Ghost Mediums & the Archive

Jessie Scott


I saw two films at the 2011 MIFF which eerily bookended each other: “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, the slightly loopy Werner Herzog production which breathlessly documented the inside of the Chauvet Caves in Spain, and “Into Eternity”, the equally loopy Scandinavian doc about the storage of nuclear waste in the preternaturally stable Finnish bedrock. The unintentional interplay between these two films, made in Europe in the same year, was striking to me.

In “Into Eternity”, the architects of the underground nuclear bunker must try to future-proof their cache for an unimaginable 100,000 years of potential climate change, war and technical devolution. The designs they have come up with for “markers” to alert future generations to the poison buried beneath them are absurd, unworkable. Visual representations of “nastiness” that attempt to predict and supersede current cultural and environmental contexts point only to an event horizon of legibility: there is no way of knowing how people that far in the future will talk, write, draw or perceive the world … not even whether they will be at all. One of the project managers describes with a straight face that the set of variables they are dealing with include “known-knowns, known-unknowns, and (most tricky of all): unknown-unknowns”.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, on the other hand, sees archaeologists attempt to glean information about the lifestyle and culture of people who lived 40,000 years ago, from the exquisite cave paintings they left behind. It is an equally impossible task, which sees various interviewees lamely applying their own reference points in various ways to untangle the mysteries they are confronted with: a cave bear skull on a big rock is “like an altar”, so it might be religious; a rhinoceros is painted with twice the number of legs, so it is ‘proto-cinema’. None of this is particularly convincing, and much of Herzog’s poetic speculation seems just as plausible as that of the scientific experts, and vice versa: many of them are far more convincingly poetic than him. The film fails to establish a hierarchy between its sources, placing some truly stupid analogies on the same footing as many of its more profound revelations, and the point is, at this distance, who the fuck knows what these people were thinking? Anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s.

And yet, across this insurmountable temporal divide, these images still affect us, causing us to reinvent them in our own likeness again and again, and ponder what of our own culture will remain universal? Do these things need to last forever when the culture that has literally lasted forever—compelling and moving though it may be—is often indecipherable to us now?

“As television multiplies its specialised channels, as people can download millions of bits of reality captured by digital cameras and made accessible through YouTube, the tiny screens we carry around everywhere do provide us with a machinery of omni-perception. Of course, we can not watch all these millions of available programs. This omni-perception remains purely “virtual”: a potential which can never be actualised. My feeling, however, is that it does nevertheless create very strong feeling of excess. By the very possibility of watching all these programs we cannot actually watch, we are put in an exciting (and frustrating) hyper-state which, indeed, “exceeds, transcends and overwhelms” our subjectivity.”
– Television Art, Ubiquity and Immersion: A Dialogue of Translation with Joseph Nechvatal, by Yves Citton, pp. 216-220, Multitudes 43 – Special-Issue: Art TV clash, Autumn 2010, France
From its inception, video has moved inexorably towards ever more immaterial states, a process to some degree paralleled by digital imaging. Unlike photography however, video began as an electronic medium and bloomed in a hyper-fossil-fuelled era. Liberated from the photographic frame, it pulsed with a seamless electric flow—lightening bottled on magnetic tape, encapsulated in chunky plastic boxes, played back on heavy metal decks: evanescence tethered to objects. There is little left of that physical culture of video now. Where photography maintains some relationship to its weighty analogue past, video is so digital now as to be fully disembodied. Materially indistinct from commercial film, it is so light and fleet of foot that it can reside permanently in something referred to as a cloud. It appears to occupy no space, converts light into pixels and then back into light—with barely a molecule displaced. Such a medium creates distinct archiving dilemmas: software updates are delivered by stealth and almost endless amounts of video can be stored online, with protection and climate control delegated to unknown parties in imaginary places. But this archive has no author, or rather so many authors as to obstruct an overview of its contents. Of this most thoroughly-documented period of culture in human history, what will future-us construe?
As an artist whose practice has spanned analog, electronic and digital eras( with remnants of several false-start formats littering my studio), I have an ambivalent relationship to “the archive”. The question of whose work gets preserved and why seems dictated at a far remove from my daily practice: unrepresented and largely working in an artist-led framework, documentation and preservation of my practice is a desultory activity of limited concern. I don’t have the resources or the burning compulsion to keep it alive for eternity, and I don’t have financial or cultural backers invested in the idea of historicising my work. I am not considered an important artist, and without a scrap of self-pity, I don’t anticipate I ever will be. I make works for myself, for a local audience, with local referents, often ephemeral and experiential, often performative or site-specific. This means that I will probably not be part of that larger temporal picture of culture. This could be quite depressing, as it negates my sense of having a ‘higher calling’, that my work might someday contribute to a more grandiose narrative of human endeavour – a deeply unfashionable notion to admit is part of your motivation as an artist. On the other hand, it liberates my practice from having to do that very thing, from the unbearable weight of that expectation.
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The legend of the library at Alexandria has it that all of human knowledge is based on the few texts that remained after the vast majority of the ancient world’s knowledge was destroyed in a fire. It’s a tantalising (though apocryphal) proposition that counters the idea of human knowledge being a constant forward progression, always building on what went before. Can it rather go sideways and backwards, and sometimes shoot off in unexpected directions, more opportunistic than deliberate?

Electronic art has bloomed in this era of on-tap resources, but what happens when the power slows down — what happens if it is switched off? In 40,000 years, say, if we have run out of resources, or are reliant on less constant power sources, if our sun is dying, if we have really screwed things up: what will remain of this vast and rich era of culture besides grey boxes, with no power to light them up?
These digital arts are rewritable forms – tape can be taped over, re-captured, deleted, distorted and de-magnetised. Files are even easier to alter – copied, shifted and trashed at the click of a button. Each generation reinvents video anew, repeating, rewriting, copying, filtering, layering and starting all over again. I once saw this as a weakness; now I wonder if it should stay that way. That might be the point of video, its most distinct aspect: responsiveness, flexibility, a lack of essential substance. A ghost medium, never alive to begin with, un-enbalmable.
Photo by G. Rieke, Royal Tyrrell museum
Jessie Scott is a video artist, programmer and producer who works across the spectrum of screen culture in Melbourne.