Talk for the 2015 Australian Society of Archivists conference, ‘Tending the Archive’ by Ihlein & Curham

Talk presented by Louise Curham at the Australian Society of Archivists 40th annual conference, ‘Archives on the Edge’, Hobart, 20 August 2015 in Session 17, The Creative Perspective. The talk was based on the article ‘Reaching Through to the Object: Reenacting Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1’, (Ihlein & Curham, 2015), based on the Ihlein Curham collaborative project Teaching and Learning Cinema.

 Welcome and thank you. The abstract promised two of us, myself and Dr Lucas Ihlein, artist and media arts lecturer, at the University of Wollongong. Lucas unfortunately had to be in Canada on family duties and to present research at another conference.

Here’s a statement of purpose – our aim with this talk is to put forward ideas that we think are relevant to the archival community that have emerged from our work with live art from the past. Our work involves a remaking process or ‘re-enactment’. In short this re-making process involves using existing archives and generating new ones. We try to get as close as we can to the original work. And yet as we ‘reach through’ to it, we find we must make changes to it because the conditions we find ourselves in are different from those when the work was originally created. This process sheds light on the original work, and the changes we make are subtle forms of new knowledge about it. It’s the generation of new knowledge in this process that we have come to think of as a kind of tending. Buried in ‘tending’ is an idea about ways to appropriately contribute to the record of the past and it’s this idea that is probably what is most relevant to you as archivists. And I’ve been hearing this as a bit of a theme in the conference. In some ways, our work is the embodied side of Mike Jones’ project that is looking at the practical technologies to pull data in about use and to map it in a way that enriches connectedness between objects. Mike spoke about his work in the museums and archives session yesterday. Wearing my digital business hat, this is kind of like “analytics 3.0 for archivists” – how to harvest and plough downstream user data back into your business. But that’s a major by-way for this paper.

Consider this idea of tending an ostinato – an obstinate, repeating refrain that I hope will emerge more clearly for you at the end. So now we’ll get into it.

Here is Malcolm Le Grice, a British artist whose work we re-enacted in 2014 in Canberra talking about his performance-based experimental films:

“The audience in a way can see everything [it’s] made from, it’s a bit like [a] recipe: … six oranges, a slug of brandy and … what comes out of it isn’t the same as what went into it: that kind of magic that happens when the thing is transformed.” For Le Grice, it is this legibility of the performance’s components which might empower audience members to try it out for themselves: “They can see that magic happening … but also … they can look and see how this is done and they can say to themselves: I can do that, you know. There is nothing I couldn’t do if I wanted to do it.” (Wyver 2003)

I’m going to leap right in with a story about this re-enactment work that Lucas and I do. There is a seminal artwork made in the 1970s by British artist William Raban, called 2’45”. Now I won’t take you through the finer points of why it’s an important work but safe to say it links up with ground breaking US composer John Cage and it’s of interest to artists today as socially engaged art. Raban’s piece as we shall see is all about the interaction between the audience and the artist.

Let me tell you how William Raban made this work. He attended a film festival over several days. He filmed himself standing in front of the screen, processed the film, projected it back and filmed himself in front of the projection. He repeated this over several days. As you can see from the image below, each day’s events are sandwiched inside those of the previous day. Here’s a description by the artist:

An important aspect of 2’45” is that it records the history of its making. It is a ‘time-lapse’ film in the sense that within its 2 minutes 45 seconds duration, it reveals all its past presentations as a film of a film of a film etc. Once the film has been projected, it is discarded, since it exists in the form of a latent image on the film in the camera, and will be developed prior to its projection for the next audience viewing and refilming. (Lux, 2005)

Still frames of 2’45”, 1972, B&W sound 3 mins. Image: LUXonline.

Curious about the experience of this work, we decided to try making it for ourselves. However, our only viable technical option in 2007 was digital video, and the problem with this technology is that there is no fixed duration to a videotape in the way that there is for 16mm film.

We have come to think of this kind of question as a classic generative problem. By generative problem, I mean a problem that causes us to generate new material as we respond to it. What’s important here is that we are responding to it through two lenses: we have the archivist’s mindfulness of authenticity and the original, and the artist’s creative response. And it seems this is where we might make a contribution to the ASA’s discussion about Archiving on the Edge and its call for innovative ways for archivists to keep and interpret records in a changing technological context. It seems to us that our re-enactment work as a form of experiential archiving may be useful, particularly for “unruly objects”. I’ve come to think that what makes an object unruly is performance – be it technological performance (either analogue or digital) or performance in the most literal sense, like our live art performance re-enactment of William Raban’s 2’45”.

Post on the Teaching and Learning Cinema blog discussing Six Minutes, 2007, colour, sound, digital video.

So we embrace problems like medium and duration as generative problems and look upon them as an opportunity to contribute anew to the work and the archives about it.

The word experiential is also important. Our approach is one of responding to a physical encounter with the objects. This kind of thinking opens the door for collaboration with non-archivists, as I have done with Lucas, and it starts to look quite different from the activities which archivists spend most of their time doing. The work takes on a “lab” type of approach: playing around with the objects and the archives to understand how they can come to resonate best in a new technological context.

So now we have a further 20 minutes. Here’s how it will work. I will introduce myself and the Teaching and Learning Cinema. I will pass through some background information you need about Expanded Cinema and re-enactment. I will then talk you through some case studies from our work to set out for you one instance of an ‘archivist’s lab’. I will share with you some reflections on this process that is always linked to the “original” but reworking it in this ritualistic, caring way that we have come to think of as tending.

Archives that need to be experienced to be understood

The Teaching and Learning Cinema has spent lots of time re-enacting a little known corner of live art from the 1960s and ‘70s, Expanded Cinema. These are works that without the opportunity to experience them live, are lost to us – they become ill defined, vague and begin to disappear from view. To make them vital and alive, in short to comprehend them, they need to be experienced, and this draws on the mental map of the archivist. I have worked often with volunteers doing the basics of description on messy archives of artists’ organisations and as I explain the task to them, I find myself in such settings describing the situation something like this: “We want to try to paint a mental picture of what it was like to open the filing cabinet where the people who made these records sat – so we can get a feel that they put the ones they used a lot at the front and the ones they used little at the back, and that they kept these ones next to each other and they always used these two together.”

When we talk about experiencing an artwork, we are talking about something similar. In a sense we are using the filing cabinet but we need to do more than that. Like drawing water up from a well, we need to draw these archives up into a living space, literally into a living space. So this means we need to join the inert objects – the documents – together with the technology and insight from the people who constructed them. What this all amounts to is that this work generates something new. It gives a detailed kind of insight into an essence of this thing from the past. We got a sense of that from Julie Gough’s very rich talk on Tuesday, how her very detailed labour drawing across so many sources slowly built up a picture for her, and gave her a sense of reality about the past that seemed to come from her immersion in the material, her cross correlation between many forms – she mentioned paintings and drawings along with diaries, records and artefacts – and her thinking this material through in her own artwork. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that somehow this is a different kind of knowledge of the past from that we’re accustomed to from historians (on a limb because this is a hunch from a non-historian).

So what does each part of this combination (of inert objects; documents; technology: and insight from people who constructed the works) contribute?

TLC blog post showing artist Guy Sherwin and TLC’s Louise Curham working with the super 8 film projector required for Guy’s work Man With Mirror, 1976.

To activate the inert objects, the technology has to be renegotiated. It is not as simple as just pressing play. We have to grapple with all the issues of obsolete media from the past – finding the right kinds of machine, finding the right kinds of attachments and adaptors to them. We have to handle them carefully – they are often difficult to source and easily broken.
And then there is gaining insight from the original maker. Part of the pleasure of the archive is the silence. In the archive, the communication is one way, from the record to me and I can’t interrogate the record through dialogue. And yet of course this makes frustrations – the things one wants to clarify, to confirm, to understand better. In our kind of re-enactment work, there is usually no “score” that accompanies the work. The closest to a score is sometimes a documentation video posted to Vimeo or YouTube. It is even better if we can experience the performance of the work live by the original maker. From seeing this, we can understand the shape of the piece and deduce its basic facts. But we can’t know the detailed reality. To do that, we have taken the approach of engaging with the original maker, a luxury afforded us with the makers of Expanded Cinema works, because to date many of them are still alive.

Entry from TLC blog showing Guy demonstrating the mirror performance with his infant son’s high chair table.

Let’s look a bit more closely at this concept of the score. So exactly what is in the archives? There are some collections that deal specifically with artists’ film and video such as the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection and LUX, both in London.[1] These have the archives of artists and artists’ organisations that tell us the basics about who was where when, when the events were held, what if anything the arts press had to say about them and the like. In the main, it is public domain detritus: material that was issued in the public domain connected to these works. There are some personal papers, manuscripts of essays and the odd letter. None of these are really the result of natural accumulation in the orderly administrative sense – these are far more natural accumulation in the sense of what by chance remained and in that sense, what was important to those key players. But the archives give us little about how somebody else might put the work together for a future live performance. We have found some drawings and diagrams illustrating technical set-ups, but most of the material is more generally contextual.

Horror Film 1 projection requirements [copy of typescript by M Le Grice]
Documentation in the British Artists Film & Video Study Collection regarding Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1, 1971.

So this gives you taste of what our work on the edge of art and archiving is all about.

Here’s a quick explanation about the Teaching and Learning Cinema, about Expanded Cinema and about re-enactment, important to give you a sense of the context for our work. Think of this as a kind of live administrative history.

The Teaching and Learning Cinema is an artists group consisting of myself and Dr Lucas Ihlein. We evolved from a Sydney community of artists and enthusiasts working with film and video who held regular screenings in inner Sydney in the early 2000s. Part of our work involved educating ourselves and our peers about work from the past, important when “new media” was still newish and many people had lost sight of the links to that tradition from earlier, pre-digital practices.

We brought diverse interests to the TLC. As an art student, Lucas found his work constantly elicited the comment, “ah, that’s very ‘70s!” – not surprising since the 1970s was an era distinguished by its focus on process and how people connected with each other, his key interests as an artist. And as he looked deeper to understand why this constant reference to the ‘70s, he found that this kind of work often ends up being about work that ‘archives itself’ – the work consists of a set of instructions awaiting performance or where the traces of the work are tantalising inert, seemingly just waiting for someone to ‘add a slug of brandy’ and try it out for themselves as Malcolm alludes to.

For myself, my first training in film evolved through an awareness of the social process of experiencing films. I was hit over the head by the way in which the experience of recorded media was never the same twice, despite the very codified industrial delivery system for the movies. This is interesting for archivists as it goes to the question of authenticity and the notion of the original. I found that in fact the work was constructed between the content of the film, the technical equipment, the room in which the whole thing took place and the audience who was present. In short it was an event and every event was unique.

So armed with this experience that reproducibility is not a given for some artworks, Lucas and I became interested in Expanded Cinema. This is a little known corner of art practice from the 1960s and ‘70s which manifested in the US, the UK, Europe and in Australia. In short, it combined the film image with human bodies usually in performances. It literally expanded cinema out beyond the rectangle of the movie screen. In some forms it looked psychedelic and new age and was all about the participation of the audience, in others it borrowed more from conceptual art and took a more formal and structured approach to exploring the possibilities of film linked with performance. Here are some examples.

American techno-utopianist Stan Vanderbeek is best known for his Movie Drome (1963–66), a geodesic dome structure whose interior housed multiple simultaneous 16 mm film and slide projections, to be viewed by an audience lying flat on the floor. Vanderbeek hoped to make a new kind of visual media literacy. As he wrote, “each member of the audience will build his own references and realizations from the image-flow”, (Vanderbeek 1966).

Japanese composer and artist Takehisa Kosugi created Film & Film #4 in 1965. In this piece there is a paper screen and a film-less projector. A performing cuts around the screen until the sheet of paper falls away showing the rear wall behind. Film & Film #4 is typical of a range of Expanded Cinema pieces by different artists from the period that cut, penetrate, or otherwise violate the screen surface (Renan 1967, p. 247). [Here is an interesting post by Jonathan Walley on his re-enactment work with this piece]

Otherfilm - Cantrills 2006
Australian artists Corinne and Arthur Cantrill made Expanded Cinema works from 1968.

Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT’s Tapp und Tast-Kino ( 1968) was a miniature cinema consisting of a cardboard box strapped to the artist’s bare torso. Audience members were invited by her collaborator Peter Weibel, spruiking with a loud hailer, to “visit” the cinema one at a time, by reaching through the curtains. The work is often described as a critique of the fundamentally voyeuristic conditions of cinematic viewing (Mueller 1994, p. 15).

 Re-enactment

Re-enactment has cemented itself in recent contemporary art. You can get a taste of this at MONA here in Hobart in a current exhibition by performance artist Marina Abramovic. You can also see her film 7 Easy Pieces in the very glitzy MONA cinemateque. That film has probably done the most to make people aware of re-enactment – the film documents her re-enacting seven performance art pieces in an exhibition in New York in 2005. Just to labour the point that re-enactment is all around us, in 2013 Sydney was gripped with re-enactment fever in the big performance art project 13 Rooms.

So contemporary art engages with re-enactment and the public shows their enthusiasm by attending in droves – the MONA carpark was full yesterday, a midweek morning, and 13 Rooms was totally over subscribed.

So what about the ideas behind re-enactment? I don’t want to bog us down in this discourse but I will run you briefly through the arguments from the thinkers in this field who come mostly from performance studies. What is performance studies? Think bigger picture theatre studies, now evolved to a kind of anthropology of how humans perform themselves.

In the early 90s, the polemic was that it’s a defining feature of performance to exist only in the present, and that performance is characterised precisely by its own disappearance. It cannot be documented; or if it is, such mediation transforms it into something other than performance (Phelan, 1993).

Of course the internet impacted on that significantly and mediated performance has become a given (stemming from Jones, 1997). If you do make it to MONA you can see plenty of that as almost all the works in Marina Abramovic’s show are documentation of the past – some were made for video but many are documentation.

And then re-enactment casts the definition of performance as disappearance in a whole new light.

One thinker suggests the term “revival” (borrowed from the theatre) could be useful, implying as it does the continuation of a performative tradition. Revival suggests “the reawakening of an organic entity rather than the rebuilding of a lost object” (Auslander 2012, p.58). I quote this because this idea is important to our tending notion – let me reiterate ‘the continuation of a performance tradition – the reawakening of an organic entity rather than rebuilding a lost object.’

I’m about to turn to our case study re-enacting British artist Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1 (1971). I want to link to my previous comment about re-awakening an organic entity – by passing on non-exclusive custodianship of Horror Film 1, Malcolm Le Grice transforms his own artwork into a small cultural tradition, acknowledging that keeping it alive depends not only on conventional archival deposits (papers, diagrams, artist statements, video documents) but also on a regularly repeated ritual of live performance.

So now I will run you through our work on Horror Film 1.

[At this point in the talk, Louise stepped through Teaching and Learning Cinema’s work on Horror Film 1. She talked through the images that follow, outlining three phases in the process, a research phase, engagement with the original artist and ‘trying it out’ in the studio.]

Step 1 – research

The research stage involved looking again at Le Grice’s work that involved a screening of his short film works including loan of Castle 1 (1966), a very early Expanded Cinema work by Le Grice. This work had not previously been shown in Australia.

Castle 1 during projection image 1 Castle 1 during projection image 5
Left: Screening in April 2013 in Canberra of Malcolm Le Grice’s Castle 1, 1966, 22 mins, 16mm. Right: light bulb flashes on during Canberra screening.

In June 2013 Teaching and Learning Cinema travelled to the UK to meet up with Le Grice and visit the relevant archive, the British Artists Film & Video Study Collection.

Louise Curham with David Curtis in the Archives, May 2013 British Artists Film & Video Study Collection Le Grice archives

Left: visiting the British Artists Film & Video Study Collection (BAFVSC). Experimental film doyen and archivist David Curtis shows Louise the Le Grice holdings. Right: a sample of holdings at BAFVSC relevant to Le Grice and Horror Film 1.

Step 2 – visiting the artist who made the original work

With Malcolm Le Grice in his studio, Devon, UK, June 2013 Four days were spent with Malcolm Le Grice, the artist at his home and in his studio, exploring topics such as his recollections of the first performance, his thoughts about London in 1971, his continuous performance of this work since that time and the practical logistics of the work. Stills from Horror Film 1, 1971, documentation video stills (LUX 2014).

Step 3 trying it out for ourselves – the archivist in the laboratory

Teaching and Learning Cinema blog showing entries for Horror Film 1. We use the blog to make field notes about the progress of work on the piece in the studio.         Projectors - Teaching and Learning Cinema Horror Film 1 after Le Grice at CCAS 2014Image rehearsal - Teaching and Learning Cinema Horror Film 1 after Le Grice at CCAS 2014
Left: projector set up at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, June 2014, Teaching and Learning Cinema work on Horror Film 1. Paper supports for loops follows recommendations from Malcolm Le Grice. Right: at work in the studio trying out the image size.

Teaching and Learning Cinema Horror Film 1 after Le Grice at CCAS 2014Inaugural performance of Horror Film 1 by Teaching and Learning Cinema, Canberra June 2014

So now to conclude, I am going to expand on this idea about ways to appropriately add to the record of the past. I’ll expand on this because I think this idea is probably what’s most relevant to you as archivists. You could characterise this idea as extending provenance so that the life of the archival object into the future is captured. Depending on the scale of our organisations, we already do this for preservation and we do it by default through our collection management systems, tracking what we’ve issued to whom. In other heritage settings like museums and art collections, the object files usually faithfully capture what the objects do during their life in the collection. Of course, archival objects are complex beasts and the ‘have object, will record how people have used it’ is hard to scale and hard to know exactly what it is about use that’s worth capturing. But we can see from various talks over the last few days that this idea of something that learns pathways from previous users and leaves them accessible to those who come after seems important.

But the kind of addition to the record Lucas and I are concerned with is something more tacit, less explicit and that’s where tending comes in. It possibly points the way to a new headspace for the archivist – one that is the antithesis of the arm’s length keeper of the records and instead puts the archivist in the role of collaborator and active interventionist in the life of the record. This might be most helpful to us all as the far end of the continuum of participation. In preparation for today, I was struck by a comment in John Ridener’s book for non-archivists about appraisal (Ridener, 2009). He emphasises that the archivist’s work is eminently practical and this mindful intervention with the collaborator in the lab might form part of the work archivists do in the future.

I also want to add that what my work in an artist-archivist collaboration has really shown me is that the key tenets of archival practice hold – original order (how did the archival object come to accumulate and what can this accumulation tell me about it?), provenance (who made or devised the archival object and how did it come to be ‘archived’?), and the idea of keeping a line of sight on the archival record from the point of creation to a point far away that we can’t yet forsee (that could be characterised as the records continuum but I’m nervous to use that phrase without having my PhD already). In our era that sees potential re-use almost everywhere, potential ‘archiveness’ hovers around almost everything. How so? Because we do so much communicating that generates material traces, the life of all kinds of these material traces has an interesting and potentially important story to tell. So potential ‘archiveness’ hovers behind just about any kind of material entity that transacts in a communication between people. So this means my definitions are fairly extreme – the boundaries of what constitutes the archival object for me have become pretty broad. Our work in TLC has shown us that the most important kinds of information are tacit, eg the original artist’s sentiment about their work and their sentiment about someone re-enacting it. Our experience shows us that it’s not about turning that sentiment into something enduring (others have worked out ways to capture things like artist’s thoughts on how their media art should be presented in the future – Variable Media questionnaire[2] for example). But it is about tending those connections.

To conclude, I am now going to take you back to the beginning where I talked about the generative problem of video tape versus 16mm film in re-enacting William Raban’s 2’45”. The points at which we must depart from the original work to make it true to ourselves, are what I called generative problems. There’s a wonderful American performance studies scholar Rebecca Schneider and she describes how these cracks in the code, the errors ‘give us some access to sincerity, to fidelity’ (Schneider 2011, p. 112). These seem to be the keys that throw the original into stark relief as we see clearly how we must deviate from it. Schneider writes: “we feel a leak of affective engagement between the then and the now that brings time travel, as it were, into the fold of experience: shimmering on an edge, caught between the possible and the impossible, touching the interval itself” (Schneider 2011, p. 112).

 

References

Auslander, Phillip. 2012. “The Performativity of Performance Documentation.” In Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, edited by Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield, 47–58. Bristol: Intellect.

Ihlein, Lucas and Curham, Louise. 2015. ‘Reaching Through To the Object: Re-Enacting Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1’. Performance Matters 1 (1-2): 24–40.

Jones, Amelia. 1997. “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation.” Art Journal 56 (4): 11–18.

LUX, 2005. 2’45”, William Raban 1972. Accessed 18 July 2015. http://www.luxonline.org.uk/artists/william_raban/2_45.html

Mueller, Roswitha. 1994. VALIE EXPORT: Fragments of the Imagination. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press

Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge.

Renan, S. An Introduction to the American Underground Film. New York: E. P. Button.

Ridener, J. 2009. From Polders to Postmodernism : A Concise History of Archival Theory. Duluth, Minnesota: Litwin Books.

Schneider, Rebecca. 2011. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Teaching and Learning Cinema. 2013. “Interview with Malcolm Le Grice: Devon, UK, June 12, 2013.” Unpublished transcript of digital audio recording

Vanderbeek, Stan. 1966. “Culture: Intercom and Expanded Cinema—A Proposal and Manifesto.” Film Culture 40: 15–18.

Wyver, John. 2003. “Transcript of Video Interview with Malcolm Le Grice for The Frame.” London: BAFVSC Archives.

[1] British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection, Central St Martin’s, London and LUX, a London based arts organization and archives that supports and promotes artists’ moving image practice.

[2] The Variable Media Questionnaire was developed by North American art museums collecting artworks involving technology. It captures detail about artists’ intentions and how works should be seen ‘and (if at all) re-created in the future’, for more http://variablemediaquestionnaire.net/