Sequestered Collections: cultural value and access in moving image archives
by Angela English
My research looks at how archive film might play a role in public history practice. I am currently engaged in a systematic critique of current practices with moving image material and what role is played by film archivists. Public engagement with archive film has been ongoing for some years in various organisations, both nationally and locally particularly using film for memory work with older people. However a systematic critique of different models of use has not been undertaken to date particularly in terms of understanding of outcome.
Informing the critique were ideas of archive film as ‘incomplete object’ and ‘orphaned text’. Shand (2014) makes a distinction between amateur films and amateur footage which can be fragmentary and often without explanatory intertitles or soundtrack. He calls amateur archive footage, particularly non-fiction footage, ‘an incomplete object’ (p.199)
Czach (2014) says the ‘orphaned home movie’ can be a stubbornly resistant text (p. 35), as it may have no provenance, no genre and no narrative. For the practice critique, I interviewed former colleagues and experienced archivists and practitioners to get as wide an overview as possible as to current practice models, topics of concern and also to create a hierarchy of what seemed important to them in their work and in the sector.
Two areas of concern that arose during the interviews were cultural value and access. Archivists did not seem able to articulate exactly what form historical, social or cultural value takes, though all felt archive film material was valuable. Value seemed defined by an absence and a threat. Some perceptions of value suggested by participants in the practice critique were: marketability as value; KPIs and other instrumental ‘metrics’ (for example numbers of screenings or audience members) as a way of finding value in outreach projects; value through user interaction with archive material and individual enjoyment or pleasure.
Prelinger (2007) calls access to moving image archives ‘a sticky door’. (p.114) and also suggests that ‘many institutions sequester their holdings behind walls of copyright maximalism, policy or indifference, rendering them inaccessible to many’. (p.114) Access to collections may be seen expensive in terms of staffing, budgets or equipment. Interrogating the idea of the sequestered collection led to various suggestions of routes to access to moving image archives by participants. These included: the importance of the curator to contextualise orphaned texts; rights clearance is important as anxieties about IPR and copyright can restrict access; digitisation as a route to access.
The practice critique study will be ongoing until later in 2018 and more data will create a wider picture of current practices with moving image archives.
Czach, Liz. “Home Movies and Amateur Film as National Cinema.” Amateur Filmmaking: The Home Movie, the Archive, the Web (2014): 27-37.
Prelinger, Rick. “Archives and Access in the 21st Century.” Cinema Journal 46.3 (2007): 114-118.
Shand, Ryan. “Retracing the local: amateur cine culture and oral histories.” (2014): 197-220.
The Stockholm Roundtable
The change in the Syrian Archive’s focus due to a change in the environment/infrastructure which they had no control over prompted us to rethink our ‘Channelling image activism’ theme, from purely considering the political economy of the infrastructure that supports image-activism in the MENA region, to a new focus on the disappearing archives of the Syrian war.
So we decided to use the project’s resources to convene a roundtable in Stockholm in February to discuss the issue of take downs, mapping out the costs of the Syrian activists’ over-reliance on technological platforms they haven’t developed nor designed, and over which they have no control.
The aim of the closed meeting was also to think whether there is value in setting up an academic network of partners in the UK/and Europe to support the Syrian Archive in their discussions with YouTube > in that sense, it was a really good opportunity to discuss the potential contribution that academic research could make to ongoing discussions, within non-academic, activist and civil society circles, of the disappearing archives of the Syrian war.
Problems with the digital
Despite the promise of the digital – especially in post-2011 MENA region; there seems to be a consensus among scholars, that the digital is in fact an unstable source, constantly liable to decay and collapse. I’ve written about this in an article that Paul and I published last year in Archives and Records.
So despite the fact that the promise and persuasiveness of the digital has pushed the limits of memory, and has given remembering a whole new potential, it has also created new risks, ones Andrew Hoskins refers to as ‘the perpetual hauntings of the loss of control’ due to the unknowable workings and vulnerabilities of the network. He notes that ‘what was once an active memory, a human memory that had to work to sustain a continuity of past – of identity, of place, of relationships – is fundamentally weakened with the shift from reliance to dependency on the search devices of our machines.’
This dependency on algorithms and its costs for the constitution and preservation of a memory of the Syria war was in fact at the very heart of our Stockholm discussions.
Changes to YouTube
Overthe summer of 2017, YouTube introduced a machine-learning-based algorithm to flag videos for terms of service (ToS)-related violations. The algorithm’s purpose was to expedite the removal of propaganda videos that extremist groups like ISIS had posted—but it flagged a large volume of activist content for removal, too. Within a few days, some 900 Syria-related channels disappeared off the platform.
Between September and December, some 68 YouTube channels that the Syrian Archive had been tracking were taken offline, comprising over 400,000 videos.
Given the success of jihadist groups in the online environment, this impulse to ramp up online censorship by taking down social media accounts and content is understandable, according to a report recently published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism entitled ‘The travellers, American Jihadists in Syria and Iraq’,
The report in fact surveyed 64 American Jihadists who had travelled to Syrian and Iraq to fight alongside Islamic factions, which is the largest available sample to date. However, the report states that while there is no doubt that ease of access to jihadist propaganda online was a factor in many cases analyzed in the sample, there is little evidence to suggest that this was the primary motivation for their radicalisation or travel. Thus, while censorship efforts will continue, they should be done with an acknowledgement that the approach has several limitations.
Google and YouTube both know that their platforms host material of immense importance. Yet, it doesn’t seem like the companies have figured a way to balance the tension between automated enforcement and the preservation of human rights-related material and historical memory, something that might require more dramatic changes than just the restoration of a few deleted channels. This is where I think research could play a key role – at the Stockholm roundtable, we were able to identify the potential contribution academic empirical research could make in this context:
- Online/offline analogues: what happens between the time an individual is radicalised offline, and the creation of pro-Jihadist online content?
- Intra-cultural messaging: content analysis and/or surveying of the different available tech/social media platforms
- Applying social movement theory to get a better understanding of large group radicalisation
Here are some questions for the future:
- What do you do with 4 million videos documenting an ongoing conflict? Do you archive everything? If not, how do you choose what should stay and what could go?
- Questions of purpose & value of both citizen & institutional archiving practices in times of war
- Archiving as an academic pursuit; what implications for historical inquiry, for media scholars, for activists, archivists and historians?
Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research.
The Syrian Archive Case Study
There is something very intrusive about the first few hours of ethnographic research, especially when you’re being invited into someone’s office to observe their day-to-day practices. The Syrian Archive team were unbelievably welcoming and generous when we spent 4 days last November at their office space in Berlin. We spent two days on participant observation, and two days interviewing the team.
Our presence often involved us looking over their shoulders at their computer screens while they were doing their online verification work. If you’ve ever worked with Internet activists and online security geeks and techies before, you’d understand what it takes for them to tolerate your presence, by their computer screen for 7 hours each day, over 4 days. And for that, I and my research partner were extremely grateful.
It is worth mentioning in this context that the issue of trust is key, and the fact that I’ve known Hadi el Khatib, the Syrian Archive’s founder, for years – that we’ve already worked together on several projects in Beirut, has extremely helped during the research trip in Berlin.
In their own words:
‘The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.’
One of the key questions we explored while in Berlin is how the Syrian Archive team approached and defined key concepts such as ‘visual evidence’, ‘digital memory’, ‘graphic content’, ‘factual claims’, ‘propagandist imagery’ etc. So I sort of had a list of key concepts pertaining to academic research on archives in times of conflict which I used as the backbone for the interview questions and discussions we had with them.
We were also particularly interested in the ways in which they thought of the issue of ‘archival value’; why did they think it was important to build and sustain an open-access database of video footage documenting the Syrian conflict? Who is it important for? And has this changed since the beginning of the uprising in 2011 until today?
They aim to achieve three things through this work:
- to preserve data as a digital memory,
- to establish a verified database of human rights violations, and
- to act as an evidence tool for legally implementing justice and accountability as concept and practice in Syria.
So another key question we explored in our interviews is ‘Ethics’ > The Syrian Archive’s team are very articulate about a ‘Do not harm ethical framework’ which they say underlines their archival practices from the moment a video footage is identified, collected, processed and verified, until it is published as part of an online investigative report on human rights violations.
Taking into consideration my interest in an emerging ethical praxis of image activism in times of conflict I’m now exploring the ways in which my emerging understanding of the Syrian Archive’s internal processes could enable me to rethink my own research ethics agenda.
How can our understanding, as academics, of the Syrian Archive’s grass-root, self-defined, ‘Do Not Harm’ concept help us better design our own guidelines for issues of representation and narrativisation, ownership and consent, harm and vulnerability, subjectivity and objectification, agency and responsibility – especially when performed in the Western academy?
Then the issue of ‘Take downs’ came up.
- 2013-2014 | The scale of take downs intensified, mainly targeting media groups and citizen journalists’ channels on YouTube
So rather than spend their staff time on collecting evidence for and documenting abuses of human rights violations, the Syrian Archive had to shift focus from verification to archiving – on their own servers – of thousands and thousands of videos – a race against time.
Continue to part 3.
Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research.
Resistance-by-Recording: The disappearing archives of the Syrian war
by Dima Saber
The overall aim of this project is to explore the successes and potentialities as well as limitations and challenges that camera-related practices bring to the objectives of contemporary protest movements across the Arab world. We’re looking at 4 main countries of focus Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Yemen.
The project advances a media-practice based approach – with ethnographic field studies – in order to explore and theorize how variously situated activists creatively and strategically use digitally networked cameras and images to address local concerns – within the boundaries of existing media ecologies that offer different opportunities and constraints in each particular setting. Each context generates specific needs, and local actors will modify and renew their image-making strategies to address these shifting needs.
Activists not only use cameras to speak truth to power, but to realize or produce themselves as political subjects and negotiate exactly what such a subjectivity may be and can do. In thus re-centring the agency of human beings over technologies, a critical purpose of the project is also to explore the meanings that practices of creating, distributing, editing, sharing, viewing and archiving images acquire for differently located participants. This is to say that the project attends to political image production also as subjective, embodied and performative practice.
How do you create an image that is not pre-defined by official imagery? I want to explore Arab-image activism as counter-images – as a response to the complete suffocating and constraining aspect of existing images as depicted through the Western neo-colonial stereotyping gaze, and/or through regime-controlled imagery. At the same time I want to question the assumption that grassroots practices would produce a different, new, original, more authentic images of Arab revolt, war, conflict, etc.
I want to ask:
- What drives people to risk everything to create and mobilize rebellious images? What are their motivations, hopes, desires, lived experiences, affects, then and now?
- To what extent, and in what particular ways, are the planning, publicizing and performance of political actions dependent on – both shaped by, and shaping – practices of image making? (How camera-based strategies and tactics are mutually shaping of activists’ larger routines and repertoires of defiance)
- What are the various considerations do activists/archivists articulate about how images are made, and why; about how they are delivered, displayed and re-purposed? About their intended audience(s)? What kinds of political outcome do they hope for vs. what they hoped to achieve back then when they were documenting the uprisings as they were happening, and how do they see the value of their archives and images today, seven years into the uprising.
- What are the main obstacles and limitations they are facing, such as lack of cultural translation and resonance, over-reliance on corporate platforms, the precariousness of the digital
- How do activist camera-mediated practices in the Arab world help organize new formations of political connectivity within, across and beyond the region? How are people connected – or not? How do they work together – or not? I’m interested here in exploring the economy and politics of collaboration.
- What are the ethical aspects of creating distributing, displaying and archiving this imagery? Looking for example at Western institutions’ codified ethical guidelines (news industry! BBC, Al Jazeera etc.) vs. how the activists organise themselves: their own sense of ethics?
- What are the various forms of connections and circulation between specific geographical places and online spaces? How, precisely, are online and offline activities important to each other?
Continue to part 2 here.
Dima is Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research.
1600-1730 Wednesday 28 March
P424, Parkside, Birmingham City University
Free registration at this link
Angela English (BCU) – Sequestered Collections: Access and Cultural Value in Moving Image Archives.
This presentation will focus on the early findings of Angela’s recent pilot study into practices around archive film involving interviews with archivists and practitioners. Angela will explore access and cultural value, two areas of concern for participants in the study. The aim of the pilot study and her continuing research is to provide a systematic critique of current use of archive film for public history engagement, what models are being employed and what role is played by film archivists and to relate these insights to the wider context of use of archive film.
Vanessa Jackson (BCU) – The Benefits and Challenges of Video as an Oral History Method
Traditional oral historians, such as Thompson (1978) and Portelli (1979), have favoured audio life history interviews, over video, but video has tremendous potential benefits, as well as challenges. Video provides richer and more complex data for researchers, for instance, the ability to read the mise-en-scene, body language, and facial expressions, but also to take oral history beyond the static long-form interview into the realm of location recording, with the use of visual props such as photographs, and even reconstructions. Video may also result in more engaging materials for a wider audience, which can increase the impact of projects. Additionally there are considerations over aspects such as interviewee performance, which are heightened with video, as well as challenges over participant anxiety, technical proficiency, logistics and editing.
Vanessa has recorded a number of video oral histories with former BBC production staff as part of a community online history project she established: http://pebblemill.org. The aim of the project is to document and celebrate the programme making which went on at BBC Pebble Mill in the last quarter of the 20th Century. The illustrative videos in the presentation will be drawn from this project.
Paul Long (BCU) – The Political Economy of The Archive
Questions under this theme emerge from my work as a board member with Media Archive Central England and Vivid Projects. These cultural organisations are faced with a perennial issue regarding funding and sustainability which raise questions for me about value and our contemporary culture of commemoration. To shift the focus to the materiality of archives also involves some appreciation of the labour of the archivist, their motivations and orientation to their work and its purpose. While The Archivist, like The Archive, is often posed in terms of representative enlightenment ideas, of objective professionalism, archival practice is inflected by personal commitments and affective dispositions that bear some scrutiny in relation to the overall sustenance of their endeavour and those institutions devoted to preserving evidence of the past. In exploring the political economy of the archive, and the labour of the archivist, how might these perspectives add to our understanding of the business history, heritage and contemporary memory?
Chris Hill (BCU) – Policing and Protest as Colonial and Anti-Colonial Practice in Post-War Britain: Re-Framing Law and Order at the End of Empire
Policing and protest in post-war Britain were defined by experiences, solidarities and tactics that extended beyond the local and national settings in which engagements between them took place. Just as policing in this period was shaped by the role of officers in the Second World War and colonial counter-insurgencies, protest was shaped by the role of activists in anti-colonial politics and struggles for liberation. Through post-war immigration into Britain, these global dimensions to policing and protest became even more pronounced, with ‘race’ in particular emerging as a key construct in popular engagements over law and order.
This paper focuses on relations between the Committee of 100, an anti-nuclear organisation inspired by Gandhian methods of protest, and West End Police Station in London, where Harold Challenor, a decorated war hero, served as detective-sergeant. In this case, it argues that protestors and police invoked rival versions of the global in order to contest the law as an instrument of identity and values in post-war Britain. In doing so, it demonstrates how engagements between them reflected a crisis of ‘Britishness’, culminating not only in members of C100 breaking the law, but also Challenor and his constables. All of this unfolded at a pivotal time for policing in Britain and the British world, between the Devlin Report on colonial policing in Nyasaland in 1959 and the Royal Commission on Police in 1962.
About the speakers:
Angela English is a 2nd year M3C/AHRC funded PhD candidate at BCU. Her research focuses on how archive film might play a role in public history practice and audience engagement. She has previously worked in film education at the British Film Institute and from 2006-2015, was Research and Development Officer for the London Screen Study Collection at Birkbeck College, University of London and this archive film collection forms a core resource for her research.
Vanessa Jackson is Programme Leader of the BA (Hons) Media and Communication at Birmingham City University, and teaches practical television modules to undergraduates. She has recently successfully defended her PhD, which was supervised by Professor John Ellis, at Royal Holloway, University of London. Before joining BCU in 2008 Vanessa was a series producer at BBC Birmingham, making factual and documentary programmes.
Paul Long is Professor of Media and Cultural History at Birmingham City University. His research encompasses issues of cultural justice and informs his published work on the politics of representation and the past as they pertain to public history, popular music and the archive. He recently co-curated a major exhibition on Birmingham’s music history. His current research builds on these themes in two areas: (i) the political economy and affect of contemporary archival cultures; (ii) the history of student unions and their role in British popular music cultures.
Chris Hill is a research fellow in history, heritage and archives. He has research interests in modern British and late imperial history, with a focus on the history of broadcasting and the press, decolonisation, nuclear weapons and social movements. His first book, Peace and Power in Cold War Britain, explores the relationship between radical traditions of liberty and media technologies, particularly as it emerged through post-war peace movements and the rise of television.
Crossing Lines and Sharing Spaces
The lines to cross and the spaces to share are affiliated to music that lives in the moment, exists in the spaces between the notes, and is driven by instinct. As a classically trained musician my in-roads into jazz improvisation have re-awakened this inner space. I have always enjoyed improvising but now I am thinking about melodic and harmonic structures that can enrich my improvising activity as a composer and player. The inner space led by the ear has become embedded in my performing, teaching and practicing.
Today in the classical world there is a bridge over this inner space that connects composers and players. That bridge is notation. It was exceedingly common until about the early 19th century for composers to play and vice versa. A cultural change began when composers wanted their own specific notes to be played and not those of an improviser. The notation of musical language became more complex in its instructions, so much so that in the 20th and 21st centuries the sheer look of a score could resemble a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting with its complex layers of texture. The style in music that has similarities to this expression has been labeled New Complexity. Composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon and Richard Barrett compose music whose notation is on information overload.
There is a wealth of instructions to distil and internalize before a note is sounded. Sometimes there is not enough time to garner all that is needed for performance and the eye is forced to wing what it sees and choose the right path in which to steer the music. This has its own energy and drive but it puts the player in a curiously restricted space. The instinct is more aligned to the eye than the ear. If one were to transcribe a free improvisation by Evan Parker the notation would most probably look identical, but the two methods of music making are worlds apart, and even if you were to learn and play the Evan Parker transcription it wouldn’t quite live up to the energy of the original because the notation “bridge” restricts and adversely changes the immediacy in communication of an improvisation.
My improvisation on the opening oboe solo of Octandre (1923) by Edgar Varèse is an attempt to link these two worlds of composer and player. It is a gesture of reverence for the music, a way of getting under its skin. Making sister versions by ear deepens the understanding of the original. I have performed it many times and often felt the tempo marking too fast. But, classical musicians are trained to stick to what the notation dictates. Tempo is an elusive thing and trying to fix it can cause problems for the music’s character. I know from my own work with living composers that they are aware tempi can be affected by many things, not least different acoustics, but there is a need to be as precise as possible, because once it’s written down, it’s “fixed”.
For me the opening solo of Octandre feels like a blues with its soulful falling minor ninths, minor sevenths and whole-tones. My instinct says it needs space to breathe and express itself and this seems to open up the inner space and crosses the line into where the music begins to live of its own accord and carry its own momentum. Certainly, I would like to think that Varèse (who attended jazz concerts in New York in the late 1950s and invited jazz musicians to his home to improvise using his graphic notation) would grant my wish to explore the instinctual aural space between his notes.
continued from part 1
Things began to change in the 1970s with the emergence of players such as John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, who is Canadian, but based in London for most of his career, Norma Winstone and John Taylor. These players began to look towards other parts of Europe for inspiration and to work regularly in continental Europe and in European bands; John Taylor taught in Germany and John Surman eventually settled in Norway. Similarly, the British free improvisers, such as Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Derek Bailey developed an approach to improvisation that became influential in other European scenes.
This coincided with the development of the ECM label in Germany run by Manfred Eicher.
In a recent interview in London Eicher talked of his admiration for this group of British players (see here) who he felt were developing a distinctive style. The first British recording on ECM was in 1970 by The Improvisation Company with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Christine Jeffrey, Jamie Muir and Hugh Davies (Brian Morton, Jazz Journal, February 2018), and, also from the 1970s Surman initially and then Wheeler, Winstone and Taylor recorded on the ECM label. John Surman was described by the renowned British jazz critic Charles Fox as the ‘first Common Market jazzman’ (Brian Morton, 2018). Although I would suggest that there is something characteristically British about the playing of these musicians, they developed strong relationships with other European players and I would argue that it is misleading to claim that they developed a ‘British’ style. They are part of the European scene.
In this regard it is interesting to note that in the current ECM schedule of January and February five British artists are featured. Two of these, John Surman and Norma Winstone go back to the 1970s generation; two, Andy Sheppard and Tommy Smith (who appears in a group led by the Norwegian bass payer Arild Andersen) are from the later 1980s onwards, and one, Kit Downes, is from the generation of players who came to prominence in the 2000s.
There is, however, another interesting trend in jazz in Britain today: the group of players associated with the Jazz Re-Freshed promotions in west London, players and bands such as Binker and Moses, Moses Boyd’s Exodus, Ezra Collective and Shabaka Hutchings (who is actually part of a broader scene and plays regularly in different European festivals)). Jazz Re-Freshed has developed more links with the USA than with Europe, especially with the Afropunk Fest in New York, and the South by South West Showcase event in Texas and probably sees itself as part of the Black Atlantic collaboration.
British Jazz: Cross Atlantic Partnership or European Integration?
I begin with the assumption that it is legitimate to talk of European Jazz as being stylistically different from American jazz and that it is more relevant now to talk of European Jazz rather than jazz of particular countries, e.g. Norwegian jazz, Swiss jazz etc. This is not to suggest that there are not specific characteristics of jazz in certain countries, but rather that there are so many bands based in Europe with members from different countries and also, that since many musicians have moved to centres such as Berlin or Amsterdam, it is relevant to talk of European jazz and of European bands.
My argument is that British jazz players have tended to draw their influences from the USA and for various historical, linguistic and political reasons still lean towards the US model. It is only since the 1970s that certain British players have begun to take on influences from other European bands and players and see themselves as part of the European scene.
There are clear echoes in all this in the division in British society about the European Union.
In the late 1940s and 1950s British modern jazz players took their inspiration from the bop scene in New York, and many players played on the cross-Atlantic liners in order to have a day in New York listening to the pioneers of modern jazz, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk et al. The growth of modern jazz in Britain developed from these visits and its players were invariably judged by how close they came to matching the American stars of the day. Saxophonist Tubby Hayes was probably the finest British exponent of the bop/hard bop style and he was always acclaimed as being ‘as good as the Americans’. Fans of Hayes were delighted when he eventually went to play in New York for a series of dates and received excellent reviews and the acceptance of the jazz community in the city. Similarly, alto saxophonist Peter King is regarded as a player who would be considered a leading figure in the bop style had he been based in New York.
It is sometimes argued that a distinctively British style emerged with Stan Tracey’s Under Milk Wood suite that featured saxophonist Bobby Wellins. While the compositions do have a distinctive voice different from the American style, I would argue the solos from Tracey and Wellins do still follow an American model and the overall impression is that the album is highly original but still essentially following an American model.
Saxophonist Andy Hamilton was a key member of the Birmingham and latterly the British scene, but his playing was in the tradition of the saxophone tradition of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. In his later years he developed a strong musical and personal relationship with American saxophonist David Murray. I have suggested this was partly due to a mutual feeling of a cross-Atlantic culture taking in Britain, USA and the Caribbean (Dudley-Evans, 2017).