Making meaning out of memory: creative archive in The Space by Paul Gerhardt
Something is stirring in the ordered, rarefied world of the archive. Digital technology is opening up a route into the heart of our national and local collections, and the managers and archivists who look after them are increasingly eager to reveal what has been hidden - and to breathe new life into them.
Archives are no longer the sole preserve of the academic researcher. Many of them are in the process of becoming more open centres of memory and inspiration. And it is artists, and the arts organisations that represent their work, who are the vanguard of this transformation.
This is an especially long overdue development for our national collections of film, television and radio. These are our collective libraries of sound and moving images, places that project back to us a hundred years of ideas, of change and of cultural expression.
Libraries, as we all know, exist to provide education, inspiration and enjoyment through the printed word. Our moving image archives can play a similar role. Indeed, they are more necessary now than ever now that the ubiquity of digital technology has made us all media literate, as the increasing demand demonstrates.
So, in a world of digital opportunity, what can these assets from the archives do for us? And how can we avoid the reverential approach that just reinforces their nostalgic value? Here are nine thoughts to provoke, to adapt and perhaps to adopt as you consider what to build in The Space.
Create depth. Every new performance, every new recording, and every new experience has its cultural antecedents. The challenge is to track down those tapes, find living participants, and assemble an open digital archive to enrich every new project.
Reveal the sources. We can enrich any contemporary production by using smart technology to 'unpack' its sources. Every clip, every snatch of music, every painting in shot, and every quotation can be separately linked to its original version, giving viewers the chance to pause the action and dive into the primary material behind it. And by doing so, we create an enormous reference tribute to the rights holders who have given their permission. (It may even help with rights negotiations!)
Connect people. Archive (in its many forms of object, text, picture, sound and moving image) can be brilliant for creating communities of supporters. How about linking generations to share and discuss iconic music or dance performances - especially when some have memory of the performance as live? Or connecting people around a reconstruction of something that was never recorded and where only the memories remain? Or using social media to build a collectively authored anthology of favoured cultural clips or images?
Start a debate about value. We all need to join in the debate about what to keep. Previous generations of archivists did this for us - and now it's our turn to look at the decisions they made. The curators of our national and regional collections need you to let them know what is of value today, whether that value can be expressed in education, in cultural expression or in commercial exploitation.
Create context. Assets from the archive come alive when we learn more about the conditions that created them (see the work by the TIME/IMAGE team with the British Council film collection). But context doesn't have to be factual - it could be just as interesting to create a fictional context, and to weave our cultural archives into stimulating new narratives.
Reveal the unseen. There are unknown archives everywhere, often waiting to see the light of day. Now that we can document our own lives so easily there is a growth in interest in personal archives. And many arts organisations have hoarded away their history without knowing how to retrieve it or how to use it. Why not create an adventurous blog journey through unknown archives, instantly revealing material on a daily or weekly basis as it is discovered, and sharing it with the wider public?
Deconstruct to create. Even the most familiar archive footage can take on a new life in a fresh approach - perhaps with new sound and narrative. As the work of John Akomfrah has shown, the artist has a valid role in re-constituting the materials that communities and individuals did not have the opportunity or resources to assemble themselves. By stripping archive material back to its elements (stills, audio, speech, music, text, and moving image) we can move forward into many directions, including abstraction and realism.
Capture the present. Many arts bodies are focused on live performance and are understandably anxious about archiving their work. Who it is for and how they should allow it to be used? Others, such as the director Sally Potter, are much more confident about opening up their work through the web. This is a vitally important debate. We need to reveal the arguments and share the experiences; indeed, it could be an arts project in its own right.
Bring art forms together. The digital space has the unique characteristic of 'reducing' all cultural content to binary code. Potentially, it should be easier than in the real world to bring into the same space very different arts media and forms. By doing so, we challenge the silos in which many archives and collections are currently organised. For instance, we may want to support time travellers who want to revisit the culture of the 1960s by helping them to source concrete poetry, abstract art and experimental film making, and combine them in fresh ways. New tablet applications, such as The Waste Land, demonstrate the power of effective synchronisation of different media such as the spoken word, printed text, archive manuscript and moving image.
Many of these activities raise the issue of who our archives and collections belong to. We know that the material held by the BBC, the Arts Council and the BFI are paid for by the public, but unfortunately that does not mean that it is always theirs to openly share. Nevertheless, their curation over many decades has given them insights into which of their assets can be cleared easily for public use, which may be available through conventional rights payments, and those best left avoided for now.
Some smaller organisations with specialised collections, perhaps of dance or theatre, may well have a closer relationship with performers and will be able to negotiate their release for new arts projects, as Siobhan Davies Dance has done.
We should also bear in mind that the process involved in any of these projects may well be as important, and as worthy of documenting, as the outcome. It will leave an important legacy for artists thinking about working with digital media and creating their own digital archives.
There is a shared agenda here around access, creativity, public inspiration and a technology that supports open data. And equally vital will be the practical, working relationships that will be built between artists and archivists, researchers and collection managers.
It is an interaction that will enrich us all.