Don't Throw Out the Microfilm!

Rebecca R. Falkoff
October 08, 2010
A photo of a dancer taken with an artistic angle and lighting.

On September 30, Diana Taylor, professor of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and founding director of Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics (HIPP), delivered a talk entitled “SAVE AS... Memory and the Archive in the Age of Digital Technologies,” as part of the Townsend Center’s Forum on the Humanities and the Public World. 

Taylor began her discussion of the transforming archive with a consideration the distinct kinds of knowledge produced by embodied oral cultures and print cultures, reminding the audience, “What we know is radically altered by how we know it.”  If embodied culture, “confined to the ever-changing now” produces collective thinking, place-based knowledge, and bodily awareness; print culture—and the archive that safeguards its past—favors rational, so-called objective thought, and individualism.  The move from the repertoire to the archive, however, is not linear: each epistemic system draws on and contributes to the other.  In "SAVE AS...," Taylor proposes a similar simultaneity in the relationships between the repertoire, the archive, and new forms of knowledge and interaction engendered by digital technologies: “Digital technologies constitute yet another system of transmission that is rapidly complicating Western systems of knowledge, raising new issues around presence, temporality, space, embodiment, sociality and memory--usually associated with the repertoire--and those of copyright, authority, history, and preservation--linked to the archive.”  

The Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library, a collaboration between New York University Libraries and the HIPP, represents a suggestive point of intersection between the repertoire, the archive, and digital technologies.  Preserving performances from the many cultural and political landscapes of the Americas, the HIDVL brings together materials previously available only in small, little-known archives and personal collections, and makes them accessible to the public.  The work of the HIDVL extends beyond gathering: its preservation plan ensures the maintenance and distribution of the materials for five hundred years, through unforeseeable technological advances.  Unlike the traditional archive, which retains originals, the HIDVL privileges the copy: each archived performance takes on a digital “aura” that can be inserted into the most up-to-date document delivery technology.  In what Taylor understands as a postcolonial iteration of the archive, the artists retain the original and all rights to the archived materials, while the HIDVL preserves a copy along with its digital aura. 

In a lively question and answer session following the talk, audience members joined in the discussion about whether the complex personal archiving systems of digital forums such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, SecondLife, and YouTube represent extensions of our embodied selves or some entirely new form of subjectivity.  Taylor called on universities and governments to preserve digital culture: “The things we think are being archived are not being archived.  People put things on YouTube and think they're going to be there forever. They're not.”  She also urged personal and professional archivists in the audience, who may not have the resources to support preservation plans that extend hundreds of years into the future and resist the deluge of ephemeral technologies, “Don’t throw out the microfilm!”