Experimental film art – archives and the historical

Student with learning differences – Please read fast to get a better comprehension of the text.

On reading this weeks text, I began to think about film as an archive. Not only has celluloid been used as a medium to capture and project the moving image over the last one hundred and sixteen years but it has been used as a storage medium as well due to its reliable archivable properties. The first film base in use was nitrate which was extremely flammable, especially if heat was applied and it was not stored correctly. Many early film archives were lost due to nitrate film fires. Below is a video demonstrating how flammable the film was.

The licensing of cinemas was introduced during the early 1900s due to health and safety reasons connected to several fatal projection room and cinema fires. Because of dangerous properties, nitrate film has long since been discontinued and is now classified as a ‘dangerous substance’ meaning that there are a lot of permits, permissions and licences needed to handle, store or project it. Last year the BFI (who has the only public licence to screen nitrate film in the country) held a season called Dangerous Beauty: The Joy of Nitrate film which showed a collection of nitrate films from their archives.

The second film base to be utilised was acetate, which was much safer than nitrate film and most films in archives today are stored on this type of celluloid. However it can degrade over time when exposed to the air and room temperature, leaving picture discolouration and a smell of vinegar – it is also quite brittle compared to polyester film stocks that have been used since the early nineties. Polyester celluloid is the most recent and durable type of celluloid but any film, regardless of base is still the most reliable medium for the archive of moving pictures if preserved correctly. Not only is it higher quality than digital/data modes of storage it has a much longer life (over a hundred years). DVD’s and digital storage mediums have not yet got anywhere near that long before they degrade. The current storage life of a DVD – RW is ten years – so remember that when you are archiving your digital family photographs! (2005:230)

‘Artists are increasingly taking on new roles and skills as they participate in these fields and generating new ways of understanding what visual art can be and do. Performing the roles of curators, ethnographers, archaeologists, researchers, educators, and archivists, many artists today are border crossers who use their interest in the world of ideas to enter and from a wide range of fields and practices. More specifically, artists have begun to turn to historical methods and sources to inform their work.’ (2009:48)

The other point that I was thinking of in relation to the topic was that many avant garde and experimental film artists make use of found film in their work – found film is term that is used to describe (usually) old and sometimes unknown footage that an artist or filmmaker has come across. Often they do not know how, where or why the film was created but feel it could fit in with their practice in some way. One such experimental film made up of found film is  A Movie (1958) by Bruce Conner. The found film utilised in it was collected from all manner of sources, curated and edited together to form quite an evocative piece, that showcases technological and social history as well as allowing the artist to comment on thematics and meaning – which of course is open to interpretation in this piece. One has to note how the original context of the found film has changed by merely being taken and put between other pieces of film. Although we can stil derive meaning from the original pieces, there is a new significance to what is being shown. Conner has truly worked as curator here. He is also working as archivist – due the very nature of the medium he is using.

Malcolm Le Grice also uses bits of found film in his work, though in quite different ways. In Little Dog for Roger the found film he decided to use was that of a 9.5 reel shot by his parents when he was a child. This is quite a personal use of found film and explores the idea of memory. The film can be found on the anthology Shoot, Shoot, Shoot (2006) distributed by LUX. Berlin Horse (1970) another film by Le Grice is a mixture of shot and found footage, the found footage was from a news reel of a horse being led from a burning barn, that integrates with the filmed shots towards the end of the piece.

What I love about the use of found film in experimental film art is the element of rediscovery – many of these pieces of found film would not have found their way into the public sphere, to be watched and appreciated, if the artist/ filmmaker had not also taken on the role of curator. Since found film is often something that has been forgotten the artist/ filmmaker has also taken on the role of archivist, as this film will now be preserved where it perhaps might not have been before. The flip side to this is whether people would realize what they are watching is found film? Especially in this piece, as it has been altered, colored and printed multiple times. I suppose the more apt question is do they need to know?

To end I thought I would draw attention to the EDF ‘Being Green’ advert. This series of television adverts utilised found footage in a sort of montage to get across its message of recycling. Again the context of the original pieces has in some instances changed to fit the current message, yet at the same time we know the footage is ‘recycled’ not just because it tells us at the end but  due to the fact many of us will recognise many of the clips that have been used due to their placement in popular culture or as historical document.


Desai, D. and Hamlin, J., 2009. Artists in the realm of Historical methods: The Sound, Smell, and Taste of History. In: D. Desai and J. Hamlin eds History as Art, Art as History. New York: Routledge, pp 47-66.

Enticknap, Leo.2005. Moving Image Technology: from Zoetrope to digital. Great Britain:Wall flower press, pp 230- 231

This entry was posted in archival and historical art, tp1011 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Experimental film art – archives and the historical

  1. paula roush says:

    Alexa, this a great reflection on the archival quality of film when compared to digital storage and the ontology of found film, as it entered artists practices, so well exemplified in Malcolm Le Grice’s beautiful Berlin Horse. In the book Experimental ethnography: the work of film in the age of video by Catherine Russell, there is a chapter on found footage as ethnography that may be relevant for your research

  2. Pingback: Experimental film art – archives and the historical « Another Corner

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