The Archive We Dont Know


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Presented at Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montréal, Québec, November 2009

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The Archive We Dont Know

  1. 1. THE ARCHIVE WE DON'T KNOW Rick Prelinger Prelinger Library and Archives FNC, Montréal, Oct 2009 Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial license 1
  2. 2. the liminal archives hotspots on ice points of origin regions and makers repository to workshop 2 Today, most moving images are locked in a kind of liminal space, an in-between state. In one version of reality, moving images make up some of the most familiar, and most highly valued, documents in our culture. That's why we gather to see them in darkened rooms and travel long distances to festivals.
  3. 3. 3 But in another reality, which is the world I spend a lot of my time in, most moving images never leave the archives, and only a small minority ever gets seen. Though people have been talking about film archives for just about 100 years, and actively collecting film for almost 75, most moving images are still really, really hard to see, and even harder to use in new work. I'll be talking about this today.
  4. 4. 4 I'm also going to be talking about the current state of archives. Most of us think we know what archives are, what they do, and what value they contribute to society, but in truth, even archivists barely understand archives and their potential. (This, by the way, is the manifesto I'm going to expand on this coming Monday at Dazibao.)
  5. 5. 5 I'm going to talk about how the archives isn't a sideshow, but right in the center of our media culture. It's critical to producing new works.
  6. 6. 6 If we're going to bring past, present and future together, and if we're going to use historical material to intervene in the present and turn us into historically-minded creatures, we're going to need to reengineer the archives. Archives offer exciting possibilities, but we're going to have to turn the quiet, passive repository into an active, noisy workshop.
  7. 7. 7 Afterwards, we'll have time to talk about all of this and put our ideas together with the video piece you just saw.
  8. 8. the liminal archives hotspots on ice points of origin regions and makers repository to workshop 8 To me, the term "hotspots on ice" is a pretty accurate description of the current situation moving image archives find themselves in. I'll try to explain why.
  9. 9. 9 But first -- a few thoughts on history, what it means to preserve it and to make it accessible as an intervention. History has always been contested territory.
  10. 10. 10 It’s not a warm and fuzzy place, not a place to look for consensus.
  11. 11. 11 If you ask historical questions, don’t expect simple answers.
  12. 12. 12 And if you ask who controls history, don’t expect a simple answer either.
  13. 13. 13 And yet, there’s tremendous interest in history, and it’s become part of the cultural mainstream. This can often lead us to ask complex and penetrating questions. Who and what inhabited this place before us? Who were our ancestors and how did they live? What were people thinking and doing during this or that war, this or that storm, this or that migration?
  14. 14. 14 So our natural interest in history leads many of us in the direction of historical documents. Now, historical documents may be loaded — maybe even incendiary. They may trace complicated, even violent histories. As a consequence, sometimes people resist evidence, sometimes they hide it, sometimes they destroy it.
  15. 15. 15 And sometimes they try to wrap history in scarcity (just like almost everything else). They imagine that it is valuable, they try to make money from it. I guess I do that too. But there’s also history that belongs to a community, that might be shared, that’s defined as no one’s private property. That’s a traditional way of thinking about knowledge that’s now coming back into focus.
  16. 16. Las Vegas, Nevada 16 So there’s one big question to keep in mind — should traces of history live in private hands, or should we insist that history, heritage and even culture be common property? And if it is, who gets to touch common property? Some of us? All of us?
  17. 17. The Bouvard and Pécuchet problem 17 And finally, the Bouvard and Pécuchet problem. Flaubert’s book about two uncritical collectors and seekers of knowledge offers many insights for today, and I think it also speaks to fan culture. It tells the story of two elderly men who collected historical docs, artifacts and trivia in the 1840s, wowed by the aura of these things and the presumed value of the information they collected. But they could not reconcile opposing viewpoints, and the more they gathered, the less they knew. This is key reading for archivists, people interested in fan culture, and really for anyone who thinks that the more we collect and the more Google digitizes, the more we know.
  18. 18. 18 ok, so who am I to talk about all this? I collected historical film for 25 years. I sometimes call myself a recovered archivist, but it’s hard to recover from being an archivist, maybe I’m kind of a meta-archivist now i sometimes think of myself as a maker (one feature-length film) for sure I’m an outsider librarian and, oh yes, i sell footage for a living
  19. 19. 19 so why are archives important? well, obviously: historical evidence is fragile. Much has disappeared. The canonical missions of archives are to preserve historical records, to make them accessible, to organize, describe and contextualize them.
  20. 20. Sony PetaSite mass media storage 20 Well, so what? We have a kind of reverence about archives. It is vague, not reality-based. People expect archives to be there when they need them. We say, “they’re doing important work,” the same way we might praise an oil spill responder, a garbage collector, a cop who arrests a driver that’s hit a cyclist.
  21. 21. 21 But classically archives belong to larger organizations: governments, churches, universities, corporations, even families. They’re usually not public institutions. Like many children, they were conceived to fulfill the agendas of their parents. They make their own rules. Most of the time, except in special cases (like some government agencies), they can choose whether or not their collections will be open, and lay down conditions for access to and use of their materials.
  22. 22. Welcome to SFO 22 It might actually be revealing to think of archives as gatekeepers. They exercise practical control over historical materials. They can arbitrate and administer peoples’ connections with their history. They can let pass certain histories, block others. Is this good? We might answer this in different ways, depending on which histories we agree with.
  23. 23. 23 But this means that archives can be institutions of denial as much as institutions of memory. This means they can practice strategic forgetting, tactical denial. We know they have done this time and again.
  24. 24. 24 So a quiet, dusty collection might in fact possess the potential to sustain or destroy consciousness, to control how we understand our history, and ultimately control how we remember.
  25. 25. 25 Right this moment, countless archival records that we are not allowed to see are being generated. Some of them will be destroyed, but many of them are likely to find their way into the public domain. It often takes more energy to repress than it does to release.
  26. 26. 26 Unlike the Da Vinci Code suggests, most secrets get out eventually. On the other hand, culture that’s not secret, but simply under copyright, may never escape the archive. Consequently, the archive needs help to pull the doors open. This means us.
  27. 27. 27 We have a wonderful infrastructure of public, private and personal archives in the world, but we have very little guarantee that we can see, hear, or touch what we need to, now or in the future. On the other hand, public libraries have an ethic of access and a tradition of openness. Archives don’t have that yet, and we don’t have a strategy to move in that direction. Nor do we have a culture of risk-taking.
  28. 28. 28 If archives don’t open their doors, and if they don’t find ways to act like cultural producers and push their holdings out to the public for people to experience and work with, they face a very uncertain future. In fact, they face obsolescence. I think this is already happening in our world, the world of media archives.
  29. 29. 29 Of all the different kinds of materials that find their way into archives, moving images are the most closely controlled. They cost a lot to produce, and we know film and television companies are highly litigious, and quite often many people own little pieces of big movies. But all that aside, there are literally millions of films and unedited moving image works that aren't high-budget features, and aren't encumbered by copyright, and we still can't use them.
  30. 30. 30 It's a complex problem, but archivists haven't been motivated to solve it, because our minds are occupied with survival in an age of constraint. And in the rare moments when we can stop worrying about money and resources, we tend to focus on preserving works rather than making them accessible.
  31. 31. 31 And while museums, libraries and textual archives have started to make their peace with the Net, moving image archives are way behind. We need to shift gears, and we need to do it soon.
  32. 32. 32 If we don't, we're in big trouble, and I'd even say that many moving image collections will stagnate or even disappear if we can't get access right. We exist because of public consensus that we provide a valuable social function — it's called memory. While preservation may be archives' original raison d'etre, access is our connection with the world. And we're about to lose a generation.
  33. 33. 33 Younger people, who form the vast majority of mediamakers, have already given up on legacy archives. They know they can’t get material from old-school repositories, and have routed around them. They’ll get sounds and images from filesharing sites and YouTube, regardless of who thinks they own them.
  34. 34. Text 34 Nonprofit and public media archives have had great difficulty expanding online access because of internal opposition and worries about copyright. They’ve taken baby steps. Now that YouTube has raised public expectations (while at the same time lowering quality expectations), it’s hard to see how any institution can equal them. Not to overdramatize, but I think archives lost this one. This is a case where a powerful company jumped in and made something great, but something that at the same time reduced others’ ability to move forward.
  35. 35. mainstreaming the periphery 35 But even as I complain, I've got to say that this is the moment for archives. Lack of access hasn’t inhibited the demand for archival material. How many people in this room have used archival material in their own work? What used to live in quiet corners, at the cultural periphery, is now moving toward the center.
  36. 36. “wholesale” to “retail” 36 Archives have gone retail. The new users are members of the public, independent scholars and citizen scientists, an aggressive army of commercial clients, a growing cadre of "archival fans," and of course genealogists (arguably the largest group of textual archives users). What’s this about?
  37. 37. 1960s: Oldskool TV docs: war, disasters, movie stars “Official” materials: newsreels, gov’t films 1970s: Key compilation features: (Gizmo, Brother Can You Spare A Dime) Nostalgia craze begins, heavy “retro” marketing 1980s: Media business opens up, many new distro outlets Cable, homevideo need cheap airtime Archives flower: Atomic Cafe, music videos, countless commercials, corporate videos, cable docs, MTV on-air promotion, etc. Ephemeral films resurface The past reemerges in color AUDIO AND VIDEO SAMPLING 1990s: Remixing infects art world 2000s: Remixing: art —> amateurism, transgression —> style 37 Starting in the 1970s, media began to embrace the past. We see the emergence of hitherto unseen archival material in TV and documentaries — industrial, advertising, amateur, educational, purely evidentiary films and similar visual documents. These more populist genres edged out more "official" materials, such as newsreels and government films, and began to increase popular consciousness of archives. “Where did all this stuff come from?” people asked. Atomic Café, made in 1982, was an important waypoint. The efflorescence of media distribution outlets acted like a magnet to pull images out of archives. I’d also point in passing to something that arrives later — the emergence of sampling and remix culture, which I think has a non-trivial connection to archives.
  38. 38. movement from institutional to individual production 38 Except for independent and experimental makers working in solitude, typically people needed groups and organizations to make work. But in the past twenty years production has shifted to something people do themselves. The tools got cheaper and easier. And at the same time social and cultural history became a mass interest. Now people are making work all by themselves. This is where the profile of the archival user starts to change. And this is where the old-school media maker might start to feel threatened.
  39. 39. 39 Starting in 2001, we put over 2000 films from our collection online for unrestricted viewing and reuse. This was a lifechanging experience in many ways -- we found ourselves entering into collaboration with thousands of people from around the world, most of whom we've never met. We've seen tens of thousands of new derivative works made from our collection. Hopefully we're encouraging other archives to be more open with material they control. And our income has doubled, because the more people who see our stuff, the more people want to license it and get a written agreement with the legal boilerplate.
  40. 40. 40 And other interesting things have happened.A kind of "archives cult" has sprouted and there’s a discernible fan culture, traceable back to peoples’ personal investment with archival materials. Here’s the MySpace page for a Brazilian band known as "Prelinger Archives Orchestra," fronted by a guy named Eduardo Ramos, that played its first gig in 2003. It’s easy to dismiss fan culture as a lesser kind of engagement, but it often leads academic interest and has great potential to draw attention and funding to an area of study. The vector from online discussion forums to peer review is perhaps shorter than one would think. I’d argue that emergent fields and disciplines need to nurture a fan infrastructure to increase reach and viability.
  41. 41. Service de Ciné-Photographie, L'Office Provincial de Publicité, PQ, ca. 1940s 41 It's really HARD to convince people and institutions to let their collections circulate freely in digital form. Exaggerated ideas of the financial value of archives keep many cultural collections locked down. But it takes a really special case to turn an archives into a money machine. It may often be cheaper to give away digital copies than it is to build a business to sell them.
  42. 42. My front window, Google Street View, Spring 2008 My front window, Google Street View, December 2008 42 Finally, l ots of previously marginal tidbits of history will become more usable when there’s a matrix to fit them into. Snapshots and home movies, if geotagged, will become part of a growing 4-D matrix that not only adds value to its parts by documenting the past, but uses the history of the landscape to predict how it will evolve. Will we lose control of the tidbits when we find a use for them? Will monetization of services and collections turn them into assets that come under increased control? This may be happening right now with orphan works under the proposed Google books settlement.
  43. 43. the liminal archives hotspots on ice points of origin regions and makers repository to workshop 43
  44. 44. 44 When I was in Pittsburgh last year I met an archivist who was teaching cinema studies. She told me she'd tried to get her students interested in archival questions, but couldn't. I asked why. She said she thought it was because they saw archives as the dead end, the place where film went to die. This set off a thunderbolt in my head. I realized that so much of what I thought about archives could be summed up very simply: the archives is not an endpoint, but a beginning.
  45. 45. 45 The idea that the archives is the point of origin, the birthplace of new work, is a simple idea, and yet it expands out to change almost everything about the work that archivists do.
  46. 46. 46 Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to think of archives as mortuaries for works that have reached the end of their lifecycle. Instead, let's decide that use justifies archives, and that we'll measure the success of an archives by how much new work and study it facilitates. If we see archives as a birthplace rather than mortuary, we can imagine a new lifestream for archival material that begins promptly when it's accessioned into the archives.
  47. 47. 47 This means putting users before collections. It means evaluating everything an archives does in terms of how well it serves access. It means that an archives commits to pushing material out into the world, and using records of the past to inform and to intervene in the present and future.
  48. 48. The accessible archives: Treats access as a key part of its mission, not an afterthought Reconfigures its workflows to expand access and use Limits access to collections only as required by law and material constraint Makes materials available before they're asked for Measures value by consumptive use Collaborates with museums, archives, libraries, nontraditional institutions and collectors Carefully assesses commercial partnerships Seeks out new users Brings archives into community and community into archives Sees archival activity as a public function Opens itself to experiment 48 The accessible archives:
  49. 49. 49 Though we can and must break new ground in preservation, there is far greater space for innovation in the field of access. Expanding access to our collections gives us and our institutions a choice between relative stasis and eternal emergence. Access brings us closer to our users in the present and ensures that we will continue to have users in the future.
  50. 50. And finally, access offers a process by which we can come to terms with what we do and why we do it. 50 And maybe the most powerful reason why moving image archivists should shift their focus towards pushing material out to the public: self-discovery. While libraries, museums and text archives have worked out their missions and goals, moving image archives haven't. We're mostly accidental. And most archivists got into the field by accident. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? Access offers a process by which we can begin to discover this. We don't seem to be able to do this in isolation.
  51. 51. the liminal archives hotspots on ice points of origin regions and makers repository to workshop 51 Regions and makers
  52. 52. 52 These days the action is at regional and local archives, as well as collections focusing on special kinds of material. Within the archives community, this is where new ideas are coming from. They aren't coming from big national institutions. Perhaps the best example is the emerging interest in home movies and amateur film. Since established institutions weren't collecting this material, regional collections filled the breach. A bunch of really interesting local projects have also spring up, like the South Side Home Movie Project in Chicago.
  53. 53. 53 Home Movie Day was first organized by a group of emerging archivists interested in foregrounding home movies as documents of special value. It's a week from this Saturday, 10/17, and will happen at three or four dozen places around the world (explain). Though it's an international event it's rooted in each community where it happens and generates local publicity and historical consciousness. This is yet another example where innovation happens at the periphery and grows toward the center.
  54. 54. Amateur Movie Makers, first issue, Dec. 1926 Movie Makers, Jan. 1934 54 So I want to mention amateurism. Amateurism has a wonderful streak of idealism. The remarkable libertarian quote on top, and the contrarian quote below that trashes Hollywood and praises outsider practice, testify to the commitment of early amateur filmmakers and the promise of the medium. And amateurism and outsiderism can work in the contemporary world as well. It is time for a dose of do-it-yourself.
  55. 55. 55 We’re also seeing a huge upsurge in DIY culture and activity. Our library is itself inspired by oldskool punk culture, which encouraged and empowered people to take up the tools around them and just do it. There are many tendrils that lead back to a set of common assumptions: maker culture, citizen science, hacking consumer products and technology, urban agriculture, blogging as journalism -- you will think of others. For archives and for makers, the field is wide open for experimentation, and we will all gain if we are open to unconventional ways of pushing our works out to audiences that we might not even have known existed.
  56. 56. 56 Do-it-yourself is alive and well in the archives world, especially among the generation of emerging archivists, who work with resources they have rather than lamenting what they haven’t got. The filmmaker and informal archivist Craig Baldwin calls this “availabilism.”
  57. 57. the liminal archives hotspots on ice points of origin regions and makers repository to workshop 57 Repository to workshop
  58. 58. archives → workshops 58 DIY implies doing and making — production on a mass scale, but not mass production. Can we bring archives closer to production, or can we bring production into the archives? Can archives become workshops? I think so.
  59. 59. • Flickr Commons (21 public photo collections) • David Rumsey Map Collection • WGBH Lab Sandbox • Internet Archive • Reanimation Library • BBC Creative Archive (RIP) • Kaltura (hybrid for-profit/non-profit) 59 Many collections encourage repurposing, mashup, recombination. Most are online. Some of them even offer editing and assembly tools. There will soon be many more.
  60. 60. 60 Right now much collaboration is web-enabled. I think we’ll also see face-to-face solutions, such as workstations that enable more than one person to push around objects on a desktop, sharing, modifying and recombining them. And collaboration in physical space is still in its infancy, despite what the digerati might tell you.
  61. 61. 61 In 2004, we opened up a library in San Francisco. It doesn't have media -- it's all paper-based, text and images. It's an appropriation-friendly space; it exists for people to come in and copy, scan and shoot the materials so they can mix them into their own work. The experience has been great, and it's taught us that the library isn't really about the collection -- it's about the transactions that occur between the users, the librarians, and the materials. We think the repository has turned into a workshop.
  62. 62. 62 Print is dying, right? Migration to digital is irreversible, right? The “screenager” generation turns away from physical objects, right? We’ve found that none of this is true. We have a constant stream of younger visitors who seem mesmerized by the collection and pull out an incredibly diverse array of materials. They sometimes have to be literally ejected at closing time. We find that paper-based materials seem to function differently in a world that is growing digital, and that digital materials tend to take a secondary position when the paper materials are accessible and organized in a way that fascinates. We don’t think we’re moving toward an all-digital world, but rather a hybrid analog-digital world.
  63. 63. 63 Users meet and interact with materials through browsing.
  64. 64. 64 Users also interact with one another, and with us. Projects aren’t just worked on, they’re originated. Classes, meetings and discussions abound. We are a noise-positive library.
  65. 65. 65 Events also happen around the library. This slide shows the Illuminated Corridor, an outdoor audio & video remix event that took place in 2007, made by musicians, performative projectionists and a bunch of artists. Most of the material came from our online archives, some from our open library, and the center image is my movie, for which Gino Robair composed a new live score. About 400 people came. The projections are in the parking lot on the wall of our library building.
  66. 66. Artist: Boris Artzybasheff 66 We offer two flatbed scanners and a copy machine for visitor use. And we encourage visitors to bring digital cameras for casual page capture.
  67. 67. create first, worry later (if ever) 67 We have a policy with regards to copyright that library users should CREATE FIRST and WORRY LATER -- if ever. Most users scan materials in the public domain.
  68. 68. 68 There’s a received idea that young people are unmotivated by history or by analog, three- dimensional objects. This is the other side of the coin of the supposed “devaluation” of print materials in the digital era. We see a refutation of this idea every time a young person walks into the library. Our average user (based on subjective observation) is about 26 years old and female.
  69. 69. 69 When collections are opened up for reuse, reading becomes just the point of entry for working with printed history. Reading is a gateway behavior that can lead to sculpture, filmmaking, scholarship, and activism. In a similar way, access to archival material can enable authorship — we hope on a mass level.
  70. 70. 70 Just because we live in an age when mass distribution is POSSIBLE doesn’t mean we all have to make mass media. The criteria for what makes something go viral are contradictory and opaque.
  71. 71. 71 The rewards from working within specific communities often outweigh the actual benefits of mass distribution.
  72. 72. WONDERFUL AND UNPREDICTABLE THINGS HAPPEN WHEN ORDINARY PEOPLE GET ACCESS TO PRIMARY MATERIALS 72 I realize I'm stating the obvious, but this message needs to take root. WONDERFUL AND UNPREDICTABLE THINGS HAPPEN WHEN ORDINARY PEOPLE GET ACCESS TO PRIMARY MATERIALS. This is not the group archives were originally constituted to serve. But they’re going to be our new users. And for this to happen we need to keep primary materials as open as possible.
  73. 73. Decentralization Gift Experiment DIY 73 These are all deeply traditional practices, and they’ve been lost in the world of the modern market. What I like about these practices is that they’re well-suited to individual and small-group practice. Each is an answer to the question we’re all asking, “What can I do?” And in a world where most mainstream media is owned by large corporations, where the skins that stretch over reality change faster than we can keep track, where novel forms of media and promising technologies are born and die every day, it’s radical to look to these kinds of traditions as means to sustain.
  74. 74. 74 There are many do-or-die choices in the world today, but within culture there is near-infinite room for experiment. Even though it often feels as if we’re living in a dystopian period, it’s an exciting time to be alive.
  75. 75. new models of cultural distribution get people thinking about new models for distributing property which is great Pregnant turtle radiograph: Megan Shaw Prelinger 75 By the way, the cultural domain is also a great place to experiment with new ways of thinking about property and exchange. I wonder kinds of economies will build out around the exploitation of free things? — things like information, art, goods, services, and especially utilities.
  76. 76. Photo: Amy Balkin 76 High on the hill above the Arctic Ocean, dug hundreds of feet deep into rock, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, perhaps the most important archives of our time. It opened on February 26th of last year.
  77. 77. Svalbard Global Seed Vault 77 Protected by motion sensors and polar bears, this repository stores samples of seeds from all over the planet. It is the archives of biodiversity, the collection of last resort. It is the honored exception to the principle of universal archival access. You don’t want to have to go in there. This is an essential project, but it’s also been criticized for its myopic focus on ex situ storage, and for taking away seeds from farmers who are and always have been the real breeders of plants. Biodiversity preservation needs to happen all over the world, and farmers need to be part of it. So along with crucial projects like Svalbard, we also need DIY and decentralized efforts.
  78. 78. Photo: Jose Maria “Chema” Barredo 78 Culture, like water, small animals and seeds in the wind, is hard to enclose. But culture is also fragile. If we start to run into involuntary limits on our mobility, our metabolism, and our freedom to consume, it will be interesting to see what forms of cultural activity survive.
  79. 79. 79 If we’re going to keep media alive, and, more important, if we’re going to give archives reasons to exist, we can’t just follow aging models. We shouldn’t collect in a monocultural context. We need to think about how our collections can be active players in the world. We need to work in a social way, to assemble public resources and projects that have a true public presence. Our archives should be experimental farms, creative labs, noisy archives, places for contemplation. We need to strategize new ways of pushing it out and do it faster and cheaper.
  80. 80. 80 The social contract between archives and audiences isn’t an abstract idea — it is constantly made and remade through active engagement between people and the organizations they form. And engagement is up to us.
  81. 81. Dawn, not sunset 81 Thank you.
  82. 82. 82