Report conference ‘Changing Platforms of Memory Practices’
As the home movies project draws to a close, the final formal activity of our research group has taken shape in the international conference “Changing Platforms of Memory Practices”, held from 10 to 12 September 2015 at the Van Swinderenhuys in Groningen. With a selection of papers from scholars, curators, artists, and archivist hailing from all over the world, the conference turned out to be fruitful in many respects. The three-day long program reflected on new angles, concepts and methodologies related to the study of amateur audio-visual memory practices.
The conference was preceded by the launch of the Network for Experimental Media Archaeology, which aims to challenge the dominance of exclusively textual approaches to media history and cultural heritage and opts for a more experimental and “hands-on” approach. During the presentation, which was held at the impressive INFOVERSUM 3D-dome, representatives of the University of Groningen’s Film Archive and the Network for Experimental Media Archaeology proposed their ideas for exploring new forms of engaging with past media technologies for media research, teaching and curating. Central to the discussion was the concept of a new digital platform and its value for research, teaching and curating.
On Thursday evening, after a warm word of welcome by Liesbeth Korthals Altes, pioneering home movie scholar Roger Odin officially started the conference with an inspiring keynote lecture on the changing dispositif of family film seen from his semi-pragmatic approach. In more than one-and-a-half hour Odin took us on a journey that foregrounded the implications of new media technologies and changing family dynamics on the communicational space of the film de famille. What was specifically interesting about Odin’s lecture was his effort to historicise the paradigm from which he has been working over the last three decades as a scholar of communication.
On Friday morning, the research project team took the stage. Jo Wachelder kicked off our collaborative presentation with a summary of the preliminary outcomes of our research project; in terms of new insights as well as the additional valorisation projects we had set out to complete more than three-and-a-half years ago. Besides introducing some of the central concepts, topics and methodologies in our research project – i.e. dispositif, user generations, and amateurs – Andreas Fickers seized the occasion to coin the term “thinkering” (a conjugation of “thinking” and “tinkering”). By adopting this essentially experimental attitude, Fickers believes that we, as researchers, will be able to encourage scholarly curiosity and create an atmosphere in which we are not afraid to try out something new. In our own project, this scholarly “thinkering” has resulted in a media archaeological experiment performed live at the 9th Orphan Film Symposium.
Whereas Tim van der Heijden and Tom Slootweg briefly sketched the outlines of their dissertations, Susan Aasman furthermore reflected on how the project has challenged her identity as a media historian when her inquiries moved towards the digital platforms on which we now create, store and share our mediated memories. More importantly, as we move away from the world before the digital age, the need to inform others of the value of amateur film and video technologies that have gradually become obsolete seems more pressing than ever. In order to be helpful in raising awareness and offering practical advice and suggestions, Susan presented the “Het behouden waard” (“Worth Saving”) website on which our aims to do so have materialised under the umbrella of the Dutch Amateur Film Platform (created by several of our partners, among which the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision and the GAVA).
Home Sweet Home Movies
The first panel of the conference showed a selection of examples in which the re-use of amateur film is explored outside of the original context. Curator and scholar Edwin Carels reflected on what happens when artists collect and re-use orphaned amateur film material. Zooming in on the work of artists Julien Maire, Zoe Beloff and David Blair, Carels distilled a profound artistic and intellectual affinity with what has been conceptualised over the last couple of decades as “media archaeology”. Carels also presented his ideas about the upcoming home movie exhibition at the Huis van Alijn in 2016, which will be a result of the museum’s collaboration with our project.
Harry Romijn and René Duursma, on the other hand, treated us to several disruptive examples of what happens when the archives decide to open their doors to a variety of artists. With the Format GAVA project, the archivists established a fruitful collaboration with creative partners with which the collections under the archive’s professional care could be re-used in artistic performances at the annual performing arts festival Noorderzon.
Simona Monizza, Bernhard André and Onno Petersen showed a different but no less interesting re-use of amateur film. With their moving and empathic “Home Sweet Home Movies” project, the team introduced us to their successful mission to screen home movies in a retirement home in Amsterdam in order to elicit the memories of many of its elderly residents.
Moving to more contemporary issues related to media and memory, the second panel explored developments in the “new digital memory ecology” on the one hand and the conceptual grounding of “memory work” in empirical research on the other. Rik Smit argued that the politics of memory have changed dramatically with the arrival of platforms such as YouTube. By taking as a case study the uploading and curating practices of YouTube users who reported on the 2013 Ghouta gas attack in Syria, Smit illustrated how digital platforms “are anything but neutral tools for storage and display”.
Taking a different perspective, Christine Lohmeier argued that a sophisticated conceptual grounding of “memory work” will allow for a better understanding of how both digital and analogue memory objects travel through the collective and individual realm. A firm conceptual notion of memory work is especially relevant when it comes to contested memory objects, as her case study of the Cuban immigrant community in Miami showed.
Whereas the previous panel mostly focused on the politics of memory, the last two panels on Friday dealt more explicitly with the historical dimensions of amateur audio-visual practices and its relationship to memory. Melinda Blos-Jáni chronicled the changing role of children in amateur film practices, based on her impressive analysis of several Transylvanian amateur film and video collections formed throughout the twentieth century.
Tom Slootweg presented a paper with which he showed how the arrival of the video camcorder – seen as a technology of memory – changed the home mode dispositif as well as the material articulation of mediated memories compared to small gauge film. Diego Cavallotti also strived to understand better the arrival video in Italian amateur practices. He however focussed more on the lost traces of amateur videography and the discrepancy between the discursive construction of the amateur videographer vis-à-vis the actual historical user.
While Slootweg and Cavallotti focused mainly on a particular moment of transition, Tim van der Heijden made an intricate argument to see the entire history of amateur film practices though the lens of a more “hybrid” form of media history. Building on his continuing effort to conceptualise continuity and change in a longue durée perspective, Van der Heijden introduced us to his thought-provoking model of the history of amateur film practices. Michael Geuenich and Sebastian Thalheim closed the Friday sessions with a plea to conduct more qualitative research in order to test, challenge and expand existing assumptions related to the production and screening of small-gauge home movies.
To end the second day of the conference, Polish performer Janek Turkowski welcomed us at the Schimmelpennick Huys to enjoy his piece Margarete. Something that has been truly inspiring was the way in which his performance was able to tie together several of the main topics and issues of the conference; such as the artistic affinity with media archaeology, the changing screening dispositif, the status of the memory artefact, the public/private dichotomy and the possibilities of re-use.
Megan Sapnar Ankerson inaugurated the third and final day of the conference. With her keynote “My Personal Web History” she bridged the topics of the previous day with a focus on contemporary memory technologies in the digital age. Reflecting on the traces of her father’s mediated past, such as amateur film and audiotapes, Sapnar Ankerson moved into a highly problematic new media ecology.
By exploring the WayBack machine as a technology of memory, she unravelled the possibilities and constraints of reconstructing one’s past experience of and presence on Web 1.0. What became painfully clear is that although the WayBack machine is able to preserve an approximation of most of the websites with a high degree of traffic, marginally visited websites and more graphical elements of websites based on Flash are gradually disappearing into digital oblivion. Considering these issues, the WayBack machine has a problematic status as an archive for web historical research.
Digital Dark Age
In the first panel of Saturday, Catherine Summerhayes offered us an intriguing analysis of a part of the (past) digital domain that is similarly becoming unavailable for web historical research. As she reconstructs how the interrelations between Google Earth and websites made by Not For Profit organisations and individual activist users, Summerhayes argued that they are also becoming subject to erasure and forgetting. Although these interrelations have produced new and contested social memories – by juxtaposing geographical coordinates of places of humanitarian crises with web links, testimonies and images – the “archaeology” of this web of relations is gradually resulting in an accumulation of dead links.
The threat of the “Digital Dark Age” was further explored in a paper presented by Richard Vickers. He offered an overview of the development of vernacular media from the early 20th century and how their use and presence have resulted in complete ubiquity. As Sapnar and Summerhayes warned, the traces left behind might disappear, an observation that stressed the question “How we will remember the future?”
Niels Kerssens departed from issues related to the (im)possibilities of web history and brought into view another interesting topic: the history of searching and retrieving. His paper argued that the historical reconstruction of search practices helps us to understand better how our present day interaction with search engines, such as Google, has changed from information retrieval antecedents of the past. In this light, Kerssens mainly pondered the implications of the shift from the expert knowledge of information retrieval practices embodied by institutional actors such as librarians, to the algorithms of the search engine: what remains of human agency in a time where the “politics of algorithmic mediation” are prevalent?
Nostalgia and Memory
The second panel on Saturday returned to the question of past media environments and the role of nostalgia and memory. When it comes to the media historical past of video in socialist Poland, Michał Pabiś-Orzeszyna delivered a critical paper. Reflecting on the contemporary initiatives such as VHS Hell – where the past screening context of VHS of the 1980s are recreated – Pabiś-Orzeszyna doubts whether the original political and media ecological contexts of this past practice are actually part of the contemporary revivals. As he hypothesizes, these current VHS screenings seem to be driven mostly by a shallow sense of nostalgia.
Miroslaw Filiciak brings a different perspective on video’s media historical past in socialist Poland. He approached the media history of VHS in 1980s Poland as a process of “pirate modernization” before the arrival of P2P networks. From this perspective, Filiciak argues, video should be seen as an “evocative object”. Even more so, as it “mobilizes memories about social media practices and video circulations opposing the dualistic distinction between legal and illegal, formal and informal, amateur and professional” in a time when Poland was still detached from the West.
Moving away from Europe, Ari Purnama accounted for the ubiquity of VCD in Asia. A digital video format initially developed in the early 1990s for the Western market by Sony, Matsushita and Philips, VCD has gained a widespread popularity in many parts of Asia. Despite its relatively poor picture quality, the digital video format became extremely important for the storage and dissemination of the national cinema of Indonesia. As Purnama underlined, this brings along its own dynamic when it comes to the filmic heritage of Indonesia, both in terms of its status as archival object and as a tool for education.
Sofya Postnikova closed the session on media and nostalgia with a paper on the commodification of digital photography in relation to its re-use for such other memory artifacts as t-shirts, mugs and canvasses. She argued that with the transfer of digital photographs to other objects, the notion personal media platforms have been transfigured even more within the paradigm of consumer culture.
The final panel of the conference revisited some of the issues of the previous day. Similar to Carels, artist and scholar Domingo Martinez explored how the artistic interest in past platforms of memory resonates in contemporary art. A specifically interesting aspect of his paper was his artistic negotiation with the home video’s of his own past. In the installation Recreaciones pretéritas Martinez reenacted his own mediated past and by doing so explored the importance of performativity, the role of home video as a mediated memory artifact as well as the nature of remembering itself.
Ishita Tiwary closed the final panel with a presentation on the relationship between the “aesthetic grammar” and the formal and technological limitations of video technologies in Indian wedding videos. While tracing the genealogy of the marriage video – from the wedding photograph album via VHS marriage videos to YouTube channels – she argued new forms of performativity, spectatorship and remembrance have emerged along the way. By also charting the remedial influence of Hindi cinema on this amateur practice of wedding videography, Tiwary offered a uniquely Indian case study of a genre that has many manifestations around the globe across time.
Jo Wachelder closed the conference by formulating three thought-provoking observations and points of reflection, which he based on some of the recurring and central issues stemming from the presentations and discussions. The first point of reflection hinted at the title of the conference: “changing platforms of memory practices”. Among the contributors, Wachelder detected a shared interest in analyzing and reflecting upon the different kinds of user practices – making, storing, sharing, re-enacting. In relation to this, he lauded the many efforts to connect and re-conceptualize the memory aspect in relation to these practices. Secondly, Wachelder saw a sincere interest in embodied and multi-sensorial experiences. According to him, this makes us realize how we as researchers of memory practices are in essence dealing with emotions. The third observation pointed at the notion of the archive and how it has resulted in many forms and manifestations (institutional, public, commercial, personal). Therefore, he rightfully posed the question how to conceptualize and deal with the increasing “mixture of archives” in today’s society and how this relates to notions of power, science and technology?
Wachelder’s observations formed the ‘closing credits’ of what has been a stimulating and rewarding conference. On behalf of the project team, we would like to thank everyone who has contributed to making it a successful event!