Met with all sorts of interesting folk last week on Great Northern Way to talk about film and video archives in Vancouver. Representatives from the universities, CBC, Vancouver City Archives, Western Front (Colin Browne, Jeanette Kopak, Colin Preston, Harry Killas, Jim Sinclair, Graham Peat, Michael Baker, Sarah Todd, Jana Grazely, Scott Owens, Sue Bigelow) gathered to address the significance of BC’s important film and video archives. These range from home movies to artists’ films to individual filmmaker collections to community-based collections to more formal archival holdings of broadcasters, libraries, etc. There’s no shortage of ideas, energy and expertise. While I’ve taught in Bristol with some of this material, I have neither the breadth nor the depth of knowledge of those around the table and feel very lucky to have been part of a conversation with noted experts.
I can see some exciting links with projects I’ve been involved in in Bristol but the fundamental issue that people here face is the lack of resourcing and infrastructure at provincial and national level. There are basic questions to ask about the value of culture to society. How do we define and ascribe value? In order to access funding and support, do we need to demonstrate transferable skills and actual financial contributions to GDP made through film archiving projects? Max Wyman’s just written about this today in The Vancouver Sun (http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/Return+investment+from+culture+more+than+just+money/8533873/story.html). Given Canada’s apparent emphasis on the creative economy (http://www.creativebc.com/), what about content? Even if we take the actual emphasis on the continuation of a resource-based economy as a starting point, if the LPG runs out or the fracking and tar sands impact on the environment so much that the tourists stop coming, is it really wise to focus exclusively on resource extraction? On the other side of that coin, if there is a desire to build stable, happy communities out of resource-workers newly gathered in remote locations, then providing stories and anchor points that allow people to connect with place seems useful. Moving image archives can be multi-purposed as teaching and learning resources for education and training and have long been used in Canada as part of its nationalist project (see, for example, David Hogarth’s Documentary Television in Canada, 2002, McGill-Queen’s Press). Ultimately, do the short-term economic gains of cutting public funding for archives outweigh the longer-term economic costs of such cuts in terms of cultural patrimony? It’s expensive to re-build expertise, infrastructures, communities. But these are perhaps blunt, naive and crass points, based narrowly on the instrumentalization of culture.
If we cannot monetize something, does that mean that it’s without value? Of course, these are ‘difficult times’ and people with interests in and commitments to cultural institutions and forms need to be realistic and able to respond to the usual arguments about hospitals versus galleries. Debates around the instrumentalization of culture continue to hound academic discussion lists, op ed news items, cultural journalism and artist networks worldwide. Public funding of culture is always an easy whipping boy for populist politicians. Yet, is the most productive course of action to argue economics in the terms that politicians understand or do we need to make different arguments based on radically different knowledge claims grounded in art’s alterity? Recent discussions on this point are in Mute (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/take-me-im-yours-neoliberalising-cultural-institution) and Dave Beech’s latest in Art Monthly (http://www.questia.com/library/1G1-329302930/cuts) (or Resonance FM (http://archive.org/details/20130513ArtMonthlyTalkShow). Art as fundamentally resistant to capitalism is an important provocation in terms of creating a space for worlding the world otherwise.
The questions about the who, what, where, when, how, and why of film and video archives are not just about contemporary economics. There are fundamental intellectual questions about the relationships between archival materials and the way in which societies remember. How do archives perform cultural memory, identity, place, knowledge, power? There is, as Andreas Huyssen has argued, a power in forgetting (Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, 2003, http://books.google.ca/books/about/Present_Pasts.html?id=E8jtTGB8VtUC). And Derrida’s discussion of the relationships between archiving and control in Archive Fever (http://books.google.ca/books/about/Archive_Fever.html?id=UD321u7ERI0C&redir_esc=y) is an obvious reference. As early as 1927, in his article ‘Photography’ Siegfried Kracauer bemoaned the fact that despite the excess of the image-based archive we seemed to know so little. For archives to be about what Nietzsche referred to as ‘history for the living’ they need to be about more than just preservation and there many interesting projects out there that aim to ‘animate’ the archive within contemporary practice. But new imaginings of ‘otherwises’ can’t happen without artefacts and traces to which to respond and certainly won’t happen now that Library and Archives Canada is being privatized (http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/ottawa/Library+Archives+Canada+entered+hush+hush+deal+with+private/8511544/story.html).
In Canada, there is an aligned but perhaps more fundamental issue. Given its ongoing colonial legacy, Canada’s moving image archives enact the complex history of the nation and its peoples, especially in the context of a history of intensive ethnographic and documentary filmmaking and its entanglements with indigenous communities. While film and video have been rightly critiqued as tools of colonial violence by both descendent and settler commentators, what’s needed urgently is effort and resource to address the future of this heritage. That future may involve repatriation, privacy, forgetting, and different levels of exclusion and hospitality. Yet, it is difficult to engage in these conversations without archival structures being in place and supported sustainably. There are a number of excellent projects and initiatives, which are located in individual institutions or across partnerships. I suppose the question is whether the State (federal, provincial) sees itself as having a role to play in the ongoing negotiation of those relationships.