Friday, 8 August 2014

National Cinema Archives: Some ethical and political impediments to preservation and access

By Amanda Malel Trevisanut

Last week I discussed the shifting role of the national film archive in the age of the internet, as discussed within the context of the History, Cinemaand Digital Archives Slow Conference, hosted by the ANU Humanities Research Centre and the National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA) in Canberra this July. Another key issue that emerged within the conference was the ability of archivists to clearly re-imagine their civic and heritage role, given a the broad range of political, legal, ethical and technical contingencies.

Bronwyn Dowdall of the NFSA offered an insight into the idiosyncrasies of copyright law, and the types of challenges presented by the outdated exceptions and exclusions contained therein. For instance, the ability to ascertain copyright and provide access is often stalled because the chain of title is not intact. Another issue is amendments to law; prior to 1969 there was no provision for cinematographic film, and as such, films made before this time remain covered by two separate systems, either as dramatic works or as a series of photos. NFSA cannot make copies unless the work has been lost, stolen or damaged (yes, you read correctly), and moreover, of the 3 copies it can make under the preservation exceptions, it can only record a single flat copy when optimum preservation strategies require at least thirty copies.

The numerous technical considerations illuminated by RayEdmondson (Principal of Archive Associates Pty Ltd) include the multitude of different film stocks used over the last century and a half to record, duplicate and preserve content. Each of these has their own aesthetic and material characteristics, which raise significant questions about the status of the original within the context of the archive. Should a film be restored to its original glory, and can this even be achieved when different film stocks and mediums behave so differently? Does the preservation and cultural heritage extend to the preservation of some forms of decay (scratches and fading for instance), which provide evidence of a particular film’s cultural and physical journey over time? And if so, which forms of degradation are valued and how is this decided?

An interesting response to this question was offered by media artist Grayson Cooke (Southern Cross University), who invited attendees to linger over his "after image", a visual performances of negatives being chemically and physically destroyed, revealing how cultural processes of memory and forgetting are conveyed by the materiality of the celluloid as much as it is by the content that it is used to transmit. (Check out his work via his youtube channel and his civilizedmachine website).

On the second night of the conference, attendees were prompted to consider their personal (and intellectual) aesthetic preferences regarding preservation and restoration in the form of a magic lantern show. First, the show emulated the experiences of nineteenth and early twentieth century audiences via the presentation of the magic lantern show in its original format, accompanied by a live musical performance (special thanks to Martyn Jolly, Kate Bowan and Peter Tregear for their amazing performance). The same show was then projected using vibrant digitalised versions of the slides, accompanied by a digitalised recording of the aural performance dating from the early twentieth century. That consensus regarding the preferential format remained elusive only served to underline the ephemerality of “the original,” as both concept and material object.

Beyond digitalisation of analogue formats, the conference also showcased some of the digital tools being developed by and for humanities researchers, and which re-imagine the form and function of the archive.

Tim Hitchcock began by demonstrating how uncritical use of (very pretty) visualisation and topic modelling tools risk re-instituting an exclusive canon of valued works, and also risks underwriting lazy scholarship. This was complemented with some compelling presentations that demonstrated current scholarly attempts to overcome the apparent limitations of computational methods for conducting and presenting analysis.

Eric Hoyt (University of Wisconsin-Madison) provided an overview of Lantern (you can view the talk here), a searchable archive of digitalised cinema trade magazines which he has created with colleagues. The tool not only provides access to important primary resources, but also uses topic modelling and visualisation strategies to communicate which trade magazines have been most utilised by researchers, thereby opening new opportunities for scholars to conduct research that contests the cinematic canon.

Deb Verhoeven (Deakin University) treated attendees to a tour of her digital portfolio, which evidences innovative development of collaborative learning research environments. The virtual lab called Humanities NetworkedInfrastructure (HuNI) project was particularly compelling, and promises researchers new collaborative spaces for building and growing networks across disciplines, and for building and sharing research resources.

HuNI and LANTERN are of course, only two film resources indicating how the form and function of (digital) archives will be re-imagined into the future. For an overview of conference proceedings, and the thoughts of other attendees, you can search the twitter stream using the hashtag #cadh

Amanda Malel Trevisanut is an early career researcher with the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She currently works as a research assistant to the Digital Humanities Research Incubator, is a co-convener for THATCamp Pedagogy (Melbourne, Oct 10-11th, 2014). She has recently completed her PhD SBS Independent: Productive Diversity and Counter-Memory.

No comments:

Post a Comment