Memory, Images, History
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Blog posting written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
Last week the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) met in St. Louis for their 19th annual conference. Despite dire predictions that the economy would drive down attendance, attendees flocked to the “gateway to the West.” Founded in 1990, AMIA this year saw over 450 film, television, and digital media archivists from the private and public sector, laboratory specialists, vendors, and a healthy dose of students in moving image archive programs at UCLA, NYU, Rochester, and Texas Austin, all hoping to learn from practitioners and make contacts for future employment.
The pre-conference kickoff is called “The Reel Thing,” a day technical symposium, where the newest methodologies of media preservation are introduced by an international group of speakers in powerpoint, before the actual results are shown. The day started with a talk about the restoration of a Cyd Charisse NBC-TV special on 2” quad videotape from 1959. Given that neither VTR machines, nor handbooks exist any longer, preservationists had to rebuild the machinery to read and transfer these rare images to digital. Another equally complicated preservation involved Quadraphonic stereo sound in Ken Russell’s Tommy, the only film ever to use that technology. The trick was how to convert the sound to modern quintaphonic sound, a process that took over 100 hours of work. Another presentation discussed a survey of 60 million media elements in a named studio library, which found statistically significant amounts of decomposition in polyester sound and film elements. This was somewhat surprising, given the fact that the industry has been telling the field for at least fifteen years that polyester would last forever, in contrast to nitrate and acetate, which decompose.
The greatest change this year is the number of panels dedicated to issues of digitization, digital asset management, born digital media, etc. More than half of the twenty-six sessions dealt exclusively with digital issues, while at least another quarter involved digital media at some level. Only five years ago, the digital occupied only a handful of panels.
Not surprisingly, then, a plenary session on analogue media archives and the digital future opened the official conference. One of the most interesting ideas in that plenary was the notion that we can no longer think of the archive as an endpoint, where moving image media goes to die (or lie dormant), with archivists as gatekeepers, allowing individual users to reanimate the corpses. Rather, once a significant amount of content is digitized and on line, the archive becomes a point of origin for all future work with those images, the archive constantly morphing as users discover, create, propagate new meanings through remix. In a digital world, the archive is the content, the medium also the message, i.e. archives have in the words of my colleague, Leah Lievrouw, become performative, making and enabling the production of culture.
Just how the internet archive has changed the ground rules was demonstrated by a panel on advertising films. Many commercials are now going to the internet for an afterlife, once their immediate commercial utilization has passed. Indeed, many well-known directors, like Spike Jonz, Michael Bay, David Fincher, and Ridley Scott have set up websites to advertise their work. These ads then get circulated through the web by fans who are not interested in the products anymore, but rather in the auteurs hawking them or in their cultish content.
The traditional archival screening night, held at the Tivoli Theatre, a neighborhood theatre turned art house in the St. Louis Blueberry Hill district (yes of Chuck Berry fame), was again a highlight. No less than 23 archives presented 3-5 minute clips of new moving image preservation work. My personal favorites: Julia Child making French onion soup on the Dick Cavett show with a blow torch, a Bobcat Co. promo with a Bobcat operator dancing opposite a go-go dancer, and a tape from a sexual fantasy party sponsored by the N.O.W. Conference on Sexuality in 1973. The weird and the profane collide, as bits of popular culture enter the archive, hopefully to be recirculated in a never-ending digital remix.