Review by Martin Skrypnyk
Visible Evidence is an annual conference dedicated to the history and theory of audiovisual documentary practices. This year’s conference, sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute, Ryerson’s School of Image Arts, and York University’s Department of Cinema and Media Arts, covered a number of issues of special interest to those concerned with moving image archives. A day of panel discussions took place at the University of Toronto, to which, of course, our student chapter belongs.
A panel entitled “The Ephemeral, the Iconic and the Fake: Reimagining the Archive” addressed both the use of archival footage in the creation of new work and what it means to be an amateur archivist in the digital age. Multimedia artist Kate Liston of the University of Northumbria talked about her own collecting habits and how her interest in footage of the moonlandings led her to create her video installation work Moonrabbit (http://www.kateliston.com/page14.html) during a residency in Beijing. Inspired by a Chinese myth about the image of a rabbit on the moon, and accompanied by the music of the Shangri-Las’ “Past, Present, and Future”, this work suggests that conspiracy theories that regard the moonlandings as a faked studio job fit into a pattern whereby one fits facts to a preconceived theory, a tendency, in other words, in which we seek a structure and impose a meaning on the world.
Liston cited Clair Bishop’s Art Forum article “Digital Divide”, which speaks to how many of today’s artists create research-based art, this research being conducted online and leading to a subjective archiving and aggregating of ephemera and objects based on self-interest, something anyone with a computer may understand. Yet, despite this digital psychogeography, Bishop notes that most artists fail to tackle the meaning of this reliance on the digital, instead opting to fetishize the media of the past in their work. Of course, this nostalgia for the past and its media, is something both artists and archivists are guilty of, and unashamedly so. Liston reminded us that personal archiving can lead to a multiplicity of meanings and noted that her nostalgia is at a remove from personal experience, as she wasn’t yet born at the time of the moonlandings.
In contrast, Lizzie Thynne from Sussex University focused on a nostalgia based on one’s personal past, but one that is hardly self-indulgent. She pointed to the use of home movie footage in Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and how Polley picks apart the family archive by using fake vérite home movies to show that the truth of her mother’s emotional life cannot be found in the ordinary documentation of the family, thus conceding that there are limits to what we can learn from those documents. By restaging past events as archival footage, Polley, as Thynne notes, is able to question the authenticity of the original footage. However, she also draws attention to our own idealization of and nostalgia for the past and its fragments.
In a later workshop, Karen Cariani, known for her work in AMIA’s Local Television Project and Director of WGBH Media Library and Archives in Boston, highlighted all of the practical issues moving image archivists face when trying to make their collections accessible to the public.
She spoke of the challenges WGBH has in bringing the public’s attention to its own holdings through its Open Vault (http://openvault.wgbh.org/) and its co-stewardship with the Library of Congress on americanarchive.org. Besides the rights issues, there is the lack of descriptive metadata for much of their material, making cataloguing quite a difficult task. Often, all archivists have to work with are the titles on spines. In order to discover and catalogue the material, it must be pulled off the shelf and played, running the risk that in playing back the already deteriorating format, the magnetic signals may be scraped off. Indeed, it may be the very last time that one has the opportunity to play it, and that’s if they even have to machines to do so. It is time consuming to get good descriptive metadata, the alternative being to make available the minimum amount of data. That being said, WGBH has done its best to post transcripts, expose the material to search engines, and promote user-funded digitization.
The workshop laid bare the concerns and day-to-day problems that moving image archivists come up against when attempting to describe and make accessible the material entrusted to them, while the earlier panel with Thynne and Liston teased out some of the philosophical issues in collecting, using, and trusting that material as evidence. The panel and workshop succeeded in highlighting for archivists and documentarists both how and why we visit the past, and the importance of the archival tools that help us to do so.
[This is the first in a series of reviews by AMIA@UofT members. This series will feature posts reacting to conferences, lectures, films, events, articles, books, exhibits, or anything else related to moving image archives that inspires AMIA@UofT members to write.]