The Archival Fourth Dimension: A project for Afterall by Sarah Pierce
This horizon opens onto a world whose fortifications can only crumble (or change) like these identities, these territories, and these borders that in youth always look like rigid certainties. --Patrick Chamoiseau1
Recently, I was asked by the Irish Film Institute in Dublin to embark on a period of research into the Irish Film Archive. At the same time, Afterall invited me to prepare a visual essay for the web in conjunction with the development of its Exhibition Histories book series. The proximity of these requests caused them to overlap in my mind - both in practical terms of 'getting work done' and in the symmetry of their subject: the archive.
I am thinking about 'the archived' and 'the exhibited' as places where things come together, as a gathering as well as a gesture, in that coming together produces meaning. My consideration of the archived and the exhibited attempts to move each away from medium specificity as pertinent to understanding material and into ways of knowing that exceed any singularising form of categorisation. Here, the archive's continual deferral of finished work offers a way to be political. And crucially, gesture signals ways of coming together, of enduring and supporting undetermined, temporal relationships between 'parts', without conclusion. It is in this coming together, I believe, that certain intensities begin to transcribe into culture.2
Sergei Eisenstein, in calling for a new Soviet cinema in 1929, described a 'filmic fourth dimension' - an unpredictable, unexpected rebellion within film where things come together but don't synthesise. The filmic fourth dimension, he writes, 'embraces all intensity levels of montage juxtapositions - all impulses...'3 In this fourth dimension, new, unexpected meanings arise. For Eisenstein, this happens spatially, but also temporally as a kind of duration. The fourth dimension is where affect emerges as collateral vibrations that can be felt but are impossible to identify, formulate or plan. Among the archived and the exhibited too, we find utterances that don't synthesise, that emerge unplanned and undeclared - utterances, that is, that rebel. Rebellion, as I understand it here, extends beyond the usual uprisings and oppositions; in fact, I would like to move rebellion away from opposition altogether. In doing so, I am hoping to open up a dimension of rebellion that is not at all reactive; it is a way of knowing that undoes what we think we know about works of art, even those heavily absorbed into a canon. Where rebellion traditionally situates 'for' or 'against' - I am thinking about rebellions that, rather than orienting externally, exist through autonomous, even ambivalent relationships to an outside. This is their rebellion.
Melissa Gronlund, in describing Afterall's Exhibition Histories series, relates the idea of a canon - as an authoritative gathering of historical exhibitions, works of art, certain movements and seminal shows - to an archive, susceptible to other histories, localities, movements. Amongst the Irish Film Archive's vast holdings of Irish cinema, which itself constitutes a partial canon, are the Amharc Éireann newsreels, produced by Gael Linn between 1957 and 1964. The Amharc Éireann ('View of Ireland') newsreels, broadcast in Irish without English subtitles, publicised current events in Ireland and were shown in cinemas throughout the country on a monthly and bimonthly basis. The newsreels' aim, or dominant purpose, was to promote the Irish language and its heritage as an expression of Irish identity. While viewing the newsreels, I began to consider their 'archival' fourth dimension - what they reveal about how people in post-colonial, pre-Troubles Ireland gathered, from sporting to protest events, from religious mass to fashion shows, and how these gatherings convey a more complex story about nation, history, territory and language than we, in Ireland, are accustomed to telling.
At the time the newsreels were made, the Irish army was engaged in several peacekeeping missions in Africa. For the most part, people accepted that these did not threaten Ireland's neutrality. In fact, Ireland's political involvements in places like South Africa, Nigeria, the Congo, Cyprus, were rationalised in terms of a response to colonialism - primarily to fight against partition, at all costs, in these places. Yet, in an ironic twist, the most notable loss of Irish life during this time occurred in the Congo, when local Baluba tribesmen ambushed a platoon of eleven UN troops. Nine Irish soldiers were killed. Popular stories came back to Ireland which told of Baluba tribesmen who were seen wearing the boots and jackets of the Irishmen who died. Soon the word 'baluba' entered Ireland's urban lexicon as a derogatory description of a person or event.
I learned this anecdote at a dinner party in Dublin. Our hostess enlightened me: there were never black people in Ireland - 'it's only in the last four or five years…' The four newsreels that I have chosen here both complicate and contradict this account of the past. As I look at the faces of an integrated student body marching in solidarity with black South Africans in 1960, I wonder, what does it mean to erase someone else's presence?
Try again. Try a different past - one that strips bare the little lies told around the dinner table. Try a present where the colonised are no longer victims, innocents, oppressed, where language is not nation and origin is not a reliable indicator of who is 'of' a place. Perhaps the most lasting scourge of colonialism is that it condemns the colonised to a post-colonial condition - a condition that, in most cases, does not adequately deal with the racism of binding national identity to nativism. As the Amharc Éireann newsreels circulated, the reluctance of some cinema owners in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland to show the reels displays the operations involved in the conflation of nation, language and identity into one political body. When one cinema owner in Northern Ireland raised the political implications of showing an Irish language newsreel, Gael Linn's distributor, Roy McKew asked, what is political about showing the Armagh vs Derry match?
Sarah Pierce's project is commissioned by the Irish Film Institute, Dublin. Amharc Éireann newsreels (c) Gael Linn. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced or distributed without prior permission.
Patrick Chamoiseau, Écrire en pays dominé, Paris: Gallimard, 1997. Extract translated by Jean-Paul Martinon for the Curatorial/Knowledge PhD Seminar 8, Goldsmiths College, University of London, November 2007.↑
See Giorgio Agamben, 'Notes on Gesture' in Means without End, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000, p.58. Agamben describes gesture as a sense of 'being-in-a-medium of human beings', which opens up a discussion that moves gestures beyond isolatable actions into a complex zone of collectively accountable relationships, each of which potentially introduces a political paradigm.↑
Sergei Eisenstein, 'Filmic Fourth Dimension' (1929), Film Form, trans. and ed. Jay Leyda, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1949, p.64.↑