Accidental Encounters, Incidental Care, and Shared Archival Practices
Accidental Encounters, Incidental Care
The expression accidental archivism sounded like a sort of oxymoron at first to my ears. The adjective accidental indicates something happening by chance, unintentionally or unexpectedly, whereas archiving is an act that is driven by a certain degree of intentionality, motivation, and commitment exercised by a person, group of people, or institution. We can even consider the archival act, intended as the transmission of knowledge and culture through documents to future generations, as the main feature that differentiates the human and the non-human conditions.
When is the human and conscious act of (film and audiovisual) archiving “accidental” then? The intuitive answer refers to accidental encounters with materials, documents, films that are found by case or chance. Film histories and film archival practices have been constantly rekindled by these occurrences, from the epical 1978 finding of 530 nitrate film reels buried under a hockey rink in the Canadian Dawson City—evoked in Bill Morrison’s movie Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)—to the providential retrieval of some degraded reels of the 1979 Nigerian film Shehu Umar (Adamu Halilu) by Didi Cheeka in Lagos in the buildings of the former Colonial Film Unit.
Such fortuitous discoveries are often followed by a moment when the accidental encounter unfolds in incidental care, a point in which a singular person, collective group, or institution decides to take in charge that object, to claim responsibility over that document, to deal with the memory inscribed in its material. The dictionary defines incidental as to something “that is connected, often by chance, to something more important” (Cambridge Dictionary). In accidental archival encounters this “something more important” is from my standpoint the moment in which somebody decides to take care of that object, to preserve and revive that particular film or video. Whether taken by private people, by institutional or independent organizations, this decision always implies a certain commitment in terms of time, energy, resources, and money.
In my view the wide scale of film archiving practices can be resumed in the following approaches: accidental, incidental, voluntary, activist, political, and institutional archivism. Following this thread and considering accidental and institutional archiving as the two ends of the spectrum, accidental archivism can be defined as what exceeds the power of the archives, what overcomes its “limits” (Mbembe 2002). How can accidental archiving become incidental, voluntary, activist, political, or even institutional then? Or conversely, how can institutional archivism become activist, voluntary, incidental, or even accidental? In what follows I focus on the role of education in this spectrum of archival practices in order to point out some issues at stake when thinking about accidental archivism and its tensions with institutional practice.
Weaving Transnational Networks for Film Archiving
Creating networks and contexts for shared works and collaborative actions among institutions and independent archivists/curators might be a first immediate answer to the previous questions. In the symposium After the Archive, held during the 2021 festival Archival Assembly #1 in Berlin, archivists, curators, artists, scholars, and researchers discussed how film archives can act beyond their proper belongings, beyond the idea of collections as institutional property, beyond the regional or national borders in which they are inscribed. Roundtable conversations reflected on how institutions can work for a global audiovisual heritage intended as a transnational commons, how they can function as a “site for the negotiation of a transnational practice,” as suggested by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus in the festival’s program. Speakers presented projects and collaborations involving different cultural and educational institutions (archives, museums, universities, independent organizations) based in the Global South and in the Global North. Among these, the APEX Audiovisual Preservation Exchange project organized by New York University since 2008 offered an inspiring example for supporting long-term exchanges between students, teachers, archivists, scholars, and professionals from different geo-political regions. The topics of activist and global film archiving has gained attention and resonance in recent years, as highlighted by the latest editions of the Eye International Conference organized annually by the Eye Filmmuseum and the University of Amsterdam.
Besides in film cultural institutions, transnational collaborations are being developed between universities that offer specialized masters programs in film archiving for training future generations of film/video/digital archivists. Global exchanges in the field of academic education are facilitated at present by the familiarity with online teaching and learning formats that were consolidated during the COVID pandemic. I experienced such formats for international knowledge exchange organizing an online workshop in March 2022 on the preservation and digitization of video films. The workshop involved researchers and students from the film archiving master’s programs at Goethe University Frankfurt, University of Udine (Italy), and University of Jos (Nigeria). A considerable part of audiovisual heritage in countries like Nigeria and Ghana is stored on video cassettes, a very fragile format especially if improperly stored in hot and humid conditions. On the other hand film archiving methodologies and practices, as theorized and practiced in institutions in the Global North, have been focused primarily on celluloid film, at least until recent times. Very little attention has been given to video film with a few exceptions, among which the University of Udine stands out with its decade-long specialization in the preservation and digitization of video art. The purpose of the workshop was to create a transnational network for exchanging knowledge, expertise, and best practices on video digitization by bringing together video archivists and researchers from the University of Udine with Nigerian students, who will likely have to deal with the remarkable video film heritage produced by the Nollywood film industry from the 1990s to the 2000s. In addition to cooperative learning formats such as online workshops, international exchanges between students and teachers can also foster both institutional and accidental archivism. As an example, three Nigerian exchange students coming for a visiting semester at Goethe University in Frankfurt got first hands-on experience on video preservation by digitizing part of a VHS collection coming from the Nigerian National Film and Video Censor Board during their internships at the film laboratory Omnimago in Ingelheim. On the basis of this exchange of knowledge, video preservation policies and practices will be implemented in Nigerian institutions in the near future.
If in recent years an academic and public debate is arising about the decolonization of archives and museums and the possible restitution of film and audiovisual materials to former colonized countries (Sarr and Savoy 2019), less effort has so far gone into decolonizing universities as places of knowledge production and dissemination. Teaching materials, theoretical references, and case studies in film and media studies departments are still profoundly western-dominated, focusing on European or American film cultures. Besides that, university archives and collections are starting to be investigated with decolonial approaches with regard to their holdings. An example from the German context is the music archive AMA—Archiv für Musik Afrikas at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, which was founded in 1991 and holds one of the largest collection of African music recordings outside Africa. In September 2022 researchers and archivists working at AMA organized a workshop inviting African scholars, lawyers, and professionals from the music industry to discuss how to make the AMA digitized collections available on a large scale, especially for African people, while at the same time respecting copyright laws and artists’ interests. Weaving international networks for knowledge exchanges that involve a variety of actors from both the Global North and South seems a productive way to address the multifaceted issues concerning decolonization of archives and universities, digital restitution, and repatriation.
Towards Commons-Based Archiving and Shared Care
In my understanding, education on moving image archiving and curating, both formal and informal, is a crucial agent for triggering movements and oscillations between accidental and institutional archivism. Beyond dedicated master’s programs, a basic knowledge of film archiving might enrich the general education of students in film and media studies as well as practice-oriented students in film schools, allowing them to gain a better understanding of film but also to question how they curate and archive their own films and videos produced either professionally or privately. Topics concerning audiovisual archiving and curating could also be integrated in a simplified form in media education in primary and secondary schools, where such subjects exist, since youngsters are active agents in the production and dissemination of audiovisual material from an early age.
If we consider film and audiovisual heritage as commons (and there are many reasons for doing so), the forms of diffused archivism and curating can be defined as commons-based practices. A commons-based archival practice concerns the possibility of managing global audiovisual heritage beyond the state or market through the action of individuals and communities that self-govern this common resource through institutions, methodologies, and procedures they create independently, following often ethical principles such as fairness, openness, and sustainability. As utopian as it might seem from a practical point of view, especially if considered on a large scale, these incidental and activist commons-based archival practices accompanying the more institutional ones might be pivotal for dealing with the exponentially growing quantity of audiovisual materials produced in digital formats in the last twenty years, in order to save them from the fast oblivion of digital obsolescence or the indiscriminate data extractivism of media corporates and cloud services.
The discourse about future forms of film archiving also concerns the possible uses of algorithm-based and AI-based computational processes for digitization, preservation, and access purposes. The intersections between human and non-human/AI-based film archiving is a topic yet to be explored, which raises many ethical, institutional, and political questions. The possibility of storing enormous amounts of digital data, maybe entire film collections, in a few drops of DNA-molecules to be retrieved by AI machines is just one of the possible future outcomes to reckon with. Following the thread of my initial question, it might be interesting to investigate to what extent AI audiovisual archiving will function as an accidental, incidental, voluntary, activist, political, or institutional form of archivism. Is AI-based film archiving going to be considered as a counterpart of commons-based film archiving, or are these two forms going to mix and support each other in the near future?
As a closing note in relation to human and AI-based archivism, I recall the words of head archivist and scholar Judith Opoku-Boateng, who in the frame of the already mentioned AMA workshop in Mainz pleaded for reconsidering the idea of “open access” of entire digital collections pursued by several western archives towards what she calls “responsible access,” a modus in which the archivist-curator maintains a central role in the mediation between audiovisual heritage and viewers. Responsible access from the side of institutions and shared care from the side of communities and activists are both valuable approaches for negotiating the tensions and challenges of present and future audiovisual archiving and curating.
Mbembe, Achille. 2002. “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits.” In Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh, 19–27. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
Sarr, Felwine, and Bénédicte Savoy. 2019. Zurückgeben: Über die Restitution afrikanischer Kulturgüter. Punctum 013. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.