Global Audiovisual Archiving

Still from Reel-Unreel (dir. Francis Alÿs, In collaboration with Julien Devaux and Ajmal Maiwandi). Campaign image of the 7th Eye International Conference, 2022.
Sara Gelao reports on the Eye International Conference 2022, "Global Audiovisual Archiving: Exchange of Knowledge and Practices," where delegates discussed new initiatives to safeguard audiovisual heritage across geopolitical divides.

While audiovisual archiving inherently addresses issues of time, it implies space as well, especially in terms of geopolitics. Major archives have mostly been organized at a national level, in order to preserve national audiovisual heritage. But what about the global dimension of the archive?

By choosing “Global Audiovisual Archiving: Exchange of Knowledge and Practices” as a theme, the 7th Eye International Conference 2022 opened up a polyphonic agora for the current archival discourse, thereby proving highly timely, if not indispensable. This conference gathered almost 200 audiovisual archivists, researchers, scholars, curators, filmmakers, and students from all across the globe in order to have a vibrant dialogue on viable and innovative audiovisual archival practices across continents, cultures and archival traditions.

A five-day long hybrid program – convened simultaneously at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and online between May 28th and June 1st, 2022 – sought to explore the current state of affairs of film preservation through a series of indeed eye-opening live panel discussions, roundtables, poster presentations and film screenings. This rich get-together of voices and perspectives was made possible thanks to a joint effort by the Eye Filmmuseum, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), and the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis (NICA).

Judith Opoku-Boateng (University of Ghana) speaks about audiovisual archiving in Ghana (photo: UvA/ASCA).

In the hope of changing the picture of global audiovisual archiving, a most provocative series of underlying questions set the tone and the goal of the conference. These included: a) how to create new models for sustainable collaboration; b) how to raise awareness on the challenges that archivists and scholars face on a daily basis, especially in under-recognized realities; and c) how institutions can help overcome inequity at large in the present – and future – archival field.

In the interest of this conference review, the divide between Global South/Global North will be our focal point, as it emerged as a very much-spoken-about topic that has recently preoccupied theorists operating as much in cultural and postcolonial studies as in other fields of knowledge, indeed including archival studies and film preservation. The conference deliberately did not include Global North/South in its title in an attempt to overcome such oppositions and allow for discursive equality. However, such a perspective might now come in useful in retrospect. To understand the value of this conference – and film preservation as a whole – is to understand the complex yet fascinating conceptual frame of geopolitics, precisely because audiovisual culture and heritage are so inextricably deep-rooted in global power relations as well as in geographical locations and assets.

A leitmotiv that emerged quite loudly was the underrepresentation of many parts of the world as for cinematic heritage strategies. David Walsh, head of FIAF’s Training and Outreach Program, was particularly clear in this respect in the first panel of the conference. His opening words were: “It’s almost too late!” A truly collaborative effort is therefore necessary to prevent countless neglected film collections from self-destructing. What appeared to be particularly recurrent throughout the whole conference is also the appealing urgency to (re)define site-specific, sustainable regulations and guidelines in the field, not to mention a new archival vocabulary. The Global South has been historically and systematically subordinated to the Global North in terms of pre-established parameters and paradigms, thereby forcing diverse film heritage to fit into technologies and approaches not responding directly to different places, culture, histories and climate conditions. 

Tamer El Said (Cimatheque) and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus (Arsenal) speak about the Rafla Film Collection in Egypt (photo: UvA/ASCA).

Tools, equipment and books: everything comes from the American and European contexts, acting as totalizing – and to some extent still colonizing – cultures. Most times, it is all about recycling. But how can one recycle a knowledge that cannot be accessed freely in the first place? A gap between what is needed and what is possible therefore prevails. Under such conditions, to make a virtue out of necessity then becomes imperative: this is how southern micro-and-macrocosms can be incredibly more inventive and resilient than northern contexts, which sometimes lack the ability to improvise and look at the margins of things. In short, improvisation and recycling allow for unprecedented curatorial threads, diversity, independence, and alternative, empowering practices that give new life to non-standardized objects of archival attention, such as vernacular cinema shot on VHS.

Film archives are mostly national, but joint programs that can echo practices and gestures on a transnational level could be vital to the future of different contexts, especially those that are conventionally considered as minor. Now is the time to work conjunctly towards a structural, major shift: to discard universal methodologies – falsely applicable in all contexts – while envisaging adaptive methodologies that take into account various kinds of conditions, resources, skills and purposes, and that are not one-directional and patronizing. In other words, film archiving and film preservation today call for intercontinental solidarity, south-south relations, technological independence, and transnational exchanges in order to learn from multiple practices and take on a way of thinking that avoids polarization.

The divide between the Global South and the Global North is somewhat abyssal. What we have chosen to term “Global South” is a geo-political label that stigmatizes a particular “tropic,” often economically considered “developing” and culturally suffering the trauma of coloniality. An ever-increasing number of scholars have been interested in dismantling such a hierarchical and discriminating opposition, which, if anything, continues to feed this problematic polarization. Consequently, there is now a growing consensus on conceiving this “south” as a mobile entity, or an evolving term, with many “souths” now in transference within the global flows of migration (forced, voluntary, political, cultural or economic). Contemporary re-conceptualizations of the Global South, which at once ground the concept and give it renewed, rescaled critical heft, are therefore circulating both within and outside academia. As interdisciplinary scholar Anne Garland Mahler explains,

As part of a larger deterritorializing turn within globalization theory, a second definition has emerged in which the Global South is no longer being used as a mere territorial designation that describes an economic divide between a [Gramscian] geographical North and South. Rather, it is now used to address spaces and peoples negatively impacted by globalization, including within the borders of wealthier countries, such that there are Souths in the geographic North and Norths in the geographic South.1Anne Garland Mahler, From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 32.

Rosemarie Roque (Polytechnic University of the Philippines) speaks about curating practices by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (photo: UvA/ASCA).

There are Souths in the geographic North and Norths in the geographic South. This was a point particularly stressed by Pedro Félix in his trenchant presentation within the panel titled “Audiovisual Archives and the Digital Space: A Global South Perspective.” He essentially suggested to get away from this flattening idea of the Global South as merely resistant and subordinated, and to turn it upside down, so as to re-imagine power structures in full. While shedding light on the alarming scarcity of expertise, funds, training and technologies in the so-called Global South, Félix also elaborated on a possible New Global South: fluid, complex, mobilized, multi-lateral, polyphonic. He then added: “How do we make sure that the Global South can be included in our archiving society? We need accidental archivists and archival activism”. To resist digital colonialism and deceptive master narratives, Félix also insisted on the exchange of ideas, whether in the form of conferences, symposiums, workshops, and the like. Such commons-based perspectives seem to resonate with a new, radical ideology that is currently making its way: commonism .2Nico Dockx and Pascal Gielen, Commonism: A New Aesthetics of the Real (Valiz/Antennae Series, 2018). This new aesthetic of the real is based on the values of sharing, common intellectual ownership, and solidarity. This emerging political belief system could be seen as a response to half a century of western neoliberalism, just like the aforementioned academic trend of rethinking the concept of the Global South, which is no less a product of neoliberal and capitalist mindsets.

Among others, a most valuable and exemplary initiative that came to the fore in terms of international partnerships and joined forces was the one that saw a European film degree programme being space-shifted in Nigeria. It essentially manifested as a cooperation project, financed by the German institution DAAD, that served as an inspiration, or better, as an international prototype for future productive collaborations able to circumvent – if not even erase – north-south divisions. In the fall of 2019, a Master’s programme for film archival studies and film culture has been offered for the first time in the African continent. The Master’s course at the University of Jos has been repurposed and remodelled on the basis of the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt programme “Film Culture: Archiving, Programming, Presentation”, so as to provide site-specific, technical and cultural know-how to future professionals in the field of national and international film archiving. The University of Jos has benefited from international exchange just as much as the Goethe-Universität: the latter had to rethink its methods in teaching film preservation and curatorship, thereby questioning their alleged universality. Once again, mutually enriching encounters between continents not only are possible but, most importantly, they are necessary if we want to guarantee cultural (cinematic) salvage, survival and evolution, both on a local and global level. Cooperation partners included the University of Jos, Nigeria, the Nigerian Film Corporation, the National Film Video & Sound Archive (NFVSA), the Lagos Film Society, the Goethe University Frankfurt, the DFF (Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt), and the Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin.

Juana Suárez (NYU) speaks about APEX (photo: UvA/ASCA).

In the same vein, the New York University Audiovisual Preservation Exchange Program has involved, now for more than a decade, circulating knowledge across borders, thereby inevitably resetting priorities in the archival context. APEX is a practical, knowledge-exchange-oriented project that prompts international collaboration and academic dialogue on film and media ever since 2008. The panel presentation which framed this leading endeavor was titled “Global South/Global North Collaborations? Landing Concrete Projects!” In this context, a “Tinder-like” app was also proposed – in other words, a tool to bridge the gap between archives in the Global South and the Global North by matching, and therefore rendering visible, respective projects at a distance. Furthermore, archivist-activist Judith Opoku-Boateng particularly insisted that she had learnt her job precisely through international exchange, in particular the APEX Ghana (2008 to the present). Some invaluable activities have been made possible thanks to the program, including workshops and internships for practitioners both in Ghana and abroad that have significantly increased awareness of and access to local film heritage.

Ultimately, the 7th Eye International Conference largely succeeded in its underlying, urgent purpose to serve as “a platform for a long-term north-south exchange”, as Eye Chief Curator Giovanna Fossati reminds us.3Giovanna Fossati, “For a Global Approach to Audiovisual Heritage: A Plea for North/South Exchange in Research and Practice”. NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies 2 (December 2021), https://necsus-ejms.org/for-a-global-approach-to-audiovisual-heritage-a-plea-for-north-south-exchange-in-research-and-practice/#_edn10 Highly thought-provoking issues emerged throughout this event, which, taken together, foregrounded how structural and inventive collaboration is key to present and future audiovisual archiving. In transitioning from “universal” archival strategies to more site-specific – and even city-specific – approaches, the geopolitical divide between Global North and Global South could be reduced significantly. This plea for a transnational future shared across different regions of the world reflects long-standing anxieties over a fundamental lack of local training, technology and policy in the archival field, which affects both northern and southern contexts, albeit at different scales.

William Plotnick and Laura Batitucci (Cinelimite) present the film programme UMA OUTRA HISTORIA (photo: UvA/ASCA).

Global diversity was thus a crucial topic found at the intersection of almost all panels of this conference. Rarely, however, has global diversity been addressed in terms of curatorial strategies, except for a few projects among those presented. Archiving and curating go hand in hand. Another core question of the 7th Eye Conference could therefore have been how to reconfigure geopolitics-affected understandings of film culture and film archiving through curatorial praxis. Curation has the unique potential to forge interdisciplinarity and interconnectedness between traditions, trajectories and visions of different archival and media landscapes. Over time, transnationally programmed events hosted by curators around the world have made the case that synergistic and accessible collaborative possibilities for global exchange can be a reality (for example, film festivals and art biennials). The poster presentations and screenings programmed for this conference aimed at unfolding often invisible yet intricate archival itineraries and preservation efforts, by explicitly addressing curatorial issues and adopting a curatorial approach at the outset.

As the etymology of the word for “curator” derives from Latin roots meaning “treatment” or “care”, it becomes self-evident how curation could be a militant tool for educating and decolonizing, but also for visualising global challenges – in and outside the archive – with fresh eyes. Just like film itself.

Notes[+]

Gelao, Sara. "Global Audiovisual Archiving." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 3 (September 2022).
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.