Report Workshop Bonn: ‘How to keep our audio-visual memories safe’

Report Workshop Bonn, by Tom Slootweg

As the summer hesitantly makes way for the dull spring we had so far, several international representatives of the academic community, the archives, and museums came together in Bonn. On the 2nd and 3rd of May, Dagmar Hänel welcomed us to the Institut für Landeskunde und Regionalgeschichte to delve deeper in the main question of our workshop: ‘how to keep our precious audio-visual memories safe’.

In order to do justice to the diverse experiences, practices and expectations at stake in keeping, preserving and sharing home movies, home videos, and online home mode content for the future, Andreas Fickers rightly underlined our main mission for these two days: namely ‘bringing together scholars and professionals to reflect on good and best practices to keep safe all the aspects of home mode audio-visual “technologies of memory”’.

To cover the range of angles this diversity of contributors enables, the workshop was grouped into five themes: (1) collecting and cataloguing the family archive, (2) preservation and digitisation, (3) contextualising the audio-visual home mode, (4) contextualising the collection, and lastly (5) exhibiting/re-use of the (private) archive.

Viviane Thill, archivist of the Luxembourg Centre National de l’Audiovisuel (CNA), recounted the history of collecting and cataloguing home movies from the perspective of a national archive. As of 1995 the CNA actively acquired home movies, a project that resulted in the current collection of 10.000 amateur films. Because of ‘the never ending story’ of contextualizing and cataloguing amateur film, Viviane recommended to keep reaching out to other archival institutions for the sake of exchanging experiences and asking advice. Especially in relation to professional digitizing formats, clearing release/copyright contracts for donors, and new developments in collecting and cataloguing practices there should be a platform for continuous discussions on the ‘state of the art’.

As panel leader Tim van der Heijden rightly observed, a point of anxiety still remains for many archives when it comes to the ‘analogue video question’. The sheer amount of footage, the technical quality of video’s produce, and its strong reliability on its technological ecosystem makes amateur video a daunting task to actively acquire, archive, and digitise. Let alone making adequate selection criteria. Amateur film scholar Ryan Shand (University of Glasgow), however, sketched the outline of the Scottish CAMS-project, headed by Professor Karen Lury.

In this project, Ryan was involved in the active acquisition and archiving of amateur video for the Scottish Film Archive. Specifically focused on community, educational, and amateur club video footage, but also videos produced by children, the Scottish Screen Archive was able to collect 785 hours of footage ranging from the 1980s to 2000. ‘Having clear criteria and themes, focussed acquisition campaigns and the flexibly to alter them if proven unsuccessful’, turned out to be a significant part of the project’s success.

Besides a sincere wish for continuous collaboration between archives, Ryan also made a strong argument to include oral histories into the archive, since ‘this will broaden the contextual scope of the collected material’. This also is a central aspect in the archival practices of Archivo Nazionale del Film di Famiglia (ANFF) in Bologna. Karianne Fiorini underlined that ‘besides safeguarding, we are also responsible for giving a voice to the content’. Collecting as much contextual information as possible in the earliest stages of the collection process, since ‘experience showed us it would become more difficult after the actual donation is made’.

The need to give the archival collection a ‘voice’ – a prelude to the topics of the second day – is a continuing topic in the second panel on ‘preservation and digitization’. Valentine Kuypers (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision) emphasised that archives often neglect to pay attention to the ‘new amateur filmmaker’, also in their acquisition policies. More on-topic, Valentine sketched the continuously changing amateur formats and practices since 1980s onwards: ‘from expensive to cheap, (…) from minutes to hours, from private screening to the World Wide Web, from the original film reel, to multiple copies, (…) and from long term to short term preservation’. This, according to her, has profound consequences for archival procedures as well.

Harry Romijn and René Duursma of the Groningen Audio-Visual Archive (GAVA) see these new challenges in a less dramatic light, and Romijn urged his colleagues; ‘if you want to survive today and in the future, archives need a digitally accessible collection’. When it comes to digital preservation Harry wasn’t shy of posing his professional opinion provocatively: ‘no archive should strive to preserve ‘crap on crap, not even in the case of video’. René underlined that GAVA’s choice for the industry standards of 10bit uncompressed and ProRes HQ, albeit expensive, resulted in a high-quality digital collection that is suitable for both Mac and PC, and hardly suffers any generational loss. Harry and René also ruffled some feathers by claiming that the amateur, however, ‘should not try this at home and leave the archiving to the professionals’.

That the original technological ecosystem is also extremely important became clear in Christoph Blase’s contribution on his Laboratory of Antiquated Video Systems. Based at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Christoph realised that when he wants to collect and preserve the tapes made by artists on dozens of video formats since the late 1960s, he also needs the accompanying machines. This does not only imply the collection of recorders, but also cameras, monitors and so on. To complicate things further, to adequately transfer video content to a computer, ‘every device as such needs a refined knowledge of its technicality and its use as an art medium’.

Concluding the session, panel leader Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes also voiced her concerns about the legal framework in which the collecting, preservation, and most notably the dissemination of amateur material take place. For Harry, only material with full copyright will be accepted; otherwise the GAVA has to spend public funds to preserve, without having the rights for re-use. Christoph emphasised that the art videos he works with, can be used under restrictions within an academic context, whereas Paolo Simoni (ANFF) also warns us about laws restricting the publishing rights of amateur material with portrait.

Wrapping up the first fruitful day, Dagmar Hänel underlined the importance of photography in anthropological studies of everyday life, and treated us with interesting documentaries where the camera functions as ‘a tool for the ethnographer’; showing us the valuable role moving image technologies have in capturing and preserving practices of everyday life in the Rhineland region in Germany. Luckily we were able to participate, unmediated, in everyday life ourselves by sampling the ‘Rheinländische Küche’ in Bonn’s historic city centre after Hänel’s interesting lecture.

The second day explored the current developments in contextualising the user and the archival collection. Canadian media scholar Michael Strangelove (University of Ottawa) offered staggering statistical data on the contemporary video upload practices in the United States. ‘What was once a marginal practice, now has become mass behaviour’, Michael argues in relation to the changing face of amateur cultural production. To understand contemporary users, ‘we have to be attentive of their variety’. According to Michael, ‘especially children are significant producers of culture and they showcase an unrestrained representational aesthetic, which is driven new motives such as peer esteem, fame, revenge, and attention’.

Getting a grip on the historical (remembered) users, collection manager Greet Vanderhaegen (Huis van Alijn, Ghent) described the work process of the oral history practice of the Flemish museum of everyday life. When the Huis van Alijn receives donations, they strive to build an audio archive consisting of interviews with users the actual filmmaker or family members. After the films are digitized, the donators receive a DVD-copy, which is viewed together with a staff member. A standardised scheme helps to structure the interview, paying attention to topics such as the process of filming and editing, the circumstances of screening, the intentions behind making the film.

Contrary to ‘doing oral history’, Andreas Fickers proposed taking inspiration from the ‘Oldenburg School’. This school’s methodology to gain knowledge on the history of science and technology encompassed a re-enactment of the historical circumstances of specific scientific discoveries. To make this methodology of ‘constructivist hermeneutics’, suitable for home movie related research, Andreas plans to create an ‘experimental media archaeology lab, facilitating in re-enacting the temporal and spatial experience of the home mode practice of family film’. This way the plethora of material sources will be able to speak for themselves, also enabling tacit knowledge of ‘technologies of memory’.

To give an impression of what AV-archives have to offer in the 21st century, Johan Oomen (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision) showcased several new possibilities of contextualising archival collections. The main mission of the projects he is involved in, tend strongly ‘towards more open, smarter and connected archives’. Meta-search environment CoMeRDA, crowdsourcing video-content-annotation-platform Waisda, and the creative commons audio-visual database Open Images, are just some examples where ‘archives aim to be the best provider of digital audio-visual content’. Francesca Morselli ties into this with her presentation on online platform Europeana. This platform functions as an intermediary between archives and end users to disseminate European culture at large. Specific online exhibitions, like 1914-1918, rely on online contributions of users; producing compelling personal stories that make it possible to emotionally engage with digital sources.

Besides the celebration of the many possibilities and trends in the archiving world, Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes places a cautionary parenthesis with her focus on archival (mal)practices; something she illustrated with the suspected disappearance (and reappearance in a private collection) of the Sheikh Zayed film from British Empire and Commonwealth Museum’s archive. This prompted Oomen to take a more general critical stance towards universities and museums as caretakers of film archives: ‘they should leave the custodian function to us, professional AV-archives’. Panel leader Susan Aasman and Annamaria, nonetheless reminded us that many AV-archives originate from universities, and that the South-Asia Studies University Film Archive is rather unique and has a lot of in-house expertise to function properly.

Nearing the end of our two-day workshop artist-archivist Guy Edmonds gave some examples of how to re-use private audio-visual archives. Under the enigmatic title ‘ the art of the in-between’ Edmonds showed how the material can get an alternative voice through an artistic rendering, exemplified by his own projects ‘Saloon Refuse’ and ‘Séance du Cinéma, and the installation work ‘Freud’s Dream Land’ by American artist Zoe Beloff in museum Het Dolhuys. For Paolo Simoni from the ANFF artistic treatment of amateur film, like Bologna’s Formato Ridotto project, have a specific goal, namely ‘to build a new story about the past’ through re-use, since ‘history is not dead and we are not living after it’.

Jo Wachelder, the panel leader for this final session, wasn’t fully satisfied with this description, and asked ‘to explain a bit more on how it works, and what we can learn from this combination between archival work and artistic re-interpretation.’  For Paolo, the collaborative effort – tying together the archive, artists, and the community – is the key aspect, and added that ‘maybe giving something back to the public is a more explicit task than ever before’.

Susan Aasman finally had the daunting task to wrap up the discussions, reflect on the current ‘state of the art’ and lessons learned, and highlight underdeveloped discussion topics: ‘I still don’t have clear cut answers. The swell of material that flooded, and will flood the archives since the 1990s, rightfully forced us to ask the question of how to keep our memories safe, now and in the future. It is absolutely pivotal to think about the diverse range of amateur material, before it becomes the dust of history. Especially as a cultural historian I do need to underline its value as an important source. We as researchers need this material, and the other way around: the material needs us. We are responsible for legitimising the material as cultural heritage. And what we need are not just the reels, the content, the images, but also machines/technology and the users.’

‘A fruitful outcome of our discussions is certainly the awareness the think about the ethical issues related to copyright and so on. We should therefore strive to create a general template for waiving copyrights.’ Furthermore, Susan concluded: ‘I think the most important task at hand is, still, to create awareness among the amateurs at home. They should be made specifically aware that their more recent material can be valuable and should be properly looked after. I think we made the first steps these two days to create a best practice platform that will highlight these important aspects. So, once again, I would like to thank everybody for their inspiring contributions and the lively debate!’

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