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From archive to canvas

Catherine Russell has done a reading of so-called archeology – a way of creating, interpreting, reinterpreting and evoking history through the film medium.


"The disasters that are on the way ... the military ... the government, they know about them, and there are many safe places they could begin to move the population ..." The quote is from US Art Bell's radio show in 1997 where a man called to tell of the terrible secrets he knew through his work in Area 51 – a mythical military base in the Nevada desert. A few years ago, it was revived by UFO Network, which had sampled the radio show call to YouTube format. That video is the first thing that pops up when you search the "Hoax Canular". The words hoax og hoax both are scams, and while many may think that UFO stories are scams, those who believe in UFOs are the people who are being scammed – by the government, by the military, by those out there.

Archeology in the broadest sense means filmmakers' loans, re-use and acquisition of film clips from all kinds of archives.

Hoax Canular is also the title of a movie that portrays 21 through creative clipping of just YouTube videos. century's fear of the downfall, including fetishistic dealings with this anxiety. Or fear of doom like the solitary man's attempt to reach other people; the lonely man's attempt to create collectivity through the fear of losing the collective: to be left alone in the post-apocalypse.

What the archive is hiding

Dominic Gagnon's 2014 film – clipped from teenage homemade videos where they unfold and perform their notions of the world's impending doom – is often categorized as a "found footage" genre, but film historian Catherine Russell has included it as typical example of "archeology" in his book Archiveology. Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices.

Archeology, in the broadest sense, denotes filmmakers' loans, re-use and acquisition of film clips from all kinds of archives: from institutional film historical archives to private archives to flea market finds and eBay purchases of old film reels. As well as the huge amount of material on platforms like YouTube, many of which in themselves are examples of archeology, often performed by amateurs.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni

In the book, Russell makes readings of archaeological practices and experiments through the German-Jewish cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, especially his (unfinished) collage literary work The Arcades Project. "Walter Benjamin's cultural theory is crucially oriented toward the avant-garde as the natural consequence of the dangers lurking in the spectacle community," writes Russell, who has selected his examples of compilation films, essay films, and experimental media for their ability to highlight archivalism's "dualism and necessary ambiguity. ".

While concepts like found footage makes the process sound random, Russell emphasizes with the concept archivology rather, it is a purposeful historical method – albeit more or less ridiculously executed – when filmmakers are sampling new narratives of clips from documentary material as well as from the mainstream film industry. Archaeology is, Russell writes, a way of rethinking, for example, found footage as a critical cultural practice.

The film medium intervenes in all social spaces

For Benjamin, the film's radical potential lay in its status as something collective – a collectivity that unfolds today in other ways and spaces other than Benjamin's time in the first half of the 20th century. Mainstream motion pictures are no longer mainstream, but in turn, the film medium intervenes in all social spaces: from the smartphone screen in the subway above the art gallery to the canvas in the classroom. At the same time, both the amount of film archive material, its availability, and the technologies to edit and sample it have grown massively in the 21st century. It provides endless opportunities for practicing archeology.

«Archaeology is first and foremost a way to return to past images created to entertain, or created with more serious documentary purposes in mind, and reinterpret them so that they can be used to bring the story to life in new forms , "Writes Russell.

Rose hobart

Parts of the book are characterized by an agreed tone and a rapid pace in the film historical references that only the genuinely subject-injured types can be assumed to follow. But the analysis of Hoax Canular about. midway through the book and the concluding chapter on the gendered nature of the (film) archive – what Derrida also described with the term the Patriarchate – however, the effort is worth it.

Russell describes how Gagnon transforms the YouTube archive – in all its volatility – with its plethora of teenage apocalypses into a disturbing testimony with both historical and contemporary diagnostic power.

«The title suggests that it is scam over scam, and the viewer is thus warned against 'believing' in much of what has been gathered. And at the same time, Gagnon's collection of teenagers performing on their webcams is frightening to believers, as well as being both funny, touching and disgusting. ”

The far-reaching effects of archaeology

Under the heading "Awakening from the Gendered Archive", Russell analyzes attempts to revisit film history from a feminist vantage point. Through the fiction, these archaeological films can say something new about historical realities. As a method, according to Russell, archeology can and should be "recognized as a language that enables us to think through 20th century history in a different way".

Among her examples are Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephans The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, which is a collage of an Egyptian actress worshiped in the 1960s-1970s who – not least because of the course of political history – was banished to the periphery and died under mysterious circumstances in London in 2011.

For Walter Benjamin, the film's radical potential lay in its status as something collective.

The Three Disappearances is made entirely from clips from Soad Hosni's films and is "at once allegorical and indexical, psychological and phenomenological". It is written on three acts that follow Stephan for both Hosni's career – its greatness and fall – and Egypt's political history, writes Russell: "Her emotional choice of clippings corresponds to the political dramas of secular nationalism and the setbacks for women's rights over the same period. »

1930'er movie Rose hobart – which "infuriated the popular YouTube tributes to stars" – is another example of Russell's analysis of "awakening from the gendered archive". The film portrays theater and film actress Rose Hobart, whose career short-circuited in 1948 when she was blacklisted because of her membership in the Actors' Laboratory Theater – a group that was against racial segregation and was labeled Communists. Hobart had to prefer anonymity as a spouse, mother and practicing psychologist, but – not least because of the archival film about her – was then "known to have been forgotten".

Archaeology can have far-reaching effects, Russell points out, and in this case, in addition to Rose Hobart himself:

"The rescue that takes place in Rose Hobart is to bring a woman to life and to enroll her everyday humanity in film history."

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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