As the elevator opened its door on the third level below ground, I immediately noticed the scent of vinegar vaguely in the air. The odor is one of the typical signs of aging celluloid film – a lesson I have learned in the dusty vaults of the long-abandoned Indonesian State Film Company back in 2014. Below the ground level of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (Sound and Vision) in Hilversum, is where all the physical audiovisual media are kept. Unlike the strong odor in the Indonesian State Film Company, the vague scent of vinegar at Sound and Vision indicates that the celluloid films age slowly here – which is not surprising considering their well-ordered collection and acclimatized storage.
The Hilversum-based cultural archive and museum is responsible for over 70% of Dutch audiovisual heritage. The institute’s collection encompasses major Dutch television and radio archives recorded in extensively diverse media, not to mention a number of amateur films and other small-format works. Besides the archive, Sound and Vision also opens their doors to the public as a museum and research center for professionals.
The trip to the vaults marks my first day at Sound and Vision as the invited artist for the Artistic Research in Residence program. As of September 2019, I’ve been granted access to their vaults and archive database, and encouraged to conduct research and develop an artistic production derived from their archive collection. This five-month long project also relates to the Inward Outward Symposium, an international symposium which attempts to explore what “decolonizing” the archive – within and beyond the walls of established institutions – could offer for the production of new bodies of knowledge. Inward Outward and the artistic residency instantly remind me of the growing demands strived by many initiatives for western museums to restitute artifacts, or at the very least, share authority for documentation and interpretation with the “rightful” owners. But I find this somewhat more intriguing; since material-wise, unlike any other cultural artifact, audiovisual works are not made and distributed as a unique copy. In addition to its fluid materiality, the ownership of film and music will eventually be in the public domain after a certain period of time.
The corruption-driven shady ownership of the physical copy, as well as public ignorance about some politically-charged narratives due to the authoritarian censorship, create a loophole that allows me to play with the sole copy of the film and re-enact institutional practices by emulating a fictional archive.
During the first two weeks of my residency, I couldn’t resist digging into the footage of films produced by Multi Film, a film company founded by Dutch filmmaker J.C. Mol that served as a studio and laboratory for numerous Dutch film productions around the Second World War. I was rather overwhelmed to see the cinematic portrayals of the Archipelago transformed throughout the different foreign occupations. This experience feeds my curiosity about the production company that also went with the name Nippon Eiga-sha during the Japanese occupation in 1942 until 1945, and later nationalized into the Indonesian State Film Company after the Republic of Indonesia fully obtained independence and sovereignty.
At this early stage of my residency period, I realized that I am handling the archive as my primary artistic material in a different way. In my previous artistic practice, I extensively employed the physical aspects of the archive as an integral part of the artwork. In Indonesia, public understanding of film materiality, especially related to the notion of archival practice is distant. This is largely due to the limited or non-existent access to the film-related institutions, such as cinematheque or film museum. But strangely, (state produced) film are ubiquitously available as junk in some abandoned state film facilities or censorship boards. The corruption-driven shady ownership of the physical copy, as well as public ignorance about some politically-charged narratives due to the authoritarian censorship, create a loophole that allows me to play with the sole copy of the film and re-enact institutional practices by emulating a fictional archive.
The audiovisual archive at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision is accessible at one’s fingertips. Information recorded in obsolete media, even the vulnerable ones such as nitrate film or 78 rpm records, are digitized and easily accessible from the server. Simultaneously, the “original” carrier media are heavily regulated both for storage and physical accessibility to minimize deterioration. This means, as for the artwork I’m producing, I will most likely skip any approach towards using the film print or magnetic tape, and focus exclusively on the audiovisual information as the subject. Moreover, I am really looking forward to seeing my artistic alteration of an institutional archive perceived by the audience in the Netherlands, who is accustomed to having transparency and accessibility of information.
Blog Journal #1: Hilversum – Jakarta, October 2019