after | image

We are surrounded by archives, archives personal and national; our externalized memories and their material placeholders line the shelves of our cupboards and drawers, just as they crowd the vaults of our national repositories. As format obsolescence and material degradation inexorably wend our archives towards digital storage, and as digital imaging technologies are increasingly inserted into everyday practices, we multiply archives, almost without thinking. Let us save everything, we say, it costs so little and is so easy to do. Let nothing slip from our grasp.

But what does it mean, this mandated will to preserve? How do we relate to these images as material memories, and to their durable existence in an archive? What do we gain when we preserve them, and what, if anything, do we lose? How do we feel about these things – and how would we feel if they were destroyed?

This project addresses these questions. after | image is about archival preservation and dissolution, it features time-lapse macro-photography of photographic negatives being chemically and physically destroyed. The photographs come from my collection of negatives produced when I studied photography at high school. This archive records my youthful obsessions and experiments, it is a personal record of a specific time and set of circumstances, and contains the images of family, friends, and an inexplicable assortment of violins, nails, trains and umbrellas. This archive has been sitting in a ring-binder in my parents’ attic for 20 years – and now it’s time to go.

(copper nitrate and black and white negative film, 24 hrs)

Process

In this project, I am collaborating with my colleague, scientist and artist Amanda Reichelt-Brushett. We are working with a series of strong acids, chemical compounds and oxidising agents – sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, bleach, copper sulphate, silver nitrate and hydrogen peroxide, to name just a few. Sitting in a petri dish and lit from below, each negative is submerged in a given substance and photographed 1000-2000 times over differing periods, anywhere from 5 hours to 5 days.

Each substance affects the negative differently, with different temporal envelopes of attack, sustain and decay. Some substances destroy the negative completely, others lift the emulsion from the substrate, or dissolve the emulsion entirely, leaving the celluloid negative a dry husk enveloped in crystalline structures. Each of these processes has its own specificity, and marks a different regime in an interrogation of the archived image, its materiality and its durability. The status of the image and its material support is what is at stake here. after | image produces a kind of archival remainder: this is what you get when photography deserts itself.

In Walter Benjamin’s terms, this is a simultaneous evaporation and apotheosis of the “aura” of the photographic image. Where the photographic negative is usually thought of as a “template” from which essentially identical images are mechanically struck, here, the negative, in being destroyed while being photographed thousands of times, becomes, for the first time in its existence, an object capable of uniqueness. Why destroy the archive, why commit archival treason? Because in doing so, you can make it live again.

(copper wire and silver nitrate, on black and white negative film – approx 20 hrs)

Exhibition

The first output from this project was a 10-minute single-channel film entitled “after | image”, with sound design by  my colleague Matt Hill. This project has been exhibited or screened at:

  • AIVA Video Art Festival, Finspang, Sweden, May 2014.
  • Société civile des auteurs multimedia, Paris, France, April 2014.
  • Wellington Underground Film Festival, Wellington, New Zealand, May 2014
  • Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, Hawick, Scotland, April 2014
  • VIDEOFORMES video and digital art festival, Clermont-Ferrand, France, March 2014. Awarded the prize for Prix Université Blaise Pascal des étudiants.
  • SeenSound Visual/Music Series, Loop Bar, Melbourne, February 2014
  • ZOOM film festival, Jelenia Gora, Poland, February 2014
  • FILE International Festival of Electronic Language,  Sao Paulo, Brazil, July-August 2013.
  • Melbourne Underground Film Festival; Melbourne, Australia, September 2013.
  • NEMAF Seoul International New Media Festival, Seoul, Korea, October 2013.

Documentation

Needless to say – this project produces some amazing images! The insanity of taking time-lapse photographs of photographic negatives being bleached, oxidised, melted, crystallized and basically torn apart, is matched only by the complexity of the imagery that emerges through such a crucible. Below are a few results of some of our experiments.

If you are wondering what some of these processes look like over time, the promo clip below might give you a clue.