Moving Image Archives as Urban Palimpsest

Echo Park Film Center, Los Angeles, 2017.
In this installment of our From the Archives section, Nicholas Avedisian-Cohen explores the history of the Echo Park Film Center and its relationship to the city of Los Angeles, suggesting that we can observe the process of urban change at work through the holdings of film archives.

How is it that moving images convey a sense of a city? This is an appropriate question for film studies at a time when cinema as a mode of viewership seems a vestigial part of twentieth century urban life. For moving image archivists, a corollary question could be: how do moving image archives document changing cities? In what follows, I introduce a new archival initiative particularly pertinent to these questions. In so doing I transpose the idea of archives as palimpsest to describe how evidence of urban change may bleed through filmic documents.1I adopt this idea primarily from recent work by Tina Bastajian and her account of a documentary project that unearthed patterns of urban life in Istanbul in the wake of popular social upheaval. She has explained how extraneous material such as outtakes and fragments form “deposits” that offer an emancipated archival viewership. See: Tina Bastajian, “An Invitation: Speculations on Appraisal and a Meandering Cache,” in Lost and Living (in) Archives: Collectively Shaping New Memories, ed. Annet Dekker (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017), n.p. Reading audiovisual archives as palimpsests suggests that there is obscured meaning or hidden evidence that can be teased out from layered filmic documents, which I propose may relate to urban change over time. The collection I consider comes from the Echo Park Film Center, located in Los Angeles, California. Although still in the process of being described and arranged, it already suggests a number of issues for archival theorists interested in the intersection between film and urban culture.

Still from LA Karma, by Natanjah Driscoll, City of Angels youth class, 2006.

Echo Park Film Center, now in its sixteenth year of operation, is a co-operatively run community film space. Although it has never been formally characterized as an archive, it has played an important role in preserving and promoting film culture in Los Angeles. Co-founder Paolo Davanzo has pitched its basic model to anyone wishing to emulate it, “We basically do five things: screen experimental and documentary films and videos in our 60-seat micro-cinema; teach free and low-cost film and video classes; run an equipment rental co-op and retail store; operate a traveling film school and cinema known as the EPFC filmmobile; host local and international artist residency programs.”2Paolo Davanzo, “Sell Your TV and Come to the Cinema: How to Start a Film Center,” OtherZine no. 25, Fall 2013, n.p. As Davanzo explains, the center started small (mainly as a cinematheque and a school) and has steadily expanded.3ibid. While the film center only recently began to concertedly archive its work, many of its core activities entail a type of preservation by praxis – an attempt to sustain the experience of cinema for future generations.

Thinking in a context much larger than the neighborhood film center, Mark-Paul Meyer has urged film archives to prioritize preserving and purveying the original collective experiences of watching films.4Mark-Paul Meyer, “Traditional Film Projection in a Digital Age,” Journal of Film Preservation, no. 70 (2005): 18. So simply by maintaining analog film projection equipment and regularly projecting film for paying audiences in a darkened room, the film center has already taken up vital archival work in the future subjunctive case that Meyer invokes. Beyond this, Echo Park Film Center attempts to keep analog filmmaking techniques from atrophying. By offering low-cost small-gauge camera and projection equipment and running free film courses for neighborhood youth and senior citizens, it circulates analog filmmaking knowledge as broadly as possible. Low-cost introductory courses open to the public in Super 8 and 16mm filmmaking as well as eco-processing, hand-drawn animation and in-camera experimentation are offered throughout the year as well, which help to preserve practices often associated with amateur and experimental cinema. The archive has emerged from these core practices.

Still from an intro to 16mm workshop, 2017.

Establishing the Archive

As with any organization not founded solely as a repository, Echo Park Film Center had to determine which materials accrued over the years to keep. Dino Everett, the head archivist at the University of Southern California’s Moving Image Archive, agreed to take in a portion of its films – providing long-term storage in a climate-controlled facility and ingest into an existing catalog available to academic researchers. This collaboration emerged from an ongoing relationship between the archive and the film center – which serves as a venue for monthly screenings thematically titled Race in Space in which Everett shows archival films to promote discussion amongst racialized communities in Los Angeles.5A co-edited book on the Race in Space screening series is currently in publication. The archiving of these films, therefore, was facilitated by cultivating a local film community.

The decision to archive films off-site merits reflection. Observing the accelerating gentrification of the neighborhood impelled Davanzo and partner Lisa Marr to contemplate the physical impermanence of the film center. Within a rentier capitalist economy, vulnerability to spiraling rents prompts periodic appraisal of holdings for non-profits, forcing a reckoning with posterity. This made transfer of the archive to USC appealing. Preservation in this context was therefore tangibly rooted in the precariousness of contemporary urban life. As will be discussed, the audiovisual documents that form this emerging archive offer insight into the socioeconomic circumstances that partially provoked its establishment.

Still from 13Micah, 2017.

Records of Urban Flux

Given top-priority for preservation were films and production-related materials from the center’s youth classes. As Davanzo stresses, the film center was established after rigorous deliberation and consultation with the local community of pre-gentrification Echo Park. The idea at the time was to gauge community desire for a film space that could offer youth a social outlet in an area that had witnessed routine gang skirmishes.6Davanzo, “Sell Your TV and Come to the Cinema,” n.p. This strategic enmeshing with the local social fabric characterizes the youth classes offered at the center since it opened in 2001. Some of the episodic classes are especially emblematic of this: the Persistence of Vision youth class documents Los Angeles street art, murals and graffiti; Tell Your Story Walking uses Super 8 film to narrate student stories of transit in Los Angeles; the project Sunset and Alvarado consists of youth portraits set on the intersection that the film center occupies at Sunset Boulevard and N. Alvarado Street; the City of Angels assembles youth-shot footage as homage to the city symphony. Other youth classes may not deal with urbanism as explicitly. These include hand-drawn animation and found footage filmmaking courses. But even these often indirectly draw on raw material and film stock depicting local urban surroundings. The entirety of the youth class collection contains master copies of individual and collectively-produced student films, DVD and tape transfers of class projects, work reels, camera tests, outtakes, slides and photographic stills from production as well as diaries and other production-related ephemera. This audiovisual record, from the pre-gentrification moment to the present, can surely be mined for evidence of urban change in any number of ways. Bastajian has specifically valorized the residual in the archive – outtakes, long takes, and B-roll footage that fill-in the historical record and capture hidden social truths.7Tina Bastajian, “An Invitation: Speculations on Appraisal and a Meandering Cache,” in Lost and Living (in) Archives: Collectively Shaping New Memories, ed. Annet Dekker (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017), n.p. This collection carries this ethos. Youth films come from successive generations of student filmmakers from Echo Park, offering an easily obscured perspective on gentrification and shifts in social topography. Some have later become co-op members and acclaimed filmmakers, marking the archive as  a resource for maintaining and validating a specific community memory by allowing former participants and researchers to rediscover their earlier work.

Still from The City Speaks, by Hilary Huckins-Weidner, City of Angels youth class, 2005.

The collection of adult class films transferred to USC likewise highlights residual deposits of a faded urbanism. Films from one-day workshops at the film center may also invite deciphering as palimpsest within the context of the archives. Super 8mm and 16mm reels, digital tapes and discs from these classes often document the neighborhood in an incidental, instrumentalized way. In eco-processing workshops introducing independent filmmakers to homemade, low-budget and environmentally-kind film processing techniques, participants shoot reels of Super 8 film depicting the same few city blocks around the film center. This is then processed according to different improvised recipes. Because the sole instructive focus of the course is on photochemical processing, the content of the exterior footage remains largely an afterthought. This collection contains the remnants of this process over a number of years. Viewed as a whole, the time-lapsed physical record of a locale takes shape, refracted through evolving photochemical experimentations in processing. Just as in Sunset and Alvarado youth class films, where one can reconstruct the history of one busy intersection, the same few blocks around the film center have been recorded as a raw material for eco-processing for over a decade. What precisely this disinterested, loosely structured, documentation may be able to convey to future researchers is unknowable at present. But in this open question is the crux of the archival, which is most optimally, as Bastajian suggests, an invitation to decipher and recode.8Bastajian, “An Invitation: Speculations on Appraisal and a Meandering Cache,” n.p.

Workshops on tinting and toning of film and on introductory Super 8 and Regular 8mm filmmaking have also been held since 2004 and allow similar reading as palimpsest. The inherent evidentiary value of these films, from the perspective of decoding the city, proposes a plenitude of micro-histories around a single locale and set of practices. These archives are both structured in that they are part of recurring workshops and ideologically blank insofar as they are the routine products of an educational organization concerned foremost with preserving knowledge and practice as opposed to purveying content for audiences. The notion of the moving image archive as dormant carrier of evidence is intriguing in this instance because it recalls central questions in archival theory, many of which film archivists have conspicuously managed to duck. This case, I suggest, posits the repatriation of film archives within the broader archival lineage.

Youth Class Participants, EPFC, 2009.

Archives, Evidence and the Filmic City

It is important to note that the Echo Park Film Center collection was not donated to USC with a specific research aim. Non-theatrical, student-produced, and educational films comprise the bulk of USC’s archive, whose focal mission is preservation of the school’s institutional heritage.9Dino Everett and Jennifer Lynn Peterson,”When Film Went to College: A Brief History of the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive,” The Moving Image 13, no. 1 (2013): 37. How and by whom this new collection may in the future be referenced has not been at all pre-stipulated. This lack of pre-inscription of the archival document, and the potential for collections to be activated as evidence of place, harkens back to foundational thinking in modern archival theory. Sir Hilary Jenkinson famously invoked the “Sanctity of Evidence” protected in the archives.10Hilary Jenkinson, The English archivist: a new profession (London: H.K. Lewis, 1948), 259. For Jenkinson, the salient feature of the archive was its latent capacity to serve as raw historical evidence. In this framing, archives are potential empirical bases for knowledge by dint of having been produced through routine processes of administration.11Ibid. This ideological muteness innate to Jenkinson’s understanding of the archival document, can be stretched to those films that incidentally capture physical or social change of the city over time. Teaching filmmaking techniques is the quintessential function of Echo Park Film Center. Its audiovisual record of urban transformation can be construed as a body of residual evidence, a quotidian byproduct of routine work. This framing affords a departure from the more commonly accepted notion of the film archive as repository of art. Jenkinson’s ideal of archives-as-evidence, which appealed mainly to positivist historiography, was never seriously applied to film archives. The movement to archive films was born of the cinephilia of early private collectors. The profession itself was shaped by the foundational figures of Iris Barry, Henri Langlois and Ernest Lindgren.12Haidee Wasson, Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, 115. The lineage of film archives, inflected primarily by curators and aesthetes, also dates to the cine-clubs that flowered in interwar European cities.13Malte Hagener, Moving Forward, Looking Back: The European Avant-garde and the Invention of Film Culture, 1919-1939, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007, 78. Film’s original status as archival object can be understood as bound up in this particular moment in the history of cinephilia – and peripheral to the core of modern archival theory being developed around this same time.

Still from a Cross-Processing class, 2016.

It is ironic then that the archives from Echo Park Film Center – a micro-cinema in some ways modeled off of the first generation of urban cine-clubs – can be dually read as empirical urban artefacts and as original instances of artistic experimentation. This conceptual hybridity, I would argue, is an asset for the archive. No single paradigm for what one makes of archives need crowd out any other. Terry Cook has convincingly explained how the early paradigm of archives-as-evidence has never really been transcended and does not inhibit further evolution of archival theory as might be supposed.14Terry Cook, “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms,” Archival Science 13, no. 2 (2013): 106. It simply remains the unshakable core of archival theory around which more recent paradigms (such as that of archives-as-communities – an equally apt rendering of the Echo Park Film Center archive, as it were) are arrayed. For moving image archives, perhaps this theoretical core can be productively retro-fitted. Highlighting new manifestations of an evidentiary model in moving image archives suggests an inherent openness arguably unique to moving image collections. Re-situating Echo Park Film Center’s collection in a university archive proposes unanticipated avenues for research.15One can easily see this collection’s potential utility for research into experimental analog filmmaking practices, local film cultures, and most obviously for research into film as pedagogical tool. This should provoke contemplation on how the moving image document, once archived, is perpetually in a process of ontological reactivation. This new collection, in its first stage of becoming an archive (thus becoming something fundamentally different than it once was), demonstrates how moving images may begin to be accessed as artifacts of urbanism.


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