Digital Scavengers and the Limits of the Archive: Excavating Lagos on the Internet

by Vinzenz Hediger

“YouTube is not an archive,” wrote Rick Prelinger three years into the portal’s operation in 2009, because “preservation is neither its mission nor practice.” But then, Prelinger wrote, we might as well concede that YouTube is an archive “in the public mind,” and even “an ideal form of archive” (2009, 268). In 2002 Dominique Païni, the chief curator for film at the Centre Pompidou and former director of the Cinémathèque française, argued that the proper mode for exhibiting cinema was in a montage of clips, a vision inspired not least by Godard’s “Histoire(s) du cinema,” which discarded the cinephile concept of screening full films and complete bodies of works only (see Païni 2002). Problematizing what Prelinger called “the canonical mission of established moving image archives throughout the world” (2009, 268), YouTube went one step further and offered a democratized version of Païni’s history of cinema written in clips: one in which the curatorial authority shifted from programmers to the audience, or from “attendance” to “performance” (see Casetti 2011), from merely going to the movies to creating your own programs (with more than a little help from the recommendation algorithm).

In addition to clips from fiction films, which Païni had in mind, YouTube features a wealth of historical footage from what Eric de Kuyper has described as the “vast domain of cinema as non-art,” in particular industrial, educational, and amateur films (de Kuyper 1994). But for much of this material YouTube is not so much an archive as it is a shop window that leads to other archives. Collected from flea markets or the dustbins of television stations and newsreel agencies, such clips are typically digital compressions of 16mm films,[1] some of them watermarked, which are uploaded by stock footage traders in the hopes of enticing documentary filmmakers or artists to license higher-resolution files for their projects.

These discarded materials could be described as scrap films, and the use of internet portals to extract value from them as digital scavenging. But precisely because YouTube is also an archive, we can envision a form of digital scavenging which, rather than making a buck off its past, treats scrap films as building blocks for cinema’s future.

But which future, and which cinema?

To explore the range of possible modes of digital scavenging I want to focus on a group of scrap films shot in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 60s and 70s. These are few and far between and, in that sense, statistically not significant. But they are analytically significant, for two related reasons. The scrap films were shot in a post-colonial city, which retained its colonial layout but was soon to evolve into one of the world’s most dynamic megacities and one which for some time now urbanists have looked to as a laboratory for the future (not necessarily good) of urbanity. Lagos is now, in fact, the most populous city in Africa with fifteen million inhabitants, projected to reach 24 million by 2030 (World Population Review 2023). Having been replaced as the capital of Nigeria by Abuja in 1991, Lagos is still the commercial and cultural hub of the continent’s most populous country. And despite the political ascendancy of Abuja, Lagos also continues to be the nerve center of the Nigerian oil industry. The scrap films thus connect digital scavenging to a broader regime of extracting value from remnants of the past, the modern fossil fuel economy. This regime is now coming to an end, as we can see, among other things, from Russia’s imperialist war of aggression against Ukraine, which can be understood as the last gasp of a would-be empire built on the extraction of fossil fuels (see Etkind 2023). If cinema’s mission is to witness history, as Godard claimed, then digital scavengers of the archival sort can view the scrap films as splinters of a future cinema that is a witness to, and perhaps even an actor in, the impending transformation of the modern economy of extraction.

Slumming it in the City of Extraction

The Nigerian oil industry was built up starting in the colonial period by European and American companies, most notably British Petroleum and Shell. Following a global trend Nigeria nationalized the oil industry in 1970 in the wake of the Biafra war, which had partially been triggered by a conflict over the taxation of oil revenues (Klieman 2012). Today the industry is dominated by a small set of joint ventures with corporations like BP, Shell, Chevron, Agip, Total, and Exxon-Mobile. Nigeria was the eleventh most important oil producer in 2022 and the largest in Africa. The oil industry accounts for 98 % of the country’s exports and 14 % of Nigeria’s domestic economy. The country’s second most important exports, film and music, pale in comparison. Fossil fuels “possess the property of reinforcing structures of power,” as Amitav Gosh writes, because they are mobile and can be used to maintain industrial production in resource-poor, high-population-density areas where cheap labor is abundant (2021, 101). In population-rich oil countries with relatively high population density like Nigeria, the extractive regime leaves local labor by the wayside. Like all oil industries the Nigerian industry is extremely profitable for some players—most notably the government, for which it is the primary source of income—but creates jobs only for a few highly qualified technicians (Ross 2012). This is why the Niger delta, where the largest reserves can be found, remains one of the poorest regions of the country, even as it absorbs the brunt of the industry’s pollution. Lagos and particularly Lagos Island on the other hand, the ocean-facing upscale parts of the city where the expatriate oil industry specialists would reside—and the British colonial elite before them (sometimes in the same houses)—is an enclave. It is life in this enclave that the scrap films document.

Some of the Lagos scrap films contain stock footage from news agencies, and some are newsreel segments and excerpts from documentaries, for instance about the highlife and Afrobeat music culture of the city (see Makinde 2019). The majority are amateur films, often shot from moving automobiles, and focus on the cityscape—buildings, infrastructure, market scenes, and people moving along the streets captured in passing. They resemble a popular genre of early cinema, the “phantom rides,” that is, short films shot with cameras attached to locomotives that show the view of the landscape from the front of a moving train (Blümlinger 2006). In most cases, the origin of the films remains unclear, but it is safe to assume that they were made by European and American oil industry engineers and executives (see 2019; Huntley Film Archives 2017a; 2017b; Kinolibrary 2014). Oil firms have a long history of producing industrial image and educational films on site dating back to the 1910s (see Dahlquist and Vonderau 2021). But amateur travelogues and home movies shot on Super 8 and 16mm by European and North American engineers working for resource industries in the postwar period are a genre unto themselves (Peretti forthcoming).[2] These engineers were sent out in large numbers across the globe to work in oil fields, from Iran to Nigeria to Venezuela, at the onset of the “great acceleration.” This unprecedented phase of growth in everything after 1945, from population to consumption to energy use, is also referred to as the beginning of the “Anthropocene,” the first era in geological history in which human behavior is a decisive factor in shaping the environment.[3] The oil engineers and executives who traveled the world to kick-start the great acceleration brought home films which memorialize their pastimes, living quarters, and work stations; the British Petroleum headquarters in Lagos are a recurrent motif in the Lagos scrap films.

The Lagos scrap films record a colonial city of extraction about to birth its successor, the sprawling megacity of the twenty-first century. At the turn of the millennium this megacity loomed large in the sociopolitical imagination of the west—or at least in the minds of some of those professionally engaged in taking the pulse of the present and imagining the future: urbanists, artists, philosophers, and curators among them. Rather than a monument of underdevelopment, Lagos was seen as a model of the future, available for inspection and analysis already now. Depending on the point of view, the prospect was exhilarating, if daunting, or chilling and bordering on the apocalyptic. At documenta 11 in 2002 curator Okwui Enwezor, who grew up in Anambra State in south-east Nigeria, dedicated one of the five platforms of the show, platform 4, “Under siege,” to the African cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, and Lagos. A study conducted from 1997 onwards by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a group of students from The Harvard Project on the City was featured on the platform and became the most widely discussed take in the “exhilarating, if daunting” category. Koolhaas and his team diagnosed that Lagos consisted of quasi-organic forms of self-organization nested into the fragments of a partially abandoned modernist infrastructure. The “chilling, bordering on the apocalyptic” view was most prominently expressed by social historian Mike Davis in Planet of Slums from 2005. Davis scaled up his analysis of the politics of urban development of Los Angeles from his 1994 book City of Quartz to a global level and argued that megacities like Lagos and Karachi were essentially giant slums, harbingers of the future of urbanity under conditions of unfettered capitalism (see Davis 2005 and 2006). Complementing the messy optimism of Koolhaas and the Neo-Marxist pessimism of Davis, Canadian journalist Doug Saunders looked at the megacity from the perspective of urban migrants and their aspirations in his 2006 book Arrival City, with a focus on opportunity and particularly the difficult transition from informal modes of living in the city to legal residency and property ownership.

With a few exceptions, like Enwezor, most of these takes on the African megalopolis were formulated by northwestern European and North American authors, and they were primarily addressed to audiences in the Global North.[4] The Global North’s concern over the megacity is an outgrowth of the “overpopulation” discourse, which started with the Club of Rome report on limits to growth from 1972, and it has echoes of the nineteenth-century literature on urban poverty and squalor, which paved the way for the modernist fervor for the spacious, sprawling garden city (see Jacobs 1961). Koolhaas, Davis, and Saunders all tried to assuage (or, in the case of Davis, further mobilize) the fears of their audience with solutions for the megacity problem: let chaos evolve into order, albeit with some new infrastructure to hasten the process (Koolhaas), fight capitalism (Davis), create pathways for individual initiative so that chaos can become order (Saunders).[5]

The difference between Koolhaas and Saunders could be described as one between reckless (Koolhaas) and guarded (Saunders) optimism, but they are also separated by a difference in perspective and form. Koolhaas and his team traveled to Lagos at a time when western governments were issuing travel warnings for the city. “You needed to be a cowboy to go to Lagos,” as architect Kunlé Adeyemi said, one of Koolhaas’s interlocutors in the 1990s, invoking one of the iconic figures of settler colonialism,[6] while Koolhaas speaks of himself as a traveler partially driven by a “narcissism of difficulty” (Michael 2016). In his lecture on the project at documenta, Koolhaas offered that he first traveled around Lagos by car and never stepped out of the vehicle. Famously, on his third trip Koolhaas obtained the “president’s helicopter”[7] to penetrate Lagos’s “intense foreground” and get a better sense of its depth from above, even as he was putting even more of a safe distance between himself and the city’s inhabitants (Koolhaas 2002). On the ground “the city had an aura of apocalyptic violence; entire sections of it seemed to be smoldering, as if it were one gigantic rubbish dump.” Scavenging as an auto-poetic process is the primary mode of existence in and of the city. In this “gigantic rubbish dump” a “process of sorting, dismantling, reassembling, and potentially recycling” is going on, a “continuous effort to transform discarded garbage.” But from the air, “the apparently burning garbage heap turned out to be, in fact, a village, an urban phenomenon with a highly organized community living on its crust” (Koolhaas 2002, 177). Throughout, Koolhaas views the city as an organism. No individual person makes an appearance until late. And when people do appear, it is a cataclysmic experience:

Flying over the city, Lagos reveals—at Oshodi Junction—the greatest density of both traffic and human beings ever known to man, literally unimaginable numbers of people. (Koolhaas 2002, 179)

Numbers played a critical role in the colonial imaginary. Numbers “provided a shared language for information transfer, disputation, and linguistic commensuration between center and periphery” and served the purpose of “translating the colonial experience into terms graspable in the metropolis,” to cite Arjun Appadurai (1996, 125–26). In the post-colonial megacity, “man,” the spectatorial subject of history, he who potentially knows everything that can be known, is overwhelmed by the unimaginable numbers of the people of the city. He has them in sight but cannot count them: the translation mechanism no longer works. Even as the “sovereign Humanitarian subject” (Himadeep Muppidi), here embodied by the Dutch urbanist hovering over the city in a helicopter, asserts itself, the colonial imaginary collapses, only to find a substitute in an experience of the ecological sublime, of the city a quasi-organic spectacle (Muppidi 2012, 124).

By contrast Saunders, a journalist by profession, conducted a series of on-the-ground case studies in Africa and Asia and chose a storytelling format to relay his view of urban migration and the megacity. He inverts, in other words, the foreground-background relation in the field of Koolhaas’s vision and substitutes a liberal humanism focused on individual agency and the enforcement of rights for the ecological laissez-faire liberalism of Koolhaas. Urban migration and urban growth are stories of arrivals and networks in the city and beyond, and the aspirations of urban migrants can be harnessed for the greater good by a competent public administration and the management of citizenship and property titles.

It has been said that as “liberal humanism became the dominant logic of Western society, it became increasingly problematic,” leading to “elitist, colonialist and patriarchal ideologies” (Kellner and Lewis 2007, 406). Property titles, one of the instruments of opportunity in Saunders book, have been powerful instruments of colonial domination.[8] In international relations, as the “War on Terror” has shown, the discourse of individual rights is suspended in episodes of the mass-destruction of non-white bodies (Muppidi 2012). The critique of the conceptual and epistemic frameworks of western modernity, of “secular universals,” along with the valorization of indigenous knowledge systems have been a central tenet of postcolonial theory (Muppidi 2012, 66). It would be a stretch to accuse Saunders of a neo-colonial attitude. But it could be argued that, even as he works—laudably, and quite effectively—to dissipate fears of migration in the Global North by assimilating migration into the legal and philosophical frameworks of liberal humanism, Saunders remains committed to a mindset of benevolent social engineering, a hallmark of the “sovereign Humanitarian subject.” At the same, Nigerian philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò has recently offered a critique of decolonial thought, arguing that a wholesale rejection of the legacy of the European Enlightenment and liberal democracy ultimately limits the space for African agency (Táíwò 2022). One of the key questions in this debate is whether the post-colonial condition will ever end, and what becomes of the remnants of colonial imaginary in the meantime. How do the scraps of the colonial imaginary shape the postcolonial condition, and can they become building blocks of a different imaginary, one that goes beyond not just laissez-faire ecologism and humanist liberalism, but post-colonialism as well? For all their insignificance, the Lagos scrap films may provide some answers.

Beyond the Aesthetics of Infrastructure as Superstructure

Writing in 2020 Okwui Enwezor argues that one of the lessons of post-coloniality is that “it exceeds the borders of the former colonized world to lay claim to the modernized metropolitan world of empire by making empire’s former ‘other’ visible and present at all times” through media and in everyday practice (Enwezor 2020). Of necessity, the Lagos scrap films partake in this post-colonial excess: circulated by the digital scavengers on YouTube and their websites, they are potentially visible at all times. But what do they show of the former empire and its ‘other’?

Cyprian Ekwensi’s novels from the 1950s and 1960s like People of the City (1954) and Jagua Nana (1961) provide a sense of Lagos in the late colonial and early post-colonial period. Jagua Nana tells the story of an ageing beauty and occasional consort from South East Nigeria and her lover, a young teacher who goes to study law in England. For them, Lagos is a space of aspiration, an arrival city in the sense of Saunders, but also a transitory space between the village and the colonial metropolis. An Italian crew tried to obtain permits to film Jagua Nana in the mid-1960s but was denied by Nigerian authorities, who did not wish to see their country represented in a film about a prostitute.[9] In the Lagos scrap films, the stories and networks of Ekwensi’s Lagos also have no place, but for different reasons. In these films the streets are at best sparsely populated and far from crowded by unimaginable numbers of people. Only when markets come into view are the viewers confronted with a higher density of bodies in movement. One of the Lagos scrap films contains this sequence: people walking on a sidewalk as traffic passes by, a shot of a woman on a sidewalk looking out on Lagos bay, followed by a shot of what we can assume to be the wife of the filmmaker in the car, back to a shot of a woman wearing a jug or package on her head on a modern concrete bridge.

In a recent essay Brian Larkin argues for attention to “the form of infrastructure,” that is, the aesthetic surfaces of infrastructure in which infrastructure and superstructure converge and in which the power dynamics of infrastructure play out as a matter of media aesthetics (Larkin 2018). Modernist infrastructure is for, and produces, modern citizen-subjects who are committed to progress and growth and work from an abstract conception of space as a place of economic opportunity. But in the colonial city, “infrastructure is superstructure,” as Frantz Fanon writes: not a neutral conduit, but built ideology, an exclusionary mechanism and a form of violence that enacts racial hierarchies by separating the parts of the city reserved for the colonizers from those of the colonized, which differ in layout, design, amenities, and living standards (see Fanon 1963).

The montage in the Lagos scrap film is enmeshed in modernist infrastructure, but it also reflects a continuing segmentation and separation of spaces and temporalities—inside, outside, moving around by car vs. walking or traveling by bus, modern transport vs. traditional modes of transport, for example, the woman carrying a jug on her head, those who are driving/looking, and those who are moving and being looked at. In his essay “How to Write about Africa,” a satirical inventory of western literary and visual clichés, Kenyan novelist Binyavanga Wainaina reminds us that “wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces” (2019). In the Lagos scrap films this pertains to urban spaces and urban infrastructure as well. “The postcolonial today is a world of proximity. It is a world of nearness, not elsewhere,” Enwezor famously wrote in the already cited text. But in this montage the post-colonial urban space is still an elsewhere. It is a space not fully shared by those looking and those looked at. The woman carrying a jug on her head is a spectacle because she is both out of place and out of time, illustrating the “uneven time politics that underlie coming together” (Sharma 2014, 146). In her appearance, the abstract space of modern economic opportunity and the “Wide Empty Spaces” of Africa overlap, but do not converge. She is in the modern city, but she is not arriving.[10]

The Limits of the Archive

In the process of decolonization, the spaces of the colonizers were taken over by an elite segment of the colonized. But true decolonization, according to Fanon, would require that the colonial infrastructure be completely destroyed and eradicated from the territory. Similarly, Himadeep Muppidi argues, with an eye to the field of international relations, that “the world is more than the ‘minor-ity’ archives of Europe and the West,” more than even the most assertively universalist set of concepts can aspire to cover. The task is to “make these concepts travel beyond the European archive to spaces and worlds that are radically different, so different that the archival mode itself may be a border that needs to be crossed” (2012, 67).

The challenge for accidental archivists is to move beyond both the heritage-curatorial and the extractive mode of the archive to think about a new kind of cine-political imaginary. Digital platforms are one place to do so. They suspend, or rather disperse, the curatorial authority of archivists and can give space to a multitude of radically different stories. But then again, they are not. YouTube, whether in the archival mode, the shop window mode, or any other mode, is itself an infrastructure. It is designed to accommodate different usages, with the overarching goal of extracting value from and through moving images and sounds, whether indirectly, by using the old television business model to sell audiences to advertisers, or directly, as in the case of the commercial digital scavengers. It might be useful to think of YouTube and other seemingly open portals and platforms as an analogue of the post-colonial megacity, a sprawling space in which the future of cinema is happening already now, a space with innumerable inhabitants/films and an unending stream of new arrivals/uploads in which infrastructure is also superstructure (but one whose seemingly innumerable denizens are also carefully counted and accounted for, because collating metadata and counting interactions in terms of views and likes is the foundation of the platform’s extractive business model). Digital scavenging is a practice nested into this infrastructure and determined by its affordances. But it can also be a practice that transcends these affordances. If film history can best be written in a montage of clips, then a different history of (and through) cinema can be built from cinematic scraps. And if the role of traditional film criticism is to judge the artistic value of a film, the role of the critical digital scavenger is to reassess and redefine the value of scrap films for a different notion and mission of cinema. With a view to a possible transformation of the extractive regime the challenge is to collapse, so to speak, the view from the helicopter into the quasi-organic process on the ground and to transform the smoldering gigantic rubbish dump into a productive critical practice.


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———. 2006 [1994]. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso.

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Huntley Film Archives. 2017b. “Streets Of Lagos Nigeria, 1960s – Film 97510.” YouTube video, January 30. Accessed March 22, 2023.

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[1] On film compression formats see Schneider 2020.

[2] Brian Jacobson is currently preparing a book on visual archives of extraction in colonial and post-colonial Algeria; Katharina Jost is working on a dissertation on a family collection of amateur films shot in Venezuela as part of

[3] “The industrial revolution is sometimes proposed as the start date for the Anthropocene. The genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas in the 16th century, which led to a reforestation and a cooling of the atmosphere in the 17th century, has more recently been suggested as the first recorded episode in which humans decisively shaped the environment” (Gosh cited in McNeill and Engelke 2016, 53).

[4] Ravi Sundaram’s Pirate Modernities, a landmark study of the transformation of the modernist urban space of Delhi from a media point of view, came out only at the end of the decade.

[5] Koolhaas paired his Harvard students with students from Lagos who served as guides, but he was still accused of “slumming it” in Lagos like a Victorian in 19th century London by critics in the Global North. “Lagos shows how a city can recover from a deep, deep pit” (Michael 2016).

[6] Albeit one that has its own history as role model for African urban masculinity, as witnessed in the “Cowboy” movement in Kinshasa in the 1960s (Gondola 2016).

[7] We must assume that he is referring to Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator who succeeded the rapacious tyrant Sanni Abacha and had engineered a transition to democracy once before, albeit without lasting success, in the early 1980s (see Siollun 2019).

[8] Among many others see Kenyatta 1962 and Bourdieu 2010.

[9] For this information I thank Didi Cheeka, who at one point in the early 2000s negotiated for the film rights directly with the writer. Ekwensi died in 2007, aged 86.

[10] Ousmane Sembène’s La noire de… from 1966, dramatizes the violence inherent in this layout in the story of a housemaid from Dakar who follows a French couple to the Côte d’Azur and ends up committing suicide, which is replicated in the separation of her living quarters in the apartment of her French masters.