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.



Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President (Channel 4, UK)

The Office Cat

9 May 2017


For readers of the IAMHIST Blog who have yet to meet the Office Cat (who writes regularly for the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television), you’ll find it a ‘ferocious yet felicitous feline who has assisted in aiding and abetting slovenly television producers and directors since it first saw light in the pages of the History Workshop Journal’. (HJFRT, Vol. 5, No. 2, June 2016: 339). Born in 1976, the Office Cat is no ordinary cat, but a film researcher. It might be fluffy, but unlike human film researchers, for whom it has the greatest respect, never takes ‘no’ for an answer. It specialises in finding film footage that no other film archivist, historian, critic, or other researcher has found before. The Office Cat finds film footage that doesn’t exist or does exist, but not in the ways that film producers or directors would like it to. For example, the Office Cat’s ancestors found footage of the Wright brothers’ first flight, another found footage of the Battle of Jutland. One even unearthed shots of Adolf Hitler marrying Eva Braun in the Führerbunker…

The Office Cat looks forward to shaking its paw with you all, and without further ado:

Meet the Trumps: From Immigrant to President was transmitted by Channel 4 on January 17, 2017. It was made by 72 Films, executively produced by Mark Glover and Mark Rafael and directed by Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice.

I was delighted with this programme, which did its best to usher in the Post-truth era.  Post-truth, as I understand it, means that anything you say, or any item of film you show, is true, if you believe — rightly or wrongly — that it is the case and those who disbelieve you can only be purveying Fake News. So, readers will just have to accept my account of these items in the spirit of Donald Trump, who is a most accomplished practitioner of Post-truth utterances and films.

Donald’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was born in 1869 and emigrated to America in 1885, ten years before the invention of the Cinématographe, so when I tell you there is film of the ship which brought him to New York, with Friedrich himself standing on its deck, and with a cutaway of the Statue of Liberty which was dedicated in 1886, and of the crowds debarking at Ellis Island, which wasn’t built until 1892, that is no more than a simple Post-truth, or as Kellyanne Conway might say, Alternative fact.

When Friedrich went to Washington State in 1891 to seek his fortune, I found film of the train which took him there though the locomotive couldn’t have been filmed at least until 1895.  In Seattle, he gravitated to Washington Street, a rough part of town, where he opened a restaurant. His two Italian chefs came to blows, and I found film of their brawl, though whoever fired a gun at the chandelier and brought it crashing down was not identified.

Friedrich then went to Monte Christo, where he opened another restaurant. There he served men wearing Stetsons, who looked remarkably like those in Seattle for whom he had catered. Friedrich returned to Seattle, to Cherry street where he opened yet arestaurant which prospered., as had his earlier establishments. In 1898 he moved to Bennett, in British Columbia, where he and his partner Ernest Levin opened the Arctic Hotel and Restaurant which also had Rooms for Ladies, in other words catered for Prostitutes. as Friedrich had been doing at least since his time in Monte Christo. By now the Klondike gold rush was well under way but Bennett had been left behind, and this prompted Friedrich to shift his building to a barge to take him across lake Bennett, and then to the Yukon river, which would reach Whitehorse, his destination near the gold fields—where he planned to re-establish his Arctic Hotel. We saw colour film of the hotel on that barge though the first Kinemacolor film was not exhibited until 1908. When the building disintegrated on the way, there was just the briefest of shots of it collapsing, but when the logs from which it was made were bobbing in the river the scene was more lavishly illustrated.

Friedrich eventually found himself in New York, or more precisely Queens, where he built a thriving real estate business. I found film of one of his properties under construction, with a passenger car from the 1930s parked on the street outside, though Friedrich himself had died of influenza in 1918.  Sic transit gloria mundi, as his grandson probably wouldn’t say, since that minatory phrase certainly couldn’t count as extolling ‘America First! America First!’ nor was Friedrich’s death Fake News so far as we know. Bravo to David Glovert, Mark Rafael, Paul Berczeller and Mark Radice for having blazed such a fruitful trail in our brave new Post-truth world!


*The Office Cat will continue to publish in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

Jerry Kuehl is an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest is visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of film archives. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He is responsible for Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries.

Contact: theofficecat76@gmail.com


Of Presidents and Impersonators

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California

2 May 2017


One of the most startling of President Trump’s many foibles is his vociferous dislike of his being impersonated and specifically of the impersonation done by Alec Baldwin on the long-running NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live.  In the small hours of Sunday 3 December 2016, smarting from the previous evening’s offering he tweeted “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad”

In similar vein, after a whole day of reflection, the evening of 15 January 2017 produced: “@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC.  Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!”  For a media historian the spat raises the question of the history of presidential parody and how previous presidents have reacted to impersonation.  Trump is unusual.  Most past presidents had the good sense to ignore mockery and some have embraced impersonation.  Ronald Reagan reportedly really enjoyed the work of Rich Little and Barack Obama joined in the joke with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s ‘anger translator’ routine but the best example of a president embracing his impersonation is that of John F. Kennedy and his reaction to the impersonation by Vaughan Meader.

To place Meader’s Kennedy in context, it was pioneering for its time.  While there is a long history of satirical representations of American presidents, which have included the unflattering and the bizarre (Theodore Roosevelt was lampooned in stage impersonations by the blackface/minstrel Vaudeville performer Lew Dockstader and depicted in similar fashion in political cartoons) the electronic media, were more restrained.  Sitting presidents, like the figure of Christ, were not directly represented in motion pictures or in broadcast media.  Classic Hollywood films like Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Mission to Moscow (1943) depicted Franklin Roosevelt only with coy over-the-shoulder angles and his distinct voice (both these examples used a Canadian actor named Jack Young).  The age of television built a greater sense of familiarity with the president and a desire to know more which was unmet by the restrained habits of the media of the time.  The taboo was broken in the months following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The age of the broadcast presidential impersonation dawned on the White House without warning in November 1962.  It was presidential advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who raised the alarm.  He was driving to work one morning and thought he was listening to a White House press conference.  A journalist asked whether the president believed that a Jew could be president.  To Schlesinger’s dismay distinct Boston drawl replied to the effect that while that was possible ‘I could not vote for him because I am a Catholic.’  Narrowly avoiding an accident Schlesinger sped on to the White House, made some preliminary investigations and fired off a memo to the president warning darkly of Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds panic.  The broadcast – it emerged – was a track from a comedy album created by a nightclub performer from Maine called Vaughn Meader and entitled First Family.  The humor was gentle by today’s standards with many jokes turning on the idea of the president being depicted in ordinary situations.  JFK is heard discussing the allocation of his kids’ bath toys in the manner of Pentagon appropriations, stopping at a highway gas station with his entire motorcade and asking for green stamps, and discussing movies with his wife.  His preference is for Hercules.   While Kennedy’s team were appalled and made plans to contact the Federal Communications Commission to look into somehow banning its broadcast, Kennedy relished the humor.  He bantered with journalists about the impersonation (joking that it sounded more like brother Ted so he was the angry one); he bought multiple copies of the album to send out as Christmas gifts and on one occasion explained that he was the speaker only because Vaughn Meader couldn’t make it.  Neither he nor anyone else at the White House revealed that Jacqueline Kennedy was not amused by the impersonation of her and supported some kind of intervention against the record.

From Meader’s point of view the president’s good natured endorsement gave a welcome boost to what was already shaping up to be a stratospherically successful record.  It was soon the fastest selling record in history to that date.  Meader became a national celebrity and eagerly embarked on a sequel.  But his success was oddly bound to that of the president.  His career never recovered from the shock of the assassination of JFK in 1963.  He attempted various come-backs, including in the 1990s a record of the bible themed sketches in which God has a Kennedy accent.  He died, largely forgotten, in 2004.  The Meader accent lives on in the vocal performance of Dan Castellaneta as the mayor of Springfield, “Diamond Joe” Quimby in The Simpsons.

The relationship of Americans to the image of their president has changed radically in the 55 years since Meader’s First Family, and the jokes on SNL are far more barbed than could be imagined in those distant days.  So much of the veil is now missing.  Whereas a half century ago discussing of womanizing or exotic sexual tastes would be conducted only in whispers today we hear recordings of the president’s own voice bragging about lewd and illegal acts and allegations of shenanigans with Russian prostitutes are freely discussed in the media.  This said, sound advice for a satirized individual remains the same.  One does better sharing the joke.

Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400



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