A text and screening of artist’s films by Sophia Crilly in response to Dave Griffiths’ Babel Fiche, commissioned for the event Unwritten History at Castlefield Gallery, 13 September 2012
“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.” (Burnt Norton, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot, 1944)
Through Dave Griffiths online project and subsequent film Babel Fiche the human urge to collect, categorise, reuse and remix images is explored, whilst questioning the future of digital image archives. Utilising and attempting a deciphering of the excess imagery littering the Internet, alongside personal hoards of photographic images and film footage, Griffiths imagining of how future generations may perceive the present, also calls into question issues of archiving, authorship and knowledge. Babel Fiche draws parallels with poet T.S. Eliot’s seminal work Four Quartets (1944), in both works being mediations on the passage of time.
The Babel Fiche archived film imagery produced on microfiche, capable of lasting 500 years, acts as a potential time capsule and message to the future, and could ultimately become a cultural and material ruin of the past century, far outlasting anything else humans have created. In attempting to produce imagined media for prospective generations, future anthropologists or researchers, Griffiths exploration of cultural, social and political constructs, questions how contemporary reality might be interpreted and accepted, and what we want to communicate to a future world.
In Lance (1952), a short story about time and space travel, Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “the future is but the obsolete in reverse,” suggesting that even the impulse to hurtle into the future is always, already, shadowed by its own imminent obsolescence. Much of the twentieth century’s heroic (and tragic) dalliance with the future now remains, as what the artists Raqs Media Collective have referred to, as “a repository of the residual” (2008). What should be done with this ‘residue’? Can a meditation on history avoid nostalgia? There is a negotiation between remembering (individual and collective memory) and forgetting to be addressed in the task of retrieving (or destroying?), and in dealing with such ‘archive’ material.
Artist Hito Steyerl ruminates on the archive and the contemporary hierarchy of and use/reuse of images, in her essays In Defense of the Poor Image (2009) and Politics of the Archive: Translations in Film (2008). Citing Jacques Derrida (Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, 1996) she notes that keeping control over reproduction is the basis of the power condensed within archives. The ‘sanctioned’, traditional archive more often than not preserves the history of ‘victors’, whilst simultaneously presenting it as historical reality or scientific truth. It is a body of power and knowledge, controlling and regulating the reproduction of its items, and controlled by different logics, most often enforced both by nation states and capital interests. However, the contemporary archive and its function has become more complicated, tricky, for diverse reasons, ranging from the digital reproduction technologies that Griffiths deals with, to the cessation or collapse of nations and governing bodies existence, where cultural, social and political materials are destroyed.
The film works by artists Matthew Denniss, Oliver Laric and Mark Leckey, selected for Rewritten, demonstrate a shared interest in cultural mining and ‘excavation’, image and object ‘collections’. In connection with Griffiths practice, the artists all reuse existing material in various ways. The categorisation and organisational rhetoric of the museum archive is combined with an interest in the making of memory and the preservation of things, and with the invisible structures that sustain such ‘institutions’. Shaped by notions of time, power and knowledge (as we move further into the digital age with its characteristic dematerialisation of knowledge), the films create a dialogue between past, present, and proposed futures.
Oliver Laric’s work seeks to parse the productive potential of the copy, the bootleg, and the remix, and examine their role in the formation of both historic and contemporary image cultures. This process is intimately tied to his intuitive, idiosyncratic brand of scholarship, which he presents through an ongoing series of fugue-like expository videos (Versions, from 2009 to present), and further elaborates through his appropriated object works, videos, and sculptures, all of which are densely conceptually layered and often make use of recondite, technologically sophisticated methods of fabrication. Straddling the liminal spaces between the past and the present, the authentic and inauthentic, the original and its subsequent reflections and reconfigurations, Laric’s work collapses categories and blurs boundaries in a manner that calls into question their very existence.
Versions (2010) is a visual essay by Laric that (in tandem with Griffiths reappraising of the production and consumption of imagery) investigates the appropriation and manipulation of images in our culture, and circulates around both historical and contemporary ideas relating to image hierarchies. Laric suggests that in the contemporary age certain creative protocols are, in a more general sense, similarly challenging the hierarchy between ‘auratic original’ images (as first proposed in Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936) and those determined to be derivative (and therefore of secondary importance). Versions suggests a new mandate for image making, one which Laric identifies as finding its zenith in our networked internet age where bootlegs, copies and remixes increasingly take precedent over ‘originals’ in cultural production.
Matthew Denniss’ The Utopian Buck Stops Here (2012) uses found footage of Brasilia, the capital city of Brasil. Built from the ground up between 1956 and 1960 on a site that was previously dense jungle, Brasilia is a fantasy city, a Modernist Corbusian-esque ‘Utopia’, apparently made real. The films narration makes reference to architecture and movement around an imaginary landscape, a projection of a future cityscape, which draws accidental and incidental parallels with the footage. Robert Hughes (1938-2012), in The Shock of the New (1980) discusses the ‘Trouble in Utopia’, specifically referencing Brasilia, and perhaps somewhat optimistically asserting: “Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future. This is what you get when perfectly decent, intelligent, and talented men start thinking in terms of space rather than place; and single rather than multiple meanings. It’s what you get when you design for political aspirations rather than real human needs. […] This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.” Parallels with Griffiths Babel Fiche can be seen through both works aerial, ‘panoptic’, voyeuristic vantage points of their cityscapes, a sense of disembodiment, and consideration of the future alongside a suggestion of Foucauldian notions of ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’.
Mark Leckey’s fascination with the affective power of images is a recurring theme; with meticulously sourced and reconfigured archival footage a predominant feature of some of his key works. The March of the Big White Barbarians (2006) uses stock archive photographs to take us on a slideshow tour of public sculpture in London, with a rapid succession of public works of art, including those by late twentieth century artists such as Lynn Chadwick, Barry Flanagan, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Richard Serra. Pictures of these sculptures, in their urban settings of late capitalist architecture and privately owned ‘public’ plazas, are set to the sound of Leckey’s band Jack Too Jack, chanting (in a ritualised call and response) a translated concrete poem by the Lettrist Maurice Lemaître. The slide presentation is a typical pedagogical or corporate device for conveying information and ideas, and in using this format to present still images Leckey puts forward a critique of authoritative power, culminating in the resigned cry: “Ahh, everything’s been eaten, everything’s been drunk. So I’ll just watch the Big White Barbarians passing by.”
The use of sourced stock archive imagery has an obvious parallel with Griffiths Babel Fiche, but the key interest in this film in response to Griffiths work was the idea of ‘legacy’. Griffiths questions our existence and potential legacy, how imagery can last beyond our lifetime and how it might be interpreted years from now. In collating the many images of public sculptures in London, Leckey’s film reveals a desire to re-articulate and appropriate the contemporary problem of public-art, thus highlighting our complicated relationship with preservation and the passage of time. Who are the ‘Big White Barbarians’ in positions of power that commission these works? What do these sculptures say about them, about the ‘public’, and twentieth and twenty-first century culture and society?