Exploring Past Images in a Digital Age: Reinventing the Archive
Amsterdam University Press in collaboration with EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, NL, 2023
258 pp., illus. Trade, € 117,00, eBook (pdf), € 0,00
Exploring Past Images in a Digital Age is a new outstanding publication in the “Framing Film” series of Amsterdam UP, since many years a goldmine for all those interested in film culture in the broadest sense of the word. The book is the result of an international pre-Covid conference in Istanbul, a circumstance that explains both the (still reasonable) delay of its publication and the ever increasing importance of its topic.
As the title and subtitle of the book announce, the emphasis is less put on the shift from analog to digital (this collection is not a user’s manual by trained archivists for younger colleagues or interested outsiders) than on the various uses of already digitized materials – a difference perfectly summarized in by Thomas Elsaesser, whose contribution addresses the ethics of appropriation: “While analogue filmmaking seeks to capture reality in order to harness it into a representation, digital filmmaking, conceived from post-production, proceeds by way of extracting reality, in order to harvest it” (p. 101).
The focus on the uses of digital archives rather than the actual making of such archives does obviously not mean that the digital turn in film archives is being discarded. However, this turn is not seen as a horizon of the archivist’s task and mission, the pathway to a brighter future or even the end of a longtime chaotic history of collection and preservation. First of all, the book is straightforward on the limits and limitations of digitization from the viewpoint of preservation. As Ian Christie firmly affirms: “[…] the first [issue] to dispel is the assumption that digital is a secure preservation medium. It is not! (emphasis added by the author) […] The only known solution for long-term digital preservation is proliferation – making as many copies as possible, so that at least some survive intact” (p. 29). Second, the work and mission of the archivist is nowhere reduced by the contributors to the mere collecting, describing, and maintaining of documents. All chapters take as their point of departure the modern visions of the archive (the key reference is of course Derrida’s Archive Fever, which stresses the productive and performative power of the archive as an institution that creates its own objects as well as the “colonialist”’ desire to completely master them) and the currently hegemonic ideas on new museology (which foregrounds the demands and challenges of the social and political relevance, not only of the museum but also of the archive). They thus acknowledge the blurring of boundaries between three functions that used to remain hermetically separated: those of archivist, curator, and researcher. The new archivist, regardless of the medium that is being used (analog or digital), is no longer just at the service of the researcher and, more recently, the curator, he or she can no longer perform as an archivist without an in-depth knowledge of the larger meaning of the collected documents and a sharp eye for the possibilities of their dissemination in the public space.
All this is fine, but does it also match the daily realities of the archivist’s work and that of the artists-curators that approach them as the building blocks of their post-production creation? The general reflections and the case studies, often on non-Western collections (a highly valuable enrichment of the research in the field), help nuance the perhaps overoptimistic view of the present and future of archival film work. Granted, digital tools, platforms, and networks, have definitely reshaped the archive and its muses: (much) more movies have become accessible, on YouTube and elsewhere, and (much) more can be done with this material, opening to various type of participation in the age of convergence culture. At the same time, however, many old problems, such as copyright issues, which no archivist can legally solve (or get rid of) or collecting problems, remain unsolved while no less countless new problems have surfaced. Any reader-collector will feel relieved by discovering Ege Berensel’s heartwarming testimony on the building of an 8 mm film archive in Turkey: “[…] it is best to find the films directly in the garbage – because an archivist, a collector, or a hoarder rarely has any money” (p. 118). Equally instructive is the conversation with found footage or post-production movie filmmaker Gustav Deutsch, very critical of all kinds of copyright restrictions to noncommercial reuse of archival material. But also new problems are discussed: the already hinted at question of technological obsolescence or ethical problems of digital appropriation, legal or illegal.
The clever hand of the editors has succeeded in avoiding overlaps between the various contributions, while offering at the same time the possibility to build bridges between methods, approaches, and cultural origins and backgrounds. Some themes are recurrent, such as the debate on the “original” context, a “myth” for most authors in this book, and the shifting attitudes towards successive recontextualizations or “secondary history”, to use a more technical term. Others are deeply rooted in specific local situations, like the corporate industry’s reluctance to support amateur film making in Turkey in the predigital years (which were also years of military rule). The whole collection is however somewhat bizarrely illustrated, since most chapters do not have any image, and when they have, it is not always very clear what they add to the argumentation.
In short, an excellent contribution to the ongoing conversation on a wide of strongly interconnected set of topical subjects: archive, curation, visual technology, and cultural history, always in a global context (examples are borrowed from Western as well as non-Western traditions) and useful to worldwide audiences that will find here a good mix innovative general insights and hypotheses and close-reading of current practices.