What is Archiveology?

Catherine Russell, Concordia University

16 May 2017


In the year 2000 I was invited to contribute a word to a special issue of the journal Public for their “Lexicon for the 20th Century A.D.”  I chose the word “Archiveology,” but I had a hard time coming up with a definition at the time. I ended up with a poetic series of definitions for terms such as “Image Bank”, “Ruins” and “Recycling” that I had used in a chapter of Experimental Ethnography called “Archival Apocalypse”. It has taken me seventeen years to figure out what archiveology means, or at least to write a book-length definition of the term. A neologism seems like a good tool for thinking through a cultural phenomenon that is prevalent and prominent in digital media, and which is critical and constructive, and which is constantly assuming new guises—so that I is what I am hoping this word can do.

Archiveology, in its most succinct form, refers to the reuse, recycling, appropriation, and borrowing of archival material that filmmakers have been doing for decades. Archiveology traverses experimental, documentary, and essayistic filmmaking, moving beyond the categories of found footage, compilation and collage. It proliferates on the internet, just as it proliferates in the art gallery.  As this practice has expanded in digital media culture, it has arguably acquired the potential to construct critical cultural histories. Seventeen years ago, this was not so clear. I think it is more of a term for the 21st century than the 20th., and even more specifically, a term for a practice that helps to bring the 20th century into new perspectives.

() a.k.a. Parentheses (Morgan Fisher, 2003)

Anyone who has taken even a glance at some of the writing on this topic, such as the great catalogue produced by the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam called Found Footage Exposed, will soon find a critic, scholar, or filmmaker quoting Walter Benjamin. His work seems in so many ways to anticipate archiveology, and of course his own method of aphoristic writing, collecting quotations from other writers, seems like a literary companion to the practice. He was a contemporary of the surrealists, and embraced the collage practices of contemporary artists such as John Heartfield. Walter Benjamin’s cultural theory is significantly oriented toward the avant-garde as the corollary to the implicit dangers of the society of the spectacle, and so I took it upon myself to focus on his diverse writings as a theoretical throughline for my book which will be published by Duke University Press in 2018.

The films and videos that I chose to write about, selected from the thousands of works out there in the world, tend to highlight the dualism and ambiguity of archiveology as a language of media culture. Divided into chapters on the city, collecting, the phantasmagoria, and awakening, the films and videos range from Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1935) to Recollection (Kamal Aljafari, 2015) with most of the work produced after 2000:

Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)

Recollection (Kamal Aljafari, 2015)

My unpublished book is already outdated as new, innovative, work continues to be produced. Film and media makers continue to explore possibilities of recombination, and feeding their practice is the increasing accessibility of the moving image archive in digital form. The concept of the archive continues to be rethought and revised as artists, scholars, and historians gain new access to the documents of the past. The arts of appropriation include a wide variety of ways of engaging directly and indirectly with and on sound and image recordings that are not only “found” but sought out with new search tools. (Filmmakers are also increasingly inclined to build their own archives from footage shot and images collected—although the focus of my book is more specifically on the historiographic potential of archiveology).

World Mirror Cinema (Gustav Deutsche, 2005)

Through the work of media artists, the film archive has been transformed so that it is no longer simply a place where moving images are preserved and stored, but has been expanded into an “image bank” from which collective memories can be retrieved. The archive as a mode of transmission offers a unique means of displaying and accessing historical memory, with significant implications for the ways that we imagine cultural history. It may be a cliché that film can take you closer to history, but I found that working with some of these texts, and looking at the way they use sound, montage, and the rhythm of a time-based medium, that old footage can indeed take on new life, and the archive can be dynamically “felt.”

Archiveology involves the use of the image archive as a language. Walter Benjamin’s conceptions of memory, document, excavation, and historiography tend to be articulated differently over the course of his career, and there are a host of interpretations and glosses on what he might have actually meant. His theory of language, for example, is introduced early in his career and is marked by a sense of magic and theological faith that I found to be pertinent to a discourse on documentary in the 21st century.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Raina Stephan, 2011)

Why trust any image at all in the digital era?  In practices of image recycling in which images are radically stripped of their context, they have no other meaning than the traces of a profilimic, historical moment in which a cameraperson was present with the technological ability to record that moment. Fiction becomes documentary only when the viewer sees it that way, and a filmmaker can provide the context for new revelations, moments of recognition, and other historical epiphanies.

Archiveology bridges documentary and experimental film practices, and in many cases, is essayistic, and many of the films that I have written about have been recognized as such:

Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1998)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2002)

Phoenix Tapes (Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, 1999)

One way of rethinking the essay film is to recognize how filmmakers allow the images to speak in their own language. Archiveology produces a critical form of recognition, which I have found to be linked to cinephilia, not in a subjective way but in a critical way. Benjamin’s collector cuts through the auratic qualities of images, and safeguards them as souvenirs not only of their referents, but of the constellations of social relations from which they were produced. As “documents,” the images collected in archiveological films acquire meaning through their ability to awaken, stimulate, or attune the viewer’s belief in their indexicality. They are not to be taken for granted, but to be recognized as passages into the past.

Catherine Russell is Professor of Film Studies and Chair of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of four books, including Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (1999) and two books on Japanese cinema. Her book Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices is forthcoming from Duke University Press.



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