Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices

Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices

by Catherine Russell

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In Archiveology Catherine Russell uses the work of Walter Benjamin to explore how the practice of archiveology—the reuse, recycling, appropriation, and borrowing of archival sounds and images by filmmakers—provides ways to imagine the past and the future. Noting how the film archive does not function simply as a place where moving images are preserved, Russell examines a range of films alongside Benjamin's conceptions of memory, document, excavation, and historiography. She shows how city films such as Nicole Védrès's Paris 1900 (1947) and Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) reconstruct notions of urban life and uses Christian Marclay's The Clock (2010) to draw parallels between critical cinephilia and Benjamin's theory of the phantasmagoria. Russell also discusses practices of collecting in archiveological film and rereads films by Joseph Cornell and Rania Stephan to explore an archival practice that dislocates and relocates the female image in film. In so doing, she not only shows how Benjamin's work is as relevant to film theory as ever; she shows how archiveology can awaken artists and audiences to critical forms of history and memory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372004
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2018
Series: a Camera Obscura Book
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 34 MB
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About the Author

Catherine Russell is Professor of Cinema at Concordia University and the author of The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity and Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, both also published by Duke University Press, as well as Classical Japanese Cinema Revisited.

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Language has unmistakenly made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium.

Walter Benjamin, "Excavation and Memory," in Selected Writings, vol. 2

In contemporary media culture, fragments of filmed history are constantly being reassembled into new films and videos to create new audiovisual constructions of historical memory. Building on traditions of found footage and compilation films, digital media has made this practice proliferate. New technologies have also transformed the status of archives from closed institutions to open access, with significant implications for the aesthetics and politics of archival practices. Archiveology is a critical method derived from Walter Benjamin's cultural theory that provides valuable tools for grasping the implications of the practice of remixing, recycling, and reconfiguring the image bank. At the same time, contemporary archival film practices arguably make Benjamin's legacy more legible. Is this a new mode of film language? What is it saying, and how can we read it critically and productively? These are the questions posed by archiveology and with which this book is preoccupied.

The term archiveology was originally coined by Joel Katz in 1991, partly in response to the release of From the Pole to the Equator (1990) by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, one of the first experimental films to explicitly work with material from a film archive. Katz used the term to refer to the ways that filmmakers were making the archive useful and engaging with it on its own terms. By the early 1990s, Rick Prelinger's archive of ephemeral film was already pointing to the way that audiovisual kitsch provided a rich resource for rethinking and remaking American cultural history. Both the Italian team and Prelinger have continued to expand their archival film practices, along with a plenitude of other film and video artists, exploring the potential of audiovisual fragments to construct new ways of accessing and framing histories that might otherwise have been forgotten and neglected — and to make these histories relevant to contemporary concerns.

Etymologically, archiveology might mean the study of archives, but the Greek suffix "-ology" actually refers to someone who speaks in a certain manner. When applied to film practice, it refers to the use of the image archive as a language. Moreover, the connotations of archaeology point to the cultural history that is inevitably inscribed in resurrected film fragments. The technologies of film stocks, video grain, and other signs of media history are often recorded within the imagery of archival film practices, inscribing a materiality into this practice; just as often, though, digital effects can alter the image and obfuscate both the original "support" material as well as its indexical link to an original reality. Nevertheless, film and media artists are transforming cinema into an archival language, helping us to rethink film history as a source of rich insight into historical experience. As Thomas Elsaesser notes, when postproduction becomes "the default value," it "changes cinema's inner logic and ontology." He compares the new mode of image-making to "the extraction of natural resources," among other things. His caveat that "the ethics of appropriation will take on a whole other dimension" is a theme for which Benjamin's cultural politics may provide valuable guidance.

The term archiveology may also be used to refer to the study of archives, and the term has been used to refer to the work of Derrida and Foucault, who have of course contributed immensely to our understanding of the archive as a social practice. Derrida's "archive fever" is manifest in the way that archival film practices work against the archive itself by fragmenting, destroying, and ruining the narrativity of the source material. The death drive is always at work in films that are built on the ruins of historical pleasures and experiences, subjecting them to the repetitions of remediation. The term archiveology surfaces occasionally in discussions of Foucault, for whom the archive functions as an archaeology of knowledge and is the basis of all discursive practice. His sense of the archive as constituting a "border of time" is key to the effects of media archiveology and its discontinuous effects of historicity.

In the early twenty-first century, the architecture, social role, and politics of the archive have been radically changed from their origins in institutional "domiciliation." Film and media archivists are tasked with making film history accessible and transmissible; in "restoring" and preserving film, they are frequently transforming it into new media by using digital techniques, thereby challenging norms of authenticity, media specificity, and origins that have traditionally been attached to the archive. The gatekeeping function of the traditional "archon" no doubt persists and has taken on new personas such as that of the copyright holder and the paywall; but many gates are easily breached with the aid of digital tools. This book is not about the new challenges, platforms, and activities of film and media archives but will necessarily invoke some of the ways that archiving has changed and has in many ways blended into creative art practices. If we are all archiving all the time in an effort to manage our own computer files, then the public/private distinction between archive and collection is also arguably dissolving. The digital turn is, however, only one more phase of a process that Sven Spieker claims to be endemic to modernity. From the perspective of the avant-garde, the archive is a transformational process, with the power of turning garbage into culture. However, the flip side of this claim is also true — that "when an archive has to collect everything, because every object may become useful in the future, it will soon succumb to entropy and chaos."

Spieker's analysis of the multiple art practices that have pitched themselves against the institutions and codes of bureaucracy is echoed in Paula Amad's account of the counterarchive, which makes similar arguments in connection to the film archive as it emerged in the early twentieth century. The dream of complete knowledge in the totalizing capacity of the photographic record and the incorporation of "the everyday" into the historical record (the trash) constituted a real challenge to historiographic method. With the cinema, archives are no longer about origins. Documents are representations that have their own networks of secrets, which will always be in excess of their ostensible meaning as evidence. As Foucault has taught us, the archive should not be taken for knowledge itself, but should be recognized as a key site of the power and social relations that provide the conditions for knowledge.

The archive as a construction site was at the basis of Benjamin's understanding of it. In keeping with Henri Bergson and Siegfried Kracauer, the archive for Benjamin is always about memory and the condition of forgetting. The camera fundamentally altered the function of human memory, precisely by transforming it into a kind of archive. Benjamin himself never uses a neologism such as archiveology but he certainly evokes it in a fragment of writing from 1932 called "Excavation and Memory." In this fragment, Benjamin suggests that memory might itself be a medium. He compares memory to an archaeological process in which the "richest prize" is the correspondence between present and past. "A good archaeological report," he argues, "gives an account of the strata which first had to be broken through." He also says that the "matter itself," which "yields its long-lost secrets," produces images that, "severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights." Memory, for Benjamin, is only a "medium" insofar as it is experienced; and it is precisely this reawakening of experience that the moving image is able to evoke.

In keeping with Benjamin's historiography, I am quite deliberately projecting contemporary cultural concerns onto the fragment "Excavation and Memory" to make it useful, and relevant, in the present. Many of his key concepts come into play in discussion of archival film practices, including the dialectical image and the optical unconscious; and many of the figures of The Arcades Project return as well, including the collector and the ragpicker. In the following pages, many dimensions of Benjamin's cultural theory will be "illuminated," including his theory of language and allegory, in terms of contemporary themes of audiovisual recombination and media archaeology.


Benjamin's theory of the allegorical image has been widely understood in terms of a modern Baroque, but it is evident from contemporary archival film practices that the language of appropriated images is not a dead language. While the archive certainly lends itself frequently to a melancholic sensibility, works such as The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle (Péter Forgács, 1997) awaken us to new meanings and new histories that can be produced from the ruins of the past. Forgács is a moving image artist who is also a collector and archivist of home movies made in Europe during the middle decades of the twentieth century; his work provides astonishing insights into the "everyday" of families living in totalitarian regimes. This is precisely how Jan Verwoert has described the new arts of appropriation. He suggests that the post–Cold War period has entailed an emergence of multiple histories that had been previously made invisible by dominant historical narratives. In the late 1970s, he notes, "the frozen lumps of dead historical time ... became the objects of artistic appropriation." Modern history appeared to be at a standstill, and indeed this was the overwhelming implication of the apocalyptic sense conveyed by found-footage filmmakers such as Bruce Conner in the 1960s.

Verwoert argues that since the 1990s the appropriated image can no longer be considered dead but speaks to the living. He argues that there has been a momentum in critical discourse "away from the arbitrary and constructed character of the linguistic sign towards a desire to understand the performativity of language." Citing Derrida, Verwoert argues that the appropriated object or language can and will speak back, resisting the desire of the collector seeking to repossess it. The unresolved histories and modernities lingering in the image bank are, in this sense, awaiting practitioners to bring them to life and allow them to speak. Although Verwoert is discussing archival art practices in general, this seems especially true of moving images. The causes of this shift may have less to do with the end of the Cold War (which may not be over, in any case) than with the rise of new media and digital culture, which has exponentially increased the global traffic in images.

Underlying much of the rethinking of archive-based arts after postmodernism is a recognition that images are constitutive of historical experience and not merely a representation of it. For example, Emma Cocker argues that archival film practices can produce "empathetic — even resistant or dissenting — forms of memory, a progressive politics." She describes "ethical possession" as a mode of borrowing from archives for discourses of recuperation and resistance. Unless one ascribes to the prescription of copyright law, appropriation needs to be understood as a form of borrowing that can open up new practices of writing history and conceptualizing the future. Cocker's "paradigm shift" pertains to the possibilities of artists' film and video specifically, but it is a definite trend across the art world. Hal Foster's "archival impulse" dates back to 2004, when it had become a prevalent theme in the visual arts. He recognizes the "paranoid" component of the practice and describes it as the "other side" of the utopian ambition of the archival impulse as a theme of modern administrative and bureaucratic museology. Foster argues that the move from "excavation sites" to "construction sites" is also a move away from a melancholic culture that "views the historical as little more than the traumatic."

For Benjamin also, the link between excavation and construction is crucial, if the traumas of the past (the history of barbarism) can be the foundation of historical thought. He describes his method in The Arcades Project as one of "carrying the principle of montage into history ... to grasp the construction of history as such." Precisely because images are mediated, or "second nature," they offer unique insights into the past. Okwui Enwezor explains that the 2009 exhibition Archive Fever "opens up new pictorial and historiographic experiences against the exactitude of the photographic trace." In other words, the historical value and implications of appropriation art are grounded not in the indexical authority of the document but in the life of the document-as-image, and the image-as-document.

Marc Glöde has also observed that something substantial changed in found-footage filmmaking after 1990. This was the year of Matthias Müller's Home Stories, a compilation of scenes from Hollywood melodramas that Müller captured on German TV. Glöde describes the experience of watching this film as "somewhere between hysterical laughter, the most intense empathy and a surgical way of watching a film at the same time." Along with artists such as Stan Douglas, Christian Marclay, Monica Bonvincini, and Douglas Gordon (among many others), Müller uses found footage to help us better understand the cinema as a language of gesture, sensation, emotion, and experience. Much of the contemporary work has the effect of rendering the cinema itself archival, revealing the secrets that were hidden in plain sight.

Death, ruin, and loss remain prominent tropes in archiveology, especially with respect to the recovery of celluloid and other time-ravaged media. And yet the experiential, sensual dimensions of reanimated footage, sounds, and images can be visual, dynamic, and very much present. It is not coincidental that the emergence and prevalence of archiveology has occurred in tandem with the "death" of cinema, its centenary, and the digital turn. While this seems eminently obvious, we have yet to fully grasp the potential of archiveology as a media art. At the same time as questions of film preservation and film archives have come to the forefront of film studies discourse, a parallel discussion of media archaeology, attending to the technologies of media production and exhibition, has emerged.

The filmmakers discussed in this book frequently highlight and work with the traces of celluloid degradation, pixilation, and other signs of the media from which imagery is borrowed, speaking back to the technologies of production at the same time as they speak back to the image archive. Many filmmakers refer to their work as archaeological, and their films are evidence that media archaeology cannot simply be about technologies and hardware but needs to account for images and sounds, viewers and makers. Walter Benjamin's contribution to media archaeology will be developed further in chapter 3 in conjunction with collecting practices. Benjamin's theory of history is inspired by the reconceptualization of time and memory that was introduced with photography, and he understood how changes in technologies of representation have had ripple effects with significant political and social ramifications.

At the same time as filmmakers are recycling sounds and images in new ways, museums and film archives are also undergoing significant changes in the digital era. In 2012 the EYE Museum in Amsterdam launched a series of innovative strategies for integrating film practice and production with film restoration and heritage. Filmmakers such as Gustav Deutsch and Peter Delpeut have been invited to use film fragments from the Netherlands Film Archive for new work; and through online digital platforms, the general public has also been encouraged and enabled to rework material from the film archive. Archivists are reaching out to filmmakers to make the film archive accessible and to bring it to life. Meanwhile, media artists such as Christian Marclay in The Clock (2010) and Video Quartet (2006) and Rania Stephan in The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011) are sampling the archives of popular culture, challenging the conventions of curation and provenance that have historically governed museum practices. These new relationships between filmmakers and museums and galleries point to a new role of the moving image in the refiguration of filmed history and the history of film.

In the last twenty years, the postmodern critique of appropriation has lost its traction in the digital era, and pastiche has taken on new sensory and affective valence. The lack of distance that is produced through the borrowing of previously used material can have important effects of seduction that can bring us closer to experiences of the past, mobilizing sensory perceptions of cultural histories. This is where the audiovisual archive is fundamentally different from any other archival practice. It produces an excess of temporalities and an excess of meaning and affect that the filmmaker as archiveologist can harness and explore for new effects of history. Thinking these issues through Walter Benjamin's critical historiography reveals how image culture tends to shut down historical thought but also contains the tools for its own undoing. Film and media artists are uniquely positioned to find and use these tools to produce critical histories and trigger historical awakenings.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Prologue  1
1. Introduction to Archiveology  11
2. Walter Benjamin and the Language of the Moving Image Archive  35
3. The Cityscape in Pieces  55
4. Collecting Images  97
5. Phantasmagoria and Critical Cinephilia  141
6. Awakening from the Gendered Archive  184
Epilogue  218
Notes  225
Selected Filmography  245
Bibliography  247
Index  261

What People are Saying About This

Aftershocks of the New: Feminism and Film History - Patrice Petro

"Showing how Benjamin's insights remain especially timely and relevant for early twenty-first-century archival film practices, Archiveology makes an important contribution to critical and feminist film theory while offering a compelling approach to contemporary moving image art in ways that traverse experimental, documentary, and new media platforms."

The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker - Timothy Corrigan

"Moving through a careful, rigorous, and nuanced reading of Walter Benjamin's work, Catherine Russell's new book explores the remarkable range of 'archiveology' as a creative engagement with technologies of storing and accessing. About the formation and critique of collective memories and histories at the intersection of the avant-garde and documentaries, this superb study is, more importantly perhaps, about the present and future of contemporary media culture."

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