fascination of disaster cinema’s spectacle. Their frenetic condensation and political reframing of cinema’s archive preceded Sari Braithwaite’s recombination of the Australian film censors’ archive in [CENSORED] (2018). Through compilation and repetition, Braithwaite similarly draws attention to the codes and conventions – as well as the culmulative affect and effect – of specific cinematic tropes.
Available to watch on Vimeo.
You can read more from Claire Henry in Awakening the film censors’ archive in [CENSORED] (2018)
From Giulia Rho (Queen Mary University of London): Christmas on Earth (Barbara Rubin, 1963-1965)
Experimental filmmaker Barbara Rubin made the film at just eighteen years old, on a borrowed camera and film stock. The orgiastic wonderland she created displayed freer-than-ever representations of the male and female nude and pioneered psychedelic techniques such as blinking editing and layered projection. The film, rarely seen and often censored, is a testament to the contribution of young women to the North American avant-garde, a canonically patriarchal artistic movement.
The film is available for digital rental through The Filmmakers Co-op.
You can read more from Giulia Rho in Anarchiving the New York Avant-garde: the digital phantom of Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth
From Stephen Broomer: Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)
Joseph Cornell’s best remembered film, Rose Hobart, is a nocturne, a meditation on the image of the actress, a work of surrealism where performers in an exotic adventure film are trapped in a maze of crossing sightlines. A harsh blue tint and frequent shots of the moon and of a candle suggest that this is a safari of endless night. Rose Hobart is the first major work of American surrealist film and a crucial work in the development of the collage film.
Rose Hobart can be streamed from Ubu, along with many other Joseph Cornell films.
You can watch more in Stephen Broomer’s video essay: Borrowed Dreams: Joseph Cornell and the Archive as Psychic Imprint
From Eleni Palis (University of Tennessee): Teknolust (Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2002)
In this playful meditation on sci-fi, cyborgs, gender, sexuality, and identity, Teknolust (Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2002) centres three classical Hollywood films, Algiers (Cromwell, 1938), The Last Time I Saw Paris (Brooks, 1954), and The Man with the Golden Arm (Preminger, 1955), as “motivational tapes” for the film’s “self-replicating automatons.” These archival traces, digitised and uploaded, are projected for and parroted by the film’s feminist cyborgs, revealing a sensorial experience of the archive in all its grain, light, copyrighted silos, and ideological complexity. As cyborgs experience and then experiment with media history, they render an incisive critique of a tightly limited, licensed, entirely white and compulsorily cis-het digitised Hollywood archive.
Teknolust is available for streaming on Amazon.
You can watch more in Eleni Palis’video essay: Uploading the Archive, Copy/Pasting the “Classical”
From Jacob Browne (University of St Andrews), co-editor-in-chief: Arcadia (Paul Wright, 2017)
Looking like a flashback to Glastonbury before the fences went up, or an excised subplot to The Wicker Man that exposes Summerisle’s inhabitants as rabid socialists, Arcadia is an archival film you could dance to. It makes a bee-line from the ancient customs of Britain to rave counterculture, examining the relationship between the land and its people, drawing on material from the BFI National Archive and partner institutes. With its soundtrack by Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, Arcadia presents a sensorially overwhelming trip deep into the archive, and further still into the collective psyche of the old, weird Britain.
Arcadia is available on DVD from the BFI, and has previously been available to stream from the BFI Player and MUBI. A large proportion of the archival films it utilises are available to stream free from the BFI here.
From Lucy Szemetová (University of St Andrews), co-editor-in-chief: The Philosophy of Horror. A Symphony of Film Theory (Péter Lichter and Bori Máté, 2020)
What if you were to experience fear, excitement, terror from slasher movies but differently? The Philosophy of Horror is a seven-part abstract piece adapting one of the most influential film theory books by Noël Carroll bearing the same title. By using the decayed, hand-painted 35mm film of classics such as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) this film offers an intensive sensorial encounter, a fascination as well as disturbance with the horror genre. The film strips imprinted by time question the materiality of horror and transform us into more conscious viewers while revisiting such classic texts.
The film is available to watch on Vimeo.
From Anushrut Ramakrishnan Agrwaal (University of St Andrews), book review editor: Charles Urban’s catalogue (1903)
Film catalogues embody early cinema’s archival impulse: that films could store knowledge about the world. Structuring filmic information and describing what was valuable about the images, they are akin to paratexts supplying historical context to films in archives. They also provide a record for films lost to history, somewhat making them an archive in themselves.
Charles Urban’s catalogue linked here has detailed descriptions for films on geography, anthropology, natural science, and animal life inter alia. In many entries imperialist attitudes of the time stand out. Thus, the catalogue foregrounds ways in which ideological biases shaped the “objective” recording of information.
Thank you to Anushrut Agrawaal, Jacob Browne, and Lucy Szemetová for their work on an excellent issue of Frames and for a playlist that shows how exciting a list can be.