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Winter 03/04

Centre partners organised two one-day conferences and a major three-day event during 2003.


Birkbeck, University of London - 10 June 2003

Organised by Frank Gray (Brighton) in collaboration with Laura Mulvey and Ian Christie (Birkbeck), this well-attended one-day conference addressed one of the Centre's main themes: how to stimulate greater academic awareness of archival holdings as a major focus for research - and how to help archives become more involved in setting the media research agenda.

Jan-Christopher Horak, founding vice president of Association of Moving Image Archivists and curator of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum was the keynote speaker at Moving History.

In the first session, 'The Moving Image and History', two speakers surveyed the current landscape in which moving image archivists are developing their collections and working with scholars to understand their cultural and intellectual meanings. Jan-Christopher Horak, editor of the Association of Moving Image Archivists' journal The Moving Image, has an informed knowledge of the issues facing archivists in the digital age, and also of the challenges presented to archivists and academics by images from such diverse producers as the studios, television, artists and amateurs (having worked at Eastman House, the Munich Stadtmuseum and Universal Studios). Nico de Klerk (Nederlands Filmmuseum) has long been interested in the archival and scholarly questions posed by non-fiction material, examples of which he showed. Much of this material is anonymous, has become detached from specific histories of production and consumption, and as a result has been kept outside of film/cultural history and scholarship. How can we re-attach these 'orphans' to history?

The second session brought together three researchers with different interests who
have each drawn directly on film archive
collections and generated new knowledge about these, as well as fostering interdisciplinary studies. Tim Boon is Head of Collections at the Science Museum, and was previously its Curator of Public Health. As well as writing on the history of health publicity, he has studied key British documentary films of the 30s to reveal the ideologies of history, industrialisation and society which they articulate. Elizabeth Lebas is senior lecturer in Visual Culture and media at Middlesex University, where she leads the MA in Architectural and Spatial Culture. Her research interest in urban ideas and projects between the wars led her to write the first major article about the Bermondsey health promotion films which are held by the Imperial War Museum and the NFTVA, and so amplify the understanding of 'documentary' in the 20s and 30s. Bert Hogenkamp, head of research at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum and a professor at Utrecht, is well known as an historian of British left and labour film; and on this occasion he talked about archival discoveries of amateur film from the 50s which show a continuing radical aspiration in unexpected quarters.

Three archivists took the platform in the final session: David Pierce, curator of the NFTVA, David Cleveland, director of the East Anglian Film Archive and Vanessa Toulmin, of the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University. Characterising their collections, they underlined the view that many potential researchers know little about the holdings, beyond familiar material, and each gave examples of issues and materials that would repay further research. A welcome feature of the symposium was the presence of a number of historians and interested parties not from within the film archive community. Equally welcome were the practical examples given of 'discoveries' and of interpretive approaches to specimen material. Most present felt that the potential of archival research had been well argued, and that more of such events would usefully carry this message to a wider constituency of historians.



University of Exeter - 21-23 July 2003

The Bill Douglas Centre collection houses, as its website proclaims, the second largest such collection in Britain, with a wealth of technology, literature and ephemera spanning the whole history of optical entertainment and cinema. But even a collection as rich needs research of different kinds to realise its potential. Following a symposium on 'Early Screen Practice', organised by John Plunkett during his Centre Fellowship in 2002, which provided some useful experience, 'Multimedia Histories' was an ambitious international conference focused on the impact of multimedia culture, understood as having a long genealogy stretching back long before contemporary multimedia. Among the themes examined by some fifty-six speakers were the relationship between screen technologies, optical recreations and popular culture, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, leading on to consideration of such relationships being reconfigured by the electronic and digital technologies of the later 20th and 21st centuries. Many of the presentations focused on specific historical moments of convergence and hybridity, or on speculative parallels - as in, for instance, Alison Griffiths' (CUNY) 'Woven Spectacles: medieval Tapestries as Precursors to IMAX', Lauren Rabinovitz's (Iowa) 'History of Somatic Visual Culture through Hale's Tours, IMAX and Motion Simulation Rides' and Michelle Henning's (UWE) 'The World-Wide Web as Curiosity Museum'.
Video gaming, interactivity and the impact of recent 'new media' on conceptions of narrative and spectatorship were also recurrent

themes of the conference, which began with a stimulating plenary lecture by Richard Grusin (Wayne State), co-author of the influential Remediation: Understanding new media, entitled 'Cinema of Interactions: DVDs, Video Games and the Aesthetic of the Inanimate', and ended with a 'show and tell' presentation by Ian Christie, 'Toys, Machines, Instruments', using examples of kaleidoscopes and stereoscopes from the Bill Douglas collection to explore the history of terminologies and perceived uses that have determined how new media are categorised.
New forms of theorisation of pre-cinema practices were in evidence, with an account of the android as 'synthespian' by Dan North (Exeter) and a new approach to Reynaud's Praxinoscope by Cathryn Vasseleu (Sydney). Non-visual media were also not forgotten: William Boddy (CUNY) contributed another plenary on 'Early Wireless and Multimedia History', and Charlie Gere drew suggestive parallels between John Cage and the development of defence technologies.
Above all, the conference demonstrated the continuing potential of themes such as intermediality, interactivity and hybridity to provide a strong conceptual base on which many detailed and specific studies could be fruitfully pursued, and historians of different periods can find common ground. Media history and theory seem to be alive, increasingly in dialogue, and thriving. A publication based on the conference and edited by James Lyons and John Plunkett, is in preparation.



Senate House, University of London - 21 November 2003

This study day was organised jointly with the Screen Studies Group, affiliated to London University's School of Advanced Study, and comprising Birkbeck, King's College, Royal Holloway, Queen Mary College, University College.
In a round-table setting, the aim was to create a forum for discussion of broad issues in the conception and writing of 'film history', with speakers organised in three panels and each invited to present a brief polemical statement as a prelude to debate. The questions at issue were outlined as follows.

A decade after David Bordwell identified the 'basic story' of film history, with its attendant aesthetic assumptions, does this still hold sway in Britain? Has the history of cinema taken account of other historians' debates? Has it had any impact on their work? Can film history be regarded as a legitimate field of historical inquiry, or is it merely a branch of criticism? Could it be part of art history, or of 'comp. cin.' on the model of 'comp. lit.'? And finally, where does the venerable organising principle of national cinema history stand today?

1 The history of what, exactly?

Film texts, genres, periods, aesthetic positions, makers, audiences, industries? Perspectives on what objects and processes film history can or should study - from Richard Brown (independent scholar; co-author, A Victorian Enterprise: the British Biograph Company); Christine Gledhill (Staffordshire; Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928; co-ed, Reinventing Film Studies, etc); John Sedgwick (author of Popular Film-Going in 1930s Britain, seen below explaining his cluster graph of film success to fellow panellists). Chair: Ian Christie (Birkbeck).

2 Where do we put the avant-garde (and where do we find it)?

Fringe or foundation? Avant-garde film occupies different places in different national traditions, with Britain as chronically ambivalent
about film as about its other art-forms when
these are compared with other cultures. Is avant-garde film best kept apart from histories of the commercial medium, or does it need to be integrated? Discussion by David Curtis (Experimental Film; programmer and head of the Centre's British Artists' Film and Video Study Collection at Central Saint Martins); Malcolm LeGrice (Central Saint Martins; author, Abstract Film and Beyond and leading film artist); and David Mellor (Sussex; curator and editor of the catalogue, A Paradise Lost: Neo-Romanticism in Britain 1935-55, etc). Chair: Laura Mulvey (Birkbeck).

3 Britain in the world; the world in Britain

Do national cinema histories still make sense? Did they ever? How should British film history reflect European affiliations as well as American indebtedness? How does film history relate to national history: can we read the latter in the former, and vice-versa? Discussion by Claire Monk (De Montfort; co-editor, British Historical Cinema); Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Luton; editor, Oxford History of World Cinema). Chaired by Peter William Evans (Queen Mary College). Pictured below.

Discussion was lively during the day, with a welcome number of postgraduate students present and participating. Among the most striking contributions were John Sedgwick's account of his economics-based approach to measuring film popularity and success, using a range of data largely ignored by traditional film historians; and David Mellor's questioning of the idea of 'avant-garde' in relation to British traditions of whimsy and subversive comedy.
This investigation of current attitudes towards film history in Britain and the history of British film was intended to contribute to shaping both the 'London' strand of the Centre programme, about to start at Birkbeck, and a proposed new history of British cinema, which might become a future Centre project.


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