Wednesday, August 29, 2012

To Be (Dis)Continued: An Archive of What Wasn't

In her book Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, Carolyn Steedman discusses the fragmentary nature of archives, and the stories they leave out. She says, “And nothing starts in the Archive, nothing ever at all though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught halfway through: the middle of things. Discontinuities.” Every day on the inventory project we are in the middle of things – of some story we are unraveling about Kartemquin and its films. This can be difficult when you are digging through boxes of poorly labeled tapes, and film cans where the labels cracked off. 

KTQ staff, including co-founder Gordon Quinn, help us identify and understand what something is, how a certain film was made, etc. and we record that information in our database. We do as much as possible while leaving enough breadcrumbs on the trail.

A recent example of this is a film in the archive known only as Science Project. While looking for elements from another film, Lyra found a box labeled with this rather nondescript title. It begged a few questions.

Gordon explained:
It was a Kartemquin project. We were not able to raise the money to finish it but have the material to tell an interesting story about science and the drama surrounding it. We followed a group of U of C scientists lead by Leonard Wharton and my friend Danny Auerbach to build a linear accelerator for molecules. When they turned it on after years of work at first they were jumping up and down because they thought it was working and a huge breakthrough. As they continued testing it into the wee hours of the morning they came to realize that they were seeing a false signal and that the apparatus had a fundamental design flaw. My friend Danny loses his voice. It is a film about the outcome of most experiments—they fail. There is a rough cut of the film somewhere with workprint and track that was transferred off the Steenbeck in very low quality. The VHS of that may be over my desk.”

The irony is of course that Science Project (shot in the early 70s) is a film about failure that in its own way also failed. Potential funders would not support it. It is now housed in a room at The Hall with other projects not finished for one or another reason. Apart from the story each of these incomplete films intended to tell and never did, together they have become an unintended archive of the unfundable - an important, invisible history of independent filmmaking: a history of what wasn't.

As we approach this part of the collection during the inventory, we can only imagine the stories behind these abandoned projects which, if we are lucky, end with poor video transfers of rough cuts on VHS tapes over Gordon's desk. 

Post by Carolyn Faber 

  The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

1 comment:

  1. That is the downside, really, of analog archiving, and the one which people barely deal with: the physical aspect. I'm sure we've heard of all these arguments about hard drives having little shelf lives, and digital files being corrupted, but digital files are very adjustable. You can make multiple copies of a single film within seconds, whereas an analogue film is bound to celluloid, to a single film print. Not only does that copy rust, it is very difficult and expensive to replicate: color processing could take weeks and overseas travels. Something to put in mind when thinking of the supposed superiority of analogue for storage; much less massive storage.