Mediating the Past—Twice

The upcoming week I will participate in a film archival conference in Tallinn at the Estonian Film Archive. The theme of the conference is Emerging Screen Sites/Sights: Cinema Culture around the Baltic Sea 1895-1920. However, personally I will rather address the media specificity of digitised film collections. Parts of my talk runs as follow:

Digitisation is is the representation of an object, image, sound, document or a signal by a discrete set of points or samples. The result is called a digital representation. In short, digitising means simply capturing an analog signal in digital form, and the term digitisation is, thus, often used when diverse forms of information, such as text, sound, image or voice, are converted into a single binary code. As is well known, digital information can only exists as one of two digits—either 1 or 0—which is why everything digital is always numerical. Bits and bytes in discrete settings can be always copied back and forth—basically with no loss of information. In terms of media specificity most of us here present know, at least sort of, what the specificity of the medium of film is about. Technical terms or film theory from the 20th century has taught us to perceive moving images as, for example, a distinct language—letting, say, Hollywood films tell us stories through various stylistic features, film techniques and continuity editing principles. Within documentary film theory representing reality is moreover a complicated issue—films do not depict reality, rather bits and pieces of it, with images put together, and where one should always pay attention to the cut—i.e. the splicing of two shots together—or what might happen outside the image in of-screen space.

Film, thus, represents according to various media specific traits and categories. Any archivist knows that one has to be careful handling the media specific traits of, say, early cinema. Speed is an apparent example we are all familiar with. When early cinema is remediated through the interface of television, people—still—regularly hurry past the film camera and street cars run with amazing velocity. Of course, its all a matter of projection speed. Silent cinema was shot a 16 frames per second and when projected today movement gets distorted; run any 16 fps silent film through a 24 fps projector and the action simply gets speeded up. My point is that, media specificity is often neglected when using or digitising cultural heritage. As stated, any film archivist knows the media specificities of film—yet the same goes for digital representations, since naturally they also carry specific traits. All media follow their own rules—teased out by technology itself and practices surround media usage. Yet, when dealing with the digitisation of film heritage—or the visual mediation of history, if we address the issue on a broader scale—there is often an unawareness of the specific traits of ”the digital”. In fact, the mediation of history always needs to address the particular technological condictions that lies inherent in every media form. Never loose sight of the medium I always tell my students.

Consequently, every mediation of history involves particular technical (and public) circumstances within media history per se. Today, within the heritage sector there is a common understanding that all digitisation efforts result in various media transfers—remember, digitisation means that stuff gets converted into code. Hence, the information capacity of the copy differs from the original. But once in digital form it can be copied endlessly.One shouldn’t forget, however, that basically the same media specificity goes for analogue mediations from, say, a hundred years ago in 1914. In what media specific ways do, for example, film footage depicting events in 1914 differ from post cards, lantern slides or stereoscopic images visualizing similar events? That is, how was the past mediated in specific ways and regulated by technologies that shaped the mediation process in the first place?

Authenticity is often regarded as crucial within the heritage domain. The fact is, however, that at a number of audiovisual media archives the past is nowadays mediated twice—first in specific media technological format and secondly in digitized form. The same, naturally, goes for all the images in this Keynote presentation since they are (mostly) digital representations of analogue media. Researchers—or the public—working with digitized cultural heritage, hence, literally face material and objects of a second order. Again—when most of us present here are thinking about, handling or archiving films, we really do acknowledge the specific medium traits of film. But—and this is the basic point of my talk—it is often not the case regarding digitisation activities concerning the same material, especially not—I would argue—with the audiovisual heritage domain.


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