Documentation as an aesthetic strategy


Cinema based on archives editing is a practice that runs through both the history of cinema and its various genres such as media art. However, such practice mainly consists of using the archives as "supporting evidence". Archive images are shown either to reinforce the author’s views or to refute a previous view the author wishes to oppose. The archive picture is mostly shown as support for the narrator’s "speech".

Besides these very functional uses of archives, there is one more cinema type that does not employ archives as just one element among other elements of the narration composition but as the raw material, even the exclusive material, of the artwork. All these films advocate the irreducible nature of what the images say for themselves without any mediation through language, and re-show them again with a grammar that is imposed on them through the images themselves separated from the usual narrative canons.

From 1924 until his death in 1929, art historian Aby Warburg worked on his Mnemosyne Atlas, which he used to call his “ghost story for grown-ups”. The atlas is composed of thematic panels on which Aby Warburg mounted miscellaneous images (photographs, reproductions of old paintings, press clippings, etc.) without any didactic explanation. The man writes the images’ visual stories by "editing" the very images integrated into complex sequences whose manner of reading is not given. It is about what Georges Didi-Huberman has termed “making heterogeneities in order to ex-pose the truth in an order that is no longer the order of reasons but the order of correspondences, of elective affinities, repulsions, attractions. “A way of exposing the truth by disorganizing, thus by complicating and involving it and not by explaining things." (Quand les images prennent position, 2008).

The cinema of archives editing is based on Aby Warburg’s belief, in other words the possibility offered by the editing of the images themselves without any extra information, at least without any factual and functional information, without the mediation from a commentator other than the editor who organizes these images. Each archive is indeed an attempt at another historical reading of some images from a specific time, thanks to their new organization, extracted from their usual flow of reading and ambiguous understanding. It is about removing these images that are usually part of an audiovisual flow that guides the reading; it is about decontextualizing them and trying to give them their own value. Also, through the organization of images that were not created to be edited together, it is about creating new spaces between the images where "the practice of thinking can take place”, according to Aby Warburg.

In the cinema of archive editing, editing is precisely made readable, apparent. Consequently, an archive film cannot render invisible the political motives that lead to its realization. In its absence, it takes a stand. At least it takes the side of the main visual norms and thus against the main ideologies on which these visual norms are based. In a second movement, each film of archives editing questions the very construction of the images used as material. Thirdly, each film of archives editing questions by opposition and effects the usual frames of the images used by the film. Then, by showing the film editing and the constructions axis of the images employed, it is also about making readable this so-called naturalism of televisual editing or classical cinema as a making.

Therefore, the film director’s goal is to reverse, during the time of a film, the prevailing ideological processes and to offer counter-visions that at least have the honesty to flaunt their poetic and political convictions. The number of experimental works using archives is so substantial that any proposed guided tour through Gama’s archives could only be incomplete. Instead, I would suggest a list of a few filmmakers representative of contemporary research on archives:

-Klaus vom Bruch : The Duracell Tape, 1980 ; Airspirit, 1981
-Martin Arnold : Passage à l'acte, 1993
- Johan Grimonprez : D.I.A.L. History, 1997
- Augustin Gimmel :  Genève,  2004 ; Extracorpus, 2004 ; Fig.4, 2004
- Nicolas Provost : Papillon d'amour, 2003 ; Bataille, 2003 ; Gravity, 2007


by Jean-Gabriel Périot
Gama, June 2009