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YouTube isn’t the answer to tricky questions about film

Some films were made to be projected – which is why we need our archives to make copies in their original formats available to scholars and fans. girl/afraid

Last month a major restructure at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra was announced, including a tranche of job cuts and the closure of the Arc cinema.

Many in the film community were concerned that this would see the closure of the Non-Theatrical Lending Collection (NTLC) housed by the archive. The management of the archive has reassured film societies that lending services will be maintained – but questions remain about how, under pressure to keep up in a digital marketplace, the archive will be able to lend out works in their original formats.

The lending library, also based in Canberra, loans hard copies from the archive’s collection to film societies around the country. It provides film fans and scholars with rare opportunities to see the 1.9 million works of film, video and sound art housed in the archive in their original formats. The structural changes at the NFSA points to the challenges people working at archives around the world are facing as they negotiate the transition to digital formats in difficult funding environments.

The role of the NFSA

Emerging from the National Library, the NFSA, after a few name changes, became a statutory authority in its own right in 2008.

It has housed the extensive catalogue of the National Library’s film and video collection for the last six years and includes the world’s first ever feature film, Charles Tait’s 1906 epic The Story of the Kelly Gang.

Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906).

The lending library was transferred at the same time from the National Library’s care, and has continued to service film societies, institutional programmers, and film and video enthusiasts across the country.

Regular borrowers from the collection, long-running film societies, cinematheques, and specialist programmers such as OtherFilm, which began in Brisbane in 2004, and the emerging collective Artist Film Workshop in Melbourne, of which I am a member, have been told that the existing lending program will be integrated into a new “Collection Reference Service” and will continue to provide lending services.

The bigger picture

While it is important that the archive remain open to those who wish to know more about our cultural heritage, changes to collecting and preservation practices of film and sound art are in flux worldwide. 19th- and 20th-century photographic and phonographic technologies, and new media works in particular, are proving harder to administer from a centralised collection.

The NFSA holds thousands of experimental and rare films and video works that simply can’t be found anywhere else. The transcription of some of these works into newer mediums – such as digital video – is at odds with the specificity of the works, some made using hand-printing techniques. Those works are fundamentally different when viewed in digital formats.

Experimental, in-camera, artworks like those produced by celebrated Australian-German filmmaker Paul Winkler – see the classic Bondi (1979) for example, which has screened at New York’s MoMA – do not cohere to the logic of the digital marketplace. But they remain significant examples of Australian culture that should remain publicly accessible.

Paul Winkler’s Bondi (1979) – best viewed in its original format.

The medium of film has great significance for many artists and researchers.

The work of British artist Tacita Dean, for example, has focused on the history of film – her recent show at ACCA was simply titled Film. She has also documented her attempt to have the medium recognised as an intangible cultural practice that now needs protecting by UNESCO.

Film is both tangible and intangible. Experimental filmmakers such as American Paul Sharits showed this to be the case in the 1960s. His works, such as Ray Gun Virus(1966) held in the NTLC collection, focus on the space of the individual film frames as much as on the light projected into the cinema. Those effects are lost, however, in digital copies.

The effect of Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus in a digital format is utterly different to when it is played via a projector.

Film has always sat uneasily besides masterworks of art. Given each work is neither a singular authorial original nor just a mass-produced copy, the status of the object is often left in limbo. Experimental film in particular reflects this tension.

When film goes digital

The NFSA, like all museums and libraries, is weathering a transition period and exploring digital possibilities for storing and sharing its collection. The decision-makers at the archive must take into account a broader shift away from the exhibition of film and tape formats towards newer recording technologies, namely digital video and sound.

Michael Loebenstein, the CEO of the archive, is no stranger to the specific issues bearing on the preservation of experimental film in the digital age. He has written on the future of the film archive in the digital marketplace as well as publishing a book-length study on the works of hand-printed experimental films by the Austrian artist Peter Tscherkassky.

The shift to newer storage technologies in recent years, and the digitisation of archives is allowing access to archives in ways once never thought achievable. 11th-century illuminated manuscripts are now viewable through an iPad application developed in partnership with the British Library, for example. Such initiatives present extraordinary opportunities for scholars.

But the intention and form of modern works of art requires that some films need to be preserved and exhibited as such. In the march to streamline and automate access to our cultural heritage, a direct encounter with the collections must not be lost.

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