Sound and vision blog

19 June 2010

Archives and beyond

Mobile_shelving

Empty mobile film shelves, from www.nrfta.org.uk

The British Comparative Literature Association's conference takes place 5-8 July at the University of Kent, Canterbury. The theme of the conference is Archive, and over the three days an extraordinary array of speakers will tackle the theme of archives from every conceivable angle.

It is interesting that if you go to any large bookshop you will find at least a shelf dedicated to museology, but not a volume dedicated to archives. Museums have got their act together, academically and politically speaking. They have a high profile and consequent understanding on a public and intellectual level, so that they are comfortably placed as central to issues of representation, commemoration, nation, and a host of other tions.

Archives, on the other hand, lurk in the background, fretting about what little attention they receive and how much perceptions of them seem to revolve around dust. They get used handsomely by the public and by scholars, but they don't seem to be part of debates in quite the same way - hence their absence on the bookshelves. This has a knock-on effect in terms of profile and funding. There is some literature on archives, as this Amazon listmania list proves (compiled by yours truly), but it remains for the most part marginal - and frequently abstruse - with Derrida's Archive Fever as (arguably) the one canonical text.

Maybe the Archive conference will start to raise the profile, because the variety of topics on offer is considerable, even if some of it ties itself into hopelessly intellectual knots. You can judge from the programme yourselves what might appeal - the purpose of this post is to highlight those papers on a moving image theme, because film archives are seldom considered when it comes to archive policy, nor have they featured much in general debates (film archivists debate heartily among themselves, of course). These are the relevant abstracts:

  • Sanja Bahun and Heidi Wilkins, ‘Woolf, Potter, Us: Sparking Knowledge (SP-ARK)’ (on filmmaker Sally Potter's personal archive)
  • Amanda Egbe, ‘Approaches to Representing the Unrepresentable in Moving Image Archives’ (on three artist-led moving image archives and their attempts to 'represent the unrepresentable')
  • Paul Jackson, ‘“To Begin with, a City ...”: Dylan Thomas and Propaganda Film’ (on the poet's work in documentary film)
  • Irene Lottini, ‘Early Italian Cinema across the Ocean: The George Kleine Collection in the ibrary of Congress’ (what it says on the can)
  • Irinia Marchesini, ‘A Carnival of Objects: Collections in Konstantin Vaginov, Jan Švankmajer and Sergei Parajanov’ (on the role played by collections and everyday objects in their films)
  • Luke McKernan, ‘Moving Images at the British Library: Building the Archive beyond the Archive’
  • Claudy Op Den Kamp, 'Digitization, Copyright Legislation and the Audiovisual Archive’(on orphan moving image works and their re-use)
So I'm there too, and here's the full abstract on the paper I'm giving on how we're establishing a moving image presence at the British Library:
The British Library recently decided to extend its representation to the moving image. The British Library Act (1972) stated that it should hold a ‘comprehensive collection of books, manuscripts, periodicals, films and other recorded matter, whether printed or otherwise’, but, despite this, film has never been actively collected. The moving image collection within the Library’s Sound Archive was built up for the sounds that it contains. The Library recognizes that research is becoming increasingly ‘media agnostic’, so that what matters is not the medium but the subject, and that all media that relates to a subject ought to be accessible to the researcher of the future. The solution is not to build a moving image archive per se, but rather to work synergistically with other collections to ensure that as comprehensive a resource as possible can be created, one that is integrated with the other kinds of resource held by the Library. As the British Library’s first moving image curator, I will describe the rationale behind building the archive beyond the archive, arguing that what is being developed for the moving image has implications for all media used in research and for how research institutions work together in the future.
Is the solution for an archive not to be an archive? What lies beyond the archive, and is that what we're building here? Well, I won't know until I've written the paper, so I'd better start doing so.

More on what looks like it is going to be a particular interesting three days at www.kent.ac.uk/secl/archive.

By the way, the key book on the practical and philosophical issues for film archiving today is Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath (eds.), Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums and the Digital Marketplace (Austrian Film Museum, 2008), happily now available in the UK from Wallflower Press. Every film archivist should have a copy.

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