Terraforming the Film Archive

This blog post is the result of the work carried out on the CFMDC’s collection in relation to the Archive/Counter-Archive (A/CA): Activating Canada’s Moving Image Heritage project. In order to learn more about the case study in which CFMDC is participating, click here.


“Film canisters have a certain silence to them,” writes Mohamed A. Gawad, who was recently the artist in residence at Arsenal, the Berlin-based Institute for Film and Video Art. “In an archive space, they look almost identical in their solid shape and color to the point where the rows of reels resemble a wall/a passageway.”[i] Indeed, the sheer scale of many audiovisual collections makes them seem unintelligible to the onlookers who might find themselves in a vault where the holdings are arranged through a system that may not be too intuitive or immediately recognizable. As part of the Archive/Counter-Archive project’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, who is the co-director of Arsenal, recounted how Gawad responded to the environment described above: through an installation entitled “Time Helix,” in which he arranged a blue thread to run from the film reels he engaged with during his residency, thus transforming the archive into a personal and intelligible space. Yet the constellation of threads that made the archival space palpably coherent for the artist, made it unusable for those who wanted to cross the threads and those who managed to make sense of the archive through other cans and video works.

cfmdc vault
The shelves of reels in CFMDC’s cold storage vault at Toronto Media Arts Centre.

What is a sustainable way to make the collection graspable for an ordinary user? Beyond the sense of materiality one might experience in the first encounter with the shelves of film reels, making sense of the collection is an endeavour that entails the labour of searching and researching, of acquainting yourself with the databases and initiating conversations with those who are familiar with the holdings in order to obtain a sufficient grasp for further explorations. For a more active practice in the archive, a standard operating procedure might be developed. Gawad makes use of another distinct metaphor to consider the current state of archival sensibilities: “[p]erhaps in our times, the archive is haunted by a contemporary version of a labyrinth; one that dissolved its center, and spread its Minotaur thin over its entire space.”[ii] It is worth noting that the archive as a concept and the archive as a site do not always converge in all their characteristics. Some collections are more unruly than others, some materials more accessible than others. These differences come to the fore whenever different attitudes to preservation are made visible in the different aspirations of various organizations, in terms of whether they consider themselves as private collections, as commercial enterprises, as communal projects, as non-professional endeavours, or indeed, if they do not primarily consider themselves to be archives in the first place. 

Archive/Counter-Archive project makes us particularly aware of the emergence of the archival sensibilities in the conditions or environments that are not necessarily supposed to foster  them, postulated on necessity or tangible practice that brings forth the recognition that traditional archive left significant portions of the histories of the marginal communities untold. While there is no single definition to which those who seek to theorize counter-archives turn, it seems reasonable to assert that some of their essential characteristics emerge from the fact that they are “embodied differently and have explicit intention to historicize differently, to disrupt conventional national narratives and to write difference into public accounts.”[iii] For Brett Kashmere, the notion of counter-archive is understood as “an incomplete and unstable repository, an entity to be contested and expanded through clandestine acts, a space of impermanence and play” that can challenge or rectify the prevailing historical narratives.[iv] In the more narrow understanding of its mandate, CFMDC is not an archival institution but rather a not-for-profit media arts distributor. Yet its practice to continually reaffirm the essential component of the Centre⁠—being “committed to our artist members and the broader arts community”—may be interpreted as implicitly allowing for the possibility of storage of films and other moving image artworks by the artist members, as an extension of the commitment to support them in the distribution of their work.[v] Of course, any more active kind of preservation can only take place in compliance with the copyright regulations and the wishes of the artists who entrusted CFMDC with their work, but even this means that the Centre has to take on some of the archival sensibilities given its status as a good and trusted custodian of the holdings that may be understood as a counter-narrative to the established histories of filmmaking in Canada and beyond. 

If the film archive is initially unintelligible, as Gawad’s artwork attests, it may also be added that it is often uninhabitable. The paradox of film preservation lies in the fact that in order to prolong the period through which a film reel or a VHS tape to remains screenable in the human environment, it must be removed from that environment and transposed into a climate controlled and often access-restricted space where the media are handled with caution and care. Yet, to push Gawad’s reformulations of archive further and to finally arrive at the metaphor that rests in the title of this writing, how do we terraform the film archive? In other words, how do we bring it closer to the space of the living and a place of continual screening that does not degrade the integrity of the media art on display? While it should be prefixed as a conservation and access measure that does not fit each film nor each filmmaker’s decision to participate given the original medium in which they chose to create, digitizing the analogue works can provide the kind of transition that is less an extraction tactic from the uninhabitable and more of a forming of a new generation while the original rests in the vault.

Neither the speculative re-articulations of archival and counter-archival sites nor the relevant epistemologies that emerge from such considerations should be understood as a way to eschew the recognition that CFMDC is spatially connected with the land on which it works in a concrete and historically specific sense that their territorial acknowledgment underscores.[vi] The practice of giving space to engagement with the underlying structures of colonialism inscribed in the seemingly quotidian fact of location, namely the reality that the land is stolen from the Indigenous peoples, has been adopted by multiple institutions concerned with the cultural, academic and heritage activities, though with varying degrees of sensitivity to and honest engagement with the factors that lead to the emergence of land acknowledgments in the first place. CFMDC’s statement cautions against the possibility of closure that sometimes becomes the result of the formulaic reiterations of acknowledgments, particularly when they are recited in introductions before the “main” events, and instead reframes the articulation as a first step for an ongoing reflection process. Some have come to contemplate the possibility that as acknowledgment as a form becomes standardized and removed from the essence that animated the articulation in the first place, it may in fact become “aligned with a politics of recognition that is a continuation of settler colonial logics rather than a break from them.”[vii] This legitimate concern may destabilize the routine manner in which acknowledgments are sometimes delivered and it is indeed the possibility of moving away from the formulaic that can open up substantial breaks in settler colonial dynamics. The space for resistance or questioning of the dominant narratives is enacted within CFMDC’s collection itself—the research undertaken for the Archive/Counter-Archive project affirmed that the materials rarely focus exclusively on queer themes but also engage with perspectives of other minorities, including the indigenous peoples, emphasizing the instances of intersections that take place in works from Canada and elsewhere. Terraforming the archive should necessarily entail these works and bringing them closer to audiences through digitization may be one of the steps in bringing the spotlight to the openings in the wall of reels that take up the conventional film canon that larger institutions continue to uphold. Still, terraforming of the film archive as a conceptual reading of the digitization still has plenty of obstacles in its way.

The mere implementation of digitization can be deceivingly construed as the effortless end point of providing greater access to the collection. In fact, the way in which the collections are accessed is sometimes contingent upon the creation and use of tags and text descriptions of individual items in databases, but in the digital era it is more often the case that an algorithm of a multinational search engine, whose functioning and reasoning is inaccessible to the librarians or archivists striving to open up their collections to their users and the general public, determines what results appear in an online search. In a recent episode of Aca-Media, a podcast of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, Nedda Ahmed noted that the results of matches for Kanopy, a streaming service that offers documentary and experimental cinema to institutions of higher education for a fee, often ranked higher in the search engines than the university catalogues that could point students to the fact that their institutions already provide access to a copy of the films they were looking for.[viii]

How would a researcher or a party interested in screening a work find out it is held by CFMDC, or even find a work that might be suitable to their interest as is often the case with browsing, when a person has no specific films in mind to begin with? Archive/Counter-Archive project cannot resolve the monopoly of the technological titans such as Google to decide what gets displayed in the explorations of cinema history that the general public carries out, but it can help to make the database of CFMDC’s collection as accessible and comprehensive as possible. Even as the current breath of queer heritage in the period from approximately 1984 to early 2000s already constitutes a significant portion of the collection, the possibility of leaving behind a work that may be considered queer but was not classified as such in the database at its arrival to CFMDC resulted in the re-examination of all undigitized works from the time period. You can read about the surprises and dilemmas that emerged in the exploration of a significant portion of the CFMDC’s collection in the next installment of this blog.

by Jaka Lombar

[i] Mohamed A. Gawad, Time Helix,  Arsenal Institute, Berlin, 2016: https://www.arsenal-berlin.de/fileadmin/user_upload/kollektion/Living_Archive_ab_2016/Time_Helix_Mohammad_A._Gawad.pdf

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] May Chew, Susan Lord, and Janine Marchessault, “Introduction,” Public (Archive/Counter-Archives Issue) 57 (2018): 5-10, 9.

[iv] Brett Kashmere, “Introduction to Issue #2: Counter-Archive: Cache Rules Everything Around Me,” Incite! Journal of Experimental Media and Radical Aesthetics, 2 (2010): http://www.incite-online.net/intro2.html

[v] See CFMDC Mandate at https://www.cfmdc.org/about

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Dylan Robinson, Kanonhsyonne Janice C. Hill, Armand Garnet Ruffo, Selena Couture, Lisa Cooke Ravensbergen, “Rethinking the Practice and Performance of Indigenous Land Acknowledgement,” Canadian Theatre Review, 177 (2019): 20-30, 20.

[viii] See Aca-Media podcast, Episode 49, http://www.aca-media.org/episode49

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