Panorama Ephemera
By Rick Prelinger
Design by Raegan Kelly

Author's Statement

In 2004 I tucked twenty years of thinking about moving image archives into the back of my mind and resolved to make a film. Most archivists consider doing this at one time or another, but archival work and production are two very different kinds of activities. It's hard to turn off a sense of "archivalness," to let go one's concern for archival practice, and dismiss the feeling that archivists and art makers are somehow wired differently. Plus, the constraints of time and money often render film production an exercise in achieving the impossible, and archivists tend to live well within the domain of possible.

As if to prove others wrong, I spent several months pulling videotapes off the shelf and very slowly watching footage I'd always wanted to view. I began with a rough outline of what I wanted to assemble, but the details, and of course the specific images I wanted to use, remained unclear. Since most of my viewing has always been directed toward finding specific images, I tend to watch almost everything in fast forward, and it was a delight to stroll through the collection and linger on interesting items, capturing them to disc and watching them repeatedly. In a short time I drifted into a kind of cinephilia, taking culinary pleasure in the images I was finding and poring over, and celebrating a kind of anti-intellectual attitude toward the material. After years of focusing on the context of the films -- Who made them and why? For what purpose was money spent to produce an expensive public statement? Out of whose ideas did this film come from? And how was it received, and what effect? -- I put all context aside and pretended the images were nothing more than just images. "An egg is just an egg," I told myself.

This is, of course, a mental scam, but it's probably necessary to get work done. And after awhile I convinced myself that it was a conceit that might help me get beyond some real snags that make working with archival footage really difficult. What if, I thought, I regarded these ideology-laden and rhetorically rich films as a kind of simple evidence (an oversimplification), as documentary images of ideas and trends (fine, if you can accept tendentious images as documentation), stripped them of their context (though you can never really do that) and assembled them into my own synthesis of the past 250 years of North Aerican history and culture? I hoped to redirect these film segments from being objects of discussion towards being the building-blocks of drama, and see what might happen.

Another vexing issue made the archival clips very difficult to work with. One of the most alluring aspects of old advertising, educational, government and industrial films is their style -- the impossibly bright, saturated colors of Kodachrome; the stentorian, sure voices of their narrators; the forgettable music that triggers diffuse, unclear emotions; their mobilization of imaginary, abundant space inside now-demolished studios to enable ideology to flourish. For years I reveled in the appreciation of the style and surrealism of these films, cataloging their representational quirks and strategies as I explored the alternative universe of what is paradoxically called "factual film." But now I questioned this way of looking and listening. It seemed to obstruct my "egg is just an egg" perspective. Style began to look like baggage weighing down these clips, dragging them into a less interesting domain. I didn't want to get hung up on the tone of a narrator's voice or on the rounded body of a 1950s car. I wanted to point people to what each clip was actually showing or saying. Just that.

For awhile I thought that style was so hard to ignore, so hard to strip from the footage, that I couldn't make an archival film. Even if I could, it seemed as if I was going to ask my audience to ignore or reject much of what they found pleasurable about looking at archival stuff. This might be too much to ask, or it might be boring. But then "Panorama Ephemera" emerged, was screened as a work in progress, got reworked for another few months, and started to show around.

Introducing it at screenings and festivals, I found that people tended to ask the same questions. Here and there, people asked about the film. Perhaps more often, they wanted to know about archives, questions about archival access, control over the raw materials of history, and intellectual "property." As an archivist, I was expected to make a meta-archival film, something about "archivalness." I hadn't wanted to do that.

And then a Vectors residency and collaboration with Raegan Kelly offered a chance to turn Panorama inside out and use its structure as the spine for a discursion on archives and access to culture. As it turned out, I already knew much of what I wanted to say, because I'd said it before. So, similar to a compilation film made of preexisting materials, the Vectors' piece combines preexisting texts (and some new ones) with a chronology, a glossary, and a sequence-by-sequence version of the film, all linked through a matrix of associations. Though it may be read in any number of ways, the network of associations is its heart. The piece stands as evidence that there is nothing about a film or any work of art that cannot be turned inside out or upside down and redeployed for purposes that diverge from those of the original work. It also challenges artists to think as archivists and open-content activists do, and archivists to think more like artists.

The Vectors' piece was not a simple endeavor, and text plus film clips plus associations don't structure themselves. Though I had a high degree of freedom to plan, execute, succeed or fail, everything in the piece is present and functional because Raegan K. found a way to make it so. Although she is formally credited as designer, the design and strategy of the piece is integral to its clarity and function, and it would be misleading to think of her role as circumscribed by legacy definitions of what a designer does and doesn't do. I consider her a co-conceptualist and co-author, and feel fortunate to have had the chance to work with her on this project.

--Rick Prelinger
May 1, 2006