The Extended City Symphony

Still from Diepte (1933) with EYE logo
Welcome to the first installment of “From the Archive,” a new recurring section highlighting archival-based scholarship and practice in urban media studies. To start things off, Floris Paalman discusses how the ideas of “database cinema”  informed the curation of the Extended City Symphony Program at EYE Filmmuseum’s ResarchLab. 

Welcome to the first installment of “From the Archive,” a new recurring section highlighting archival-based scholarship and practice in urban media studies. Each post in this section invites researchers, archivists, programmers, and artists to reflect on their work within the archives, as well as on larger questions regarding institutionality, preservation, curation, and the types of historical materials that comprise the field of urban media studies. To start things off, Floris Paalman discusses how the ideas of “database cinema”  informed the curation of the Extended City Symphony Program at EYE Filmmuseum’s ResarchLab. This article is part one of two.

Expressing the experience of urban life, the city symphonies of the 1920s have become emblematic of modernity. Influenced by Vertov’s montage in Man with a Movie Camera, whose multitude of images are highly self-reflexive, Lev Manovich has coined the term “database cinema.” Could this concept be amplified by applying it to an actual film archive? This idea is put to the test at the ResearchLab of EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam, by a curatorial team of fourteen graduate students. They searched the archive for shorts dealing with the city, across genres, times and places, and the result of their work is a day in the life of an imaginary archival city.

In his 1998 article “Database as a Symbolic Form,” Lev Manovich argues that the database is the symbolic form of the computer age, replacing narrative as the privileged form of cultural expression. Wolfgang Ernst even argues that in computational processing narrating literally becomes counting.1See Jussi Parikka’s introduction (especially pp4 and 17) to Ernst’s book, “Archival Media Theory: An Introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology,” in: Wolfgang Ernst. Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 1-22. Narrative has become only one possible interface to present data. Computational processing causes a micro-temporality, in which memory is continuously refreshed, and sets “archives in motion.”2Ernst, Digital Memory, 82. By consequence, Ernst contends that a spatial model of archival storage is replaced by a temporal model of processing data.3Wolfgang Ernst. “Het archief als metafoor: Van archiefruimte naar archieftijd.” Open 7: Geheugen(loos) (2004): 46-53. In this view, the operationality of data – the processing and preparation of data to perform certain functions – takes precedence over representation, interpretation or semantics.4Parikka, pp 9 and 17. However, Ernst admits that even while he develops such claims: “I sometimes slip back into telling media stories. The cultural burden of giving sense to data through narrative structures is not easy to overcome.”5Ernst, Digital Memory, 196. Whilst rejecting the primacy of words, moreover, his own writing exemplifies a duality. And in the end, isn’t counting a symbolic form too?

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

To fathom the database as a symbolic form, Manovich finds a prototype in Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which he calls “database cinema.” The film shows a “mechanical catalog of subjects which one can expect to find in the city of the 1920s: running trams, city beach, movie theaters, factories…,” which “is arranged according to a progression of one day: waking up – work – leisure activities.”6For the purpose of citation, I will refer to Manovich’ publication of “Database as a Symbolic Form” in Convergence 5.2. (1999): 80-99. [97] But Manovich is not interested in the appearance of the city. He calls it the “third level” of the film, and recognizes two others, which are metatexts showing the film’s own production and reception. Within and between these levels, Vertov draws associations to reveal patterns and social structure. However, what Manovich finds most striking about the film “is not its subjects and the associations Vertov tries to establish between them to impose ’the communist decoding of the world’ but the most amazing catalogue of film techniques contained within it.”7ibid. Virtually every shot articulates its own operations and effects; each is an epistemological reflection upon the “kino-eye.”

I would argue that this visual epistemology cannot be disconnected from its political purpose of decoding – and recoding – the world. Associations drawn are not epiphenomenal, but inseparable from the kino-eye. Whilst communist, Vertov’s project was an attempt, both analytical and imaginative, to come to terms with the modern, urban world, not one city, but a metropolitan condition (the film being shot in different cities). This urban world gave form to Vertov’s film, as well as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Die Sinfonie der Groβstad (1927) and other major and minor city symphonies. The current challenge is to recognize this urban condition today as well.

Now that databases have become ubiquitous, could we think of a whole film archive as an amplification of the prototype, as an extended city symphony? Could that amplified model be seen as an incubator of today’s global urban culture? Manovich recognizes three layers in Vertov’s film. Additionally one can distinguish sequences (e.g. the unfolding day), parts (clusters of related subjects), and constituents (shots). An archive is similarly organized through syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations. It also encompasses different layers (acquisition, preservation, presentation), sequences (workflow, protocols), parts (sub-collections), and constituents (individual objects and corresponding tags). Similar to the shots that compose Man with a Movie Camera, films in the archive can be seen as the archive’s constituents that simultaneously provide visions upon the (mediated) world. Exploring this interlinking curatorial dimension, one can discover how an amplified database cinema could symbolize the values and principles of today’s world.8Cf. Thomas Elsaesser. Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema. Amsterdam, Amsterdam university Press, 2016. 66-67. “In the digital media landscape of today, so apparently forgetful of cinema, cinema may itself be ‘the dog that doesn’t bark’ but whose presence at the scene provides a clue to the identity of the ‘villain’, in this case the source and the agency behind the momentous changes we have been witnessing.”

The idea of the amplified database is substantiated through the work of the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam. Rather than narrating film history through masterpieces, EYE continuously rethinks it. The museum displays itself as a heterogeneous collection; here one may encounter, for example, Leone’s restored spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (Leone, 1964), next to the reconstruction of Xenakis and Le Corbusier’s multimedia installation Le Poème Électronique, made for the 1958 world exhibition in Brussels. Similarly, amateur films appear next to avant-garde films, and international classics next to local productions. This diversity is evident when searching its database, and enables new relations to be drawn and interpretations to be made, which is a curatorial act of simultaneously discovering and creating meaning.

Every year, the EYE on Art program – a weekly program “where film meets the visual arts,” directed by Anna Abrahams, also invites students to its ResearchLab, where they can use the archive to create and show found footage films or entirely new work, exhibit installations, or curate archival films. Within this context, “The Extended City Symphony” became a project carried out by an international group of fourteen participants of the “Curating the Moving Image” course at the University of Amsterdam (which developed out of the master program Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image). Working towards a feature length theatrical program, I asked these students to present a day in the life of an imaginary cinematic city by curating a selection of films existing in the archive. I also asked them how the selected films could be metatexts to reflect upon cinema. For four months, the group researched the collections for city films, from different countries and times, and acted as a curatorial team, assisted by EYE’s staff.9Participating students (in order of their slots, see next paragraph): Zsombor Bobák, Rick Vrouwenvelder, Leonie Woodfin (‘morning’); Nicholas Avedisian-Cohen, Susan Warmenhoven (‘noon’); Lisa Rückwardt, Julia Witcher (‘afternoon’), Vincent Baptist, Matthias Nothnagel, Niamh O’Donnell (‘evening’); Mia Pepler, Alexandra Beddall, Nele Koos, Merlin van Schaik (‘night’). Instructor: Floris Paalman (lecturer at UvA). Institutional assistance: Simona Monizza (curator at EYE), Anna Dabrowska (producer at EYE), Anna Abrahams (programmer at EYE) et al. Our final program, with films and performances, can be found here. What follows below are reflections upon the finds and results.

Following the common structure of city symphonies, our program consists of five slots of about 15 minutes each: morning, noon, afternoon, evening and night. Rather than a linear structure, students thought of it as cyclical (or even point-symmetrical), leading to selections of films from different years, irrespective of chronological order. Bypassing periodization and a historical narrative, this relates to the logic of the database, in which chronology is not a structuring principle (in most databases chronology is merely one option to present results). But instead of eliminating temporal differences, the program actually acknowledges historical features, by drawing connections between films across time, while offering new views upon the relation between heritage and memory. While some old films were rediscovered because they now exist in digital form, some recent films appeared to be the least documented, their original digital formats already obsolete, and therefore subject to oblivion. Their existence in a database had been no guarantee for visibility.

Remarkably, the program lacks real city symphonies (although Diepte [1933] is related). In fact, such a classification, common in the literature, turns out not to be an archival label. Entering the search key “city symphony” in EYE’s database generates just one hit: the short Paris a l’aube (Van der Keuken, 1959), which was not part of the program, although it could have been selected indeed. Alternatively, the Dutch equivalent “stadssymfonie” gives five hits, three of which refer to Andor von Barsy, whose short Hoogstraat (1929) could have been chosen too. Whom to blame for such omissions? Does it point to the urgency of Ernst’s plea for audiovisual pattern recognition, rather than the reliance on linguistic filters?10Ernst, 2013, 29. “The audiovisual archive can, for the first time, be organized not just by metadata but according to proper media-inherent criteria— a sonic and visual memory in its own medium.” But the question is then: what pattern? Moreover, should the concept of the extended city symphony necessarily encompass city symphonies? When looking for the archival city, another image might appear, one more representative for the archival holdings, but less familiar to the researcher.

Ahrend commercial (1962)

Many films in the archive are “urban,” but not marked as such. Although searching for “city” results in about 28,000 hits (including documentation), this is only a fraction of the 750,000 possible hits. City is simply no criterion; it is all around us, yet invisible like the air we breathe. A striking example is the expressive commercial for Ahrend (office supplies) that is part of the “morning” program. Its file doesn’t mention “city;” students found it by looking for “office,” which they associated with morning (“going to work”).

Productive indeed were temporal keys (morning, noon etc.). Although they also resulted in hits without typically urban imagery, one could still draw links. In De dag die droomt, for example, the protagonists are clearly city people “out in the field” (not unlike people in Menschen am Sonntag [Siodmak, Ulmer et al., 1930]).11Peter Bosma. Film Programming: Curating for Cinemas, Festivals, Archives. London/New York: Wallflower Press, 2015. 94-105. However, presented as a separate short, rather than a scene of a film, viewers may miss the link. Even the suburban West Hollywood setting of Meshes of the Afternoon is still remote from our ideas of the cinematic city, notwithstanding suburbia’s prominent role in urban history. Similarly, established conventions prevent experimental films to be seen in dialogue with commercials or fiction. Following Ernst, however, there is no difference in their “processing” (in this case how the films are retrieved, presented, and seen by the viewers): only external values are projected onto the films. Alternatively, one may argue, such conventions are inherent to the system, with structural similarities to codes used in databases. Yet, a different way of looking requires additional instructions, in order to observe the patterns, links, and meaningful details. The latter is especially important for sophisticated “micro-programming” (for 10-15 minutes), which could be as dense as a feature program.

De dag die droomt (2007)

The final observation concerns the program’s clearly Dutch character, Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon being the contrapuntal exception. No instruction to include Dutch material was given to the participants (only three of which were Dutch), and EYE itself has an international collection. Still, the Dutch films may have surfaced more quickly due to more extensive descriptions. This seems to confirm Ernst’s criticism of linguistic structures when searching for images. At the same time, this could have been affected by recent preservation and presentation projects, for their discursive topicality. In either case there seems to be a bias, which may support Ernst’s argument to overcome human agency. But what for? Still an international program in many ways, this program, and the archive it shows, might exactly appeal to the claim of specificity, expertise, and engagement with actual conditions, made by Charlotte Brunsdon when criticizing the generic cinematic city.12Charlotte Brunsdon. “The Attractions of the Cinematic City.” Screen 53.3 (2012): 209-227.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

Closing Remarks

The Extended City Symphony has been an experiment in extrapolating Manovich’ ‘database cinema.’ By locating the properties of the city symphony in the film archive we sought to deepen our understanding of the database as a symbolic form. The films in the program discussed are the result of a complex search operation by students interacting with computers and the tangible archive. While Ernst makes an argument for the “endogenic audiovisual archive,”13Ernst,  Digital Memory, 29. i.e. a reified, non-discursive entity with audiovisual material surfacing without the use of narrative metadata, one may wonder why people should be left out of the system altogether.14Cf. Ernst, Digital Memory, 82. Ernst writes that “Source-oriented stock and classical file-oriented archive practices yield to the use-oriented (‘to be completed’) ‘dynarchive.'” Yet, he fails to identify a user, or what position the user has in the larger system. Moreover, when Ernst speaks about a “radical metamorphosis of the aesthetics of storage,” how could this entity exist outside of human cognition?15Eg. Ernst, Digital Memory, 95. Thinking along with Ernst, there is an apparatus, but rather than being immaterial, it physically exists in space. In 2004, Ernst still anticipated two kinds of memories existing in the future, through the coexistence of analogue and digital media.16Ernst, “Het archief als metafoor,” 52. Acknowledging that as today’s reality, we should also recognize that both modes consist of information and physical features.

The concept of amplified database cinema subsumes the conventional cinematic dispositif, to become an interface visualizing re-search results; the films – with their respective formats, the screening event – with performances providing context, and visitors present in space, together contribute to the archive’s symbolic form. The archive has not just changed from spatial to temporal storage; as a technological-discursive and material-data dispositif, it is actually more complicated.17Cf. Sonja de Leeuw. “European Television History Online: History and Challenges.” EUscreen [VIEW], Journal of European History and Culture 1.1 (2012): 3-11. See p10. Images are shown in real spaces (EYE in Amsterdam), of cinematic spaces, referring to spaces in cities (or studios), all of which affect each other, transforming their apparent meanings in the process. The archive-database dispostif is a large-scale, long-term dynamic system, different from Ernst’s micro-temporality, but with structural similarities, which acknowledges the presence of people who actually make it dynamic. In Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov, Kaufman, and Svilova mold the images. They perform an act of navigation, with myriad discoveries, which make up their “dynamic and subjective” database.18Manovich, 98. Searching for the extended city symphony in the archive is similarly an act of navigation. It is less a question of memory – Ernst’s main struggle, but more a matter of showing links across times and places, as part of today’s dynamics, concerns and codes. How they can be revealed is exemplified in an upcoming post – part two of this edition of “From the Archive – which analyzes a portion of the Extended City Symphony program in greater detail. To read the program for yourself, and watch some of the films screened in it, go here.



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